"Thank you—you have given me good thoughts," said Corona, simply.
So the courtly Cardinal rose and took his leave, and once more Corona was left alone. It was a strange thing that, while he disclaimed all power to comfort her, and denied that consolation was possible in her case, she had nevertheless listened to him with interest, and now found herself thinking seriously of what he had said. He seemed to have put her thoughts into shape, and to have given direction to that sense of power she had already begun to feel. For the first time in her life she felt something like sympathy for the Cardinal, and she lingered for some minutes alone in the great reception-room, wondering whether she could accomplish any of the things he had proposed to her. At all events, there was nothing now to hinder her departure; and she thought with something like pleasure of the rocky Sabines, the solitude of the mountains, the simple faces of the people about her place, and of the quiet life she intended to lead there during the next six months.
But the Cardinal went on his way, rolling along through, the narrow streets in his great coach. Leaning far back in his cushioned seat, he could just catch a glimpse of the people as he passed, and his quick eyes recognised many, both high and low. But he did not care to show himself, for he felt himself disliked, and deep in his finely organised nature there lay a sensitiveness which was wounded by the popular hatred. It hurt him to see the lowering glances of the poor man, and to return the forced bow of the rich man who feared him. He often longed to be able to explain many things to them both, to the rich and to the poor; and then, knowing how impossible it was that he should be understood by either, he sighed somewhat bitterly, and hid himself still deeper in his carriage. Few men in the midst of the world have stood so wholly alone as Cardinal Antonelli.
To-day, however, he had an appointment which he anticipated with a sort of interest quite new to him. Anastase Gouache was coming to begin his portrait, and Anastase was an object of curiosity to him. It would have surprised the young Frenchman had he guessed how carefully he was watched, for he was a modest fellow, and did not think himself of very much importance. He allowed Donna Tullia and her friends to come to his studio whenever they pleased, and he listened to their shallow talk, and joined, occasionally in the conversation, letting them believe that he sympathised with them, simply because his own ideas were unsettled. It was a good thing for him to paint a portrait of Donna Tullia, for it made him the fashion, and he had small scruple in agreeing with her views so long as he had no fixed convictions of his own. She and her set regarded him as a harmless boy, and looked upon his little studio as a convenience, in payment whereof they pushed him into society, and spread abroad the rumour that he was the rising artist of the day. But the great Cardinal had seen him more than once, and had conceived a liking for his delicate intellectual face and unobtrusive manner. He had watched him and caused him to be watched, and his interest had increased, and finally he had taken a fancy to have a portrait of himself painted by the young fellow. This was the day appointed for the first sitting; and when the Cardinal reached his lodgings, high up in the Vatican pile, he found Anastase Gouache waiting for him in the small ante-chamber.
The prime minister was not luxuriously lodged. Four rooms sufficed him—to wit, the said ante-chamber, bare and uncarpeted, and furnished with three painted wooden box benches; a comfortable study lined throughout with shelves and lockers, furnished with half-a-dozen large chairs and a single writing-table, whereon stood a crucifix and an inkstand; beyond this a bedroom and a small dining-room: that was all. The drawers of the lockers and bookcases contained a correspondence which would have astonished Europe, and a collection of gems and precious stones unrivalled in the world; but there was nothing in the shape of ornament visible to the eye, unless one were to class under that head a fairly good bust of Pius IX, which stood upon a plain marble pedestal in one corner. Gouache followed the great man into this study. He was surprised by the simplicity of the apartment; but he felt in sympathy with it, and with the Cardinal himself; and with the intuitive knowledge of a true artist, he foresaw that he was to paint a successful portrait.
The Cardinal busied himself with some papers while the painter silently made his preparations.
"If your Eminence is ready?" suggested Gouache.
"At your service, my friend," replied the Cardinal, blandly. "How shall I sit? The portrait must be taken in full face, I think."
"By all means. Here, I think—so; the light is very good at this hour, but a little later we shall have the sun. If your Eminence will look at me—a little more to the left—I think that will do. I will draw it in in charcoal and your Eminence can judge."
"Precisely," returned the Cardinal. "You will paint the devil even blacker than he is."
"The devil?" repeated Gouache, raising his eyebrows with a slight smile. "I was not aware—"
"And yet you have been in Rome four years!"
"I am very careful," returned Gouache. "I never by any chance hear any evil of those whom I am to paint."
"You have very well-bred ears, Monsieur Gouache. I fear that if I had attended some of the meetings in your studio while Donna Tullia was having her portrait painted, I should have heard strange things. Have they all escaped you?"
Gouache was silent for a moment. It did not surprise him to learn that the omniscient Cardinal was fully acquainted with the doings in his studio, but he looked curiously at the great man before he answered. The Cardinal's small gleaming eyes met his with the fearlessness of superiority.
"I remember nothing but good of your Eminence," the painter replied at last, with a laugh; and applying himself to his work, he began to draw in the outline of the Cardinal's head. The words he had just heard, implying as they did a thorough knowledge of the minutest details of social life, would have terrified Madame Mayer, and would perhaps have driven Del Ferice out of the Papal States in fear of his life. Even the good-natured and foolish Valdarno might reasonably have been startled; but Anastase was made of different stuff. His grandfather had helped to storm the Bastille, his father had been among the men of 1848; there was revolutionary blood in his veins, and he distinguished between real and imaginary conspiracy with the unerring certainty of instinct, as the bloodhound knows the track of man from the slot of meaner game. He laughed at Donna Tullia, he distrusted Del Ferice, and to some extent he understood the Cardinal. And the statesman understood him, too, and was interested by him.
"You may as well forget their chatter. It does me no harm, and it amuses them. It does not seem to surprise you that I should know all about it, however. You have good nerves, Monsieur Gouache."
"Of course your Eminence can send me out of Rome tomorrow, if you please," answered Gouache, with perfect unconcern. "But the portrait will not be finished so soon."
"No—that would be a pity. You shall stay. But the others—what would you advise me to do with them?" asked the Cardinal, his bright eyes twinkling with amusement.
"If by the others your Eminence means my friends," replied Gouache, quietly, "I can assure you that none of them will ever cause you the slightest inconvenience."
"I believe you are right—their ability to annoy me is considerably inferior to their inclination. Is it not so?"
"If your Eminence will allow me," said Gouache, rising suddenly and laying down his charcoal pencil, "I will pin this curtain across the window. The sun is beginning to come in."
He had no intention of answering any questions. If the Cardinal knew of the meetings in the Via San Basilio, that was not Gouache's fault; Gouache would certainly not give any further information. The statesman had expected as much, and was not at all surprised at the young man's silence.
"One of those young gentlemen seems to have met his match, at all events," he remarked, presently. "I am sorry it should have come about in that way."
"Your Eminence might easily have prevented the duel."
"I knew nothing about it," answered the Cardinal, glancing keenly at Anastase.
"Nor I," said the artist, simply.
"You see my information is not always so good as people imagine, my friend."
"It is a pity," remarked Gouache. "It would have been better had poor Del Ferice been killed outright. The matter would have terminated there."
"Whereas Del Ferice will naturally seek an occasion for revenge."
"You speak as though you were a friend of Don Giovanni's," said the Cardinal.
"No; I have a very slight acquaintance with him. I admire him, he has such a fine head. I should be sorry if anything happened to him."
"Do you think Del Ferice is capable of murdering him?"
"Oh no! He might annoy him a great deal."
"I think not," answered the Cardinal, thoughtfully. "Del Ferice was afraid that Don Giovanni would marry Donna Tullia and spoil his own projects. But Giovanni will not think of that again."
"No; I suppose Don Giovanni will marry the Duchessa d'Astrardente."
"Of course," replied the Cardinal. For some minutes there was silence. Gouache, while busy with his pencil, was wondering at the interest the great man took in such details of the Roman social life. The Cardinal was thinking of Corona, whom he had seen but half an hour ago, and was revolving in his mind the advantages that might be got by allying her to Giovanni. He had in view for her a certain Serene Highness whom he wished to conciliate, and whose circumstances were not so splendid as to make Corona's fortune seem insignificant to him. But on the other hand, the Cardinal had no Serene Highness ready for Giovanni, and feared lest he should after all marry Donna Tullia, and get into the opposite camp.
"You are from Paris, Monsieur Gouache, I believe," said the Cardinal at last.
"Parisian of the Parisians, your Eminence."
"How can you bear to live in exile so long? You have not been to your home these four years, I think."
"I would rather live in Rome for the present. I will go to Paris some day. It will always be a pleasant recollection to have seen Rome in these days. My friends write me that Paris is gay, but not pleasant."
"You think there will soon be nothing of this time left but the recollection of it?" suggested the Cardinal.
"I do not know what to think. The times seem unsettled, and so are my ideas. I was told that your Eminence would help me to decide what to believe." Gouache smiled pleasantly, and looked up.
"And who told you that?"
"Don Giovanni Saracinesca."
"But I must have some clue to what your ideas are," said the Cardinal. "When did Don Giovanni say that?"
"At Prince Frangipani's. He had been talking with your Eminence—perhaps he had come to some conclusion in consequence," suggested Gouache.
"Perhaps so," answered the great man, with a look of considerable satisfaction. "At all events I am flattered by the opinion he gave you of me. Perhaps I may help you to decide. What are your opinions? or rather, what would you like your opinions to be?"
"I am an ardent republican," said Gouache, boldly. It needed no ordinary courage to make such a statement to the incarnate chief of reactionary politics in those days—within the walls of the Vatican, not a hundred yards from the private apartments of the Holy Father. But Cardinal Antonelli smiled blandly, and seemed not in the least surprised nor offended.
"Republicanism is an exceedingly vague term, Monsieur Gouache," he said. "But with what other opinions do you wish to reconcile your republicanism?"
"With those held by the Church. I am a good Catholic, and I desire to remain one—indeed I cannot help remaining one."
"Christianity is not vague, at all events," answered the Cardinal, who, to tell the truth, was somewhat astonished at the artist's juxtaposition of two such principles. "In the first place, allow me to observe, my friend, that Christianity is the purest form of a republic which the world has ever seen, and that it therefore only depends upon your good sense to reconcile in your own mind two ideas which from the first have been indissolubly bound together."
It was Gouache's turn to be startled at the Cardinal's confidence.
"I am afraid I must ask your Eminence for some further explanation," he said. "I had no idea that Christianity and republicanism were the same thing."
"Republicanism," returned the statesman, "is a vague term, invented in an abortive attempt to define by one word the mass of inextricable disorder arising in our times from the fusion of socialistic ideas with ideas purely republican. If you mean to speak of this kind of thing, you must define precisely your position in regard to socialism, and in regard to the pure theory of a commonwealth. If you mean to speak of a real republic in any known form, such as the ancient Roman, the Dutch, or the American, I understand you without further explanation."
"I certainly mean to speak of the pure republic. I believe that under a pure republic the partition of wealth would take care of itself."
"Very good, my friend. Now, with regard to the early Christians, should you say that their communities were monarchic, or aristocratic, or oligarchic?"
"None of those three, I should think," said Gouache.
"There are only two systems left, then—democracy and hierarchy. You will probably say that the government of the early Christians was of the latter kind—that they were governed by priests, in fact. But on the other hand, there is no doubt that both those who governed, and those who were governed by them, had all things in common, regarded no man as naturally superior to another, and preached a fraternity and equality at least as sincere as those inculcated by the first French Republic. I do not see how you can avoid calling such community a republic, seeing that there was an equal partition of wealth; and defining it as a democratic one, seeing that they all called each other brethren."
"But the hierarchy—what became of it?" inquired Gouache.
"The hierarchy existed within the democracy, by common consent and for the public good, and formed a second democracy of smaller extent but greater power. Any man might become a priest, any priest might become a bishop, any bishop might become pope, as surely as any born citizen of Rome could become consul, or any native of New York may be elected President of the United States. Now in theory this was beautiful, and in practice the democratic spirit of the hierarchy, the smaller republic, has survived in undiminished vigour to the present day. In the original Christian theory the whole world should now be one vast republic, in which all Christians should call each other brothers, and support each other in worldly as well as spiritual matters. Within this should exist the smaller republic of the hierarchy, by common consent,—an elective body, recruiting its numbers from the larger, as it does now; choosing its head, the sovereign Pontiff, as it does now, to be the head of both Church and State; eminently fitted for that position, for the very simple reason that in a community organised and maintained upon such principles, in which, by virtue of the real and universal love of religion, the best men would find their way into the Church, and would ultimately find their way to the papal throne."
"Your Eminence states the case very convincingly," answered Gouache. "But why has the larger republic, which was to contain the smaller one, ceased to exist? or rather, why did it never come into existence?"
"Because man has not yet fulfilled his part in the great contract. The matter lies in a nutshell. The men who enter the Church are sufficiently intelligent and well educated to appreciate the advantages of Christian democracy, fellowship, solidarity, and brotherly love. The republic of the Church has therefore survived, and will survive for ever. The men who form the majority, on the other hand, have never had either the intelligence or the education to understand that democracy is the ultimate form of government: instead of forming themselves into a federation, they have divided themselves into hostile factions, calling themselves nations, and seeking every occasion for destroying and plundering each other, frequently even turning against the Church herself. The Church has committed faults in history, without doubt, but on the whole she has nobly fulfilled her contract, and reaps the fruits of fidelity in the vigour and unity she displays after eighteen centuries. Man, on the other hand, has failed to do his duty, and all races of men are consequently suffering for their misdeeds; the nations are divided against each other, and every nation is a house divided against itself, which sooner or later shall fall."
"But," objected Gouache, "allowing, as one easily may, that all this is true, your Eminence is always called reactionary in politics. Does that accord with these views?"
Gouache believed the question unanswerable, but as he put it he worked calmly on with his pencil, labouring hard to catch something of the Cardinal's striking expression in the rough drawing he was making.
"Nothing is easier, my friend," replied the statesman. "The republic of the Church is driven to bay. We are on a war footing. For the sake of strength we are obliged to hold together so firmly that for the time we can only think of maintaining old traditions without dreaming of progress or spending time in experiments. When we have weathered the storm we shall have leisure for improving much that needs improvement. Do not think that if I am alive twenty years hence I shall advise what I advise now. We are fighting now, and we have no time to think of the arts of peace. We shall have peace some day. We shall lose an ornament or two from our garments in the struggle, but our body will not be injured, and in time of peace our ornaments will be restored to us fourfold. But now there is war and rumour of war. There is a vast difference between the ideal republic which I was speaking of, and the real anarchy and confusion which would be brought about by what is called republicanism."
"In other words, if the attack upon the Church were suddenly abandoned, your Eminence would immediately abandon your reactionary policy," said Gouache, "and adopt progressive views?"
"Immediately," replied the Cardinal.
"I see," said Gouache. "A little more towards me—just so that I can catch that eye. Thank you—that will do."
When Del Ferice was thought sufficiently recovered of his wound to hear some of the news of the day, which was about three weeks after the duel, he learned that Astrardente was dead, that the Duchessa had inherited all his fortune, and that she was on the point of leaving Rome. It would be hard to say how the information of her approaching departure had got abroad; it might be merely a clever guess of the gossips, or it might be the report gleaned from her maid by all the other maids in town. Be that as it may, when Del Ferice heard it he ground his teeth as he lay upon his bed, and swore that if it were possible to prevent the Duchessa d'Astrardente from leaving town he would do it. In his judgment it would be a dangerous thing to let Corona and Giovanni part, and to allow Donna Tullia free play in her matrimonial designs. Of course Giovanni would never marry Madame Mayer, especially as he was now at liberty to marry the Astrardente; but Madame Mayer herself might become fatally interested in him, as she already seemed inclined to be, and this would be bad for Del Ferice's own prospects. It would not do to squander any of the advantages gained by the death of the old Duca. Giovanni must be hastened into a marriage with Corona; it would be time enough to think of revenge upon him afterwards for the ghastly wound that took so long to heal.
It was a pity that Del Ferice and Donna Tullia were not allies, for if Madame Mayer hated Corona d'Astrardente, Ugo del Ferice detested Giovanni with equal virulency, not only because he had been so terribly worsted by him in the duel his own vile conduct had made inevitable, but because Donna Tullia loved him and was doing her very best to marry him. Evidently the best thing to be done was to produce a misunderstanding between the two; but it would be dangerous to play any tricks with Giovanni, for he held Del Ferice in his power by his knowledge of that disagreeable scene behind the plants in the conservatory. Saracinesca was a great man in society and celebrated for his honesty; people would believe him rather than Del Ferice, if the story got abroad. This would not do. The next best thing was to endeavour to draw Giovanni and Corona together as quickly as possible, to precipitate their engagement, and thus to clear the field of a dangerous rival. Del Ferice was a very obstinate and a very intelligent man. He meant more than ever to marry Donna Tullia himself, and he would not be hindered in the accomplishment of his object by an insignificant scruple.
He was not allowed to speak much, lest the effort should retard the healing of his throat; but in the long days and nights, when he lay silent in his quiet lodging, he had ample time to revolve many schemes in his brain. At last he no longer needed the care of the Sister of Mercy; his servant took charge of him, and the surgeon came twice a-day to dress his wound. He lay in bed one morning watching Temistocle, who moved noiselessly about the room.
"Temistocle," he said, "you are a youth of intelligence: you must use the gifts nature has given you."
Temistocle was at that time not more than five-and-twenty years of age. He had a muddy complexion, a sharp hooked nose, and a cast in one eye that gave him a singularly unpleasant expression. As his master addressed him, he stood still and listened with a sort of distorted smile in acknowledgment of the compliment made him.
"Temistocle, you must find out when the Duchessa d'Astrardente means to leave Rome, and where she is going. You know somebody in the house?"
"Yes, sir—the under-cook; he stood godfather with me for the baby of a cousin of mine—the young man who drives Prince Valdarno's private brougham: a clever fellow, too."
"And this under-cook," said Del Ferice, who was not above entering into details with his servant—"is he a discreet character?"
"Oh, for that, you may trust him. Only sometimes—" Temistocle grinned, and made a gesture which signified drinking.
"And when he is drunk?" asked Del Ferice.
"When he is drunk he tells everything; but he never remembers anything he has been told, or has said. When he is drunk he is a dictionary; but the first draught of water washes out his memory like a slate."
"Well—give me my purse; it is under my pillow. Go. Here is a scudo, Temistocle. You can make him very drunk for that."
Temistocle hesitated, and looked at the money.
"Another couple of pauls would make it safer," he remarked.
"Well, there they are; but you must make him very drunk indeed. You must find out all he knows, and you must keep sober yourself."
"Leave that to me. I will make of him a sponge; he shall be squeezed dry, and sopped again and squeezed again. I will be his confessor."
"If you find out what I want, I will give you—" Del Ferice hesitated; he did not mean to give too much.
"The grey trousers?" asked Temistocle, with an avaricious light in the eye which did not wander.
"Yes," answered his master, rather regretfully; "I suppose you must have the grey trousers at last."
"For those grey trousers I will upset heaven and earth," returned Temistocle in great glee.
Nothing more was said on that day, but early on the following morning the man entered and opened the shutters, and removed the little oil-light that had burned all night. He kept one eye upon his master, who presently turned slowly and looked inquiringly at him.
"The Duchessa goes to Astrardente in the Sabines on the day after to-morrow," said Temistocle. "It is quite sure that she goes, because she has already sent out two pairs of horses, and several boxes of effects, besides the second housemaid and the butler and two grooms."
"Ah! that is very good. Temistocle, I think I will get up this morning and sit in the next room."
"And the grey trousers?"
"Take them, and wear them in honour of the most generous master living," said Del Ferice, impressively. "It is not every master who gives his servant a pair of grey trousers. Remember that."
"Heaven bless you, Signor Conte!" exclaimed Temistocle, devoutly.
Del Ferice lost no time. He was terribly weak still, and his wound was not entirely healed yet; but he set himself resolutely to his writing-table, and did not rise until he had written two letters. The first was carefully written in a large round hand, such as is used by copyists in Italy, resembling the Gothic. It was impossible to connect the laboriously formed and conventional letters with any particular person. It was very short, as follows:—
"It may interest you to know that the Duchessa d'Astrardente is going to her castle in the Sabines on the day after to-morrow."
This laconic epistle Del Ferice carefully directed to Don Giovanni Saracinesca at his palace, and fastened a stamp upon it; but he concealed the address from Temistocle. The second letter was longer, and written in his own small and ornate handwriting. It was to Donna Tullia Mayer. It ran thus:—
"You would forgive my importuning you with a letter, most charming Donna Tullia, if you could conceive of my desolation and loneliness. For more than three weeks I have been entirely deprived of the pleasure, the exquisite delight, of conversing with her for whom I have suffered. I still suffer so much. Ah! if my paper were a cloth of gold, and my pen in moving traced characters of diamond and pearl, yet any words which speak of you would be ineffectually honoured by such transcription! In the miserable days and nights I have passed between life and death, it is your image which has consoled me, the echo of your delicate voice which has soothed my pain, the remembrance of the last hours I spent with you which has gilded the feverish dreams of my sickness. You are the guardian angel of a most unhappy man, Donna Tullia. Do you know it? But for you I would have wooed death as a comforter. As it is, I have struggled desperately to keep my grasp upon life, in the hope of once more seeing your smile and hearing your happy laugh; perhaps—I dare not expect it—I may receive from you some slight word of sympathy, some little half-sighed hint that you do not altogether regret having been in these long weeks the unconscious comforter of my sorrowing spirit and tormented body. You would hardly know me, could you see me; but saving for your sweet spiritual presence, which has rescued me from the jaws of death, you would never have seen me again. Is it presumption in me to write thus? Have you ever given me a right to speak in these words? I do not know. I do not care. Man has a right to be grateful. It is the first and most divine right I possess, to feel and to express my gratitude. For out of the store of your kindness shown me when I was in the world, strong and happy in the privilege of your society, I have drawn healing medicine in my sickness, as tormented souls in purgatory get refreshment from the prayers of good and kind people who remember them on earth. So, therefore, if I have said too much, forgive me, forgive the heartfelt gratitude which prompts me; and believe still in the respectful and undying devotion of the humblest of your servants, UGO DEL FERICE."
Del Ferice read over what he had written with considerable satisfaction, and having addressed his letter to Donna Tullia, he lost no time in despatching Temistocle with it, instructing him to ask if there would be an answer. As soon as the man was out of the house, Ugo rang for his landlady, and sent for the porter's little boy, to whom he delivered the letter to Don Giovanni, to be dropped into the nearest post-box. Then he lay down, exhausted with his morning's work. In the course of two hours Temistocle returned from Donna Tullia's house with a little scented note—too much scented, and the paper just a shade too small. She took no notice of what he had said in his carefully penned epistle; but merely told him she was sincerely glad that he was better, and asked him to call as soon as he could. Ugo was not disappointed; he had expected no compromising expression of interest in response to his own effusions; and he was well pleased with the invitation, for it showed that what he had written had produced the desired result.
Don Giovanni Saracinesca received the anonymous note late in the evening. He had, of course, together with his father, deposited cards of condolence at the Palazzo Astrardente, and he had been alone to inquire if the Duchessa would receive him. The porter had answered that, for the present, there were standing orders to admit no one; and as Giovanni could boast of no especial intimacy, and had no valid excuse to give, he was obliged to be satisfied. He had patiently waited in the Villa Borghese and by the band-stand on the Pincio, taking it for granted that sooner or later Corona's carriage would appear; but when at last he had seen her brougham, she had driven rapidly past him, thickly veiled, and he did not think she had even noticed him. He would have written to her, but he was still unable to hold a pen; and he reflected that, after all, it would have been a hideous farce for him to offer condolences and sympathy, however much he might desire to hide from himself his secret satisfaction at her husband's death. Too proud to think of obtaining information through such base channels as Del Ferice was willing to use, he was wholly ignorant of Corona's intentions; and it was a brilliant proof of Ugo's astuteness that he had rightly judged Giovanni's position with regard to her, and justly estimated the value of the news conveyed by his anonymous note.
Saracinesca read the scrap of writing, and tossed it angrily into the fire. He hated underhand dealings, and scorned himself for the interest the note excited in him, wondering who could find advantage in informing him of the Duchessa's movements. But the note took effect, nevertheless, although he was ashamed of it, and all night he pondered upon what it told him. The next day, at three o'clock, he went out alone, and walked rapidly towards the Palazzo Astrardente. He was unable to bear the suspense any longer; the thought that Corona was going away, apparently to shut herself up in the solitude of the ancient fortress, for any unknown number of months, and that he might not see her until the autumn, was intolerable. He knew that by the mere use of his name he could at least make sure that she should know he was at her door, and he determined to make the attempt. He waited a long time, pacing slowly the broad flagstones beneath the arch of the palace, while the porter himself went up with his card and message. The fellow had hesitated, but Don Giovanni Saracinesca was not a man to be refused by a servant. At last the porter returned, and, bowing to the ground, said that the Signora Duchessa would receive him.
In five minutes he was waiting alone in the great drawing-room. It had cost Corona a struggle to allow him to be admitted. She hesitated long, for it seemed like a positive wrong to her husband's memory, but the woman in her yielded at last; she was going away on the following morning, and she could not refuse to see him for once. She hesitated again as she laid her hand upon the latch of the door, knowing that he was in the room beyond; then at last she entered.
Her face was very pale and very grave. Her simple gown of close-fitting black set off her height and figure, and flowed softly in harmony with her stately movements as she advanced towards Giovanni, who stood almost awestruck in the middle of the room. He could not realise that this dark sad princess was the same woman to whom less than a month ago he had spoken such passionate words, whom he had madly tried to take into his arms. Proud as he was, it seemed presumptuous in him to think of love in connection with so royal a woman; and yet he knew that he loved her better and more truly than he had done a month before. She held out her hand to him, and he raised it to his lips. Then they both sat down in silence.
"I had despaired of ever seeing you again," said Giovanni at last, speaking in a subdued voice. "I had wished for some opportunity of telling you how sincerely I sympathise with you in your great loss." It was a very formal speech, such as men make in such situations. It might have been better, but he was not eloquent; even his rough old father had a better command of language on ordinary occasions, though Giovanni could speak well enough when he was roused. But he felt constrained in the presence of the woman he adored. Corona herself hardly knew how to answer.
"You are very kind," she said, simply.
"I wish it were possible to be of any service to you," he answered. "I need not tell you that both my father and myself would hold it an honour to assist you in any way." He mentioned his father from a feeling of delicacy; he did not wish to put himself forward.
"You are very kind," repeated Corona, gravely. "I have not had any annoyance. I have an excellent man of business."
There was a moment's pause. Then she seemed to understand that he was embarrassed, and spoke again.
"I am glad to see that you are recovered," she said.
"It was nothing," answered Giovanni, with a glance at his right arm, which was still confined in a bandage of black silk, but was no longer in a sling.
"It was very wrong of you," returned Corona, looking seriously into his eyes. "I do not know why you fought, but it was wrong; it is a great sin."
Giovanni smiled a little.
"We all have to sin sometimes," he said. "Would you have me stand quietly and see an abominable piece of baseness, and not lift a hand to punish the offender?"
"People who do base things always come to a bad end," answered the Duchessa.
"Perhaps. But we poor sinners are impatient to see justice done at once. I am sorry to have done anything you consider wrong," he added, with a shade of bitterness. "Will you permit me to change the subject? Are you thinking of remaining in Rome, or do you mean to go away?"
"I am going up to Astrardente to-morrow," answered Corona, readily. "I want to be alone and in the country."
Giovanni showed no surprise: his anonymous information had been accurate; Del Ferice had not parted with the grey trousers in vain.
"I suppose you are right," he said. "But at this time of year I should think the mountains would be very cold."
"The castle is comfortable. It has been recently fitted up, and there are many warm rooms in it. I am fond of the old place, and I need to be alone for a long time."
Giovanni thought the conversation was becoming oppressive. He thought of what had passed between them at their last meeting in the conservatory of the Palazzo Frangipani.
"I shall myself pass the summer in Saracinesca," he said, suddenly. "You know it is not very far. May I hope that I may sometimes be permitted to see you?"
Corona had certainly had no thought of seeing Giovanni when she had determined to go to Astrardente; she had not been there often, and had not realised that it was within reach of the Saracinesca estate. She started slightly.
"Is it so near?" she asked.
"Half a day's ride over the hills," replied Giovanni.
"I did not know. Of course, if you come, you will not be denied hospitality."
"But you would rather not see me?" asked Saracinesca, in a tone of disappointment. He had hoped for something more encouraging. Corona answered courageously.
"I would rather not see you. Do not think me unkind," she added, her voice softening a little. "Why need there be any explanations? Do not try to see me. I wish you well; I wish you more—all happiness—but do not try to see me."
Giovanni's face grew grave and pale. He was disappointed, even humiliated; but something told him that it was not coldness which prompted her request.
"Your commands are my laws," he answered.
"I would rather that instead of regarding what I ask you as a command, you should feel that it ought to be the natural prompting of your own heart," replied Corona, somewhat coldly.
"Forgive me if my heart dictates what my obedience to you must effectually forbid," said Giovanni. "I beseech you to be satisfied that what you ask I will perform—blindly."
"Not blindly—you know all my reasons."
"There is that between you and me which annihilates reason," answered Giovanni, his voice trembling a little.
"There is that in my position which should command your respect," said Corona. She feared he was going too far, and yet this time she knew she had not said too much, and that in bidding him avoid her, she was only doing what was strictly necessary for her peace. "I am a widow," she continued, very gravely; "I am a woman, and I am alone. My only protection lies in the courtesy I have a right to expect from men like you. You have expressed your sympathy; show it then by cheerfully fulfilling my request. I do not speak in riddles, but very plainly. You recall to me a moment of great pain, and your presence, the mere fact of my receiving you, seems a disloyalty to the memory of my husband. I have given you no reason to believe that I ever took a greater interest in you than such as I might take in a friend. I hourly pray that this—this too great interest you show in me, may pass quickly, and leave you what you were before. You see I do not speak darkly, and I do not mean to speak unkindly. Do not answer me, I beseech you, but take this as my last word. Forget me if you can—"
"I cannot," said Giovanni, deeply moved.
"Try. If you cannot, God help you! but I am sure that if you try faithfully, you will succeed. And now you must go," she said, in gentler tones. "You should not have come—I should not have let you see me. But it is best so. I am grateful for the sympathy you have expressed. I do not doubt that you will do as I have asked you, and as you have promised. Good-bye."
Corona rose to her feet, her hands folded before her. Giovanni had no choice. She let her eyes rest upon him, not unkindly, but she did not extend her hand. He stood one moment in hesitation, then bowed and left the room without a word. Corona stood still, and her eyes followed his retreating figure until at the door he turned once more and bent his head and then was gone. Then she fell back into her chair and gazed listlessly at the wall opposite.
"It is done," she said at last. "I hope it is well done and wisely." Indeed it had been a hard thing to say; but it was better to say it at once than to regret an ill-timed indulgence when it should be too late. And yet it had cost her less to send him away definitely than it had cost her to resist his passionate appeal a month ago. She seemed to have gained strength from her sorrows. So he was gone! She gave a sigh of relief, which was instantly followed by a sharp throb of pain, so sudden that she hardly understood it.
Her preparations were all made. She had at the last moment realised that it was not fitting for her, at her age, to travel alone, nor to live wholly alone in her widowhood. She had revolved the matter in her mind, and had decided that there was no woman of her acquaintance whom she could ask even for a short time to stay with her. She had no friends, no relations, none to turn to in such a need. It was not that she cared for company in her solitude; it was merely a question of propriety. To overcome the difficulty, she obtained permission to take with her one of the sisters of a charitable order of nuns, a lady in middle life, but broken down and in ill health from her untiring labours. The thing was easily managed; and the next morning, on leaving the palace, she stopped at the gate of the community and found Sister Gabrielle waiting with her modest box. The nun entered the huge travelling carriage, and the two ladies set out for Astrardente.
It was the first day of Carnival, and a memorably sad one for Giovanni Saracinesca. He would have been capable of leaving Rome at once, but that he had promised Corona not to attempt to see her. He would have gone to Saracinesca for the mere sake of being nearer to her, had he not reflected that he would be encouraging all manner of gossip by so doing. But he determined that so soon as Lent began, he would declare his intention of leaving the city for a year. No one ever went to Saracinesca, and by making a circuit he could reach the ancestral castle without creating suspicion. He might even go to Paris for a few days, and have it supposed that he was wandering about Europe, for he could trust his own servants implicitly; they were not of the type who would drink wine at a tavern with Temistocle or any of his class.
The old Prince came into his son's room in the morning and found him disconsolately looking over his guns, for the sake of an occupation.
"Well, Giovanni," he said, "you have time to reflect upon your future conduct. What! are you going upon a shooting expedition?"
"I wish I could. I wish I could find anything to do," answered Giovanni, laying down the breech-loader and looking out of the window. "The world is turned inside out like a beggar's pocket, and there is nothing in it."
"So the Astrardente is gone," remarked the Prince.
"Yes; gone to live within twenty miles of Saracinesca," replied Giovanni, with an angry intonation.
"Do not go there yet," said his father. "Leave her alone a while. Women become frantic in solitude."
"Do you think I am an idiot?" exclaimed Giovanni. "Of course I shall stay where I am till Carnival is over." He was not in a good humour.
"Why are you so petulant?" retorted the old man. "I merely gave you my advice."
"Well, I am going to follow it. It is good. When Carnival is over I will go away, and perhaps get to Saracinesca by a roundabout way, so that no one will know where I am. Will you not come too?"
"I daresay," answered the Prince, who was always pleased when his son expressed a desire for his company. "I wish we lived in the good old times."
"We would make small scruple of besieging Astrardente and carrying off the Duchessa for you, my boy," said the Prince, grimly.
Giovanni laughed. Perhaps the same idea had crossed his mind. He was not quite sure whether it was respectful to Corona to think of carrying her off in the way his father suggested; but there was a curious flavour of possibility in the suggestion, coming as it did from a man whose grandfather might have done such a thing, and whose great-grandfather was said to have done it. So strong are the instincts of barbaric domination in races where the traditions of violence exist in an unbroken chain, that both father and son smiled at the idea as if it were quite natural, although Giovanni had only the previous day promised that he would not even attempt to see Corona d'Astrardente without her permission. He did not tell his father of his promise, however, for his more delicate instinct made him sure that though he had acted rightly, his father would laugh at his scruples, and tell him that women liked to be wooed roughly.
Meanwhile Giovanni felt that Rome had become for him a vast solitude, and the smile soon faded from his face at the thought that he must go out into the world, and for Corona's sake act as though nothing had happened.
Poor Madame Mayer was in great anxiety of mind. She had not a great amount of pride, but she made up for it by a plentiful endowment of vanity, in which she suffered acutely. She was a good-natured woman enough, and by nature she was not vindictive; but she could not help being jealous, for she was in love. She felt how Giovanni every day evidently cared less and less for her society, and how, on the other hand, Del Ferice was quietly assuring his position, so that people already began to whisper that he had a chance of becoming her husband. She did not dislike Del Ferice; he was a convenient man of the world, whom she always found ready to help her when she needed help. But by dint of making use of him, she was beginning to feel in some way bound to consider him as an element in her life, and she did not like the position. The letter he had written her was of the kind a man might write to the woman he loved; it bordered upon the familiar, even while the writer expressed himself in terms of exaggerated respect. Perhaps if Del Ferice had been well, she would have simply taken no notice of what he had written, and would not even have sent an answer; but she had not the heart to repulse him altogether in his present condition. There was a phrase cunningly introduced and ambiguously worded, which seemed to mean that he had come by his wound in her cause. He spoke of having suffered and of still suffering so much for her,—did he mean to refer to pain of body or of mind? It was not certain. Don Giovanni had assured her that she was in no way concerned in the duel, and he was well known for his honesty; nevertheless, out of delicacy, he might have desired to conceal the truth from her. It seemed like him. She longed for an opportunity of talking with him and eliciting some explanation of his conduct. There had been a time when he used to visit her, and always spent some time in her society when they met in the world—now, on the contrary, he seemed to avoid her whenever he could; and in proportion as she noticed that his manner cooled, her own jealousy against Corona d'Astrardente increased in force, until at last it seemed to absorb her love for Giovanni into itself and turn it into hate.
Love is a passion which, like certain powerful drugs, acts differently upon each different constitution of temper; love also acts more strongly when it is unreturned or thwarted than when it is mutual and uneventful. If two persons love each other truly, and there is no obstacle to their union, it is probable that, without any violent emotion, their love will grow and become stronger by imperceptible degrees, without changing in its natural quality; but if thwarted by untoward circumstances, the passion, if true, attains suddenly to the dimensions which it would otherwise need years to reach. It sometimes happens that the nature in which this unforeseen and abnormal development takes place is unable to bear the precocious growth; then, losing sight of its identity in the strange inward confusion of heart and mind which ensues, it is driven to madness, and, breaking every barrier, either attains its object at a single bound, or is shivered and ruined in dashing itself against the impenetrable wall of complete impossibility. But again, in the last case, when love is wholly unreturned, it dies a natural death of atrophy, when it has existed in a person of common and average nature; or if the man or woman so afflicted be proud and of noble instincts, the passion becomes a kind of religion to the heart—sacred, and worthy to be guarded from the eyes of the world; or, finally, again, where it finds vanity the dominant characteristic of the being in whom it has grown, it draws a poisonous life from the unhealthy soil on which it is fed, and the tender seed of love shoots and puts forth evil leaves and blossoms, and grows to be a most venomous tree, which is the tree of hatred.
Donna Tullia was certainly a woman who belonged to the latter class of individuals. She had qualities which were perhaps good because not bad; but the mainspring of her being was an inordinate vanity; and it was in this characteristic that she was most deeply wounded, as she found herself gradually abandoned by Giovanni Saracinesca. She had been in the habit of thinking of him as a probable husband; the popular talk had fostered the idea, and occasional hints, aad smiling questions concerning him, had made her feel that he could not long hang back. She had been in the habit of treating him familiarly; and he, tutored by his father to the belief that she was the best match for him, and reluctantly yielding to the force of circumstances, which seemed driving him into matrimony, had suffered himself to be ordered about and made use of with an indifference which, in Madame Mayer's eyes, had passed for consent. She had watched with growing fear and jealousy his devotion to the Astrardente, which all the world had noticed; and at last her anger had broken out at the affront she had received at the Frangipani ball. But even then she loved Giovanni in her own vain way. It was not till Corona was suddenly left a widow, that Donna Tullia began to realise the hopelessness of her position; and when she found how determinately Saracinesca avoided her wherever they met, the affection she had hitherto felt for him turned into a bitter hatred, stronger even than her jealousy against the Duchessa. There was no scene of explanation between them, no words passed, no dramatic situation, such as Donna Tullia loved; the change came in a few days, and was complete. She had not even the satisfaction of receiving some share of the attention Giovanni would have bestowed upon Corona if she had been in town. Not only had he grown utterly indifferent to her; he openly avoided her, and thereby inflicted upon her vanity the cruellest wound she was capable of feeling.
With Donna Tullia to hate was to injure, to long for revenge—not of the kind which is enjoyed in secret, and known only to the person who suffers and the person who causes the suffering. She did not care for that so much as she desired some brilliant triumph over her enemies before the world; some startling instance of poetic justice, which should at one blow do a mortal injury to Corona d'Astrardente, and bring Giovanni Saracinesca to her own feet by force, repentant and crushed, to be dealt with as she saw fit, according to his misdeeds. But she had chosen her adversaries ill, and her heart misgave her. She had no hold upon them, for they were very strong people, very powerful, and very much respected by their fellows. It was not easy to bring them into trouble; it seemed impossible to humiliate them as she wished to do, and yet her hate was very strong. She waited and pondered, and in the meanwhile, when she met Giovanni, she began to treat him with haughty coldness. But Giovanni smiled, and seemed well satisfied that she should at last give over what was to him very like a persecution. Her anger grew hotter from its very impotence. The world saw it, and laughed.
The days of Carnival came and passed, much as they usually pass, in a whirl of gaiety. Giovanni went everywhere, and showed his grave face; but he talked little, and of course every one said he was melancholy at the departure of the Duchessa. Nevertheless he kept up an appearance of interest in what was done, and as nobody cared to risk asking him questions, people left him in peace. The hurrying crowd of social life filled up the place occupied by old Astrardente and the beautiful Duchessa, and they were soon forgotten, for they had not had many intimate friends.
On the last night of Carnival, Del Ferice appeared once more. He had not been able to resist the temptation of getting one glimpse of the world he loved, before the wet blanket of Lent extinguished the lights of the ballrooms and the jollity of the dancers. Every one was surprised to see him, and most people were pleased; he was such a useful man, that he had often been missed during the time of his illness. He was improved in appearance; for though he was very pale, he had grown also extremely thin, and his features had gained delicacy.
When Giovanni saw him, he went up to him, and the two men exchanged a formal salutation, while every one stood still for a moment to see the meeting. It was over in a moment, and society gave a little sigh of relief, as though a weight were removed from its mind. Then Del Ferice went to Donna Tullia's side. They were soon alone upon a small sofa in a small room, whither a couple strayed now and then to remain a few minutes before returning to the ball. A few people passed through, but for more than an hour they were not disturbed.
"I am very glad to see you," said Donna Tullia; "but I had hoped that the first time you went out you would have come to my house."
"This is the first time I have been out—you see I should not have found you at home, since I have found you here."
"Are you entirely recovered? You still look ill."
"I am a little weak—but an hour with you will do me more good than all the doctors in the world."
"Thanks," said Donna Tullia, with a little laugh. "It was strange to see you shaking hands with Giovanni Saracinesca just now. I suppose men have to do that sort of thing."
"You may be sure I would not have done it unless it had been necessary," returned Del Ferice, bitterly.
"I should think not. What an arrogant man he is!"
"You no longer like him?" asked Del Fence, innocently.
"Like him! No; I never liked him," replied Donna Tullia, quickly.
"Oh, I thought you did; I used to wonder at it." Ugo grew thoughtful.
"I was always good to him," said Donna Tullia. "But of course I can never forgive him for what he did at the Frangipani ball."
"No; nor I," answered Del Ferice, readily. "I shall always hate him for that too."
"I do not say that I exactly hate him."
"You have every reason. It appears to me that since my illness we have another idea in common, another bond of sympathy." Del Ferice spoke almost tenderly; but he laughed immediately afterwards, as though not wishing his words to be interpreted too seriously. Donna Tullia smiled too; she was inclined to be very kind to him.
"You are very quick to jump at conclusions," she said, playing with her red fan and looking down.
"It is always easy to reach that pleasant conclusion—that you and I are in sympathy," he answered, with a tender glance, "even in regard to hating the same person. The bond would be close indeed, if it depended on the opposite of hate. And yet I sometimes think it does. Are you not the best friend I have in the world?"
"I do not know,—I am a good friend to you," she answered.
"Indeed you are; but do you not think it would be possible to cement our friendship even more closely yet?"
Donna Tullia looked up sharply; she had no idea of allowing him to propose to marry her. His face, however, was grave—unlike his usual expression when he meant to be tender, and which she knew very well.
"I do not know," she said, with a light laugh. "How do you mean?"
"If I could do you some great service—if I could by any means satisfy what is now your chief desire in life—would not that help to cement our friendship, as I said?"
"Perhaps," she answered, thoughtfully. "But then you do not know—you cannot guess even—what I most wish at this moment."
"I think I could," said Del Ferice, fixing his eyes upon her. "I am sure I could, but I will not. I should risk offending you."
"No; I will not be angry. You may guess if you please." Donna Tullia in her turn looked, fixedly at her companion. They seemed trying to read each other's thoughts.
"Very well," said Ugo at last, "I will tell you. You would like to see the Astrardente dead and Giovanni Saracinesca profoundly humiliated."
Donna Tullia started. But indeed there was nothing strange in her companion's knowledge of her feelings. Many people, being asked what she felt, would very likely have said the same, for the world had seen her discomfiture and had laughed at it.
"You are a very singular man," she said, uneasily.
"In other words," replied Del Ferice, calmly, "I am perfectly right in my surmises. I see it in your face. Of course," he added, with a laugh, "it is mere jest. But the thing is quite possible. If I fulfilled your desire of just and poetic vengeance, what would you give me?"
Donna Tullia laughed in her turn, to conceal the extreme interest she felt in what he said.
"Whatever you like," she said. But even while the laugh was on her lips her eyes sought his uneasily.
"Would you marry me, for instance, as the enchanted princess in the fairy story marries the prince who frees her from the spell?" He seemed immensely amused at the idea.
"Why not?" she laughed.
"It would be the only just recompense," he answered. "See how impossible the thing appears. And yet a few pounds of dynamite would blow up the Great Pyramid. Giovanni Saracinesca is not so strong as he looks."
"Oh, I would not have him hurt!" exclaimed Donna Tullia in alarm.
"I do not mean physically, nor morally, but socially."
"That is my secret," returned Del Ferice, quietly.
"It sounds as though you were pretending to know more than you really do," she answered.
"No; it is the plain truth," said Del Ferice, quietly. "If you were in earnest I might be willing to tell you what the secret is, but for a mere jest I cannot. It is far too serious a matter."
His tone convinced Donna Tullia that he really possessed some weapon which he could use against Don Giovanni if he pleased. She wondered only why, if it were true, he did not use it, seeing that he must hate Saracinesca with all his heart. Del Ferice knew so much about people, so many strange and forgotten stories, he had so accurate a memory and so acute an intelligence, that it was by no means impossible that he was in possession of some secret connected with the Saracinesca. They were, or were thought to be, wild, unruly men, both father and son; there were endless stories about them both; and there was nothing more likely than that, in his numerous absences from home, Giovanni had at one time or another figured in some romantic affair, which he would be sorry to have had generally known. Del Ferice was wise enough to keep his own counsel; but now that his hatred was thoroughly roused, he might very likely make use of the knowledge he possessed. Donna Tullia's curiosity was excited to its highest pitch, and at the same time she had pleasant visions of the possible humiliation of the man by whom she felt herself so ill-used. It would be worth while making the sacrifice in order to learn Del Fence's secret.
"This need not be a mere jest," she said, after a moment's silence.
"That is as you please," returned Del Ferice, seriously. "If you are willing to do your part, you may be sure that I will do mine."
"You cannot think I really meant what I said just now," replied Donna Tullia. "It would be madness."
"Why? Am I halt, am I lame, am I blind? Am I repulsively ugly? Am I a pauper, that I should care for your money? Have I not loved you—yes, loved you long and faithfully? Am I too old? Is there anything in the nature of things why I should not aspire to be your husband?"
It was strange. He spoke calmly, as though enumerating the advantages of a friend. Donna Tullia looked at him for a moment, and then laughed outright.
"No," she said; "all that is very true. You may aspire, as you call it. The question is, whether I shall aspire too. Of course, if we happened to agree in aspiring, we could be married to-morrow."
"Precisely," answered Del Ferice, perfectly unmoved. "I am not proposing to marry you. I am arguing the case. There is this in the case which is perhaps outside the argument—this, that I am devotedly attached to you. The case is the stronger for that. I was only trying to demonstrate that the idea of our being married is not so unutterably absurd. You laughingly said you would marry me if I could accomplish something which would please you very much. I laughed also; but now I seriously repeat my proposition, because I am convinced that although at first sight it may appear extremely humourous, on a closer inspection it will be found exceedingly practical. In union is strength."
Donna Tullia was silent for a moment, and her face grew grave. There was reason in what he said. She did not care for him—she had never thought of marrying him; but she recognised the justice of what he said. It was clear that a man of his social position, received everywhere and intimate with all her associates, might think of marrying her. He looked positively handsome since he was wounded; he was accomplished and intelligent; he had sufficient means of support to prevent him from being suspected of marrying solely for money, and he had calmly stated that he loved her. Perhaps he did. It was flattering to Donna Tullia's vanity to believe him, and his acts had certainly not belied his words. He was by far the most thoughtful of all her admirers, and he affected to treat her always with a certain respect which she had never succeeded in obtaining from Valdarno and the rest. A woman who likes to be noisy, but is conscious of being a little vulgar, is always flattered when a man behaves towards her with profound reverence. It will even sometimes cure her of her vulgarity. Donna Tullia reflected seriously upon what Del Ferice had said.
"I never had such a proposition made to me in my life," she said. "Of course you cannot think I regard it as a possible one, even now. You cannot think I am so base as to sell myself for the sake of revenging an insult once offered me. If I am to regard this as a proposal of marriage, I must decline it with thanks. If it is merely a proposition for an alliance, I think the terms of the treaty are unequal."
Del Ferice smiled.
"I knew you well enough to know what your answer would be," he said. "I never insulted you by dreaming that you would accept such a proposition. But as a subject for speculation it is very pleasant. It is delightful to me to think of being your husband; it is equally delightful to you to think of the humiliation of an enemy. I took the liberty of uniting the two thoughts in one dream—a dream of unspeakable bliss for myself."
Donna Tullia's gay humour returned.
"You have certainly amused me very well for a quarter of an hour with your dreams," she answered. "I wish you would tell me what you know of Don Giovanni. It must be very interesting if it can really seriously influence his life."
"I cannot tell you. The secret is too valuable."
"But if the thing you know has such power, why do you not use it yourself? You must hate him far more than I do."
"I doubt that," answered Del Ferice, with a cunning smile. "I do not use it, I do not choose to strike the blow, because I do not care enough for retribution merely on my own account. I do not pretend to generosity, but I am not interested enough in him to harm him, though I dislike him exceedingly. We had a temporary settlement of our difficulties the other day, and we were both wounded. Poor Casalverde lost his head and did a foolish thing, and that cold-blooded villain Spicca killed him in consequence. It seems to me that there has been enough blood spilled in our quarrel. I am prepared to leave him alone so far as I am concerned. But for you it would be different. I could do something worse than kill him if I chose."
"For me?" said Donna Tullia. "What would you do for me?" She smiled sweetly, willing to use all her persuasion to extract his secret.
"I could prevent Don Giovanni from marrying the Astrardente, as he intends to do," he answered, looking straight at his companion.
"How in the world could you do that?" she asked, in great surprise.
"That, my dear friend, is my secret, as I said before. I cannot reveal it to you at present."
"You are as dark as the Holy Office," said Donna Tullia, a little impatiently. "What possible harm could it do if you told me?"
"What possible good either?" asked Del Ferice, in reply. "You could not use it as I could. You would gain no advantage by knowing it. Of course," he added, with a laugh, "if we entered into the alliance we were jesting about, it would be different."
"You will not tell me unless I promise to marry you?"
"Frankly, no," he answered, still laughing.
It exasperated Donna Tullia beyond measure to feel that he was in possession of what she so coveted, and to feel that he was bargaining, half in earnest, for her life in exchange for his secret. She was almost tempted for one moment to assent, to say she would marry him, so great was her curiosity; it would be easy to break her promise, and laugh at him afterwards. But she was not a bad woman, as women of her class are considered. She had suffered a great disappointment, and her resentment was in proportion to her vanity. But she was not prepared to give a false promise for the sake of vengeance; she was only bad enough to imagine such bad faith possible.
"But you said you never seriously thought I could accept such an engagement," she objected, not knowing what to say.
"I did," replied Del Ferice. "I might have added that I never seriously contemplated parting with my secret."
"There is nothing to be got from you," said Donna Tullia, in a tone of disappointment. "I think that when you have nearly driven me mad with curiosity, you might really tell me something."
"Ah no, dear lady," answered her companion. "You may ask anything of me but that—anything. You may ask that too, if you will sign the treaty I propose."
"You will drive me into marrying you out of sheer curiosity," said Donna Tullia, with an impatient laugh.
"I wish that were possible. I wish I could see my way to telling you as it is, for the thing is so curious that it would have the most intense interest for you. But it is quite out of the question."
"You should never have told me anything about it," replied Madame Mayer.
"Well, I will think about it," said Del Ferice at last, as though suddenly resolving to make a sacrifice. "I will look over some papers I have, and I will think about it. I promise you that if I feel that I can conscientiously tell you something of the matter, you may be sure that I will."
Donna Tullia's manner changed again, from impatience to persuasion. The sudden hope he held out to her was delicious to contemplate. She could not realise that Del Ferice, having once thoroughly interested her, could play upon her moods as on the keys of an instrument. If she had been less anxious that the story he told should be true, she might have suspected that he was practising upon her credulity. But she seized the idea of obtaining some secret influence over the life of Giovanni, and it completely carried her away.
"You must tell me—I am sure you will," she said, letting her kindest glance rest upon her companion. "Come and dine with me,—do you fast? No—nor I. Come on Friday—will you?"
"I shall be delighted," answered Del Ferice, with a quiet smile of triumph.
"I will have the old lady, of course, so you cannot tell me at dinner; but she will go to sleep soon afterwards—she always does. Come at seven. Besides, she is deaf, you know."
The old lady in question was the aged Countess whom Donna Tullia affected as a companion in her solitary magnificence.
"And now, will you take me back to the ball-room? I have an idea that a partner is looking for me."
Del Ferice left her dancing, and went home in his little coupe. He was desperately fatigued, for he was still very weak, and he feared lest his imprudence in going out so soon might bring on a relapse from his convalescence. Nevertheless, before he went to bed he dismissed Temistocle, and opened a shabby-looking black box which stood upon his writing-table. It was bound with iron, and was fastened by a patent lock which had frequently defied Temistocle's ingenuity. Prom this repository he took a great number of papers, which were all neatly filed away and marked in the owner's small and ornamented handwriting. Beneath many packages of letters he found what he sought for, a long envelope containing several folded documents.
He spread out the papers and read them carefully over.
"It is a very singular thing," he said to himself; "but there can be no doubt about it. There it is."
He folded the papers again, returned them to their envelope, and replaced the latter deep among the letters in his box. He then locked it, attached the key to a chain he wore about his neck, and went to bed, worn out with fatigue.
Del Ferice had purposely excited Donna Tullia's curiosity, and he meant before long to tell more than he had vouchsafed in his first confidence. But he himself trembled before the magnitude of what he had suddenly thought of doing, for the fear of Giovanni was in his heart. The temptation to boast to Donna Tullia that he had the means of preventing Giovanni from marrying was too strong; but when it had come to telling her what those means were, prudence had restrained him. He desired that if the scheme were put into execution it might be by some one else; for, extraordinary as it was, he was not absolutely certain of its success. He was not sure of Donna Tullia's discretion, either, until by a judicious withholding of the secret he had given her a sufficient idea of its importance. But on mature reflection he came to the conclusion that, even if she possessed the information he was able to give, she would not dare to mention it, nor even to hint at it.
The grey light of Ash-Wednesday morning broke over Rome, and stole through the windows of Giovanni Saracinesca's bedroom. Giovanni had not slept much, but his restlessness was due rather to his gladness at having performed the last of his social duties than to any disturbance of mind. All night he lay planning what he should do,—how he might reach his place in the mountains by a circuitous route, leaving the general impression that he was abroad—and how, when at last he had got to Saracinesca unobserved, he would revel in the solitude and in the thought of being within half a day's journey of Corona d'Astrardente. He was willing to take a great deal of trouble, for he did not wish people to know his whereabouts; he would not have it said that he had gone into the country to be near Corona and to see her every day, as would certainly be said if his real movements were discovered. Accordingly, he fulfilled his programme to the letter. He left Rome on the afternoon of Ash-Wednesday for Florence; there he visited several acquaintances who, he knew, would write to their friends in Rome of his appearance; from Florence he went to Paris, and gave out that he was going upon a shooting expedition in the Arctic regions, as soon as the weather was warm enough. As he was well known for a sportsman and a traveller, this statement created no suspicion; and when he finally left Paris, the newspapers and the gossips all said he had gone to Copenhagen on his way to the far north. In due time the statement reached Rome, and it was supposed that society had lost sight of Giovanni Saracinesca for at least eight months. It was thought that he had acted with great delicacy in absenting himself; he would thus allow the first months of Corona's mourning to pass before formally presenting himself to society as her suitor. Considering the peculiar circumstances of the case, there would be nothing improper, from a social point of view, in his marrying Corona at the expiration of a year after her husband's death. Of course he would marry her; there was no doubt of that—he had been in love with her so long, and now she was both free and rich. No one suspected that Giovanni, instead of being in Scandinavia, was quietly established at Saracinesca, a day's journey from Rome, busying himself with the management of the estate, and momentarily satisfied in feeling himself so near the woman he loved.
Donna Tullia could hardly wait until the day when Del Ferice was coming to dinner: she was several times on the point of writing a note to ask him to come at once. But she wisely refrained, guessing that the more she pressed him the more difficulties he would make. At last he came, looking pale and worn—interesting, as Donna Tullia would have expressed it. The old Countess talked a great deal during dinner; but as she was too deaf to hear more than a quarter of what was said by the others, the conversation was not interesting. When the meal was over, she established herself in a comfortable chair in the little sitting-room, and took a book. After a few minutes, Donna Tullia suggested to Del Ferice that they should go into the drawing-room. She had received some new waltz-music from Vienna which she wanted to look over, and Ugo might help her. She was not a musician, but was fond of a cheerful noise, and played upon the piano with the average skill of a well-educated young woman of the world. Of course the doors were left open between the drawing-room and the boudoir, where the Countess dozed over her book and presently fell asleep.
Donna Tullia sat at the grand piano, and made Del Ferice sit beside her. She struck a few chords, and played a fragment of dance-music.
"Of course you have heard that Don Giovanni is gone?" she asked, carelessly. "I suppose he is gone to Saracinesca; they say there is a very good road between that and Astrardente."
"I should think he would have more decency than to pursue the Duchessa in the first month of her mourning," answered Del Ferice, resting one arm upon the piano, and supporting his pale face with his hand as he watched Donna Tullia's fingers move upon the keys.
"Why? He does not care what people say—why should he? He will marry her when the year is out. Why should he care?"
"He can never marry her unless I choose to allow it," said Del Ferice, quietly.
"So you told me the other night," returned Donna Tullia. "But you will allow him, of course. Besides, you could not stop it, after all. I do not believe that you could." She leaned far back in her chair, her hands resting upon the keys without striking them, and she looked at Del Ferice with a sweet smile. There was a moment's pause.
"I have decided to tell you something," he said at last, "upon one condition."
"Why make conditions?" asked Donna Tullia, trying to conceal her excitement.
"Only one, that of secrecy. Will you promise never to mention what I am going to tell you without previously consulting me? I do not mean a common promise; I mean it to be an oath." He spoke very earnestly. "This is a very serious matter. We are playing with fire and with life and death. You must give me some guarantee that you will be secret."
His manner impressed Donna Tullia; she had never seen him so much in earnest in her life.
"I will promise in any way you please," she said.
"Then say this," he answered. "Say, 'I swear and solemnly bind myself that I will faithfully keep the secret about to be committed to me; and that if I fail to keep it I will atone by immediately marrying Ugo del Ferice—'"
"That is absurd!" cried Donna Tullia, starting back from him. He did not heed her.
"'And I take to witness of this oath the blessed memory of my mother, the hope of the salvation of my soul, and this relic of the True Cross.'" He pointed to the locket she wore at her neck, which she had often told him contained the relic he mentioned.
"It is impossible!" she cried again. "I cannot swear so solemnly about such a matter. I cannot promise to marry you."
"Then it is because you cannot promise to keep my secret," he answered calmly. He knew her very well, and he believed that she would not break such an oath as he had dictated, under any circumstances. He did not choose to risk anything by her indiscretion. Donna Tullia hesitated, seeing that he was firm. She was tortured with curiosity beyond all endurance.
"I am only promising to marry you in case I reveal the secret?" she asked. He bowed assent. "So that I am really only promising to be silent? Well, I cannot understand why it should be solemn; but if you wish it so, I will do it. What are the words?"
He repeated them slowly, and she followed him. He watched her at every word, to be sure she overlooked nothing.
"I, Tullia Mayer, swear and solemnly bind myself that I will faithfully keep the secret about to be committed to me; and that if I fail to keep it, I will atone by immediately marrying Ugo del Ferice"—her voice trembled nervously: "and I take to witness of this oath the blessed memory of my mother, the hope of the salvation of my soul, and this relic of the True Cross." At the last words she took the locket in her fingers.
"You understand that you have promised to marry me if you reveal my secret? You fully understand that?" asked Del Ferice.
"I understand it," she answered hurriedly, as though ashamed of what she had done. "And now, the secret," she added eagerly, feeling that she had undergone a certain humiliation for the sake of what she so much coveted.
"Don Giovanni cannot marry the Duchessa d'Astrardente, because"—he paused a moment to give full weight to his statement—"because Don Giovanni Saracinesca is married already."
"What!" cried Donna Tullia, starting from her chair in amazement at the astounding news.
"It is quite true," said Del Ferice, with a quiet smile. "Calm yourself; it is quite true. I know what you are thinking of—all Rome thought he was going to marry you."
Donna Tullia was overcome by the strangeness of the situation. She hid her face in her hands for a moment as she leaned forward over the piano. Then she suddenly looked up.
"What a hideous piece of villany!" she exclaimed, in a stifled voice. Then slowly recovering from the first shock of the intelligence, she looked at Del Ferice; she was almost as pale as he. "What proof have you?" she asked.
"I have the attested copy of the banns published by the priest who married them. That is evidence. Moreover, the real book of banns exists, and Giovanni's name is upon the parish register. I have also a copy of the certificate of the civil marriage, which is signed by Giovanni himself."
"Tell me more," said Donna Tullia, eagerly. "How did you find it?"
"It is very simple," answered Del Ferice. "You may go and see for yourself, if you do not mind making a short journey. Last summer I was wandering a little for my health's sake, as I often do, and I chanced to be in the town of Aquila—you know, the capital of Abruzzi. One day I happened to go into the sacristy of one of the parish churches to see some pictures which are hung there. There had been a marriage service performed, and as the sacristan moved about explaining the pictures, he laid his hand upon an open book which looked like a register of some kind. I idly asked him what it was, and he showed it to me; it was amusing to look at the names of the people, and I turned over the leaves curiously. Suddenly my attention was arrested by a name I knew—'Giovanni Saracinesca,' written clearly across the page, and below it, 'Felice Baldi,'—the woman he had married. The date of the marriage was the 19th of June 1863. You remember, perhaps, that in that summer, in fact during the whole of that year, Don Giovanni was supposed to be absent upon his famous shooting expedition in Canada, about which he talks so much. It appears, then, that two years ago, instead of being in America, he was living in Aquila, married to Felice Baldi—probably some pretty peasant girl. I started at the sight of the names. I got permission to have an attested copy of it made by a notary. I found the priest who had married them, but he could not remember the couple. The man, he said, was dark, he was sure; the woman, he thought, had been fair. He married so many people in a year. These were not natives of Aquila; they had apparently come there from the country—perhaps had met. The banns—yes, he had the book of banns; he had also the register of marriages from which he sometimes issued certified extracts. He was a good old man, and seemed ready to oblige me; but his memory was very defective. He allowed me to take notary's copies of the banns and the entry in the list, as well as of the register. Then I went to the office of the Stato Civile. You know that people do not sign the register in the church themselves; the names are written down by the priest. I wanted to see the signatures, and the book of civil marriages was shown to me. The handwriting was Giovanni's, I am sure—larger, and a little less firm, but distinguishable at a glance. I took the copies for curiosity, and never said anything about it, but I have kept them. That is the history. Do you see how serious a matter it is?"
"Indeed, yes," answered Donna Tullia, who had listened with intense interest to the story. "But what could have induced him to marry that woman?"
"One of those amiable eccentricities peculiar to his family," replied Del Ferice, shrugging his shoulders. "The interesting thing would be to discover what became of Felice Baldi—Donna Felice Saracinesca, as I suppose she has a right to be called."
"Let us find her—Giovanni's wife," exclaimed Donna Tullia, eagerly. "Where can she be?"
"Who knows?" ejaculated Del Ferice. "I would be curious to see her. The name of her native village is given, and the names of her parents. Giovanni described himself in the paper as 'of Naples, a landholder,' and omitted somehow the details of his parentage. Nothing could be more vague; everybody is a landholder, from the wretched peasant who cultivates one acre to their high-and-mightinesses the Princes of Saracinesca. Perhaps by going to the village mentioned some information might be obtained. He probably left her sufficiently provided for, and, departing on pretence of a day's journey, never returned. He is a perfectly unscrupulous man, and thinks no more of this mad scrape than of shooting a chamois in the Tyrol. He knows she can never find him—never guessed who he really was."
"Perhaps she is dead," suggested Donna Tullia, her face suddenly growing grave.
"Why? He would not have taken the trouble to kill her—a peasant girl in the Abruzzi! He would have had no difficulty in leaving her, and she is probably alive and well at the present moment, perhaps the mother of the future Prince Saracinesca—who can tell?"
"But do you not see," said Donna Tullia, "that unless you have proof that she is alive, we have no hold upon him? He may acknowledge the whole thing, and calmly inform us that she is dead."
"That is true; but even then he must show that she came to a natural end and was buried. Believe me, Giovanni would relinquish all intentions of marrying the Astrardente rather than have this scandalous story published."
"I would like to tax him with it in a point-blank question, and watch his face," said Donna Tullia, fiercely.
"Remember your oath," said Del Ferice. "But he is gone now. You will not meet him for some months."
"Tell me, how could you make use of this knowledge, if you really wanted to prevent his marriage with the Astrardente?"
"I would advise you to go to her and state the case. You need mention nobody. Any one who chooses may go to Aquila and examine the registers. I think that you could convey the information to her with as much command of language as would be necessary."
"I daresay I could," she answered, between her teeth. "What a strange chance it was that brought that register under your hand!"
"Heaven sends opportunities," said Del Ferice, devoutly; "it is for man to make good use of them. Who knows but what you may make a brilliant use of this?"
"I cannot, since I am bound by my promise," said Donna Tullia.
"No; I am sure you will not think of doing it. But then, we might perhaps agree that circumstances made it advisable to act. Many months must pass before he can think of offering himself to her. It will be time enough to consider the matter then—to consider whether we should be justified in raising such a terrible scandal, in causing so much unhappiness to an innocent woman like the Duchessa, and to a worthless man like Don Giovanni. Think what a disgrace it would be to the Saracinesca to have it made public that Giovanni was openly engaged to marry a great heiress while already secretly married to a peasant woman!"
"It would indeed be horrible," said Donna Tullia, with a disagreeable look in her blue eyes. "Perhaps we should not even think of it," she added, turning over the leaves of the music upon the piano. Then suddenly she added, "Do you know that you have put me in a dreadful position by exacting that promise from me?"
"No," said Del Ferice, quietly. "You wanted to hear the secret. You have heard it. You have nothing to do but to keep it to yourself."
"That is precisely—" She checked herself, and struck a loud chord upon the instrument. She had turned from Del Ferice, and could not see the smile upon his face, which flickered across the pale features and vanished instantly.
"Think no more about it," he said pleasantly. "It is so easy to forget such stories when one resolutely puts them out of one's mind."
Donna Tullia smiled bitterly, and was silent. She began playing from the sheet before her, with indifferent accuracy, but with more than sufficient energy. Del Ferice sat patiently by her side, turning over the leaves, and glancing from time to time at her face, which he really admired exceedingly. He belonged to the type of pale and somewhat phlegmatic men who frequently fall in love with women of sanguine complexion and robust appearance. Donna Tullia was a fine type of this class, and was called handsome, though she did not compare well with women of less pretension to beauty, but more delicacy and refinement. Del Ferice admired her greatly, however; and, as has been said, he admired her fortune even more. He saw himself gradually approaching the goal of his intentions, and as he neared the desired end he grew more and more cautious. He had played one of his strongest cards that night, and he was content to wait and let matters develop quietly, without any more pushing from him. The seed would grow, there was no fear of that, and his position was strong. He could wait quietly for the result.
At the end of half an hour he excused himself upon the plea that he was still only convalescent, and was unable to bear the fatigue of late hours. Donna Tullia did not press him to stay, for she wished to be alone; and when he was gone she sat long at the open piano, pondering upon what she had done, and even more upon what she had escaped doing. It was a hideous thought that if Giovanni, in all that long winter, had asked her to be his wife, she would readily have consented; it was fearful to think what her position would have been towards Del Ferice, who would have been able by a mere word to annul her marriage by proving the previous one at Aquila. People do not trifle with such accusations, and he certainly knew what he was doing; she would have been bound hand and foot. Or supposing that Del Ferice had died of the wound he received in the duel, and his papers had been ransacked by his heirs, whoever they might be—these attested documents would have become public property. What a narrow escape Giovanni had had! And she herself, too, how nearly had she been involved in his ruin! She liked to think that he had almost offered himself to her; it flattered her, although she now hated him so cordially. She could not help admiring Del Ferice's wonderful discretion in so long concealing a piece of scandal that would have shaken Roman society to its foundations, and she trembled when she thought what would happen if she herself were ever tempted to reveal what she had heard. Del Ferice was certainly a man of genius—so quiet, and yet possessing such weapons; there was some generosity about him too, or he would have revenged himself for his wound by destroying Giovanni's reputation. She considered whether she could have kept her counsel so well in his place. After all, as he had said, the moment for using the documents had not yet come, for hitherto Giovanni had never proposed to marry any one. Perhaps this secret wedding in Aquila explained his celibacy; Del Ferice had perhaps misjudged him in saying that he was unscrupulous; he had perhaps left his peasant wife, repenting of his folly, but it was perhaps on her account that he had never proposed to marry Donna Tullia; he had, then, only been amusing himself with Corona. That all seemed likely enough—so likely, that it heightened the certainty of Del Ferice's information.
A few days later, as Giovanni had intended, news began to reach Rome that he had been in Florence, and was actually in Paris; then it was said that he was going upon a shooting expedition somewhere in the far north during the summer. It was like him, and in accordance with his tastes. He hated the quiet receptions at the great houses during Lent, to which, if he remained in Rome, he was obliged to go. He naturally escaped when he could. But there was no escape for Donna Tullia, and after all she managed to extract some amusement from these gatherings. She was the acknowledged centre of the more noisy set, and wherever she went, people who wanted to be amused, and were willing to amuse each other, congregated around her. On one of these occasions she met old Saracinesca. He did not go out much since his son had left; but he seemed cheerful enough, and as he liked Madame Mayer, for some inscrutable reason, she rather liked him. Moreover, her interest in Giovanni, though now the very reverse of affectionate, made her anxious to know something of his movements.
"You must be lonely since Don Giovanni has gone upon his travels again," she said.
"That is the reason I go out," said the Prince. "It is not very gay, but it is better than nothing. It suggests cold meat served up after the dessert; but when people are hungry, the order of their food is not of much importance."
"Is there any news, Prince? I want to be amused."
"News? No. The world is at peace, and consequently given over to sin, as it mostly is when it is resting from a fit of violence."