"Always—more than anything to me, more than all of me together."
"I sometimes wonder," said Corona. "I think I understand you better than I used to do. I like to think that you feel how I understand you when you tell me anything. Of course I am not clever like you, but I love you so much that just while you are talking I seem to understand everything. It is like a flash of light in a dark room."
Giovanni kissed her again.
"What makes you think that I shall be great, Corona? Nobody ever thinks I am even clever. My father would laugh at you, and say it is quite enough greatness to be born a Saracinesca. What makes you think it?"
Corona stood up beside him and laid her delicate hand upon his thick, close-cut black hair, and gazed into his eyes.
"I know it," she said. "I know it, because I love you so. A man like you must be great. There is something in you that nobody guesses but I, that will amaze people some day—I know it."
"I wonder if you could tell me what it is? I wonder if it is really there at all?" said Giovanni.
"It is ambition," said Corona, gravely. "You are the most ambitious man I ever knew, and nobody has found it out."
"I believe it is true, Corona," said Giovanni, turning away and leaning upon the chimneypiece, his head supported on one hand. "I believe you are right. I am ambitious: if I only had the brains that some men have I would do great things."
"You are wrong, Giovanni. It is neither brains nor ambition nor strength that you lack—it is opportunity."
"They say that a man who has anything in him creates opportunities for himself," answered Giovanni, rather sadly. "I fear it is because I really have nothing in me that I can do nothing. It sometimes makes me very unhappy to think so. I suppose that is because my vanity is wounded."
"Do not talk like that," said Corona. "You have vanity, of course, but it is of the large kind, and I call it ambition. It is not only because I love you better than any man was ever loved before that I say that. It is that I know it instinctively I have heard you say that these are unsettled times. Wait; your opportunity will come, as it came often to your forefathers in other centuries."
"I hardly think that their example is a good one," replied Giovanni, with a smile.
"They generally did something remarkable in remarkable times," said Corona. "You will do the same. Your father, for instance, would not."
"He is far more clever than I," objected Giovanni.
"Clever! It passes for cleverness. He is quick, active, a good talker, a man with a ready wit and a sharp answer—kind-hearted when the fancy takes him, cruel when he is so disposed—but not a man of great convictions or of great actions. You are very different from him."
"Will you draw my portrait, Corona?" asked Giovanni.
"As far as I know you. You are a man quick to think and slow to make a decision. You are not brilliant in conversation—you see I do not flatter you; I am just. You have the very remarkable quality of growing cold when others grow hot, and of keeping the full use of your faculties in any situation. When you have made a decision, you cannot be moved from it; but you are open to conviction in argument. You have a great repose of manner, which conceals a very restless brain. All your passions are very strong. You never forgive, never forget, and scarcely ever repent. Beneath all, you have an untamable ambition which has not yet found its proper field. Those are your qualities—and I love them all, and you more than them all."
Corona finished her speech by throwing her arms round his neck, and breaking into a happy laugh as she buried her face upon his shoulder. No one who saw her in the world would have believed her capable of those sudden and violent demonstrations—she was thought so very cold.
When Giovanni reached home, he was informed that his father had left Rome an hour earlier by the train for Terni, leaving word that he had gone to Aquila.
In those days the railroad did not extend beyond Terni in the direction of Aquila, and it was necessary to perform the journey of forty miles between those towns by diligence. It was late in the afternoon of the next day before the cumbrous coach rolled up to the door of the Locanda del Sole in Aquila, and Prince Saracinesca found himself at his destination. The red evening sun gilded the snow of the Gran Sasso d'Italia, the huge domed mountain that towers above the city of Frederick. The city itself had long been in the shade, and the spring air was sharp and biting. Saracinesca deposited his slender luggage with the portly landlord, said he would return for supper in half an hour, and inquired the way to the church of San Bernardino da Siena. There was no difficulty in finding it, at the end of the Corso—the inevitable "Corso" of every Italian town. The old gentleman walked briskly along the broad, clean street, and reached the door of the church just as the sacristan was hoisting the heavy leathern curtain, preparatory to locking up for the night.
"Where can I find the Padre Curato?" inquired the Prince. The man looked at him but made no answer, and proceeded to close the doors with great care. He was an old man in a shabby cassock, with four days' beard on his face, and he appeared to have taken snuff recently.
"Where is the Curator?" repeated the Prince, plucking him by the sleeve. But the man shook his head, and began turning the ponderous key in the lock. Two little ragged boys were playing a game upon the church steps, piling five chestnuts in a heap and then knocking them down with a small stone. One of them having upset the heap, desisted and came near the Prince.
"That one is deaf," he said, pointing to the sacristan. Then running behind, him he stood on tiptoe and screamed in his ear—"Brutta bestia!"
The sacristan did not hear, but caught sight of the urchin and made a lunge at him. He missed him, however, and nearly fell over.
"What education!—che educazione!" cried the old man, angrily.
Meanwhile the little boy took refuge behind Saracinesca, and pulling his coat asked for a soldo. The sacristan calmly withdrew the key from the lock, and went away without vouchsafing a look to the Prince.
"He is deaf," screamed the little boy, who was now joined by his companion, and both in great excitement danced round the fine gentleman.
"Give me a soldo," they yelled together.
"Show me the house of the Padre Curato," answered the Prince, "then I will give you each a soldo. Lesti! Quick!"
Whereupon both the boys began turning cart-wheels on their feet and hands with marvellous dexterity. At last they subsided into a natural position, and led the way to the curate's house, not twenty yards from the church, in a narrow alley. The Prince pulled the bell by the long chain which hung beside the open street door, and gave the boys the promised coppers. They did not leave him, however, but stood by to see what would happen. An old woman looked out of an upper window, and after surveying the Prince with care, called down to him—
"What do you want?"
"Is the Padre Curato at home?"
"Of course he is at home," screamed the old woman, "At this hour!" she added, contemptuously.
"Ebbene—can I see him?"
"What! is the door shut?" returned the hag.
"Then why don't you come up without asking?" The old woman's head disappeared, and the window was shut with a clattering noise.
"She is a woman without education," remarked one of the ragged boys, making a face towards the closed window.
The Prince entered the door and stumbled up the dark stairs, and after some further palaver obtained admittance to the curate's lodging. The curate sat in a room which appeared to serve as dining-room, living-room, and study. A small table was spread with a clean cloth, upon which were arranged a plate, a loaf of bread, a battered spoon, a knife, and a small measure of thin-looking wine. A brass lamp with three wicks, one of which only was burning, shed a feeble light through the poor apartment. Against the wall stood a rough table with an inkstand and three or four mouldy books. Above this hung a little black cross bearing a brass Christ, and above this again a coloured print of San Bernardino of Siena. The walls were whitewashed, and perfectly clean,—as indeed was everything else in the room,—and there was a sweet smell of flowers from a huge pot of pinks which had been taken in for the night, and stood upon the stone sill within the closed window.
The curate was a tall old man, with a singularly gentle face and soft brown eyes. He wore a threadbare cassock, carefully brushed; and from beneath his three-cornered black cap his thin hair hung in a straight grey fringe. As the Prince entered the room, the old woman called over his shoulder to the priest an uncertain formula of introduction.
"Don Paolo, c'e uno—there is one." Then she retired, grumbling audibly.
The priest removed his cap, and bowing politely, offered one of the two chairs to his visitor. With an apology, he replaced his cap upon his head, and seated himself opposite the Prince. There was much courteous simplicity in his manner.
"In what way can I serve you, Signore?" he asked.
"These papers," answered the Prince, drawing the famous envelope from his breast-pocket, "are copies of certain documents in your keeping, relating to the supposed marriage of one Giovanni Saracinesca. With your very kind permission, I desire to see the originals."
The old curate bowed, as though giving his assent, and looked steadily at his visitor for a moment before he answered.
"There is nothing simpler, my good sir. You will pardon me, however, if I venture to inquire your name, and to ask you for what purpose you desire to consult the documents?"
"I am Leone Saracinesca of Rome—"
The priest started uneasily.
"A relation of Giovanni Saracinesca?" he inquired. Then he added immediately, "Will you kindly excuse me for one moment?" and left the room abruptly. The Prince was considerably astonished, but he held his papers firmly in his hand, and did not move from his seat. The curate returned in a few seconds, bringing with him a little painted porcelain basket, much chipped and the worse for age, and which contained a collection of visiting-cards. There were not more than a score of them, turning brown with accumulated dust. The priest found one which was rather newer than the rest, and after carefully adjusting a pair of huge spectacles upon his nose, he went over to the lamp and examined it.
"'Il Conte del Ferice,'" he read slowly. "Do you happen to know that gentleman, my good sir?" he inquired, turning to the Prince, and looking keenly at him over his glasses.
"Certainly," answered Saracinesca, beginning to understand the situation. "I know him very well."
"Ah, that is good!" said the priest. "He was here two years ago, and had those same entries concerning Giovanni Saracinesca copied. Probably—certainly, indeed—the papers you have there are the very ones he took away with him. When he came to see me about it, he gave me this card."
"I wonder he did," answered Saracinesca.
"Indeed," replied the curate, after a moment's thought, "I remember that he came the next day—yes—and asked to have his card returned. But I could not find it for him. There was a hole in one of my pockets—it had slipped down. Carmela, my old servant, found it a day or two later in the lining of my cassock. I thought it strange that he should have asked for it."
"It was very natural. He wished you to forget his existence."
"He asked me many questions about Giovanni," said the priest, "but I could not answer him at that time."
"You could answer now?" inquired the Prince, eagerly.
"Excuse me, my good sir; what relation are you to Giovanni? You say you are from Rome?"
"Let us understand each other, Signor Curato," said Saracinesca. "I see I had better explain the position. I am Leone Saracinesca, the prince of that name, and the head of the family." The priest bowed respectfully at this intelligence. "My only son lives with me in Rome—he is now there—and his name is Giovanni Saracinesca. He is engaged to be married. When the engagement became known, an enemy of the family attempted to prove, by means of these papers, that he was married already to a certain Felice Baldi. Now I wish to know who this Giovanni Saracinesca is, where he is, and how he comes to have my son's name. I wish a certificate or some proof that he is not my son,—that he is alive, or that he is dead and buried."
The old priest burst into a genial laugh, and rubbed his hands together in delight.
"My dear sir—your Excellency, I mean—I baptised Felice Baldi's second baby a fortnight ago! There is nothing simpler—"
"I knew it!" cried the Prince, springing from his chair in great excitement; "I knew it! Where is that baby? Send and get the baby at once—the mother—the father—everybody!"
"Subito! At once—or come with me. I will show you the whole family together," said the curate, in innocent delight. "Splendid children they are, too. Carmela, my cloak—sbrigati, be quick!"
"One moment," objected Saracinesca, as though suddenly recollecting something. "One moment, Sign or Curato; who goes slowly goes safely. Where does this man come from, and how does he come by his name? I would like to know something about him before I see him."
"True," answered the priest, resuming his seat. "I had forgotten. Well, it is not a long story. Giovanni Saracinesca is from Naples. You know there was once a branch of your family in the Neapolitan kingdom—at least so Giovanni says, and he is an honest fellow. Their title was Marchese di San Giacinto; and if Giovanni liked to claim it, he has a right to the title still."
"But those Saracinesca were extinct fifty years ago," objected the Prince, who knew his family history very well.
"Giovanni says they were not. They were believed to be. The last Marchese di San Giacinto fought under Napoleon. He lost all he possessed—lands, money, everything—by confiscation, when Ferdinand was restored in 1815. He was a rough man; he dropped his title, married a peasant's only daughter, became a peasant himself, and died obscurely in a village near Salerno. He left a son who worked on the farm and inherited it from his mother, married a woman of the village of some education, and died of the cholera, leaving his son, the present Giovanni Saracinesca. This Giovanni received a better education than his father had before him, improved his farm, began to sell wine and oil for exportation, travelled as far as Aquila, and met Felice Baldi, the daughter of a man of some wealth, who has since established an inn here. Giovanni loved her. I married them. He went back to Naples, sold his farm for a good price last year, and returned to Aquila. He manages his father-in-law's inn, which is the second largest here, and drives a good business, having put his own capital into the enterprise. They have two children, the second one of which was born three weeks ago, and they are perfectly happy."
Saracinesca looked thoughtfully at Don Paolo, the old curate.
"Has this man any papers to prove the truth of this very singular story?" he inquired at last.
"Altro! That was all his grandfather left—a heap of parchments. They seem to be in order—he showed them to me when I married him."
"Why does he make no claim to have the attainder of his grandfather reversed?"
The curate shrugged his shoulders and spread out the palms of his hands, smiling incredulously.
"The lands, he says, have fallen into the hands of certain patriots. There is no chance of getting them back. It is of little use to be a Marchese without property. What he possesses is a modest competence; it is wealth, even, in his present position. For a nobleman it would be nothing. Besides, he is half a peasant by blood and tradition."
"He is not the only nobleman in that position," laughed Saracinesca. "But are you aware—"
He stopped short. He was going to say that if he himself and his son both died, the innkeeper of Aquila would become Prince Saracinesca. The idea shocked him, and he kept it to himself.
"After all," he continued, "the man is of my blood by direct descent. I would like to see him."
"Nothing easier. If you will come with me, I will present him to your Excellency," said the priest. "Do you still wish to see the documents?"
"It is useless. The mystery is solved. Let us go and see this new-found relation of mine."
Don Paolo wrapped his cloak around him, and ushering his guest from the room, led the way down-stairs. He carried a bit of wax taper, which he held low to the steps, frequently stopping and warning the Prince to be careful. It was night when they went out. The air was sharp and cold, and Saracinesca buttoned his greatcoat to his throat as he strode by the side of the old priest. The two walked on in silence for ten minutes, keeping straight down the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. At last the curate stopped before a clean, new house, from the windows of which the bright light streamed into the street. Don Paolo motioned to the Prince to enter, and followed him in. A man in a white apron, with his arms full of plates, who was probably servant, butler, boots, and factotum to the establishment, came out of the dining-room, which was to the left of the entrance, and which, to judge by the noise, seemed to be full of people. He looked at the curate, and then at the Prince.
"Sorry to disappoint you, Don Paolo mio," he said, supposing the priest had brought a customer—"very sorry; there is not a bed in the house."
"That is no matter, Giacchino," answered the curate. "We want to see Sor Giovanni for a moment." The man disappeared, and a moment later Sor Giovanni himself came down the passage.
"Favorisca, dear Don Paolo, come in." And he bowed to the Prince as he opened the door which led into a small sitting-room reserved for the innkeeper's family.
When they had entered, Saracinesca looked at his son's namesake. He saw before him a man whose face and figure he long remembered with an instinctive dislike. Giovanni the innkeeper was of a powerful build. Two generations of peasant blood had given renewed strength to the old race. He was large, with large bones, vast breadth of shoulder, and massive joints; lean withal, and brown of face, his high cheek-bones making his cheeks look hollow; clean shaved, his hair straight and black and neatly combed; piercing black eyes near together, the heavy eyebrows joining together in the midst of his forehead; thin and cruel lips, now parted in a smile and showing a formidable set of short, white, even teeth; a prominent square jaw, and a broad, strong nose, rather unnaturally pointed,—altogether a striking face, one that would be noticed in a crowd for its strength, but strangely cunning in expression, and not without ferocity. Years afterwards Saracinesca remembered his first meeting with Giovanni the innkeeper, and did not wonder that his first impulse had been to dislike the man. At present, however, he looked at him with considerable curiosity, and if he disliked him at first sight, he told himself that it was beneath him to show antipathy for an innkeeper.
"Sor Giovanni," said the curate, "this gentleman is desirous of making your acquaintance."
Giovanni, whose manners were above his station, bowed politely, and looked inquiringly at his visitor.
"Signor Saracinesca," said the Prince, "I am Leone Saracinesca of Rome. I have just heard of your existence. We have long believed your family to be extinct—I am delighted to find it still represented, and by one who seems likely to perpetuate the name."
The innkeeper fixed his piercing eyes on the speaker's face, and looked long before he answered.
"So you are Prince Saracinesca," he said, gravely.
"And you are the Marchese di San Giacinto," said the Prince, in the same tone, holding out his hand frankly.
"Pardon me,—I am Giovanni Saracinesca, the innkeeper of Aquila," returned the other. But he took the Prince's hand. Then they all sat down.
"As you please," said the Prince. "The title is none the less yours. If you had signed yourself with it when you married, you would have saved me a vast deal of trouble; but on the other hand, I should not have been so fortunate as to meet you."
"I do not understand," said Giovanni.
The Prince told his story in as few words as possible.
"Amazing! extraordinary! what a chance!" ejaculated the curate, nodding his old head from time to time while the Prince spoke, as though he had not heard it all before. The innkeeper said nothing until old Saracinesca had finished.
"I see how it was managed," he said at last. "When that gentleman was making inquiries, I was away. I had taken my wife back to Salerno, and my wife's father had not yet established himself in Aquila. Signor Del—what is his name?"
"Del Ferice, exactly. He thought we had disappeared, and were not likely to come back. Or else he is a fool."
"He is not a fool," said Saracinesca. "He thought he was safe. It is all very clear now. Well, Signor Marchese, or Signor Saracinesca, I am very glad to have made your acquaintance. You have cleared up a very important question by returning to Aquila. It will always give me the greatest pleasure to serve you in any way I can."
"A thousand thanks. Anything I can do for you during your stay—"
"You are very kind. I will hire horses and return to Terni to-night. My business in Rome is urgent. There is some suspense there in my absence."
"You will drink a glass before going?" asked Giovanni; and without waiting for an answer, he strode from the room.
"And what does your Excellency think of your relation?" asked the curate, when he was alone with the Prince.
"A terrible-looking fellow! But—" The Prince made a face and a gesture indicating a question in regard to the innkeeper's character.
"Oh, do not be afraid," answered the priest. "He is the most honest man alive."
"Of course," returned the Prince, politely, "you have had many occasions of ascertaining that."
Giovanni, the innkeeper, returned with a bottle of wine and three glasses, which he placed upon the table, and proceeded to fill.
"By the by," said the Prince, "in the excitement I forgot to inquire for your Signora. She is well, I hope?"
"Thank you—she is very well," replied Giovanni, shortly.
"A boy, I have no doubt?"
"A splendid boy," answered the curate. "Sor Giovanni has a little girl, too. He is a very happy man."
"Your health," said the innkeeper, holding up his glass to the light.
"And yours," returned the Prince.
"And of all the Saracinesca family," said the curate, sipping his wine slowly. He rarely got a glass of old Lacrima, and he enjoyed it thoroughly.
"And now," said the Prince, "I must be off. Many thanks for your hospitality. I shall always remember with pleasure the day when I met an unknown relation."
"The Albergo di Napoli will not forget that Prince Saracinesca has been its guest," replied Giovanni politely, a smile upon his thin lips. He shook hands with both his guests, and ushered them out to the door with a courteous bow. Before they had gone twenty yards in the street, the Prince looked back and caught a last glimpse of Giovanni's towering figure, standing upon the steps with the bright light falling upon it from within. He remembered that impression long.
At the door of his own inn he took leave of the good curate with many expressions of thanks, and with many invitations to the Palazzo Saracinesca, in case the old man ever visited Home.
"I have never seen Rome, your Excellency," answered the priest, rather sadly. "I am an old man—I shall never see it now."
So they parted, and the Prince had a solitary supper of pigeons and salad in the great dusky hall of the Locanda del Sole, while his horses were being got ready for the long night-journey.
The meeting and the whole clearing up of the curious difficulty had produced a profound impression upon the old Prince. He had not the slightest doubt but that the story of the curate was perfectly accurate. It was all so very probable, too. In the wild times between 1806 and 1815 the last of the Neapolitan branch of the Saracinesca had disappeared, and the rich and powerful Roman princes of the name had been quite willing to believe the Marchesi di San Giacinto extinct. They had not even troubled themselves to claim the title, for they possessed more than fifty of their own, and there was no chance of recovering the San Giacinto estate, already mortgaged, and more than half squandered at the time of the confiscation. That the rough soldier of fortune should have hidden himself in his native country after the return of Ferdinand, his lawful king, against whom he had fought, was natural enough; as it was also natural that, with his rough nature, he should accommodate himself to a peasant's life, and marry a peasant's only daughter, with her broad acres of orange and olive and vine land; for peasants in the far south were often rich, and their daughters were generally beautiful—a very different race from the starved tenants of the Roman Campagna.
The Prince decided that the story was perfectly true, and he reflected somewhat bitterly that unless his son had heirs after him, this herculean innkeeper of Aquila was the lawful successor to his own title, and to all the Saracinesca lands. He determined that Giovanni's marriage should not be delayed another day, and with his usual impetuosity he hastened back to Rome, hardly remembering that he had spent the previous night and all that day upon the road, and that he had another twenty-four hours of travel before him.
At dawn his carriage stopped at a little town not far from the papal frontier. Just as the vehicle was starting, a large man, muffled in a huge cloak, from the folds of which protruded the long brown barrel of a rifle, put his head into the window. The Prince started and grasped his revolver, which lay beside him on the seat.
"Good morning, Prince," said the man. "I hope you have slept well."
"Sor Giovanni!" exclaimed the old gentleman. "Where did you drop from?"
"The roads are not very safe," returned the innkeeper. "So I thought it best to accompany you. Good-bye—buon viaggio!"
Before the Prince could answer, the carriage rolled off, the horses springing forward at a gallop. Saracinesca put his head out of the window, but his namesake had disappeared, and he rolled on towards Terni, wondering at the innkeeper's anxiety for his safety.
Even old Saracinesca's iron strength was in need of rest when, at the end of forty-eight hours, he again entered his son's rooms, and threw himself upon the great divan.
"How is Corona?" was his first question.
"She is very anxious about you," returned Giovanni, who was himself considerably disturbed.
"We will go and set her mind at rest as soon as I have had something to eat," said his father.
"It is all right, then? It was just as I said—a namesake?"
"Precisely. Only the namesake happens to be a cousin—the last of the San Giacinto, who keeps an inn in Aquila. I saw him, and shook hands with him."
"Impossible!" exclaimed Giovanni. "They are all extinct—"
"There has been a resurrection," returned the Prince. He told the whole story of his journey, graphically and quickly.
"That is a very extraordinary tale," remarked Giovanni, thoughtfully. "So, if I die without children the innkeeper will be prince."
"Precisely. And now, Giovanni, you must be married next week."
"As soon as you please—to-morrow if you like."
"What shall we do with Del Ferice?" asked the old prince.
"Ask him to the wedding," answered Giovanni, magnanimously.
"The wedding will have to be a very quiet one, I suppose," remarked his father, thoughtfully. "The year is hardly over—"
"The more quiet the better, provided it is done quickly. Of course we must consult Corona at once."
"Do you suppose I am going to fix the wedding-day without consulting her?" asked the old man. "For heaven's sake order dinner, and let us be quick about it."
The Prince was evidently in a hurry, and moreover, he was tired and very hungry. An hour later, as both the men sat over the coffee in the dining-room, his mood was mellower. A dinner at home has a wonderful effect upon the temper of a man who has travelled and fared badly for eight-and-forty hours.
"Giovannino," said old Saracinesca, "have you any idea what the Cardinal thinks of your marriage?"
"No; and I do not care," answered the younger man. "He once advised me not to marry Donna Tullia. He has not seen me often since then."
"I have an idea that it will please him immensely," said the Prince.
"It would be very much the same if it displeased him."
"Very much the same. Have you seen Corona today?"
"Yes—of course," answered Giovanni.
"What is the use of my going with you this evening?" asked his father, suddenly. "I should think you could manage your own affairs without my help."
"I thought that as you have taken so much trouble, you would enjoy telling her the story yourself."
"Do you think I am a vain fool, sir, to be amused by a woman's praise? Nonsense! Go yourself."
"By all means," answered Giovanni. He was used to his father's habit of being quarrelsome over trifles, and he was much too happy to take any notice of it now.
"You are tired," he continued. "I am sure you have a right to be. You must want to go to bed."
"To bed indeed!" growled the old man. "Tired! You think I am good for nothing; I know you do. You look upon me as a doting old cripple. I tell you, boy, I can—"
"For heaven's sake, padre mio, do precisely as you are inclined. I never said—"
"Never said what? Why are you always quarrelling with me?" roared his father, who had not lost his temper for two days, and missed his favourite exercise.
"What day shall we fix upon?" asked Giovanni, unmoved.
"Day! Any day. What do I care? Oh!—well, since you speak of it, you might say a week from Sunday. To-day is Friday. But I do not care in the least."
"Very well—if Corona can get ready."
"She shall be ready—she must be ready!" answered the old gentleman, in a tone of conviction. "Why should she not be ready, I would like to know?"
"No reason whatever," said Giovanni, with unusual mildness.
"Of course not. There is never any reason in anything you say, you unreasonable boy."
"Never, of course." Giovanni rose to go, biting his lips to keep down a laugh.
"What the devil do you mean by always agreeing with me, you impertinent scapegrace? And you are laughing, too—laughing at me, sir, as I live! Upon my word!"
Giovanni turned his back and lighted a cigar. Then, without looking round, he walked towards the door.
"Giovannino," called the Prince.
"I feel better now. I wanted to abuse somebody. Look here—wait a moment." He rose quickly, and left the room.
Giovanni sat down and smoked rather impatiently, looking at his watch from time to time. In five minutes his father returned, bringing in his hand an old red morocco case.
"Give it to her with my compliments, my boy," he said. "They are some of your mother's diamonds—just a few of them. She shall have the rest on the wedding-day."
"Thank you," said Giovanni, and pressed his father's hand.
"And give her my love, and say I will call to-morrow at two o'clock," added the Prince, now perfectly serene.
With the diamonds under his arm, Giovanni went out. The sky was clear and frosty, and the stars shone brightly, high up between the tall houses of the narrow street. Giovanni had not ordered a carriage, and seeing how fine the night was, he decided to walk to his destination. It was not eight o'clock, and Corona would have scarcely finished dinner at that hour. He walked slowly. As he emerged into the Piazza di Venezia some one overtook him.
"Good evening, Prince." Giovanni turned, and recognised Anastase Gouache, the Zouave.
"Ah, Gouache—how are you?"
"I am going to pay you a visit," answered the Frenchman.
"I am very sorry—I have just left home," returned Giovanni, in some surprise.
"Not at your house," continued Anastase. "My company is ordered to the mountains. We leave tomorrow morning for Subiaco, and some of us are to be quartered at Saracinesca."
"I hope you will be among the number," said Giovanni. "I shall probably be married next week, and the Duchessa wishes to go at once to the mountains. We shall be delighted to see you."
"Thank you very much. I will not fail to do myself the honour. My homage to Madame la Duchesse. I must turn here. Good night."
"Au revoir," said Giovanni, and went on his way.
He found Corona in an inner sitting-room, reading beside a great wood-fire. There were soft shades of lilac mingled with the black of her dress. The year of mourning was past, and so soon as she could she modified her widow's weeds into something less solemnly; black. It was impossible to wear funeral robes on the eve of her second marriage; and the world had declared that she had shown an extraordinary degree of virtue in mourning so long for a death which every one considered so highly appropriate. Corona, however, felt differently. To her, her dead husband and the man she now so wholly loved belonged to two totally distinct classes of men. Her love, her marriage with Giovanni, seemed so natural a consequence of her being left alone—so absolutely removed from her former life—that, on the eve of her wedding, she could almost wish that poor old Astrardente were alive to look as her friend upon her new-found happiness.
She welcomed Giovanni with a bright smile. She had not expected him that evening, for he had been with her all the afternoon. She sprang to her feet and came quickly to meet him. She almost unconsciously took the morocco case from his hands, not looking at it, and hardly noticing what she did.
"My father has come back. It is all settled!" cried Giovanni.
"So soon! He must have flown!" said she, making him sit down.
"Yes, he has never rested, and he has found out all about it. It is a most extraordinary story. By the by, he sends you affectionate messages, and begs you to accept these diamonds. They were my mother's," he added, his voice softening and changing. Corona understood his tone, and perhaps realised, too, how very short the time now was. She opened the case carefully.
"They are very beautiful; your mother wore them, Giovanni?" She looked lovingly at him, and then bending down kissed the splendid coronet as though in reverence of the dead Spanish woman who had borne the man she loved. Whereat Giovanni stole to her side, and kissed her own dark hair very tenderly.
"I was to tell you that there are a great many more," he said, "which my father will offer you on the wedding—day." Then he kneeled down beside her, and raising the crown from its case, set it with both his hands upon her diadem of braids.
"My princess!" he exclaimed. "How beautiful you are!" He took the great necklace, and clasped it about her white throat. "Of course," he said, "you have such splendid jewels of your own, perhaps you hardly care for these and the rest. But I like to see you with them—it makes me feel that you are really mine."
Corona smiled happily, and gently took the coronet from her head, returning it to its case. She let the necklace remain about her throat.
"You have not told me about your father's discovery," she said, suddenly.
"Yes—I will tell you."
In a few minutes he communicated to her the details of the journey. She listened with profound interest.
"It is very strange," she said. "And yet it is so very natural."
"You see it is all Del Ferice's doing," said Giovanni. "I suppose it was really an accident in the first place; but he managed to make a great deal of it. It is certainly very amusing to find that the last of the other branch is an innkeeper in the Abruzzi. However, I daresay we shall never hear of him again. He does not seem inclined to claim his title. Corona mia, I have something much more serious to say to you to-night."
"What is it?" she asked, turning her great dark eyes rather wonderingly to his face.
"There is no reason why we should not be married, now—"
"Do you think I ever believed there was?" she asked, reproachfully.
"No, dear. Only—would you mind its being very soon?"
The dark blood rose slowly to her cheek, but she answered without any hesitation. She was too proud to hesitate.
"Whenever you please, Giovanni. Only it must be very quiet, and we will go straight to Saracinesca. If you agree to those two things, it shall be as soon as you please."
"Next week? A week from Sunday?" asked Giovanni, eagerly.
"Yes—a week from Sunday. I would rather not go through the ordeal of a long engagement. I cannot bear to have every one here, congratulating me from morning till night, as they insist upon doing."
"I will send the people out to Saracinesca to-morrow," said Giovanni, in great delight. "They have been at work all winter, making the place respectable."
"Not changing, I hope?" exclaimed Corona, who dearly loved the old grey walls.
"Only repairing the state apartments. By the by, I met Gouache this evening. He is going out with a company of Zouaves to hunt the brigands, if there really are any."
"I hope he will not come near us," answered Corona. "I want to be all alone with you, Giovanni, for ever so long. Would you not rather be alone for a little while?" she asked, looking up suddenly with a timid smile. "Should I bore you very much?"
It is unnecessary to record Giovanni's answer. If Corona longed to be alone with him in the hills, Giovanni himself desired such a retreat still more. To be out of the world, even for a month, seemed to him the most delightful of prospects, for he was weary of the city, of society, of everything save the woman he was about to marry. Of her he could never tire; he could not imagine that in her company the days would ever seem long, even in old Saracinesca, among the grey rocks of the Sabines. The average man is gregarious, perhaps; but in strong minds there is often a great desire for solitude, or at least for retirement, in the society of one sympathetic soul. The instinct which bids such people leave the world for a time is never permanent, unless they become morbid. It is a natural feeling; and a strong brain gathers strength from communing with itself or with its natural mate. There are few great men who have not at one time or another withdrawn into solitude, and their retreat has generally been succeeded by a period of extraordinary activity. Strong minds are often, at some time or another, exposed to doubt and uncertainty incomprehensible to a smaller intellect—due, indeed, to that very breadth of view which contemplates the same idea from a vast number of sides. To a man so endowed, the casting-vote of some one whom he loves, and with whom he almost unconsciously sympathises, is sometimes necessary to produce action, to direct the faculties, to guide the overflowing flood of his thought into the mill-race of life's work. Without a certain amount of prejudice to determine the resultant of its forces, many a fine intellect would expend its power in burrowing among its own labyrinths, unrecognised, misunderstood, unheard by the working-day world without. For the working-day world never lacks prejudice to direct its working.
For some time Giovanni and Corona talked of their plans for the spring and summer. They would read, they would work together at the schemes for uniting and improving their estates; they would build that new road from Astrardente to Saracinesca, concerning which there had been so much discussion during the last year; they would visit every part of their lands together, and inquire into the condition of every peasant; they would especially devote their attention to extending the forest enclosures, in which Giovanni foresaw a source of wealth for his children; above all, they would talk to their hearts' content, and feel, as each day dawned upon their happiness, that they were free to go where they would, without being confronted at every turn by the troublesome duties of an exigent society.
At last the conversation turned again upon recent events, and especially upon the part Del Ferice and Donna Tullia had played in attempting to prevent the marriage. Corona asked what Giovanni intended to do about the matter.
"I do not see that there is much to be done," he answered. "I will go to Donna Tullia to-morrow, and explain that there has been a curious mistake—that I am exceedingly obliged to her for calling my attention to the existence of a distant relative, but that I trust she will not in future interfere in my affairs."
"Do you think she will marry Del Ferice after all?" asked Corona.
"Why not? Of course he gave her the papers. Very possibly he thought they really proved my former marriage. She will perhaps blame him for her failure, but he will defend himself, never fear; he will make her marry him."
"I wish they would marry and go away," said Corona to whom the very name of Del Ferice was abhorrent, and who detested Donna Tullia almost as heartily. Corona was a very good and noble woman, but she was very far from that saintly superiority which forgets to resent injuries. Her passions were eminently human, and very strong. She had struggled bravely against her overwhelming love for Giovanni; and she had so far got the mastery of herself, that she would have endured to the end if her husband's death had not set her at liberty. Perhaps, too, while she felt the necessity of fighting against that love, she attained for a time to an elevation of character which would have made such personal injuries as Donna Tullia could inflict seem insignificant in comparison with the great struggle she sustained against an even greater evil. But in the realisation of her freedom, in suddenly giving the rein to her nature, so long controlled by her resolute will, all passion seemed to break out at once with renewed force; and the conviction that her anger against her two enemies was perfectly just and righteous, added fuel to the fire. Her eyes gleamed fiercely as she spoke of Del Ferice and his bride, and no punishment seemed too severe for those who had so treacherously tried to dash the cup of her happiness from her very lips.
"I wish they would marry," she repeated, "and I wish the Cardinal would turn them out of Rome the next day."
"That might be done," said Giovanni, who had himself revolved more than one scheme of vengeance against the evil-doers. "The trouble is, that the Cardinal despises Del Ferice and his political dilettanteism. He does not care a fig whether the fellow remains in Rome or goes away. I confess it would be a great satisfaction to wring the villain's neck."
"You must not fight him again, Giovanni," said Corona, in sudden alarm. "You must not risk your life now—you know it is mine now." She laid her hand tenderly on his, and it trembled.
"No, dearest—I certainly will not. But my father is very angry. I think we may safely leave the treatment of Del Fence in his hands. My father is a very sudden and violent man."
"I know," replied Corona. "He is magnificent when he is angry. I have no doubt he will settle Del Ferice's affairs satisfactorily." She laughed almost fiercely. Giovanni looked at her anxiously, yet not without pride, as he recognised in her strong anger something akin to himself.
"How fierce you are!" he said, with a smile.
"Have I not cause to be? Have I not cause to wish these people an evil end? Have they not nearly separated us? Nothing is bad enough for them—what is the use of pretending not to feel? You are calm, Giovanni? Perhaps you are much stronger than I am. I do not think you realise what they meant to do—to separate us—us! As if any torture were bad enough for them!"
Giovanni had never seen her so thoroughly roused. He was angry himself, and more than angry, for his cheek paled, and his stern features grew more hard, while his voice dropped to a hoarser tone.
"Do not mistake me, Corona," he said. "Do not think I am indifferent because I am quiet. Del Ferice shall expiate all some day, and bitterly too."
"Indeed I hope so," answered Corona between her teeth. Had Giovanni foreseen the long and bitter struggle he would one day have to endure before that expiation was complete, he would very likely have renounced his vengeance then and there, for his wife's sake. But we mortals see but in a glass; and when the mirror is darkened by the master-passion of hate, we see not at all. Corona and Giovanni, united, rich and powerful, might indeed appear formidable to a wretch like Del Ferice, dependent upon a system of daily treachery for the very bread he ate. But in those days the wheel of fortune was beginning to turn, and far-sighted men prophesied that many an obscure individual would one day be playing the part of a great personage. Years would still elapse before the change, but the change would surely come at last.
Giovanni was very thoughtful as he walked home that night. He was happy, and he had cause to be, for the long-desired day was at hand. He had nearly attained the object of his life, and there was now no longer any obstacle to be overcome. The relief he felt at his father's return was very great; for although he had known that the impediment raised would be soon removed, any impediment whatever was exasperating, and he could not calculate the trouble that might be caused by the further machinations of Donna Tullia and her affianced husband. All difficulties had, however, been overcome by his father's energetic action, and at once Giovanni felt as though a load had fallen from his shoulders, and a veil from his eyes. He saw himself wedded to Corona in less than a fortnight, removed from the sphere of society and of all his troubles, living for a space alone with her in his ancestral home, calling her, at last, his wife. Nevertheless he was thoughtful, and his expression was not one of unmingled gladness, as he threaded the streets on his way home; for his mind reverted to Del Ferice and to Donna Tullia, and Corona's fierce look was still before him. He reflected that she had been nearly as much injured as himself, that her wrath was legitimate, and that it was his duty to visit her sufferings as well as his own upon the offenders. His melancholic nature easily fell to brooding over any evil which was strong enough to break the barrier of his indifference; and the annoyances which had sprung originally from so small a cause had grown to gigantic proportions, and had struck at the very roots of his happiness.
He had begun by disliking Del Ferice in an indifferent way whenever he chanced to cross his path. Del Ferice had resented this haughty indifference as a personal insult, and had set about injuring Giovanni, attempting to thwart him whenever he could. Giovanni had caught Del Ferice in a dastardly trick, and had been so far roused as to take summary vengeance upon him in the duel which tools place after the Frangipani ball. The wound had entered into Ugo's soul, and his hatred had grown the faster that he found no opportunity of revenge. Then, at last, when Giovanni's happiness had seemed complete, his enemy had put forward his pretended proof of a former marriage; knowing well enough that his weapons were not invincible—were indeed very weak—but unable to resist any longer the desire for vengeance. Once more Giovanni had triumphed easily, but with victory came the feeling that it was his turn to punish his adversary. And now there was a new and powerful motive added to Giovanni's just resentment, in the anger his future wife felt and had a good right to feel, at the treachery which had been practised upon both. It had taken two years to rouse Giovanni to energetic action against one whom he had in turn regarded with indifference, then despised, then honestly disliked, and finally hated. But his hatred had been doubled each time by a greater injury, and was not likely to be easily satisfied. Nothing short of Del Fence's destruction would be enough, and his destruction must be brought about by legal means.
Giovanni had not far to seek for his weapons. He had long suspected Del Ferice of treasonable practices; he did not doubt that with small exertion he could find evidence to convict him. He would, then, allow him to marry Donna Tullia; and on the day after the wedding, Del Ferice should be arrested and lodged in the prison of the Holy Office as a political delinquent of the meanest and most dangerous kind—as a political spy. The determination was soon reached. It did not seem cruel to Giovanni, for he was in a relentless mood; it would not have seemed cruel to Corona,—Del Ferice had deserved all that, and more also.
So Giovanni went home and slept the sleep of a man who has made up his mind upon an important matter. And in the morning he rose early and communicated his ideas to his father. The result was that they determined for the present to avoid an interview with Donna Tullia, and to communicate to her by letter the result of old Saracinesca's rapid journey to Aquila.
When Donna Tullia received Saracinesca's note, explaining the existence of a second Giovanni, his pedigree and present circumstances, she almost fainted with disappointment. It seemed to her that she had compromised herself before the world, that all Rome knew the ridiculous part she had played in Del Ferice's comedy, and that her shame would never be forgotten. Suddenly she saw how she had been led away by her hatred of Giovanni into believing blindly in a foolish tale which ought not to have deceived a child. So soon as she learned the existence of a second Giovanni Saracinesca, it seemed to her that she must have been mad not to foresee such an explanation from the first. She had been duped, she had been made a cat's-paw, she had been abominably deceived by Del Ferice, who had made use of this worthless bribe in order to extort from her a promise of marriage. She felt very ill, as very vain people often do when they feel that they have been made ridiculous. She lay upon the sofa in her little boudoir, where everything was in the worst possible taste—from the gaudy velvet carpet and satin furniture to the gilt clock on the chimney-piece—and she turned red and pale and red again, and wished she were dead, or in Paris, or anywhere save in Rome. If she went out she might meet one of the Saracinesca at any turn of the street, or even Corona herself. How they would bow and smile sweetly at her, enjoying her discomfiture with the polite superiority of people who cannot be hurt!
And she herself—she could not tell what she should do. She had announced her engagement to Del Ferice, but she could not marry him. She had been entrapped into making him a promise, into swearing a terrible oath; but the Church did not consider such oaths binding. She would go to Padre Filippo and ask his advice.
But then, if she went to Padre Filippo, she would have to confess all she had done, and she was not prepared to do that. A few weeks would pass, and that time would be sufficient to mellow and smooth the remembrance of her revengeful projects into a less questionable shape. No—she could not confess all that just yet. Surely such an oath was not binding; at all events, she could not marry Del Fence, whether she broke her promise or not. In the first place, she would send for him and vent her anger upon him while it was hot.
Accordingly, in the space of three-quarters of an hour, Ugo appeared, smiling, smooth and persuasive as usual. Donna Tullia assumed a fine attitude of disdain as she heard his step outside the door. She intended to impress him with a full and sudden view of her just anger. He did not seem much moved, and came forward as usual to take her hand and kiss it. But she folded her arms and stared at him with all the contempt she could concentrate in the gaze of her blue eyes. It was a good comedy. Del Ferice, who had noticed as soon as he entered the room that something was wrong, and had already half guessed the cause, affected to spring back in horror when she refused to give her hand. His pale face expressed sufficiently well a mixture of indignation and sorrow at the harsh treatment he received. Still Donna Tullia's cold eye rested upon him in a fixed stare.
"What is this? What have I done?" asked Del Ferice in low tones.
"Can you ask? Wretch! Read that, and understand what you have done," answered Donna Tullia, making a step forward and thrusting Saracinesca's letter in his face.
Del Ferice had already seen the handwriting, and knew what the contents were likely to be. He took the letter in one hand, and without looking at it, still faced the angry woman. His brows contracted into a heavy frown, and his half-closed eyes gazed menacingly at her.
"It will be an evil day for any man who comes between you and me," he said, in tragic tones.
Donna Tullia laughed harshly, and again drew herself up, watching his face, and expecting to witness his utter confusion. But she was no match for the actor whom she had promised to marry. Del Ferice began to read, and as he read, his frown relaxed; gradually an ugly smile, intended to represent fiendish cunning, stole over his features, and when he had finished, he uttered a cry of triumph.
"Ha!" he said, "I guessed it! I hoped it—and it is true! He is found at last! The very man—the real Saracinesca! It is only a matter of time—"
Donna Tullia now stared in unfeigned surprise. Instead of crushing him to the ground as she had expected, the letter seemed to fill him with boundless delight. He paced the room in wild excitement, chattering like a madman. In spite of herself, however, her own spirits rose, and her anger against Del Ferice softened. All was perhaps not lost—who could fathom the intricacy of his great schemes? Surely he was not the man to fall a victim to his own machinations.
"Will you please explain your extraordinary satisfaction at this news?" said Madame Mayer. Between her late anger, her revived hopes, and her newly roused curiosity, she was in a terrible state of suspense.
"Explain?" he cried. "Explain what, most adorable of women? Does it not explain itself? Have we not found the Marchese di San Giacinto, the real Saracinesca? Is not that enough?"
"I do not understand—"
Del Ferice was now by her side. He seemed hardly able to control himself for joy. As a matter of fact he was acting, and acting a desperate part too, suggested on the spur of the moment by the risk he ran of losing this woman and her fortune on the very eve of marriage. Now he seized her hand, and drawing her arm through his, led her quickly backwards and forwards, talking fast and earnestly. It would not do to hesitate, for by a moment's appearance of uncertainty all would be lost.
"No; of course you cannot understand the vast importance of this discovery. I must explain. I must enter into historic details, and I am so much overcome by this extraordinary turn of fortune that I can hardly speak. Remove all doubt from your mind, my dear lady, for we have already triumphed. This innkeeper, this Giovanni Saracinesca, this Marchese di San Giacinto, is the lawful and right Prince Saracinesca, the head of the house—"
"What!" screamed Donna Tullia, stopping short, and gripping his arm as in a vice.
"Indeed he is. I suspected it when I first found the signature at Aquila; but the man was gone, with his newly married wife, no one knew whither; and I could not find him, search as I might. He is now returned, and what is more, as this letter says, with all his papers proving his identity. This is how the matter lies. Listen, Tullia mia. The old Leone Saracinesca who last bore the title of Marquis—"
"The one mentioned here?" asked Donna Tullia, breathlessly.
"Yes—the one who took service under Murat, under Napoleon. Well, it is perfectly well known that he laid claim to the Roman title, and with perfect justice. Two generations before that, there had been an amicable arrangement—amicable, but totally illegal—whereby the elder brother, who was an unmarried invalid, transferred the Roman estates to his younger brother, who was married and had children, and, in exchange, took the Neapolitan estates and title, which had just fallen back to the main branch by the death of a childless Marchese di San Giacinto. Late in life this old recluse invalid married, contrary to all expectation—certainly contrary to his own previous intentions. However, a child was born—a boy. The old man found himself deprived by his own act of his principality, and the succession turned from his son to the son of his younger brother. He began a negotiation for again obtaining possession of the Roman title—at least so the family tradition goes—but his brother, who was firmly established in Rome, refused to listen to his demands. At this juncture the old man died, being legally, observe, still the head of the family of Saracinesca; his son should have succeeded him. But his wife, the young daughter of an obscure Neapolitan nobleman, was not more than eighteen years of age, and the child was only six months old. People married young in those days. She entered some kind of protest, which, however, was of no avail; and the boy grew up to be called the Marchese di San Griacinto. He learned the story of his birth from his mother, and protested in his turn. He ruined himself in trying to push his suit in the Neapolitan courts; and finally, in the days of Napoleon's success, he took service under Murat, receiving the solemn promise of the Emperor that he should be reinstated in his title. But the Emperor forgot his promise, or did not find it convenient to keep it, having perhaps reasons of his own for not quarrelling with Pius the Seventh, who protected the Roman Saracinesea Then came 1815, the downfall of the Empire, the restoration of Ferdinand IV. in Naples, the confiscation of property from all who had joined the Emperor, and the consequent complete ruin of San Giacinto's hopes. He was supposed to have been killed, or to have made away with himself. Saracinesea himself acknowledges that his grandson is alive, and possesses all the family papers. Saracinesca himself has discovered, seen, and conversed with the lawful head of his race, who, by the blessing of heaven and the assistance of the courts, will before long turn him out of house and home, and reign in his stead in all the glories of the Palazzo Saracinesca, Prince of Rome, of the Holy Roman Empire, grandee of Spain of the first class, and all the rest of it. Do you wonder I rejoice, now that I am sure of putting an innkeeper over my enemy's head? Fancy the humiliation of old Saracinesca, of Giovanni, who will have to take his wife's title for the sake of respectability, of the Astrardente herself, when she finds she has married the penniless son of a penniless pretender!"
Del Ferice knew enough of the Saracinesca's family history to know that something like what he had so fluently detailed to Donna Tullia had actually occurred, and he knew well enough that she would not remember every detail of his rapidly told tale. Hating the family as he did, he had diligently sought out all information about them which he could obtain without gaining access to their private archives. His ready wit helped him to string the whole into a singularly plausible story. So plausible, indeed, that it entirely upset all Donna Tullia's determination to be angry at Del Ferice, and filled her with something of the enthusiasm he showed. For himself he hoped that there was enough in his story to do some palpable injury to the Saracinesca; but his more immediate object was not to lose Donna Tullia by letting her feel any disappointment at the discovery recently made by the old Prince. Donna Tullia listened with breathless interest until he had finished.
"What a man you are, Ugo! How you turn defeat into victory! Is it all really true? Do you think we can do it?"
"If I were to die this instant," Del Ferice asseverated, solemnly raising his hand, "it is all perfectly true, so help me God!"
He hoped, for many reasons, that he was not perjuring himself.
"What shall we do, then?" asked Madame Mayer.
"Let them marry first, and then we shall be sure of humiliating them both," he answered. Unconsciously he repeated the very determination which Giovanni had formed against him the night before. "Meanwhile, you and I can consult the lawyers and see how this thing can best be accomplished quickly and surely," he added.
"You will have to send for the innkeeper—"
"I will go and see him. It will not be hard to persuade him to claim his lawful rights."
Del Ferice remained some time in conversation with Donna Tullia. The magnitude of the scheme fascinated her, and instead of thinking of breaking her promise to Ugo as she had intended doing, she so far fell under his influence as to name the wedding-day,—Easter Monday, they agreed, would exactly suit them and their plans. Indeed the idea of refusing to fulfil her engagement had been but the result of a transitory fit of anger; if she had had any fear of making a misalliance in marrying Del Ferice, the way in which the world received the news of the engagement removed all such apprehension from her mind. Del Ferice was already treated with increased respect—the very servants began to call him "Eccellenza," a distinction to which he neither had, nor could ever have, any kind of claim, but which pleased Donna Tullia's vain soul. The position which Ugo had obtained for himself by an assiduous attention to the social claims and prejudices of social lights and oracles, was suddenly assured to him, and rendered tenfold more brilliant by the news of his alliance with Donna Tullia. He excited no jealousies either; for Donna Tullia's peculiarities were of a kind which seemed to have interfered from the first with her matrimonial projects. As a young girl, a relation of the Saracinesca, whom she now so bitterly hated, she should have been regarded as marriageable by any of the young Roman nobles, from Valdarno down. But she had only a small dowry, and she was said to be extravagant—two objections then not so easily overcome as now. Moreover, she was considered to be somewhat flighty; and the social jury decided that when she was married, she would be excellent company, but would make a very poor wife. Almost before they had finished discussing her, however, she had found a husband, in the shape of the wealthy foreign contractor, Mayer, who wanted a wife from a good Roman house, and cared not at all for money. She treated him very well, but was speedily delivered from all her cares by his untimely death. Then, of all her fellow-citizens, none was found save the eccentric old Saracinesca, who believed that she would do for his son; wherein it appeared that Giovanni's father was the man of all others who least understood Giovanni's inclinations. But this match fell to the ground, owing to Giovanni's attachment to Corona, and Madame Mayer was left with the prospect of remaining a widow for the rest of her life, or of marrying a poor man. She chose the latter alternative, and fate threw into her way the cleverest poor man in Rome, as though desiring to compensate her for not having married one of the greatest nobles, in the person of Giovanni. Though she was always a centre of attraction, no one of those she most attracted wanted to marry her, and all expressed their unqualified approval of her ultimate choice. One said she was very generous to marry a penniless gentleman; another remarked that she showed wisdom in choosing a man who was in the way of making himself a good position under the Italian Government; a third observed that he was delighted, because he could enjoy her society without being suspected of wanting to marry her; and all agreed in praising her, and in treating Del Ferice with the respect due to a man highly favored by fortune.
Donna Tullia named the wedding-day, and her affianced husband departed in high spirits with himself, with her, and with his scheme. He felt still a little excited, and wanted to be alone. He hardly realised the magnitude of the plot he had undertaken, and needed time to reflect upon it; but with the true instinct of an intriguing genius he recognised at once that his new plan was the thing he had sought for long and ardently, and that it was worth all his other plans put together. Accordingly he went home, and proceeded to devote himself to the study of the question, sending a note to a friend of his—a young lawyer of doubtful reputation, but of brilliant parts, whom he at once selected as his chief counsellor in the important affair he had undertaken.
Before long he beard that the marriage of Don Giovanni Saracinesca to the Duchessa d'Astrardente was to take place the next week, in the chapel of the Palazzo Saracinesca. At least popular report said that the ceremony was to take place there; and that it was to be performed with great privacy was sufficiently evident from the fact that no invitations appeared to have been issued. Society did not fail to comment upon such exclusiveness, and it commented unfavourably, for it felt that it was being deprived of a long-anticipated spectacle. This state of things lasted for two days, when, upon the Sunday morning precisely a week before the wedding, all Rome was surprised by receiving an imposing invitation, setting forth that the marriage would be solemnised in the Basilica of the Santi Apostoli, and that it would be followed by a state reception at the Palazzo Saracinesca. It was soon known that the ceremony would be performed by the Cardinal Archpriest of St Peter's, that the united choirs of St Peter's and of the Sixtine Chapel would sing the High Mass, and that the whole occasion would be one of unprecedented solemnity and magnificence. This was the programme published by the 'Osservatore Romano,' and that newspaper proceeded to pronounce a eulogy of some length and considerable eloquence upon the happy pair. Rome was fairly taken off its feet; and although some malcontents were found, who said it was improper that Corona's marriage should be celebrated with such pomp so soon after her husband's death, the general verdict was that the whole proceeding was eminently proper and becoming to so important an event. So soon as every one had been invited, no one seemed to think it remarkable that the invitations should have been issued so late. It was not generally known that in the short time which elapsed between the naming of the day and the issuing of the cards, there had been several interviews between old Saracinesca and Cardinal Antonelli; that the former had explained Corona's natural wish that the marriage should be private, and that the latter had urged many reasons why so great an event ought to be public; that Saracinesca had said he did not care at all, and was only expressing the views of his son and of the bride; that the Cardinal had repeatedly asseverated that he wished to please everybody; that Corona had refused to be pleased by a public ceremony; and that, finally, the Cardinal, seeing himself hard pressed, had persuaded his Holiness himself to express a wish that the marriage should take place in the most solemn and public manner; wherefore Corona had reluctantly yielded the point, and the matter was arranged. The fact was that the Cardinal wished to make a sort of demonstration of the solidarity of the Roman nobility: it suited his aims to enter into every detail which could add to the importance of the Roman Court, and which could help to impress upon the foreign Ministers the belief that in all matters the Romans as one man would stand by each other and by the Vatican. No one knew better than he how the spectacle of a religious solemnity, at which the whole nobility would attend in a body, must strike the mind of a stranger in Rome; for in Roman ceremonies of that day there was a pomp and magnificence surpassing that found in any other Court of Europe. The whole marriage would become an event of which he could make an impressive use, and he was determined not to forego any advantages which might arise from it; for he was a man who of all men well understood the value of details in maintaining prestige.
But to the two principal actors in the day's doings the affair was an unmitigated annoyance, and even their own great and true happiness could not lighten the excessive fatigue of the pompous ceremony and of the still more pompous reception which followed it. To describe that day would be to make out a catalogue of gorgeous equipages, gorgeous costumes, gorgeous decorations. Many pages would not suffice to enumerate the cardinals, the dignitaries, the ambassadors, the great nobles, whose magnificent coaches drove up in long file through the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli to the door of the Basilica. The columns of the 'Osservatore Romano' were full of it for a week afterwards. There was no end to the descriptions of the costumes, from the white satin and diamonds of the bride to the festal uniforms of the Cardinal Arch-priest's retinue. Not a personage of importance was overlooked in the newspaper account, not a diplomatist, not an officer of Zouaves. And society read the praise of itself, and found it much more interesting than the praise of the bride and bridegroom; and only one or two people were offended because the paper had made a mistake in naming the colours of the hammer-cloths upon their coaches: so that the affair was a great success.
But when at last the sun was low and the guests had departed from the Palazzo Saracinesca, Corona and Giovanni got into their travelling carriage under the great dark archway, and sighed a sigh of infinite relief. The old Prince put his arms tenderly around his new daughter and kissed her; and for the second time in the course of this history, it is to be recorded that two tears stole silently down his brown cheeks to his grey beard. Then he embraced Giovanni, whose face was pale and earnest.
"This is not the end of our living together, padre mio," he said. "We shall expect you before long at Saracinesca."
"Yes, my boy," returned the old man; "I will come and see you after Easter. But do not stay if it is too cold; I have a little business to attend to in Rome before I join you," he added, with a grim smile.
"I know," replied Giovanni, a savage light in his black eyes. "If you need help, send to me, or come yourself."
"No fear of that, Giovannino; I have got a terrible helper. Now, be off. The guards are growing impatient."
"Good-bye. God bless you, padre mio!"
"God bless you both!" So they drove off, and left old Saracinesca standing bareheaded and alone under the dim archway of his ancestral palace. The great carriage rolled out, and the guard of mounted gendarmes, which the Cardinal had insisted upon sending with the young couple, half out of compliment, half for safety, fell in behind, and trotted down the narrow street, with a deafening clatter of hoofs and clang of scabbards.
But Giovanni held Corona's hand in his, and both were silent for a time. Then they rolled under the low vault of the Porta San Lorenzo and out into the evening sunlight of the Campagna beyond.
"God be praised that it has come at last!" said Giovanni.
"Yes, it has come," answered Corona, her strong white fingers closing upon his brown hand almost convulsively; "and, come what may, you are mine, Giovanni, until we die!"
There was something fierce in the way those two loved each other; for they had fought many fights before they were united, and had overcome themselves, each alone, before they had overcome other obstacles together.
Relays of horses awaited them on their way, and relays of mounted guards. Late that night they reached Saracinesca, all ablaze with torches and lanterns; and the young men took the horses from the coach and yoked themselves to it with ropes, and dragged the cumbrous carriage up the last hill with furious speed, shouting and singing like madmen in the cool mountain air. Up the steep they rushed, and under the grand old gateway, made as bright as day with flaming torches; and then there went up a shout that struck the old vaults like a wild chord of fierce music, and Corona knew that her journey was ended.
So it was that Giovanni Saracinesca brought home his bride.
The old Prince was left alone, as he had often been left before, when Giovanni was gone to the ends of the earth in pursuit of his amusements. On such occasions old Saracinesca frequently packed up his traps and followed his son's example; but he rarely went further than Paris, where he had many friends, and where he generally succeeded in finding consolation for his solitude.
Now, however, he felt more than usually lonely. Giovanni had not gone far, it is true, for with good horses it was scarcely more than eight hours to the castle; but, for the first time in his life, old Saracinesca felt that if he had suddenly determined to follow his son, he would not be welcome. The boy was married at last, and must be left in peace for a few days with his bride. With the contrariety natural to him, old Saracinesca no sooner felt that his son was gone than he experienced the most ardent desire to be with him. He had often seen Giovanni leave the house at twenty-four hours' notice on his way to some distant capital, and had not cared to accompany him, simply because he knew he might do so if he pleased; but now he felt that some one else had taken his place, and that, for a time at least, he was forcibly excluded from Giovanni's society. It is very likely that but for the business which detained him in Rome he would have astonished the happy pair by riding into the gateway of the old castle on the day after the wedding: that business, however, was urgent, secret, and, moreover, very congenial to the old man's present temper.
He had discussed the matter fully with Giovanni, and they had agreed upon the course to be pursued. There was, nevertheless, much to be done before the end they both so earnestly desired could be attained. It seemed a simple plan to go to Cardinal Antonelli and to demand the arrest of Del Ferice for his misdeeds; but as yet those misdeeds were undefined, and it was necessary to define them. The Cardinal rarely resorted to such measures except when the case was urgent, and Saracinesca knew perfectly well that it would be hard to prove anything more serious against Del Ferice than the crime of joining in the silly talk of Valdarno and his set. Giovanni had told his father plainly that he was sure Del Ferice derived his living from some illicit source, but he was wholly unable to show what that source was. Most people believed the story that Del Ferice had inherited money from an obscure relative; most people thought he was clever and astute, but were so far deceived by his frank and unaffected manner as to feel sure that he always said everything that came into his head; most people are so much delighted when an unusually clever man deigns to talk to them, that they cannot, for vanity's sake, suspect him of deceiving them. Saracinesca did not doubt that the mere statement of his own belief in regard to Del Ferice would have considerable weight with the Cardinal, for he was used to power of a certain kind, and was accustomed to see his judgment treated with deference; but he knew the Cardinal to be a cautious man, hating despotic measures, because by his use of them he had made himself so bitterly hated—loth always to do by force what might be accomplished by skill, and in the end far more likely to attempt the conversion of Del Ferice to the reactionary view, than to order his expulsion because his views were over liberal. Even if old Saracinesca had possessed a vastly greater diplomatic instinct than he did, coupled with an unscrupulous mendacity which he certainly had not, he would have found it hard to persuade the Cardinal against his will; but Saracinesca was, of all men, a man violent in action and averse to reflection before or after the fact. That he should ultimately be revenged upon Del Ferice and Donna Tullia for the part they had lately played, was a matter which it never entered his head to doubt; but when he endeavoured to find means which should persuade the Cardinal to assist him, he seemed fenced in on all sides by impossibilities. One thing only helped him—namely, the conviction that if the statesman could be induced to examine Del Ferice's conduct seriously, the latter would prove to be not only an enemy to the State, but a bitter enemy to the Cardinal himself.
The more Saracinesca thought of the matter, the more convinced he was that he should go boldly to the Cardinal and state his belief that Del Ferice was a dangerous traitor, who ought to be summarily dealt with. If the Cardinal argued the case, the Prince would asseverate, after his manner, and some sort of result was sure to follow. As he thus determined upon his course, his doubts seemed to vanish, as they generally do in the mind of a strong man, when action becomes imminent, and the confidence the old man had exhibited to his son very soon became genuine. It was almost intolerable to have to wait so long, however, before doing anything. Giovanni and he had decided to allow Del Ferice's marriage to take place before producing the explosion, in order the more certainly to strike both the offenders; now it seemed best to strike at once. Supposing, he argued with himself, that Donna Tullia and her husband chose to leave Rome for Paris the day after their wedding, half the triumph would be lost; for half the triumph was to consist in Del Ferice's being imprisoned for a spy in Rome, whereas if he once crossed the frontier, he could at most be forbidden to return, which would be but a small satisfaction to Saracinesca, or to Giovanni.
A week passed by, and the gaiety of Carnival was again at its height; and again a week elapsed, and Lent was come. Saracinesca went everywhere and saw everybody as usual, and then after Ash-Wednesday he occasionally showed himself at some of those quiet evening receptions which his son so much detested. But he was restless and discontented. He longed to begin the fight, and could not sleep for thinking of it. Like Giovanni, he was strong and revengeful; but Giovanni had from his mother a certain slowness of temperament, which often deterred him from action just long enough to give him time for reflection, whereas the father, when roused, and he was roused easily, loved to strike at once. It chanced one evening, in a great house, that Saracinesca came upon the Cardinal standing alone in an outer room. He was on his way into the reception; but he had stopped, attracted by a beautiful crystal cup of old workmanship, which stood, among other objects of the kind, upon a marble table in one of the drawing-rooms through which he had to pass. The cup itself, of deeply carved rock crystal, was set in chiselled silver, and if not the work of Cellini himself, must have been made by one of his pupils. Saracinesca stopped by the great man's side.
"Good evening, Eminence," he said.
"Good evening, Prince," returned the Cardinal, who recognised Saracinesca's voice without looking up. "Have you ever seen this marvellous piece of work? I have been admiring it for a quarter of an hour." He loved all objects of the kind, and understood them with rare knowledge.
"It is indeed exceedingly beautiful," answered Saracinesca, who longed to take advantage of the opportunity of speaking to Cardinal Antonelli upon the subject nearest to his heart.
"Yes—yes," returned the Cardinal rather vaguely, and made as though he would go on. He saw from Saracinesca's commonplace praise, that he knew nothing of the subject. The old Prince saw his opportunity slipping from him, and lost his head. He did not recollect that he could see the Cardinal alone whenever he pleased, by merely asking for an interview. Fate had thrust the Cardinal in his path, and fate was responsible.
"If your Eminence will allow me, I would like a word with you," he said suddenly.
"As many as you please," answered the statesman, blandly. "Let us sit down in that corner—no one will disturb us for a while."
He seemed unusually affable, as he sat himself down by Saracinesca's side, gathering the skirt of his scarlet mantle across his knee, and folding his delicate hands together in an attitude of restful attention.
"You know, I daresay, a certain Del Ferice, Eminence?" began the Prince.
"Very well—the deus ex machina who has appeared to carry off Donna Tullia Mayer. Yes, I know him."
"Precisely, and they will match very well together; the world cannot help applauding the union of the flesh and the devil."
The Cardinal smiled.
"The metaphor is apt," he said; "but what about them?"
"I will tell you in two words," replied Saracinesca. "Del Ferice is a scoundrel of the first water—"
"A jewel among scoundrels," interrupted the Cardinal, "for being a scoundrel he is yet harmless—a stage villain."
"I believe your Eminence is deceived in him."
"That may easily be," answered the statesman. "I am much more often deceived than people imagine." He spoke very mildly, but his small black eyes turned keenly upon Saracinesca. "What has he been doing?" he asked, after a short pause.
"He has been trying to do a great deal of harm to my son and to my son's wife. I suspect him strongly of doing harm to you."
Whether Saracinesca was strictly honest in saying "you" to the Cardinal, when he meant the whole State as represented by the prime minister, is a matter not easily decided. There is a Latin saying, to the effect that a man who is feared by many should himself fear many, and the saying is true. The Cardinal was personally a brave man; but he knew his danger, and the memory of the murdered Rossi was fresh in his mind. Nevertheless, he smiled blandly as he answered—
"That is rather vague, my friend. How is he doing me harm, if I may ask?"
"I argue in this way," returned Saracinesca, thus pressed. "The fellow found a most ingenious way of attacking my son—he searched the whole country till he found that a man called Giovanni Saracinesca had been, married some time ago in Aquila. He copied the certificates, and produced them as pretended proof that my son was already married. If I had not found the man myself, there would have been trouble. Now besides this, Del Ferice is known to hold Liberal views—"
"Of the feeblest kind," interrupted the statesman, who nevertheless became very grave.
"Those he exhibits are of the feeblest kind, and he takes no trouble to hide them. But a fellow so ingenious as to imagine the scheme he practised against us is not a fool."
"I understand, my good friend," said the Cardinal. "You have been injured by this fellow, and you would like me to revenge the injury by locking him up. Is that it?"
"Precisely," answered Saracinesca, laughing at his own simplicity. "I might as well have said so from the first."
"Much better. You would make a poor diplomatist, Prince. But what in the world shall I gain by revenging your wrongs upon that creature?"
"Nothing—unless when you have taken the trouble to examine his conduct, you find that he is really dangerous. In that case your Eminence will be obliged to look to your own safety. If you find him innocent, you will let him go."
"And in that case, what will you do?" asked the Cardinal with a smile.
"I will cut his throat," answered Saracinesca, unmoved.
"No—call him out and kill him like a gentleman, which is a great deal better than he deserves."
"I have no doubt you would," said the Cardinal, gravely. "I think your proposition reasonable, however. If this man is really dangerous, I will look to him myself. But I must really beg you not to do anything rash. I have determined that this duelling shall stop, and I warn you that neither you nor any one else will escape imprisonment if you are involved in any more of these personal encounters."
Saracinesca suppressed a smile at the Cardinal's threat; but he perceived that he had gained his point, and was pleased accordingly. He had, he felt sure, sown in the statesman's mind a germ of suspicion which would before long bring forth fruit. In those days danger was plentiful, and people could not afford to overlook it, no matter in what form it presented itself, least of all such people as the Cardinal himself, who, while sustaining an unequal combat against superior forces outside the State, felt that his every step was encompassed by perils from within. That he had long despised Del Ferice as an idle chatterer did not prevent him from understanding that he might have been deceived, as Saracinesca suggested. He had caused Ugo to be watched, it is true, but only from time to time, and by men whose only duty was to follow him and to see whether he frequented suspicious society. The little nest of talkers at Gouache's studio in the Via San Basilio was soon discovered, and proved to be harmless enough. Del Ferice was then allowed to go on his way unobserved. But the half-dozen words in which Saracinesca had described Ugo's scheme for hindering Giovanni's marriage had set the Cardinal thinking, and the Cardinal seldom wasted time in thinking in vain. His interview with Saracinesca ended very soon, and the Prince and the statesman entered the crowded drawing-room and mixed in the throng. It was long before they met again in private.
The Cardinal on the following day gave orders that Del Ferice's letters were to be stopped—by no means an uncommon proceeding in those times, nor so rare in our own day as is supposed. The post-office was then in the hands of a private individual so far as all management was concerned, and the Cardinal's word was law. Del Ferice's letters were regularly opened and examined.
The first thing that was discovered was that they frequently contained money, generally in the shape of small drafts on London signed by a Florentine banker, and that the envelopes which contained money never contained anything else. They were all posted in Florence. With regard to his letters, they appeared to be very innocent communications from all sorts of people, rarely referring to politics, and then only in the most general terms. If Del Ferice had expected to have his correspondence examined, he could not have arranged matters better for his own safety. To trace the drafts to the person who sent them was not an easy business; it was impossible to introduce a spy into the banking-house in Florence, and among the many drafts daily bought and sold, it was almost impossible to identify, without the aid of the banker's books, the person who chanced to buy any particular one. The addresses were, it is true, uniformly written by the same hand; but the writing was in no way peculiar, and was certainly not that of any prominent person whose autograph the Cardinal possessed.
The next step was to get possession of some letter written by Del Ferice himself, and, if possible, to intercept everything he wrote. But although the letters containing the drafts were regularly opened, and, after having been examined and sealed again, were regularly transmitted through the post-office to Ugo's address, the expert persons set to catch the letters he himself wrote were obliged to own, after three weeks' careful watching, that he never seemed to write any letters at all, and that he certainly never posted any. They acknowledged their failure to the Cardinal with timid anxiety, expecting to be reprimanded for their carelessness. But the Cardinal merely told them not to relax their attention, and dismissed them with a bland smile. He knew, now, that he was on the track of mischief; for a man who never writes any letters at all, while he receives many, might reasonably be suspected of having a secret post-office of his own. For some days Del Ferice's movements were narrowly watched, but with no result whatever. Then the Cardinal sent for the police register of the district where Del Ferice lived, and in which the name, nationality, and residence of every individual in the "Rione" or quarter were carefully inscribed, as they still are.
Running his eye down the list, the Cardinal came upon the name of "Temistocle Fattorusso, of Naples, servant to Ugo dei Conti del Ferice:" an idea struck him.
"His servant is a Neapolitan," he reflected. "He probably sends his letters by way of Naples."
Accordingly Temistocle was watched instead of his master. It was found that he frequented the society of other Neapolitans, and especially that he was in the habit of going from time to time to the Ripa Grande, the port of the Tiber, where he seemed to have numerous acquaintances among the Neapolitan boatmen who constantly came up the coast in their "martingane"—heavy, sea-going, lateen-rigged vessels, bringing cargoes of oranges and lemons to the Roman market. The mystery was now solved. One day Temistocle was actually seen giving a letter into the hands of a huge fellow in a red woollen cap. The sbirro who saw him do it marked the sailor and his vessel, and never lost sight of him till he hoisted his jib and floated away down stream. Then the spy took horse and galloped down to Fiumicino, where he waited for the little vessel, boarded her from a boat, escorted by a couple of gendarmes, and had no difficulty in taking the letter from the terrified seaman, who was glad enough to escape without detention. During the next fortnight several letters were stopped in this way, carried by different sailors, and the whole correspondence went straight to the Cardinal. It was not often that he troubled himself to play the detective in person, but when he did so, he was not easily baffled. And now he observed that about a week after the interception of the first letter the small drafts which used to come so frequently to Del Ferice's address from Florence suddenly ceased, proving beyond a doubt that each letter was paid for according to its value so soon as it was received.
With regard to the contents of these epistles little need be said. So sure was Del Ferice of his means of transmission that he did not even use a cipher, though he, of course, never signed any of his writings. The matter was invariably a detailed chronicle of Roman sayings and doings, a record as minute as Del Ferice could make it, of everything that took place, and even the Cardinal himself was astonished at the accuracy of the information thus conveyed. His own appearances in public—the names of those with whom he talked—even fragments of his conversation—were given with annoying exactness. The statesman learned with infinite disgust that he had for some time past been subjected to a system of espionage at least as complete as any of his own invention; and, what was still more annoying to his vanity, the spy was the man of all others whom he had most despised, calling him harmless and weak, because he cunningly affected weakness. Where or how Del Ferice procured so much information the Cardinal cared little enough, for he determined there and then that he should procure no more. That there were other traitors in the camp was more than likely, and that they had aided Del Ferice with their counsels; but though by prolonging the situation it might be possible to track them down, such delay would be valuable to enemies abroad. Moreover, if Del Ferice began to find out, as he soon must, that his private correspondence was being overhauled at the Vatican, he was not a man to hesitate about attempting his escape; and he would certainly not be an easy man to catch, if he could once succeed in putting a few miles of Campagna between himself and Rome. There was no knowing what disguise he might not find in which to slip over the frontier; and indeed, as he afterwards proved, he was well prepared for such an emergency.