"How coldly you speak of it! One would think it had happened in Peru, instead of here, this very morning."
Saracinesca was at his wits' end. He wanted to smooth the matter over, or at least to soften the unfavourable impression against Giovanni. He had not the remotest idea how to do it. He was not a very diplomatic man.
"No, no; you misunderstand me. I am not cold. I quite appreciate your situation. You are very justly annoyed."
"Of course I am," said Donna Tullia impatiently. She was beginning to regret that she had made him get into her carriage.
"Precisely; of course you are. Now, so soon as Giovanni is quite recovered, I will send him to explain his conduct to you if he can, or to—"
"Explain it? How can he explain it? I do not want you to send him, if he will not come of his own accord. Why should I?"
"Well, well, as you please, my dear cousin," said old Saracinesca, smiling to cover his perplexity. "I am not a good ambassador; but you know I am a good friend, and I really want to do something to restore Giovanni to your graces."
"That will be difficult," answered Donna Tullia, although she knew very well that she would receive Giovanni kindly enough when she had once had an opportunity of speaking her mind to him.
"Do not be hard-hearted," urged the Prince. "I am sure he is very penitent."
"Then let him say so."
"That is exactly what I ask."
"Is it? Oh, very well. If he chooses to call I will receive him, since you desire it. Where shall I put you down?"
"Anywhere, thank you. Here, if you wish—at the corner. Good-bye. Do not be too hard on the boy."
"We shall see," answered Donna Tullia, unwilling to show too much indulgence. The old Prince bowed, and walked away into the gloom of the dusky streets.
"That is over," he muttered to himself. "I wonder how the Astrardente takes it." He would have liked to see her; but he recognized that, as he so very rarely called upon her, it would seem strange to choose such a time for his visit. It would not do—it would be hardly decent, seeing that he believed her to be the cause of the catastrophe. His steps, however, led him almost unconsciously in the direction of the Astrardente palace; he found himself in front of the arched entrance almost before he knew where he was. The temptation to see Corona was more than he could resist. He asked the porter if the Duchessa was at home, and on being answered in the affirmative, he boldly entered and ascended the marble staircase—boldly, but with an odd sensation, like that of a schoolboy who is getting himself into trouble.
Corona had just come home, and was sitting by the fire in her great drawing-room, alone, with a book in her hand, which she was not reading. She rarely remained in the reception-rooms; but to-day she had rather capriciously taken a fancy to the broad solitude of the place, and had accordingly installed herself there. She was very much surprised when the doors were suddenly opened wide and the servant announced Prince Saracinesca. For a moment she thought it must be Giovanni, for his father rarely entered her house, and when the old man's stalwart figure advanced towards her, she dropped her book in astonishment, and rose from her deep chair to meet him. She was very pale, and there were dark rings under her eyes that spoke of pain and want of sleep. She was so utterly different from Donna Tullia, whom he had just left, that the Prince was almost awed by her stateliness, and felt more than ever like a boy in a bad scrape. Corona bowed rather coldly, but extended her hand, which the old gentleman raised to his lips respectfully, in the manner of the old school.
"I trust you are not exhausted after the ball?" he began, not knowing what to say.
"Not in the least. We did not stay late," replied Corona, secretly wondering why he had come.
"It was really magnificent," he answered. "There has been no such ball for years. Very unfortunate that it should have terminated in such an unpleasant way," he added, making a bold dash at the subject of which he wished to speak.
"Very. You did a bad morning's work," said the Duchessa, severely. "I wonder that you should speak of it."
"No one speaks of anything else," returned the Prince, apologetically. "Besides, I do not see what was to be done."
"You should have stopped it," answered Corona, her dark eyes gleaming with righteous indignation. "You should have prevented it at any price, if not in the name of religion, which forbids it as a crime, at least in the name of decency—as being Don Giovanni's father."
"You speak strong words, Duchessa," said the Prince, evidently annoyed at her tone.
"If I speak strongly, it is because I think you acted shamefully in permitting this disgraceful butchery."
Saracinesca suddenly lost his temper, as he frequently did.
"Madam," he said, "it is certainly not for you to accuse me of crime, lack of decency, and what you are pleased to call disgraceful butchery, seeing who was the probable cause of the honourable encounter which you characterise in such tasteful language."
"Honourable indeed!" said Corona, very scornfully. "Let that pass. Who, pray, is more to blame than you? Who is the probable cause?"
"Need I tell you?" asked the old man, fixing his flashing eyes upon her.
"What do you mean?" inquired Corona, turning white, and her voice trembling between her anger and her emotion.
"I may be wrong," said the Prince, "but I believe I am right. I believe the duel was fought on your account."
"On my account!" repeated Corona, half rising from her chair in her indignation. Then she sank back again, and added, very coldly, "If you have come here to insult me, Prince, I will send for my husband."
"I beg your pardon, Duchessa," said old Saracinesca. "It is very far from my intention to insult you."
"And who has told you this abominable lie?" asked Corona, still very angry.
"No one, upon my word."
"Then how dare you—"
"Because I have reason to believe that you are the only woman alive for whom my son would engage in a quarrel."
"It is impossible," cried Corona. "I will never believe that Don Giovanni could—" She checked herself.
"Don Giovanni Saracinesca is a gentleman, madam," said the old Prince, proudly. "He keeps his own counsel. I have come by the information without any evidence of it from his lips."
"Then I am at a loss to understand you," returned the Duchessa. "I must beg you either to explain your extraordinary language, or else to leave me."
Corona d'Astrardente was a match for any man when she was angry. But old Saracinesca, though no diplomatist, was a formidable adversary, from his boldness and determination to discover the truth at any price.
"It is precisely because, at the risk of offending you, I desired an explanation, that I have intruded myself upon you to-day," he answered. "Will you permit me one question before I leave you?"
"Provided it is not an insulting one, I will answer it," replied Corona.
"Do you know anything of the circumstances which led to this morning's encounter?"
"Certainly not," Corona answered, hotly. "I assure you most solemnly," she continued in calmer tones, "that I am wholly ignorant of it. I suppose you have a right to be told that."
"I, on my part, assure you, upon my word, that I know no more than you yourself, excepting this: on some provocation, concerning which he will not speak, my son seized Del Ferice by the throat and used strong words to him. No one witnessed the scene. Del Ferice sent the challenge. My son could find no one to act for him and applied to me, as was quite right that he should. There was no apology possible—Giovanni had to give the man satisfaction. You know as much as I know now."
"That does not help me to understand why you accuse me of having caused the quarrel," said Corona. "What have I to do with Del Ferice, poor man?"
"This—any one can see that you are as indifferent to my son as to any other man. Every one knows that the Duchessa d'Astrardente is above suspicion."
Corona raised her head proudly and stared at Saracinesca.
"But, on the other hand, every one knows that my son loves you madly—can you yourself deny it?"
"Who dares to say it?" asked Corona, her anger rising afresh.
"Who sees, dares. Can you deny it?"
"You have no right to repeat such hearsay tales to me," answered Corona. But the blush rose to her pale dark cheeks, and she suddenly dropped her eyes.
"Can you deny it, Duchessa?" asked the Prince a third time, insisting roughly.
"Since you are so certain, why need you care for my denial?" inquired Corona.
"Duchessa, you must forgive me," answered Saracinesca, his tone suddenly softening. "I am rough, probably rude; but I love my son dearly. I cannot bear to see him running into a dangerous and hopeless passion, from which he may issue only to find himself grown suddenly old and bitter, disappointed and miserable for the rest of his life. I believe you to be a very good woman; I cannot look at you and doubt the truth of anything you tell me. If he loves you, you have influence over him. If you have influence, use it for his good; use it to break down this mad love of his, to show him his own folly—to save him, in short, from his fate. Do you understand me? Do I ask too much?"
Corona understood well enough—far too well. She knew the whole extent of Giovanni's love for her, and, what old Saracinesca never guessed, the strength of her own love for him, for the sake of which she would do all that a woman could do. There was a long pause after the old Prince had spoken. He waited patiently for an answer.
"I understand you—yes," she said at last. "If you are right in your surmises, I should have some influence over your son. If I can advise him, and he will take my advice, I will give him the best counsel I can. You have placed me in a very embarrassing position, and you have shown little courtesy in the way you have spoken to me; but I will try to do as you request me, if the opportunity offers, for the sake of—of turning what is very bad into something which may at last be good."
"Thank you, thank you, Duchessa!" cried the Prince. "I will never forget—"
"Do not thank me," said Corona, coldly. "I am not in a mood to appreciate your gratitude. There is too much blood of those honest gentlemen upon your hands."
"Pardon me, Duchessa, I wish there were on my hands and head the blood of that gentleman you call honest—the gentleman who twice tried to murder my son this morning, and twice nearly succeeded."
"What!" cried Corona, in sudden terror.
"That fellow thrust at Giovanni once to kill him while they were halting and his sword was hanging lowered in his hand; and once again he threw himself upon his knee and tried to stab him in the body—which is a dastardly trick not permitted in any country. Even in duelling, such things are called murder; and it is their right name."
Corona was very pale. Giovanni's danger had been suddenly brought before her in a very vivid light, and she was horror-struck at the thought of it.
"Is—is Don Giovanni very badly wounded?" she asked.
"No, thank heaven; he will be wall in a week. But either one of those attempts might have killed him; and he would have died, I think—pardon me, no insult this time—I think, on your account. Do you see why for him I dread this attachment to you, which leads him to risk his life at every turn for a word about you? Do you see why I implore you to take the matter into your serious consideration, and to use your influence to bring him to his senses?"
"I see; but in this question of the duel you have no proof that I was concerned."
"No,—no proof, perhaps. I will not weary you with surmises; but even if it was not for you this time, you see that it might have been."
"Perhaps," said Corona, very sadly.
"I have to thank you, even if you will not listen to me," said the Prince, rising. "You have understood me. It was all I asked. Good night."
"Good night," answered Corona, who did not move from her seat nor extend her hand this time. She was too much agitated to think of formalities. Saracinesca bowed low and left the room.
It was characteristic of him that he had come to see the Duchessa not knowing what he should say, and that he had blurted out the whole truth, and then lost his temper in support of it. He was a hasty man, of noble instincts, but always inclined rather to cut a knot than to unloose it—to do by force what another man would do by skill—angry at opposition, and yet craving it by his combative nature.
His first impulse on leaving Corona was to go to Giovanni and tell him what he had done; but he reflected as he went home that his son was ill with his wounds, and that it would be bad for him to be angry, as of course he would be if he were told of his father's doings. Moreover, as old Saracinesca thought more seriously of the matter, he wisely concluded that it would be better not to speak of the visit; and when he entered the room where Giovanni was lying on his couch with a novel and a cigarette, he had determined to conceal the whole matter.
"Well, Giovanni," he said, "we are the talk of the town, of course."
"It was to be expected. Whom have you seen?"
"In the first place, I have seen Madame Mayer. She is in a state of anger against you which borders on madness—not because you have wounded Del Ferice, but because you forgot to dance with her. I cannot conceive how you could be so foolish."
"Nor I. It was idiotic in the last degree," replied Giovanni, annoyed that his father should have learned the story.
"You must go and see her at once—as soon as you can go out. It is a disagreeable business."
"Of course. What else did she say?"
"She thought that Del Ferice had challenged you on her account, because you had not danced with her."
"How silly! As if I should fight duels about her."
"Since there was probably a woman in the case, she might have been the one," remarked his father.
"There was no woman in the case, practically speaking," said Giovanni, shortly.
"Oh, I supposed there was. However, I told Donna Tullia that I advised her not to think anything more of the matter until the whole story came out."
"When is that likely to occur?" asked Giovanni, laughing. "No one alive knows the cause of the quarrel but Del Ferice and I myself. He will certainly not tell the world, as the thing was even more disgraceful to him than his behaviour this morning. There is no reason why I should speak of it either."
"How reticent you are, Giovanni!" exclaimed the old gentleman.
"Believe me, if I could tell you the whole story without injuring any one but Del Ferice, I would."
"Then there was really a woman in the case?"
"There was a woman outside the case, who caused us to be in it," returned Giovanni.
"Always your detestable riddles," cried the old man, petulantly; and presently, seeing that his son was obstinately silent, he left the room to dress for dinner.
It may be that when Astrardente spoke so tenderly to his wife after the Frangipani ball, he felt some warning that told him his strength was failing. His heart was in a dangerous condition, the family doctor had said, and it was necessary that he should take care of himself. He had been very tired after that long evening, and perhaps some sudden sinking had shaken his courage. He awoke from an unusually heavy sleep with a strange sense of astonishment, as though he had not expected to awake again in life. He felt weaker than he had felt for a long time, and even his accustomed beverage of chocolate mixed with coffee failed to give him the support he needed in the morning. He rose very late, and his servant found him more than usually petulant, nor did the message brought back from Giovanni seem to improve his temper. He met his wife at the midday breakfast, and was strangely silent, and in the afternoon he shut himself up in his own rooms and would see nobody. But at dinner he appeared again, seemingly revived, and declared his intention of accompanying his wife to a reception given at the Austrian embassy. He seemed so unlike his usual self, that Corona did not venture to speak of the duel which had taken place in the morning; for she feared anything which might excite him, well knowing that excitement might prove fatal. She did what she could to dissuade him from going out; but he grew petulant, and she unwillingly yielded.
At the embassy he soon heard all the details, for no one talked of anything else; but Astrardente was ashamed of not having heard it all before, and affected a cynical indifference to the tale which the military attache of the embassy repeated for his benefit. He vouchsafed some remark to the effect that fighting duels was the natural amusement of young gentlemen, and that if one of them killed another there was at least one fool the less in society; after which he looked about him for some young beauty to whom he might reel off a score of compliments. He knew all the time that he was making a great effort, that he felt unaccountably ill, and that he wished he had taken his wife's advice and stayed quietly at home. But at the end of the evening he chanced to overhear a remark that Valdarno was making to Casalverde, who looked exceedingly pale and ill at ease.
"You had better make your will, my dear fellow," said Valdarno. "Spicca is a terrible man with the foils."
Astrardente turned quickly and looked at the speaker. But both men were suddenly silent, and seemed absorbed in gazing at the crowd. It was enough, however. Astrardente had gathered that Casalverde was to fight Spicca the next day, and that the affair begun that morning had not yet reached its termination. He determined that he would not again be guilty of not knowing what was going on in society; and with the intention of rising early on the following morning, he found Corona, and rather unceremoniously told her it was time to go home.
On the next day the Duca d'Astrardente walked into the club soon after ten o'clock. On ordinary occasions that resort of his fellows was entirely empty until a much later hour; but Astrardente was not disappointed to-day. Twenty or thirty men were congregated in the large hall which served as a smoking-room, and all of them were talking together excitedly. As the door swung on its hinges and the old dandy entered, a sudden silence fell upon the assembly. Astrardente naturally judged that the conversation had turned upon himself, and had been checked by his appearance; but he affected to take no notice of the occurrence, adjusting his single eyeglass in his eye and serenely surveying the men in the room. He could see that, although they had been talking loudly, the matter in hand was serious enough, for there was no trace of mirth on any of the faces before him. He at once assumed an air of gravity, and going up to Valdarno, who seemed to have occupied the most prominent place in the recent discussion, he put his question in an undertone.
"I suppose Spicca killed him?"
Valdarno nodded, and looked grave. He was a thoughtless young fellow enough, but the news of the tragedy had sobered him. Astrardente had anticipated the death of Casalverde, and was not surprised. But he was not without human feeling, and showed a becoming regret at the sad end of a man he had been accustomed to see so frequently.
"How was it?" he asked.
"A simple 'un, deux,' tierce and carte at the first bout. Spicca is as quick as lightning. Come away from this crowd," added Valdarno, in a low voice, "and I will tell you all about it."
In spite of his sorrow at his friend's death, Valdarno felt a certain sense of importance at being able to tell the story to Astrardente. Valdarno was vain in a small way, though his vanity was to that of the old Duca as the humble violet to the full-blown cabbage-rose. Astrardente enjoyed a considerable importance in society as the husband of Corona, and was an object of especial interest to Valdarno, who supported the incredible theory of Corona's devotion to the old man. Valdarno's stables were near the club, and on pretence of showing a new horse to Astrardente, he nodded to his friends, and left the room with the aged dandy. It was a clear, bright winter's morning, and the two men strolled slowly down the Corso towards Valdarno's palace.
"You know, of course, how the affair began?" asked the young man.
"The first duel? Nobody knows—certainly not I."
"Well—perhaps not," returned Valdarno, doubtfully. "At all events, you know that Spicca flew into a passion because poor Casalverde forgot to step in after he cried halt; and then Del Ferice ran Giovanni through the arm."
"That was highly improper—most reprehensible," said Astrardente, putting up his eyeglass to look at a pretty little sempstress who hurried past on her way to her work.
"I suppose so. But Casalverde certainly meant no harm; and if Del Ferice had not been so unlucky as to forget himself in the excitement of the moment, no one would have thought anything of it."
"Ah yes, I suppose not," murmured Astrardente, still looking after the girl. When he could see her face no longer, he turned sharply back to Valdarno.
"This is exceedingly interesting," he said. "Tell me more about it."
"Well, when it was over, old Saracinesca was for killing Casalverde himself."
"The old fire-eater! He ought to be ashamed of himself."
"However, Spicca was before him, and challenged Casalverde then and there. As both the principals in the first duel were so badly wounded, it had to be put off until this morning."
"They went out, and—piff, paff! Spicca ran him through," interrupted Astrardente. "What a horrible tragedy!"
"Ah yes; and what is worse—"
"What surprises me most," interrupted the Duca again, "is that in this delightfully peaceful and paternally governed little nest of ours, the authorities should not have been able to prevent either of these duels. It is perfectly amazing! I cannot remember a parallel instance. Do you mean to say that there was not a sbirro or a gendarme in the neighbourhood to-day nor yesterday?"
"That is not so surprising," answered Valdarno, with a knowing look. "There would have been few tears in high quarters if Del Ferice had been killed yesterday; there will be few to-day over the death of poor Casalverde."
"Bah!" ejaculated Astrardente. "If Antonelli had heard of these affairs he would have stopped them soon enough."
Valdarno glanced behind him, and, bending a little, whispered in Astrardente's ear—
"They were both Liberals, you must know."
"Liberals?" repeated the old dandy, with a cynical sneer. "Nonsense, I say! Liberals? Yes, in the way you are a Liberal, and Donna Tullia Mayer, and Spicca himself, who has just killed that other Liberal, Casalverde. Liberals indeed! Do you flatter yourself for a moment that Antonelli is afraid of such Liberals as you are? Do you think the life of Del Ferice is of any more importance to politics than the life of that dog there?"
It was Astrardente's habit to scoff mercilessly at all the petty manifestations of political feeling he saw about him in the world. He represented a class distinct both from the Valdarno set and from the men represented by the Saracinesca—a class who despised everything political as unworthy of the attention of gentlemen, who took everything for granted, and believed that all was for the best, provided that society moved upon rollers and so long as no one meddled with old institutions. To question the wisdom of the municipal regulations was to attack the Government itself; to attack the Government was to cast a slight upon his Holiness the Pope, which was rank heresy, and very vulgar into the bargain. Astrardente had seen a great deal of the world, but his ideas of politics were almost childishly simple—whereas many people said that his principles in relation to his fellows were fiendishly cynical. He was certainly not a very good man; and if he pretended to no reputation for devoutness, it was probable that he recognised the absurdity of his attempting such a pose. But politically he believed in Cardinal Antonelli's ability to defy Europe with or without the aid of France, and laughed as loudly at Louis Napoleon's old idea of putting the sovereign Pontiff at the head of an Italian federation, as he jeered at Cavour's favourite phrase concerning a free Church in a free State. He had good blood in him, and the hereditary courage often found with it. He had a certain skill in matters worldly; but his wit in things political seemed to belong to an earlier generation, and to be incapable of receiving new impressions.
But Valdarno, who was vain and set great value on his opinions, was deeply offended at the way Astrardente spoke of him and his friends. In his eyes he was risking much for what he considered a good object, and he resented any contemptuous mention of Liberal principles, whenever he dared. No one cared much for Astrardente, and certainly no one feared him; nevertheless in those times men hesitated to defend anything which came under the general head of Liberalism, when they were likely to be overheard, or when they could not trust the man to whom they were speaking. If no one feared Astrardente, no one trusted him either. Valdarno consequently judged it best to smother his annoyance at the old man's words, and to retaliate by striking him in a weak spot.
"If you despise Del Ferice as much as you say," he remarked, "I wonder that you tolerate him as you do."
"I tolerate him. Toleration is the very word—it delightfully expresses my feelings towards him. He is a perfectly harmless creature, who affects immense depth of insight into human affairs, and who cannot see an inch before his face. Dear me! yes, I shall always tolerate Del Ferice, poor fellow!"
"You may not be called upon to do so much longer," replied Valdarno. "They say he is in a very dangerous condition."
"Ah!" ejaculated Astrardente, putting up his eyeglass at his companion. "Ah, you don't say so!"
There was something so insolent in the old man's affected stare that even the foolish and good-natured Valdarno lost his temper, being already somewhat irritated.
"It is a pity that you should be so indifferent. It is hardly becoming. If you had not tolerated him as you have, he might not be lying there at the point of death."
Astrardente stared harder than ever.
"My dear young friend," he said, "your language is the most extraordinary I ever heard. How in the world can my treatment of that unfortunate man have had anything to do with his being wounded in a duel?"
"My dear old friend," replied Valdarno, impudently mimicking the old man's tone, "your simplicity surpasses anything I ever knew. Is it possible that you do not know that this duel was fought for your wife?"
Astrardente looked fixedly at Valdarno; his eyeglass dropped from his eye, and he turned ashy pale beneath his paint. He staggered a moment, and steadied himself against the door of a shop. They were just passing the corner of the Piazza di Sciarra, the most crowded crossing of the Corso.
"Valdarno," said the old man, his cracked voice dropping to a hoarser and deeper tone, "you must explain yourself or answer for this."
"What! Another duel!" cried Valdarno, in some scorn. Then, seeing that his companion looked ill, he took him by the arm and led him rapidly through the crowd, across the Arco dei Carbognani. Entering the Caffe Aragno, a new institution in those days, both men sat down at a small marble table. The old dandy was white with emotion; Valdarno felt that he was enjoying his revenge.
"A glass of cognac, Duke?" he said, as the waiter came up. Astrardente nodded, and there was silence while the man brought the cordial. The Duca lived by an invariable rule, seeking to balance the follies of his youth by excessive care in his old age; it was long, indeed, since he had taken a glass of brandy in the morning. He swallowed it quickly, and the stimulant produced its effect immediately; he readjusted his eyeglass, and faced Valdarno sternly.
"And now," he said, "that we are at our ease, may I inquire what the devil you mean by your insinuations about my wife?"
"Oh," replied Valdarno, affecting great indifference, "I only say what everybody says. There is no offence to the Duchessa."
"I should suppose not, indeed. Go on."
"Do you really care to hear the story?" asked the young man.
"I intend to hear it, and at once," replied Astrardente.
"You will not have to employ force to extract it from me, I can assure you," said Valdarno, settling himself in his chair, but avoiding the angry glance of the old man. "Everybody has been repeating it since the day before yesterday, when it occurred. You were at the Frangipani ball—you might have seen it all. In the first place, you must know that there exists another of those beings to whom you extend your merciful toleration—a certain Giovanni Saracinesca—you may have noticed him?"
"What of him?" asked Astrardente, fiercely.
"Among other things, he is the man who wounded Del Ferice, as I daresay you have heard. Among other things concerning him, he has done himself the honour of falling desperately, madly in love with the Duchessa d'Astrardente, who—"
"What?" cried the old man in a cracked voice, as Valdarno paused.
"Who does you the honour of ignoring his existence on most occasions, but who was so unfortunate as to recall him to her memory on the night of the Frangipani ball. We were all sitting in a circle round the Duchessa's chair that night, when the conversation chanced to turn upon this same Giovanni Saracinesca, a fire-eating fellow with a bad temper. He had been away for some days; indeed he was last seen at the Apollo in your box, when they gave 'Norma'—"
"I remember," interrupted Astrardente. The mention of that evening was but a random shot. Valdarno had been in the club-box, and had seen Giovanni when he made his visit to the Astrardente; he had not seen him again till the Frangipani ball.
"Well, as I was saying, we spoke of Giovanni, and every one had something to say about his absence. The Duchessa expressed her curiosity, and Del Ferice, who was with us, proposed calling him—he was at the other end of the room, you see—that he might answer for himself. So I went and brought him up. He was in a very bad humour—"
"What has all this absurd story got to do with the matter?" asked the old man, impatiently.
"It is the matter itself. The irascible Giovanni is angry at being questioned, treats us all like mud under his feet, sits down by the Duchessa and forces us to go away. The Duchessa tells him the story, with a laugh no doubt, and Giovanni's wrath overflows. He goes in search of Del Ferice, and nearly strangles him. The result of these eccentricities is the first duel, leading to the second."
Astrardente was very angry, and his thin gloved hands twitched nervously at the handle of his stick.
"And this," he said, "this string of trivial ball-room incident, seems to you a sufficient pretext for stating that the duel was about my wife?"
"Certainly," replied Valdarno, coolly. "If Saracinesca had not been for months openly devoting himself to the Duchessa—who, I assure you, takes no kind of notice of him—"
"You need not waste words—"
"I do not,—and if Giovanni had not thought it worth while to be jealous of Del Ferice, there would have been no fighting."
"Have you been telling your young friends that my wife was the cause of all this?" asked Astrardente, trembling with a genuine rage which lent a certain momentary dignity to his feeble frame and painted face.
"Have you or have you not?"
"Certainly—if you please," returned Valdarno insolently, enjoying the old man's fury.
"Then permit me to tell you that you have taken upon yourself an outrageous liberty, that you have lied, and that you do not deserve to be treated like a gentleman."
Astrardente got upon his feet and left the cafe without further words. Valdarno had indeed wounded him in a weak spot, and the wound was mortal. His blood was up, and at that moment he would have faced Valdarno sword in hand, and might have proved himself no mean adversary, so great is the power of anger to revive in the most decrepit the energies of youth. He believed in his wife with a rare sincerity, and his blood boiled at the idea of her being rudely spoken of as the cause of a scandalous quarrel, however much Valdarno insisted upon it that she was as indifferent to Giovanni as to Del Ferice. The story was a shallow invention upon the face of it. But though the old man told himself so again and again as he almost ran through the narrow streets towards his house, there was one thought suggested by Valdarno which rankled deep. It was true that Giovanni had last been seen in the Astrardente box at the opera; but he had not remained five minutes seated by the Duchessa before he had suddenly invented a shallow excuse for leaving; and finally, there was no doubt that at that very moment Corona had seemed violently agitated. Giovanni had not reappeared till the night of the Frangipani ball, and the duel had taken place on the very next morning. Astrardente could not reason—his mind was too much disturbed by his anger against Valdarno; but a vague impression that there was something wrong in it all, drove him homewards in wild excitement. He was ill, too, and had he been in a frame of mind to reflect upon himself, he would have noticed that his heart was beating with ominous irregularity. He did not even think of taking a cab, but hurried along on foot, finding, perhaps, a momentary relief in violent exertion. The old blood rushed to his face in good earnest, and shamed the delicately painted lights and shadows touched in by the master-hand of Monsieur Isidore, the cosmopolitan valet.
Valdarno remained seated in the cafe, rather disturbed at what he had done. He certainly had had no intention of raising such a storm; he was a weak and good-natured fellow, whose vanity was easily wounded, but who was not otherwise very sensitive, and was certainly not very intelligent. Astrardente had laughed at him and his friends in a way which touched him to the quick, and with childish petulance he had retaliated in the easiest way which presented itself. Indeed there was more foundation for his tale than Astrardente would allow. At least it was true that the story was in the mouths of all the gossips that morning, and Valdarno had only repeated what he had heard. He had meant to annoy the old man; he had certainly not intended to make him so furiously angry. As for the deliberate insult he had received, it was undoubtedly very shocking to be told that one lied in such very plain terms; but on the other hand, to demand satisfaction of such an old wreck as Astrardente would be ridiculous in the extreme. Valdarno was incapable of very violent passion, and was easily persuaded that he was in the wrong when any one contradicted him flatly; not that he was altogether devoid of a certain physical courage if hard pushed, but because he was not very strong, not very confident of himself, not very combative, and not very truthful. When Astrardente was gone, he waited a few minutes, and then sauntered up the Corso again towards the club, debating in his mind how he should turn a good story out of his morning's adventure without making himself appear either foolish or pusillanimous. It was also necessary so to turn his narrative that in case any one repeated it to Giovanni, the latter might not propose to cut his throat, though it was not probable that any one would be bold enough to desire a conversation with the younger Saracinesca on such a subject.
When he again entered the smoking-room of the club, he was greeted by a chorus of inquiries concerning his interview with Astrardente.
"What did he ask? What did he say? Where is he? What did you tell him? Did he drop his eyeglass? Did he blush through his paint?"
Everybody spoke together in the same breath. Valdarno's vanity rose to the occasion. Weak and insignificant by nature, he particularly delighted in being the centre of general interest, if even for a moment only.
"He really dropped his eyeglass," he answered, with a gay laugh, "and he really changed colour in spite of his paint."
"It must have been a terrible interview, then," remarked one or two of the loungers.
"I shall be happy to offer you my services in case you wish to cut each other's throats," said a French officer of the Papal Zouaves who stood by the fireplace rolling a cigarette. Whereupon everybody laughed loudly.
"Thanks," answered Valdarno; "I am expecting a challenge every minute. If he proposes a powder-puff and a box of rouge for the weapons, I accept without hesitation. Well, it was very amusing. He wanted to know all about it, and so I told him about the scene in Casa Frangipani. He did not seem to understand at all. He is a very obtuse old gentleman."
"I hope you explained the connection of events," said some one.
"Indeed I did. It was delightful to witness his fury. It was then that he dropped his eyeglass and turned as red as a boiled lobster. He swore that his wife was above suspicion, as usual."
"That is true," said a young man who had attempted to make love to Corona during the previous year.
"Of course it is true," echoed all the rest, with unanimity rare indeed where a woman's reputation is concerned.
"Yes," continued Valdarno, "of course. But he goes so far as to say it is absurd that any one should admire his wife, who is nevertheless a most admirable woman. He stamped, he screamed, he turned red in the face, and he went off without taking leave of me, flourishing his stick, and swearing eternal hatred and vengeance against the entire civilised society of the world. He was delightfully amusing. Will anybody play baccarat? I will start a bank."
The majority were for the game, and in a few minutes were seated at a large green table, drawing cards and betting with a good will, and interspersing their play with stray remarks on the events of the morning.
Corona was fast coming to a state of mind in which a kind of passive expectation—a sort of blind submission to fate—was the chief feature. She had shed tears when her husband spoke of his approaching end, because her gentle heart was grateful to him, and by its own sacrifices had grown used to his presence, and because she suddenly felt that she had comprehended the depth of his love for her, as she had never understood it before. In the five years of married life she had spent with him, she had not allowed herself to think of his selfishness, of his small daily egotism; for, though it was at no great expense to himself, he had been uniformly generous and considerate to her. But she had been conscious that if she should ever remove from her conscience the pressure of a self-imposed censorship, so that her judgment might speak boldly, the verdict of her heart would not have been so indulgent to her husband as was that formal opinion of him which she forced herself to hold. Now, however, it seemed as though the best things she had desired to believe of him were true; and with the conviction that he was not only not selfish, but absolutely devoted to herself, there had come upon her a fear of desolation, a dread of being left alone—of finding herself abandoned by this strange companion, the only person in the world with whom she had the habit of familiarity and the bond of a common past. Astrardente had thought, and had told her too, that the knowledge of his impending death might lighten her burden—might make the days of self-sacrifice that yet remained seem shorter; he had spoken kindly of her marrying again when he should be dead, deeming perhaps, in his sudden burst of generosity that she would be capable of looking beyond the unhappy present to the possibilities of a more brilliant future, or at least that the certainty of his consent to such a second union would momentarily please her. It was hard to say why he had spoken. It had been an impulse such as the most selfish people sometimes yield to when their failing strength brings upon them suddenly the sense of their inability to resist any longer the course of events. The vanity of man is so amazing that when he is past arrogating to himself the attention which is necessary to him as his daily bread, he is capable of so demeaning his manhood as to excite interest in his weaknesses rather than that he should cease to be the object of any interest whatever. The analysis of the feelings of old and selfish persons is the most difficult of all studies; for in proportion as the strength of the dominant passion or passions is quenched in the bitter still waters of the harbour of superannuation, the small influences of life grow in importance. As when, from the breaking surge of an angry ocean, the water is dashed high among the re-echoing rocks, leaving little pools of limpid clearness in the hollows of the storm-beaten cliffs; and as when the anger of the tossing waves has subsided, the hot sun shines upon the mimic seas, and the clear waters that were so transparent grow thick and foul with the motion of a tiny and insignificant insect-life undreamed of before in such crystal purity: so also the clear strong sea of youth is left to dry in the pools and puddles of old age, and in the motionless calm of the still places where the ocean of life has washed it, it is dried up and consumed by myriads of tiny parasites—lives within lives, passions within passions—tiny efforts at mimic greatness,—a restless little world, the very parody and infinitesimal reproduction of the mighty flood whence it came, wherein great monsters have their being, and things of unspeakable beauty grow free in the large depths of an unfathomed ocean.
To Corona d'Astrardente in the freshness of her youth the study of her husband's strange littleness had grown to be a second nature from the habit of her devotion to him. But she could not understand him; she could not explain to herself the sudden confession of old age, the quiet anticipation of death, the inexplicable generosity towards herself. She only knew that he must be at heart a man more kindly and of better impulse than he had generally been considered, and she resolved to do her utmost to repay him, and to soothe the misery of his last years.
Since he had told her so plainly, it must be true. It was natural, perhaps—for he was growing more feeble every day—but it was very sad. Five years ago, when she had choked down her loathing for the old man to whom she had sold herself for her father's sake, she would not have believed that she should one day feel the tears rise fast at the thought of his dying and leaving her free. He had said it; she would be free. They say that men who have been long confined in a dungeon become indifferent, and when turned out upon the world would at first gladly return to their prison walls. Liberty is in the first place an instinct, but it will easily grow to be a habit. Corona had renounced all thought of freedom five years ago, and in the patient bowing of her noble nature to the path she had chosen, she had attained to a state of renunciation like that of a man who has buried himself for ever in an order of Trappists, and neither dreams of the freedom of the outer world, nor desires to dream of it. And she had grown fond of the aged dandy and his foolish ways—ways which seemed foolish because they were those of youth grafted upon senility. She had not known that she was fond of him, it is true; but now that he spoke of dying, she felt that she would weep his loss. He was her only companion, her only friend. In the loyal determination to be faithful to him, she had so shut herself from all intimacy with the world that she had not a friend. She kept women at a distance from her, instinctively dreading lest in their careless talk some hint or comment should remind her that she had married a man ridiculous in their eyes; and with men she could have but little intercourse, for their society was dangerous. No man save Giovanni Saracinesca had for years put himself in the light of a mere acquaintance, always ready to talk to her upon general subjects, studiously avoiding himself in all discussions, and delicately flattering her vanity by his deference to her judgment. The other men had generally spoken of love at the second meeting, and declared themselves devoted to her for life at the end of a week: she had quietly repulsed them, and they had dropped back into the position of indifferent acquaintances, going in search of other game, after the manner of young gentlemen of leisure. Giovanni alone had sternly maintained his air of calmness, had never offended her simple pride of loyalty to Astrardente by word or deed; so that, although she felt and dreaded her growing interest in him, she had actually believed that he was nothing in her life, until at last she had been undeceived and awakened to the knowledge of his fierce passion, and being taken unawares, had nearly been carried off her feet by the tempest his words had roused in her own breast. But her strength had not utterly deserted her. Years of supreme devotion to the right, of honest and unwavering loyalty, neither deceiving her conscience on the one hand with the morbid food of a fictitious religious exaltation, nor, upon the other, sinking to a cynical indifference to inevitable misery; days of quiet and constant effort; long hours of thoughtful meditation upon the one resolution of her life,—all this had strengthened the natural force of her character, so that, when at last the great trial had come, she had not yielded, but had conquered once and for ever, in the very moment of sorest temptation. And with her there would be no return of the danger. Having found strength to resist, she knew that there would be no more weakness; her love for Giovanni was deep and sincere, but it had become now the chief cause of suffering in her life; it had utterly ceased to be the chief element of joy, as it had been for a few short days. It was one thing more to be borne, and it outweighed all other cares.
The news of the duel had given her great distress. She believed honestly that she was in no way concerned in it, and she had bitterly resented old Saracinesca's imputation. In the hot words that had passed between them, she had felt her anger rise justly against the old Prince; but when he appealed to her on account of his son, her love for Giovanni had vanquished her wrath against the old man. Come what might, she would do what was best for him. If possible, she would induce him to leave Rome at once, and thus free herself from the pain of constantly meeting him. Perhaps she could make him marry—anything would be better than to allow things to go on in their present course, to have to face him at every turn, and to know that at any moment he might be quarrelling with somebody and fighting duels on her account.
She went boldly into the world that night, not knowing whether she should meet Giovanni or not, but resolved upon her course if he appeared. Many people looked curiously at her, and smiled cunningly as they thought they detected traces of care upon her proud face; but though they studied her, and lost no opportunity of talking to her upon the one topic which absorbed the general conversation, no one had the satisfaction of moving her even so much as to blush a little, or to lower the gaze of her eyes that looked them all indifferently through and through.
Giovanni, however, did not appear, and people told her he would not leave his room for several days, so that she returned to her home without having accomplished anything in the matter. Her husband was very silent, but looked at her with an expression of uncertainty, as though hesitating to speak to her upon some subject that absorbed his interest. Neither of them referred to the strange interview of the previous night. They went home early, as has been already recorded, seeing it was only a great and formal reception to which the world went that night; and even the toughest old society jades were weary from the ball of the day before, which had not broken up until half-past six in the morning.
On the next day, at about twelve o'clock, Corona was sitting in her boudoir writing a number of invitations which were to be distributed in the afternoon, when the door opened and her husband entered the room.
"My dear," he cried in great excitement, "it is perfectly horrible! Have you heard?"
"What?" asked Corona, laying down her pen.
"Spicca has killed Casalverde—the man who seconded Del Ferice yesterday,—killed him on the spot—"
Corona uttered an exclamation of horror.
"And they say Del Ferice is dead, or just dying"—his cracked voice rose at every word; "and they say," he almost screamed, laying his withered hand roughly upon his wife's shoulder,—"they say that the duel was about you—you, do you understand?"
"That is not true," said Corona, firmly. "Calm yourself—I beseech you to be calm. Tell me connectedly what has happened—who told you this story."
"What right has any man to drag your name into a quarrel?" cried the old man, hoarsely. "Everybody is saying it—it is outrageous, abominable—"
Corona quietly pushed her husband into a chair, and sat down beside him.
"You are excited—you will harm yourself,—remember your health," she said, endeavouring to soothe him. "Tell me, in the first place, who told you that it was about me."
"Valdarno told me; he told me that every one was saying it—that it was the talk of the town."
"But why?" insisted Corona. "You allow yourself to be furious for the sake of a piece of gossip which has no foundation whatever. What is the story they tell?"
"Some nonsense about Giovanni Saracinesca's going away last week. Del Ferice proposed to call him before you, and Giovanni was angry."
"That is absurd," said Corona. "Don Giovanni was not the least annoyed. He was with me afterwards—"
"Always Giovanni! Always Giovanni! Wherever you go, it is Giovanni!" cried the old man, in unreasonable petulance—unreasonable from his point of view, reasonable enough had he known the truth. But he struck unconsciously upon the key-note of all Corona's troubles, and she turned pale to the lips.
"You say it is not true," he began again. "How do you know? How can you tell what may have been said? How can you guess it? Giovanni Saracinesca is about you in society more than any one. He has quarrelled about you, and two men have lost their lives in consequence. He is in love with you, I tell you. Can you not see it? You must be blind!"
Corona leaned back in her chair, utterly overcome by the suddenness of the situation, unable to answer, her hands folded tightly together, her pale lips compressed. Angry at her silence, old Astrardente continued, his rage gradually getting the mastery of his sense, and his passion working itself up to the pitch of madness.
"Blind—yes—positively blind!" he cried. "Do you think that I am blind too? Do you think I will overlook all this? Do you not see that your reputation is injured—that people associate your name with his—that no woman can be mentioned in the same breath with Giovanni Saracinesca and hope to maintain a fair fame? A fellow whose adventures are in everybody's mouth, whose doings are notorious; who has but to look at a woman to destroy her; who is a duellist, a libertine—"
"That is not true," interrupted Corona, unable to listen calmly to the abuse thus heaped upon the man she so dearly loved. "You are mad—"
"You defend him!" screamed Astrardente, leaning far forward in his chair and clenching his hands. "You dare to support him—you acknowledge that you care for him! Does he not pursue you everywhere, so that the town rings with it? You ought to long to be rid of him, to wish he were dead, rather than allow his name to be breathed with yours; and instead, you defend him to me—you say he is right, that you prefer his odious devotion to your good name, to my good name! Oh, it is not to be believed! If you loved him yourself you could not do worse!"
"If half you say were true—" said Corona, in terrible distress.
"True?" cried Astrardente, who would not brook interruption. "It is all true—and more also. It is true that he loves you, true that all the world says it, true—by all that is holy, from your face I would almost believe that you do love him! Why do you not deny it? Miserable woman!" he screamed, springing towards her and seizing her roughly by the arm, as she hid her face in her hands. "Miserable woman! you have betrayed me—"
In the paroxysm of his rage the feeble old man became almost strong; his grip tightened upon his wife's wrist, and he dragged her violently from her seat.
"Betrayed! And by you!" he cried again, shaking with passion. "You whom I have loved! This is your gratitude, your sanctified devotion, your cunning pretence at patience! All to hide your love for such a man as that! You hypocrite, you—"
By a sudden effort Corona shook off his grasp, and drew herself up to her full height in magnificent anger.
"You shall hear me," she said, in deep commanding tones. "I have deserved much, but I have not deserved this."
"Ha!" he hissed, standing back from her a step, "you can speak now—I have touched you! You have found words. It was time!"
Corona was as white as death, and her black eyes shone like coals of fire. Her words came slowly, every accent clear and strong with concentrated passion.
"I have not betrayed you. I have spoken no word of love to any man alive, and you know that I speak the truth. If any one has said to me what should not be said, I have rebuked him to silence. You know, while you accuse me, that I have done my best to honour and love you; you know well that I would die by my own hand, your loyal and true wife, rather than let my lips utter one syllable of love for any other man."
Corona possessed a supreme power over her husband. She was so true a woman that the truth blazed visibly from her clear eyes; and what she said was nothing but the truth. She had doubted it herself for one dreadful moment; she knew it now beyond all doubting. In a moment the old man's wrath broke and vanished before the strong assertion of her perfect innocence. He turned pale under his paint, and his limbs trembled. He made a step forward, and fell upon his knees before her, and tried to take her hands.
"Oh, Corona, forgive me," he moaned—"forgive me! I so love you!"
Suddenly his grasp relaxed from her hands, and with a groan he fell forward against her knees.
"God knows I forgive you!" cried Corona, the tears starting to her eyes in sudden pity. She bent down to support him; but as she moved, he fell prostrate upon his face before her. With a cry of terror she kneeled beside him; with her strong arms she turned his body and raised his head upon her knees. His face was ghastly white, save where the tinges of paint made a hideous mockery of colour upon his livid skin. His parted lips were faintly purple, and his hollow eyes stared wide open at his wife's face, while the curled wig was thrust far back upon his bald and wrinkled forehead.
Corona supported his weight upon one knee, and took his nerveless hand in hers. An agony of terror seized her.
"Onofrio!" she cried—she rarely called him by his name—"Onofrio! speak to me! My husband!" She clasped him wildly in her arms. "O God, have mercy!"
Onofrio d'Astrardente was dead. The poor old dandy, in his paint and his wig and his padding, had died at his wife's feet, protesting his love for her to the last. The long averted blow had fallen. For years he had guarded himself against sudden emotions, for he was warned of the disease at his heart, and knew his danger; but his anger had killed him. He might have lived another hour while his rage lasted; but the revulsion of feeling, the sudden repentance for the violence he had done his wife, had sent the blood back to its source too quickly, and with his last cry of love upon his lips he was dead.
Corona had hardly ever seen death. She gently lowered the dead man's weight till he lay at full length upon the floor. Then she started to her feet, and drew back against the fireplace, and gazed at the body of her husband.
For fully five minutes she stood motionless, scarcely daring to draw breath, dazed and stupefied with horror, trying to realise what had happened. There he lay, her only friend, the companion of her life since she had known life; the man who in that very room, but two nights since, had spoken such kind words to her that her tears had flowed—the tears that would not flow now; the man who but a moment since was railing at her in a paroxysm of rage—whose anger had melted at her first word of defence, who had fallen at her feet to ask forgiveness, and to declare once more, for the last time, that he loved her! Her friend, her companion, her husband—had he heard her answer, that she forgave him freely? He could not be dead—it was impossible. A moment ago he had been speaking to her. She went forward again and kneeled beside him.
"Onofrio," she said very gently, "you are not dead—you heard me?"
She gazed down for a moment at the motionless features. Womanly thoughtful, she moved his head a little, and straightened the wig upon his poor forehead. Then, in an instant, she realised all, and with a wild cry of despair fell prostrate upon his body in an agony of passionate weeping. How long she lay, she knew not. A knock at the door did not reach her ears, nor another and another, at short intervals; and then some one entered. It was the butler, who had come to announce the mid-day breakfast. He uttered an exclamation and started back, holding the handle of the door in his hand.
Corona raised herself slowly to her knees, gazing down once more upon the dead man's face. Then she lifted her streaming eyes and saw the servant.
"Your master is dead," she said, solemnly.
The man grew pale and trembled, hesitated, and then turned and fled down the hall without, after the manner of Italian servants, who fear death, and even the sight of it, as they fear nothing else in the world.
Corona rose to her feet and brushed the tears from her eyes. Then she turned and rang the bell. No one answered the summons for some time. The news had spread all over the house in an instant, and everything was disorganised. At last a woman came and stood timidly at the door. She was a lower servant, a simple strong creature from the mountains. Seeing the others terrified and paralysed, it had struck her common-sense that her mistress was alone. Corona understood.
"Help me to carry him," she said, quietly; and the peasant and the noble lady stooped and lifted the dead duke, and bore him to his chamber without a word, and laid him tenderly upon his bed.
"Send for the doctor," said Corona; "I will watch beside him."
"But, Excellency, are you not afraid?" asked the woman.
Corona's lip curled a little.
"I am not afraid," she answered. "Send at once." When the woman was gone, she sat down by the bedside and waited. Her tears were dry now, but she could not think. She waited motionless for an hour. Then the old physician entered softly, while a crowd of servants stood without, peering timidly through the open door. Corona crossed the room and quietly shut it. The physician stood by the bedside.
"It is simple enough, Signora Duchessa," he said, gently. "He is quite dead. It was only the day before yesterday that I warned him that the heart disease was worse. Can you tell me how it happened?"
"Yes, exactly," answered Corona, in a low voice. She was calm enough now. "He came into my room two hours ago, and suddenly, in conversation, he became very angry. Then his anger subsided in a moment, and he fell at my feet."
"It is just as I expected," answered the physician, quietly. "They always die in this way. I entreat you to be calm—to consider that all men are mortal—"
"I am calm now," interrupted Corona. "I am alone. Will you see that what is necessary is done quickly? I will leave you for a moment. There are people outside."
As she opened the door the gaping crowd of servants slunk out of her way. With bent head she passed between them, and went out into the great reception-rooms, and sat down alone in her grief.
It was genuine, of its kind. The poor man's soul might rest in peace, for she felt the real sorrow at his death which he had longed for, which he had perhaps scarcely dared to hope she would feel. Had it not been real, in those first moments some thought would have crossed her mind—some faint, repressed satisfaction at being free at last—free to marry Giovanni Saracinesca. But it was not so. She did not feel free—she felt alone, intensely alone. She longed for the familiar sound of his querulous voice—for the expression of his thousand little wants and interests; she remembered tenderly his harmless little vanities. She thought of his wig, and she wept. So true it is that what is most ridiculous in life is most sorrowfully pathetic in death. There was not one of the small things about him she did not recall with a pang of regret. It was all over now. His vanity was dead with him; his tender love for her was dead too. It was the only love she had known, until that other love—that dark and stirring passion—had been roused in her. But that did not trouble her now. Perhaps the unconscious sense that henceforth she was free to love whom she pleased had suddenly made insignificant a feeling which had before borne in her mind the terrible name of crime. The struggle for loyalty was no more, but the memory of what she had borne for the dead man made him dearer than before. The follies of his life had been many, but many of them had been for her, and there was the true ring in his last words. "To be young for your sake, Corona—for your sake!" The phrase echoed again and again in her remembrance, and her silent tears flowed afresh. The follies of his life had been many, but to her he had been true. The very violence of his last moments, the tenderness of his passionate appeal for forgiveness, spoke for the honesty of his heart, even though his heart had never been honest before.
She needed never to think again of pleasing him, of helping him, of foregoing for his sake any intimacy with the world which she might desire. But the thought brought no relief. He had become so much a part of her life that she could not conceive of living without him, and she would miss him at every turn. The new existence before her seemed dismal and empty beyond all expression. She wondered vaguely what she should do with her time. For one moment a strange longing came over her to return to the dear old convent, to lay aside for ever her coronet and state, and in a simple garb to do simple and good things to the honour of God.
She roused herself at last, and went to her own rooms, dragging her steps slowly as though weighed down by a heavy burden. She entered the room where he had died, and a cold shudder passed over her. The afternoon sun was streaming through the window upon the writing table where yet lay the unfinished invitation she had been writing, and upon the plants and the rich ornaments, upon the heavy carpet—the very spot where he had breathed his last word of love and died at her feet.
Upon that spot Corona d'Astrardente knelt down reverently and prayed,—prayed that she might be forgiven for all her shortcomings to the dear dead man; that she might have strength to bear her sorrow and to honour his memory; above all, that his soul might rest in peace and find forgiveness, and that he might know that she had been truly innocent—she prayed for that too, for she had a dreadful doubt. But surely he knew all now: how she had striven to be loyal, and how truly—yes, how truly—she mourned his death.
At last she rose to her feet, and lingered still a moment, her hands clasped as they had been in her prayer. Glancing down, something glistened on the carpet. She stooped and picked it up. It was her husband's sealring, engraven with the ancient arms of the Astrardente. She looked long at the jewel, and then put it upon her finger.
"God give me grace to honour his memory as he would have me honour it," she said, solemnly.
Truly, she had deserved the love the poor old dandy had so deeply felt for her.
That night Giovanni insisted on going out. His wounds no longer pained him, he said; there was no danger whatever, and he was tired of staying at home. But he would dine with his father as usual. He loved his father's company, and when the two omitted to quarrel over trifles they were very congenial. To tell the truth, the differences between them arose generally from the petulant quickness of the Prince; for in his son his own irascible character was joined with the melancholy gravity which Giovanni inherited from his mother, and in virtue of which, being taciturn, he was sometimes thought long-suffering.
As usual, they sat opposite each other, and the ancient butler Pasquale served them. As the man deposited Giovanni's soup before him, he spoke. A certain liberty was always granted to Pasquale; Italian servants are members of the family, even in princely houses. Never assuming that confidence implies familiarity, they enjoy the one without ever approaching the latter. Nevertheless it was very rarely that Pasquale spoke to his masters when they were at table.
"I beg your Excellencies' pardon—" he began, as he put down the soup-plate.
"Well, Pasquale?" asked old Saracinesca, looking sharply at the old servant from under his heavy brows.
"Have your Excellencies heard the news?"
"What news? No," returned the Prince.
"The Duca d'Astrardente—"
"Well, what of him?"
"Dead!" repeated Giovanni in a loud voice, that echoed to the vaulted roof of the dining-room.
"It is not true," said old Saracinesca; "I saw him in the street this morning."
"Nevertheless, your Excellency," replied Pasquale, "it is quite true. The gates of the palace were already draped with black before the Ave Maria this evening; and the porter, who is a nephew of mine, had crepe upon his hat and arm. He told me that the Duca fell down dead of a stroke in the Signora Duchessa's room at half-past twelve to-day."
"Is that all you could learn?" asked the Prince.
"Except that the Signora Duchessa was overcome with grief," returned the servant, gravely.
"I should think so—her husband dead of an apoplexy! It is natural," said the Prince, looking at Giovanni. The latter was silent, and tried to eat as though, nothing had happened—inwardly endeavouring not to rejoice too madly at the terrible catastrophe. In his effort to control his features, the blood rushed to his forehead, and his hand trembled violently. His father saw it, but made no remark.
"Poor Astrardente!" he said. "He was not so bad as people thought him."
"No," replied Giovanni, with a great effort; "he was a very good man."
"I should hardly say that," returned his father, with a grim smile of amusement. "I do not think that by the greatest stretch of indulgence he could be called good."
"And why not?" asked the younger man, sharply snatching at any possible discussion in order to conceal his embarrassment.
"Why not, indeed! Why, because he had a goodly share of original sin, to which he added others of his own originating but having an equal claim to originality."
"I say I think he was a very good man," repeated Giovanni, maintaining his point with an air of conviction.
"If that is your conception of goodness, it is no wonder that you have not attained to sanctity," said the old man, with a sneer.
"It pleases you to be witty," answered his son. "Astrardente did not gamble; he had no vices of late. He was kind to his wife."
"No vices—no. He did not steal like a fraudulent bank-clerk, nor try to do murder like Del Ferice. He did not deceive his wife, nor starve her to death. He had therefore no vices. He was a good man."
"Let us leave poor Del Ferice alone," said Giovanni.
"I suppose you will pity him now," replied the Prince, sarcastically. "You will talk differently if he dies and you have to leave the country at a moment's notice, like Spicca this morning."
"I should be very sorry if Del Ferice died. I should never recover from it. I am not a professional duellist like Spicca. And yet Casalverde deserved his death. I can quite understand that Del Ferice might in the excitement of the moment have lunged at me after the halt was cried, but I cannot understand how Casalverde could be so infamous as not to cross his sword when he himself called. It looked very much like a preconcerted arrangement. Casalverde deserved to die, for the safety of society. I should think that Rome had had enough of duelling for a while."
"Yes; but after all, Casalverde did not count for much. I am not sure I ever saw the fellow before in my life. And I suppose Del Ferice will recover. There was a story this morning that he was dead; but I went and inquired myself, and found that he was better. People are much shocked at this second duel. Well, it could not be helped. Poor old Astrardente! So we shall never see his wig again at every ball and theatre and supper-party! There was a man who enjoyed his life to the very end!"
"I should not call it enjoyment to be built up every day by one's valet, like a card-house, merely to tumble to pieces again when the pins are taken out," said Giovanni.
"You do not seem so enthusiastic in his defence as you were a few minutes ago," said the Prince, with a smile.
Giovanni was so much disturbed at the surprising news that he hardly knew what he said. He made a desperate attempt to be sensible.
"It appears to me that moral goodness and personal appearance are two things," he said, oracularly. The Prince burst into a loud laugh.
"Most people would say that! Eat your dinner, Giovanni, and do not talk such arrant nonsense."
"Why is it nonsense? Because you do not agree with me?"
"Because you are too much excited to talk sensibly," said his father. "Do you think I cannot see it?"
Giovanni was silent for a time. He was angry at his father for detecting the cause of his vagueness, but he supposed there was no help for it. At last Pasquale left the room. Old Saracinesca gave a sigh of relief.
"And now, Giovannino," he said familiarly, "what have you got to say for yourself?"
"I?" asked his son, in some surprise.
"You! What are you going to do?"
"I will stay at home," said Giovanni, shortly.
"That is not the question. You are wise to stay at home, because you ought to get yourself healed of that scratch. Giovanni, the Astrardente is now a widow."
"Seeing that her husband is dead—of course. There is vast ingenuity in your deduction," returned the younger man, eyeing his father suspiciously.
"Do not be an idiot, Giovannino. I mean, that as she is a widow, I have no objection to your marrying her."
"Good God, sir!" cried Giovanni, "what do you mean?"
"What I say. She is the most beautiful woman in Rome. She is one of the best women I know. She will have a sufficient jointure. Marry her. You will never be happy with a silly little girl just out of a convent You are not that sort of man. The Astrardente is not three-and-twenty, but she has had five years of the world, and she has stood the test well. I shall be proud to call her my daughter."
In his excitement Giovanni sprang from his seat, and rushing to his father's side, threw his arms round his neck and embraced him. He had never done such a thing in his life. Then he remained standing, and grew suddenly thoughtful.
"It is heartless of us to talk in this way," he said. "The poor man is not buried yet."
"My dear boy," said the old Prince, "Astrardente is dead. He hated me, and was beginning to hate you, I fancy. We were neither of us his friends, at any rate. We do not rejoice at his death; we merely regard it in the light of an event which modifies our immediate future. He is dead, and his wife is free. So long as he was alive, the fact of your loving her was exceedingly unfortunate: it was injuring you and doing a wrong to her. Now, on the contrary, the greatest good fortune that can happen to you both is that you should marry each other."
"That is true," returned Giovanni. In the suddenness of the news, it had not struck him that his father would ever look favourably upon the match, although the immediate possibility of the marriage had burst upon him as a great light suddenly rising in a thick darkness. But his nature, as strong as his father's, was a little more delicate, a shade less rough; and even in the midst of his great joy, it struck him as heartless to be discussing the chances of marrying a woman whose husband was not yet buried. No such scruple disturbed the geniality of the old Prince. He was an honest and straightforward man—a man easily possessed by a single idea—and he was capable of profound affections. He had loved his Spanish wife strongly in his own fashion, and she had loved him, but there was no one left to him now but his son, whom he delighted in, and he regarded the rest of the world merely as pawns to be moved into position for the honour and glory of the Saracinesca. He thought no more of a man's life than of the end of a cigar, smoked out and fit to be thrown away. Astrardente had been nothing to him but an obstacle. It had not struck him that he could ever be removed; but since it had pleased Providence to take him out of the way, there was no earthly reason for mourning his death. All men must die—it was better that death should come to those who stood in the way of their fellow-creatures.
"I am not at all sure that she will consent," said Giovanni, beginning to walk up and down the room.
"Bah!" ejaculated his father. "You are the best match in Italy. Why should any woman refuse you?"
"I am not so sure. She is not like other women. Let us not talk of it now. It will not be possible to do anything for a year, I suppose. A year is a long time. Meanwhile I will go to that poor man's funeral."
"Of course. So will I."
And they both went, and found themselves in a vast crowd of acquaintances. No one had believed that Astrardente could ever die, that the day would ever come when society should know his place no more; and with one consent everybody sent their carriages to the funeral, and went themselves a day or two later to the great requiem Mass in the parish church. There was nothing to be seen but the great black catafalque, with Corona's household of servants in deep mourning liveries kneeling behind it. Relations she had none, and the dead man was the last of his race— she was utterly alone.
"She need not have made it so terribly impressive," said Madame Mayer to Valdarno when the Mass was over. Madame Mayer paused beside the holy-water basin, and dipping one gloved finger, she presented it to Valdarno with an engaging smile. Both crossed themselves.
"She need not have got it up so terribly impressively, after all," she repeated.
"I daresay she will miss him at first," returned Valdarno, who was a kind-hearted fellow enough, and was very far from realising how much he had contributed to the sudden death of the old dandy. "She is a strange woman. I believe she had grown fond of him."
"Oh, I know all that," said Donna Tullia, as they left the church.
"Yes," answered her companion, with a significant smile, "I presume you do." Donna Tullia laughed harshly as she got into her carriage.
"You are detestable, Valdarno—you always misunderstand me. Are you going to the ball tonight?"
"Of course. May I have the pleasure of the cotillon?"
"If you are very good—if you will go and ask the news of Del Ferice."
"I sent this morning. He is quite out of danger, they believe."
"Is he? Oh, I am very glad—I felt so very badly, you know. Ah, Don Giovanni, are you recovered?" she asked coldly, as Saracinesca approached the other side of the carriage. Valdarno retired to a distance, and pretended to be buttoning his greatcoat; he wanted to see what would happen.
"Thank you, yes; I was not much hurt. This is the first time I have been out, and I am glad to find an opportunity of speaking to you. Let me say again how profoundly I regret my forgetfulness at the ball the other night—"
Donna Tullia was a clever woman, and though she had been very angry at the time, she was in love with Giovanni. She therefore looked at him suddenly with a gentle smile, and just for one moment her fingers touched his hand as it rested upon the side of the carriage.
"Do you think it was kind?" she asked, in a low voice.
"It was abominable. I shall never forgive myself," answered Giovanni.
"I will forgive you," answered Donna Tullia, softly. She really loved him. It was the best thing in her nature, but it was more than balanced by the jealousy she had conceived for the Duchessa d'Astrardente.
"Was it on that account that you quarrelled with poor Del Ferice?" she asked, after a moment's pause. "I have feared it—"
"Certainly not," answered Giovanni, quickly. "Pray set your mind at rest. Del Ferice or any other man would have been quite justified in calling me out for it—but it was not for that. It was not on account of you."
It would have been hard to say whether Donna Tullia's face expressed more clearly her surprise or her disappointment at the intelligence. Perhaps she had both really believed herself the cause of the duel, and had been flattered at the thought that men would fight for her.
"Oh, I am very glad—it is a great relief," she said, rather coldly. "Are you going to the ball to-night?"
"No; I cannot dance. My right arm is bound up in a sling, as you see."
"I am sorry you are not coming. Good-bye, then."
"Good-bye; I am very grateful for your forgiveness." Giovanni bowed low, and Donna Tullia's brilliant equipage dashed away.
Giovanni was well satisfied at having made his peace so easily, but he nevertheless apprehended danger from Donna Tullia.
The next thing which interested Roman society was Astrardente's will, but no one was much surprised when the terms of it were known. As there were no relations, everything was left to his wife. The palace in Rome, the town and castle in the Sabines, the broad lands in the low hill-country towards Ceprano, and what surprised even the family lawyer, a goodly sum in solid English securities,—a splendid fortune in all, according to Roman ideas. Astrardente abhorred the name of money in his conversation—it had been one of his affectations; but he had an excellent understanding of business, and was exceedingly methodical in the management of his affairs. The inheritance, the lawer thought, might be estimated at three millions of scudi.
"Is all this wealth mine, then?" asked Corona, when the solicitor had explained the situation.
"All, Signora Duchessa. You are enormously rich."
Enormously rich! And alone in the world. Corona asked herself if she was the same woman, the same Corona del Carmine who five years before had suffered in the old convent the humiliation of having no pocket-money, whose wedding-gown had been provided from the proceeds of a little sale of the last relics of her father's once splendid collection of old china and pictures. She had never thought of money since she had been married; her husband was generous, but methodical; she never bought anything without consulting him, and the bills all went through his hands. Now and then she had rather timidly asked for a small sum for some charity; she had lacked nothing that money could buy, but she never remembered to have had more than a hundred francs in her purse. Astrardente had once offered to give her an allowance, and had seemed pleased that she refused it. He liked to manage things himself, being a man of detail.
And now she was enormously rich, and alone. It was a strange sensation. She felt it to be so new that she innocently said so to the lawyer.
"What shall I do with it all?"
"Signora Duchessa," returned the old man, "with regard to money the question is, not what to do with it, but how to do without it. You are very young, Signora Duchessa."
"I shall be twenty-three in August," said Corona, simply.
"Precisely. I would beg to be allowed to observe that by the terms of the will, and by the laws of this country, you are not the dowager-duchess, but you are in your own right and person the sole and only feudal mistress and holder of the title."
"Certainly, with all the privileges thereto attached. It may be—I beg pardon for being so bold as to suggest it—it may be that in years to come, when time has soothed your sorrow, you may wish, you may consent, to renew the marriage tie."
"I doubt it—but the thing is possible," said Corona, quietly.
"In that case, and should you prefer to contract a marriage of inclination, you will have no difficulty in conferring your title upon your husband, with any reservations you please. Your children will then inherit from you, and become in their turn Dukes of Astrardente. This I conceive to have been the purpose and spirit of the late Duke's will. The estate, magnificent as it is, will not be too large for the foundation of a new race. If you desire any distinctive title, you can call yourself Duchessa del Carmine d'Astrardente—it would sound very well," remarked the lawyer, contemplating the beautiful woman before him.
"It is of little importance what I call myself," said Corona. "At present I shall certainly make no change. It is very unlikely that I shall ever marry."
"I trust, Signora Duchessa, that in any case you will always command my most humble services."
With this protestation of fidelity the lawyer left the Palazzo Astrardente, and Corona remained in her boudoir in meditation of what it would be like to be the feudal mistress of a great title and estate. She was very sad, but she was growing used to her solitude. Her liberty was strange to her, but little by little she was beginning to enjoy it. At first she had missed the constant care of the poor man who for five years had been her companion; she had missed his presence and the burden of thinking for him at every turn of the day. But it was not for long. Her memory of him was kind and tender, and for months after his death the occasional sight of some object associated with him brought the tears to her eyes. She often wished he could walk into the room in his old way, and begin talking of the thousand and one bits of town gossip that interested him. But the first feeling of desolation soon passed, for he had not been more than a companion; she could analyse every memory she had of him to its source and reason. There was not in her that passionate unformulated yearning for him that comes upon a loving heart when its fellow is taken away, and which alone is a proof that love has been real and true. She soon grew accustomed to his absence.
To marry again—every one would say she would be right—to marry and to be the mother of children, of brave sons and noble girls,—ah yes! that was a new thought, a wonderful thought, one of many that were wonderful.
Then, again, her strong nature suddenly rose in a new sense of strength, and she paced the room slowly with a strange expression of sternness upon her beautiful features.
"I am a power in the world," she said to herself, almost starting at the truth of the thought, and yet taking delight in it. "I am what men call rich and powerful; I have money, estates, castles, and palaces; I am young, I am strong. What shall I do with it all?"
As she walked, she dreamed of raising some great institution of charity; she knew not for what precise object, but there was room enough for charity in Rome. The great Torlonia had built churches, and hospitals, and asylums. She would do likewise; she would make for herself an interest in doing good, a satisfaction in the exercise of her power to combat evil. It would be magnificent to feel that she had done it herself, alone and unaided; that she had built the walls from the foundation and the corner-stone to the eaves; that she had entered herself into the study of each detail, and herself peopled the great institution with such as needed most help in the world—with little children, perhaps. She would visit them every day, and herself provide for their wants and care for their sufferings. She would give the place her husband's name, and the good she would accomplish with his earthly portion might perhaps profit his soul. She would go to Padre Filippo and ask his advice. He would know what was best to be done, for he knew more of the misery in Rome than any one, and had a greater mind to relieve it. She had seen him since her husband's death, but she had not yet conceived this scheme.
And Giovanni—she thought of him too; but the habit of putting him out of her heart was strong. She dimly fancied that in the far future a day might come when she would be justified in thinking of him if she so pleased; but for the present, her loyalty to her dead husband seemed more than ever a sacred duty. She would not permit herself to think of Giovanni, even though, from a general point of view, she might contemplate the possibility of a second marriage. She would go to Padre Filippo and talk over everything with him; he would advise her well.
Then a wild longing seized her to leave Rome for a while, to breathe the air of the country, to get away from the scene of all her troubles, of all the terrible emotions that had swept over her life in the last three weeks, to be alone in the hills or by the sea. It seemed dreadful to be tied to her great house in the city, in her mourning, shut off suddenly from the world, and bound down by the chain of conventionality to a fixed method of existence. She would give anything to go away. Why not? She suddenly realised what was so hard to understand, that she was free to go where she pleased—if only, by accident, she could chance to meet Giovanni Saracinesca before she left. No—the thought was unworthy. She would leave town at once—surely she could have nothing to say to Giovanni—she would leave to-morrow morning.
Corona found it impossible to leave town so soon as she had wished. She had indeed sent out great cart-loads of furniture, servants, horses, and all the paraphernalia of an establishment in the country, and she believed herself ready to move at once, when she received an exceedingly courteous note from Cardinal Antonelli requesting the honour of being received by her the next day at twelve o'clock. It was impossible to refuse, and to her great annoyance she was obliged to postpone her departure another twenty-four hours. She guessed that the great man was the bearer of some message from the Holy Father himself; and in her present frame of mind, such words of comfort could not fail to be acceptable from one whom she reverenced and loved, as all who knew Pius IX. did sincerely revere and love him. She did not like the Cardinal, it is true; but she did not confound the ambassador with him who sent the embassy. The Cardinal was a most courteous and accomplished man of the world, and Corona could not easily have explained the aversion she felt for him. It is very likely that if she could have understood the part he was sustaining in the great European struggle of those days, she would have accorded him at least the admiration he deserved as a statesman. He had his faults, and they were faults little becoming a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. But few are willing to consider that, though a cardinal, he was not a priest—that he was practically a layman who, by his own unaided genius, had attained to great power, and that those faults which have been charged against him with such virulence would have passed, nay, actually pass, unnoticed and uncensured in many a great statesman of those days and of these. He was a brave man, who fought a desperate and hopeless fight to his last breath, and who fought almost alone—a man most bitterly hated by many, at whose death many rejoiced loudly and few mourned; and to the shame of many be it said, that his most obstinate adversaries, those who unsparingly heaped abuse upon him during his lifetime, and most unseemingly exulted over his end, were the very men among whom he should have found the most willing supporters and the firmest friends. But in 1865 he was feared, and those who reckoned without him in the game of politics reckoned badly.
Corona was a woman, and very young. She had not the knowledge or the experience to understand his value, and she had taken a personal dislike to him when she first appeared in society. He was too smooth for her; she thought him false. She preferred a rougher type. Her husband, on the other hand, had a boundless admiration for the cardinal-statesman; and perhaps the way in which Astrardente constantly tried to impress his wife with a sense of the great man's virtues, indirectly contributed to increase her aversion. Nevertheless, when he sent word that he desired to be received by her, she did not hesitate a moment, but expressed her willingness at once. Punctually as the gun of Sant Angelo roared out the news that the sun was on the meridian, Cardinal Antonelli entered Corona's house. She received him in the great drawing-room. There was an air of solemnity about the meeting. The room itself, divested of a thousand trifles which had already been sent into the country, looked desolate and formal; the heavy curtains admitted but little light; there was no fire on the hearth; Corona stood all in black—a very incarnation of mourning—as her visitor trod softly across the dark carpet towards her.
The Cardinal's expressive face was softened by a look of gentle sympathy, as he came forward and took her hand in both of his, and gazed for a moment into her beautiful eyes.
"I am an ambassador, Duchessa," he said softly. "I come to tell you how deeply our Holy Father sympathises in your great sorrow."
Corona bent her head respectfully, and motioned to the Cardinal to be seated.
"I beg that your Eminence will convey to his Holiness my most sincere gratitude for this expression of his paternal kindness to one so unhappy."
"Indeed I will not fail to deliver your message, Duchessa," answered the Cardinal, seating himself by her side in one of the great arm-chairs which had been placed together in the middle of the room. "His Holiness has promised to remember you in his august prayers; and I also, for my own part, entreat you to believe that my poor sympathy is wholly with you in your distress."
"Your Eminence is most kind," replied Corona, gravely.
It seemed as though there were little more to be said in such a case. There was no friendship between the two, no bond of union or fellowship: it was simply a formal visit of condolence, entailed as a necessity by Corona's high position. The Pope had sent her a gift at her wedding; he sent her a message of sympathy at her husband's death. Half-a-dozen phrases would be exchanged, and the Cardinal would take his leave, accompanied by a file of the Duchessa's lackeys—and so it would all be over. But the Cardinal was a statesman, a diplomatist, and one of the best talkers in Europe; moreover, he never allowed an opportunity of pursuing his ends to pass unimproved.
"Ah, Duchessa!" he said, folding his hands upon his knee and looking down, "there is but one Consoler in sorrow such as yours. It is vain for us mortals to talk of any such thing as alleviating real mental suffering. There are consolations—many of them—for some people, but they are not for you. To many the accidents of wealth, of youth, of beauty, seem to open the perspective of a brilliant future at the very moment when all the present appears to be shrouded in darkness; but if you will permit me, who know you so little, to say it frankly, I do not believe that any of these things which you possess in such plentiful abundance will lessen the measure of your grief. It is not right that they should, I suppose. It is not fitting that noble minds should even possess the faculty of forgetting real suffering in the unreal trifles of a great worldly possession, which so easily restore the weak to courage, and natter the vulgar into the forgetfulness of honourable sorrow. I am no moraliser, no pedantic philosopher. The stoic may have shrugged his heavy shoulders in sullen indifference to fate; the epicurean may have found such bodily ease in his excessive refinement of moderate enjoyment as to overlook the deepest afflictions in anticipating the animal pleasure of the next meal. I cannot conceive of such men as those philosophising diners; nor can I imagine by what arguments the wisest of mankind could induce a fellow-creature in distress to forget his sufferings. Sorrow is sorrow still to all finely organised natures. The capacity for feeling sorrow is one of the highest tests of nobility—a nobility of nature not found always in those of high blood and birth, but existing in the people, wherever the people are good."
The Cardinal's voice became even more gentle as he spoke. He was himself of very humble origin, and spoke feelingly. Corona listened, though she only heard half of what he said; but his soft tone soothed her almost unconsciously.
"There is little consolation for me—I am quite alone," she said.
"You are not of those who find relief in worldly greatness," continued the Cardinal. "But I have seen women, young, rich, and beautiful, wear their mourning with wonderful composure. Youth is so much, wealth is so much more, beauty is such a power in the world—all three together are resistless. Many a young widow is not ashamed to think of marriage before her husband has been dead a month. Indeed they do not always make bad wives. A woman who has been married young and is early deprived of her husband, has great experience, great knowledge of the world. Many feel that they have no right to waste the goods given them in a life of solitary mourning. Wealth is given to be used, and perhaps many a rich young widow thinks she can use it more wisely in the company of a husband young as herself. It may be; I cannot tell. These are days when power of any sort should be used, and perhaps no one should even for a moment think of withdrawing from the scene where such great battles are being fought. But one may choose wisely a way of using power, or one may choose unwisely. There is much to be done."
"How?" asked Corona, catching at his expression of an idea which pursued her. "Here am I, rich, alone, idle—above all, very unhappy. What can I do? I wish I knew, for I would try and do it."
"Ah! I was not speaking of you, Duchessa," answered the statesman. "You are too noble a woman to be easily consoled. And yet, though you may not find relief from your great sorrow, there are many things within your reach which you might do, and feel that in your mourning you have done honour to your departed husband as well as to yourself. You have great estates—you can improve them, and especially you can improve the condition of your peasants, and strengthen their loyalty to you and to the State. You can find many a village on your lands where a school might be established, an asylum built, a road opened—anything which shall give employment to the poor, and which, when finished, shall benefit their condition. Especially about Astrardente they are very poor; I know the country well. In six months you might change many things; and then you might return to Rome next winter. If it pleases you, you can do anything with society. You can make your house a centre for a new party—the oldest of all parties it is, but it would now be thought new here. We have no centre. There is no salon in the good old sense of the word—no house where all that is intelligent, all that is powerful, all that is influential, is irresistibly drawn. To make a centre of that kind would be a worthy object, it seems to me. You would surround yourself with men of genius; you would bring those together who cannot meet elsewhere; you would give a vigorous tone to a society which is fast falling to decay from inanition; you could become a power, a real power, not only in Rome, but in Europe; you could make your house famous as the point from which, in Rome, all that is good and great should radiate to the very ends of the earth. You could do all this in your young widowhood, and you would not dishonour the memory of him you loved so dearly."
Corona looked earnestly at the Cardinal as he enlarged upon the possibilities of her life. What he said seemed true and good. It opened to her a larger field than she had dreamed of half an hour ago. Especially the plan of working for the improvement of her estates and people attracted her. She wanted to do something at once—something good, and something worth doing.
"I believe you are right," she said. "I shall die if I am idle."
"I know I am right," returned the Cardinal, in a tone of conviction. "Not that I propose all this as an unalterable plan for you. I would not have you think I mean to lay down any system, or even to advise you at all. I was merely thinking aloud. I am too happy if my thoughts please you—if anything I say can even for a moment relieve your mind from the pressure of this sudden grief. It is not consolation I offer you. I am not a priest, but a man of action; and it is action I propose to you, not as an anodyne for sorrow, but simply because it is right that in these days we should all strive with a good will. Your peasants are many of them in an evil case: you can save them and make them happy, even though you find no happiness for yourself. Our social world here is falling to pieces, going astray after strange gods, and especially after Madame Mayer and her lares and penates, young Valdarno and Del Ferice: it is in your power to create a new life here, or at least to contribute greatly towards reestablishing the social balance. I say, do this thing, if you will, for it is a good thing to do. At all events, while you are building roads—and perhaps schools—at Astrardente, you can think over the course you will afterwards pursue. And now, my dear Duchessa, I have detained you far too long. Forgive me if I have wearied you, for I have great things at heart, and must sometimes speak of them though I speak feebly. Count on me always for any assistance you may require. Bear with me if I weary you, for I was a good friend of him we both mourn."