"You seem to be inclined to moralities this evening," said Donna Tullia, smiling, and gently swaying the red fan she always carried.
"Am I? Then I am growing old, I suppose. It is the privilege of old age to censure in others what it is no longer young enough to praise in itself. It is a bad thing to grow old, but it makes people good, or makes them think they are, which in their own eyes is precisely the same thing."
"How delightfully cynical!"
"Doggish?" inquired the Prince, with a laugh. "I have heard it said by scholars, that cynical means doggish in Greek. The fable of the dog in the horse's manger was invented to define the real cynic—the man who neither enjoys life himself nor will allow other people to enjoy it. I am not such a man. I hope you, for instance, will enjoy everything that comes in your way."
"Even the cold meat after the dessert which you spoke of just now?" asked Donna Tullia. "Thank you—I will try; perhaps you can help me."
"My son despised it," said Saracinesca. "He is gone in search of fresh pastures of sweets."
"Leaving you behind."
"Somebody once said that the wisest thing a son could do was to get rid of his father as soon as possible—"
"Then Don Giovanni is a wise man," returned Donna Tullia.
"Perhaps. However, he asked me to accompany him."
"Of course. Such expeditions are good enough for boys. I dislike Florence, I am not especially fond of Paris, and I detest the North Pole. I suppose you have seen from the papers that he is going in that direction? It is like him, he hankers after originality, I suppose. Being born in the south, he naturally goes to the extreme north."
"He will write you very interesting letters, I should think," remarked Donna Tullia. "Is he a good correspondent?"
"Remarkably, for he never gives one any trouble. He sends his address from time to time, and draws frequently on his banker. His letters are not so full of interest as might be thought, as they rarely extend over five lines; but on the other hand it does not take long to read them, which is a blessing."
"You seem to be an affectionate parent," said Donna Tullia, with a laugh.
"If you measure affection by the cost of postage-stamps, you have a right to be sarcastic. If you measure it in any other way, you are wrong. I could not help loving any one so like myself as my son. It would show a detestable lack of appreciation of my own gifts."
"I do not think Don Giovanni so very like you," said Donna Tullia, thoughtfully.
"Perhaps you do not know him so well as I do," remarked the Prince. "Where do you see the greatest difference?"
"I think you talk better, and I think you are more—not exactly more honest, perhaps, but more straightforward."
"I do not agree with you," said old Saracinesca, quickly. "There is no one alive who can say they ever knew Giovanni approach in the most innocent way to a distortion of truth. I daresay you have discovered, however, that he is reticent; he can hold his tongue; he is no chatterer, no parrot, my son."
"Indeed he is not," answered Donna Tullia, and the reply pacified the old man; but she herself was thinking what supreme reticence Giovanni had shown in the matter of his marriage, and she wondered whether the Prince had ever heard of it.
Anastase Gouache worked hard at the Cardinal's portrait, and at the same time did his best to satisfy Donna Tullia. The latter, indeed, was not easily pleased, and Gouache found it hard to instil into his representation of her the precise amount of poetry she required, without doing violence to his own artistic sense of fitness. But the other picture progressed rapidly. The Cardinal was a restless man, and after the first two or three sittings, desired nothing so much as to be done with them altogether. Anastase amused him, it is true, and the statesman soon perceived that he had made a conquest of the young man's mind, and that, as Giovanni Saracinesca had predicted, he had helped Gouache to come to a decision. He was not prepared, however, for the practical turn that decision immediately took, and he was just beginning to wish the sittings at an end when Anastase surprised him by a very startling announcement.
As usual, they were in the Cardinal's study; the statesman was silent and thoughtful, and Gouache was working with all his might.
"I have made up my mind," said the latter, suddenly.
"Concerning what, my friend?" inquired the great man, rather absently.
"Concerning everything, Eminence," answered Gouache "concerning politics, religion, life, death, and everything else which belongs to my career. I am going to enlist with the Zouaves."
The Cardinal looked at him for a moment, and then broke into a low laugh.
"Extremis malis extrema remedial!" he exclaimed.
"Precisely—aux grands maux les grands remedes, as we say. I am going to join the Church militant. I am convinced that it is the best thing an honest man can do. I like fighting, and I like the Church—therefore I will fight for the Church."
"Very good logic, indeed," answered the Cardinal. But he looked at Anastase, and marking his delicate features and light frame, he almost wondered how the lad would look in the garb of a soldier. "Very good logic; but, my dear Monsieur Gouache, what is to become of your art?"
"I shall not be mounting guard all day, and the Zouaves are allowed to live in their own lodgings. I will live in my studio, and paint when I am not mounting guard."
"And my portrait?" inquired Cardinal Antonelli, much amused.
"Your Eminence will doubtless be kind enough to manage that I may have liberty to finish it."
"You could not put off enlisting for a week, I suppose?"
Gouache looked annoyed; he hated the idea of waiting.
"I have taken too long to make up my mind already," he replied. "I must make the plunge at once. I am convinced—your Eminence has convinced me—that I have been very foolish."
"I certainly never intended to convince you of that," remarked the Cardinal, with a smile.
"Very foolish," repeated Gouache, not heeding the interruption. "I have talked great nonsense,—I scarcely know why—perhaps to try and find where the sense really lay. I have dreamed so many dreams, so long, that I sometimes think I am morbid. All artists are morbid, I suppose. It is better to do anything active than to lose one's self in the slums of a sickly imagination."
"I agree with you," answered the Cardinal; "but I do not think you suffered from a sickly imagination,—I should rather call it abundant than sickly. Frankly, I should be sorry to think that in following this new idea you were in any way injuring the great career which, I am sure, is before you; but, on the other hand, I cannot help wishing that a greater number of young men would follow your example."
"Your Eminence approves, then?"
"Do you think you will make a good soldier?"
"Other artists have been good soldiers. There was Cellini—"
"Benvenuto Cellini said he made a good soldier; he said it himself, but his reputation for veracity in other matters was doubtful, to say the least. If he did not shoot the Connetable de Bourbon, it is very certain that some one else did. Besides, a soldier in our times should be a very different kind of man from the self-armed citizen of the time of Clement the Ninth and the aforesaid Connetable. You will have to wear a uniform and sleep on boards in a guard-house; you will have to be up early to drill, and up late mounting guard, in wind and rain and cold. It is hard work; I do not believe you have the constitution for it. Nevertheless, the intention is good. You can try it, and if you fall ill I will see that you have no difficulty in returning to your artist life."
"I do not mean to give it up," replied Gouache, in a tone of conviction. "And as for my health, I am as strong as any one."
"Perhaps," said the Cardinal, doubtfully. "And when are you going to join the corps?"
"In about an hour," said Gouache, quietly.
And he kept his word. But he had told no one, save the Cardinal, of his intention; and for a day or two, though he passed many acquaintances in the street, no one recognised Anastase Gouache in the handsome young soldier with his grey Turco uniform, a red sash round his slender waist, and a small kepi set jauntily upon one side.
It was one of the phenomena of those times. Foreigners swarmed in Rome, and many of them joined the cosmopolitan corps—gentlemen, noblemen, artists, men of the learned professions, adventurers, duellists driven from their country in a temporary exile, enthusiasts, strolling Irishmen, men of all sorts and conditions. But, take them all in all, they were a fine set of fellows, who set no value whatever on their lives, and who, as a whole, fought for an idea, in the old crusading spirit. There were many who, like Gouache, joined solely from conviction; and there were few instances indeed of any who, having joined, deserted. It often happened that a stranger came to Rome for a mere visit, and at the end of a month surprised his friends by appearing in the grey uniform. You had met him the night before at a ball in the ordinary garb of civilisation, covered with cotillon favours, waltzing like a madman; the next morning he entered the Cafe de Rome in a braided jacket open at the throat, and told you he was a soldier—a private soldier, who touched his cap to every corporal of the French infantry, and was liable to be locked up for twenty-four hours if he was late to quarters.
Donna Tullia's portrait was not quite finished, and Gouache had asked for one or two more sittings. Three days after the artist had taken his great resolution, Madame Mayer and Del Ferice entered his studio. He had had no difficulty in being at liberty at the hour of the sitting, and had merely exchanged his jacket for an old painting-coat, not taking the trouble to divest himself of the remainder of his uniform.
"Where have you been all this time?" asked Donna Tullia, as she lifted the curtain and entered the studio. He had kept out of her way during the past few days.
"Good heavens, Gouache!" cried Del Ferice, starting back, as he caught sight of the artist's grey trousers and yellow gaiters. "What is the meaning of this comedy?"
"What?" asked Gouache, coolly. Then, glancing at his legs, he answered, "Oh, nothing. I have turned Zouave—that is all. Will you sit down, Donna Tullia? I was waiting for you."
"Turned Zouave!" exclaimed Madame Mayer and Del Ferice in a breath. "Turned Zouave!"
"Well?" said Gouache, raising his eyebrows and enjoying their surprise. "Well—why not?"
Del Ferice struck a fine attitude, and, laying one hand upon Donna Tullia's arm, whispered hoarsely in her ear—
"Siamo traditi—we are betrayed!" he said. Whereupon Donna Tullia turned a little pale.
"Betrayed!" she repeated, "and by Gouache!"
Gouache laughed, as he drew out the battered old carved chair on which Madame Mayer was accustomed to sit when he painted.
"Calm yourself, Madame," he said. "I have not the least intention of betraying you. I have made a counter-revolution—but I am perfectly frank. I will not tell of the ferocious deeds I have heard discussed."
Del Ferice scowled and drew back, partly acting, partly in earnest. It lay in his schemes to make Donna Tullia believe herself involved in a genuine plot, and from this point of view he felt that he must pretend the greatest horror and surprise. On the other hand, he knew that Gouache had been painting the Cardinal's portrait, and guessed that the statesman had acquired a strong influence over the artist's mind—an influence which was already showing itself in a way that looked dangerous. It had never struck him until quite lately that Anastase, a republican by descent and conviction, could suddenly step into the reactionary camp.
"Pardon me, Donna Tullia," said Ugo, in serious tones, "pardon me—but I think we should do well to leave Monsieur Gouache to the contemplation of his new career. This is no place for us—the company of traitors—"
"Look here, Del Ferice," said Gouache, suddenly going up to him and looking him in the face,—"do you seriously believe that anything you have ever said, in this room is worth betraying? or, if you do, do you really think that I would betray it?"
"Bah!" exclaimed Donna Tullia, interposing, "it is nonsense! Gouache is a gentleman, of course—and besides, I mean to have my portrait, politics or no politics."
With this round statement Donna Tullia sat down, and Del Ferice had no choice but to follow her example. He was profoundly disgusted, but he saw at a glance that it would be hopeless to attempt to dissuade Madame Mayer when she had once made up her mind.
"And now you can tell us all about it," said Donna Tullia. "What, in the name of all that is senseless, has induced you to join the Zouaves? It really makes me very nervous to see you."
"That lends poetry to your expression," interrupted Gouache. "I wish you were always nervous. You really want to know why I am a Zouave? It is very simple. You must know that I always follow my impulses."
"Impulses!" ejaculated Del Ferice, moodily.
"Yes; because my impulses are always good,—whereas when I reflect much, my judgment is always bad. I felt a strong impulse to wear the grey uniform, so I walked into the recruiting office and wrote my name down."
"I feel a strong impulse to walk out of your studio, Monsieur Gouache," said Donna Tullia, with a rather nervous laugh.
"Then allow me to tell you that, whereas my impulses are good, yours are not," replied Anastase, quietly painting. "Because I have a new dress—"
"And new convictions," interrupted Del Ferice; "you who were always arguing about convictions!"
"I had none; that is the reason I argued about them. I have plenty now—I argue no longer."
"You are wise," retorted Ugo. "Those you have got will never bear discussion."
"Excuse me," answered Gouache; "if you will take the trouble to be introduced to his Eminence Cardinal Antonelli—"
Donna Tullia held up her hands in horror.
"That horrible man! That Mephistopheles!" she cried.
"That Macchiavelli! That arch-enemy of our holy liberty!" exclaimed Del Ferice, in theatrical tones.
"Exactly," answered Gouache. "If he could be induced to devote a quarter of an hour of his valuable time to talking with you, he would turn your convictions round his finger."
"This is too much!" cried Del Ferice, angrily.
"I think it is very amusing," said Donna Tullia, "What a pity that all Liberals are not artists, whom his Eminence could engage to paint his portrait and be converted at so much an hour!"
Gouache smiled quietly, and went on with his work.
"So he told you to go and turn Zouave," remarked Donna Tullia, after a pause, "and you submitted like a lamb."
"So far was the Cardinal from advising me to turn soldier, that he expressed the greatest surprise when I told him of my intention," returned Gouache, rather coldly.
"Indeed it is enough to take away even a cardinal's breath," answered Madame Mayer. "I was never, never so surprised in my life!"
Gouache stood up to get a view of his work, and Donna Tullia looked at him critically.
"Tiens!" she exclaimed, "it is rather becoming—what small ankles you have, Gouache!"
Anastase laughed. It was impossible to be grave in the face of such utterly frivolous inconsistency.
"You will allow your expression to change so often, Donna Tullia! It is impossible to catch it."
"Like your convictions," murmured Del Ferice from his corner. Indeed Ugo did not know what to make of the scene. He had miscalculated the strength of Donna Tullia's fears as compared with her longing to possess a flattering portrait of herself. Rather than leave the picture unfinished, she exhibited a cynical indifference to danger which would have done honour to a better man than Del Ferice. Perhaps, too, she understood Gouache well enough to know that he might be trusted. Indeed any one would have trusted Gouache. Even Del Ferice was less disturbed at the possibility of the artist's repeating any of the trivial liberal talk which he had listened to, than at the indifference to discovery shown by Donna Tullia. To Del Ferice, the whole thing had been but a harmless play; but he wanted Madame Mayer to believe that it had all been in solemn earnest, and that she was really implicated in a dangerous plot; for it gave him a stronger hold upon her for his own ends.
"So you are going to fight for Pio Nono," remarked Ugo, scornfully, after another pause.
"I am," replied Gouache. "And, no offence to you, my friend, if I meet you in a red shirt among the Garibaldini, I will kill you. It would be very unpleasant, so I hope that you will not join them."
"Take care, Del Ferice," laughed Donna Tullia; "your life is in danger! You had better join the Zouaves instead."
"I cannot paint his Eminence's portrait," returned Ugo, with a sneer, "so there is no chance of that."
"You might assist him with wholesome advice, I should think," answered Gouache. "I have no doubt you could tell him much that would be very useful."
"And turn traitor to—"
"Hush! Do not be so silly, Del Ferice," interrupted Donna Tullia, who began to fear that Del Ferice's taunts would make trouble. She had a secret conviction that it would not be good to push the gentle Anastase too far. He was too quiet, too determined, and too serious not to be a little dangerous if roused.
"Do not be absurd," she repeated. "Whatever Gouache may choose to do, he is a gentleman, and I will not have you talk of traitors like that. He does not quarrel with you—why do you try to quarrel with him?"
"I think he has done quite enough to justify a quarrel, I am sure," replied Del Ferice, moodily.
"My dear sir," said Gouache, desisting from his work and turning towards Ugo, "Madame is quite right. I not only do not quarrel, but I refuse to be quarrelled with. You have my most solemn assurance that whatever has previously passed here, whatever I have heard said by you, by Donna Tullia, by Valdarno, by any of your friends, I regard as an inviolable secret. You formerly said I had no convictions, and you were right. I had none, and I listened to your exposition of your own with considerable interest. My case is changed. I need not tell you what I believe, for I wear the uniform of a Papal Zouave. When I put it on, I certainly did not contemplate offending you; I do not wish to offend you now—I only beg that you will refrain from offending me. For my part, I need only say that henceforth I do not desire to take a part in your councils. If Donna Tullia is satisfied with her portrait, there need be no further occasion for our meeting. If, on the contrary, we are to meet again, I beg that we may meet on a footing of courtesy and mutual respect."
It was impossible to say more; and Gouache's speech terminated the situation so far as Del Ferice was concerned. Donna Tullia smilingly expressed her approval.
"Quite right, Gouache," she said. "You know it would be impossible to leave the portrait as it is now. The mouth, you know—you promised to do something to it—just the expression, you know."
Gouache bowed his head a little, and set to work again without a word. Del Ferice did not speak again during the sitting, but sat moodily staring at the canvas, at Donna Tullia, and at the floor. It was not often that he was moved from his habitual suavity of manner, but Gouache's conduct had made him feel particularly uncomfortable.
The next time Donna Tullia came to sit, she brought her old Countess, and Del Ferice did not appear. The portrait was ultimately finished to the satisfaction of all parties, and was hung in Donna Tullia's drawing-room, to be admired and criticised by all her friends. But Gouache rejoiced when the thing was finally removed from his studio, for he had grown to hate it, and had been almost willing to flatter it out of all likeness to Madame Mayer, for the sake of not being eternally confronted by the cold stare of her blue eyes. He finished the Cardinal's portrait too; and the statesman not only paid for it with unusual liberality, but gave the artist what he called a little memento of the long hours they had spent together. He opened one of the lockers in his study, and from a small drawer selected an ancient ring, in which was set a piece of crystal with a delicate intaglio of a figure of Victory. He took Gouache's hand and slipped the ring upon his finger. He had taken a singular liking to Anastase.
"Wear it as a, little souvenir of me," he said kindly. "It is a Victory; you are a soldier now, so I pray that victory may go with you; and I give Victory herself into your hands."
"And I," said Gouache, "will pray that it may be a symbol in my hand of the real victories you are to win."
"Only a symbol," returned the Cardinal, thoughtfully. "Nothing but a symbol. I was not born to conquer, but to lead a forlorn-hope—to deceive vanquished men with a hope not real, and to deceive the victors with an unreal fear. Nevertheless, my friend," he added, grasping Gouache's hand, and fixing upon him his small bright eyes,—"nevertheless, let us fight, fight—fight to the very end!"
"We will fight to the end, Eminence," said Gouache. He was only a private of Zouaves, and the man whose hand he held was great and powerful; but the same spirit was in the hearts of both, the same courage, the same devotion to the failing cause—and both kept their words, each in his own way.
Astrardente was in some respects a picturesque place. The position of the little town gave it a view in both directions from where it stood; for it was built upon a precipitous eminence rising suddenly out of the midst of the narrow strip of fertile land, the long and rising valley which, from its lower extremity, conducted by many circuits to the Roman Campagna, and which ended above in the first rough passes of the lower Abruzzi. The base of the town extended into the vineyards and olive-orchards which surrounded the little hill on all sides; and the summit of it was crowned by the feudal palace-castle—an enormous building of solid stone, in the style of the fifteenth century. Upon the same spot had formally stood a rugged fortress, but the magnificent ideas of the Astrardente pope had not tolerated such remains of barbarism; the ancient stronghold had been torn down, and on its foundations rose a gigantic mansion, consisting of a main palace, with great balconies and columned front, overlooking the town, and of two massive wings leading back like towers to the edge of the precipitous rock to northwards. Between these wings a great paved court formed a sort of terrace, open upon one side, and ornamented within with a few antique statues dug up upon the estates, and with numerous plants, which the old duke had caused to be carefully cultivated in vases, and which were only exposed upon the terrace during the warm summer months. The view from the court was to the north—that is to say, down the valley, comprehending ranges of hills that seemed to cross and recross into the extreme distance, their outlines being each time less clearly defined, as the masses in each succeeding range took a softer purple hue.
Within, the palace presented a great variety of apartments. There were suites of vaulted rooms upon the lower floor, frescoed in the good manner of the fifteenth century; there were other suites above, hung with ancient tapestry and furnished with old-fashioned marble tables, and mirrors in heavily gilt frames, and one entire wing had been lately fitted up in the modern style. In this part of the house Corona established herself with Sister Gabrielle, and began to lead a life of regular occupations and profound retirement, which seemed to be rather a continuation of her existence in the convent where she had been educated as a girl, than to form any part in the life of the superb Duchessa d'Astrardente, who for five years had been one of the most conspicuous persons in society. Every morning at eight o'clock the two ladies, always clad in deep black, attended the Mass which was celebrated for them in the palace chapel. Then Corona walked for an hour with her companion upon the terrace, or, if it rained, beneath the covered balconies upon the south side. The morning hours she passed in solitude, reading such books of devotion and serious matter as most suited the sad temper of her mind; precisely at mid-day she and Sister Gabrielle breakfasted together in a sort of solemn state; and at three o'clock the great landau, with its black horses and mourning liveries, stood under the inner gate. The two ladies appeared five minutes later, and by a gesture Corona indicated whether she would be driven up or down the valley. The dashing equipage descended the long smooth road that wound through the town, and returned invariably at the end of two hours, again ascended the tortuous way, and disappeared beneath the dark entrance. At six o'clock dinner was served, with the same solemn state as attended the morning meal; Corona and Sister Gabrielle remained together until ten, and the day was over. There was no more variation in the routine of their lives than if they had been moved by a machinery connected with the great castle clock overhead, which chimed the hours and the quarters by day and night, and regulated the doings of the town below.
But in spite of this unchanging sequence of similar habit, the time passed pleasantly for Corona. She had had too much of the brilliant lights and the buzzing din of society for the last five years, too much noise, too much idle talk, too much aimless movement; she needed rest, too, from the constant strain of her efforts to fulfil her self-imposed duties towards her husband—most of all, perhaps, she required a respite from the sufferings she had undergone through her stifled love for Giovanni Saracinesca. All this she found in the magnificent calm of the life at Astrardente. She meditated long upon the memory of her husband, recalling lovingly those things which had been most worthy in him, willingly forgetting his many follies and vanities and moments of petulance. She went over in her mind the many and varied scenes of the past, and learned to love the sweet and silent solitude of the present by comparison of it with all the useless and noisy activity of the world she had for a time abandoned. She had not expected to find anything more than a passive companion in Sister Gabrielle; but in the course of their daily converse she discovered in her a character of extreme refinement and quick perception, a depth of human sympathy and a breadth of experience which amazed her, and made her own views of things seem small. The Sister was devout and rigid in the observance of the institutions of her order, in so far as she was able to follow out the detail of religious regulation without interfering with the convenience of her companion; but in her conversation she showed an intimate knowledge of character which was a constant source of pleasure to Corona, who told the Sister long stories of people she had known for the sake of hearing her admirable comments upon social questions.
But besides her reading and her long hours of meditation and her talks with Sister Gabrielle, Corona found occupation in the state of the town below her residence. She attempted once or twice to visit the poor cottages, in the hope of doing some good; but she found that she was such an object of holy awe to the inmates that they were speechless in her presence, or became so nervous in their desire to answer her questions, that the information she was able to obtain concerning their troubles was too vague to be of any use.
The Italian peasant is not the same in all parts of the country, as is generally supposed; and although the Tuscan, who is constantly brought into familiar contact with his landlord, and acquires a certain pleasant faith in him, grows eloquent upon the conditions of his being, the same is not true of the rougher race that labours in the valleys of the Sabine and the Samnite hills. The peasant of the Agro Romano is indeed capable of civilisation and he is able to understand his superiors, provided that he is gradually accustomed to seeing them: unfortunately this occurs but rarely. Many of the great Roman landholders spend a couple of months of every year upon their estates: old Astrardente had in his later years gone to considerable expense in refitting and repairing the castle, but he had done little for the town. Men like the Saracinesca, however, were great exceptions at that time; though they travelled much abroad, they often remained for many months in their rugged old fortress. They knew the inhabitants of their lands far and wide, and were themselves not only known but loved; they spent their money in improving the condition of their peasants, in increasing the area of their forests, and in fostering the fertility of the soil, but they cared nothing for adorning the grey stone walls of their ancestors' stronghold. It had done well enough for a thousand years, it would do well enough still; it had stood firm against fierce sieges in the dark ages of the Roman baronry, it could afford to stand unchanged in its monumental strength against the advancing sea of nineteenth-century civilisation. They themselves, father and son, were content with such practical improvements as they could introduce for the good of their people and the enriching of their land; a manly race, despising luxury, they cared little whether their home was thought comfortable by the few guests they occasionally invited to spend a week with them. They saw much of the peasantry, and went daily among them, understanding their wants, and wisely promoting in their minds the belief that land cannot prosper unless both landlord and tenant do their share.
But Astrardente was a holding of a very different kind, and Corona, in her first attempts at understanding the state of things, found herself stopped by a dead wall of silence, beyond which she guessed that there lay an undiscovered land of trouble. She knew next to nothing of the condition of her people; she only imperfectly understood the relations in which they actually stood to herself, the extent of her power over them, and of their power over her. The mysteries of emphyteusis, emphyteuma, and emphyteuta were still hidden to her, though her steward spoke of them with surprising loquacity and fluency. She laboured hard to understand the system upon which her tenants held their lands from her, and it was some time before she succeeded. It is easier to explain the matter at once than to follow Corona in her attempts to comprehend it.
To judge from the terms employed, the system of holdings common in the Pontifical States has descended without interruption from the time of the Romans to the present day. As in old Roman law, emphyteusis, now spelt emfiteuse, means the possession of rights over another person's land, capable of transmission by inheritance; and to-day, as under the Romans, the holder of such rights is called the emphyteuta, or emfiteuta. How the Romans came to use Greek words in their tenant-law does not belong to the matter in hand; these words are the only ones now in use in this part of Italy, and they are used precisely as they were in remote times.
A tenant may acquire rights of emfiteuse directly from the owner of the land, like an ordinary lease; or he may acquire them by settlement—"squatting," as the popular term is. Wherever land is lying waste, any one may establish himself upon it and cultivate it, on condition of paying to the owner a certain proportion of the yield of the land—generally one quarter—either in kind or in money. The landlord may, indeed, refuse the right of settlement in the first instance, which would very rarely occur, since most people who own barren tracts of rock and heath are only too glad to promote any kind of cultivation. But when the landlord has once allowed the right, the right itself is constituted thereby into a possession of which the peasant may dispose as he pleases, even by selling it to another. The law provides, however, that in case of transfers by sale, the landlord shall receive one year's rent in kind or in money in addition to the rent due, and this bonus is paid jointly by the buyer and the seller according to agreement. Such holdings are inherited from father to son for many generations, and are considered to be perpetual leases. The landlord cannot expel a tenant except for non-payment of rent during three consecutive years. In actual fact, the right of the emfiteuta in the soil is far more important than that of the landlord; for the tenant can cheat his landlord as much as he pleases, whereas the injustice of the law provides that under no circumstances whatsoever shall the landlord cheat the tenant. In actual fact, also, the rents are universally paid in kind, and the peasant eats what remains of the produce, so that very little cash is seen in the land.
Corona discovered that the income she enjoyed from the lands of Astrardente was collected by the basketful from the threshing-floors, and by the barrel from the vineyards of some two hundred tenants. It was a serious matter to gather from two hundred threshing-floors precisely a quarter of the grain threshed, and from fifty or sixty vineyards precisely a quarter of the wine made in each. The peasants all made their wine at the same time, and all threshed their grain in the same week. If the agent was not on the spot during the threshing and the vintage, the peasant had no difficulty whatever in hiding a large quantity of his produce. As the rent was never fixed, but depended solely on the yield of the year, it was preeminently to the advantage of the tenant to throw dust in the eyes of the landlord whenever he got a chance. The landlord found the business of watching his tenants tedious and unprofitable, and naturally resorted to the crowning evil of agricultural evils—the employment of a rent-farmer. The latter, at all events, was willing to pay a fixed sum yearly; and if the sum paid was generally considerably below the real value of the rents, the arrangement at least assured a fixed income to the landlord, with the certainty of getting it without trouble to himself. The middleman then proceeded to grind the tenants at his leisure and discretion in order to make the best of his bargain. The result was, that while the tenant starved and the landlord got less than his due in consideration of being saved from annoyance, the middleman gradually accumulated money.
Upon this system nine-tenths of the land in the Pontifical States was held, and much of the same land is so held to-day, in spite of the modern tenant-law, for reasons which will be clearly explained in another part of this history. Corona saw and understood that the evil was very great. She discussed the matter with her steward, or ministro as he was called, who was none other than the aforesaid middleman; and the more she discussed the question, the more hopeless the question appeared. The steward held a contract from her dead husband for a number of years. He had regularly paid the yearly sums agreed upon, and it would be impossible to remove him for several years to come. He, of course, was strenuously opposed to any change, and did his best to make himself appear as an angel of mercy and justice, presiding over a happy family of rejoicing peasants in the heart of a terrestrial paradise. Unfortunately for himself, however, he had not at first understood the motive which prompted Corona's inquiries. He supposed in the beginning that she was not satisfied with the amount of rent he paid, and that at the expiration of his contract she intended to raise the sum; so that, on the first occasion when she sent for him, he had drawn a piteous picture of the peasant's condition, and had expatiated with eloquence on his own poverty, and on the extreme difficulty of collecting any rents at all. It was not until he discovered that Corona's chief preoccupation was for the welfare of her tenants that he changed his tactics, and endeavoured to prove that all was for the best upon the best of all possible estates.
Then, to his great astonishment, Corona informed him that his contract would not be renewed, and that at the expiration of his term she would collect her rents herself. It had taken her long to understand the situation, but when she had comprehended it, she made up her mind that something must be done. If her fortune had depended solely upon the income she received from the Astrardente lands, she would have made up her mind to reduce herself to penury rather than allow things to go in the way they were going. Fortunately she was rich, and if she had not all the experience necessary to deal with such matters, she had plenty of goodwill, plenty of generosity, and plenty of money. In her simple theory of agrarian economy the best way to improve an estate seemed to be to spend the income arising from it directly upon its improvement, until she could take the whole management of it into her own hands. The trouble, as she thought, was that there was too little money among the peasants; the best way to help them was to put money within their reach. The only question was how to do this without demoralising them, and without increasing their liabilities towards the ministro or middleman.
Then she sent for the curate. From him she learned that the people did well enough in the summer, but that the winter was dreaded. She asked why. He answered that they were not provident; that the land system was bad; and that even if they saved anything the ministro would take it from them. She inquired whether he thought it possible to induce them to be more thrifty. He thought it might be done in ten years, but not in one.
"In that case," said Corona, "the only way to improve their condition is to give them work in the winter. I will make roads through the estate, and build large dwelling-houses in the town. There shall be work enough for everybody."
It was a simple plan, but it was destined to be carried into execution, and to change the face of the Astrardente domain in a few years. Corona sent to Rome for an engineer who was also a good architect, and she set herself to study the possibilities of the place, giving the man sufficient scope, and only insisting that there should be no labour and no material imported from beyond the limits of her lands. This provided her with an occupation whereby the time passed quickly enough.
The Lenten season ended, and Eastertide ran swiftly on to Pentecost. The early fruit-trees blossomed white, and the flowers fell in a snow-shower to the ground, to give place to the cherries and the almonds and the pears. The brown bramble-hedges turned leafy, and were alive with little birds; and the great green lizards shot across the woodland paths upon the hillside, and caught the flies that buzzed noisily in the spring sunshine. The dried-up vines put forth tiny leaves, and the maize shot suddenly up to the sun out of the rich furrows, like myriads of brilliant green poignards piercing the brown skin of the earth. By the roadside the grass grew high, and the broad shallow brooks shrank to narrow rivulets, and disappeared in the overgrowing rushes before the increasing heat of the climbing sun.
Corona's daily round of life never changed, but as the months wore on, a stealing thought came often and often again—shy, as though fearing to be driven away; silent at first, as a shadow in a dream, but taking form and reality from familiarity with its own self, and speaking intelligible words, saying at last plainly, "Will he keep his promise? Will he never come?"
But he came not as the fresh colours of spring deepened with the rich maturity of summer; and Corona, gazing down the valley, saw the change that came over the fair earth, and half guessed the change that was coming over her own life. She had sought solitude instinctively, but she had not known what it would bring her. She had desired to honour her dead husband by withdrawing from the world for a time and thinking of him and remembering him. She had done so, but the youth in her rebelled at last against the constant memory of old age—of an old age, too, which had passed away from her and was dead for ever.
It was right to dwell for a time upon the thought of her widowhood, but the voice said it would not be always right. The calm and noiseless tide of the old man's ceasing life had ebbed slowly and reluctantly from her shore, and she had followed the sad sea in her sorrow to the furthest verge of its retreat; but as she stood upon the edge of the stagnant waters, gazing far out and trying to follow even further the slow subsiding ooze, the tide had turned upon her unawares, the fresh seaward breeze sprang up and broke the dead calm with the fresh motion of crisp ripples that once more flowed gladly over the dreary sand, and the waters of life plashed again and laughed gladly together around her feet.
The thought of Giovanni—the one thought that again and again kept recurring in her mind—grew very sweet,—as sweet as it had once been bitter. There was nothing to stop its growth now, and she let it have its way. What did it matter, so long as he did not come near her—for the present? Some day he would come; she wondered when, and how long he would keep his promise. But meanwhile she was not unhappy, and she went about her occupations as before; only sometimes she would go alone at evening to the balcony that faced the higher mountains, and there she would stand for half an hour gazing southward towards the precipitous rocks that caught the red glare of the sinking sun, and she asked herself if he were there, or whether, as report had told her, he were in the far north. It was but half a day's ride over the hills, he had said. But strain her sight as she would, she could not pierce the heavy crags nor see into the wooded dells beyond. He had said he would pass the summer there; had he changed his mind?
But she was not unhappy. There was that in her which forbade unhappiness, which would have broken out into great joy if she would have let it; but yet she would not. It was too soon yet to say aloud what she said in her heart daily, that she loved Giovanni with a great love, and that she knew she was free to love him. In that thought there was enough of joy. But he might come if he would; her anger would not be great if he broke his promise now, he had kept it so long—six whole months. But by-and-by, as the days passed, the first note of happiness was marred by the discordant ring of a distant fear. What if she had too effectually forbidden him to see her? What if he had gone out disappointed of all hope, and was really in distant Scandinavia, as the papers said, risking his life in mad adventures?
But after all, that was not what she feared. He was strong, young, brave—he had survived a thousand dangers, he would survive these also. There arose between her and the thought of him an evil shadow, the image of a woman, and it took the shape of Donna Tullia so vividly that she could see the red lips move and almost hear the noisy laugh. She was angry with herself at the idea, but it recurred continually and gave her pain, and the pain grew to an intolerable fear. She began to feel that she must know where he was, at any cost, or she could have no peace. She was restless and nervous, and began to be absent-minded in her conversation with Sister Gabrielle. The good woman saw it, and advised a little change—anything, an excursion of a day for instance. Corona, she said, was too young to lead this life.
Her mind leaped at the idea. It was but half a day's ride, he had said; she would climb those hills and look down upon Saracinesca—only once. She might perhaps meet some peasant, and by a careless inquiry she would learn whether he was there—or would be there in the summer. No one would know; and besides, Sister Gabrielle had said that an excursion would do Corona good. Sister Gabrielle had probably never heard that Saracinesca was so near, and she certainly would not guess that the Duchessa had any interest in its lord. She announced her intention, and the Sister approved—she herself, she said, was too weak to undergo the fatigue.
On the following morning, Corona alone entered her carriage and was driven many miles up the southward hills, till the road was joined by a broad bridle-path that led eastwards towards the Abruzzi. Here she was met by a party of horsemen, her own guardiani, or forest-keepers, as they are called, in rough dark-blue coats and leathern gaiters. Each man wore upon his breast a round plate of chiselled silver, bearing the arms of the Astrardente; each had a long rifle slung behind him, and carried a holster at the bow of his huge saddle. A couple of sturdy black-browed peasants held a mule by the bridle, heavily caparisoned in the old fashion, under a great red velvet Spanish saddle, with long tarnished trappings that had once been embroidered with silver. A little knot of peasants and ragged boys stood all around watching the preparations with interest, and commenting audibly upon the beauty of the great lady.
Corona mounted from a stone by the wayside, and the young men led her beast up the path. She smiled to herself, for she had never done such a thing before, but she was not uneasy in the company of her rough-looking escort. She knew well enough that she was as safe with them as in her own house.
As the bridle-path wound up from the road, the country grew more rugged, the vegetation more scanty, and the stones more plentiful. It was a wilderness of rocky desolation; as far as one could see there was no sign of humanity, not a soul upon the solitary road, not a living thing upon the desolate hills that rose on either side in jagged points to the sky. Corona talked a little with the head-keeper who rode beside her with a slack rein, letting his small mountain horse pick its own way over the rough path. He told her that few people ever passed that way. It was the short road to Saracinesca. The princes sometimes sent their carriage round by the longer way and rode over the hills; and in the vintage-time there was some traffic, as many of the smaller peasants carried grapes across the pass to the larger wine-presses, and sold them outright. It was not a dangerous road, for the very reason that it was so unfrequented. The Duchessa explained that she only wanted to see the valley beyond from the summit of the pass, and would then return. It was past mid-day when the party reached the highest point,—a depression between the crags just wide enough to admit one loaded mule. The keeper said she could see Saracinesca from the end of the narrow way, before the descent began. She uttered an exclamation of surprise as she reached the spot.
Scarcely a quarter of a mile to the right, at the extremity of a broad hill-road, she saw the huge towers of Saracinesca, grey and storm-beaten, rising out of a thick wood. The whole intervening space—and indeed the whole deep valley as far as she could see—was an unbroken forest of chestnut-trees. Here and there below the castle the houses of the town showed their tiled gables, but the mass of the buildings was hidden completely from sight. Corona had had no idea that she should find herself so near to the place, and she was seized with a sudden fear lest Giovanni should appear upon the long straight path that led into the trees. She drew back a little among her followers.
"Are the princes there now?" she asked of the head-keeper.
He did not know; but a moment later a peasant, riding astride of a bag of corn upon his donkey's back, passed along the straight road by the entrance to the bridle-path. The keeper hailed him, and put the question. Seeing Corona upon her mule, surrounded by armed men in livery, the man halted, and pulled off his soft black-cloth hat.
Both the princes were in Saracinesca, he said. The young prince had been there ever since Easter. They were busy building an aqueduct which was to supply the whole town with water; it was to pass above, up there among the woods. The princes went almost every day to visit the works. Her Excellency might, perhaps, find them there now, or if not, they were at the castle.
But her Excellency had no intention of finding them. She gave the fellow a coin, and beat a somewhat hasty retreat. Her followers were silent men, accustomed to obey, and they followed her down the steep path without even exchanging a word among themselves. Beneath the shade of an overhanging rock she halted, and, dismounting from her mule, was served with the lunch that had been brought. She ate little, and then sat thoughtfully contemplating the bare stones, while the men at a little distance hastily disposed of the remains of her meal. She had experienced an extraordinary emotion on finding herself suddenly so near to Giovanni; it was almost as though she had seen him, and her heart beat fast, while a dark flush rose from time to time to her cheek. It would have been so natural that he should pass that way, just as she was halting at the entrance to the bridle-path. How unspeakably dreadful it would have been to be discovered thus spying out his dwelling-place when she had so strictly forbidden him to attempt to see her! The blush burned upon her cheeks—she had done a thing so undignified, so ill befitting her magnificent superiority. For a moment she was desperately ashamed. But for all that, she could not repress the glad delight she felt at knowing that he was there after all; that, if he had kept his word, in avoiding her, he had, nevertheless, also fulfilled his intention of spending the summer in Saracinesca. He had even been there since Easter, and the story of his going to the North had been a mere invention of the newspapers. She could not understand his conduct, nor why he had gone to Paris—a fact attested by people who knew him. It had probably been for some matter of business—that excuse which, in a woman's mind, explains almost any sudden journey a man may undertake. But he was there in the castle now, and her heart was satisfied.
The men packed the things in the basket, and Corona was helped upon her mule. Slowly the party descended the steep path that grew broader and more practicable as they neared the bottom; there the carriage awaited her, and soon she was bowling along the smooth road towards home, leaving far behind her the mounted guards, the peasants, and her slow-paced mule. The sun was low when the carriage rolled under the archway of Astrardente. Sister Gabrielle said Corona looked much the better for her excursion, and she added that she must be very strong to bear such fatigue so well. And the next day—and for many days—the Sister noticed the change in her hostess's manner, and promised herself that if the Duchessa became uneasy again she would advise another day among the hills, so wonderful was the effect of a slight change from the ordinary routine of her life.
That night old Saracinesca and his son sat at dinner in a wide hall of their castle. The faithful Pasquale served them as solemnly as he was used to do in Rome. This evening he spoke again. He had ventured no remark since he had informed them of the Duca d'Astrardente's death.
"I beg your Excellencies' pardon," he began, adopting his usual formula of apologetic address.
"Well, Pasquale, what is it?" asked old Saracinesca.
"I did not know whether your Excellency was aware that the Duchessa d'Astrardente had been here to-day."
"What?" roared the Prince.
"You must be mad, Pasquale?" exclaimed Giovanni in a low voice.
"I beg your Excellencies' pardon if I am wrong, but this is how I know. Gigi Secchi, the peasant from Aquaviva in the lower forest, brought a bag of corn to the mill to-day, and he told the miller, and the miller told Ettore, and Ettore told Nino, and Nino told—"
"What the devil did he tell him?" interrupted old Saracinesca.
"Nino told the cook's boy," continued Pasquale unmoved, "and the cook's boy told me, your Excellency, that Gigi was passing along the road to Serveti coming here, when he was stopped by a number of guardiani who accompanied a beautiful dark lady in black, who rode upon a mule, and the guardiani asked him if your Excellencies were at Saracinesca; and when he said you were, the lady gave him a coin, and turned at once and rode down the bridle-path towards Astrardente, and he said the guardiani were those of the Astrardente, because he remembered to have seen one of them, who has a scar over his left eye, at the great fair at Genazzano last year. And that is how I heard."
"That is a remarkable narrative, Pasquale," answered the Prince, laughing loudly, "but it seems very credible. Go and send for Gigi Secchi if he is still in the neighbourhood, and bring him here, and let us have the story from his own lips."
When they were alone the two men looked at each other for a moment, and then old Saracinesca laughed again; but Giovanni looked very grave, and his face was pale. Presently his father became serious again.
"If this thing is true," he said, "I would advise you, Giovanni, to pay a visit to the other side of the hills. It is time."
Giovanni was silent for a moment. He was intensely interested in the situation, but he could not tell his father that he had promised Corona not to see her, and he had not yet explained to himself her sudden appearance so near Saracinesca.
"I think it would be better for you to go first," he said to his father. "But I am not at all sure this story is true."
"I? Oh, I will go when you please," returned the old man, with another laugh. He was always ready for anything active.
But Gigi Secchi could not be found. He had returned to Aquaviva at once, and it was not easy to send a message. Two days later, however, Giovanni took the trouble of going to the man's home. He was not altogether surprised when Gigi confirmed Pasquale's tale in every particular. Corona had actually been at Saracinesca to find out if Giovanni was there or not; and on hearing that he was at the castle, she had fled precipitately. Giovanni was naturally grave and of a melancholy temper; but during the last few months he had been more than usually taciturn, occupying himself with dogged obstinacy in the construction of his aqueduct, visiting the works in the day and spending hours in the evening over the plans. He was waiting. He believed that Corona cared for him, and he knew that he loved her, but for the present he must wait patiently, both for the sake of his promise and for the sake of a decent respect of her widowhood. In order to wait he felt the necessity of constant occupation, and to that end he had set himself resolutely to work with his father, whose ideal dream was to make Saracinesea the most complete and prosperous community in that part of the mountains.
"I think if you would go over," he said, at the end of a week, "it would be much better. I do not want to intrude myself upon her at present, and you could easily find out whether she would like to see me. After all, she may have been merely making an excursion for her amusement, and may have chanced upon us by accident. I have often noticed how suddenly one comes in view of the castle from that bridle-path."
"On the other hand," returned the Prince with a smile, "any one would tell her that the path leads nowhere except to Saracinesca. But I will go to-morrow," he added. "I will set your mind at rest in twenty-four hours."
"Thank you," said Giovanni.
Old Saracinesca kept his word, and on the following morning, eight days after Corona's excursion upon the hills, he rode down to Astrardente, reaching the palace at about mid-day. He sent in his card, and stood waiting beneath the great gate, beating the dust from his boots with his heavy whip. His face looked darker than ever, from constant exposure to the sun, and his close-cropped hair and short square beard had turned even whiter than before in the last six months, but his strong form was erect, and his step firm and elastic. He was a remarkable old man; many a boy of twenty might have envied his strength and energetic vitality.
Corona was at her mid-day breakfast with Sister Gabrielle, when the old Prince's card was brought. She started at the sight of the name; and though upon the bit of pasteboard she read plainly enough, "Il Principe di Saracinesca," she hesitated, and asked the butler if it was really the Prince. He said it was.
"Would you mind seeing him?" she asked of Sister Gabrielle. "He is an old gentleman," she added, in explanation—"a near neighbour here in the mountains."
Sister Gabrielle had no objection. She even remarked that it would do the Duchessa good to see some one.
"Ask the Prince to come in, and put another place at the table," said Corona.
A moment later the old man entered, and Corona rose to receive him. There was something refreshing in the ring of his deep voice and the clank of his spurs as he crossed the marble floor.
"Signora Duchessa, you are very good to receive me. I did not know that this was your breakfast-hour. Ah!" he exclaimed, glancing at Sister Gabrielle, who had also risen to her feet, "good day, my Sister."
"Sister Gabrielle," said Corona, as an introduction; "she is good enough to be my companion in solitude."
To tell the truth, Corona felt uneasy; but the sensation was somehow rather pleasurable, although it crossed her mind that the Prince might have heard of her excursion, and had possibly come to find out why she had been so near to his place. She boldly faced the situation.
"I nearly came upon you the other day as unexpectedly as you have visited me," she said with a smile. "I had a fancy to look over into your valley, and when I reached the top of the hill I found I was almost in your house."
"I wish you had quite been there," returned the Prince. "Of course I heard that you had been seen, and we guessed you had stumbled upon us in some mountain excursion. My son rode all the way to Aquaviva to see the man who had spoken with you."
Saracinesca said this as though it were perfectly natural, helping himself to the dish the servant offered him. But when he looked up he saw that Corona blushed beneath her dark skin.
"It is such a very sudden view at that point," she said, nervously, "that I was startled."
"I wish you had preserved your equanimity to the extent of going a little further. Saracinesca has rarely been honoured with the visit of a Duchessa d'Astrardente. But since you have explained your visit—or the visit which you did not make—I ought to explain mine. You must know, in the first place, that I am not here by accident, but by intention, preconceived, well pondered, and finally executed to my own complete satisfaction. I came, not to get a glimpse of your valley nor a distant view of your palace, but to see you, yourself. Your hospitality in receiving me has therefore crowned and complimented the desire I had of seeing you."
Corona laughed a little.
"That is a very pretty speech," she said.
"Which you would have lost if you had not received me," he answered, gaily. "I have not done yet. I have many pretty speeches for you. The sight of you induces beauty in language as the sun in May makes the flowers open."
"That is another," laughed Corona. "Do you spend your days in studying the poets at Saracinesca? Does Don Giovanni study with you?"
"Giovanni is a fact," returned the Prince; "I am a fable. Old men are always fables, for they represent, in a harmless form, the follies of all mankind; their end is always in itself a moral, and young people can learn much by studying them."
"Your comparison is witty," said Corona, who was much amused at old Saracinesca's conversation; "but I doubt whether you are so harmless as you represent. You are certainly not foolish, and I am not sure whether, as a study for the young—" she hesitated, and laughed.
"Whether extremely young persons would have the wit to comprehend virtue by the concealment of it—to say, as that witty old Roman said, that the images of Cassius and Brutus were more remarkable than those of any one else, for the very reason that they were nowhere to be seen—like my virtues? Giovanni, for instance, is the very reverse of me in that, though he has shown such singularly bad taste in resembling my outward man."
"One should never conceal virtues," said Sister Gabrielle, gently. "One should not hide one's light under a basket, you know."
"My Sister," replied the old Prince, his black eyes twinkling merrily, "if I had in my whole composition as much light as would enable you to read half-a-dozen words in your breviary, it should be at your disposal. I would set it in the midst of Piazza Colonna, and call it the most wonderful illumination on record. Unfortunately my light, like the lantern of a solitary miner, is only perceptible to myself, and dimly at that."
"You must not depreciate yourself so very much," said Corona.
"No; that is true. You will either believe I am speaking the truth, or you will not. I do not know which would be the worse fate. I will change the subject. My son Giovanni, Duchessa, desires to be remembered in your good graces."
"Thanks. How is he?"
"He is well, but the temper of him is marvellously melancholy. He is building an aqueduct, and so am I. The thing is accomplished by his working perpetually while I smoke cigarettes and read novels."
"The division of labour is to your advantage, I should say," remarked Corona.
"Immensely, I assure you. He promotes the natural advantages of my lands, and I encourage the traffic in tobacco and literature. He works from morning till night, is his own engineer, contractor, overseer, and master-mason. He does everything, and does it well. If we were less barbarous in our bachelor establishment I would ask you to come and see us—in earnest this time—and visit the work we are doing. It is well worth while. Perhaps you would consent as it is. We will vacate the castle for your benefit, and mount guard outside the gates all night."
Again Corona blushed. She would have given anything to go, but she felt that it was impossible.
"I would like to go," she said. "If one could come back the same day."
"You did before," remarked Saracinesca, bluntly.
"But it was late when I reached home, and I spent no time at all there."
"I know you did not," laughed the old man. "You gave Gigi Secchi some money, and then fled precipitately."
"Indeed I was afraid you would suddenly come upon me, and I ran away," answered Corona, laughing in her turn, as the dark blood rose to her olive cheeks.
"As my amiable ancestors did in the same place when anybody passed with a full purse," suggested Saracinesca. "But we have improved a little since then. We would have asked you to breakfast. Will you come?"
"I do not like to go alone; I cannot, you see. Sister Gabrielle could never ride up that hill on a mule."
"There is a road for carriages," said the Prince. "I will propose something in the way of a compromise. I will bring Giovanni down with me and our team of mountain horses. Those great beasts of yours cannot do this kind of work. We will take you and Sister Gabrielle up almost as fast as you could go by the bridle-path." "And back on the same day?" asked Corona.
"No; on the next day."
"But I do not see where the compromise is," she replied. "Sister Gabrielle is at once the compromise and the cause that you will not be compromised. I beg her pardon—"
Both ladies laughed.
"I will be very glad to go," said the Sister. "I do not see that there is anything extraordinary in the Prince's proposal."
"My Sister," returned Saracinesca, "you are on the way to saintship; you already enjoy the beatific vision; you see with a heavenly perspicuity."
"It is a charming proposition," said Corona; "but in that case you will have to come down the day before." She was a little embarrassed.
"We will not invade the cloister," answered the Prince. "Giovanni and I will spend the night in concocting pretty speeches, and will appear armed with them at dawn before your gates."
"There is room in Astrardente," replied Corona. "You shall not lack hospitality for a night. When will you come?"
"To-morrow evening, if you please. A good thing should be done quickly, in order not to delay doing it again."
"Do you think I would go again?"
Saracinesca fixed his black eyes on Corona's, and gazed at her some seconds before he answered.
"Madam," he said at last, very gravely, "I trust you will come again and stay longer."
"You are very good," returned Corona, quietly. "At All events, I will go this first time."
"We will endeavour to show our gratitude by making you comfortable," answered the Prince, resuming his former tone. "You shall have a mass in the morning and a litany in the evening. We are godless fellows up there, but we have a priest."
"You seem to associate our comfort entirely with religious services," laughed Corona. "But you are very considerate."
"I see the most charming evidence of devotion at your side," he replied; "Sister Gabrielle is both the evidence of your piety and is in herself an exposition of the benefits of religion. There shall be other attractions, however, besides masses and litanies."
Breakfast being ended, Sister Gabrielle left the two together. They went from the dining-room to the great vaulted hall of the inner building. It was cool there, and there were great old arm-chairs ranged along the walls. The closed blinds admitted a soft green light from the hot noonday without. Corona loved to walk upon the cool marble floor; she was a very strong and active woman, delighting in mere motion—not restless, but almost incapable of weariness; her movements not rapid, but full of grace and ease. Saracinesca walked by her side, smoking thoughtfully for some minutes.
"Duchessa," he said at last, glancing at her beautiful face, "things are greatly changed since we met last. You were angry with me then. I do not know whether you were so justly, but you were very angry for a few moments. I am going to return to the subject now; I trust you will not be offended with me."
Corona trembled for a moment, and was silent. She would have prevented him from going on, but before she could find the words she sought he continued.
"Things are much changed, in some respects; in others, not at all. It is but natural to suppose that in the course of time you will think of the possibility of marrying again. My son, Duchessa, loves you very truly. Pardon me, it is no disrespect to you, now, that he should have told me so. I am his father, and I have no one else to care for. He is too honest a gentleman to have spoken of his affection for you at an eailier period, but he has told me of it now."
Corona stood still in the midst of the great hall, and faced the old Prince. She had grown pale while he was speaking. Still she was silent.
"I have nothing more to say—that is all," said Saracinesca, gazing earnestly into the depths of her eyes. "I have nothing more to say."
"Do you then mean to repeat the warning you once gave me?" asked Corona, growing whiter still. "Do you mean to imply that there is danger to your son?"
"There is danger—great danger for him, unless you will avert it."
"And how?" asked Corona, in a low voice.
"Madam, by becoming his wife."
Corona started and turned away in great agitation. Saracinesca stood still while she slowly walked a few steps from him. She could not speak.
"I could say a great deal more, Duchessa," he said, as she came back towards him. "I could say that the marriage is not only fitting in every other way, but is also advantageous from a worldly point of view. You are sole mistress of Astrardente; my son will before long be sole master of Saracinesca. Our lands are near together—that is a great advantage, that question of fortune. Again, I would observe that, with your magnificent position, you could not condescend to accept a man of lower birth than the highest in the country. There is none higher than the Saracinesca—pardon my arrogance,—and among princes there is no braver, truer gentleman than my son Giovanni. I ask no pardon for saying that; I will maintain it against all comers. I forego all questions of advantage, and base my argument upon that. He is the best man I know, and he loves you devotedly."
"Is he aware that you are here for this purpose?" asked Corona, suddenly. She spoke with a great effort.
"No. He knows that I am here, and was glad that I came. He desired me to ascertain if you would see him. He would certainly not have thought of addressing you at present. I am an old man, and I feel that I must do things quickly. That is my excuse."
Corona was again silent. She was too truthful to give an evasive answer, and yet she hesitated to speak. The position was an embarrassing one; she was taken unawares, and was terrified at the emotion she felt. It had never entered her mind that the old Prince could appear on his son's behalf, and she did not know how to meet him.
"I have perhaps been too abrupt," said Saracinesca. "I love my son very dearly, and his happiness is more to me than what remains of my own. If from the first you regard my proposition as an impossible one, I would spare him the pain of a humiliation,—I fear I could not save him from the rest, from a suffering that might drive him mad. It is for this reason that I implore you, if you are able, to give me some answer, not that I may convey it to him, but in order that I may be guided in future. He cannot forget you; but he has not seen you for six months. To see you again if he must leave you for ever, would only inflict a fresh wound." He paused, while Corona slowly walked by his side.
"I do not see why I should conceal the truth, from you," she said at last. "I cannot conceal it from myself. I am not a child that I should be ashamed of it. There is nothing wrong in it—no reason why it should not be. You are honest, too—why should we try to deceive ourselves? I trust to your honour to be silent, and I own that I—that I love your son."
Corona stood still and turned her face away, as the burning blush rose to her cheeks. The answer she had given was characteristic of her, straightforward and honest. She was not ashamed of it, and yet the words were so new, so strange in their sound, and so strong in their meaning, that she blushed as she uttered them. Saracinesca was greatly surprised, too, for he had expected some evasive turn, some hint that he might bring Giovanni. But his delight had no bounds.
"Duchessa," he said, "the happiest day I can remember was when I brought home my wife to Saracinesca. My proudest day will be that on which my son enters the same gates with you by his side."
He took her hand and raised it to his lips, with a courteous gesture.
"It will be long before that—it must be very long," answered Corona.
"It shall be when you please, Madam, provided it is at last. Meanwhile we will come down to-morrow, and take you to our tower. Do you understand now why I said that I hoped you would come again and stay longer? I trust you have not changed your mind in regard to the excursion."
"No. We will expect you to-morrow night. Remember, I have been honest with you—I trust to you to be silent."
"You have my word. And now, with your permission, I will return to Saracinesca. Believe me, the news that you expect us will be good enough to tell Giovanni."
"You may greet him from me. But will you not rest awhile before you ride back? You must be tired."
"No fear of that!" answered the Prince. "You have put a new man into an old one. I shall never tire of bearing the news of your greetings."
So the old man left her, and mounted his horse and rode up the pass. But Corona remained for hours in the vaulted hall, pacing up and down. It had come too soon—far too soon. And yet, how she had longed for it! how she had wondered whether it would ever come at all!
The situation was sufficiently strange, too. Giovanni had once told her of his love, and she had silenced him. He was to tell her again, and she was to accept what he said. He was to ask her to marry him, and her answer was a foregone conclusion. It seemed as though this greatest event of her life were planned to the very smallest details beforehand; as though she were to act a part which she had studied, and which was yet no comedy because it was the expression of her life's truth. The future had been, as it were, prophesied and completely foretold to her, and held no surprises; and yet it was more sweet to think of than all the past together. She wondered how he would say it, what his words would be, how he would look, whether he would again be as strangely violent as he had been that night at the Palazzo Frangipani. She wondered, most of all, how she would answer him. But it would be long yet. There would be many meetings, many happy days before that happiest day of all.
Sister Gabrielle saw a wonderful change in Corona's face that afternoon when they drove up the valley together, and she remarked what wonderful effect a little variety had upon her companion's spirits—she could not say upon her health, for Corona seemed made of velvet and steel, so smooth and dark, and yet so supple and strong. Corona smiled brightly as she looked far up at the beetling crags behind which Saracinesca was hidden.
"We shall be up there the day after to-morrow," she said. "How strange it will seem!" And leaning back, her deep eyes flashed, and she laughed happily.
On the following evening, again, they drove along the road that led up the valley. But they had not gone far when they saw in the distance a cloud of dust, from which in a few moments emerged a vehicle drawn by three strong horses, and driven by Giovanni Saracinesca himself. His father sat beside him in front, and a man in livery was seated at the back, with a long rifle between his knees. The vehicle was a kind of double cart, capable of holding four persons, and two servants at the back.
In a moment the two carriages met and stopped side by side. Giovanni sprang from his seat, throwing the reins to his father, who stood up hat in hand, and bowed from where he was. Corona held out her hand to Giovanni as he stood bareheaded in the road beside her. One long look told all the tale; there could be no words there before the Sister and the old Prince, but their eyes told all—the pain of past separation, the joy of two loving hearts that met at last without hindrance.
"Let your servant drive, and get in with us," said Corona, who could hardly speak in her excitement. Then she started slightly, and smiled in her embarrassment. She had continued to hold Giovanni's hand, unconsciously leaving her fingers in his.
The Prince's groom climbed into the front seat, and old Saracinesca got down and entered the landau. It was a strangely silent meeting, long expected by the two who so loved each other—long looked for, but hardly realised now that it had come. The Prince was the first to speak, as usual.
"You expected to meet us, Duchessa?" he said; "we expected to meet you. An expectation fulfilled is better than a surprise. Everything at Saracinesca is prepared for your reception. Don Angelo, our priest, has been warned of your coming, and the boy who serves mass has been washed. You may imagine that a great festivity is expected. Giovanni has turned the castle inside out, and had a room hung entirely with tapestries of my great-grandmother's own working. He says that since the place is so old, its antiquity should be carried into the smallest details."
Corona laughed gaily—she would have laughed at anything that day—and the old Prince's tone was fresh and sparkling and merry. He had relieved the first embarrassment of the situation.
"There have been preparations at Astrardente for your reception, too," answered the Duchessa. "There was a difficulty of choice, as there are about a hundred vacant rooms in the house. The butler proposed to give you a suite of sixteen to pass the night in, but I selected an airy little nook in one of the wings, where you need only go through ten to get to your bedroom."
"There is nothing like space," said the Prince; "it enlarges the ideas."
"I cannot imagine what my father would do if his ideas were extended," remarked Giovanni. "Everything he imagines is colossal already. He talks about tunnelling the mountains for my aqueduct, as though it were no more trouble than to run a stick through a piece of paper."
"Your aqueduct, indeed!" exclaimed his father. "I would like to know whose idea it was?"
"I hear you are working like an engineer yourself, Don Giovanni," said Corona. "I have a man at work at Astrardente on some plans of roads. Perhaps some day you could give us your advice."
Some day! How sweet the words sounded to Giovanni as he sat opposite the woman he loved, bowling along through the rich vine lands in the cool of the summer evening!
The opportunity which Giovanni sought of being alone with Corona was long in coming. Sister Gabrielle retired immediately after dinner, and the Duchessa was left alone with the two men. Old Saracinesca would gladly have left his son with the hostess, but the thing was evidently impossible. The manners of the time would not allow it, and the result was that the Prince spent the evening in making conversation for two rather indifferent listeners. He tried to pick a friendly quarrel with Giovanni, but the latter was too absent-minded even to be annoyed; he tried to excite the Duchessa's interest, but she only smiled gently, making a remark from time to time which was conspicuous for its irrelevancy. But old Saracinesca was in a good humour, and he bore up bravely until ten o'clock, when Corona gave the signal for retiring. They were to start very early in the morning, she said, and she must have rest.
When the two men were alone, the Prince turned upon his son in semi-comic anger, and upbraided him with his obstinate dulness during the evening. Giovanni only smiled calmly, and shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing more to be said.
But on the following morning, soon after six o'clock, Giovanni had the supreme satisfaction of installing Corona beside him upon the driving-seat of his cart, while his father and Sister Gabrielle sat together behind him. The sun was not yet above the hills, and the mountain air was keen and fresh; the stamping of the horses sounded crisp and sharp, and their bells rang merrily as they shook their sturdy necks and pricked their short ears to catch Giovanni's voice.
"Have you forgotten nothing, Duchessa?" asked Giovanni, gathering the reins in his hand.
"Nothing, thanks. I have sent our things on mules—by the bridle-path." She smiled involuntarily as she recalled her adventure, and half turned her face away.
"Ah, yes—the bridle-path," repeated Giovanni, as he nodded to the groom to stand clear of the horses' heads. In a moment they were briskly descending the winding road through the town of Astrardente: the streets were quiet and cool, for the peasants had all gone to their occupations two hours before, and the children were not yet turned loose.
"I never hoped to have the honour of myself driving you to Saracinesca," said Giovanni. "It is a wild place enough, in its way. You will be able to fancy yourself in Switzerland."
"I would rather be in Italy," answered Corona. "I do not care for the Alps. Our own mountains are as beautiful, and are not infested by tourists."
"You are a tourist to-day," said Giovanni. "And it has pleased Heaven to make me your guide."
"I will listen to your explanations of the sights with interest."
"It is a reversal of the situation, is it not? When we last met, it was you who guided me, and I humbly followed your instructions. I did precisely as you told me."
"Had I doubted that you would do as I asked, I would not have spoken," answered Corona.
"There was one thing you advised me to do which I have not even attempted."
"What was that?"
"You told me to forget you. I have spent six months in constantly remembering you, and in looking forward to this moment. Was I wrong?"
"Of course," replied the Duchessa, with a little laugh. "You should by this time have forgotten my existence. They said you were gone to the North Pole—why did you change your mind?"
"I followed my load-star. It led me from Rome to Saracinesca by the way of Paris. I should have remained at Saracinesca—but you also changed your mind. I began to think you never would."
"How long do you think of staying up there?" asked Corona, to turn the conversation.
"Just so long as you stay at Astrardente," he answered. "You will not forbid me to follow you to Rome?"
"How can I prevent you if you choose to do it?"
"By a word, as you did before."
"Do you think I would speak that word?" she asked.
"I trust not. Why should you cause me needless pain and suffering? It was right then, it is not right now. Besides, you know me too well to think that I would annoy you or thrust myself upon you. But I will do as you wish."
"Thank you," she said quietly. But she turned her dark face toward him, and looked at him for a moment very gently, almost lovingly. Where was the use of trying to conceal what would not be hidden? Every word he spoke told of his unchanged love, although the phrases were short and simple. Why should she conceal what she felt? She knew it was a foregone conclusion. They loved each other, and she would certainly marry him in the course of a year. The long pent up forces of her nature were beginning to assert themselves; she had conquered and fought down her natural being in the effort to be all things to her old husband, to quench her growing interest in Giovanni, to resist his declared love, to drive him from her in her widowhood; but now it seemed as though all obstacles were suddenly removed. She saw clearly how well she loved him, and it seemed folly to try and conceal it. As she sat by his side she was unboundedly happy, as she had never been in her life before: the cool morning breeze fanned her cheeks, and the music of his low voice soothed her, while the delicious sense of rapid motion lent a thrill of pleasure to every breath she drew. It was no matter what she said; it was as though she spoke unconsciously. All seemed predestined and foreplanned from all time, to be acted out to the end. The past vanished slowly as a retreating landscape. The weary traveller, exhausted with the heat of the scorching Campagna, slowly climbs the ascent towards Tivoli, the haven of cool waters, and pausing now and then upon the path, looks back and sees how the dreary waste of undulating hillocks beneath him seems gradually to subside into a dim flat plain, while, in the far distance, the mighty domes and towers of Rome dwindle to an unreal mirage in the warm haze of the western sky; then advancing again, he feels the breath of the mountains upon him, and hears the fresh plunge of the cold cataract, till at last, when his strength is almost failing, it is renewed within him, and the dust and the heat of the day's journey are forgotten in the fulness of refreshment. So Corona d'Astrardente, wearied though not broken by the fatigues and the troubles and the temptations of the past five years, seemed suddenly to be taken up and borne swiftly through the gardens of an earthly paradise, where there was neither care nor temptation, and where, in the cool air of a new life, the one voice she loved was ever murmuring gentle things to her willing ear.
As the road began to ascend, sweeping round the base of the mountain and upwards by even gradations upon its southern flank, the sun rose higher in the heavens, and the locusts broke into their summer song among the hedges with that even, long-drawn, humming note, so sweet to southern ears. But Corona did not feel the heat, nor notice the dust upon the way; she was in a new state, wherein such things could not trouble her. The first embarrassment of a renewed intimacy was fast disappearing, and she talked easily to Giovanni of many things, reviewing past scenes and speaking of mutual acquaintances, turning the conversation when it concerned Giovanni or herself too directly, yet ever and again coming back to that sweet ground which was no longer dangerous now. At last, at a turn in the road, the grim towers of ancient Saracinesca loomed in the distance, and the carriage entered a vast forest of chestnut trees, shady and cool after the sunny ascent. So they reached the castle, and the sturdy horses sprang wildly forward up the last incline till their hoofs struck noisily upon the flagstones of the bridge, and with a rush and a plunge they dashed under the black archway, and halted in the broad court beyond.
Corona was surprised at the size of the old fortress. It seemed an endless irregular mass of towers and buildings, all of rough grey stone, surrounded by battlements and ramparts, kept in perfect repair, but destitute of any kind of ornament whatever. It might have been even now a military stronghold, and it was evident that there were traditions of precision and obedience within its walls which would have done credit to any barracks. The dominant temper of the master made itself felt at every turn, and the servants moved quickly and silently about their duties. There was something intensely attractive to Corona in the air of strength that pervaded the place, and Giovanni had never seemed to her so manly and so much in his element as under the grey walls of his ancestral home. The place, too, was associated in history with so many events,—the two men, Leone and Giovanni Saracinesca, stood there beside her, where their ancestors of the same names had stood nearly a thousand years before, their strong dark faces having the same characteristics that for centuries had marked their race, features familiar to Romans by countless statues and pictures, as the stones of Rome themselves—but for a detail of dress, it seemed to Corona as though she had been suddenly transported back to the thirteenth century. The idea fascinated her. The two men led her up the broad stone staircase, and ushered her and Sister Gabrielle into the apartments of state which had been prepared for them.
"We have done our best," said the Prince, "but it is long since we have entertained ladies at Saracinesca."
"It is magnificent!" exclaimed Corona, as she entered the ante-chamber. The walls were hung from end to end with priceless tapestries, and the stone floor was covered with long eastern carpets. Corona paused.
"You must show us all over the castle by-and-by," she said.
"Giovanni will show you everything," answered the Prince. "If it pleases you, we will breakfast in half-an-hour." He turned away with his son, and left the two ladies to refresh themselves before the mid-day meal.
Giovanni kept his word, and spared his guests no detail of the vast stronghold, until at last poor Sister Gabrielle could go no farther. Giovanni had anticipated that she would be tired, and with the heartlessness of a lover seeking his opportunity, he had secretly longed for the moment when she should, be obliged to stop.
"You have not yet seen the view from the great tower," he said. "It is superb, and this is the very best hour for it. Are you tired, Duchessa?"
"No—I am never tired," answered Corona.
"Why not go with Giovanni?" suggested the Prince. "I will stay with Sister Gabrielle, who has nearly exhausted herself with seeing our sights."
Corona hesitated. The idea of being alone with Giovanni for a quarter of an hour was delightful, but somehow it did not seem altogether fitting for her to be wandering over the castle with him. On the other hand, to refuse would seem almost an affectation: she was not in Rome, where her every movement was a subject for remark; moreover, she was not only a married woman, but a widow, and she had known Giovanni for years—it would be ridiculous to refuse.
"Very well," said she. "Let us see the view before it is too late."
Sister Gabrielle and old Saracinesea sat down on a stone seat upon the rampart to wait, and the Duchessa disappeared with Giovanni through the low door that led into the great tower.
"What a wonderful woman you are!" exclaimed Giovanni, as they reached the top of the winding stair, which was indeed broader than the staircase of many great houses in Rome. "You seem to be never tired."
"No—I am very strong," answered Corona, with a smile. She was not even out of breath. "What a wonderful view!" she exclaimed, as they emerged upon the stone platform at the top of the tower. Giovanni was silent for a moment. The two stood together and looked far out at the purple mountains to eastward that caught the last rays of the sun high up above the shadows of the valley; and then looking down, they saw the Prince and the Sister a hundred feet below them upon the rampart.
Both were thinking of the same thing: three days ago, their meeting had seemed infinitely far off, a thing dreamed of and hoped for—and now they were standing alone upon the topmost turret of Giovanni's house, familiar with each other by a long day's conversation, feeling as though they had never been parted, feeling also that most certainly they would not be parted again.
"It is very strange," said Giovanni, "how things happen in this world, and how little we ever know of what is before us. Last week I wondered whether I should ever see you—now I cannot imagine not seeing you. Is it not strange?"
"Yes," answered Corona, in a low voice.
"That, yesterday, we should have seemed parted by an insurmountable barrier, and that to-day—" he stopped. "Oh, if to-day could only last for ever!" he exclaimed, suddenly.
Corona gazed out upon the purple hills in silence, but her face caught some of the radiance of the distant glow, and her dark eyes had strange lights in them. She could not have prevented him from speaking; she had loosed the bonds that had held her life so long; the anchor was up, and the breath of love fanned the sails, and gently bore the craft in which she trusted out to seaward over the fair water. In seeing him she had resigned herself to him, and she could not again get the mastery if she would. It had come too soon, but it was sweet.
"And why not?" he said, very softly. "Why should it not remain so for ever—till our last breath? Why will you not let it last?"
Still she was silent; but the tears gathered slowly in her eyes, and welled over and lay upon her velvet cheek like dewdrops on the leaves of a soft dark tulip. Giovanni saw them, and knew that they were the jewels which crowned his life.
"You will," he said, his broad brown hand gently covering her small fingers and taking them in his. "You will—I know that you will."
She said nothing, and though she at first made a slight movement—not of resistance, but of timid reluctance, utterly unlike herself—she suffered him to hold her hand. He drew closer to her, himself more diffident in the moment of success than he had ever been when he anticipated failure; she was so unlike any woman he had ever known before. Very gently he put his arm about her, and drew her to him.
"My beloved—at last," he whispered, as her head sank upon his shoulder.
Then with a sudden movement she sprang to her height, and for one instant gazed upon him. Her whole being was transfigured in the might of her passion: her dark face was luminously pale, her lips almost white, and from her eyes there seemed to flash a blazing fire. For one instant she gazed upon him, and then her arms went round his neck, and she clasped him fiercely to her breast.
"Ah, Giovanni," she cried, passionately, "you do not know what love means!"
A moment later her arms dropped from him; she turned and buried her face in her hands, leaning against the high stone parapet of the tower. She was not weeping, but her face was white, and her bosom heaved with quick and strong-drawn breath.
Giovanni went to her side and took her strongly in his right arm, and again her head rested upon his shoulder.
"It is too soon—too soon," she murmured. "But how can I help it? I love you so that there is no counting of time. It seems years since we met last night, and I thought it would be years before I told you. Oh, Giovanni, I am so happy! Is it possible that you love me as I love you?"
It is a marvellous thing to see how soon two people who love each other learn the gentle confidence that only love can bring. A few moments later Giovanni and Corona were slowly pacing the platform, and his arm was about her waist and her hand in his.
"Do you know," she was saying, "I used to wonder whether you would keep your word, and never try to see me. The days were so long at Astrardente."
"Not half so long as at Saracinesca," he answered. "I was going to call my aqueduct the Bridge of Sighs; I will christen it now the Spring of Love."
"I must go and see it to-morrow," said she.
"Or the next day—"
"The next day!" she exclaimed, with a happy laugh. "Do you think I am going to stay—"
"For ever," interrupted Giovanni. "We have a priest here, you know,—he can marry us to-morrow, and then you need never go away."
Corona's face grew grave.
"We must not talk of that yet," she said, gently, "even in jest."
"No; you are right. Forgive me," he answered; "I forget many things—it seems to me I have forgotten everything, except that I love you."
"Giovanni,"—she lingered on the name,—"Giovanni, we must tell your father at once."
"Are you willing I should?" he asked, eagerly.
"Of course—he ought to know; and Sister Gabrielle too. But no one else must be told. There must be no talk of this in Rome until—until next year."
"We will stay in the country until then, shall we not?" asked Giovanni, anxiously. "It seems to me so much better. We can meet here, and nobody will talk. I will go and live in the town at Astrardente, and play the engineer, and build your roads for you."
"I hardly know," said Corona, with a doubtful smile. "You could not do that. But you may come and spend the day once—in a week, perhaps."
"We will arrange all that," answered Giovanni, laughing. "If you think I can exist by only seeing you once a week—well, you do not know me."
"We shall see," returned Corona, laughing too. "By the bye, how long have we been here?"
"I do not know," said Giovanni; "but the view is magnificent, is it not?"
"Enchanting," she replied, looking into his eyes. Then suddenly the blood mounted to her cheeks. "Oh, Giovanni," she said, "how could I do it?"
"I should have died if you had not," he answered, and clasped her once more in his arms.
"Come," said she, "let us be going down. It is growing late."
When they reached the foot of the tower, they found the Prince walking the rampart alone. Sister Gabrielle was afraid of the evening air, and had retired into the house. Old Saracinesca faced them suddenly. He looked like an old lion, his thick white hair and beard bristling about his dark features.
"My father," said Giovanni, coming forward, "the Duchessa d'Astrardente has consented to be my wife. I crave your blessing."
The old man started, and then stood stock-still. His son had fairly taken his breath away, for he had not expected the news for three or four months to come. Then he advanced and took Corona's hand, and kissed it.
"Madam," he said, "you have done my son an honour which extends to myself and to every Saracinesca, dead, living, and to come."
Then he laid Corona's hand in Giovanni's, and held his own upon them both.
"God bless you," he said, solemnly; and as Corona bent her proud head, he touched her forehead with his lips. Then he embraced Giovanni, and his joy broke out in wild enthusiasm.
"Ha, my children," he cried, "there has not been such a couple as you are for generations—there has not been such good news told in these old walls since they have stood here. We will illuminate the castle, the whole town, in your honour—we will ring the bells and have a Te Deum sung—we will have such a festival as was never seen before—we will go to Rome to-morrow and celebrate the espousal—we will—"
"Softly, padre mio," interrupted Giovanni. "No one must know as yet. You must consider—"
"Consider what? consider the marriage? Of course we will consider it, as soon as you please. You shall have such a wedding as was never heard of— you shall be married by the Cardinal Archpriest of Saint Peter's, by the Holy Father himself. The whole country shall ring with it."
It was with difficulty Giovanni succeeded in calming his father's excitement, and in recalling to his mind the circumstances which made it necessary to conceal the engagement for the present. But at last the old man reluctantly consented, and returned to a quieter humour. For some time the three continued to pace the stone rampart.
"This is a case of arrant cruelty to a man of my temper," said the Prince. "To be expected to behave like an ordinary creature, with grins and smiles and decent paces, when I have just heard what I have longed to hear for years. But I will revenge myself by making a noise about it by-and-by. I will concoct schemes for your wedding, and dream of nothing but illuminations and decorations. You shall be Prince of Sant' Ilario, Giovanni, as I was before my father died; and I will give you that estate outright, and the palace in the Corso to live in."
"Perhaps we might live in my palace," suggested Corona. It seemed strange to her to be discussing her own marriage, but it was necessary to humour the old Prince. "Of course," he said. "I forgot all about it. You have places enough to live in. One forgets that you will in the end be the richest couple in Italy. Ha!" he cried, in sudden enthusiasm, "the Saracinesca are not dead yet! They are greater than ever—and our lands here so near together, too. We will build a new road to Astrardente, and when you are married you shall be the first to drive over it from Astrardente here. We will do all kinds of things—we will tunnel the mountain!"
"I am sure you will do that in the end," said Giovanni, laughing.
"Well—let us go to dinner," answered his father. "It has grown quite dark since we have been talking, and we shall be falling over the edge if we are not careful."