"I will go and tell Sister Gabrielle before dinner," said Corona to Giovanni.
So they left her at the door of her apartment, and she went in. She found the Sister in an inner room, with a book of devotions in her hand.
"Pray for me, my Sister," she said, quietly. "I have resolved upon a great step. I am going to be married again."
Sister Gabrielle looked up, and a quiet smile stole over her thin face.
"It is soon, my friend," she said. "It is soon to think of that. But perhaps you are right—is it the young Prince?"
"Yes," answered Corona, and sank into a deep tapestried chair. "It is soon I know well. But it has been long—have struggled hard—I love him very much—so much, you do not know!"
The Sister sighed faintly, and came and took her hand.
"It is right that you should marry," she said, gently. "You are too young, too famously beautiful, too richly endowed, to lead the life you have led at Astrardente these many months."
"It is not that," said Corona, an expression of strange beauty illuminating her lovely face. "Not that I am young, beautiful as you say, if it is so, or endowed with riches—those reasons are nothing. It is this that tells me," she whispered, pressing her left hand to her heart. "When one loves as I love, it is right."
"Indeed it is," assented the good Sister. "And I think you have chosen wisely. When will you be married?"
"Hardly before next summer—I can hardly think connectedly yet—it has been very sudden. I knew I should marry him in the end, but I never thought I could consent so soon. Oh, Sister Gabrielle, you are so good—were you never in love?"
The Sister was silent, and looked away.
"No—of course you cannot tell me," continued Corona; "but it is such a wonderful thing. It makes days seem like hundreds of years, or makes them pass in a flash of light, in a second. It oversets every idea of time, and plays with one's resolutions as the wind with a feather. If once it gets the mastery of one, it crowds a lifetime of pain and pleasure into one day; it never leaves one for a moment. I cannot explain love—it is a wonderful thing."
"My dear friend," said the Sister, "the explanation of love is life."
"But the end of it is not death. It cannot be," continued Corona, earnestly. "It must last for ever and ever. It must grow better and purer and stronger, until it is perfect in heaven at last: but where is the use of trying to express such things?"
"I think it is enough to feel them," said Sister Gabrielle.
The summer season ripened into autumn, and autumn again turned to winter, and Rome was once more full. The talk of society turned frequently upon the probability of the match between the Duchessa d'Astrardente and Giovanni Saracinesca; and when at last, three weeks before Lent, the engagement was made known, there was a general murmur of approbation. It seemed as though the momentous question of Corona's life, which had for years agitated the gossips, were at last to be settled: every one had been accustomed to regard her marriage with old Astrardente as a temporary affair, seeing that he certainly could not live long, and speculation in regard to her future had been nearly as common during his lifetime as it was after his death. One of the duties most congenial to society, and one which it never fails to perform conscientiously, is that judicial astrology, whereby it forecasts the issue of its neighbour's doings. Everybody's social horoscope must be cast by the circle of five-o'clock-tea-drinking astro-sociologists, and, generally speaking, their predictions are not far short of the truth, for society knoweth its own bitterness, and is uncommonly quick in the diagnosis of its own state of health.
When it was announced that Corona was to marry Giovanni after Easter, society looked and saw that the arrangement was good. There was not one dissenting voice heard in the universal applause. Corona had behaved with exemplary decency during the year of her mourning—had lived a life of religious retirement upon her estates in the sole company of a Sister of Charity, had given no cause for scandal in any way. Everybody aspired to like her—that is to say, to be noticed by her; but with one exception, she had caused no jealousy nor ill-feeling by her indifference, for no one had ever heard her say an unkind word concerning anybody she knew. Donna Tullia had her own reasons for hating Corona, and perhaps the world suspected them; but people did not connect the noisy Donna Tullia, full of animal spirits and gay silly talk, with the idea of serious hatred, much less with the execution of any scheme of revenge.
Indeed Madame Mayer had not spent the summer and autumn in nursing her wrath against Corona. She had travelled with the old Countess, her companion, and several times Ugo del Ferice had appeared suddenly at the watering-places which she had selected for her temporary residence. From time to time he gave her news of mutual friends, which she repaid conscientiously with interesting accounts of the latest scandals. They were a congenial pair, and Ugo felt that by his constant attention to her wishes, and by her never-varying willingness to accept his service, he had obtained a hold upon her intimacy which, in the ensuing winter, would give him a decided advantage over all competitors in the field. She believed that she might have married half-a-dozen times, and that with her fortune she could easily have made a very brilliant match; she even thought that she could have married Valdarno, who was very good-natured: but her attachment to Giovanni, and the expectations she had so long entertained in regard to him, had prevented her from showing any marked preference for others; and while she was hesitating, Del Ferice, by his superior skill, had succeeded in making himself indispensable to her—a success the more remarkable that, in spite of his gifts and the curious popularity he enjoyed, he was by far the least desirable man of her acquaintance from the matrimonial point of view.
But when Donna Tullia again met Giovanni in the world, the remembrance of her wrongs revived her anger against him, and the news of his engagement to the Astrardente brought matters to a climax. In the excitement of the moment, both her jealousy and her anger were illuminated by the light of a righteous wrath. She knew, or thought she knew, that Don Giovanni was already married. She had no proof that the peasant wife mentioned in the certificate was alive, but there was nothing either to show that she was dead. Even in the latter ease it was a scandalous thing that he should marry again without informing Corona of the circumstances of his past life, and Donna Tullia felt an inner conviction that he had told the Duchessa nothing of the matter. The latter was such a proud woman, that she would be horrified at the idea of uniting herself to a man who had been the husband of a peasant.
Madame Mayer remembered her solemn promise to Del Ferice, and feared to act without his consent. An hour after she had heard the news of the engagement, she sent for him to come to her immediately. To her astonishment and dismay, her servant brought back word that he had suddenly gone to Naples upon urgent business. This news made her pause; but while the messenger had been gone to Del Ferice's house, Donna Tullia had been anticipating and going over in her mind the scene which would ensue when she told Corona the secret. Donna Tullia was a very sanguine woman, and the idea of at last being revenged for all the slights she had received worked suddenly upon her brain, so that as she paced her drawing-room in expectation of the arrival of Del Ferice, she entirely acted out in her imagination the circumstances of the approaching crisis, the blood beat hotly in her temples, and she lost all sense of prudence in the delicious anticipation of violent words. Del Ferice had cruelly calculated upon her temperament, and he had hoped that in the excitement of the moment she would lose her head, and irrevocably commit herself to him by the betrayal of the secret. This was precisely what occurred. On being told that he was out of town, she could no longer contain herself, and with a sudden determination to risk anything blindly, rather than to forego the pleasure and the excitement she had been meditating, she ordered her carriage and drove to the Palazzo Astrardente.
Corona was surprised at the unexpected visit. She was herself on the point of going out, and was standing in her boudoir, drawing on her black gloves before the fire, while her furs lay upon a chair at her side. She wondered why Donna Tullia called, and it was in part her curiosity which induced her to receive her visit. Donna Tullia, armed to the teeth with the terrible news she was about to disclose, entered the room quickly, and remained standing before the Duchessa with a semi-tragic air that astonished Corona.
"How do you do, Donna Tullia?" said the latter, putting out her hand.
"I have come to speak to you upon a very serious matter," answered her visitor, without noticing the greeting.
Corona stared at her for a moment, but not being easily disconcerted, she quietly motioned to Donna Tullia to sit down, and installed herself in a chair opposite to her.
"I have just heard the news that you are to marry Don Giovanni Saracinesca," said Madame Mayer. "You will pardon me the interest I take in you; but is it true?"
"It is quite true," answered Corona.
"It is in connection with your marriage that I wish to speak, Duchessa. I implore you to reconsider your decision."
"And why, if you please?" asked Corona, raising her black eyebrows, and fixing her haughty gaze upon her visitor.
"I could tell you—I would rather not," answered Donna Tullia, unabashed, for her blood was up. "I could tell you—but I beseech you not to ask me. Only consider the matter again, I beg you. It is very serious. Nothing but the great interest I feel in you, and my conviction—"
"Donna Tullia, your conduct is so extraordinary," interrupted Corona, looking at her curiously, "that I am tempted to believe you are mad. I must beg you to explain what you mean by your words."
"Ah, no," answered Madame Mayer. "You do me injustice. I am not mad, but I would save you from the most horrible danger."
"Again I say, what do you mean? I will not be trifled with in this way," said the Duchessa, who would have been more angry if she had been less astonished, but whose temper was rapidly rising.
"I am not trifling with you," returned Donna Tullia. "I am imploring you to think before you act, before you marry Don Giovanni. You cannot think that I would venture to intrude upon you without the strongest reasons. I am in earnest."
"Then, in heaven's name, speak out!" cried Corona, losing all patience. "I presume that if this is a warning, you have some grounds, you have some accusation to make against Don Giovanni. Have the goodness to state what you have to say, and be brief."
"I will," said Donna Tullia, and she paused a moment, her face growing red with excitement, and her blue eyes sparkling disagreeably. "You cannot marry Don Giovanni," she said at length, "because there is an insurmountable impediment in the way."
"What is it?" asked Corona, controlling her anger.
"He is already married!" hissed Donna Tullia.
Corona turned a little pale, and started back. But in an instant her colour returned, and she broke into a low laugh.
"You are certainly insane," she said, eyeing Madame Mayer suspiciously. It was not an easy matter to shake her faith in the man she loved. Donna Tullia was disappointed at the effect she had produced. She was a clever woman in her way, but she did not understand how to make the best of the situation. She saw that she was simply an object of curiosity, and that Corona seriously believed her mind deranged. She was frightened, and, in order to help herself, she plunged deeper.
"You may call me mad, if you please," she replied, angrily. "I tell you it is true. Don Giovanni was married on the 19th of June 1863, at Aquila, in the Abruzzi, to a woman called Felice Baldi—whoever she may have been. The register is extant, and the duplicate of the marriage certificate. I have seen the copies attested by a notary. I tell you it is true," she continued, her voice rising to a harsh treble; "you are engaged to marry a man who has a wife—a peasant woman—somewhere in the mountains."
Corona rose from her seat and put out her hand to ring the bell. She was pale, but not excited. She believed Donna Tullia to be insane, perhaps dangerous, and she calmly proceeded to protect herself by calling for assistance.
"Either you are mad, or you mean what you say," she said, keeping her eyes upon the angry woman before her. "You will not leave this house except in charge of my physician, if you are mad; and if you mean what you say, you shall not go until you have repeated your words to Don Giovanni Saracinesca himself,—no, do not start or try to escape—it is of no use. I am very sudden and violent—beware!"
Donna Tullia bit her red lip. She was beginning to realise that she had got herself into trouble, and that it might be hard to get out of it. But she felt herself strong, and she wished she had with her those proofs which would make her case good. She was so sanguine by nature that she was willing to carry the fight to the end, and to take her chance for the result.
"You may send for Don Giovanni if you please," she said. "I have spoken the truth—if he denies it I can prove it. If I were you I would spare him the humiliation—"
A servant entered the room in answer to the bell, and Corona interrupted Donna Tullia's speech by giving the man her orders.
"Go at once to the Palazzo Saracinesca, and beg Don Giovanni to come here instantly with his father the Prince. Take the carriage—it is waiting below."
The man disappeared, and Corona quietly resumed her seat. Donna Tullia was silent for a few moments, attempting to control her anger in an assumption of dignity; but soon she broke out afresh, being rendered very nervous and uncomfortable by the Duchessa's calm manner and apparent indifference to consequences.
"I cannot see why you should expose yourself to such a scene," said Madame Mayer presently. "I honestly wished to save you from a terrible danger. It seems to me it would be quite sufficient if I proved the fact to you beyond dispute. I should think that instead of being angry, you would show some gratitude."
"I am not angry," answered Corona, quietly. "I am merely giving you an immediate opportunity of proving your assertion and your sanity."
"My sanity!" exclaimed Donna Tullia, angrily. "Do you seriously believe—"
"Nothing that you say," said Corona, completing the sentence.
Unable to bear the situation, Madame Mayer rose suddenly from her seat, and began to pace the small room with short, angry steps.
"You shall see," she said, fiercely—"you shall see that it is all true. You shall see this man's face when I accuse him—you shall see him humiliated, overthrown, exposed in his villany—the wretch! You shall see how—"
Corona's strong voice interrupted her enemy's invective in ringing tones.
"Be silent!" she cried. "In twenty minutes he will be here. But if you say one word against him before he comes, I will lock you into this room and leave you. I certainly will not hear you."
Donna Tullia reflected that the Duchessa was in her own house, and moreover that she was not a woman to be trifled with. She threw herself into a chair, and taking up a book that lay upon the table, she pretended to read.
Corona remained seated by the fireplace, glancing at her from time to time. She was strangely inclined to laugh at the whole situation, which seemed to her absurd in the extreme—for it never crossed her mind to believe that there was a word of truth in the accusation against Giovanni. Nevertheless she was puzzled to account for Donna Tullia's assurance, and especially for her readiness to face the man she so calumniated. A quarter of an hour elapsed in this armed silence—the two women glancing at each other from time to time, until the distant sound of wheels rolling under the great gate announced that the messenger had returned from the Palazzo Saracinesca, probably conveying Don Giovanni and his father.
"Then you have made up your mind to the humiliation of the man you love?" asked Donna Tullia, looking up from her book with a sneer on her face.
Corona vouchsafed no answer, but her eyes turned towards the door in expectation. Presently there were steps heard without. The servant entered, and announced Prince Saracinesca and Don Giovanni. Corona rose. The old man came in first, followed by his son.
"An unexpected pleasure," he said, gaily. "Such good luck! We were both at home. Ah, Donna Tullia," he cried, seeing Madame Mayer, "how are you?" Then seeing her face, he added, suddenly, "Is anything the matter?"
Meanwhile Giovanni had entered, and stood by Corona's side near the fireplace. He saw at once that something was wrong, and he looked anxiously from the Duchessa to Donna Tullia. Corona spoke at once.
"Donna Tullia," she said, quietly, "I have the honour to offer you an opportunity of explaining yourself."
Madame Mayer remained seated by the table, her face red with anger. She leaned back in her seat, and half closing her eyes with a disagreeable look of contempt, she addressed Giovanni.
"I am sorry to cause you such profound humiliation," she began, "but in the interest of the Duchessa d'Astrardente I feel bound to speak. Don Giovanni, do you remember Aquila?"
"Certainly," he replied, coolly—"I have often been there. What of it?"
Old Saracinesca stared from one to the other.
"What is this comedy?" he asked of Corona. But she nodded to him to be silent.
"Then you doubtless remember Felice Baldi—poor Felice Baldi," continued Donna Tullia, still gazing scornfully up at Giovanni from where she sat.
"I never heard the name, that I can remember," answered Giovanni, as though trying to recall some memory of the past. He could not imagine what she was leading to, but he was willing to answer her questions.
"You do not remember that you were married to her at Aquila on the 19th of June—"
"I—married?" cried Giovanni, in blank astonishment.
"Signora Duchessa," said the Prince, bending his heavy brows, "what is the meaning of all this?"
"I will tell you the meaning of it," said Donna Tullia, in low hissing tones, and rising suddenly to her feet she assumed a somewhat theatrical attitude as she pointed to Giovanni. "I will tell what it means. It means that Don Giovanni Saracinesca was married in the church of San Bernardino, at Aquila, on the 19th of June 1863, to the woman Felice Baldi—who is his lawful wife to-day, and for aught we know the mother of his children, while he is here in Rome attempting to marry the Duchessa d'Astrardente—can he deny it? Can he deny that his own signature is there, there in the office of the State Civile at Aquila, to testify against him? Can he—?"
"Silence!" roared the Prince. "Silence, woman, or by God in heaven I will stop your talking for ever!" He made a step towards her, and there was a murderous red light in his black eyes. But Giovanni sprang forward and seized his father by the wrist.
"You cannot silence me," screamed Donna Tullia. "I will be heard, and by all Rome. I will cry it upon the housetops to all the world—"
"Then you will precipitate your confinement in the asylum of Santo Spirito," said Giovanni, in cold, calm tones. "You are clearly mad."
"So I said," assented Corona, who was nevertheless pale, and trembling with excitement.
"Allow me to speak with her," said Giovanni, who, like most dangerous men, seemed to grow cold as others grew hot. Donna Tullia leaned upon the table, breathing hard between her closed teeth, her face scarlet.
"Madame," said Giovanni, advancing a step and confronting her, "you say that I am married, and that I am contemplating a monstrous crime. Upon what do you base your extraordinary assertions?"
"Upon attested copies of your marriage certificate, of the civil register where your handwriting has been seen and recognised. What more would you have?"
"It is monstrous!" cried the Prince, advancing again. "It is the most abominable lie ever concocted! My son married without my knowledge, and to a peasant! Absurd!"
But Giovanni waved his father back, and kept his place before Donna Tullia.
"I give you the alternative of producing instantly those proofs you refer to," he said, "and which you certainly cannot produce, or of waiting in this house until a competent physician has decided whether you are sufficiently sane to be allowed to go home alone."
Donna Tullia hesitated. She was in a terrible position, for Del Ferice had left Rome suddenly, and though the papers were somewhere in his house, she knew not where, nor how to get at them. It was impossible to imagine a situation more desperate, and she felt it as she looked round and saw the pale dark faces of the three resolute persons whose anger she had thus roused. She believed that Giovanni was capable of anything, but she was astonished at his extraordinary calmness. She hesitated for a moment.
"That is perfectly just," said Corona. "If you have proofs, you can produce them. If you have none, you are insane."
"I have them, and I will produce them before this hour to-morrow," answered Donna Tullia, not knowing how she should get the papers, but knowing that she was lost if she failed to obtain them.
"Why not to-day—at once?" asked Giovanni, with some scorn.
"It will take twenty-four hours to forge them," growled his father.
"You have no right to insult me so grossly," cried Donna Tullia. "But beware—I have you in my power. By this time to-morrow you shall see with your own eyes that I speak the truth. Let me go," she cried, as the old Prince placed himself between her and the door.
"I will," said he. "But before you go, I beg you to observe that if between now and the time you show us these documents you breathe abroad one word of your accusations, I will have you arrested as a dangerous lunatic, and lodged in Santo Spirito; and if these papers are not authentic, you will be arrested to-morrow afternoon on a charge of forgery. You quite understand me?" He stood aside to let her pass. She laughed scornfully in his face, and went out.
When she was gone the three looked at each other, as though trying to comprehend what had happened. Indeed, it was beyond their comprehension. Corona leaned against the chimneypiece, and her eyes rested lovingly upon Giovanni. No doubt had ever crossed her mind of his perfect honesty. Old Saracinesca looked from one to the other for a moment, and then, striking the palms of his hands together, turned and began to walk up and down the room.
"In the first place," said Giovanni, "at the time she mentions I was in Canada, upon a shooting expedition, with a party of Englishmen. It is easy to prove that, as they are all alive and well now, so far as I have heard. Donna Tullia is clearly out of her mind."
"The news of your engagement has driven her mad," said the old Prince, with a grim laugh. "It is a very interesting and romantic case."
Corona blushed a little, and her eyes sought Giovanni's, but her face was very grave. It was a terrible thing to see a person she had known so long becoming insane, and for the sake of the man she herself so loved. And yet she had not a doubt of Donna Tullia's madness. It was very sad.
"I wonder who could have put this idea into her head," said Giovanni, thoughtfully. "It does not look like a creation of her own brain. I wonder, too, what absurdities she will produce in the way of documents. Of course they must be forged."
"She will not bring them," returned his father, in a tone of certainty. "We shall hear to-morrow that she is raving in the delirium of a brain-fever."
"Poor thing!" exclaimed Corona. "It is dreadful to think of it."
"It is dreadful to think that she should have caused you all this trouble and annoyance," said Giovanni, warmly. "You must have had a terrible scene with her before we came. What did she say?"
"Just what she said to you. Then she began to rail against you; and I sent for you, and told her that unless she could be silent I would lock her up alone until you arrived. So she sat down in that chair, and pretended to read. But it was an immense relief when you came!"
"You did not once believe what she said might possibly be true?" asked Giovanni, with a loving look.
"I? How could you ever think it!" exclaimed Corona. Then she laughed, and added, "But of course you knew that I would not."
"Indeed, yes," he answered. "It never entered my head."
"By-the-bye," said old Saracinesca, glancing at the Duchessa's black bonnet and gloved hands, "you must have been just ready to go out when she came—we must not keep you. I suppose that when she said she would bring her proofs to-morrow at this hour, she meant she would bring them here. Shall we come to-morrow then?"
"Yes—by all means," she answered. "Come to breakfast at one o'clock. I am alone, you know, for Sister Gabrielle has insisted upon going back to her community. But what does it matter now?"
"What does it matter?" echoed the Prince. "You are to be married so soon. I really think we can do as we please." He generally did as he pleased.
The two men left her, and a few minutes later she descended the steps of the palace and entered her carriage, as though nothing had happened.
Six months had passed since she had given her troth to Giovanni upon the tower of Saracinesca, and she knew that she loved him better now than then. Little had happened of interest in the interval of time, and the days had seemed long. But until after Christmas she had remained at Astrardente, busying herself constantly with the improvements she had already begun, and aided by the counsels of Giovanni. He had taken a cottage of hers in the lower part of her village, and had fitted it up with the few comforts he judged necessary. In this lodging he had generally spent half the week, going daily to the palace upon the hill and remaining for long hours in Corona's society, studying her plans and visiting with her the works which grew beneath their joint direction. She had grown to know him as she had not known him before, and to understand more fully his manly character. He was a very resolute man, and very much in earnest when he chanced to be doing anything; but the strain of melancholy which he inherited from his mother made him often inclined to a sort of contemplative idleness, during which his mind seemed preoccupied with absorbing thoughts. Many people called his fits of silence an affectation, or part of his system for rendering himself interesting; but Corona soon saw how real was his abstraction, and she saw also that she alone was able to attract his attention and interest him when the fit was upon him. Slowly, by a gradual study of him, she learned what few had ever guessed, namely, that beneath the experienced man of the world, under his modest manner and his gentle ways, there lay a powerful mainspring of ambition, a mine of strength, which would one day exert itself and make itself felt upon his surroundings. He had developed slowly, feeding upon many experiences of the world in many countries, his quick Italian intelligence comprehending often more than it seemed to do, while the quiet dignity he got from his Spanish blood made him appear often very cold. But now and again, when under the influence of some large idea, his tongue was loosed in the charm of Corona's presence, and he spoke to her, as he had never spoken to any one, of projects and plans which should make the world move. She did not always understand him wholly, but she knew that the man she loved was something more than the world at large believed him to be, and there was a thrill of pride in the thought which delighted her inmost soul. She, too, was ambitious, but her ambition was all for him. She felt that there was little room for common aspirations in his position or in her own. All that high birth, and wealth, and personal consideration could give, they both had abundantly, beyond their utmost wishes; anything they could desire beyond that must lie in a larger sphere of action than mere society, in the world of political power. She herself had had dreams, and entertained them still, of founding some great institution of charity, of doing something for her poorer fellows. But she learned by degrees that Giovanni looked further than to such ordinary means of employing power, and that there was in him a great ambition to bring great forces to bear upon great questions for the accomplishment of great results. The six months of her engagement to him had not only strengthened her love for him, already deep and strong, but had implanted in her an unchanging determination to second him in all his life, to omit nothing in her power which could assist him in the career he should choose for himself, and which she regarded as the ultimate field for his extraordinary powers. It was strange that, while granting him everything else, people had never thought of calling him a man of remarkable intelligence. But no one knew him as Corona knew him; no one suspected that there was in him anything more than the traditional temper of the Saracinesca, with sufficient mind to make him as fair a representative of his race as his father was.
There was more than mere love and devotion in the complete security she felt when she saw him attacked by Donna Tullia; there was already the certainty that he was born to be above small things, and to create a sphere of his own in which he would move as other men could not.
When Donna Tullia quitted the Palazzo Astrardente her head swam. She had utterly failed to do what she had expected; and from being the accuser, she felt that she was suddenly thrust into the position of the accused. Instead of inspiring terror in Corona, and causing Giovanni the terrible humiliation she had supposed he would feel at the exposure of his previous marriage, she had been coldly told that she was mad, and that her pretended proofs were forgeries. Though she herself felt no doubt whatever concerning the authenticity of the documents, it was very disappointing to find that the first mention of them produced no startling effect upon any one, least of all upon Giovanni himself. The man, she thought, was a most accomplished villain; since he was capable of showing such hardened indifference to her accusation, he was capable also of thwarting her in her demonstration of their truth—and she trembled at the thought of what she saw. Old Saracinesca was not a man to be trifled with, nor his son either: they were powerful, and would be revenged for the insult. But in the meanwhile she had promised to produce her proofs; and when she regained enough composure to consider the matter from all its points, she came to the conclusion that after all her game was not lost, seeing that attested documents are evidence not easily refuted, even by powerful men like Leone and Giovanni Saracinesca. She gradually convinced herself that their indifference was a pretence, and that they were accomplices in the matter, their object being to gain Corona with all her fortune for Giovanni's wife. But, at the same time, Donna Tullia felt in the depths of her heart a misgiving: she was clever enough to recognise, even in spite of herself, the difference between a liar and an honest man.
She must get possession of these papers—and immediately too; there must be no delay in showing them to Corona, and in convincing her that this was no mere fable, but an assertion founded upon very substantial evidence. Del Ferice was suddenly gone to Naples: obviously the only way to get at the papers was to bribe his servant to deliver them up. Ugo had once or twice mentioned Temistocle to her, and she judged from the few words he had let fall that the fellow was a scoundrel, who would sell his soul for money. Madame Mayer drove home, and put on the only dark-coloured gown she possessed, wound a thick veil about her head, provided herself with a number of bank-notes, which she thrust between the palm of her hand and her glove, left the house on foot, and took a cab. There was nothing to be done but to go herself, for she could trust no one. Her heart beat fast as she ascended the narrow stone steps of Del Ferice's lodging, and stopped upon the landing before the small green door, whereon she read his name. She pulled the bell, and Temistocle appeared in his shirt-sleeves.
"Does Count Del Ferice live here?" asked Donna Tullia, peering over the man's shoulder into the dark and narrow passage within.
"He lives here, but he is gone to Naples," answered Temistocle, promptly.
"When will he be back?" she inquired. The man raised his shoulders to his ears, and spread out the palms of his hands to signify that he did not know. Donna Tullia hesitated. She had never attempted to bribe anybody in her life, and hardly knew how to go about it. She thought that the sight of the money might produce an impression, and she withdrew a bank-note from the hollow of her hand, spreading it out between her fingers. Temistocle eyed it greedily.
"There are twenty-five scudi," she said. "If you will help me to find a piece of paper in your master's room, you shall have them."
Temistocle drew himself up with an air of mock pride. Madame Mayer looked at him.
"Impossible, signora," he said. Then she drew out another. Temistocle eyed the glove curiously to see if it contained more.
"Signora," he repeated, "it is impossible. My master would kill me. I cannot think of it." But his tone seemed to yield a little. Donna Tullia found another bank-note; there were now seventy-five scudi in her hand. She thought she saw Temistocle tremble with excitement. But still he hesitated.
"Signora, my conscience," he said, in a low voice of protestation.
"Come," said Madame Mayer, impatiently, "there is another—there are a hundred scudi—that is all I have got," she added, turning down her empty glove.
Suddenly Temistocle put out his hand and grasped the bank-notes eagerly. But instead of retiring to allow her to enter, he pushed roughly past her.
"You may go in," he said in a hoarse whisper, and turning quickly, fled precipitately down the narrow steps, in his shirt-sleeves as he was. Madame Mayer stood for a moment looking after him in surprise, even when he had already disappeared.
Then she turned and entered the door rather timidly; but before she had gone two steps in the dark passage, she uttered a cry of horror. Del Ferice stood in her way, wrapped in a loose dressing-gown, a curious expression upon his pale face, which from its whiteness was clearly distinguishable in the gloom. Temistocle had cheated her, had lied in telling her that his master was absent, had taken her bribe and had fled. He would easily find an excuse for having allowed her to enter; and with his quick valet's instinct, he guessed that she would not confess to Del Ferice that she had bribed him. Ugo came forward a step and instantly recognised Madame Mayer.
"Donna Tullia!" he cried, "what are you doing? You must not be seen here."
A less clever man than Ugo would have pretended to be overjoyed at her coming. Del Fence's fine instincts told him that for whatever cause she had come—and he guessed the cause well enough—he would get a firmer hold upon her consideration by appearing to be shocked at her imprudence. Donna Tullia was nearly fainting with fright, and stood leaning against the wall of the passage.
"I thought—I—I must see you at once," she stammered.
"Not here," he answered, quickly. "Go home at once; I will join you in five minutes. It will ruin you to have it known that you have been here."
Madame Mayer took courage at his tone.
"You must bring them—those papers," she said, hurriedly. "Something dreadful has happened. Promise me to come at once!"
"I will come at once, my dear lady," he said, gently pushing her towards the door. "I cannot even go downstairs with you—forgive me. You have your carriage of course?"
"I have a cab," replied Donna Tullia, faintly, submitting to be put out of the door. He seized her hand and kissed it passionately, or with a magnificent semblance of passion. With a startled look, Donna Tullia turned and went rapidly down the steps. Del Ferice smiled softly to himself when she was gone, and went in again to exchange his dressing-gown for a coat. He had her in his power at last. He had guessed that she would betray the secret—that after the engagement became known, she would not be able to refrain from communicating it to Corona d'Astrardente; and so soon as he heard the news, he had shut himself up in his lodging, pretending a sudden journey to Naples, determined not to set foot out of the house until he heard that Donna Tullia had committed herself. He knew that when she had once spoken she would make a desperate attempt to obtain the papers, for he knew that such an assertion as hers would need to be immediately proved, at the risk of her position in society. His plot had succeeded so far. His only anxiety was to know whether she had mentioned his name in connection with the subject, but he guessed, from his knowledge of her character, that she would not do so: she would respect her oath enough to conceal his name, even while breaking her promise; she would enjoy taking the sole credit of the discovery upon herself, and she would shun an avowal which would prove her to have discussed with any one else the means of preventing the marriage, because it would be a confession of jealousy, and consequently of personal interest in Don Giovanni. Del Ferice was a very clever fellow.
He put on his coat, and in five minutes was seated in a cab on his way to Donna Tullia's house, with a large envelope full of papers in his pocket. He found her as she had left him, her face still wrapped in a veil, walking up and down her drawing-room in great excitement. He advanced and saluted her courteously, maintaining a dignified gravity of bearing which he judged fitting for the occasion.
"And now, my dear lady," he said, gently, "will you tell me exactly what you have done?"
"This morning," answered Madame Mayer, in a stifled voice, "I heard of the Astrardente's engagement to Don Giovanni. It seemed such a terrible thing!"
"Terrible, indeed," said Del Ferice, solemnly.
"I sent for you at once, to know what to do: they said you were gone to Naples. I thought, of course, that you would approve if you were here, because we ought to prevent such a dreadful crime—of course." She waited for some sign of assent, but Del Ferice's pale face expressed nothing but a sort of grave reproach.
"And then," she continued, "as I could not find you, I thought it was best to act at once, and so I went to see the Astrardente, feeling that you would entirely support me. There was a terrific scene. She sent for the two Saracinesca, and I—waited till they came, because I was determined to see justice done. I am sure I was right,—was I not?"
"What did they say?" asked Del Ferice, quietly watching her face.
"If you will believe it, that monster of villany, Don Giovanni, was as cold as stone, and denied the whole matter from beginning to end; but his father was very angry. Of course they demanded the proofs. I never saw anything like the brazen assurance of Don Giovanni."
"Did you mention me?" inquired Del Ferice.
"No, I had not seen you: of course I did not want to implicate you. I said I would show them the papers tomorrow at the same hour."
"And then you came to see me," said Del Ferice. "That was very rash. You might have seriously compromised yourself. I would have come if you had sent for me."
"But they said you had gone to Naples. Your servant," continued Donna Tullia, blushing scarlet at the remembrance of her interview with Temistocle,—"your servant assured me in person that you had gone to Naples—"
"I see," replied Del Ferice, quietly. He did not wish to press her to a confession of having tried to get the papers in his absence. His object was to put her at her ease.
"My dear lady," he continued, gently, "you have done an exceedingly rash thing; but I will support you in every way, by putting the documents in your possession at once. It is unfortunate that you should have acted so suddenly, for we do not know what has become of this Felice Baldi, nor have we any immediate means of finding out. It might have taken weeks to find her. Why were you so rash? You could have waited till I returned, and we could have discussed the matter carefully, and decided whether it were really wise to make use of my information."
"You do not doubt that I did right?" asked Donna Tullia, turning a little pale.
"I think you acted precipitately in speaking without consulting me. All may yet be well. But in the first place, as you did not ask my opinion, you will see the propriety of not mentioning my name, since you have not done so already. It can do no good, for the papers speak for themselves, and whatever value they may have is inherent in them. Do you see?"
"Of course there is no need of mentioning you, unless you wish to have a share in the exposure of this abominable wickedness."
"I am satisfied with my share," replied Del Ferice, with a quiet smile.
"It is not an important one," returned Donna Tullia, nervously.
"It is the lion's share," he answered. "Most adorable of women, you have not, I am sure, forgotten the terms of our agreement—terms so dear to me, that every word of them is engraven for ever upon the tablet of my heart."
Madame Mayer started slightly. She had not realised that her promise to marry Ugo was now due—she did not believe that he would press it; he had exacted it to frighten her, and besides, she had so persuaded herself that he would approve of her conduct, that she had not felt as though she were betraying his secret.
"You will not—you cannot hold me to that; you approve of telling the Astrardente, on the whole,—it is the same as though I had consulted you—"
"Pardon me, my dear lady; you did not consult me," answered Del Ferice, soothingly. He sat near her by the fire, his hat upon his knee, no longer watching her, but gazing contemplatively at the burning logs. There was a delicacy about his pale face since the wound he had received a year before which was rather attractive: from having been a little inclined to stoutness, he had grown slender and more graceful, partly because his health had really been affected by his illness, and partly because he had determined never again to risk being too fat.
"I tried to consult you," objected Donna Tullia. "It is the same thing."
"It is not the same thing to me," he answered, "although you have not involved me in the affair. I would have most distinctly advised you to say nothing about it at present. You have acted rashly, have put yourself in a most painful situation; and you have broken your promise to me—a very solemn promise, Donna Tullia, sworn upon the memory of your mother and upon a holy relic. One cannot make light of such promises as that."
"You made me give it in order to frighten me. The Church does not bind us to oaths sworn under compulsion," she argued.
"Excuse me; there was no compulsion whatever. You wanted to know my secret, and for the sake of knowing it you bound yourself. That is not compulsion. I cannot compel you. I could not think of presuming to compel you to marry me now. But I can say to you that I am devotedly attached to you, that to marry you is the aim and object of my life, and if you refuse, I will tell you that you are doing a great wrong, repudiating a solemn contract—"
"If I refuse—well—but you would give me the papers?" asked Donna Tullia, who was beginning to tremble for the result of the interview. She had a vague suspicion that, for the sake of obtaining them, she would even be willing to promise to marry Del Ferice. It would be very wrong, perhaps; but it would be for the sake of accomplishing good, by preventing Corona from falling into the trap—Corona, whom she hated! Still, it would be a generous act to save her. The minds of women like Madame Mayer are apt to be a little tortuous when they find themselves hemmed in between their own jealousies, hatreds, and personal interests.
"If you refused—no; if you refused, I am afraid I could not give you the papers," replied Del Ferice, musing as he gazed at the fire. "I love you too much to lose that chance of winning you, even for the sake of saving the Duchessa d'Astrardente from her fate. Why do you refuse? why do you bargain?" he asked, suddenly turning towards her. "Does all my devotion count for nothing—all my love, all my years of patient waiting? Oh, you cannot be so cruel as to snatch the cup from my very lips! It is not for the sake of these miserable documents: what is it to me whether Don Giovanni appears as the criminal in a case of bigamy—whether he is ruined now, as by his evil deeds he will be hereafter, or whether he goes on unharmed and unthwarted upon his career of wickedness? He is nothing to me, nor his pale-faced bride either. It is for you that I care, for you that I will do anything, bad or good, to win you that I would risk my life and my soul. Can you not see it? Have I not been faithful for very long? Take pity on me—forget this whole business, forget that you have promised anything, forget all except that I am here at your feet, a miserable man, unless you speak the word, and turn all my wretchedness into joy!"
He slipped from his seat and knelt upon one knee before her, clasping one of her hands passionately between both his own. The scene was well planned and well executed; his voice had a ring of emotion that sounded pleasantly in Donna Tullia's ears, and his hands trembled with excitement. She did not repulse him, being a vain woman and willing to believe in the reality of the passion so well simulated. Perhaps, too, it was not wholly put on, for she was a handsome, dashing woman, in the prime of youth, and Del Ferice was a man who had always been susceptible to charms of that kind. Donna Tullia hesitated, wondering what more he could say. But he, on his part, knew the danger of trusting too much to eloquence when not backed by a greater strength than his, and he pressed her for an answer.
"Be generous—trust me," he cried. "Believe that your happiness is everything to me; believe that I will take no unfair advantage of a hasty promise. Tell me that, of your own free will, you will be my wife, arid command me anything, that I may prove my devotion. It is so true, so honest,—Tullia, I adore you, I live only for you! Speak the word, and make me the happiest of men!"
He really looked handsome as he knelt before her, and she felt the light, nervous pressure of his hand at every word he spoke. After all, what did it matter? She might accept him, and then—well, if she did not like the idea, she could throw him over. It would only cost her a violent scene, and a few moments of discomfort. Meanwhile she would get the papers.
"But you would give me the papers, would you not, and leave me to decide whether—Really, Del Ferice," she said, interrupting herself with a nervous laugh, "this is very absurd."
"I implore you not to speak of the papers—it is not absurd. It may seem so to you, but it is life or death to me: death if you refuse me—life if you will speak the word and be mine!"
Donna Tullia made up her mind. He would evidently not give her what she wanted, except in return for a promise of marriage. She had grown used to him, almost fond of him, in the last year.
"Well, I do not know whether I am right," she said, "but I am really very fond of you; and if you will do all I say—"
"Everything, my dear lady; everything in the world I will do, if you will make me so supremely happy," cried Del Ferice, ardently.
"Then—yes; I will marry you. Only get up and sit upon your chair like a reasonable being. No; you really must be reasonable, or you must go away." Ugo was madly kissing her hands. He was really a good actor, if it was all acting. She could not but be moved by his pale delicate face and passionate words. With a quick movement he sprang to his feet and stood before her, clasping his hands together and gazing into her face.
"Oh, I am the happiest man alive to-day!" he exclaimed, and the sense of triumph that he felt lent energy to his voice.
"Do sit down," said Donna Tullia, gaily, "and let us talk it all over. In the first place, what am I to do first?"
Del Ferice found it convenient to let his excitement subside, and as a preliminary he walked twice the length of the room.
"It is so hard to be calm!" he exclaimed; but nevertheless he presently sat down in his former seat, and seemed to collect his faculties with wonderful ease.
"What is to be done first?" asked Donna Tullia again.
"In the first place," answered Del Ferice, "here are those precious papers. As they are notary's copies themselves, and not the originals, it is of no importance whether Don Giovanni tears them up or not. It is easy to get others if he does. I have noted down all the names and dates. I wish we had some information about Felice Baldi. It is very unfortunate that we have not, but it would perhaps take a month to find her."
"I must act at once," said Donna Tullia, firmly; for she remembered old Saracinesca's threats, and was in a hurry.
"Of course. These documents speak for themselves. They bear the address of the notary who made the copies in Aquila. If the Saracinesca choose, they can themselves go there and see the originals."
"Could they not destroy those too?" asked Donna Tullia, nervously.
"No; they can only see one at a time, and the person who will show them will watch them. Besides, it is easy to write to the curate of the church of San Bernardino to be on his guard. We will do that in any case. The matter is perfectly plain. Your best course is to meet the Astrardente to-morrow at the appointed time, and simply present these papers for inspection. No one can deny their authenticity, for they bear the Government stamp and the notary's seal, as you see, here and here. If they ask you, as they certainly will, how you came by them, you can afford to answer, that, since you have them, it is not necessary to know whence they came; that they may go and verify the originals; and that in warning them of the fact, you have fulfilled a duty to society, and have done a service to the Astrardente, if not to Giovanni Saracinesca. You have them in your power, and you can afford to take the high hand in the matter. They must believe the evidence of their senses; and they must either allow that Giovanni's first wife is alive, or they must account for her death, and prove it. There is no denial possible in the face of these proofs."
Donna Tullia drew a long breath, for the case seemed perfectly clear; and the anticipation of her triumph already atoned for the sacrifice she had made.
"You are a wonderful man, Del Ferice!" she exclaimed. "I do not know whether I am wise in promising to marry you, but I have the greatest admiration for your intellect."
Del Ferice glanced at her and smiled. Then he made as though he would return the papers to his pocket. She sprang towards him, and seized him by the wrist.
"Do not be afraid!" she cried, "I will keep my promise."
"Solemnly?" he asked, still smiling, and holding the envelope firmly in his hand.
"Solemnly," she answered; and then added, with a quick laugh, "but you are so abominably clever, that I believe you could make me marry you against my will."
"Never!" said Del Ferice, earnestly; "I love you far too much." He had wonderfully clear instincts. "And now," he continued, "we have settled that matter; when shall the happy day be?"
"Oh, there is time enough to think of that," answered Donna Tullia, with a blush that might have passed for the result of a coy shyness, but which was in reality caused by a certain annoyance at being pressed.
"No," objected Del Ferice, "we must announce our engagement at once. There is no reason for delay—to-day is better than to-morrow."
"To-day?" repeated Donna Tullia, in some alarm.
"Why not? Why not, my dear lady, since you and I are both in earnest?"
"I think it would be much better to let this affair pass first."
"On the contrary," he argued, "from the moment we are publicly engaged I become your natural protector. If any one offers you any insult in this matter, I shall then have an acknowledged right to avenge you—a right I dearly covet. Do you think I would dread to meet Don Giovanni again? He wounded me, it is true, but he has the marks of my sword upon his body also. Give me at once the privilege of appearing as your champion, and you will not regret it. But if you delay doing so, all sorts of circumstances may arise, all sorts of unpleasantness—who could protect you? Of course, even in that case I would; but you know the tongues of the gossips in Rome—it would do you harm instead of good."
"That is true, and you are very brave and very kind. But it seems almost too soon," objected Donna Tullia, who, however, was fast learning to yield to his judgment.
"Those things cannot be done too soon. It gives us liberty, and it gives the world satisfaction; it protects you, and it will be an inestimable pleasure to me. Why delay the inevitable? Let us appear at once as engaged to be married, and you put a sword in my hand to defend you and to enforce your position in this unfortunate affair with the Astrardente."
"Well, you may announce it if you please," she answered, reluctantly.
"Thank you, my dear lady," said Del Ferice. "And here are the papers. Make the best use of them you can—any use that you make of them will be good, I know. How could it be otherwise?"
Donna Tullia's fingers closed upon the large envelope with a grasping grip, as though she would never relinquish that for which she had paid so dear a price. She had, indeed, at one time almost despaired of getting possession of them, and she had passed a terrible hour, besides having abased herself to the fruitless bribery she had practised upon Temistocle. But she had gained her end, even at the expense of permitting Del Ferice to publish her engagement to marry him. She felt that she could break it off if she decided at last that the union was too distasteful to her; but she foresaw that, from the point of worldly ambition, she would be no great loser by marrying a man of such cunning wit, who possessed such weapons against his enemies, and who, on the whole, as she believed, entirely sympathised with her view of life. She recognised that her chances of making a great match were diminishing rapidly; she could not tell precisely why, but she felt, to her mortification, that she had not made a good use of her rich widowhood: people did not respect her much, and as this touched her vanity, she was susceptible to their lack of deference. She had done no harm, but she knew that every one thought her an irresponsible woman, and the thrifty Romans feared her extravagance, though some of them perhaps courted her fortune: many had admired her, and had to some extent expressed their devotion, but no scion of all the great families had asked her to be his wife. The nearest approach to a proposal had been the doubtful attention she had received from Giovanni Saracinesca during the time when his headstrong father had almost persuaded him to marry her, and she thought of her disappointed hopes with much bitterness. To destroy Giovanni by the revelations she now proposed to make, to marry Del Ferice, and then to develop her position by means of the large fortune she had inherited from her first husband, seemed on the whole a wise plan. Del Ferice's title was not much, to be sure, but, on the other hand, he was intimate with every one she knew, and for a few thousand scudi she could buy some small estate with a good title attached to it. She would then change her mode of life, and assume the pose of a social power, which as a young widow she could not do. It was not so bad, after all, especially if she could celebrate the first day of her engagement by destroying the reputation of Giovanni Saracinesca, root and branch, and dealing a blow at Corona's happiness from which it would not recover.
As for Del Ferice, he regarded his triumph as complete. He cared little what became of Giovanni—whether he was able to refute the evidence brought against him or not. There had been nothing in the matter which was dishonest, and properly made out marriage-certificates are not easy things to annul. Giovanni might swim or sink—it was nothing to Ugo del Ferice, now that he had gained the great object of his life, and was at liberty to publish his engagement to Donna Tullia Mayer. He lost no time in telling his friends the good news, and before the evening was over a hundred people had congratulated him. Donna Tullia, too, appeared in more than usually gay attire, and smilingly received the expressions of good wishes which were showered upon her. She was not inclined to question the sincerity of those who spoke, for in her present mood the stimulus of a little popular noise was soothing to her nerves, which had been badly strained by the excitement of the day. When she closed her eyes she had evil visions of Temistocle retreating at full speed down the stairs with his unearned bribe, or of Del Ferice's calm, pale face, as he had sat in her house that afternoon grasping the precious documents in his hand until she promised to pay the price he asked, which was herself. But she smiled at each new congratulation readily enough, and said in her heart that she would yet become a great power in society, and make her house the centre of all attractions. And meanwhile she pondered on the title she should buy for her husband: she came of high blood herself, and she knew how such dignities as a "principe" or a "duca" were regarded when bought. There was nothing for it but to find some snug little marquisate—"marchese" sounded very well, though one could not be called "eccellenza" by one's servants; still, as the daughter of a prince, she might manage even that. "Marchese"—yes, that would do. What a pity there were only four "canopy" marquises—"marchesi del baldacchino"—in Rome with the rank of princes! That was exactly the combination of dignities Donna Tullia required for her husband. But once a "marchese," if she was very charitable, and did something in the way of a public work, the Holy Father might condescend to make Del Ferice a "duca" in the ordinary course as a step in the nobility. Donna Tullia dreamed many things that night, and she afterwards accomplished most of them, to the surprise of everybody, and, if the truth were told, to her own considerable astonishment.
"Giovanni, you are the victim of some outrageous plot," said old Saracinesca, entering his son's room on the following morning. "I have thought it all out in the night, and I am convinced of it."
Giovanni was extended upon a sofa, with a book in his hand and a cigar between his lips. He looked up quietly from his reading.
"I am not the victim yet, nor ever will be," he answered; "but it is evident that there is something at the bottom of this besides Madame Mayer's imagination. I will find out."
"What pleases me especially," remarked the old Prince, "is the wonderful originality of the idea. It would have been commonplace to make out that you had poisoned half-a-dozen wives, and buried their bodies in the vaults of Saracinesca; it would have been banal to say that you were not yourself, but some one else; or to assert that you were a revolutionary agent in disguise, and that the real Giovanni had been murdered by you, who had taken his place without my discovering it,—very commonplace all that. But to say that you actually have a living wife, and to try to prove it by documents, is an idea worthy of a great mind. It takes one's breath away."
"It will end in our having to go to Aquila in search of my supposed better half," he said. "Aquila, of all places! If she had said Paris—or even Florence—but why, in the name of geography, Aquila?"
"She probably looked for some out-of-the-way place upon an alphabetical list," laughed the Prince. "Aquila stood first. We shall know in two hours—come along. It is time to be going."
They found Corona in her boudoir. She had passed an uneasy hour on the previous afternoon after they had left her, but her equanimity was now entirely restored. She had made up her mind that, however ingenious the concocted evidence might turn out to be, it was absolutely impossible to harm Giovanni by means of it. His position was beyond attack, as, in her mind, his character was above slander. Far from experiencing any sensation of anxiety as to the result of Donna Tullia's visit, what she most felt was curiosity to see what these fancied proofs would be like. She still believed that Madame Mayer was mad.
"I have been remarking to Giovanni upon Donna Tullia's originality," said old Saracinesca. "It is charming; it shows a talent for fiction which the world has been long in realising, which we have not even suspected—an amazing and transcendent genius for invention."
"It is pure insanity," answered Corona, in a tone of conviction. "The woman is mad."
"Mad as an Englishman," asseverated the Prince, using the most powerful simile in the Italian language. "We will have her in Santo Spirito before night, and she will puzzle the doctors."
"She is not mad," said Giovanni, quietly. "I do not even believe we shall find that her documents are forgeries."
"What?" cried his father. Corona looked quickly at Giovanni.
"You yourself," said the latter, turning to old Saracinesca, "were assuring me half an hour ago that I was the victim of a plot. Now, if anything of the kind is seriously attempted, you may be sure it will be well done. She has a good ally in the man to whom she is engaged. Del Ferice is no fool, and he hates me."
"Del Ferice!" exclaimed Corona, in surprise. As she went nowhere as yet, she had, of course, not heard the news which had been published on the previous evening. "You do not mean to say that she is going to marry Del Ferice?"
"Yes, indeed," said Giovanni. "They both appeared last night and announced the fact, and received everybody's congratulations. It is a most appropriate match."
"I agree with you—a beautiful triangular alliteration of wit, wealth, and wickedness," observed the Prince. "He has brains, she has money, and they are both as bad as possible."
"I thought you used to like Donna Tullia," said Corona, suppressing a smile.
"I did," said old Saracinesea, stoutly. "I wanted Giovanni to marry her. It has pleased Providence to avert that awful catastrophe. I liked Madame Mayer because she was rich and noisy and good-looking, and I thought that, as Giovanni's wife, she would make the house gay. We are such a pair of solemn bears together, that it seemed appropriate that somebody should make us dance. It was a foolish idea, I confess, though I thought it very beautiful at the time. It merely shows how liable we are to make mistakes. Imagine Giovanni married to a lunatic!"
"I repeat that she is not mad," said Giovanni. "I cannot tell how they have managed it, but I am sure it has been managed well, and will give us trouble. You will see."
"I do not understand at all how there can be any trouble about it," said Corona, proudly. "It is perfectly simple for us to tell the truth, and to show that what they say is a lie. You can prove easily enough that you were in Canada at the time. I wish it were time for her to come. Let us go to breakfast in the meanwhile."
The views taken by the three were characteristic of their various natures. The old Prince, who was violent of temper, and inclined always to despise an enemy in any shape, scoffed at the idea that there was anything to show; and though his natural wit suggested from time to time that there was a plot against his son, his general opinion was, that it was a singular case of madness. He hardly believed Donna Tullia would appear at all; and if she did, he expected some extraordinary outburst, some pitiable exhibition of insanity. Corona, on the other hand, maintained a proud indifference, scorning to suppose that anything could possibly injure Giovanni in any way, loving him too entirely to admit that he was vulnerable at all, still less that he could possibly have done anything to give colour to the accusation brought against him. Giovanni alone of all the three foresaw that there would be trouble, and dimly guessed how the thing had been done; for he did not fall into his father's error of despising an enemy, and he had seen too much of the world not to understand that danger is often greatest when the appearance of it is least.
Breakfast was hardly over when Donna Tullia was announced. All rose to meet her, and all looked at her with equal interest. She was calmer than on the previous day, and she carried a package of papers in her hand. Her red lips were compressed, and her eyes looked defiantly round upon all present. Whatever might be her faults, she was not a coward when brought face to face with danger. She was determined to carry the matter through, both because she knew that she had no other alternative, and because she believed herself to be doing a righteous act, which, at the same time, fully satisfied her desire for vengeance. She came forward boldly and stood beside the table in the midst of the room. Corona was upon one side of the fireplace, and the two Saracinesea upon the other. All three held their breath in expectation of what Donna Tullia was about to say; the sense of her importance impressed her, and her love of dramatic situations being satisfied, she assumed something of the air of a theatrical avenging angel, and her utterance was rhetorical.
"I come here," she said, "at your invitation, to exhibit to your eyes the evidence of what I yesterday asserted—the evidence of the monstrous crime of which I accuse that man." Here she raised her finger with a gesture of scorn, and extending her whole arm, pointed towards Giovanni.
"Madam," interrupted the old Prince, "I will trouble you to select your epithets and expressions with more care. Pray be brief, and show what you have brought."
"I will show it, indeed," replied Donna Tullia, "and you shall tremble at what you see. When you have evidence of the truth of what I say, you may choose any language you please to define the action of your son. These documents," she said, holding up the package, "are attested copies made from the originals—the first two in the possession of the curate of the church of San Bernardino da Siena, at Aquila, the other in the office of the Stato Civile in the same city. As they are only copies, you need not think that you will gain anything by destroying them."
"Spare your comments upon our probable conduct," interrupted the Prince, roughly. Donna Tullia eyed him with a scornful glance, and her face began to grow red.
"You may destroy them if you please," she repeated; "but I advise you to observe that they bear the Government stamp and the notarial seal of Gianbattista Caldani, notary public in the city of Aquila, and that they are, consequently, beyond all doubt genuine copies of genuine documents."
Donna Tullia proceeded to open the envelope and withdraw the three papers it contained. Spreading them out, she took up the first, which contained the extract from the curate's book of banns. It set forth that upon the three Sundays preceding the 19th of June 1863, the said curate had published, in the parish church of San Bernardino da Siena, the banns of marriage between Giovanni Saracinesca and Felice Baldi. Donna Tullia read it aloud.
Giovanni could hardly suppress a laugh, it sounded so strangely. Corona herself turned pale, though she firmly believed the whole thing to be an imposture of some kind.
"Permit me, madam," said old Saracinesca, stepping forward and taking the paper from her hand. He carefully examined the seal and stamp. "It is very cleverly done," he said with a sneer; "but there should be only one letter r in the name Saracinesca—here it is spelt with two! Very clever, but a slight mistake! Observe," he said, showing the place to Donna Tullia.
"It is a mistake of the copyist," she said, scornfully. "The name is properly spelt in the other papers. Here is the copy of the marriage register. Shall I read it also?"
"Spare me the humiliation," said Giovanni, in quiet contempt. "Spare me the unutterable mortification of discovering that there is another Giovanni Saracinesca in the world!"
"I could not have believed that any one could be so hardened," said Donna Tullia. "But whether you are humiliated or not by the evidence of your misdeeds, I will spare you nothing. Here it is in full, and you may notice that your name is spelt properly too."
She held up the document and then read it out—the copy of the curate's register, stating that on the 19th of June 1863 Giovanni Saracinesca and Felice Baldi were united in holy matrimony in the church of San Bernardino da Siena. She handed the paper to the Prince, and then read the extract from the register of the Civil marriage and the notary's attestation to the signatures. She gave this also to old Saracinesca, and then folding her arms in a fine attitude, confronted the three.
"Are you satisfied that I spoke the truth?" she asked, defiantly.
"The thing is certainly remarkably well done," answered the old Prince, who scrutinised the papers with a puzzled air. Though he knew perfectly well that his son had been in Canada at the time of this pretended marriage, he confessed to himself that if such evidence had been brought against any other man, he would have believed it.
"It is a shameful fraud!" exclaimed Corona, looking at the papers over the old man's shoulder.
"That is a lie!" cried Donna Tullia, growing scarlet with anger.
"Do not forget your manners, or you will get into trouble," said Giovanni, sternly. "I see through the whole thing. There has been no fraud, and yet the deductions are entirely untrue. In the first place, Donna Tullia, how do you make the statements here given to coincide with the fact that during the whole summer of 1863 and during the early part of 1864 I was in Canada with a party of gentlemen, who are all alive to testify to the fact?"
"I do not believe it," answered Madame Mayer, contemptuously. "I would not believe your friends if they were here and swore to it. You will very likely produce witnesses to prove that you were in the arctic regions last summer, as the newspapers said, whereas every one knows now that you were at Saracinesca. You are exceedingly clever at concealing your movements, as we all know."
Giovanni did not lose his temper, but calmly proceeded to demonstrate his theory.
"You will find that the courts of law will accept the evidence of gentlemen upon oath," he replied, quietly. "Moreover, as a further evidence, and a piece of very singular proof, I can probably produce Giovanni Saracinesca and Felice Baldi themselves to witness against you. And I apprehend that the said Giovanni Saracinesca will vehemently protest that the said Felice Baldi is his wife, and not mine."
"You speak in wonderful riddles, but you will not deceive me. Money will doubtless do much, but it will not do what you expect."
"Certainly not," returned Giovanni, unmoved by her reply. "Money will certainly not create out of nothing a second Giovanni Saracinesca, nor his circle of acquaintances, nor the police registers concerning him which are kept throughout the kingdom of Italy, very much as they are kept here in the Pontifical States. Money will do none of these things."
While he was speaking, his father and the Duchessa listened with intense interest.
"Donna Tullia," continued Giovanni, "I am willing to believe from your manner that you are really sure that I am the man mentioned in your papers; but permit me to inform you that you have been made the victim of a shallow trick, probably by the person who gave those same papers into your hands, and suggested to you the use you have made of them."
"I? I, the victim of a trick?" repeated Donna Tullia, frightened at last by his obstinately calm manner.
"Yes," he replied. "I know Aquila and the Abruzzi very well. It chances that although we, the Saracinesca of Rome, are not numerous, the name is not uncommon in that part of the country. It is the same with all our great names. There are Colonna, Orsini, Caetani all over the country—there are even many families bearing the name of the Medici, who are extinct. You know it as well as I, or you should know it, for I believe your mother was my father's cousin. Has it not struck you that this same Giovanni Saracinesca herein mentioned, is simply some low-born namesake of mine?"
Donna Tullia had grown very pale, and she leaned upon the table as though she were faint. The others listened breathlessly.
"I do not believe it," said Madame Mayer, in a low and broken voice.
"Now I will tell you what I will do," continued Giovanni. "I will go to Aquila at once, and I daresay my father will accompany me—"
"Of course I will," broke in the old Prince.
"We will go, and in a fortnight's time we will produce the whole history of this Giovanni Saracinesca, together with his wife and himself in his own person, if they are both alive; we will bring them here, and they will assure you that you have been egregiously deceived, played upon and put in a false position by—by the person who furnished you with these documents. I wonder that any Roman of common-sense should not have seen at once the cause of this mistake."
"I cannot believe it," murmured Donna Tullia. Then raising her voice, she added, "Whatever may be the result of your inquiry, I cannot but feel that I have done my duty in this affair. I do not believe in your theory, nor in you, and I shall not, until you produce this other man. I have done my duty—"
"An exceedingly painful one, no doubt," remarked old Saracinesca. Then he broke into a loud peal of laughter.
"And if you do not succeed in your search, it will be my duty, in the interests of society, to put the matter in the hands of the police. Since you have the effrontery to say that those papers are of no use, I demand them back."
"Not at all, madam," replied the Prince, whose laughter subsided at the renewed boldness of her tone. "I will not give them back to you. I intend to compare them with the originals. If there are no originals, they will serve very well to commit the notary whose seal is on them, and yourself, upon a well-founded indictment for forgery, wilful calumniation, and a whole list of crimes sufficient to send you to the galleys for life. If, on the other hand, the originals exist, they can be of no possible value to you, as you can send to Aquila and have fresh copies made whenever you please, as you yourself informed me."
Things were taking a bad turn for Donna Tullia. She believed the papers to be genuine, but a fearful doubt crossed her mind that Del Ferice might possibly have deceived her by having them manufactured. Anybody could buy Government paper, and it would be but a simple matter to have a notary's seal engraved. She was terrified at the idea, but there was no possibility of getting the documents back from the old Prince, who held them firmly in his broad brown hand. There was nothing to be done but to face the situation out to the end and go.
"As you please," she said. "It is natural that you should insult me, a defenceless woman trying to do what is right. It is worthy of your race and reputation. I will leave you to the consideration of the course you intend to follow, and I advise you to omit nothing which can help to prove the innocence of your son."
Donna Tullia bestowed one more glance of contemptuous defiance upon the group, and brushed angrily out of the room.
"So much for her madness!" exclaimed Giovanni, when she was gone. "I think I have got to the bottom of that affair."
"It seems so simple, and yet I never thought of it," said Corona. "How clever you are, Giovanni!"
"There was not much cleverness needed to see through so shallow a trick," replied Giovanni. "I suspected it this morning; and when I saw that the documents were genuine and all in order, I was convinced of it. This thing has been done by Del Ferice, I suppose in order to revenge himself upon me for nearly killing him in fair fight. It was a noble plan. With a little more intelligence and a little more pains, he could have given me great trouble. Certificates like those he produced, if they had come from a remote French village in Canada, would have given us occupation for some time."
"I wish Donna Tullia joy of her husband," remarked the Prince. "He will spend her money in a year or two, and then leave her to the contemplation of his past extravagance. I wonder how he induced her to consent."
"Many people like Del Ferice," said Giovanni. "He is popular, and has attractions."
"How can you say that!" exclaimed Corona, indignantly. "You should have a better opinion of women than to think any woman could find attractions in such a man."
"Nevertheless, Donna Tullia is going to marry him," returned Giovanni. "She must find him to her taste. I used to think she might have married Valdarno—he is so good-natured, you know!"
Giovanni spoke in a tone of reflection; the other two laughed.
"And now, Giovannino," said his father, "we must set out for Aquila, and find your namesake."
"You will not really go?" asked Corona, with a look of disappointment. She could not bear the thought of being separated even for a day from the man she loved.
"I do not see that we can do anything else," returned the Prince. "I must satisfy myself whether those papers are forgeries or not. If they are, that woman must go to prison for them."
"But she is our cousin—you cannot do that," objected Giovanni.
"Indeed I will. I am angry. Do not try to stop me. Do you suppose I care anything for the relationship in comparison with repaying her for all this trouble? You are not going to turn merciful, Giovanni? I should not recognise you."
There was a sort of mournful reproach about the old Prince's tone, as though he were reproving his son for having fallen from the paths of virtue. Corona laughed; she was not hard-hearted, but she was not so angelic of nature as to be beyond feeling deep and lasting resentment for injuries received. At that moment the idea of bringing Donna Tullia to justice was pleasant.
"Well," said Giovanni, "no human being can boast of having ever prevented you from doing whatever you were determined to do. The best thing that can happen will be, that you should find the papers genuine, and my namesake alive. I wish Aquila were Florence or Naples," he added, turning to Corona; "you might manage to go at the same time."
"That is impossible," she answered, sadly. "How long will you be gone, do you think?"
Giovanni did not believe that, if the papers were genuine, and if they had to search for the man mentioned in them, they could return in less than a fortnight.
"Why not send a detective—a sbirro?" suggested Corona.
"He could not accomplish anything," replied the Prince.
"He would be at a great disadvantage there; we must go ourselves."
"Both?" asked Corona, regretfully, gazing at Giovanni's face.
"It is my business," replied the latter. "I can hardly ask my father to go alone."
"Absurd!" exclaimed the old Prince, resenting the idea that he needed any help to accomplish his mission. "Do you think I need some one to take care of me, like a baby in arms? I will go alone; you shall not come even if you wish it. Absurd, to talk of my needing anybody with me! I will show you what your father can do when his blood is up."
Protestations were useless after that. The old man grew angry at the opposition, and, regardless of all propriety, seized his hat and left the room, growling that he was as good as anybody, and a great deal better.
Corona and Giovanni looked at each other when he was gone, and smiled.
"I believe my father is the best man alive," said Giovanni. "He would go in a moment if I would let him. I will go after him and bring him back—I suppose I ought."
"I suppose so," answered Corona; but as they stood side by side, she passed her hand under his arm affectionately, and looked into his eyes. It was a very tender look, very loving and gentle—such a look as none but Giovanni had ever seen upon her face. He put his arm about her waist and drew her to him, and kissed her dark cheek.
"I cannot bear to go away and leave you, even for a day," he said, pressing her to his side.
"Why should you?" she murmured, looking up to him. "Why should he go, after all? This has been such a silly affair. I wonder if that woman thought that anything could ever come between you and me? That was what made me think she was really mad."
"And an excellent reason," he answered. "Anybody must be insane who dreams of parting us two. It seems as though a year ago I had not loved you at all."
"I am so glad," said Corona. "Do you remember, last summer, on the tower at Saracinesca, I told you that you did not know what love was?"
"It was true, Corona—I did not know. But I thought I did. I never imagined what the happiness of love was, nor how great it was, nor how it could enter into every thought."
"Into every thought? Into your great thoughts too?"
"If any thoughts of mine are great, they are so because you are the mainspring of them," he answered.
"Will it always be so?" she asked. "You will be a very great man some day, Giovanni; will you always feel that I am something to you?"