'I have changed greatly, and not for the better,' he said simply, but he could not face her look. 'It is neither to confess to you nor to ask your forgiveness again that I am here, for you have no more right to a confession than I have to your pardon.'
'That may be,' answered the nun, her tone relenting, 'but such as my forgiveness can be, while I can still remember, you have it.'
Gambardella was visibly moved at this unexpected concession. He was seated too far from her to touch her hand, but he put out his own humbly towards the hem of her black skirt, then brought it back to his lips and kissed it with reverence, as the very poor and wretched sometimes do in Italy to express deep gratitude. She watched him, and there was the faintest suggestion of a smile on her tightly closed lips. After a little pause, during which their eyes met once, he spoke.
'I have come to inquire about a young Venetian lady and her serving-woman, who took refuge with you last Saturday,' he said, with perfect assurance, though he had no proof that the two were in the convent.
The Mother Superior's face darkened.
'What are they to you?' she asked sternly.
This was a question which Gambardella was not prepared to answer truthfully, and he had not foreseen it. He vaguely wondered what the woman who had once loved him so well would say and do if she knew that he had sunk to the condition of a paid Bravo, and had taken money from one person to cut Ortensia's throat and from another to deliver her up a prisoner, and was just now wondering how he could satisfy both his patrons.
Until now he had seen a humorous element in his two abominable bargains; but in the grim presence of his own past things looked differently. The terrible eyes of the high-born woman he had loved and betrayed long ago, when he was still called an honourable gentleman, were upon him now, and he feared her as he had assuredly never feared any man in all his wild life. She understood her power, and waited for him to speak.
But his fear only roused his faculties, and if he felt remorse when he thought of what she had once been and of the life she was leading now, by his fault, he knew well enough that as soon as she was out of his sight he would feel nothing but a dim regret that would hardly hurt.
'I take a vicarious interest in the Lady Ortensia,' he said after a little reflection. 'A friend of mine, who is travelling with me, is also a friend of the man with whom she has run away, and who has been locked up by mistake, as I dare say you have heard from her.'
'She has told me something,' the Mother Superior said coldly.
'I will tell you the whole story,' he answered.
He narrated the circumstances of Ortensia's flight substantially as they were known to the Senator, and in as few words as possible, and she listened without interrupting him.
'I know this Pignaver,' he said in conclusion, 'and I know positively that he has engaged two Bravi to follow the pair and murder them. At the best, he might be satisfied if Stradella were murdered and the girl brought back to him. Those fellows may be even now in Ferrara, waiting for a chance to do the deed. Our object is to unite the lovers and protect them on their journey till they are beyond the reach of danger. Do you see any great harm in that?'
'They are not married,' objected the nun.
'I am sure they mean to be, as soon as possible,' Gambardella answered. 'You know what the girl's life will be if you send her home, as I suppose you mean to do. You can guess the sort of existence she will lead when her uncle has her safely imprisoned in his house. I have heard it said that he intended to marry her, and if that is true he will deliberately torment her and perhaps starve her till she dies. He is as vain as he is cruel, and she has not a relation in the world to interfere with his doings.'
'Poor girl!' The Mother Superior sighed, and looked down at her folded hands.
'And even if you insist on keeping her here, where I admit that she is safe,' Gambardella continued, 'Stradella's life will not be safe when he is out of prison. For I will answer for it that he will not leave Ferrara without her, and his murder will be the first consequence of your refusal to let her join him.'
'But they are not married,' the nun said again. 'I cannot let her go to him. It would be a great sin! It would be on my conscience!'
'You will have his death on your conscience if you are not careful! But there is a very simple way out of the difficulty, if you will agree to it.'
'I will agree to nothing that is not right,' said the Mother Superior, in a tone that excluded any compromise, 'and I tell you frankly that I do not trust you. It would be strange if I did.'
'I do not ask you to trust me,' Gambardella answered. 'I shall merely show you your duty, and leave you to do it or not, as you please!'
'My duty?' The nun was both surprised and offended.
'Yes,' replied the other, unmoved. 'Your objection is that they are not married. Marry them, then! That is plainly your duty, if anything is!'
The Mother Superior looked at him quickly, as if not believing that he was in earnest, for she had been convincing herself that it was he who had carried off Ortensia, pretending to be Stradella.
'It must be a very easy thing for you,' Gambardella continued. 'You have your own church here, and your own priest, who will probably obey you. If you are afraid of committing an irregularity, you need only send a request to the Archbishop, explaining that a runaway couple, for whom you can vouch, wish to have their union blessed. No good bishop would refuse such a slight favour as a dispensation from publishing banns. My friend and I will bring Stradella here early in the morning, and you will send the bride into the church from the convent. They will go away man and wife, and before noon we shall all be many miles on the road to Bologna and Rome. Could anything be simpler than that? or more perfectly right? or more honourable for you under the circumstances?'
The nun had listened attentively, and when he had finished she nodded her approval.
'I believe you are right,' she said, though her tone betrayed some surprise that she could approve anything which he suggested. 'I will take it upon myself to promise that our chaplain shall be waiting to-morrow morning after matins, and that the bride shall be ready in the sacristy. Poor child, she is poorly provided for her wedding! But I will find a veil for her.'
'She will be grateful, and Stradella too. I have no doubt but that my friend has already obtained his liberation.'
'What is your friend's name?' asked the Mother Superior, showing some curiosity for the first time since the interview had begun.
Gambardella hesitated a moment, for the simple reason that he did not know the answer to the question, and that 'Trombin' alone was evidently not a name, but a nickname. The mere fact that the friends had both once had a right to sit in the Grand Council by no means implied that they had known each other, even by sight. To gain time Gambardella smiled and asked a counter-question.
'Why do you wish to learn his name?' he asked. 'You can never have known him.'
'That is true. It was idle curiosity. I do not care to know.'
'It is no secret,' Gambardella answered, having in the meantime thought of a name that would do. 'My friend is Gaspero Mastropiero, a Venetian gentleman of fortune and a great patron of musicians. And now,' he said, rising as he spoke, 'nothing remains for me but to thank you for seeing me, and to take my leave. Will you give me back my ring, Reverend Mother?'
He stood before her, holding out his hand with the palm upward to receive the token, and he laid a little stress on the title as he pronounced it. But there was no irony in his tone, for, young as she still was, it had been conferred upon her quite as much for her holy life as for her high descent, in an age when noble blood had great weight in such matters. He was certainly not speaking ironically; perhaps, amidst the tatters of his honour, some rag still covered a spot that could feel shame, and the monstrous deed, in doing which he had entrapped the nun to help him unawares, seemed foul beside the purity of her intention and the saintliness of her own life.
The emphasis he gave to the two words was, therefore, at once respectful and sad, and did not offend her. She had put on the old brass ring herself when the portress had sent it up to her with his message; she took it off now and gave it back to him, careful that not even the tips of her fingers should touch his palm. Then she led the way, and he followed her.
'May you never put it to a worse use than to-day,' she said, stopping and letting her eyes meet his for a moment. 'Good-bye.'
'Pray for me,' he said instinctively when he opened the door for her.
She said nothing, but she bent her head a little as she passed out, perhaps meaning that she would do what he asked. He watched her tall retreating figure as she went up the middle of the staircase, till she turned past the dividing wall at the first landing and disappeared without having once looked back. Then he himself went away through the high corridor and the dark lodge, and the portress let him out in silence.
He did not go back to the inn at once, for the distance was very short, and he judged that Trombin could hardly have procured Stradella's liberation in so short a time. He wished to be alone a little while, for, in spite of what he had come to be, his interview with the Mother Superior had disturbed him strangely. He had thought himself far beyond that bitterness of remorse and that sickness of shame which she had made him feel, and he wished to forget both before he met his companion to discuss the execution of the deed they had promised to do together, and could not now put off doing much longer. The nun's burning eyes still haunted and reproached him, and her shadowy figure rose before him with the thin white face in which he could still trace the beauty that had once enthralled him. It was the bare woof of beauty that remained, for grief and penance had worn away the warp, leaving only the lines on which the exquisite fabric had been woven; but what was left of the woman was still there, breathing and living, while her soul had grown great in strength and spiritual honour till it towered above his who had once loved her, and made him afraid to meet her look.
It could not last long, he knew, but while it did he must be alone. He walked far out on a road that led through the rich damp plain, and it was not till the sun was sinking low that he began to retrace his steps.
When he reached the inn he found Trombin and Stradella together, and his friend introduced him with some ceremony as Count Gambardella. The musician, who was fully informed of the latter's errand, pressed his hand warmly, and looked at him, evidently expecting news of Ortensia.
'The lady and her serving-woman are well, sir,' Gambardella said at once, 'and I trust that to-morrow may end your difficulties happily.'
'I hope so indeed,' Stradella answered.
He looked pale and careworn, but no one would have guessed from his appearance that he had just spent four nights and the better part of five days in the most noisome dungeon in Ferrara. He wore the same black velvet coat with purple silk facings which he was wearing when Ortensia saw him for the first time. It fitted him well and showed his athletic young figure to advantage, for the fashion was not yet for the 'French' coat which Louis Fourteenth afterwards made universal.
Gambardella measured him with his eye, as Trombin must have done already. He wore only the short rapier of a civilian gentleman, but he might be a good fencer and able to give trouble to a single adversary, and he looked strong. Neither of the Bravi knew what physical fear meant, but it was of no use to risk a useless wound, and men of Stradella's type could be more conveniently despatched by stabbing them in the back than by going through the form of a duel.
'I have not been able to see the lady herself,' Gambardella continued, 'but the Mother Superior of the Ursulines was so good as to receive me, and after some demur she agreed to let the Lady Ortensia and her woman leave the convent early to-morrow morning.'
'Not till to-morrow?' Stradella could not hide his disappointment.
'To-morrow, and then only on one condition, which I took it upon me to promise that you shall fulfil.'
The musician looked sharply at the speaker.
'I trust that you have not promised for me more than I may honourably do,' he said.
At this Trombin instantly pressed down the hilt of his rapier and made the point stick up behind; he pursed his mouth and opened his eyes till they glared like an angry cat's.
'I would have you know, Signor Maestro, that it is not the custom of Venetian gentlemen to promise anything not honourable, either in their own names or for others!'
Pignaver would have apologised at once if either of the Bravi had taken that tone, but the Sicilian singer was made of better stuff than the Venetian Senator.
'Sir,' he answered quietly, 'I am not a quarrelsome man, and, moreover, I am deeply indebted to you for my freedom. But there is a lady in this case. Let me first know what Count Gambardella has promised in my name; for if, as I hope, it pledges me to nothing unworthy of the Lady Ortensia or of myself, I shall be doubly in your debt; but if not, which heaven avert, I shall be at your service for a quarrel, without further words.'
While he was speaking he met Trombin's ferocious stare steadily, and when he had finished he turned to Gambardella. The Bravo liked his tone and manner as much as he had despised Pignaver for his repeated apologies. It would be shameful to stab such a man in the back, Trombin thought; as shameful and unsportsman-like as an Englishman thinks it to shoot a fox or to angle with worms for fish that will take a fly.
'The Mother Superior,' said Gambardella, paying no attention to what had just passed, 'is a saintly woman. She requires that before taking away the Lady Ortensia, you shall be duly married in the church of San Domenico, early to-morrow morning. This, sir, I ventured to promise in your name, and no more, as one man of honour speaking for another.'
'You could not have done me a greater service!' Stradella cried, surprised and delighted. 'I am sorry that I ever questioned your good judgment, sir!'
Trombin's fierce expression relaxed into one better suited to his round pink cheeks, and peace was immediately restored. But the Bravi exchanged glances which meant that they were perplexed by the undeniable fact that they were beginning to like the musician, quite apart from their admiration for his genius.
Before supper they consulted together in the privacy of Trombin's room over a thimbleful of Greek mastic, which they drank as an appetiser. They were agreed not to lose sight of the young couple again, and not to hurry matters to a termination. What could be more delightful than to make the journey to Rome together with the greatest singer in the world and his bride, acting at once as an armed escort and as friends ready to save the happy pair all trouble about small details from day to day? Stradella had declared that he meant to reach Rome without delay, while he was sure of a warm welcome and of the protection of Cardinal Altieri, in case Pignaver sent any one in pursuit.
'Rome,' said Trombin thoughtfully, 'is a convenient place for doing business. The streets are narrow, and there are many wells in the courtyards of the old houses.'
'It is true that we have never had any trouble in Rome,' Gambardella answered. 'Commend me to narrow streets for business. I hate your great squares, your promenades, your gardens, and your belvederes! Shall you ever forget that summer's evening on the Chiatamone in Naples?'
'I feel that I am still running away,' Trombin said. 'But Rome is quite different. It is true that we have not yet decided which of the two it is to be. But I have just thought of a way of getting both the fees.'
'For a man of imagination, you have taken a long time to think of it!'
'It is this. We will deliver up both in Venice, Stradella to the lady, and the girl to her uncle. The lady will believe that the girl is dead, for she will never see or hear of her again, and she will pay us in full. The Senator will pay half down when he gets his niece back, and after the lady has enjoyed the Maestro's company for a few days he can be done away with, and Pignaver will pay the balance. What do you think of that as a solution, my friend?'
'There is much to be said for it,' Gambardella admitted.
He nodded and sipped his mastic, which was not an easy operation, since he could not go on filling the small glass as he would a tumbler of wine; but he ingeniously set it to one corner of his mouth, well out of the way of his nose, and by turning his head on one side he succeeded in sipping it to the end without spilling a drop.
'It is a monstrous thing to interrupt such a career as Stradella's,' he continued, for his companion had said nothing. 'But five hundred ducats are a great deal of money, and beggars cannot be choosers! Nevertheless, if you can think of some plan which will accomplish the same result by saving the Maestro and putting the girl out of the way instead, I should prefer it. A woman more or less makes no difference, but there is only one Stradella!'
'I will do my best,' Trombin answered, 'but you cannot have everything.'
The Bravi and Stradella supped in a room apart for greater privacy, because a large party of noisy Bolognese merchants had arrived on their way to Venice, and were eating in the dining-room. Cucurullo and Grattacacio waited on their masters, the dishes being brought to the door by a scullion.
There were wax candles on the table in handsome candlesticks, for a mere brass oil-lamp was not good enough for such fine gentlemen as Trombin and Gambardella when their pockets were full of money; and in the middle of the board a magnificent majolica basket was filled with cherries and green almonds.
The two servants eyed each other with a certain mutual distrust, for Grattacacio had at once discovered that his colleague was one of those poor creatures that have not even the spirit to cheat their masters, and Cucurullo's quietly penetrating intelligence detected under Tommaso's accomplished exterior the signs of a still more accomplished scoundrel. For the present, however, the two treated each other with much civility, and their three masters were admirably served at supper.
They drank to one another in the old Burgundy, and Trombin proposed the health of the bride, repeating in her honour one of Petrarch's sonnets in praise of Laura. He said that as he had never seen her he could only compare her beauty to that of the angels, and her virtues to those of the blessed saints, whom he had not seen either, and had no expectation of seeing hereafter; similarly he likened the Maestro's voice to that of a seraph, on the ground that its like would never be heard on earth.
Stradella laughed a little, for the first time in five days, and emptied his glass to Ortensia. He was no match for his companions at eating and drinking, as he soon found out, and he was satisfied long before they were; but the good old wine had brought back the warmth to his face and hands, though he had drunk but little, and presently he went for his lute. He tuned it and then played softly while Trombin ate candied fruit and Gambardella cut himself shavings of fresh Parmesan cheese, which he nibbled with salt, and both drank wine, listening to his music with delight.
It was worth hearing, indeed, for under his masterly touch the instrument sang, laughed and wept, and whispered love-words at his will; now, one high string pleaded its passionate melody to a low and sighing accompaniment that never swelled to reach it; and now, the nineteen strings sounded together as a full orchestra, bursting in triumphant harmonies, and almost deafening to hear; again, the deepest string began a fugue that was taken up by the next above and the next, and traversed all, gathering sonorous strength as the parts increased from two to three, from three to four, all moving at once to the grand climax, and then sinking again and falling away one by one, softer and softer to the solemn close.
Stradella was profoundly happy, and he had but one way of expressing his happiness to himself, which was the most beautiful way there is, for he made the art he loved his means of telling the world his joy.
Later, when the window was open, and the young moon was shedding a gentle light upon the broad square, he began to sing softly, wondering that he should have any voice left after what he had suffered; but great singers are not like other men, at least as to their throats, and after a few trials the rich notes floated out deliciously, as effortless and as true, as soft and as strong as ever, in those marvellous love-songs of his own that thrilled all Italy while he lived, and long afterwards.
The Bravi had turned their chairs to listen, for he had gone to the window. They had finished their Burgundy, and most of his share to boot, and peace had descended on their restless souls; and if, from all the delights the world held, they could have chosen one for that May evening, they would have asked for none but this, to sit and listen to the greatest of living singers and musicians, deeply in love, and singing more for himself than that any one might hear him.
'It is absolutely impossible,' said Trombin gravely to his companion, when Stradella paused at last.
'Absolutely,' assented Gambardella.
'What is impossible?' the singer asked carelessly.
'To sing better than you,' answered Gambardella with a short laugh.
Quite out of sight in the choir, more than sixty nuns and at least as many of their girl pupils were still chanting matins when Stradella and the two Bravi entered the Church of San Domenico, followed by Cucurullo. The latter's fellow-servant had left Ferrara at dawn with his masters' luggage, to ride ahead and order rooms and dinner at Bologna for the whole party. Stradella had secured a travelling-carriage on which his effects were already packed, and the harnessed horses were standing ready to be put to.
Gambardella dipped his fingers into the nearest holy-water basin and held them out dripping for Stradella to touch before he crossed himself, as the others also did; then all followed him up the side aisle to the door of the sacristy, where they waited till the singing ceased. The priest's deep voice spoke a few words alone, the nuns and pupils answered, and so again, through the short Responsory; and after a moment the soft shuffling of many felt-shod feet on the stone pavement was heard as the sisters and girls left the hidden choir in orderly procession.
The sacristan opened the padded swinging-door and saw the four men waiting. He was a small man with a round red nose and he took snuff plentifully, as the state of his shabby black cassock showed.
'If the gentlemen will put themselves to the inconvenience of coming in,' he said, 'they will find all ready and the lady waiting.'
He spoke with obsequious politeness, but his eyes looked with sharp inquiry from one to the other, trying to make out which of the three gentlemen was the bridegroom; that is to say, which of them would tip him after the ceremony—for in such matters, as he well knew, much may be guessed from the face and apparent humour of the giver.
He was relieved to see that Stradella now took the lead, and that every line of his handsome young face betrayed his joyous anxiety to be married as soon as possible.
Between the church and the sacristy there was a damp and gloomy vestibule, at the end of which the sacristan opened another swinging-door and Stradella suddenly saw Ortensia standing in a blaze of light, covered from head to foot with a delicate white veil shot with gold threads; for the early sun poured in through two great windows and flooded the sacristy, gleaming on the carved and polished walnut wardrobes, blazing on the rich gold and jewels and enamel of the sacred vessels and utensils in the tall glass-fronted case, and making a cloud of glory in the bride's veil. It covered her face, but in the splendid light it hardly dimmed her radiant loveliness.
Beside her, but half a step farther back, stood Pina, in her grey dress, as quiet and self-possessed as ever. Near them stood a tall old priest who had a thin and gentle face.
Stradella sprang forward with outstretched hands, forgetting everything except that Ortensia was before him. But he had not yet reached her side when the priest was between them, laying one hand on his shoulder and quietly checking him, though smiling kindly, as if he quite understood.
The Bravi had started when they first caught sight of the Venetian girl, for neither of them had expected such rare beauty; and with the added illusion of the gold-shot veil and the all-generous sunshine, it was nothing less than transcendent. Trombin and Gambardella looked at each other quietly, as they always did when the same thought struck them.
Meanwhile the tall old priest made the young couple kneel before the little altar on one side of the sacristy, where two praying-stools had been placed in readiness. Pina knelt down a little way behind her mistress, and Cucurullo took his place at the same distance behind his master; but Trombin went and stood on Ortensia's left and Gambardella on Stradella's right, as witnesses for the bride and bridegroom respectively.
Thus it was that the runaway couple were duly married and blessed in the sacristy of San Domenico on that May morning, little dreaming why it had all been so cleverly managed for them; but it was clear that Stradella had been prepared for the event, since he produced two wedding rings of different sizes and gave them to the priest to bless.
'I will,' he said, in answer to the latter's question.
'I will,' said Ortensia in a low tone, but by no means doubtfully.
'Ego conjungo vos,' the priest went on; and the rest was soon said, the Bravi dropping on their knees at the benediction.
Then the sacristan brought out the register and laid it on the broad polished table on which the vestments were folded, placing pens and ink and the sand-box beside it; and the priest first wrote a few words, to say that he had married the couple by a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Ferrara; and Stradella and Ortensia signed their names, and after them the Bravi, who indeed merely wrote 'Trombin' and 'Gambardella,' but managed to make their signatures almost illegible with magnificent flourishes. The priest bade Pina and Cucurullo sign too, as they said they could write, and the hunchback wrote 'Antonino Cucurullo' in a small neat hand like a seminarist's, and Pina set down her name as 'Filippina Landi.'
The priest, who had watched the signing, looked at her in some surprise.
'Are you married or unmarried?' he asked quietly.
'Unmarried,' answered Pina in her hard voice, and she turned away.
For Landi was a patrician name; and though Jews, when baptized, usually took the surname of the noble under whose auspices they were converted, it was quite clear that Pina was not of Semitic race.
Stradella had taken Ortensia's hand and kissed it when the little ceremony was over, but that was all, and neither could find words to speak. Pina took off the beautiful veil, folded it on the polished table, and rolled it up to carry away, for the Mother Superior wished Ortensia to keep it. Then the serving-woman produced the two brown cloaks in which she and her mistress had fled from Venice, and they put them on, and all left the church together after thanking the priest; and Stradella gave the sacristan two silver Apostolic florins, which was the largest fee the fellow had ever received in his life.
When they were all in the street, the Bravi took off their hats and asked to be introduced to the bride, and Stradella presented them with some ceremony, greatly to the surprise and delight of some ragged children who had collected round the church steps; for Ortensia made a court courtesy, and the Bravi bowed to the ground, sweeping the cobble-stones with their plumes and sticking up their rapiers behind them almost perpendicularly in the air.
'Count Trombin, Count Gambardella,' said the musician to his wife, introducing the pair. 'These gentlemen have liberated us from our respective prisons and have been kindly instrumental in bringing about our marriage.'
'We owe you both a debt of undying gratitude, gentlemen,' said Ortensia, blushing a little under her brown hood.
'It is an honour to have served your ladyship,' Trombin replied, with another grand bow.
Ortensia slipped her arm through Stradella's and pressed his surreptitiously against her side, as if to say that she would never let him go out of her sight again; and she wished, as she had never wished for anything in her life, that she were alone with him already, to throw her arms round his neck and tell him the very things he was longing to tell her.
Behind them the Bravi walked in silence, their hands on the hilts of their rapiers and their eyes fixed on the happy pair, each absorbed in his own reflections.
Trombin thought, in the first place, that Ortensia was one of the most beautiful young creatures he had ever seen; and he flattered himself that he had seen many. Gambardella, on the other hand, wore his most sour look, for he was disgusted to find that the impression left by his interview with the Mother Superior was not so ephemeral as he had believed it to be; and being angry with himself he wished that the whole business were finished, that Stradella were dead and Ortensia safe in her uncle's hands, or that Ortensia were already killed and that Stradella had been delivered to his Venetian admirer bound hand and foot and gagged, according to contract, so that Gambardella might apply his mind to other matters.
But Trombin was not thinking only of the lady. The humour of the whole affair struck him as delightful in the extreme, and he smiled to himself, showing his sharp white teeth, when he thought of the tricks that had been played on the Legate and the Ursuline nuns in less than twenty-four hours. It was most especially amusing to think how that cut-throat Gambardella, the weight of whose sins would have staggered the Grand Penitentiary himself, had played Old Morality to the Mother Superior, and had actually been the one to suggest a proper marriage as the only virtuous solution of the difficulty.
There was not much time for such reflections, however, for the distance to the inn was short, and when they reached it the young couple's travelling-carriage was ready and the horses were saddled for the Bravi, who were already dressed for riding. So there was nothing to hinder them all from starting at once, since the score was already paid.
In less than half an hour after they had left the church, the whole party was well outside the city gates and on the road to Rome.
A month had passed since Stradella and Ortensia had fled from Venice, and after their adventure in Ferrara no hand had been raised against them on their way to Rome. They had at first lodged in the ancient hostelry at the Sign of the Bear, which still stands, and is not only called the Orso inn as it was hundreds of years ago, but has given its name to the street in which it is situated. It stands at the entrance to that part of the city which was in old times dominated by the Orsini, who undoubtedly got their name from some ancient stone or marble bear that was built into the outer wall of their stronghold; but whether the old inn was called after the image itself, or after the Orsini badge, no one can tell.
Stradella and his wife lodged for a few days in that large upper room, of which the beautiful loggia may still be seen from the new embankment; but in those days, and much later, another row of tall houses stood on the opposite side of the street, between the Orso and the river, making an unbroken line as far as the Nona tower at the Bridge of Sant' Angelo, and completely cutting off the view. It was the best of the Roman inns, even when Rome had more hostelries than any city in Europe. Philippe de Commines lodged there, and Montaigne, and many another famous man who visited Rome before and after Stradella's time.
It was there, in that upper chamber, that the happy lovers first tasted peace and rest after the trials and fatigues of their long journey; for though they were man and wife it is but right to call them lovers, who loved so truly till they died. It was there that they first learned to know and understand each other, and to see why they had loved at first sight and had fled together, wresting their happiness violently from an adverse fate, when they had been alone scarcely one whole hour in all during their brief acquaintance, and had kissed but twice.
For as they lived those first days together they found all they had dreamed of, each in the other, and more too; and every fresh discovery was a sweet new world, till many worlds made up the universe of their new being that circled round love's sun in a firmament of joy. Love had been great from the first, but now he grew to be all-powerful; there had been hours when one or the other might have been persuaded to draw back for some weighty reason, but no reason was strong enough to part them now, not even the great last argument of death himself.
Surely, say you, the course of true love should have run smooth for them, if ever. But know you not that the gods envy no small thing, nor are angry at any humdrum happiness of common men? Know you not that the god of war spares the coward and slays the brave? That in the race for fortune Jove often trips the swiftest runners and lets the dull plodder creep past the winning post alone? Know you not that whom the gods love die young?
Ortensia and Stradella knew none of these things. He had grown famous almost without an effort when scarcely more than a boy, and fame did not desert him; and now that he had overcome obstacles and passed through danger to be happy, he believed with child-like faith that such happiness, once got, must be safe from outward harm, since it dwelt in the heart, where no one could see it, to envy it as men envied worldly glory. As for Ortensia, she neither thought of the future nor remembered the near past, but lived only in each present dazzling day.
For a whole week they scarcely showed themselves, though Stradella's return was known in Rome, and he received many invitations to rich men's houses and requests for new compositions, and pressing offers of money if he would but sing at mass or vespers in this basilica or that. If he had needed gold, he could have had it for an hour's trouble, or for an effort of a few minutes which was no effort at all. But for the moment he had enough, and nothing should disturb the first days of his golden honeymoon.
Trombin and Gambardella also lodged in the Orso, but in rooms far from the happy pair, whom they chose to leave in peace for the present, never asking to see them nor inviting them to their well-spread table. Indeed, any such invitation might have come better from the other side now, for never did a young runaway couple incur a heavier debt of gratitude than Stradella and Ortensia owed to the two cut-throats who meant to murder them, and were even then living under the same roof and on the best of everything with money advanced to them for that very purpose.
But the time and the conditions were not now suited for the deed, which might have been done easily enough a dozen times between Ferrara and Rome. Moreover, the Bravi had not yet come to a definite agreement as to the plan they should pursue, and Trombin's scheme, which seemed the best, was far less easy to carry out than a common murder, and very much more expensive; for it meant kidnapping both Stradella and his wife, and taking them all the way back to Venice as close prisoners, without exciting suspicion by the way, so that the inns at which they had all stopped on their journey southwards would have to be scrupulously avoided on their return.
There was no hurry, however, for they had not spent the two hundred ducats advanced to them; or, to be accurate, they had played at the French Ambassador's gambling-tables with a part of the money and had won a good deal. For in those days every foreign ambassador in Rome claimed the right to keep a public gambling-room in his embassy, for his own profit, which was often large, and was always a regular source of income. But the Bravi had already written to Pignaver as well as to the lady for more funds, on the ground that forty days had passed without affording them the opportunity they sought, and at two ducats a day their account thus came to eighty ducats, already gone for unavoidable expenses. Since they were paid twice over, it was quite natural that their expenses should sometimes be doubled.
Meanwhile they watched their prey closely, and without any apparent intention of disturbing the peace of the lovers' paradise they were very often just strolling out or coming in exactly when Stradella and Ortensia were passing through the gate in one direction or the other. In this way Trombin saw Ortensia almost every day, and all four generally exchanged a few friendly words before going on their way.
The beautiful Venetian and her husband were in the habit of going out together either early in the morning, when they were sure not to meet any of Stradella's fashionable acquaintances, or late in the June afternoons, when all society congregated in certain fixed gathering places and nowhere else, such as the gardens of the French Embassy, which was established in the Villa Medici, or in the vast grounds of the Villa Riario, which is now called Corsini, where Queen Christina of Sweden had finally taken up her abode, and was giving herself airs right royally as the chief living patroness and critic of all the arts and sciences. To her, too, and to her court, Stradella had sung more than once when he had last been in Rome, at which time she had lived there little more than a year. Again, the precincts of the Vatican were to be avoided, and the news-mongering Banchi Vecchi, where every smart gossip in town resorted twice or thrice in the week to replenish his stock of facts and anecdotes, true and untrue, and where he could buy the sensational account of the latest execution, or elopement, or fraud.
The young couple avoided all such places carefully. Stradella knew the city well, and led Ortensia to many lovely spots unknown to fashion, and into many dim old churches, more than one of which had echoed to his own music on great feast-days, from the Lateran and Santa Croce and Santa Maria in Domnica, far away beyond the Colosseum, in the wilderness within the southern wall of the city, to the fashionable Santa Maria in Via, and San Marcello and the Pantheon.
Sometimes, if they had turned and looked into the distance behind them, they might have seen Trombin's pink cheeks and well-turned figure not very far away. For he was a susceptible creature, as he often confessed to his companion, and the very first sight of Ortensia on the morning of her marriage had made a deep impression on him. It was not only her face and her hair, which resembled that of the late lamented Titian's Beauty; there was something in her figure and walk that made him half mad when he watched her; hers was not the stately stride of the black-eyed plebeian beauty, balancing her huge copper 'conca' on her classic head, still less was it the swaying, hip-dislocating, self-advertising gait of some of those handsome and fashionable ladies who frequented the Villa Medici on Sunday afternoons, and progressed through a running fire of compliments from pale-faced young gentlemen of wealth and noble lineage. Perhaps, after all, it was not Ortensia's walk in itself, but also every movement of her beautiful body that made the Bravo's pulses throb; it was not her step only, with all the mystery the moving draperies could mean, but the grace in the half-turn of her head too, the undulating motion of her hand and wrist and half-bent arm when she fanned herself, the resistless seduction in her flexible figure when she turned quickly to Stradella, while leaning on his arm and still walking on, to ask some new question, or in pleased surprise at something he had just told her.
The end of their first days of peace at the Orso came one afternoon quite suddenly in the queer round church of San Stefano Rotondo, which is not like any other in the world, and is entirely decorated, if the word may be so misused, with representations of the awful tortures undergone by early martyrs. If Stradella himself had ever been there, he would not have taken his wife to see such sights, but the church was not more often open then than now, and the two went in from pure curiosity.
As they entered the vast circular aisle and turned to the right, they came suddenly upon a group of fashionable people listening to the explanations of an imposing gentleman with perfectly white hair, who indicated the points of interest in a picture with a heavy stick made of a narwhale's ivory horn. He was describing minutely and realistically the sufferings of a virgin martyr, and his chief hearer followed what he said with absorbed interest.
Stradella instantly recognised the ex-Queen of Sweden. There was no mistaking the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, with her square face and red cheeks, her disagreeable eyes and her black wig, her short green skirt and her mannish bearing. She was forty-four years old at that time. The fine-looking old man was Bernini, the sculptor; at her elbow, and not much above it in height, stood a misshapen youth with the face of a sad angel, the poet Guidi; he was evidently pained and disgusted by the lecture. Three other gentlemen stood at a little distance behind the Queen, but there was nothing to distinguish them from ninety-nine out of a hundred other fine gentlemen of fashionable society who wore extremely good coats, cut and curled their hair in the latest style, and proved that they were not absolute fools by holding their tongues when men like Bernini or Guidi were speaking.
At the sharp click of Ortensia's little heels on the stone pavement the Queen turned her head and instantly recognised Stradella, who bowed low as she nodded to him, and extended her hand in a gesture that bade him wait. He had no choice, and she looked at the picture again and listened with evident satisfaction to the great sculptor's explanation of the unpleasant subject. Guidi, however, tried not to hear; he also knew Stradella, who had set some of his verses to music, and he exchanged a glance of intelligence with him, wondering who his lady companion might be.
Stradella was already bending to whisper in her ear and tell her who the lady was, and that it was impossible to run away. Ortensia had never seen a queen before, and looked at her critically. Queen Christina, she thought, was anything but a fine-looking woman, though she looked intelligent, and Ortensia remembered scores of Venetian ladies who were much more queenly in appearance.
When Bernini had brought his poor little martyr to her last gasp, he added that, while he declined to disparage the work of a late fellow-artist, he considered Pomarancio's paintings beneath criticism; he then paused and took snuff. The Queen smiled sarcastically at his last words.
'Without speaking well of you, Cavaliere,' she said, 'I consider you as agreeable as you are famous.'
Bernini shut his snuff-box with a sharp snap and bowed low, though he quite understood the rebuke. Meanwhile Stradella led Ortensia forward, and the Queen turned to them as they came up.
'I am overjoyed to see you, Maestro,' she said, graciously giving him her hand to kiss while he touched the ground with one knee, and Ortensia executed a ceremonious courtesy. 'And who is this lady?' the Queen asked almost at once.
'My wife, Madam,' answered Stradella proudly. 'We are lately married.'
'Surely you are not a Roman, my dear child?' the Queen said inquiringly.
'No, Madam,' answered Ortensia, meeting the penetrating gaze of the disagreeable eyes without any nervousness. 'I am a Venetian, and was born a Grimani.'
The Queen smiled still more graciously at the ancient name, though she was a little surprised that a Grimani should have married a singer. Bernini and Guidi greeted Stradella while the Queen exchanged these few words with his wife, and the three gentlemen also came forward and pressed his hand, asking him questions about his journey, his marriage, and his present lodgings.
'What?' cried young Paluzzo Altieri. 'Lodging at the Orso? At an inn? My uncle will never allow that, nor her Majesty either!' He glanced at the Queen, who was still talking with Ortensia. 'You are the Pope's guests in Rome, Maestro, and I shall see that you are treated as such! Where will you be pleased to lodge, my dear Stradella? The whole Altieri palace is at your disposal, and you have but to choose your apartments——'
'Surely,' interrupted the Queen, who was listening now, 'I have a prior right to lodge a great artist in my house! Will you come and stay awhile with me, my dear?' she asked, turning to Ortensia again, with a sudden smile.
Ortensia was not at all overcome by the invitation, as the Queen perhaps expected that she would be, and she answered with demure caution.
'Your Majesty is too kind,' she said, without committing herself.
'Very well, my dear Altieri,' the Queen went on at once, as if Ortensia had already refused the proffered hospitality, 'I yield, but to His Holiness only, not to you!'
She laughed that strangely hard ringing laugh of hers, that reminded northern men of the sound of sharp skates cutting the smooth ice of a frozen river, where leafless birches and frost-bound banks send the notes echoing away between them till they are lost in the distance.
'The Pope owes your Majesty thanks,' the young courtier answered, bending his head a little, though he could hardly take his eyes from Ortensia.
Her Majesty Christina was out on one of her sight-seeing expeditions, in which old Bernini felt himself highly honoured to play guide, though she sometimes, as now, insisted on seeing sights which he would not willingly have shown her, and on hearing explanations which he would willingly have omitted. For though she set herself up as a profound critic and a super-refined aesthetic, her real nature was at once coarse and slightly Sadie, and she took pleasure in tales of bloodshed and suffering which would have disgusted a healthy-minded woman of ordinary sensitiveness. Indeed, as her Italian contemporaries knew her during those long years she spent in Rome, she was very far from being the royal Christina of the playwrights and poets. Her knowledge of art was not that of the critic, but of the professional dealer in antiquities, and though her opinion on the beauty of anything, from a picture to an inlaid cabinet, was often mere nonsense, she was never mistaken as to the price of the object. She was not an amateur, but an expert, and though anything that was really fashionable pleased her, she would buy nothing that had not an intrinsic value. In those first years of her permanent residence in Rome she was rich, for in voluntarily abdicating the throne she had reserved to herself a liberal income, which afterwards dwindled to very little, and she kept up a considerable state in the Palazzo Riario, that overlooks the river from the Trastevere side. There was hardly an artist or a literary man in Rome, or a student of science or a musician, who did not regularly pay his court to her, and dedicate to her something of his best work. Not rarely, too, she gave her advice; Bernini should finish his last statue in such and such a way, Guidi should avoid one rhyme and introduce another, on pain of her displeasure. Bernini yielded politely, because of all Italy's artists of genius he was the most thoroughly cynical in following the fashion of his time; Guidi obeyed because a dinner was always a dinner to a starving youth of twenty, and a rhyme was no great price to pay for it; but he quietly enclosed her suggestions in quotation marks, thereby disclaiming any responsibility for them.
The young Paluzzo Altieri was nephew to the Cardinal who governed Rome as the 'real' Pope, while the octogenarian Clement X., who was called the 'nominal' Pope, spent most of his days more or less in his bed. The Cardinal and all his relations had been adopted by him as 'nephews,' and as he was the last of his race he had bestowed on them and their heirs all his vast private possessions instead of enriching them out of the treasury, as many popes did by their families.
Alberto Paluzzo Altieri was good-for-nothing, and like most really worthless young men he exercised an extraordinary charm on every one who knew him, both women and men. For to be a real good-for-nothing, without being a criminal, implies a native genius for wasting other people's time as agreeably as one's own, and for helping rich men to get rid of their money with infinite pleasure and no profit at all, and for making every woman believe that she can certainly convert and reform the prodigal by the simple process of allowing him to fall in love with her, which, of course, must elevate him to her moral and intellectual level.
There was nothing very remarkable about Alberto except that charm of his. He was dark, he had straight black hair, and tolerably regular features, like many young Romans; he was neither tall nor short, nor exceptionally well made, and of the three young gentlemen who accompanied the ex-Queen on her sight-seeing excursion, he was the least ostentatiously dressed. But he had a wonderfully pleasant voice in speaking, with the smile of a happy and phenomenally innocent boy, and his bright brown eyes had the most guileless expression in the world. At the present time it amused him to be Queen Christina's favourite, perhaps because she was a genuine queen, or possibly because her cold-blooded murder of Monaldeschi was still so fresh in every one's memory that there was a spice of danger in the situation; but in any case he was prepared for the first pleasant opportunity of changing his allegiance which might present itself.
When he saw Stradella's young wife it occurred to him at once that such a chance was within his reach, and he was not satisfied till he had made the musician promise to move from the inn to the Altieri palace on the next day but one; for Alberto was the eldest son, and neither his father, who was old, nor his mother, who was a slave to her perpetual devotions, ever attempted to oppose his wishes in such matters. Was he not a model son? Could anything surpass his sweet-tempered affection for his parents? Why should he not have what he liked? Good-for-nothings are often their mothers' favourites; but Alberto had long ago won over his father as well, and not him only, but his uncle also, the Cardinal, who ruled Rome and the States of the Church like a despot. The great man was really not sorry that one of his own family should occupy the most important position in Queen Christina's household; for it is the instinct of all ex-sovereigns to meddle in politics, and it was not possible to predict what such a woman might do if she were bored.
Ortensia was a mere girl still, but her eyes had been opened of late, and she did not fail to notice the impression she had made on the young man; she was far too much in love with her husband, however, to care for such admiration, or even to be pleased by it, and somehow the present case seemed to be of bad omen.
The Queen and her party had already been long in the church, for they had begun their round on the other side of the entrance, and were just ending it when Stradella and his wife appeared; now, therefore, after a few more words, they took themselves off amidst much bowing and scraping on the part of all except the Queen herself. She smiled to Ortensia, and nodded familiarly to Stradella, making a beckoning and inviting gesture to him over her shoulder with her right hand as she turned away. Alberto looked quickly at the musician, not so much taking him for a possible rival as for a convenient successor; but the faintly contemptuous smile that flickered in the musician's face as he saw the careless signal assuredly did not mean that he was either flattered or attracted. Ortensia saw the gesture too, and resented it; but a moment later she smiled to herself at the thought that such a woman as the Queen could ever win so much as a second thought from Alessandro.
The two had seen enough of San Stefano, and were glad to escape from the nightmare of horrors depicted on its walls; but before going out they waited a few minutes in the vestibule to allow the party time to get out of sight.
'So that is the famous Queen Christina!' Ortensia said, expressing her surprise and disappointment as soon as they were alone. 'Pina looks more like a lady!'
After supper on the next evening Stradella and Ortensia were sitting for the last time in the beautiful loggia, in the soft light of the young moon that would soon set behind the Vatican Hill. The air was wonderfully dry and warm, as it is in Rome sometimes in June when there has been no rain for three or four weeks.
On the following morning they were to move to the Palazzo Altieri, where Don Alberto had caused to be prepared for them the apartment that is entered by a small door on the left, halfway up the grand staircase. They had been talking of the change.
'It will seem more natural to you to live in a palace again,' Stradella said in a laughing tone. 'You must have had enough of inns by this time!'
'The happiest days of my life have been spent in them,' Ortensia answered with a little sadness. 'I am wondering whether it will ever be the same again.'
'As long as we are the same there can be no difference, sweetheart. I am glad you are to be more worthily lodged. Don Alberto was always a very good-natured fellow and more or less a friend of mine, and he is taking the greatest pains to make us comfortable in his father's house.'
'I wish he would not take such infinite trouble to stare at me all the time!'
'Why should he look at anything else when you are in sight?' laughed the singer. 'Do I? And just consider what a pleasant change it must be for him after being obliged to gaze at the Queen by the hour together in visible rapture! The vision must pall sometimes, I should think! I really do not blame him for showing that he admires you, and he is not the only one. There is our friend Trombin, for instance, who stands in adoration staring at you and puffing out his round cheeks whenever we meet.'
'Oh, he only makes me laugh,' Ortensia answered; 'he is so funny, with his little pursed-up mouth and his round eyes! I am sure he must be the kindest-hearted creature in the world. But Don Alberto is quite different. I am a little afraid of him. I feel as if some day he might say something to me——'
'What, for instance?' asked Stradella, amused. 'What do you think he may say?'
'That he thinks me—what shall I say?—very pretty, perhaps!'
'He would only be saying to your face what every one says behind your back, love! Should you object very much if he told you that he thought you beautiful?'
'I do not wish to be beautiful for any one but you,' Ortensia answered softly. 'I wish that every one else might think me hideous, and never come near me!'
'And that I might seem to every one but you to sing out of tune!' laughed Stradella.
'At all events they would leave us alone, if they thought so! But I did not mean it in that way. I think you do not care whether men make love to me or not!'
She was not quite pleased, and as she leaned her head back against the wall he saw her pouting lips in the moonlight.
'I like to be envied,' said Stradella.
As he made this singular answer he bent over a mandoline he had been holding on his knee and made the point of the quill quiver against the upper strings with incredible lightness, so that the tinkling note seemed to come from very far away and could not interrupt the conversation.
'I do not understand,' Ortensia said, after a moment, and she lifted her arms and made her clasped hands a pillow between the back of her head and the wall.
'The beauty of anything is its immortal part,' he said; 'its real value is as much as people will give for it, neither more nor less. Do you not understand me yet?'
'Not quite. Why do you talk in riddles? I am not very clever, you know!'
'You are beautiful, dear. I have often told you so, and other men will if they get a chance. But as one of nature's works of art I doubt whether you are more beautiful than almond-blossoms in spring, or the dawn in the south on a summer's morning. Do you see?'
'No. Is it a parable? What will you compare me to next?'
Stradella was making sweet far-off music on the instrument. It came a little nearer and then died away into the distance, when he was ready to speak again.
'You may have almond-blossoms by hundreds in March for nothing,' he said, 'and any one may see the dawn who is awake so early! They have perfect beauty, but no value. No one can really envy a man who brings an armful of flowers home with him, or who sees the dawn of a fine day, yet both are quite as lovely as you are, in their own fashion, though they are common. But you have their beauty, and besides, you are of immense value, not to me only but to the whole race of men, because you are not only beautiful, but also a very rare work of nature, far rarer than pearls and rubies.'
'Then it was all a pretty compliment you were paying me!' Ortensia smiled. 'Of course I could not understand what you meant!'
Stradella laughed low, and the mandoline was silent for a while.
'The way to make compliments is to find out what a woman most admires in herself and then to make her believe it is ten times more wonderful than she supposed it could be. No one has ever told that secret yet, but it has opened more doors and balcony windows than any other.'
'That was not your way of opening mine, dear!' laughed Ortensia. 'I am afraid you needed no secret at all to do that.'
Again he touched the mandoline, but it was not mere tinkling music now, making believe that it came all the way down the long street from the dismal Tor di Nona by the bridge. It was that love-song he had made for her in Venice, and had sung to her when Pina left them together the first time; a measure of the melody trembled through the upper strings, and then his own voice took up the words in tones breathed out so easily that the highest never seemed to be high, nor to cost him more effort than ordinary speech. Of all instruments the violoncello can yield notes most like such a voice, when the bow is in a master's hand.
In Rome, at night, he may sing who will, even now: if he goes bawling out of tune through the silent streets, though it be not from drink but out of sheer lightness of heart, the first policeman he meets will silence him, it is true; but if he sings well and soberly he may go on his way rejoicing, for no watchman will hinder him. It is an ancient right of the Italian people to sing when and where they please, by day or night, in the certainty that tuneful singing can never give offence nor disturb even a dying man.
So the great master of song sat in the high balcony on that June night and let his voice float out over moon-lit Rome; and presently Ortensia slipped from her chair and knelt before him, her hands clasped on his knees and looking up to his face, for his magic was more enthralling now than when it had first drawn her to him.
When he reached the end he kissed her, the last long-drawn note still vibrating on his lips, and she felt that they were cold and trembling when they touched hers.
'Yes,' she whispered, drawing back just enough to see his eyes in the moonlight, 'that was the key to my window. When I heard that song I knew you loved me already, and that I must love you too, sooner or later, and for all my life. It is not my poor beauty that is rarer than pearls and rubies, love, but your genius and your voice. I know what you mean now! I like to be envied by other women because you are mine, with all you are, you, and your fame, and everything!'
'Do you see?' Stradella laughed softly. 'You should not be angry with people who stare at you, any more than I am with people who listen when I sing! And I am no more jealous because Don Alberto admires you than you should be because Queen Christina likes my singing, as she says she does.'
'Tell me, Alessandro, is that a black wig she wears, or is it her own hair?' asked Ortensia, pretending to be serious.
'In confidence, my love, it is a wig,' Stradella answered with extreme gravity.
'So much the better. I am glad she admires your singing; but if it were not a wig, perhaps I should be less glad. Do you think Don Alberto's fine black hair is his own, dear; and are his legs quite real?'
'Then I think you ought to be just a little less glad that he stares at me, than if his legs were padded and he wore a wig as the Queen does, and were forty, as she is, with bad teeth and a muddy complexion like hers! You know you should be just a very little less pleased, dear!'
In the moonlight he could see her smiling, for her face was close to his, and she had laid her hands on his shoulders, while she still knelt at his knees.
'But that would mean that I was jealous, dear heart,' objected Stradella. 'Why am I to be jealous because he admires you, unless you like him too much? Most women say that a man is a brute to be jealous at all till they have run away with some one else! Your uncle, for instance, is really justified in being jealous of me.'
Ortensia laughed and kissed again before saying anything more; and just as their lips touched, the silver light began to fail, and the young moon dropped behind the Vatican Hill, and when they separated it seemed quite dark by comparison. Now any one can easily find out how long it takes the moon to set after she has touched the shoulder of a hill; and hence the exact number of seconds during which that particular kiss lasted can easily be ascertained. But time, as Danish people say, was made for shoemakers; and Ortensia and Stradella took no account of it, but behaved in the most foolishly dilatory way, just as if they were not a plain, humdrum, married couple that should have known better than to spend the evening in a balcony, alternately sentimentalising, kissing, and singing love-songs.
That was the last evening they spent at the Sign of the Bear, and though they had talked idly enough in the loggia under the light of the young moon about such very grave subjects as jealousy and envy, they afterwards cherished ineffaceable memories of that sweet June night.
For there had been an interlude in the comedy of their troubles, wherein love had dwelt with them alone and in peace, making his treasures fully known to them, and guiding their footsteps while they explored his kingdom and his palace; and they both felt instinctively that the interlude was over now, and that real life must begin again with their change of lodgings. Stradella was a musician and a singer, without settled fortune, and he must return to the business of earning bread for them both; moreover, he was famous, and therefore could not possibly get his living obscurely. The Pope's adopted family would vie with the ex-Queen of Sweden, the Spanish Ambassador and the rich nobles, to flatter him and attract him to their respective palaces. Alberto Altieri, who had lost his heart to Ortensia's beauty at first sight, would organise every sort of fashionable entertainment for the young bride's benefit, and would do his best to turn her head by magnificent display. Hereafter, till the summer heat drove the Romans to the country, no evening gathering in a noble house would deserve mention if Stradella and his wife were not there, as no concert would be worth hearing unless some of his music was performed. The young couple would be continually in the very vortex of fashion's whirlpool, and though they would not resent the distinction, and might even enjoy the gaiety for a few weeks, they would have but little time left for each other between morning and midnight.
It was apparent on the very first night they spent in the Palazzo Altieri that Don Alberto was not the only young man in Rome who wished to please Ortensia. Soon after the second hour of night, which we should call about ten o'clock in June, Stradella and Ortensia heard music in the narrow street below their new quarters; and as the sounds did not move farther away, it was almost immediately apparent that the singers were serenading Ortensia. It was no ordinary music, either; there were half-a-dozen fine voices and four or five stringed instruments, played with masterly skill—a violin, a 'viola d'amore,' and at least two or three lutes.
Stradella put out the light in the room and opened the outer shutters a little, for they had been closed. The moon was shining even more brightly than on the previous night, but the rays did not fall as they fell on the loggia at the inn; the roofs of the low houses opposite were partly illuminated, and the belfry of San Stefano, and of the little church of Santa Marta and the Minerva much farther away; but that side of the irregularly built Altieri palace and the street below were almost in darkness. Looking down between the shutters, Ortensia and Stradella could only see deeper shadows within the shade, where the serenaders were standing, and they were sure that the latter could not see them at all. They listened with delight, their heads close together, and each with one arm round the other's waist.
'They are men from the Pope's choir,' Stradella whispered, 'or from Saint Peter's.'
The first piece was finished, and the musicians exchanged a few words in low tones, while one or two of them tuned their instruments a little. A moment later they began to play again, and as Stradella recognised the opening chords of one of his own serenades, a rich-toned voice began the song.
Ortensia's arm tightened a little round her husband, and his round her, and their young cheeks touched as they listened and peered down into the gloom of the narrow street. Suddenly there was a stir below, and the sound of other feet coming quickly from the Piazza del Gesu; and though the serenade was not half finished, another choir and other instruments struck up a chorus, loud and high, almost completely drowning the first.
Stradella uttered an exclamation of surprise. The newcomers sang and played quite as well as the first party, if not better, and the music was Stradella's too—a triumphal march and chorus which he had composed when last in Rome for the marriage of the Orsini heir. It had been intended to drown all other sounds while the wedding procession was leaving the church, and it now fulfilled a similar purpose most effectually.
For a moment Stradella imagined that it was only meant as a surprise, and a reinforcement to the first party, and that the whole company of musicians would play and sing together. That would have been indeed a royal serenade; but half a minute had not passed before things took a very different turn, for the party in possession of the street charged the newcomers after a moment's deliberation; the twanging of strings turned into a noise of stout sticks hitting each other violently and smashing an instrument now and then, and steel was clashing too, while the voices that had lately sung so tunefully now shouted in wild discord.
Suddenly a flash of bright light darted through the dim confusion as a dark lantern was opened, and the glare fell full on the face and figure of Don Alberto Altieri, who stood hatless, sword in hand, facing an adversary who was quite invisible to the couple at the window. The instant the light was seen, the others of the two parties ceased fighting and retired in opposite directions.
'Sir,' said a voice which Stradella and Ortensia instantly recognised as Trombin's, 'I see that you are at least as young as you are noble, if not more so, and I shall therefore not press my acquaintance upon you so far as to take your life. But I shall tell you plainly, sir, that I am a fencing-master by my profession, and if you do not immediately dissolve into air, or, to put it better, melt away with all your company, I will lard you, in the space of thirty seconds, with fifteen flesh wounds in fifteen different parts of your body, not one of which shall be dangerous, but which, being taken in what I may call the aggregate, shall keep you in your bed for a month, sir. And moreover, sir, as you do not seem inclined to lower your guard and go away, there is one!'
The long rapier flashed in the light of the lantern, and instantly Don Alberto's sword fell from his hand. Trombin had run him neatly through the right forearm, completely disabling him at the first thrust.
The Bravo at once stooped, picked up the weapon and politely offered him the hilt, but he could not take it with his right hand, and grasping the blade itself with his left, he just managed to get it into the sheath.
'At least,' he cried, furious with humiliation and pain, 'that gentleman with the lantern there, who employs you, will answer to me for this in broad daylight, when my wound is healed.'
'With pleasure, sir,' answered the voice of Gambardella. 'But as one gentleman to another, I warn you that I am also a fencing-master.'
The instant Don Alberto was wounded his musicians had taken to flight, and he had now no choice but to follow them, which he did with as much dignity as he could command, considering that he was hatless, wounded, and altogether very badly worsted, for he had understood that he had fallen in with Bravi, probably employed by a rival. As soon as it was evident that he was going away, the lantern was shut and the street was dark again, Trombin's musicians tuned their instruments, and in two or three minutes the triumphal march rang out again, louder and higher than ever.
In the dimness above Stradella and Ortensia looked at each other, though they could hardly see one another's faces.
'Your two admirers mean business!' said the musician with some amusement. 'Trombin will seem less ridiculous the next time you see him staring at you!'
'How can you laugh!' asked Ortensia gravely, for she had never before seen men face each other with drawn swords.
She had always been taught that duelling was as wicked as it was dangerous, and her uncle Pignaver had shared that orthodox opinion; nevertheless, though she would not willingly have acknowledged it to her confessor, she was glad that Trombin had driven the lady-killer from the field, and she only wished that Stradella might have done it himself. As for the Bravi's serenade, she did not resent it at all, nor did her husband; it was a friendly entertainment, and nothing more, on the part of the two wealthy Venetian gentlemen to whom the young couple already owed an immense debt of gratitude. When the chorus was ended, Stradella clapped his hands.
'Bravo!' cried Ortensia, and the word sounded clearly in the momentary silence.
'At your ladyship's service!' answered Trombin in a laughing tone, for the jest she unconsciously made in using the single word seemed to him full of humour.
Gambardella's dark lantern sent its searching ray up to the window at that moment, and showed the heads of the two young people close together, for the shutters were now wide open; an instant later the light went out and the music began again. It was a madrigal this time, airy and changing, and sung by four men, one of whom had a beautiful male contralto, which is a rarity even in Italy. Stradella recognised it instantly, for he had often sung at the Lateran and knew the man.
'They are of the choir of Saint John's,' he whispered to Ortensia.
There was rivalry between the Lateran and the Vatican in the matter of music then, as there has been in our own day, and it was no wonder that the musicians themselves had joined in the fray when Don Alberto drew on Trombin and Gambardella.
The serenade continued, and the two Bravi enjoyed it quite as much as Ortensia herself; but it was not likely that Don Alberto would be satisfied to go quietly to bed after being wounded under the very walls of his father's palace by a professional cut-throat who had been doubtless hired to protect a rival serenader. There was a guardhouse of the watch not far away, at the foot of the Capitol Hill, and thither he hastened, after twisting his silk scarf round his forearm as tightly as he could to staunch the blood.
In less than a quarter of an hour he came back with a corporal's guard of the night-watchmen, armed with clumsy broadswords, but each carrying a serviceable iron-shod cudgel of cornel-wood which, according to old Roman rhyme, breaks bones so easily that the blows do not even hurt: 'Corniale, rompe le ossa e non fa male.' The corporal himself carried an elaborately wrought lantern of iron and glass, ornamented with the papal tiara and crossed keys.
Now the Bravi did not know Alberto Altieri by sight, and they had treated him as if he were of no more account than several hundred other young noblemen, sure that he would have his scratch dressed and go quietly to bed like a sensible fellow who has had the worst of it. Therefore when the watch came in sight suddenly, from behind the corner of the palace that juts out sharply towards San Stefano, the serenaders did not connect the appearance of the patrol with their late adversary, who had disappeared in the opposite direction; on the contrary, they went on singing and playing, well aware that night-watchmen never interfered with such innocent diversions, but would generally stop on their round to enjoy the music. Even now, when they came straight towards the musicians, the latter only made way quietly, supposing that they wished to pass. It was not till Gambardella recognised Don Alberto's face by the light of the corporal's lantern that he understood, and drew his rapier just in time to save himself from being arrested.
'Run, while we hold the street!' he yelled to the musicians, who did not wait for a second invitation, but fled like sheep down the Via del Gesu.
Trombin's blade was out almost as soon as his companion's, and the two Bravi faced the watch side by side. Their hats were drawn well over their eyes, and they had clapped on the little black masks most people carried then, so that they were in no fear of being recognised. The corporal, who seemed to be a determined fellow, swung his stick like a sabre, to bring it down on Gambardella's head, but it found only the empty air in its path, and at the same time the officer's left hand was so sharply pricked that he dropped the big lantern, which rolled on its side and went out. Meanwhile Trombin had parried the blow his nearest adversary had struck at him, and in return had instantly disabled him by running him through the right forearm, precisely as he had done by Don Alberto.
A moment later Gambardella opened his dark lantern, and held it in his left, so that he and Trombin became almost invisible to their adversaries and had them at a great disadvantage. Furious, the corporal struck another wild blow with his staff, but Gambardella dodged it even more easily than before, being behind the lantern that dazzled the other; and as the iron-shod stick hit the ground after missing its aim, the officer felt the Bravo's blade run through the muscles of his upper arm, like a stream of icy water, followed instantly by burning heat. With a hearty curse he backed out of the way of another thrust and bade his men draw their broadswords and finish the matter.
But this was more easily said than done. The half-dozen men obeyed, indeed, so far as drawing and brandishing their clumsy weapons was concerned, but the street was narrow, the lantern dazzled them, and the two long rapiers with their needle points and solid blades pointed out at them in the circle of light, ready to run in under the awkward broadsword guard with deadly effect.
The corporal swore till Cucurullo, who was looking out of another upper window, expected to see him struck by lightning, and all the people who were now at the windows of the low houses opposite the palace crossed themselves devoutly; but it was of no use, as long as those two gleaming points kept making little circles slowly in the light. There was not a man in the corporal's guard who would have gone within an arm's length of them.
Seeing that they already had the best of it, the Bravi began to advance by regular short steps, moving the right foot forward first and then the left, as if they were on the fencing ground, their rapiers steadily in guard; and the watchmen fell back, fearing to face them. But that was not enough; for though the two might drive the little band in that way from street to street, if they but lowered their points a moment their adversaries would spring in upon them, even at some risk.
'We are mild-tempered men,' said Trombin at last, 'but we are both fencing-masters, and it will not be prudent to irritate us, or, as I may say, to drive us to extremities. You had better go your way quietly and let us go ours.'
'If you do not,' said Gambardella, who was excessively bored, 'we will skewer every mother's son of you in five minutes, by the holy marrow-bones of Beelzebub!'
This singular invocation arrested the attention and disturbed the equanimity of the watchmen; they could stand being sworn at by every saint in the calendar, by every article of the Nicene Creed, and, generally, by everything sacred of which their corporal had ever heard, but they did not like men who invoked relics of such horrible import as those which Gambardella had named. Nor were their fears misplaced, for as they hesitated for two or three seconds before turning to run, the Bravo made a spring like a wild cat, struck the corporal violently on the nose with the iron guard of his rapier, jumped back one step, and then, lunging an almost incredible distance as the corporal staggered against the wall, ran the man behind him through the fleshy part of the shoulder. On his side, Trombin advanced too, pretended to lunge and then suddenly struck the man before him such a stinging blow with the flat of his rapier that the fellow howled and fled, whereupon Trombin encouraged his speed by prodding him sharply in the rear. In a moment the confusion was complete, and the watchmen were tumbling over each other in their hurry to escape. Then the lantern was suddenly shut, and the two Bravi faced about and ran like deer in the opposite direction.
Don Alberto did not care to tell how he had been wounded, and kept the matter between himself, his doctor, and his own man, giving out that he had been thrown from his horse and had broken one of the bones of his forearm, a story which quite accounted for his wearing his arm in a sling when he appeared after keeping his room during five days. It was natural, too, that Stradella and Ortensia, who had recognised him by the light of the lantern, should say nothing about the matter, and the Bravi did not know who the young man was; so there was a possibility that the whole affair might remain a secret.
Trombin, however, was anxious to discover the name of the adversary he had wounded, and Gambardella was not unwilling to help him, though he considered him quite mad where Ortensia was concerned.
'You have no imagination,' Trombin objected, in answer to this charge. 'Can you not understand the peculiar charm of being in love with a lady of whom I have agreed to make an angel at the first convenient opportunity, and whom I have further promised to deliver safe, sound, and alive to her uncle in Venice?'
'I wish you joy of your puzzles,' answered Gambardella discontentedly.
'I derive much solace from the pleasures of imagination,' Trombin observed, following his own train of thought. 'In me a great romancer has been lost to our age, another Bandello, perhaps a second Boccaccio! An English gentleman of taste once told me that my features resemble those of a dramatist of his country, whose first name was William—I forget the second, which I could not learn to pronounce—but that my cheeks are even rounder than his were, and my mouth smaller. Under other circumstances, who knows but that I might have been the William Something of Italy? My English friend added that the painted bust of the dramatist on his tomb was quite the most hideous object he had ever seen, so I do not tell you the story out of mere vanity, as you might suppose. My misfortune is that I am generally driven by a sort of familiar spirit to do the things I imagine, instead of writing them down.'
'And pray what do you imagine you are going to do next?' inquired Gambardella.
'It has occurred to me that I might carry off the lady myself,' Trombin answered in a thoughtful tone.
'And leave me to manage the rest?'
'You will have no trouble. I shall take the road to Venice, of course, and after a month or two I will hand the lady over to Pignaver, for I dare say she will soon tire of my company. As for you, you will only have to follow her husband, for he will go after his wife as fast as he can, of his own accord, and when you both reach Venice together, I shall be waiting and we will lead him into a trap and give him up to his pretty adorer! The rest will be as I said. She will not be able to keep him a prisoner very long, and when he leaves her house we can settle the business.'
'And of course you will expect me to help you in carrying the young woman off?'
'Naturally! Should you feel any scruples about it?'
'No,' Gambardella answered, in an indifferent tone, but he changed the subject and went back to the question of the rival serenader's identity. 'It might be as well to think of more practical matters,' he said. 'The excellent Tommaso has not found out anything about the man you wounded last night, though he has already ascertained exactly where the ex-Queen of Sweden keeps her jewels!'
'Intelligent creature! He really has a good store of general information! I dare say he will take them some day and leave us without giving notice.'
'It must be very convenient to be born so low in the world as to be able to steal without disgrace,' observed Gambardella thoughtfully. 'I suppose such fellows have no sense of honour.'
'None whatever,' said Trombin, with equal gravity. 'As you say, it must make many things easy when one has no money.'
This conversation had taken place under the great colonnade before Saint Peter's, late in the afternoon, when the air was pleasantly cool. Bernini's colonnade was new then, and some of the poorer Romans, dwelling in the desolate regions between the Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore, had not even seen it. It might have been expected that it was to become the resort of loungers, gossips, foreigners, dealers in images and rosaries, barbers, fortune-tellers, and money-changers, as the ancient portico had been that used to form a straight covered way from the Basilica to the Bridge of Sant' Angelo; but for some inexplicable reason this never happened, and it was always, as it is now, a deserted place.
The Bravi, who were men of taste, according to their times, admired the architecture extremely, and often walked there for half an hour before it was time to hear the Benediction music in the church, which was always good and sometimes magnificent.
This afternoon they were strolling not far from the bronze gate that gives access to the Vatican; a dozen paces or more behind them, within call but out of hearing of their conversation, walked the excellent Tommaso, otherwise known as Grattacacio, the ex-highway robber, about whom they had just been talking. The last words had barely passed Trombin's lips when they heard the man's footsteps approaching them rapidly from behind. They stopped to learn what was the matter.
'A young gentleman on a mule is coming, with several servants,' Tommaso said quickly. 'He has his right arm in a sling. Perhaps he is your man.'
The two friends nodded carelessly, but drew their hats a little lower over their eyes as they turned and walked back, skirting the inner side of the colonnade so as to watch the party that was coming straight across the Piazza in the sun from the direction of Porta Santo Spirito. As soon as they saw the face of the young man who rode the mule they recognised Trombin's adversary, who wore his broad-brimmed hat far down on the left to screen him from the sun, thus exposing the right side of his face to their view. They went on quietly, as if they had hardly noticed him, and he paid no attention to them. When he and his three servants had almost reached the bronzed gates, the Bravi despatched their man after him to find out his name from the groom who would hold his mule, while they themselves remained where they were, walking slowly up and down, a dozen steps each way.
'I see a golden opportunity rising in the distance,' said Trombin. 'It illuminates my imagination and lights up my understanding.'
'It will probably dazzle mine, so that I shall see nothing at all,' observed Gambardella with his usual sourness.
'Possibly,' Trombin answered pleasantly. 'I shall therefore hide my light under a bushel, as it were, and thus spare your mental eyes a shock that might be fatal to them. For my present inspiration is of such a tremendous nature that an ordinary intelligence might be unsettled by it.'
'Could you not communicate the nature of it in small doses, as it were?' asked Gambardella, mimicking him a little. 'One can get accustomed even to poisons in that way, as Mithridates did.'
'To oblige you, I will attempt it, my friend, but I shall endeavour to lead you to guess the truth yourself by asking questions, instead of presenting it to you in disjointed fragments. Now consider that youth whom I ran through the arm the other night, and answer me. Do you suppose that he was serenading Pina, the serving-woman, or Ortensia her mistress?'
'What a question! It was Ortensia, of course.'
'But was he serenading the Lady Ortensia out of ill-feeling towards her, or out of good-feeling?'
'Out of good-feeling.'
'What is the good-feeling of a handsome young man towards a beautiful young woman usually called, my friend?'
'Love, I suppose. What nonsense is this?'
'It is the Socratic method, as recorded by Plato. I learned something of it when I was a student at Padua. Now, you have told me that the young man feels love for the young woman, and you appear to be right; but what do you think he hopes to get from her in return, love or dislike?'
'Her love, no doubt.'
'You answer well, my friend. Now tell me this also. Will he get her love without the consent of her husband, or with it?'
'Without, if he gets it at all! I am tired of this fooling. It bores me excessively.'
'You will not be bored long,' answered Trombin with confidence. 'Answer me one question more. Do you suppose that the young man will have any success with the Lady Ortensia, unless he can separate her from Stradella by some stratagem?'
Gambardella looked sharply at his wordy companion.
'I begin to take your meaning,' he said.
'You have a good mind,' Trombin answered, 'but it works slowly. You are on the verge of guessing what my inspiration is. Let us, for a large consideration, be the means of carrying off the Lady Ortensia for this rich young man, and when we have done so and received his money, let us execute the plan we have already made. For it will be easy for us to persuade her to do anything we suggest, because both she and her husband are under the greatest obligations to us, whereas the young man would have to employ violence and make a great scandal. But here comes that excellent Tommaso.'
'You are certainly a great man,' said Gambardella, looking at Trombin with admiration.
It was clear from Tommaso's face that the intelligence he brought was important, and as he stood hat in hand before his masters he looked up and down the colonnade to see if there were any one in sight and near enough to listen.
'The gentleman is Don Alberto Altieri,' he said, almost in a whisper.
Trombin at once puffed out his pink cheeks, pursed his lips, and whistled very softly, for he was much surprised; but Gambardella seemed quite unmoved, and merely nodded to Tommaso as if well satisfied with the latter's service. Then the two strolled on again, and their cut-throat servant followed them, just out of hearing of their conversation, as before; for he was much too wise to try any common trick of eavesdropping on a pair of men who would just as soon wring his neck and throw him into a well as look at him. His highest ambition really was to be promoted to help them in one of those outrageous deeds that had made them the most famous Bravi of the whole century, who had received pardons from popes and kings, from the Emperor Leopold, and from the Venetian Republic itself, under which passports they travelled and lived where they pleased, still untouched by the law.
'This is a delicate business,' observed Gambardella, for both had heard the gossip about Don Alberto and Queen Christina.
'It will be the more amusing,' answered Trombin. 'When I reflect upon the primitive simplicity of the business we undertook for Pignaver, and compare it with the plan we have now conceived and shall certainly execute in a few days, I cannot but congratulate myself on the fertility of my imagination, or, as I might say, upon the resemblance between my mind and that of the novelist Boccaccio. But I feel the superiority of my lot over his in the fact that I am generally the chief actor in my own stories.'
'The Queen will be useful,' said Gambardella.
'Bless her for an admirably amusing woman!' cried Trombin fervently. 'She has the mane of the lion and the heart of the hare!'
'The mane happens to be a wig, my friend,' sneered the other.
'In more senses than one,' retorted Trombin, 'but the hare's heart is genuine. She was afraid of poor Monaldeschi. You knew it, I knew it, and Luigi Santinelli knew it. She ordered us to kill him because she believed he was selling her secrets to the Spanish, and was going to poison her in their interests. She is always fancying that some one wants to poison her. Oh, yes, my friend, a most diverting character, for she thinks of nothing but herself, and her Self is a selfish, hysterical, cruel, cowardly woman!'