'Nor love of money either,' Stradella said thoughtfully. 'The third is hate. Last of all comes charity!'
'I am not a saint, sir,' said Pina. 'So you are answered. I hate my master, and I have the right to hate him. That is my affair. If I dared kill him, I would, but I should not have the courage to bear being tortured if I were arrested and tried. I am only a woman, and I fear bodily pain more than anything. That is why I did not kill the Senator twenty years ago.'
The musician watched the cold, resentful face that had once been so handsome, and though he could not guess her story he partly understood her.
'You are frank,' he said. 'I see that you are in earnest, and that I can trust you.'
'Trust me for anything, sir, except to resist torture,' Pina answered. 'I know what it is,' she added in a low voice, and avoiding his eyes as if she were suddenly ashamed. 'As for my master,' she went on, turning to Stradella again a moment later, 'I believe he would rather die than be made a laughing-stock. I know that he yesterday announced to his friends his betrothal to his niece, which has been a secret for several weeks. I can hear the fine ladies and gentlemen laughing at him when they learn that she has run away with her music-master on the eve of her marriage! I can fancy the jests and the sarcasms the Senator will have to put up with!'
She laughed herself, rather savagely, and Stradella smiled. Provided he could carry off Ortensia, he did not even object to becoming the instrument of a serving-woman's vengeance.
They agreed upon the details of the flight. On the next day but one, being the feast of one of the many Franciscan saints, Stradella was to sing an air at Vespers in the Church of the Frari. It was therefore arranged that Ortensia and Pina should go to the church at that hour on pretence of confession. At the monument of Pietro Bernardini, near the main entrance, Stradella's hunchback servant would be waiting for them with two brown cloaks and hoods, which they were to put on immediately. They were then to kneel down quietly in the shadow and to wait till Stradella had finished singing, when they were to leave the church without waiting for him; his man would lead them through by-ways to the gondola, which was to wait on the farther side of the Tolentini. Stradella himself would slip away from the loft as soon as the Benediction began, after Vespers, just when all the other musicians would be very busy. He would probably reach the gondola almost as soon as Ortensia and the two servants, and in five minutes they would be well out of the city.
'And pray, sir,' asked Pina, 'what is your man's name?'
'Cucurullo,' Stradella answered.
'What a strange name!' Pina exclaimed.
'It is common enough in Naples.'
The Benediction was over, and the music had died away; the deep colours of the ancient windows already blended into luminous purple stains, like red wine spilt on velvet just before dusk; on the altar of the Sacrament and all about it hundreds of wax candles were burning steadily, arranged in dazzling concentric rings and shining curves. A young Dominican monk had prostrated himself before the shrine, a motionless figure, half kneeling and half lying on the steps.
The service was ended and the priests were gone. Some five hundred feet shuffled slowly away from the blaze of light into the gloom and out through the western door, and the brighter part of the church was already deserted; but the young monk remained motionless, prostrate upon the steps.
Two men stood by the choir screen, the broad-brimmed black hats they held in their hands hanging so low that the draggled feathers swept the pavement, their eyes directed towards the retiring crowd. They were two shabby gentlemen of thirty years or under; though their clothes were not yet actually torn or patched, most of their garments were already in that premonitory state which warns the wearer of old breeches to sit down with deliberation and grace, rather than with rash haste, and to make no uselessly quick movements whereby an old sewing may rip open, or the silk or cloth itself may split and gape in an unseemly manner, furnishing a cause for mirth in better-clad men.
These two poor gentlemen were very unlike in appearance, except as to their well-worn clothes and in respect of their rapiers, which were so exactly similar that they might have been made for a duelling pair. Each had a beautifully chiselled and polished bell-guard, with the Italian cross-bar for the middle finger; each was sheathed in a good brown leather sheath, with a chiselled steel shoe to drag on the pavement, and each weapon hung from the wearer's shoulder-belt by two short chains of well-furbished steel. The weapons looked serviceable, though they made little pretence to beauty, in an age when most things worn by men and women were adorned too much rather than too little.
But the men themselves were not alike. The shorter of the two was very fair, with the complexion of a Saxon child, and unnaturally pink cheeks; his nose turned up to a sharp point in the most extraordinary manner, so that the pink openings of the nostrils seemed to stand upright above the flaxen moustache, reminding one of the muzzles of certain wild cats. His blue eyes were large, perfectly round, and often aggressively fixed, and the long yellow lashes that bristled all round them might have passed for rays. He wore a short pointed beard, and his very thick fair hair was parted exactly in the middle and hung down below his dingy collar on each side, perfectly straight and completely hiding his ears. There was something both comic and disturbing in his aspect.
His companion was much less extraordinary in appearance, though any one would have noticed him in a crowd as an unusual type. Instead of being fair, he was as dark as a Moor; instead of turning up, his immensely long and melancholy nose curved downwards over his thin lips like a vulture's beak as if trying to peck at his chin. His eyes were shadowy and uncertain under his prominent forehead and bushy eyebrows. His beard was a mere black wisp, and the points of his scant moustaches were waxed and stood up stiffly. He was the taller of the two, but his hat hung lower in his hand than his friend's, for he had unnaturally long arms, with a long body and short legs, whereas the fair man with the turned-up nose was remarkably well-proportioned.
'Who says we have no good music in Venice?' inquired the latter at last, fixing his round eyes on the other's face angrily, and pressing down the hilt of his sword so as to make the point stick up behind.
His mouth looked ridiculously small, and his pink cheeks were very large and round. His companion had long ago come to the conclusion that he was very like one of those rosy cherubs that roll about the clouds in the religious pictures painted in those times, blowing their trumpets till they look as if their red cheeks must burst. Accordingly, he had nicknamed his friend 'Trombin,' short for 'trombino,' a 'little trumpeter.'
The dark man had always gone by the name of Gambardella, and seemed quite satisfied with the appellation. The two had been companions in their profession for several years, but neither knew much of the other's antecedents, and both were far too proud, or too tactful, or too prudent, to ask questions. They wore the dress and weapons of gentlemen, and were extremely ticklish as to the point of honour; but they did not now sit in the Grand Council of the Venetian Republic, though each perceived that the other had once enjoyed that privilege, and had forfeited it for the good of his native city. They travelled a great deal, always together, and their friends knew that they met with frequent and sudden changes of fortune. Their clothes were shabby now, yet scarcely six months ago they had been seen strolling arm in arm in Florence, in the Piazza della Signoria, arrayed in silks and satins and fine linen. Only their weapons were never replaced in prosperity by handsomer swords with gilded hilts, nor exchanged in adversity for others of less perfect balance and temper.
'This Stradella sings like an angel,' said Gambardella after a moment. 'I hear that he composes good music himself, and that his new oratorio will be performed before the Doge in Saint Mark's next Sunday.'
'If we had any money,' observed Trombin regretfully, 'we would hire a house and ask him to supper.'
'Yes,' answered Gambardella in a melancholy tone. 'Our Venetians do not understand these things. To them a man of genius like Alessandro Stradella is just a music-master, and nothing else, a mountebank or a strolling minstrel, to be hired and paid for his work, and dismissed with a cool nod, like a servant. Trombin, let us leave Venice.'
'After we have heard the oratorio on Sunday——'
'Of course! Do you think I would miss that? But there is nothing for us to do here just now, whereas in Genoa, or Florence, or even Rome, we should not be always idle.'
'Venice is a dull place, compared with what it used to be,' Trombin admitted, and he raised his right forearm, turning it till he could examine the threadbare elbow of his coat in the glare of the candles. 'Another week will do it,' he added, after a careful examination. 'I can already perceive the direction which the split will take.'
'I never sit down, if I can help it,' said Gambardella mournfully.
'It is a strange fact,' answered Trombin thoughtfully, 'that only those nations that wear breeches sit upon chairs; the others squat on their heels, though they have no breeches to save. This is a most contradictory world.'
'I never could see any sense in it myself,' returned the other. 'Shall we go to supper?'
'It pleases you to be humorous,' Trombin observed, and they moved away from the great choir screen.
As they passed the blazing chapel of the Sacrament, each bent his knee and crossed himself devoutly. The young monk was still prostrate before the altar. Trombin looked at him sharply, and the two went on towards the open door, through which the fading twilight outside admitted barely enough light to distinguish the great pillars and tombs.
The two shabby gentlemen left the church and strolled slowly along the edge of the canal. In the open air it was quite light still, and the warm afterglow of the sunset had not quite paled yet.
'Supper!' said Trombin presently, dwelling on the one word in a musical tone, and with the deepest feeling.
'That is the worst of Venice,' answered Gambardella, gloomily pulling his soft hat over his eyes. 'One cannot even eat here without paying. Now in Florence or Rome the people are more simple, and when you have made your necessary debts, and creditors talk of imprisoning you, why, then, you need only appeal to the Venetian Ambassador for protection, and you are perfectly safe! But here! On the word of a gentleman, it is enough to drive a man to highway robbery!'
Trombin laughed softly.
'Supper!' he said again, as musically and feelingly as before.
'You will make me mad with your whining!' cried Gambardella angrily. 'You will drive me to commit a crime!'
'One more will make no difference,' returned Trombin, with great coolness. 'After the first, which sullied the virgin lustre of your spotless soul, my dear friend, it is of no use to count the others, till you come to the last—and may you enjoy many long years of health, activity, and happiness before that is reached!'
'The same to you!' answered the melancholic man morosely, for he was hungry, and in no humour for banter.
They stopped where a wooden bridge spanned the narrow canal, for all bridges in Venice were not yet built of stone in the year 1670.
They had only one thought, and Trombin had already expressed it twice with longing and regret. So far as mere hunger and thirst went, they could satisfy themselves with bread, salt fish and cheese, and a draught of water. They were not such imprudent gentlemen as to risk absolute starvation in their native city, where they could get no credit, and though they often lived riotously for months together, they invariably set aside a sum which would furnish them with the merest necessities for a considerable time. There was a system in their way of living, and they stuck to it with a laudable determination which would have done honour to better men. Enough was not as good as a feast, and since their income was always uncertain, the only way to get any real enjoyment out of life was to feast recklessly while they could, though only for a few days, and then to pay for extravagance with the strictest asceticism, till a rain of gold once more gladdened the garret to which they had retired to fast.
They stood by the end of the bridge in silence a long time while it grew dark, Gambardella gazing sadly at the dark water of the still canal at his feet, while Trombin, who was of a more hopeful disposition, looked at the evening star, just visible in the darkening west, between the long lines of tall houses on each side of the canal. The reason why they stopped just then with one accord was that to cross the bridge meant to go home to their wretched lodging, though it was still so early; and the prospect was not attractive. But they knew their weakness, and long ago had bound themselves together by promises they would not break. If they turned away from the bridge and followed the narrow street, they would come in time to Saint Mark's Square, and they would breathe the intoxicating air of pleasure that hung over it as the scent of flowers over a garden at evening, and temptation would assail them in one of at least twenty delightful shapes; and then and there the little sum that stood between them and starvation would melt away in a night, leaving them in a very bad way indeed.
Yet now they lingered just a few moments by the wooden bridge, dreaming of riotous nights and glorious suppers, before going home to bread and cheese and cold water. And just then fate sent to them the young Dominican monk they had left prostrate before the altar in the church when they came out; at all events it seemed natural to suppose that it was he, though they had hardly caught sight of his youthful face before and now could not see it all, for he had pulled his white hood well down over his eyes.
He was evidently about to cross the bridge, when he unexpectedly found Trombin in front of him, stopping the way. The street and the canal were deserted, and not a sound broke the stillness. The monk stood still. He was short and slight, and could have slipped through a very narrow space, but Trombin seemed to swell himself out till he filled the bridge from side to side, and kept his hand on the hilt of his rapier.
Gambardella looked on indifferently, supposing that his companion meant to indulge in some witticism or practical joke at the expense of the young monk.
'Your reverence must pay toll at this bridge,' said Trombin.
'Toll?' cried a youthful voice from under the cowl.
'The decree has just been passed by the Ten,' answered Trombin. 'My friend and I are stationed here by the Signors of the Night to exact payment.'
Gambardella did not clearly understand, but he moved up behind the monk, so that the latter could not get back.
'I understand,' said the Dominican in his sweet voice, after a moment's hesitation. 'But I have no money. I am only a poor monk——'
'The Fathers of the Order of Preachers do not take vows of poverty, your reverence,' said Gambardella in deep tones, behind the youth.
'That is true, but I have no money with me,' protested the latter.
'That emerald ring you wear on your left hand will do quite as well,' answered Trombin. 'We shall not ask you for anything else this evening.'
Now the monk's hands were thrust deep into the two slits in the front of his frock, as in a muff; but Trombin's eyes were good, and they had caught sight of the jewel unwarily exposed while the young man was performing his devotions in the church. He seemed disturbed, hesitated, and hung his head.
Standing behind him, Gambardella laid a heavy hand on the slight shoulder, while Trombin, in front, grasped his left wrist roughly, to draw it out of his frock.
At this the young monk suddenly burst into a flood of tears under his cowl, and began to sob bitterly.
'What fish have we caught here?' asked Gambardella, laughing for the first time that day, and he seized the point of the hood at the back to pull it off the head and face.
But instantly the monk's right hand went up and held it down in front desperately.
'No, no! Please—you shall have the ring—anything—only let me go!'
There was no mistaking the feminine voice now, broken as it was with sobbing, and Trombin made one step backward on the bridge and bowed to the ground.
'Madam,' he said, with a grand air, 'we are not ruffians, but Venetian gentlemen. We will respect your disguise, and shall be delighted and honoured to see you safely to your own door. For this little service we shall be more than rewarded if you will leave us your ring in recollection of our auspicious meeting!'
'As a further return for your kindness,' added Gambardella, speaking over the disguised lady's shoulder, 'we are at your service, to rid you of any obnoxious friends or relations.'
'I see that you are Bravi,' the lady said, keeping her face closely concealed under the hood. 'I am the less unwilling to part with my ring since I may have need of you. But where can I find you in that case?'
'When we are unoccupied, you will find us at our devotions in the Church of the Frari during the Benediction, any day,' answered Trombin, receiving the ring from the delicate white fingers that held it out to him.
He bowed as he took it, and flattened himself against the rail of the wooden bridge, hat in hand, to let the disguised lady go by.
'Shall we follow you, Madam, for your greater safety?' asked Gambardella.
'No, I pray you! I will go alone. I live near here.'
'We wish your ladyship a very happy night,' Trombin answered.
'The same to you,' said the young voice.
She was out of sight in a few seconds in spite of her white monk's frock, which might have been seen at a considerable distance even in the gloom of the narrow lane beyond the bridge. Trombin, who tried to follow her with his sharp eyes, was sure that she had turned into a cross alley that led to the large court in which the Palazzo Pignaver then stood.
But that was a matter of speculation, whereas the emerald ring was a matter of fact, and could be converted into a number of things which the two adventurous gentlemen very much wanted just then. Their vow of economy now no longer bade them cross the bridge and return to their wretched lodging and frugal supper. The ring would pay for many suppers, and for good clothes too. They did not even exchange a word as they turned in the direction of the Rialto with a light step, and they felt that delightful sensation which fills the being of a man who loves eating at the moment when brutal hunger, that has expected only prison fare, turns into keen appetite at the sudden vision of boundless good things to eat in half an hour.
Gambardella's melancholy face relaxed in the dark, and the lines that had before turned down now all turned upwards, except those of his long hooked nose; and the formidable beak seemed to stand sentinel over his thin lips, so that no good thing should enter between them on the way to his stomach without sending up its toll of rich savour to his nostrils.
Trombin's small pursed-up mouth also widened to a set smile, and he softly hummed snatches from the beautiful air Alessandro Stradella had sung during the Benediction service. It was a mere thread of a squeak of a falsetto voice, but it had at least the merit of being perfectly in tune, and his musical memory was faultless.
'You are a great man,' said Gambardella thoughtfully, when they had walked some distance and were nearing their destination.
'You flatter me!' laughed Trombin. 'What is easier than to guess that a Dominican monk with a small white hand and an emerald ring may be a lady in disguise? Besides, my dear friend, with your exquisite sense of all that is feminine, you must surely have noticed her walk as she came up to the bridge. I am not a judge of women myself, but as soon as I saw the monk walking, I was sure of the truth.'
'I did not see her coming, but she has a delicious voice,' answered Gambardella thoughtfully. 'I wish I had seen her face.'
'Perhaps you may, some day. Here we are.'
They stopped before a low arched door not fifty yards from the Rialto. A large dry bush, sticking out of a narrow grated window beside the forbidding entrance, showed that wine was sold within. The faint yellow light from the lamp of a shrine, built in the wall on the opposite side of the street, just overcame the darkness. Trombin tried the door and found it ajar; both men entered, and Gambardella pushed it back to its original position.
It was quite dark within, and the place smelt like a wine-cellar, but the two evidently knew their way and they walked quickly forward, half a dozen paces or so, till a wide space suddenly opened on the right, and a wretched little earthenware oil-lamp appeared, high up, dimly lighting the first landing of a damp stone staircase. The friends began to mount at once.
As they went up the air became drier, the smell of the cellar turned into a complex odour of grilled meats, savoury sauces, rich wine, and spring fruits, which the companions snuffed and breathed in with greedy delight; sounds of laughing voices were heard, the stairs were better lighted, and now and then the idle tinkling of a lute or of a deep-voiced, double-stringed guitar made an improvised accompaniment to the cheerful echoes.
Gambardella and Trombin entered a brightly lighted vestibule at the head of the stair and were greeted by the host in person, a broad-shouldered, black-haired Samian with brilliant red cheeks; he was showily dressed in blue cloth trimmed with gold braid, wore a tall fez and spotless linen, and had a perfect arsenal of weapons stuck in his belt, all richly ornamented with silver work, in which were set pieces of coral, carbuncles, and turquoises. He had a look of tremendous vitality and health, and the tawny light danced and played in his eyes when he laughed. He spoke the Venetian dialect fluently, but with a strong Greek accent, and an evident difficulty in pronouncing the letter B.
'Welcome, young gentlemen!' he cried in a formidably cheerful voice, as he rose from the little table at which he had been busy with his accounts. 'Here is old Markos, your faithful friend! What can Markos do for your lordships to-day? Do you desire money of Markos? It is yours, all his poor store! Or do you come for supper, to taste a real pilaf and a brace of quails roasted in fig leaves, with a jar of old wine of Samos and a sweetmeat, and some liquor brewed by the monks of Mount Athos? Markos is here to serve you!'
He looked as broad as he was long as he stood there bawling out his noisy greetings, his thumbs stuck into his broad red leather belt, his legs apart, and his white teeth gleaming like a young boar's tusks in the midst of his shiny black beard.
Trombin nodded gravely at each phrase, keeping his hat on his head, and making his rapier stick up behind him. From the rooms beyond the vestibule the rich steam of good things floated through the half-closed door, and the ring of merry voices, clinking glasses, and tinkling strings was delightful to the ears of men who had supped in a garret on bread and salt fish for three weeks.
'Markos,' said Trombin, 'apply your excellent sight and your money-lender's intelligence to this marvellous ring, with which unfortunate circumstances now oblige me to part. It belonged to my sainted aunt, the Abbess of Acquaviva, who left it to me with her blessing when I was young and innocent. It was once blessed by His Holiness Saint Pius the Fifth, who thereby endowed it with efficacious power to protect the virtue of those who should wear it. My sainted aunt wore it for forty years, and she was indeed virtuous to the end of her life. I remember that she was cross-eyed and had bad teeth and a sallow complexion. For my own part, I must confess that I have not always——'
'How much do you want on it?' interrupted Markos, who had been examining the stone as well as he could by the light of the oil-lamp, while Trombin was talking in his grand style.
'A hundred ducats down, and no wine,' answered Gambardella, without hesitation, in his deep voice.
'We would accept half a dozen jars of Samos, to be drunk here,' suggested Trombin, 'if we sealed them ourselves.'
Markos grinned from ear to ear.
'Twenty ducats,' he said quietly, 'and a hogshead of "rezinato," worth ten ducats more! That is all I can give.'
'Rezinato at ten ducats!' sneered Gambardella.
'It costs me that,' retorted the money-lender, 'so it must be worth it. Possibly I might make the cash twenty-five ducats, but that would only be out of old friendship. I shall lose by it if you do not redeem the ring.'
'I wish you might lose something for once!' cried Trombin devoutly.
They bargained long. In those days, and long before and afterwards, the money-lenders of Venice were Greek and Eastern eating-house keepers and sellers of wine, and it was impossible to pawn any object with them without accepting at least one-third of the advance in the shape of wine more or less sour, or watered, or both.
But the two shabbily-dressed gentlemen who had taken the emerald ring from the disguised lady were not ordinary customers. Trombin inspired present terror, and Gambardella apprehension for the future, and though Markos was as broad as he was long and had a dozen pistols and knives in his belt, his courage was not equal to his ferocious appearance. From a business point of view, the Venetian Bravi were children in his hands; but when they came quite near to him, one on each side, and spoke slowly and clearly in their determined way, the tremendous Markos felt his bravery shrink within him till it seemed to rattle like a dry pea shaken in a steel cuirass, and the amount of money he actually advanced on the ring was considerable; he even consented to let Gambardella seal the six jars of Samos wine, which formed part of the loan, with the heavy brass seal ring the Bravo wore, on which was engraved the Bear of the Ursuline Order of Nuns, with a few words in Gothic characters. One of many things which Trombin did not know about his companion was the story of that ring and how Gambardella had become possessed of it.
So the transaction was duly terminated, and when Markos had at last parted with his money and his fine old wine, his jolly face cleared once more; for, after all, he had not lost by the bargain, though he had not made much, and the good-will of the two most famous and dangerous cut-throats in all the Venetian territory was worth something to a man who always lived more or less on the outer edge of the law.
Half-an-hour later bliss descended upon the companions as they sat at table in their favourite place, a sort of alcove or niche in the general hall of the eating-house, whence they could see and hear all that went on, without being too much disturbed in their enjoyment of the good things set before them. The place was brightly lighted by several scores of lamps fed with mingled oil, tallow, and camphor, and fastened on large wooden rings that hung from the high ceiling. The smoke floated up to the blackened beams, and found its way out through a small clere-story window at one end, and the light below was clear and soft. Thirty or forty guests were seated at tables of different sizes, and amongst them was a fair scattering of handsome women, mostly dressed in silks and satins of bright colours, and wearing jewels that sparkled when they moved. The men were of all sorts: there were a few good-looking young Venetian nobles, who had laid aside their cloaks and outer coats, and sat in their doublets and lace collars; there were two rich English travellers, in dark velvet, their long fair locks carefully combed and curled in the manner of the cavaliers, their hands conspicuously white, and their fingers adorned with magnificent rings; with them sat two auburn-haired Venetian beauties, radiant and laughing, and sipping Eastern wines from tall goblets of Murano glass. At one long table near the wall a serenading party was installed, their pretty instruments hanging on pegs behind them, together with their hats and cloaks. Beyond, in a corner, a pale young Florentine, with a spiritual profile, was supping with a lady who turned her back to the hall, and whose head and shoulders were almost hidden in a cloud of priceless lace. These two spoke little and ate delicately, and now and then their dark eyes met and flashed upon each other.
The air was hot, and heavy with the fumes of Greek wines and savoury dishes. At the farther end of the hall a large door opened now and then, and showed the bright kitchen where the host's wife presided, and whence neatly dressed youths brought dishes to the guests. Considering what the place was, an eating-house kept by a foreign money-lender, there was an air of luxury about it, and an appearance of orderly and temperate behaviour among the guests, that would have surprised a stranger who knew nothing of Venice, if he had been suddenly introduced by the gloomy entrance from the street through which Trombin and Gambardella had made their way.
The lady who chose to go about Venice at dusk in the disguise of a monk encountered no further adventures after the loss of her ring; but she met with a very grave disappointment, of which the consequences directly concern this tale. After leaving the Bravi who had robbed her, she threaded the narrow ways northwards with a quick step till she came to a point near to the Fondaco dei Turchi on the Grand Canal. There she took the gondola that waited for passengers at the old traghetto, and she was quickly ferried over to the landing by the Palazzo Grimani. A few minutes later she was knocking at the door of Alessandro Stradella's lodgings near Santa Maria dell' Orto.
She knocked firmly and confidently, like a person quite sure of admittance. But no one came to open, and she heard no sound from within; so she knocked again, and after a shorter interval a third time. There was no answer, and nothing broke the stillness. With small regard for her disguise, the lady stamped twice in a most feminine way, then tried to shake the solid door with her hands, and finally turned away in disgust. It was almost dark in the staircase, and she descended the two flights slowly, drawing her hand along the wall to steady herself. The exercise of some caution, to avoid a fall, momentarily cooled her anger a little, and when she reached the entrance of the house she reflected that she had perhaps been hasty, and that the Maestro had possibly been detained by the other musicians, and would come home before long. She waited some time under the shadow of the archway, though several persons passed her, some going in, others going out. No one is ever surprised to see a monk waiting at the door of a large house. The disguised lady walked slowly up and down, her hood drawn well over her eyes, and her hands hidden in the slits of the frock.
But when the clocks struck the hour, and it had grown quite dark, she gave up all hope, and went away, returning in the direction whence she had come, and revolving plans of vengeance on the ungrateful singer as she walked.
She could not call him faithless, even in her mortification, for she had never exchanged a word with him in her life; and if that seems strange to any who read this story, let them learn something, if they can, of what constantly happens nowadays to popular operatic tenors. The disguised lady was of a romantic disposition; she was the respected wife of a rich citizen, by no means noble; her husband was absent in the East, and she had foolishly fallen in love with Alessandro Stradella's voice. She had written him the most silly letters he had ever received, setting forth the searing passion that devoured her, and apparently certain that he already shared it and only wanted an opportunity in order to tell her so. As he never answered her letters, she made up her mind that he feared her husband, though she had repeatedly assured him that the latter was absent and had left no Argus-eyed relation in charge of her and responsible for her acts. She wrote again and again, and even descended to promising that she would make him a rich man if he would only take courage and answer her pressing invitation.
Still he did not answer; and at last, despairing of any other means of moving him, she had written that she would come disguised to his dwelling on that evening, after the music in the Frari. For she always knew where he was to sing, and she never missed an opportunity of hearing him. She had accordingly gone to the church, and before leaving it she had prostrated herself and offered up the most sincere prayers for the success of her amorous enterprise, as if Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua had power to suspend the rule of the Ten Commandments for her benefit during the evening.
These, in few words, are the facts which had preceded her visit to Stradella's lodging, and which resulted in the maddening disappointment and humiliation she felt when she turned her steps homewards.
At the same hour no one at the Palazzo Pignaver had yet noticed the absence of Ortensia and Pina. The gondolier waited by the landing at the Frari till it was dark, and then returned to the palace, supposing that the two had walked home and had forgotten to dismiss him, for this had happened once or twice already. He ran his gondola in between the painted piles by the steps of the palace, without inquiring whether his mistress and the nurse had entered by the postern; for almost every Venetian palace has two entrances, the main one being on the canal and approachable only in a boat, while the other opens upon the street at the back.
Ortensia was not missed till supper-time, and that was fully two hours after sunset; for it was the Senator's custom to leave his niece to herself or to Pina's company from the time when he brought her home, if she had been out with him in the gondola, until the evening meal; and if she asked leave to go to confession, as she had to-day, she returned before dark and retired to her own rooms without seeing him until she joined him at supper.
He required the most extreme punctuality of her and of all his household. Excessive exactness in regard to time is often the delight and the torment of people who have nothing to do of any importance. The time which some punctual persons waste in waiting for others would be enough to make them notable men if they used it better.
The Senator waited for Ortensia at least two minutes with equanimity, but after that his brow darkened, he paced the room impatiently, and he began to compose the scolding he meant to give her as soon as she came. This occupied him satisfactorily for at least five minutes, for he was always very nice in the choosing of his words on such occasions. His scoldings were administered in classical Italian, and not in the Venetian dialect of everyday life; they were constructed like short orations, with an exordium, an exposition of the fault committed, and a peroration, and they were followed by a long silence, during which they were supposed to work and take effect on the mind of the delinquent. Pignaver mentally reached the end of the intended admonition, and yet Ortensia did not come.
Then he lost his temper and sent one of the two servants to call her; and at the same time it occurred to him that he was making himself ridiculous in the eyes of the others by waiting for a mere chit of a girl. He therefore sat down rather hastily at the supper-table in the middle of the room and attacked the preliminary appetisers, shrimps, caviare, and thin slices of raw ham, and the chief butler poured a light white wine of Germany into his large glass; for the Senator was fond of good eating and drinking.
But to-night he was not to enjoy his supper, though the caviare had arrived that very day from Constantinople, and the shrimps were precisely of the right size, which is very important to a true epicure. The footman came back at last with a white face and said, in a trembling tone, that neither the young lady nor Pina were in the house.
The Senator dropped his two-pronged fork, his jaw fell at the same time, and at least four seconds passed before he recovered his breath. Then he sprang up, overturned his heavy chair in his excitement, and rushed from the room, followed by both the servants.
He searched the palace himself, he stormed, he raved, he cursed, he threatened, but Ortensia was not to be found. Everything in her rooms was in order, just as usual; she had gone to confession with her nurse as she had gone scores of times before, but she had not come home. That was all there was to be said about it.
At first no suspicion of the truth crossed Pignaver's brain. He believed she had been kidnapped either for her beauty, or by miscreants who would hold her for a ransom. Then he remembered the gondola and asked if it had come back. Yes, it was below; the old head gondolier had taken Ortensia to the Frari as usual, but he said she had returned on foot. The Senator sent for him, but no one could find him now, though the porter had been talking with him only ten minutes ago.
Nothing remained but to search Venice, and to inform the Signor of the Night that the girl and her nurse were missing from the palace. Pignaver forgot his supper altogether in his anxiety to lose no time.
The Signor was in his office, and was a distant cousin of the Senator's; for the Signors of the Night were noblemen who served in turn, superintending the police from sunset to sunrise. Only forty-eight hours had passed since this same gentleman had sent word to Pignaver of the attempt made by a supposed thief to get over the garden wall.
'He was not a burglar, my friend,' the Signor now said with conviction. 'If you will allow me to say so, with the most profound respect for your honour, I am sure that the man was your niece's lover, and that he has now succeeded in carrying her off, with the help of the serving-woman.'
Pignaver groaned and turned pale. But the Signor, who knew his business, asked him questions, and elicited enough information about Stradella and the singing lessons to convince him that the famous singer was at the bottom of the mischief. He said so plainly.
'A music-master!' cried Pignaver in a black rage, for he saw that the other was probably right. 'A singer! A catgut-pincher! A villainous low lute-strummer! No, sir, no! A thousand times no! The niece of Michele Pignaver is incapable of demeaning herself with a mountebank, sir! I must assure you——'
'The young lady,' interrupted the Signor, with a faint smile, 'is not your own niece, Senator, but the daughter of your late wife's brother.'
'No matter!' cried the Senator. 'Do you mean to imply, sir, that my late honoured wife would have been capable of demeaning herself with——'
'Heaven forbid!' ejaculated the other, interrupting again. 'You might as well suggest that Eve was herself a murderess because one of her sons killed the other. I suggest nothing, Senator—certainly nothing in the least derogatory to the honour of your house.'
'What do you advise me to do?' asked Pignaver, suddenly appeased.
He had changed his tone and spoke almost calmly, for his anger, like most things he did, was a matter of acting. The Signor understood, and again he smiled faintly. Before he answered he carefully snuffed and trimmed the three wicks of the tall brass lamp on the table. It had a big metal shade in the shape of a butterfly, which he turned so that it screened the light from his eyes and reflected it into his visitor's face.
'You will naturally wish to avoid a scandal,' he said, watching the Senator. 'Yes, I thought so. Very well, if Stradella has carried off your niece, as I am almost sure he has, they are beyond pursuit by this time. They have reached the mainland and are riding away as fast as they can towards the frontier. There is not the slightest chance of catching them. You must say that you have sent the young lady to the country for her health.'
At this Pignaver made a dramatic gesture. He raised both his hands on each side of his head, clenched his fingers, turned up his eyes, and pretended to be trembling with almost uncontrollable fury. The Signor knew his weakness and looked on with quiet amusement.
'I will have the city thoroughly searched during the next few days for two persons resembling your niece and the woman,' he continued. 'But if they have already fled, and if you insist upon finding them, you will have to employ private agents.'
'Yes, yes,' answered Pignaver thoughtfully. 'That will be best. Can you recommend any person to undertake such a delicate business, sir? I suppose that, in your position, you are acquainted at least with the names of some such men.'
The Signor, who was an amiable man, smiled pleasantly now.
'The truth is,' he said, 'we have some of them under supervision, and I chance to know of two who would suit your purpose well, and are unemployed at present, and badly in need of money. I have no doubt but that they will be glad to serve you. They have earned the reputation of being conscientious in carrying out their engagements, and intrepid in danger.'
Pignaver had listened attentively, and at once asked for the names and the address of the Bravi.
'They are known as Trombin and Gambardella,' said the Signor; 'they are now in Venice, and are generally to be heard of at the eating-house of Markos, the Samian money-lender and wine-dealer. I dare say you know where his place is? Not far from the Rialto, on this side——'
'In what is left of the old Quirini Palace, where they sell poultry downstairs?' asked Pignaver.
'Precisely. I see you are acquainted with the resort. I have, in fact, been there myself—on a matter of duty, of course.'
'Of course,' echoed the Senator. 'I have only heard of it, but I think I can find it.'
'I am sure you can,' assented the Signor, without a smile.
Pignaver had not only heard of the eating-house, but he had been there more than once, and knew the taste of the famous pilaf and the flavour of the old wine of Samos as well as anybody. He had even sat in the recess where the two gentlemen of fortune were at that moment supping. He had worn a mask, it is true, and by some mistake a lady had sat down at the same small table a moment after he had come, and he had fallen into conversation with her. But it was not necessary to tell this to the Signor.
The latter promised again to have a thorough search made through the city for Ortensia and Pina, and wrote down the descriptions Pignaver gave him. The nurse was described as 'a serving-woman, with grey eyes, and black hair turning grey at the temples, whose manners were rather above her station, and who had once been handsome. Age: forty-three. Mark: the thumb of the right hand had been broken and was distorted.'
'By the thumb-screw, I suppose,' observed the Signor in a business-like tone.
'It certainly looks like it,' answered the Senator indifferently.
He took his departure after a few more words and went out by the back door; he then walked in the direction of the Rialto, muffling himself in his great cloak, of which he threw one corner over his shoulder, so that it almost covered his face. He had left his gondola waiting in the narrow canal, and if he chose to come back and take it again, he could reach it without going through the low building in which the Signors of the Night had their office, and the city watch its headquarters.
The Signor had promised to continue the search during three days, and to inform him of any clue he found. Meanwhile, Pignaver thought it would be as well to find the two gentlemen who had been so highly recommended to him, and he hastened to the half-ruined Palazzo Quirini. He went in by a more convenient entrance than the two Bravi had chosen for reasons of their own, but he found Markos where they had found him, still busy with his accounts in the bright little vestibule. When the Senator entered, he had already slipped on the little velvet mask which most Venetians carried about them in the evening, but the Samian either recognised his voice or knew instinctively that his visitor was a person of quality, for he bowed to the ground, rubbed his large hands as if washing them before serving his guest, and answered the Senator's brief salutation in a profoundly obsequious tone.
Pignaver now laid one finger on his lips and spoke in a whisper, asking whether Markos was acquainted with two honest gentlemen named respectively Signor Trombin and Signor Gambardella.
By an almost miraculous coincidence the two honest gentlemen were at that very moment supping within. Markos offered to call them out.
'Unless,' he added, 'your lordship is in need of supper, and will join them.'
The Senator remembered that he had eaten only a few mouthfuls since dinner, and the savoury fumes from the hall further sharpened his appetite.
'The gentlemen are eating together at the little table in the recess,' Markos added, as he detected signs of hesitation. 'You can turn your back to the room, my lord, if you do not wish to be watched.'
Pignaver nodded and followed the host, who at once led the way in. Some of the people who had been supping when the Bravi had entered were gone away, but others had taken their places. The young Florentine and his beautiful guest had disappeared, and their table was occupied by a noisily gay party, of whom more than half wore masks. The two fair Englishmen in velvet were still gravely drinking with their laughing companions, but their eyes were growing rather dull. The serenaders had finished their meal, and were making soft music in their corner, trying over the songs they were going to sing.
'Gentlemen,' said Markos to the Bravi, 'allow me to introduce a highly respectable personage who has business with you, and would like to join you at supper.'
Trombin and Gambardella rose with a courtesy which showed where they had been bred, in spite of their present profession. Though they had been at supper two hours and had done well by a jar of old Samian, they were as cool and steady as when they had sat down, a fact which predisposed Pignaver in their favour.
'Will you do us the honour to be our guest, sir?' asked Gambardella at once.
'But you have already supped, gentlemen,' answered the Senator.
'That is a trifle, sir,' Trombin said. 'We have not quite finished, and if you will join us we shall be delighted to begin again from the beginning. A clean cloth, Markos,' he went on at once, turning to the host, 'and the same dishes over again!'
'Your hospitality confounds me, sirs,' protested the Senator. 'I can but accept your gracious invitation.'
He sat down at the end of the small table, turning his back to the hall. Markos was already making preparations, and in a few minutes the board was set again, and with the very same delicacies which the Senator had just begun to taste at his own supper when Ortensia's flight had been discovered. He ate in silence, with solemn greediness, while his two companions each took one shrimp and a taste of the caviare, and exchanged an occasional glance. When he had consumed everything except the bread, Pignaver spoke.
'I believe I am not mistaken in thinking that you two gentlemen occasionally undertake little matters of private business,' he began. 'If I am wrong, pray correct me.'
'You are rightly informed, sir,' answered Trombin; 'we do, though only on certain conditions, which, again, so far as they are favourable or unfavourable, depend on circumstances; and these circumstances themselves, as your experience of life has made you well aware, sir, are often the result of that element of chance, which, under Providence, plays such an important part in the affairs of men.'
This was rather vague, and Pignaver, who read the classics and prided himself on his memory, was reminded of those Lacedaemonians who answered the wordy fugitives from Samos by saying that they had already forgotten the first half of their speech and did not understand the second. When Trombin had finished speaking, he waited for an answer and looked steadily at the Senator, opening his eyes wider and wider till they were perfectly round and the lashes stood out in a circle like yellow rays, and he puckered his lips in the most ridiculous manner, as if he were just going to whistle. Gambardella, on the other hand, took a minute quantity of caviare on the end of his fork and tasted it delicately, looking unconcernedly at the guests in the hall.
Pignaver reflected a moment and drank wine before speaking.
'I attribute my presence here,' he said, 'to the direct intervention of Providence.'
'We share your view,' answered Gambardella with gravity.
'In fact,' added Trombin, 'the elements of acquaintance all agree admirably well—the circumstances, the conditions, chance, and Providence itself. For if, as I gather from your own words, sir, you stand in need of a little friendly assistance from us, we, on our side, are weary of wasting our wits in conversation and our strength in luxurious idleness. It is our mission to benefit mankind both here and hereafter, by despatching useless persons to Paradise and thus cheering the lives of the friends they leave on earth. Assured of this, as we are, all inactivity is unbearable to us. At the present moment we are, so to say, unemployed philanthropists; we are but a potential and passive blessing to our fellow-creatures, though we burn to be doing good to all! I appeal to my friend, Count Gambardella, here. Is this not the exact truth?'
'Absolutely,' answered the other, toying with a shrimp. 'What my friend, Count Trombin, says is always strictly true.'
'How could it be otherwise?' asked Pignaver. 'But I must apologise for not having addressed you gentlemen by your proper titles, which are foreign, though I had taken you both for Venetian nobles.'
'We are, sir,' Trombin answered, 'but it pleased his Majesty the King of France to confer titles of French nobility on us, after we had rendered him a trifling service. We should likewise esteem ourselves your debtors, sir, if you would inform us of your own name, since we are fortunate enough to be entertaining you as our guest.'
Again the round eyes opened wide, like those of an angry cat, and the mouth was all puckered in the midst of the cherubic face, while Trombin waited for the answer. The Senator saw that he had no choice.
'My name is Pignaver,' he said slowly, and dwelling proudly on each syllable, 'and I am a Senator. You will understand at once why I wear a mask here. I am well known by sight to many, and I have many friends——'
'One too many, I presume,' suggested Gambardella, interrupting softly.
'I shall communicate my business at once,' said Pignaver, 'for the person in question could never have been my friend any more than he could be my enemy.'
'We understand your meaning,' said Gambardella; 'he is of low birth. Shall we say that he is "superfluous"?'
'A weed,' suggested Trombin, 'a parasite, a wart, an overgrowth, a thing to be eradicated before it does greater harm! Do you take me, my lord? Have I fitted the word to the definition and suited the definition to the man?'
'Admirably, Count,' assented Pignaver. 'Your command of language fills me with envy. "Eradicate" is good, very good!'
'Does the weed flourish in Venice, my lord?' asked Gambardella, who was bored and wished to settle the preliminaries of the business at once.
'If I did not detest false metaphors,' said Pignaver, 'I should say that the weed has just flown, or, as I might say, fled, taking with it the finest flower of my garden. But since elegant speech must not be submitted to such outrages, I will speak plainly.'
At this point the conversation was interrupted by the appearance of the steaming pilaf, brought on by a neatly clad youth, whose companion set down beside it a dish of quails roasted in young vine leaves, and emitting a deliciously aromatic odour. Trombin and his friend helped the Senator generously, and filled his glass again. He was so hungry by this time that he ate several mouthfuls before he spoke again.
'I have always found the emotions to be great appetisers,' observed Trombin, watching him. 'Men feast at a wedding, and gorge themselves after a funeral. A fit of anger whets the appetite, for I have seen a man fly into a towering passion with the cook and then immediately devour the very dish he has found fault with, to the last scraping. As for the passion of love, a French proverb says well that happiness makes an empty stomach. I can only hope, my lord, that in a week's time you may enjoy your supper as much, with satisfaction for a relish instead of annoyance. As for me, the mere thought of doing some good in the world makes me hungry.'
And as he spoke he began to eat another quail which he had already taken on his plate. But Gambardella was more and more bored, and went to the point, as soon as the Senator looked up from his plate.
'We understand,' he said, 'that some low-born fellow has carried off a lady of your lordship's household. Do you know where they are?'
'No. I know nothing, except that they have either left Venice already or will escape before morning.'
'That means a wide search,' said Gambardella.
'But an easy one,' the Senator replied. 'The man is Alessandro Stradella, the singer, and may the devil get him!'
'He will be safer in our hands, my lord. The lady's name, and some description of her, if you please.'
'Ortensia is her name. She is only seventeen years old, but is very beautiful, for she is fair, and her hair is of a true auburn colour, such as the lamented Titian often painted. Indeed, the young lady much resembles that master's "Bella," though younger and thinner. With her is fled also her nurse, a woman called Filippina, of middle age, with grey eyes and greyish hair, once not bad-looking, and whose manners are above her station.'
'I suppose she is commonly called Pina,' observed Gambardella. 'Let us understand each other, my lord. I presume you wish the young lady and the woman to be brought back to you, when the singer is dead.'
'Precisely. I shall say that she has been spending a week with a relation of her mother's who is the Abbess of the Ursuline Nuns in Ravenna.'
'Did you say the Ursulines in Ravenna, my lord?' asked Gambardella slowly.
'Yes,' answered Pignaver, at first a little surprised by the question, for he had spoken clearly, although the whole conversation was carried on in low tones. The Bravo saw his expression, and hastened to explain.
'My left ear is a little deaf,' he said, turning his head so as to present the other. 'Nothing remains but to agree on the price of the service,' he continued in a business-like tone. 'When we are told exactly where we shall find our man, it is simple enough. But in this case we may have to travel far. We shall require two gold ducats daily for our expenses till we find the opportunity we need for such a difficult business, and five hundred gold ducats when we hand over to you the young lady and her nurse. One hundred gold ducats must be advanced before we start, on account of expenses.'
Pignaver's sour face twitched at the mention of such sums.
'You set a high price on your services, gentlemen,' he said.
'"Service" is not precisely the word, my lord,' said Trombin, desisting from picking the leg of a quail, and staring intently at the masked Senator. 'It is, as I may say, a false metaphor, which is an outrage upon elegant speech—forgive me for borrowing your own expressions!'
And suddenly Trombin's eyes glared in such a way that the Senator was cowed.
'I assure you, I had no intention of giving you offence, Count,' he said. 'If you will, choose the word you prefer; I will use it with pleasure.'
'"Benefit," my lord, or, if you prefer the longer form, "benefaction." Either will do very well.'
Trombin thereupon resumed operations on the leg of the quail, and when his absurd little mouth showed his teeth the Senator observed they were as white and sharp as a cat's. It was clear that he was the talker in the partnership, and left all business arrangements to his companion.
'I have named the sum we require, my lord,' the latter said calmly, 'and we are not accustomed to argue such matters. You would give ten times as much for your own life any day, and Alessandro Stradella would certainly find a thousand or two to save his, if the matter were laid before him.'
Pignaver saw that he must agree to the demand, for if he refused and sought help elsewhere the Bravi would warn the musician and offer the latter their protection. The Senator was uncomfortable in their company, as many of his friends would have been; for if a born coward ever comes into contact with such men, he regards them much as a timid woman looks on a loaded gun. Though the two cut-throats behaved with the outward courtesy of gentlemen, there was something terrifying in their looks which it would have been hard to define, and the highly refined Venetian noble, who admired the elegant works of Politian and composed scores of polished inanities, shuddered from time to time as he glanced at Gambardella's sinewy brown hand or Trombin's strong pink fingers and thought of the stains that must often have been on both.
A silence followed the Bravo's last speech, during which Trombin consumed more pilaf, and his companion thoughtfully salted a small bit of bread-crust, ate it slowly, and then sipped the old Samian wine from the blue and white glass beaker which he kept constantly quite full. And immediately, though he had only drunk a few drops, he re-filled the glass exactly to the brim. Trombin drank at much longer intervals, but always emptied his tumbler before replenishing it. Nor were these opposite habits of the two men mere matters of preference or taste; for the nose of the one turned up in such a convenient manner that he could drain the smallest glass or cup with ease, but the other's portentous beak turned down and then hooked itself in towards his lips, so that wherever his mouth went, there it was also, always in the way; and if he ever tried to drink like ordinary people, its tip was wetted before he had tasted the wine.
The Senator was reflecting before giving an answer which must be final. Was Ortensia worth the six or seven hundred ducats which the whole affair would cost him? That was really the question, for he looked upon the murder of Stradella merely as a necessary and just consequence of his niece's capture, and though the thought of vengeance was agreeable to his nature, he would not have been willing to pay such a price for it. Ortensia herself was certainly not worth so much, in his estimation, for the sake of her beauty, seeing that he could buy a Georgian girl almost or quite as pretty, in the Fondaco dei Turchi, for much less. Besides, though Stradella would be dead and buried, it would always be humiliating to feel that she had belonged to him first, though the truth need never be known in Venice.
But there was another consideration, which turned the scale in her favour. Pignaver had heard her sing his own compositions, after having been taught by Stradella, and he had dreamed of electrifying Venetian society at last by her rendering of his immortal works. Hitherto, even his most industrious flatterers had not given him the very first place among living poets and musicians; but he was sure that when they heard Ortensia they would exalt him above all his predecessors and all his contemporaries; at last he would enjoy that absolute supremacy which is the prime birthright of genius in all ages, and to which he firmly believed himself entitled. Ortensia alone could assure to him that final victory, and beside it all objections, all scruples, all petty questions of technical honour sank away to nothing. He must marry her himself, of course, so that he might order her to perform his works whenever he pleased, and she must be a married woman before propriety would allow her to sing to his assembled friends; but marriage was a detail and of no consequence compared with the triumph he expected to gain by it; the girl's flight with the musician was a childish escapade of little importance, since it could be kept quite secret, and she might be supposed to have been spending a few days in a convent in Ravenna to complete her education. As for any resistance on her part, it was absurd to think of such a thing; no doubt she would cry her eyes out for a few weeks, after Stradella was despatched to a better world, but she would soon see the error of her ways and be only too glad to accept the magnificent position the Senator offered her, instead of being murdered herself, or forced to spend her life in a convent.
The two Bravi did not hurry their new acquaintance to a decision, though Gambardella had flatly declined to discuss the terms of the bargain; they only made it clear that their offer must be accepted or declined as it was, and they seemed quite indifferent as to Pignaver's decision. Trombin continued to eat pilaf in a leisurely way, as if he could go on for ever, and Gambardella sipped his wine, filled his glass again, and ate several little morsels of salted crust, while the Senator turned the matter over in his mind and plied his knife and fork in silence.
'The truth is,' he said at last, 'I should not wish you to start till the city has been thoroughly searched by the police. As you wisely observed, I think, a man of Stradella's reputation cannot remain long concealed, and will be more easily found next week than to-morrow.'
'I believe,' answered Gambardella politely, 'that the remark was yours, and it is a wise one. Are we then to understand that if the Signors of the Night do not find the pair, you desire our help on the terms I have stated?'
'Exactly so,' said Pignaver. 'That will give you time to make your preparations for the journey at your leisure. Where shall I find you three days hence, gentlemen?'
'At Benediction in the Church of the Frari, my lord, for the day will be a Sunday. If you desire it, we will call for paper and pen and set down the terms of our agreement at once.'
'That will not be necessary, sir,' replied the Senator, who did not care to put his name to such a document. 'I have confidence in you.'
Trombin at once raised his head and fastened his eyes on Pignaver.
'As between gentlemen, my lord,' he observed, 'it would be more fitting to say that we have confidence in each other. With your permission I shall complete your statement by saying that we are willing to trust you without any written promise. We will leave such sordid dealings to the lawyers and notaries. You give your word, we give ours, and the matter is safer for accomplishment than if a contract were engrossed on a dozen sheepskins and sealed with the Fisherman's Ring!'
'Certainly, certainly,' assented the Senator, who did not like the Bravo's eyes. 'You have my word, I have yours, and that is enough.'
'My lord,' said Trombin, his manner suddenly becoming extremely affable, 'I have the honour to drink your health!'
'Your health, Count,' responded Pignaver, raising his glass.
'Your health,' said Gambardella, bowing politely, and then sipping his wine with all the caution required to keep his long nose out of it.
Having settled matters in this way and, moreover, satisfied his appetite with a good supper, Pignaver took leave of the Bravi with considerable ceremony, for he perceived that they were as exigent and punctilious as to all points of courtesy as any noble in Italy, France, or Spain; and it would not be good to fall out with such touchy gentlemen on a point of manners. Indeed, as he retraced his steps to the office of the Signors of the Night, where his gondola was waiting, he really congratulated himself on having escaped without a quarrel, and hoped that the next interview would pass off as well.
The three days went by, and at noon on Sunday he received a note from the Signor of the Night informing him that the runaway pair and the serving-woman had been in Padua early on the morning after they left Venice, and had immediately taken an extra post to Rovigo and Ferrara. They had excited no suspicion, and the spy who had brought the news had not obtained the information without considerable difficulty, for many travellers were going and coming, and in a time of peace like the present more attention was bestowed by the authorities on foreign travellers than on Italians. But Stradella had brought some of his belongings with him, which his man had carefully concealed in the gondola, and amongst other things there was his favourite long lute; the instrument had been noticed by the ostlers at the postern-house in Padua on account of its unusual size, and they remembered the four travellers after hearing the spy's description of three of them, for he knew nothing of Stradella's servant.
There was therefore no doubt but that the fugitives were now far beyond the Venetian border in the States of the Church, and Pignaver resolved to keep the appointment at the Frari, taking with him the hundred gold ducats which were to be paid in advance.
The Bravi were already there indeed, but he did not see them at once, and as Vespers were over and the Benediction was about to begin, he selected a spot a little apart from the common herd and knelt down to his devotions, for it was of no use to waste time that could be so profitably employed.
But while he was thus engaged, it being already sunset and the light in the church failing, the men he sought were earnestly conversing in low tones with a young Dominican monk in a distant corner; and the monk, it is needless to say, was the lady whose ring they had taken, and who had knocked so long in vain at Stradella's door three days earlier.
'Madam,' Gambardella was saying, 'the search may be a long one, but we will do our best. We shall require two gold ducats daily for our expenses in travelling, and the payment of five hundred gold ducats in cash when we deliver to you Master Alessandro Stradella, bound hand and foot, at your villa on the Brenta.'
'But the woman must die!' protested the lady earnestly.
'That goes without saying, madam,' answered Gambardella. 'You may regard her as already dead and buried, for you have our word for it. Nothing remains but that you should place in our hands a hundred gold ducats on account, which we shall require in order to start.'
The lady was evidently prepared for such a demand, and produced a small leathern bag from within her monk's frock. But she was evidently a woman of business.
'Since we are now friends,' she said, putting the bag into Gambardella's hand, 'you ought to give me back my ring when the thing is done!'
'Madam,' said Trombin, in his grand manner, 'you have our word for that. In fact, we only meant to borrow it for a day or two, and for your great kindness in allowing us to do so we have the honour to tender you our sincerest thanks.'
'It is impossible to be more polite, sir,' answered the lady.
So they parted, for she slipped away into the dusk and soon left the church by a side door. But Trombin and his companion went forward, and finding the Senator on his knees, they knelt down, one on each side of him. He glanced to the right and left, and was surprised at the improvement in their appearance since he had seen them at supper. They had been distinctly shabby then, and he would not have liked to be seen in their company by his friends; but to-day they were dressed with excellent taste and neatness, in perfectly new clothes. Gambardella wore a suit of dark purple cloth slashed with velvet of the same colour; but Trombin wore black velvet and silk, which he considered most becoming to his infantile complexion and yellow hair. Both had new hats, too, and their feathers, purple and black respectively, were nothing short of magnificent. Only their rapiers were unchanged, the same serviceable, business-like weapons that Pignaver had seen before.
The three men knelt side by side, putting on an air of devotion; and no one else was very near them.
'Tantum ergo ...' began the choir, somewhere out of sight.
'I presume you mean business, my lord,' said Gambardella so that the Senator could just hear him.
'They passed through Padua, and took post to Rovigo and Ferrara,' answered Pignaver. 'You cannot miss them if you go that way.'
'A very convenient place, Ferrara, if they would wait for us there,' observed Trombin.
'... veneremur cernui,' the choir sang, and many of the people were joining in the ancient hymn.
'When can you start?' inquired Pignaver.
'As soon as we have funds for the journey,' answered Gambardella promptly.
'You said one hundred ducats, did you not? Your expenses are to be counted at two ducats per day, and as much of the first hundred as is left when you have finished is to be deducted from the final payment of five hundred. Is that it?'
'Precisely,' said Gambardella.
'It is impossible to be more accurate,' observed Trombin, without turning his head, and preserving the expression of a devout, fat-cheeked seraph, which he always put on when at his prayers.
'I have the money with me, gentlemen,' continued Pignaver. 'As soon as the Benediction is over I will hand it to you, and I hope you will find it convenient to start at once.'
'We are ready,' Gambardella replied. 'To-morrow night we shall be in Ferrara, and if your friends are still there, we may be here again on the third day.'
'Heaven grant us all its favours and a speedy return!' prayed Trombin.
'Amen,' said the Senator, calculating that if only three days were consumed, the Bravi would have ninety-four ducats in hand, and he would have to pay them only four hundred and six.
In his pocket his hand grasped the heavy little bag containing the gold, and he wished that private vengeance and justice were not so dear; but he was not a miser, though he had a real Venetian's understanding of the value of money, and did not like to part with it till he was sure that he was to receive a full equivalent. For the rest, what he was doing was perfectly justifiable in his eyes: if the couple had been caught within the territory of the Republic, Alessandro Stradella would have had to answer to the law for the atrocious crime of carrying off a Senator's niece and affianced bride who was a minor, and the law would not have been tender to the Sicilian; the least penalty he would have suffered would have been to be chained to an oar on a government galley, and it was quite possible that he might have been hanged. Most people would prefer to be run through with a rapier, and it was therefore clear that Stradella ought to be satisfied. As for such weakness as a qualm of conscience, Pignaver was as far above such childishness as the Bravi themselves.
He gave them the little bag of ducats and took leave of them by the monument of Pietro Bernardini, almost on the spot where Ortensia and Pina had put on their brown cloaks three or four days earlier.
When he was gone, Trombin and Gambardella looked at each other in silence; the dark man's thin lips, visible on each side of the point of his nose, but quite shaded by it in the middle, were smiling faintly, but Trombin's cherubic countenance expressed, or caricatured, the utter beatitude of one of those painted angels to which his friend always compared him.
They walked slowly up the church towards the sacristy, and at the door they met the sacristan, a lay brother, coming out with his long extinguisher in his hand. They stopped him politely.
'We desire to offer two candles to Saint Francis,' said Gambardella, 'one for each of us. We also desire to leave a gold ducat for masses to be said for the soul of a departed friend.'
'I will serve you at once, gentlemen,' answered the sacristan. 'What was your friend's baptismal name, if you please, that I may write it on the list?'
'Alessandro,' answered Gambardella.
'Do you wish to mention the date of his death, sir?'
'No. It is of no use.'
The lay brother took the money and went into the sacristy to deposit it, and to fetch the candles, which the Bravi then lighted and put up themselves.
Trombin had rightly guessed that the fugitives would rest themselves in Ferrara, where they would be safe within the Pope's dominions, and beyond the reach of Venetian law. By the old road the city was nearly a hundred miles from Padua, and it was only by a lavish use of money that Stradella succeeded in reaching it at midnight, after leaving Padua soon after sunrise. Ortensia was utterly exhausted, and even Pina, who was very strong, was beginning to be worn out. They had trouble in getting into the inn at that hour, and when they at last succeeded, they found that there was only one room to be had, although, as the sleepy servant who had let them in added, they might have the whole house to themselves the next day, for all the travellers would be gone again long before noon.
Pina slept with her mistress, while Stradella and his man rolled themselves in their cloaks and lay down outside the door, with valises for pillows; for they expected to be pursued, and though they had made good time, they knew that mounted men, with frequent relays of horses, might overtake them before morning. It was not Stradella's first adventure, though it was his last, and he fully realised that Pignaver would use every means to wreak his vengeance. It could not have occurred to the runaways that three days would be wasted in searching Venice before the pursuit actually began.
Even that knowledge could not have made Alessandro sleep more soundly, since the fear of danger to Ortensia could not keep him awake, and he slept as peacefully on the stone pavement of the corridor as ever he did in the most luxurious bed.
But his man was awake and was watching for all the four, though he lay quite still, rolled up in his brown cloak. For Cucurullo was one of those people who sleep little at the best of times, and generally have to content themselves with resting their bodies by lying motionless, while they deaden thought as best they can with those melancholy devices that are familiar to the sleepless.
The hunchback rested now, but was glad to lie awake, though he was well aware that he deserved no especial credit for watching while his young master slept soundly by his side. But he did not try to cheat time by fancying that he was counting a flock of sheep that crowded through a narrow gate into a field, or by saying the alphabet backwards, or by repeating all the prayers he knew, which were many, for he was a religiously inclined person, nor did he laboriously reckon how many Apostolic florins there were in seventeen hundred and sixty-three and a half Venetian ducats. On the contrary, he concentrated his mind to the best of his ability on a problem which it seemed to him of the very highest importance to solve at once; for it involved nothing less than the salvation of Alessandro Stradella's soul.
Now Cucurullo, as I have said, was religiously inclined. He was not devout in the same sense as the two cut-throats who lighted candles before the image of Saint Francis for the success of their murderous enterprise, and paid beforehand for masses to be said for the soul of the man they were going to kill. He would not have denied that this was a form of piety too, if any one had asked him his opinion. Everything, he would have argued, was relative; and if you were going to stab a man in the back, it was more moral to make an effort to save his soul than to wish to destroy it with his body. He would have admitted this, for he was charitable, even to such people as professional murderers. But his own religion was quite of another sort; he was devotedly attached to his master, he was deeply concerned for the latter's future welfare, and it looked just now as if Stradella's chances of salvation would be slender if any accident carried him off suddenly. Moreover, such an accident might occur at any moment, for, like Stradella himself, he anticipated that Pignaver would seek a speedy revenge.
Like the early Christians he was a pessimist about this world and an optimist about the next; for that is usually the state of mind of those who labour under any material or bodily disability, from slavery, which is the worst, to blindness or deformity.
As a pessimist, therefore, Cucurullo thought that his master, Ortensia, Pina, and himself had a most excellent chance of having their throats cut within twenty-four hours, and he was rather surprised that it should not have happened already.
As an optimist, on the other hand, he trusted that by his own exertions he might so dispose matters as that his master and Ortensia should be murdered while in a state of grace, and not in mortal sin; to be plain, he was determined that they should be duly married before Pignaver's agents despatched them. For he had been constrained to aid and abet his master in more than one romantic adventure before now, and nothing had come of any of them that was at all conducive to the young man's salvation.
Poor Cucurullo knew the whole process of those affairs, as the conjurer's assistant knows how the tricks are done. Even when Stradella was at home, in his own room, his man had always been able to tell whether he was in love or not. When he was not, he industriously composed oratorios, or motets, or some other kind of serious music; but when he was, he sang to himself, as a bird does in spring, improvising both the words and the melody; or else he would sit still for an hour at a time, doing nothing, but dreaming with open eyes and slightly parted lips; or he would pace the floor impatiently, and go to the door every five minutes to listen for a light footfall on the stairs. All this Cucurullo had observed frequently; often, too, he had carried letters and tokens, and had brought others back; and not a few times, by night, he had held cloak and lute and rapier, while his master climbed up to a balcony or a window high above. Many such things had Cucurullo done, and had confessed them afterwards as misdeeds. Wretched sinner that he was, he had even paid flattering compliments to a chambermaid to sweeten her humour till she promised to take a message to her lady. This had seemed to him particularly wicked, yet he had done it and would do it again, if Stradella required such service, simply because he could not help it.
Now, however, all former adventures sank to nothing in comparison with the present one. So far, the musician had lightly loved and ridden away; but this time he had not ridden away alone, and, moreover, he was not carrying off the buxom wife or daughter of some meek citizen who would appeal in vain to the law and could do nothing without it, and who would probably let the erring lady return to his home at the trifling price of a sound beating when Stradella was tired of her. That would have been bad enough, in all conscience; but this time the hare-brained singer had done much worse, even from a worldly point of view; and looking at it from another, Cucurullo thought that the irreparable nature of the deed made it more wicked, besides the fact that all the persons concerned might lose their lives by it. He was a very simple person in some ways. Under the circumstances it seemed necessary before all things to convert moral wrong into moral right by the simple intervention of a priest and a wedding ring, after which the question of civil right, as the law would regard it, would take care of itself well enough.
In the grey dawn Cucurullo's large unshaven face emerged from the ample folds of his cloak, and his mild blue eyes seemed to review the situation by daylight as he looked from his master's half-muffled figure to Ortensia's closed door, and then towards the window at the end of the passage. Then he sat up cautiously and drew his heels under him, and because his body was so short and so completely covered up, he looked as if he had none at all, and as if his big head were lying in a nest of brown cloth on a pair of folded legs. Then, from just below his chin, an immensely long arm stole out quietly, and his hand drew up Stradella's cloak which had slipped from his shoulder; for the morning air was chilly, though the spring was far advanced. Any one, coming on him suddenly as he sat there, would have been startled as at the sight of a supernatural being, consisting of a head, legs, and arms, all joined together without any body.
The dawn brightened to day, and all sorts of noises began to come up from below, echoing through the staircase and long passages of the house; a distant door was opened and shut, then some one seemed to be dragging a heavy weight over a rough floor; far off, some one else whistled a tune; and then, all at once, came the clatter of many horses' feet on the cobble-stones in the yard.
Cucurullo sprang up and ran on tip-toe to the window, instantly fearing the arrival of mounted pursuers; but he only saw the stablemen leading out the post-horses to be watered and groomed. When he turned to come back he saw that he had waked Stradella, who was sitting up, yawning prodigiously, and rubbing his eyes like a sleepy boy. He raised his hand to stop his man, and then got up without noise and joined him near the window.
'What is it?' he asked in a whisper, not without some anxiety.
'Only the post-horses, sir, but I was afraid of something else.'
'I wish we were already in Florence. This is too near Venice!'
'Better still in Rome,' said Cucurullo, gloomily. 'Still better in Sicily, and altogether much better in Africa; but best of all in heaven, sir, if you can manage to get there!'
'It is not the first time you and I have run a risk together,' observed Stradella, slowly moving the back of his hand up and down against his unshaven cheek.
'It is the first time you have risked the life of a lady,' answered Cucurullo quietly, for he understood his master very well.
'We had better go down and see about getting horses,' Stradella answered, and he led the way to the stairs, his man following in his footsteps.
The sun was rising now, and there was much bustling and clattering in the yard, and sousing and splashing of cold water about the fountain; a dozen horses were tied up to rings in the wall on one side, and the stablemen were grooming some of them industriously while others waited their turn, stamping now and then upon the cobble-stones, and turning their heads as far as they could to see what was going on behind them and on each side. Three men were washing the huge coach that ran to Rovigo one day and back the next, and several smaller conveyances stood beyond it in a row, still covered with dust from yesterday, for the weather had been dry.
As in many inns of that time, the innkeeper was also the postmaster. Stradella found him under the arched entrance to the yard, giving instructions to the cook, who was just going to the market accompanied by a scullion; the latter carried three empty baskets on his head, one inside of the other.
'You can have no horses to-day,' said the host, in answer to Stradella's demand, and he shook his head emphatically.
'No horses! It is impossible! It is absolutely necessary that we should go on at once.'
The innkeeper was a square-shouldered Romagnole with grey hair, red cheeks, and sharp black eyes. He shook his head again.
'I have not a horse to give you,' he said. 'Everything in my stable was engaged beforehand for the Nuncio. I cannot give you the Government's horses from the Rovigo coach, can I? Patience! That is all I can say.'
Stradella began to ask questions. The Nuncio, on his way to Verona and Austria, had spent three days in the inn, both to rest himself and also to be sure of having enough horses ahead to go on with, and word had been sent to Mantua to make all the necessary arrangements. He should have gone by Modena, but the road was in a bad state. A bridge had broken down, and he had been forced to pass through Ferrara.
'But surely,' said the musician, 'I can hire a pair of horses of some sort in the town, by paying a good price for them!'
No. The Nuncio had hired everything. Did the gentleman suppose that a Papal Nuncio could travel with as few as eight or ten horses? He needed about fifty in all. That was why he proceeded so slowly. There was not another animal to be had in the town, horse or mule, that could be put to a wheeled vehicle—not one! The gentleman might hire a riding-horse or two, but the innkeeper had been told that he had a lady and her tire-woman with him. Patience! A day would soon pass, Ferrara was a fine town, well worth seeing, and he could go on to-morrow morning in the Bologna coach, which would arrive from that city at noon to-day.
Clearly there was not the smallest possibility of being able to get on during the next twenty-four hours. Stradella's face was very grave as he turned away, and Cucurullo was paler than before.
Upstairs Ortensia had wakened just then and had called Pina, who got up and opened the window wide, letting in the air with the morning sun. Utterly unprovided as the two women were, they had slept half-dressed, and as Ortensia rose the nurse threw one of the two brown cloaks over her bare shoulders and fastened it round her neck.
For a few moments after she had opened her eyes the young girl had not quite understood where she was, for she had lain down exhausted, and sleep had come to her as her head touched the pillow. Now, in the broad daylight, when she had plunged her face into cold water, she realised everything, and the colour rose slowly to her throat and cheeks. She went to the window and stood there, turned away from Pina and looked out. Below her lay the chief public square of the city; on the left rose the huge castle, the most gloomy and forbidding she had ever seen. She had never heard of Nicholas Third of Este nor of his wife Parisina, fair, evil, and ill-fated, nor of handsome Ugo, who died an hour before her for his sins and hers, in the dark chamber at the foot of the Lion Tower; but if Pina had known the story and had told it to her in all its horror, Ortensia would have felt that it must be true, and that only such tragedies as that could happen within such walls. They were so stern, so square, so dark; the towers rose so grimly out of the black waters of the moat! It was of bad augury to look at them, she thought, and she drew back from the window and sat down where she could see only the sky.
Pina was making such preparations for her mistress's toilet as were possible. Being a prudent woman she had brought in her pocket three objects of the highest usefulness, a piece of white Spanish soap, a comb, and a shabby little old rolling work-case of yellow leather, in which there were needles and thread and pins. The figure of a wild animal, which might have been meant for a bear, was embroidered in black thread on the outer flap of the case. Pina had used it ever since Ortensia could remember, and seemed to value it as much as any of her few possessions. It was a very useful little thing, and she kept it always well filled with sewing materials.
As the young girl did not move and showed no inclination to dress herself, Pina came behind her and began to let down and comb her hair, which she had not even taken down on the previous night, being far too much exhausted to think of such a thing. She submitted her head willingly to the skilled hands of her nurse.
'Where is he?' she asked after a time, and she felt that she was blushing again.
'They slept on the floor in the passage,' Pina answered. 'Perhaps they are asleep still. You shut your eyes as soon as you lay down, but I opened the door again and looked out before I went to bed. Signor Alessandro asked me if we needed anything, and then said good-night.'
'Will you go and see if they are still there, please?'
Pina crossed the room, drew back the bolt, and put out her head, looking up and down the passage. There was no one to be seen, and she shut the door again without bolting it. She came back and again began to comb out the girl's hair.
'They are not there,' she said. 'Probably Signor Alessandro is ordering the horses. He will come in a few minutes and tell us at what time we are to start.'
A short silence followed.
'Have you ever been here before?' Ortensia asked presently.
'Yes,' Pina answered, 'I have been here before. I do not like Ferrara.'
'Why not? Have you any particular reason for not liking it?'
'It was here that my thumb was hurt,' said the nurse. 'That is a fair reason, is it not?' She laughed rather harshly. 'To hate a place because one has had an accident in it! The men would say that is just like a woman!'
'I hope I may never come here again, either,' Ortensia answered. 'How did you hurt your thumb?'
'That is a long story, my lady. But why do you also dislike the place already? You have only looked out of the window once.'
'I saw the castle, and I thought it was of bad augury, for it looks like a great prison.'
'There are prisons in it without any light, very deep down,' said Pina quietly. 'The Pope's Legate lives in the upper part. The Legate is the Papal Governor, you know, my lady.'
'I did not know. But the ugly castle is not the real reason why I do not like Ferrara. I could not tell any one else, but I think I can tell you, Pina.'
She turned her head half round under the nurse's hands, looked up sideways, and then hesitated. It was not easy to explain.
'What is it, my lady?' asked the serving-woman. 'You can tell old Pina anything.'
'It is all so different from what I thought it would be,' Ortensia said in a rather low voice, and again a blush rose in her cheek.
'I think I understand,' Pina said, steadily combing out the heavy auburn hair.
'You see,' Ortensia explained, 'we all four got into the gondola together, and there was that long row to the land, and that dreadful night in the cart on the road to Padua—and then the half-hour at daybreak, while he was getting the carriage, and then the journey here—and last night—and now——'
She did not finish the sentence, hoping that Pina would really understand.
'Yes,' the woman said quietly. 'You have not been alone together for a moment since we left Venice, and that is not what you expected.'
'No,' Ortensia answered in the hurt tone of a disappointed child, 'I thought it was going to be quite different! And now we shall start again and drive all day and half the night, and then it will be just the same, I suppose!'
'Once in Florence, or even in Bologna, there will be no more hurry,' said Pina in a consoling tone. 'Besides, my lady, you can be properly married then.'
'Of course, of course! We shall be married as soon as we can, but all the same——'
'All the same, it would be pleasant to spend half-an-hour together without old Pina always listening and looking on!'
The nurse smiled and shook her head, but Ortensia could not see her, and did not think her tone was very encouraging; it sounded as if 'old Pina' thought it was going to be her duty to play chaperon two or three days longer, which was not at all what Ortensia wished.
'If he had even shown that he was a little disappointed, too——' the girl began, and then she stopped.
'That would not have been good manners, my lady,' Pina said primly. 'When a gentleman has carried off a young lady, with her own consent, the least he can do is to look pleased, I am sure!'
'I thought you would understand better,' Ortensia answered in a tone of disappointment.
Some one knocked at the door, not loudly but sharply, and as if in a hurry; Pina went at once to see who it was, and found Stradella himself outside.
'May I come in?' he asked quickly.
Beyond Pina, as he looked in, he saw Ortensia in her brown cloak, with her hair down and all combed out over her shoulders, and without waiting for an answer he pushed past the nurse and went to her. Instinctively she drew the cloak more closely round her, but she looked up with a bright smile, which vanished when she saw his expression in the strong light. He spoke anxiously, without even a word of greeting.
'There are no horses to be had,' he said. 'I have done my best, but the Pope's Nuncio is passing through and has engaged everything there was. There is not even a public coach to Bologna till to-morrow morning. I am more distressed than I can tell you! I have sent my man out to see if he can find anything, and he will if there is a beast to be had. If not, we shall have to wait here.'
While he was speaking, the door had closed softly and Pina was gone. Ortensia saw her go out and put out one hand timidly between the folds of the cloak, for her arm was bare, and she tried to cover it. At the same time the glorious colour rose in her face, the third time since she had opened her eyes that morning.
'I am glad,' she said simply, as soon as her hand was in his.
He glanced behind him and saw that Pina had disappeared. Then without a word he drew the lovely girl up to him, and for a while they stood clasped in each other's arms; and she forgot that hers were bare, and he scarcely knew it; and if their faces drew back one from the other for a few seconds, it was that their eyes might meet in one another's depths; and the broad morning sun shone full upon the two through the open window, making the girl's auburn hair blaze like dark red gold, and a white radiance glowed in her pure forehead and snowy arms.
Stradella shivered a little, even in the sunshine, as he let her go, and she sank upon her chair, finding his hand again and holding it fast as if she feared lest he should leave her. It had been a strange wooing, in which song had played a greater part than words; and as for anything else, he had kissed her twice on that night when he had climbed into the loggia, and not again till now. Had he loved her less, he would have laughed at himself for the innocence of such a love-making; but it was all unlike anything that had ever happened to him before, and, moreover, he had no time for such reflections at the present moment, since every hour of delay might mean the nearer approach of danger, not to him only, but to Ortensia herself.