'I detest her for that business at Fontainebleau,' answered Gambardella.
'Precisely. So do I, though she amuses me. To strangle a superfluous woman is sometimes unavoidable, and there are occasions when it is wisdom to stab an unnecessary male in the back. But to put an unarmed gentleman to the wall, so to say, in broad daylight and deliberately skewer him, being three to one as we were that day, is a thing I shall decline to do again for all the gold in India, Mexico, and Brazil!'
'Unless it be paid in cash,' suggested Gambardella.
'Cash,' answered Trombin enigmatically, 'is one of the forces of nature.'
[Footnote 1: For Trombin's view of Christina's character and Monaldeschi's murder, I am indebted to the admirable and trustworthy work of Baron de Bildt, a distinguished Swedish diplomatist, entitled Christine de Suede et le Cardinal Azzolino (Paris, 1899). The writer points out the singular ignorance of the truth about Monaldeschi displayed by Browning and the elder Dumas.]
A week later fashionable Rome was gathered together at the Palazzo Riario to a feast of poetry and music. Christina had just founded the Academy which survives to this day in that state of mediocrity above which it has never risen in nearly two hundred and fifty years, for the idea had suggested itself to her when she found how easy it was to attract starving talent to a good dinner. 'Feed the hungry' is a good motto for those who aim at being patrons of the fine arts, like the ex-Queen in Rome, or Pignaver in Venice; the only condition is that the hungry shall be clever or witty starvelings who can pay for their dinners with their brains. However, when men of talent cease to be hungry they generally become snobs, and will take the fly of the season with as much voracity as any trout in May.
The literary and musical receptions at the Palazzo Riario took place in the portico that opened upon the gardens in those days; for the whole palace was afterwards rebuilt by the Corsini, and many parts of it were changed. Christina had been in Paris and had seen Louis Fourteenth dance as Alcibiades in Benserade's ballet, a sight to rejoice the gods of Olympus, who must certainly have laughed even louder at the bewigged King's mincing steps than they did at Vulcan's limp; for with many gifts, the Sun-King possessed no more sense of humour than Don Quixote, who stood on his head before Sancho as a proof that love was driving him mad. The ex-Queen was already dreaming of a wonderful pastoral play, in which Don Alberto Altieri was to appear as Endymion, and she herself, the elderly and slightly bedraggled virgin queen, would play Diana. There was Guidi to write the verses, Stradella should compose the music, and Christina herself would get most of the credit for the work.
In the meantime, though she had nothing so complete to offer, she invited the Romans to hear such poetry as she could provide, and some excellent music; and Bernini, who could make anything look like anything else by means of whitewashed wooden columns, coarse draperies stiffened and whitened with wet plaster, and caryatides modelled in plaster and pasteboard, had improvised a Temple of Art for the performance. In the midst of this sanctuary, amongst laurels and roses, he had placed the clay model of his bust of Christina herself, in a wig like the French King's. He afterwards cast it in bronze, and considering that he must have done his best to make the portrait pleasing, it is appalling to think what the original must have been.
The little temple stood just outside the portico, facing inward like a stage, on which the performers appeared in turn, the audience being gathered under the portico. Beyond it, the beautiful gardens stretched away in terraces and grades to the high distance. Christina herself sat on a sort of throne, facing the clay image of herself, while her courtiers and satellites were grouped behind her. Her intimate friend Cardinal Azzolino sat on her right, because Cardinal Altieri, who should have been there, had not come, and half-a-dozen other cardinals in scarlet occupied the huge gilt arm-chairs on both sides, each having one or two of his especial parasites behind him in readiness to do his bidding or to laugh at his jokes, as the case might be. There were not more than fifty other seats in the portico, and they were all occupied by the ladies of Rome, who came to applaud the performances of their countrymen and to laugh at the hysterical 'Minerva of the North,' who paid the poets and musicians, and went into such convulsions of appreciation when their works pleased her that the stability of her huge black wig was in danger. The ladies' chairs were not close together, but scattered about, as in a drawing-room, and almost every lady had her own little court of admirers or parasites according to her age and looks. Many of the younger ones were standing, or strolling about, in the intervals of the entertainment, each closely attended by one or two fine gentlemen; but as soon as a recitation of verses began, or a piece of music, they all stood still where they were, and the hum of voices instantly gave way to profound silence.
Ortensia was there too. She had come with her husband, and had been graciously received by the Queen, who evidently knew nothing of Don Alberto's serenade; but Stradella had then left her to join his musicians, for he was to direct a part of his new oratorio as well as sing an air in it himself, and Ortensia necessarily stayed behind with the audience. Don Alberto Altieri at once came forward to take care of her, and nine-tenths of the Roman ladies present immediately asked of their attendant gentlemen who the handsome young woman in straw-coloured silk might be, whose hair had 'quite the Venetian tinge,' and whom 'dear Don Alberto seemed to know so well.' The result was that the occasion was Ortensia's first real appearance in Roman society; and before her husband was ready to go home, she had made the acquaintance of nearly all the great ladies present.
The young man was delighted to show off his power and popularity before her as he led her about, being convinced that it could not fail to make an impression on her; for wherever he turned he was met by smiling faces, and she was followed by eyes that envied the distinction conferred upon her by the nephew of 'both the reigning Popes,' as the Romans called Pope Clement and Cardinal Paluzzo Altieri. At the same time, the gossips were beginning to wonder what Queen Christina-Minerva-Diana would say to her favourite's conduct if she saw anything of it, though Don Alberto kept well behind her as he piloted Ortensia from one great lady to another.
Then, all at once, the two had disappeared unnoticed. A dark young girl with sad eyes and a sensitive though slightly irregular mouth had just appeared on the stage, dressed as one of the Muses; that is to say, she wore an ample garment of purple silk, of no particular shape, but cut low at the throat and having wide sleeves which displayed a pair of rather nervous white arms; her black hair was knotted low at the back of her neck, and she wore a wreath of fresh bay laurel that was very becoming to her young face. She was one of those strangely talented creatures, still found in Italy, and most often amongst the people, who have the gift of improvising very creditable verses and music on any subject that is given them, or even upon a set of rhymes, after concentrating their thoughts for a time which rarely exceeds two minutes, and is often only a few seconds.
Don Alberto, who knew the programme of the entertainment, had manoeuvred skilfully. The girl appeared on the stage, lute in hand, and began to approach the wet clay bust of Christina with the mournfully inspired air of a Cassandra going up to the altar and image of Apollo; at the same moment Don Alberto found himself with Ortensia before an open door on the left side of the portico, a little farther back than the hindmost of the audience. Every one was watching the stage.
'An "improvisatrice,"' the young man whispered quickly. 'Tiresome rubbish! I will show you the statues while it is going on.'
Ortensia obeyed his gesture and passed through the door into a large hall where a quantity of fragments of antique statues were lying on the stone floor, or were propped upright against the walls, while half-a-dozen of the best were already set up on Corinthian capitals, or ancient altars, which served as pedestals.
Don Alberto had quietly closed the door behind him when he followed Ortensia into the hall. It was the first time he had succeeded in being alone with her since the night of the serenade.
'I trust you will accept my humblest excuses, dear lady,' he said as they both stood still, 'for having unwillingly broken off my little serenade the other night. I had intended it as a welcome to you and your husband on the first night you spent under my roof, but I had not thought of bringing a brace of cut-throats with me, as my rival did! They were too much for me—I wish I knew his name!'
Don Alberto laughed pleasantly and looked at her, waiting for an answer. At the word 'cut-throats' she made a slight movement of surprise, and was on the point of indignantly attacking him for applying such a word to the friends who had brought about her marriage with Stradella; but she checked herself, hardly knowing why.
'I was very tired that night, after moving to the palace,' she said calmly. 'My husband spoke of a noise in the street, but I must have been more than half asleep.'
But Altieri had seen her start and did not believe a word of what she said. He was partially satisfied, however, since she chose to take no notice of a scandalous affray which might easily have reflected on her own good name. He laughed again.
'As it was such a miserable failure, I am glad you were not awake to hear it,' he said. 'It was intended as a welcome, as an expression of my profound and devoted admiration, in which I hope you will believe now, though you were asleep that evening!'
'Your admiration is exaggerated, sir,' Ortensia answered with a light laugh, 'but if, by devotion, you mean friendliness to my husband and myself, I accept it for him and for me with all my heart!'
'I am grateful to your ladyship,' said Don Alberto in the same jesting tone, 'but, with your leave, I distinguish, as they taught me to say in the schools when I was nearly entrapped into a fallacy by a clever antagonist!'
'But I am neither your antagonist nor clever,' objected Ortensia, fencing gaily; 'therefore you need not make any fine distinctions!'
The young man changed his manner and tone with really dramatic effect; his face grew suddenly grave, his voice was sad, and he gazed into Ortensia's eyes with a wistful lover-like expression that women rarely resisted.
'You are unkind,' he said. 'You know what such words mean to me, and you say them willingly, meaning to hurt me—as you do!'
It was so well done that Ortensia was deceived, as well she might be, seeing how young she was, though years counted not then as they do with us, and every girl of fourteen was taught to be on her defence against men of every age and station.
'I did not mean to be unkind,' Ortensia said incautiously.
'Then pity me!' he cried with a sudden burst of real or affected passion. 'Are you blind, or are you cruel? Or are you only heartless? I do not believe that you were not at the window the other night! Your lips say one thing, your eyes another! You were looking down, you saw me wounded by that villain, and you listened to his master's serenade till I came back with the watch, only to be defeated a second time by a brace of hired fencing-masters! No! It was not out of friendship for your husband, I confess it frankly, it was for love of you, it was because you have turned my blood to fire and my heart to flame——'
'Hush!' Ortensia laid one hand warningly upon his arm, and at the same time she drew herself up with great dignity, and her face was proud and cold. 'I give no man the right to speak of love to me——'
'Wait!' interrupted Altieri. 'Wait, forgive, pity if you can, but hear me out! Far be it from me to slight your honour, soul of my soul, heart of my body!—for my own is gone, and you are in its place, and without you I should surely die! No—do not fear me! See, I stand back from you, you cannot even reach me with your hand as you did just now. But I must speak, and you shall hear me. I know your story, for the Venetian Ambassador has told all Rome how you lived in your uncle's house in miserable slavery, and how he meant to force you to be his wife, and that rather than submit to such an outrage you ran away with your music-master—we all know the truth about it, from the Pope, and my uncle the Cardinal, and the Queen, to the little page who carries Princess Colonna's train at a papal audience! There is nothing more romantic and adventurous in all the tales of Boccaccio and Bandello, and whatever the Senator Pignaver may attempt by way of revenge you may be sure that Rome will protect you. But now that you are free, now that the world lies before you and at your feet, will you not choose a man worthy of your birth and name?'
'A lover, sir?' asked Ortensia indignantly.
She had slowly moved backwards while he was speaking, till she leaned against the pedestal of a colossal bust of Juno.
'Heaven forbid!' said Don Alberto. 'I mean a husband——'
'You seem to forget that I am married,' Ortensia replied, with rising anger.
'I would quarrel with any man who dared suggest that you do not believe it,' said Don Alberto gravely.
'What do you mean?' She started, and a quick flush rose to her cheeks, but subsided instantly, leaving her pale.
'It takes more than a mere sacristan's trick to make a real marriage,' answered Don Alberto enigmatically. 'Do not be indignant, dearest lady! Let me speak. You were married in the sacristy of San Domenico at Ferrara. Do not be surprised that I know it. The Legate there, Monsignor Pelagetti, is afraid of getting into trouble for having imprisoned Stradella by mistake, and he has sent my uncle a full and precise account of all that happened. The Mother Superior of the Ursulines informed him of what had been done in the sacristy. Her intention was good, no doubt, but it is very uncertain whether the result is valid!'
'And why should it not be?' Ortensia was very angry. 'There were honourable witnesses, too! What can any one say against my marriage?'
'One thing is that the witnesses were not as honourable as you thought them, my lady! The two gentlemen who helped you have turned out to be two of the most famous Bravi in Italy——'
'Yes. Their pockets are full of pardons for the atrocious murders they have committed for money, and they are as well known in Rome as Romulus and Remus! As for the woman who signed the register after them, she is a runaway nun, whose mere presence as a witness would discredit any ceremony!'
'A runaway nun? Pina? What folly is this? She has been with me since I was seven years old!'
'And she is forty now! There was time for a great many things to happen to her before you knew her. Has she not one thumb unlike the other? You see, I am well informed, for the Cardinal knows everything; and if he says that your marriage is not valid, you may be sure that he is not speaking carelessly or without full information.'
Ortensia was now very pale, and her breath came quickly as she leaned against the pedestal of the Juno.
'It is not possible!' she cried, staring at Altieri in horror.
'It is more than possible that the priest may not have been a priest at all,' he answered, 'and that the whole scene was cleverly prepared to trick you. But the rest I know beyond a doubt and can prove. Your two friends are well-known Bravi and are at present lodging at the Orso inn, where you were, and your serving-woman is Filippina Landi, who escaped from a convent in Lombardy with a young Venetian and was abandoned by him. She was arrested in Ferrara some nineteen or twenty years ago and confessed the truth under torture, but was soon afterwards pardoned by the intervention of your uncle, the Senator Pignaver.'
'My uncle?' Ortensia almost forgot her new anxiety in her surprise.
'Yes, dear lady. Your uncle was, in fact, the young Venetian who had carried her off out of the convent, promising to marry her! It was no doubt in order to be revenged on him that she helped you to run away.'
Ortensia's hand strained upon the corner of the pedestal till Altieri could count the small blue veins and purple arteries that showed through the white skin. She was terrified by what he had told her, for it explained Pina's whole manner and conduct too well not to make what Altieri had said about the marriage seem vaguely possible. But if she had been deceived, so had Stradella; of that she was more sure than of anything else, and if it had been possible she would have gone to him instantly to tell him what she had heard.
Altieri saw how much disturbed she was and came towards her, for they were now half-a-dozen steps apart. He meant, no doubt, to offer her some consolation in her new trouble, unless he was going to fall on his knees and implore her pardon for having caused her such uneasiness. As a professional love-maker either course was open to him. But Ortensia stopped him with a gesture, keeping down her emotion.
'Listen,' she said, 'for I have something to say. You meant to shake my faith in my husband, but you have made a mistake, and instead you have done us both a great service. If, as you pretend, we are not validly married, nothing can be easier than to obtain a proper marriage in Rome, and we shall do so at once; but as for the rest, you are profoundly mistaken about me. I left my uncle's house because I loved Alessandro Stradella, and for no other reason, and while we both live we shall love each other as dearly as we did from the first, and I pray heaven that our lives may end together, on the same day and in the same hour. Do you understand? As you have seemed a friend to us both, be one in earnest, for you are wasting your time in playing at being in love with me!'
She smiled at the last, as cleverly as any skilful woman of thirty could have done, offering him the chance of laughing away the barrier his ill-considered declaration had made, and of taking up pleasant relations again, as if nothing had happened to disturb them; for she had regained her self-possession while she was speaking, and had determined to profit by what he had told her rather than to suffer by the facts he had revealed, if they proved to be true.
He was quick to accept the means of reconciliation, whatever his own intentions really were.
'I will indeed be your friend,' he said, with amazing earnestness, 'since you give me no hope of ever being anything more, and are willing to forgive the madness of a moment. Henceforth, command me what you will! In pledge of pardon, may I have your hand?'
She let him take it; he dropped on one knee as he touched her fingers with his lips, and then rose lightly to his feet again.
'Now let us go back,' she said, 'for we have been too long away.'
He led her out of the hall by another door and she found herself quite in the farthest recess of the portico and behind all the assembled company, just as the dark-haired Muse was finishing her last improvisation in an attitude of inspired wonder before the hideous bust of the Queen. At the last line of her sonnet she took the laurels from her head, and with a graceful movement that showed her nervous but well-shaped white arms to great advantage she placed the wreath upon the damp clay effigy of the great Christina's portentous wig; then, cleverly kicking the train of her long purple silk robe out of the way behind her, she backed towards the side exit, stretching out her hands and bending her body while still keeping her upturned eyes on the bust with an air of rapt adoration, like a Suppliant on an Etruscan vase.
Every one applauded enthusiastically, knowing that applause was expected in payment for having been invited to such a feast of the soul; but the wise Muse paid no attention to the sounds. To the last her gaze was on the bust, even when she lifted the dark velvet curtain with one hand and backed out with a sweeping courtesy that looked very well.
A good-looking young man of the people, dressed in his best Sunday clothes, was waiting for her at the head of the wooden steps. As she met his glance, she jerked her thumb backwards over her shoulder towards the stage and the Queen.
'May an apoplexy seize her,' whispered the Muse, with a strong Trastevere accent, 'her, and her friends, and all the family! You shall take me to supper on Monte Mario to-night! There we shall breathe! Bring the guitar, too. Old Nena is waiting to help me dress. No—no, I say—not here!'
For the handsome young fellow had caught her just as she was beginning to descend the steps, and he planted a very substantial kiss on the nape of her neck before he let her go; which was no great harm after all, since they were to be married in a fortnight or so, before the Feast of Saint John.
It was Stradella's turn after the Muse had disappeared, and while the improvisatrice was going down from the stage on one side, four liveried footmen were bringing up chairs on the other, with music-desks for the little orchestra, which immediately made its appearance. There were not more than a dozen musicians in all, and they ranged themselves in an orderly manner on each side of the laurel-crowned bust, in the order of the pitch of their instruments, the violins and flutes being in the middle, while the bass viol was at the extreme left, and the bass cornopean on the right. Next came a small chorus of eight singers, who took their places, standing behind the seated musicians; and last of all, amidst much clapping of hands, Stradella himself appeared in front, and bowed low to the Queen, standing a little on one side so as not to hide the bust from the audience.
He looked very handsome as he stood there, dressed in black velvet and black silk, with a low collar of soft linen that showed his strong white throat, and having his lawn wristbands turned back over the cuffs of his coat.
As he bowed Queen Christina smiled graciously, and waved her hand to him in greeting, whereupon the applause became still louder.
Don Alberto had found a seat for Ortensia, and stood beside her, as the other cavaliers stood each beside the lady of his choice. Altieri thought it good policy to pose himself as Ortensia's official adorer from the first, at such a very select gathering of Roman society; for few would care to try their chances against him after that. Ortensia herself was dimly conscious that if she could keep him in his place, as she had done to-day, his admiration would protect her against other would-be worshippers.
While the music lasted she never took her eyes from Stradella, whether he was turned from the audience towards his musicians to direct them, beating time in the air with a thin roll of ruled music-paper, or when he faced the audience and sung himself, to the accompaniment of only four stringed instruments.
'Admirable!' whispered Alberto, bending low to Ortensia's ear. 'It is supreme genius, nothing less!' he whispered again, as she took no notice.
But Ortensia did not even hear him, and sat quite still in her chair, gazing with fixed eyes at the man she loved, and listening to his music as in the entrancement of a spell. Don Alberto looked down thoughtfully at her beautiful motionless head, though his ears were open too, for he loved music; but just then he was even more in love with the beautiful Venetian, and though he had been worsted in his first attempt, he was by no means ready to give up the siege. He was wondering what treasure could be found in all Rome that could induce Ortensia to take her eyes from her husband while he was singing or conducting his own music.
But when it was finished and the applause had died away, and he had bowed and left the little stage, she could not wait a moment.
'Take me to him,' she said to Don Alberto, rising from her seat.
'He will come here himself in a few minutes,' objected Altieri.
'Take me to him,' she repeated more imperiously. 'If you will not, I shall go alone.'
There was nothing for it but to obey, and Don Alberto led her quickly out of the portico to the carriage entrance at the back, then through a vaulted passage, and up a flight of half-a-dozen steps to the room to which the performers retired, and which had another exit towards the garden and the back of the stage.
When Don Alberto opened the door Stradella was just within, evidently about to come away, and he started in surprise when he saw his wife enter. The other musicians were standing in groups of three and four, with their instruments in their hands, for the place was completely bare of furniture; there was not so much as a table on which to lay a fiddle or a flute, but across one corner a piece of tattered canvas had been hung to cut off a dressing-room for the improvisatrice, who had already got into her own clothes and was gone away with old Nena and the handsome young man.
Stradella met his wife with a happy smile and nodded a greeting to Don Alberto, who remained in the door-way.
'Can you take me home at once?' Ortensia asked. 'Or must you go in?'
Stradella saw her look of distress as he took her outstretched hand in both of his.
'I am not wanted, am I?' he asked, looking at young Altieri. 'My wife wishes to go home, you see——'
'I will make your excuses to the Queen,' Don Alberto answered readily. 'My carriage is waiting and shall take you to the palace and come back for me.'
'How kind of you!'
Ortensia thought he was already beginning to fulfil his promise of friendship to her. He had, in fact, brought the couple to the Palazzo Riario in his own carriage, for there were no hackney coaches in Rome in that century, and people who owned no equipage were obliged to have themselves carried in sedan-chairs, from one end of the city to the other if necessary, unless they preferred to ride on mules or donkeys, which was not convenient in full dress.
In five minutes Stradella and his wife were driving rapidly over the cobble-stones towards Ponte Sisto, and Ortensia was telling the astonished musician what had taken place between her and Don Alberto, with all he had told her about Pina, Trombin, and Gambardella.
Two days after the affair at the Palazzo Riario, Don Alberto sauntered out of his palace gate before the sun was high, and as he was merely going for a stroll to breathe the morning air he was alone. As a matter of fact, the air smelt of cabbage, broccoli, and other green things, for a hawker of vegetables had set down his three baskets at the corner of the Via del Gesu, and was bawling his cry to the whole neighbourhood at the top of his lusty voice. There had been a light shower before dawn, and the wet cobble-stones sent up a peculiar odour of their own, which mingled with that of the green stuff. Don Alberto did not like it and turned to his left, towards the Palazzo di Venezia, which was then the Venetian Embassy.
Where the street narrows between the Altieri palace and the church, a serving-man in grey overtook him and spoke to him.
'Excellency,' the man said in an obsequious tone, his hat in his hand, 'I pray the favour of a word.'
Don Alberto stopped in some surprise, for he had not noticed any one but the vegetable hawker in the deserted square when he had left his own door a moment earlier.
'What do you want?' he asked suspiciously, and stopping to face the man.
It was Tommaso, the ex-highwayman who served the Bravi, and the expression of his eyes was not reassuring.
'Your Excellency does not remember me,' he said. 'How should the Most Illustrious remember a poor valet? I served the Bishop of Porto for seven years, and often accompanied him to the palace here when he visited His Eminence Cardinal Altieri, who is now our Most Holy Father, Pope Clement. Your Excellency was only a boy then, and once did me the honour to speak to me.'
'What did I say to you?' asked Don Alberto incredulously.
'I should not dare to repeat such a word,' answered Tommaso in a humble tone, 'but your Excellency kicked me at the same time, and with great strength for one so very young, for I tumbled downstairs.'
Don Alberto's lips twitched with amusement.
'I believe I remember you by that, you scoundrel,' he said with a smile. 'And what do you want of me now? Shall I give you another kick?'
'May that never be, Excellency! I can feel the first one still!'
Don Alberto laughed at the comically significant gesture that accompanied this speech, and felt in his pocket for his purse.
'I suppose you want a paul to drink my health,' he said.
'That is too much for anything so common as a kick, Excellency, and too little if you will accept my service.'
'I have servants enough,' answered Altieri, slipping his purse into his pocket again. 'But since you think a paul is too much for one kick, I shall give you a florin's worth for nothing at all if you pester me with any more nonsense. So now be off, and waste no time about it!'
Tommaso suddenly drew himself up and squared his broad shoulders, which made him look rather formidable, for he was an uncommonly strong and active fellow.
'If you say the word,' he answered, dropping his obsequious manner, 'I will give Maestro Stradella's wife into your hands within a fortnight.'
Don Alberto started visibly. His high-born instinct was not quite dead yet, and he slightly moved his right hand as if he would lift the ebony stick he carried; but Tommaso had one of cornel-wood and iron-shod, and he also made a very slight movement, and he was square and strong and had a jaw like a bull-dog. Don Alberto's instinctive desire to knock him down disappeared suddenly.
'And how do you propose to accomplish such an impossible feat?' asked the young noble with some contempt.
'That is my affair,' answered Tommaso quietly. 'What will you give me when I have shut the lady up safely and shall bring you the key of her prison? That is the only question, but please remember that I must risk my neck, while you will only risk your money.'
'If you think I will give you any money in hand for such a silly offer, you take me for a fool,' retorted Don Alberto.
'I ask nothing in advance. How much will you give me in cash for the lady when I hand her over to you? I am in earnest. Name your price.'
'What is yours?'
'A thousand gold florins and the Pope's pardon,' said Tommaso boldly. 'You could not buy her like in Venice, if you had your pick of the latest cargo from Georgia!'
'You shall have the pardon and a thousand in gold,' Don Alberto answered, for he was much too fine a gentleman to bargain with a cut-throat, especially as the money would come out of his uncle's strong-box. 'I do not believe that you can do what you offer; but if you succeed, how shall I hear from you?'
'On the Eve of Saint John you will find me waiting for you with two saddled mules behind the Baptistery of the Lateran, when the bells ring the first hour of the night. Bring your money and I will take you to the house and to the lady and leave you the key.'
'I would rather you should come here,' said Don Alberto, suspecting a trap.
'Bring a guard with you if you think I mean to rob you,' answered Tommaso. 'Bring a squadron of cavalry, if you like! Besides, you know that there will be thousands of people about the Lateran all night on Saint John's Eve, eating and drinking on the grass to keep the witches out of their bodies for the rest of the year!'
'That is true,' Don Alberto answered. 'I will be there.'
'But if your Excellency should accidentally see me in the meantime,' continued Tommaso, 'your Excellency had better not notice me, nor be seen to recognise me.'
He had resumed his obsequious tone, and was already bowing to take his leave.
'I have one thing to tell you,' said Altieri. 'If you fail, I will have you locked up in Tor di Nona for prying into my affairs and making an infamous proposal to me, and it may be a long time before you get out.'
'At the pleasure of your Most Illustrious Excellency! I shall not make the least resistance if I fail.'
'You had better not,' returned Altieri, haughtily enough, as he turned away and left Tommaso bowing to the ground.
'Your Most Illustrious Excellency's most humble and dutiful servant!' said the man.
Then he went off in the opposite direction, passed the Altieri palace, turned to his right, and in due time reached the Sign of the Bear, where his masters lodged. He found them in Trombin's room, sitting near the open window with their coats off, and eating fruit from a huge blue and yellow majolica basket that stood between them on the end of the table. There were oranges, ripe plums, and very dark red cherries in handsome profusion, and the serving-girl, who cherished a secret but hopeless admiration for Gambardella, had brought a pretty bunch of violets in a coarse Roman tumbler.
Both the Bravi were of opinion that a little fruit taken in the morning was cooling to the blood in spring. Trombin had cut a hole in the top of an orange and was solemnly sucking it—a process for which his small round mouth seemed to be expressly formed—and his pink cheeks contracted and expanded like little bellows as he alternately drew in the sweet juice and took breath. Gambardella could not have sucked an orange to save his life, because his long nose was directly in the way; he ate cherries slowly, and looked like a large brown bird of prey pecking at them with his beak.
'Come in,' he said between two pecks, as some one tapped at the entrance.
'I have seen him, sirs,' Tommaso said, after shutting the door behind him. 'It is a thousand gold florins in cash, on the Eve of Saint John. I am to meet him behind the Baptistery of the Lateran at the first hour of the night and take him to the house.'
'Well done!' said Gambardella.
Trombin nodded his approval, for he was still at work on his orange, and was well aware that if the contact were broken for purposes of speech before the fruit was dry, the perfection of the satisfaction would be seriously compromised.
'Tommaso,' Gambardella continued, 'I think you know Rome well. Are you aware that in the Via di Santa Sabina there is a small house which is almost always uninhabited, except in the month of October, when the owner goes there himself to see his wine made? Do you happen to remember that house?'
'No, sir,' answered the ex-highwayman, whose admiration for his employers' wide knowledge increased daily. 'But I can easily find it, for I know the road. It is a lonely place.'
'A very lonely place,' said Trombin, at last detaching himself from the shrivelled yellow shell which was all that was left of the orange. 'It is so lonely that I may say there is never any one there, and there is rarely any one within hearing after dark. No thief goes near that road at night, Tommaso, because there is never any one to rob. Most people are fools, Tommaso, and suppose that robbers lurk in lonely and unfrequented spots, where they could not possibly find a purse to cut. Therefore, as we are no fools, Tommaso, but very intelligent persons, we feel quite secure in such places. Do you fully understand my meaning, Tommaso?'
'I have practised a part of what you preach, sir,' answered Tommaso with a grin.
'No doubt. Very good, Tommaso. When you have found the house, go on some distance farther, say a hundred steps or so, and you will see a door in the wall, which evidently gives access to the vineyard. The door was painted red when I last saw it. Perhaps you will find it ajar, but if not, knock two or three times with the head of your stick, not roughly or noisily, but in a sober fashion; and then wait awhile, and if nobody comes, knock again. If you cannot get in to-day, go back to-morrow and the next day. The best time is a little before noon, when the man is not yet at dinner.'
'Or asleep,' suggested Tommaso.
'Precisely. When he lets you in, you will know him because he has a reddish beard that is turning white on the left side. He cultivates the vineyard, and the owner takes half the produce; but for a consideration the man lets the small house in the Via di Santa Sabina to persons who are fond of vineyards and solitude. The only condition is that the shutters of the windows looking on the road must not be opened, lest the owner should pass that way.'
'I understand, sir,' said Tommaso, grinning again. 'I dare say the man is deaf at night.'
'Only at night, Tommaso, but then completely so,' answered Trombin. 'You will say that a gentleman of fortune desires the use of the little house for a week, with the keys, from the twenty-first to the twenty-eighth of June.'
'At one Apostolic florin a day,' put in Gambardella.
'But you must on no account let him know our names,' said Trombin. 'You can give him two florins in hand as earnest money——'
'One is quite enough,' interrupted Gambardella.
'Be guided by your judgment, Tommaso,' said Trombin, beginning to cut a hole in another orange. 'I take you to be a sensible and economical person, but we must not lose the use of the house for the sake of a florin or two. For I dare say you have guessed what we need the house for.'
'Partly, sir, partly. No doubt I am to take the young gentleman there on the Eve of Saint John.'
'Yes, amongst other things, you will do that. But indeed, Tommaso, you yourself will be surprised at the extraordinary number of things you will do on that evening, all to your great advantage. It is not in my power to tell you everything now, my good fellow, because I am going to enjoy this orange in my usual way, by means of suction. But you shall know all in good time, all in good time, Tommaso!'
Therewith Trombin opened his round eyes to their fullest extent, clapped his lips to the aperture he had cut in the peel, and grasping the fruit firmly with both hands, he began the long and delicious process of extracting the juice.
'And as you will have to receive the thousand gold ducats from Don Alberto,' said Gambardella, speaking to Tommaso, 'you will have a very substantial guarantee in hand. For though we shall never be far from you on that evening, we shall not be able to hinder you from running away and robbing us if you choose to do so.'
'What have I done to deserve such an insinuation?' asked the ex-highwayman indignantly, for he felt that his honour was assailed.
'Nothing whatever,' answered the Bravo calmly, 'and I insinuated nothing that should shock your sensibilities, my good man. The profession has two branches, to one of which we belong, while you have followed the other. We take lives, you take purses, and you should not feel any more hurt at my suggesting that you might take mine, than I should if you suggested that I might cut your throat.'
'That is true, sir.'
Tommaso spoke almost humbly, for he felt that if it should occur to the Bravi to exercise their 'branch of the profession' upon him, he should have no more chance of life than a kitten amongst bloodhounds. He was strong and active, no doubt, and could use most weapons fairly well, but he had neither the endurance of his terrible masters, nor their supreme skill in fencing; as for taking them unawares, they never rested without bolting their doors, and when they walked abroad they never heard footsteps behind them without looking round, nor passed the corner of a narrow street without drawing towards the middle of the road far enough to allow room for sword-play. A poor fellow like Tommaso, who had spent his early years as valet to a churchman, would make but a poor figure against such men in a fight; he was proud enough to be allowed to help them, almost without a thought of profit, and their money would be as safe in his hands as it would be in Chigi's bank.
He was ready to obey them blindly, too, which was what they wanted, for the plan they had at last decided upon was a complicated one, and would certainly miscarry if anything went wrong during the night in which it was to be carried out; on the other hand, they did not trust him enough to tell him what they meant to do, though he had to trust to their promises that Ortensia should be already a prisoner in the little house in Via di Santa Sabina when he should bring Don Alberto to the door; and he knew that, if they failed, his only chance of safety would lie in instant flight, before young Altieri could have him laid by the heels in prison. Neither the money nor the papal safe-conduct would be forthcoming until the young noble had actually seen Ortensia in the little house.
After the last words he had spoken, Tommaso quietly prepared to shave Gambardella, while Trombin was finishing the second orange. He had brought hot water with him in a bright copper can, and he now proceeded to tie a large towel round Gambardella's neck, after which he made a rich lather of Spanish soap, which he conscientiously rubbed into the Bravo's hard brown cheeks and sinewy throat; last of all, he stropped his razor with the air and flourish of an accomplished barber and set to work.
Trombin finished his orange and looked on.
'Did you ever cut a man's throat while you were shaving him, Tommaso?' he asked idly.
'Only once, sir,' Tommaso answered quietly, and he turned Gambardella's head a little on one side, in order to get below his jaw.
'Why did you do it?' inquired Trombin, dipping the tips of his large pink fingers into a bowl of water and carefully rinsing his lips.
'It was to save my neck, sir. The man was one of the cleverest sbirri I ever had after me, but he did not know me by sight. It was in the March of Ancona, at a small village near Fermo. He had tracked me all the way from Modena, and he came to the inn on the evening of the third day. He sent for the village barber before he had supper; but the barber was a friend of mine and was hiding me, and he let me go in his place. I told the landlord of the inn that I was the barber's new apprentice, and so I was admitted to shave the officer in his own room. You see, sir, both our horses were worn out, but his was still far better than mine, so it was safer that he should go no farther. That is the whole story, sir. I was over the frontier before morning.'
Gambardella smiled while Tommaso went on shaving him, and Trombin laughed as if the jest were very good.
'It was not strictly in your branch of the profession, Tommaso,' he said, 'but under the circumstances you acted with great tact. Nevertheless, even in an extreme case, avoid shaving Don Alberto in that manner, for there is no telling what the consequences might be if he were found with his throat cut in the little house in Via di Santa Sabina!'
Cucurullo had his own opinion of what he saw during those days, and he kept it to himself for some time, though he and Pina talked together a good deal in the evenings over their late supper, in the little room next to the kitchen. The woman had interested the hunchback from the first, and when any one roused his interest he pondered much upon that person's character and ways, and asked questions with considerable cunning. On the other hand, Pina, who was not given to exhibiting much liking for any one, seemed to have taken a fancy to her fellow-servant—either out of pity for his deformity or from natural sympathy. They treated each other with a good deal of formality, however; Cucurullo, who was a Neapolitan, addressed her as Donna Pina, as if she were a lady born, and she usually called him 'Sor Antonino,' as though he were at least a clerk or a small shop-keeper.
'Tell me,' he said, one evening when they were eating the salad left over from their masters' supper, 'what is your opinion of this young gentleman who admires our mistress?'
'What opinion can I have?' asked Pina, picking up a small leaf of lettuce on her two-pronged iron fork; for she ate delicately, and her fine manners were Cucurullo's despair.
'This is a wicked world,' he sighed, rather enigmatically.
'If you mean also that Don Alberto is one of those who make it so, I am inclined to agree with you,' Pina answered. 'I have seen other young gentlemen like him.'
'You have had great experience of high life, Donna Pina. That is the reason why I asked your opinion. This young gentleman may be like others you have known, but besides that he is very powerful in Rome, and can do what he likes with impunity. He is so much in love with our mistress that he no longer understands, as we say in the South. He has lost his senses.'
'But he has his wits left,' observed Pina sharply.
'And he owes a grudge for that scratch in the arm,' added Cucurullo thoughtfully.
'He does not know who gave it to him.'
'Therefore he means the Lady Ortensia to pay him for it.'
'Yes,' Pina answered. 'That is just like a man. Because he was hurt in serenading a lady, it must needs be her fault, and she must give satisfaction! First, he would like to carry her off to some lonely castle he must have, somewhere in the mountains, and at the end of a week, or a month, he would turn her out of doors and say it served her right because he had been wounded under her window. Yes, Sor Antonino, you may well say that I have some experience of high life!'
Cucurullo heard the bitter note that rang in the last words, and he partly understood, for he had known her long enough to guess that she had a sad story of her own.
'We ought to watch the signs for the masters,' he said. 'They see nothing, hear nothing, and think of nothing but each other. One of these days the young gentleman will lay a snare and they will step into it like a pair of sparrows.'
'What can we do?' asked Pina in a dull voice. 'Whatever is fated will happen.'
'That is heresy, Donna Pina,' said Cucurullo gravely, for he was much shocked to hear a fellow-servant express such a highly unorthodox sentiment. 'It is a heresy condemned by the Fathers of the Church, and especially by Saint Thomas.'
'He never lived my life!' objected Pina with a sharp little laugh; and she poured out two fingers of sour white wine and drank it.
'If the Maestro had thought as you do when I was thrown overboard, I should have drowned,' said Cucurullo quietly.
'When did that happen?' asked Pina, interested at once.
'It was on a small vessel coming from Naples to Civita Vecchia, five years ago, after my mother died,' said Cucurullo. 'I was coming to Rome because I hoped to get some clerk's work, having had some little instruction, and the Maestro was one of the two or three passengers in the cabin. He was hardly known then, being very young, and indeed he was running away from a Neapolitan princess who was too much in love with him. Well, at first the captain was glad to have me on board, and the crew made much of me, believing that the hunchback would bring them luck and a quick passage. But we had not got as far as Gaeta when a storm came up and we were driven out to sea. It grew worse and worse for two days and nights, and our sails were torn, and other accidents happened, which I did not understand. Then the crew and the captain began to look askance at me, and I heard them say among themselves that I was the wrong kind of hunchback and had the Evil Eye; and just when it seemed as if the weather were moderating, and the sun had shone out for half an hour, the clouds in the south-west got as black as ink, and one could see the white foam driving towards us below them. Then, when the captain saw that there was no time to be lost, he ordered the men to throw me overboard, saying that I was Jonah and Judas Iscariot in one, and that nothing else could save the ship. They took me by my arms and feet and swung me twice and then threw me clean over the side; but I had already shut my eyes and was beginning to say the De profundis as well as I could. I had hardly finished the first versicle when I struck the water, and I was indeed crying unto the Lord out of the depths, for I cannot swim, and my end was clearly at hand.'
'How awful!' cried Pina in a low voice.
'I never was in greater danger,' said Cucurullo gravely, 'and my mouth was already full of salt water. But I did not say then "whatever is fated will happen," Donna Pina, for I was anxious to say the second versicle of the Psalm before I was drowned, and I tried what I could to keep my head up long enough for that. Then, just as a big wave was breaking, I saw something flying through the air, and as it was a dark thing I was afraid it was the devil coming for my soul, because my mother, blessed soul, when she was dying, had recommended me to pay three Carlini which she owed for milk, and I had wickedly forgotten it. But I have since paid it. However, it was not the devil, but Maestro Stradella, who had thrown himself into the sea, as he was, to save my life, only because he had spoken two or three times to me on the voyage. The ship was not going on fast, but though one of the sailors threw him a rope he could not catch it, for he was holding up my head and telling me not to be frightened, as well as he could amongst the waves, and not to catch hold of him, for he would save me. Then the passengers and sailors took a great board ten ells long that was on the deck, and served for landing, and they threw it over; and somehow the Maestro got me to it and we climbed upon it, while the ship was getting farther and farther away, and the black squall was coming nearer and nearer.'
'The master swims like a water-rat,' said Pina. 'I remember that night in Venice, when the Signors of the Night were after him!'
'Ah, you should have seen him in the sea, God bless him!' answered Cucurullo. 'He had the strength and the long wind of a dolphin. When the squall came upon us we held each other fast, sitting astride of the plank, for it was a very heavy one, and did not sink with us. Then came the rain. Lord, how it rained, Donna Pina! You have never seen rain like that!'
'I remember how it rained that night when the master climbed into our balcony! That was enough for me!'
'Imagine ten times that, Donna Pina. The wind had blown the plank round, so that we got the rain in our backs, but even then I had to keep my mouth shut to hinder the water from running down my throat! And it must have lasted two hours, but the sea went down like magic in that time, and there was only a long, smooth, swelling motion, and the wind came from another quarter and carried us with it. That was how we were saved.'
'The ship came back and picked you up, I suppose?'
'After the squall we did not see the ship again, though the clouds rolled away and the sun shone brightly. She went to the bottom of the sea, Donna Pina, and was never heard of again, but we drifted for many hours, half dead with cold, and were washed upon the Roman shore.'
'And what was fated, happened,' said Pina with a smile. 'For if you had not been thrown overboard you would have been drowned with the rest, Sor Antonino!'
Cucurullo smiled too, very quietly, and helped Pina to the last drumstick left over from a cold chicken.
'Well, well, Donna Pina,' he said, 'that is your way of believing, I dare say, but I have told you what happened to me; and now you will understand better why I should be glad to serve the master with my life, if I might.'
'You are a good man,' said Pina in a thoughtful tone. 'If there were more like you, this would not be such a bad world as it is. What you say about Don Alberto is true, and if I could see any way of being useful in watching him I would do all I could. Are the two Venetian gentlemen who helped us in Ferrara still in Rome? I do not know what they are, and sometimes I was afraid of them, but they would be strong allies if they knew that our lady was in danger and if they were willing to help us.'
'They are still in Rome, for I saw them only to-day, going into the Gesu. They must be very devout gentlemen, for I often see them in churches, and their servant has been valet to a bishop, and understands the ceremonials perfectly. It is a pleasure to talk with him. He can tell the meaning of every vestment and of every change in a pontifical high mass, and I think he knows half the Roman Breviary by heart, and all the Psalms!'
Pina was not so sure about the piety of the Bravi and their servant, and as she nibbled her last bit of bread, she looked thoughtfully across the clothless deal table at the hunchback's trusting and spiritual face. In the dramatic vicissitudes of her own youth she had not learned to put her faith in men, nor in women either; and if there had ever been a gentle and affectionate side to her strong nature, it had been trodden and tormented till it had died, leaving scarcely a memory of itself behind.
As he sat on the kitchen chair, Cucurullo's head was not much above the edge of the table, and she looked down at him, meeting his sad eyes as they gazed up to hers. She liked him, and was glad that he did not know what was passing through her mind; for she foresaw trouble in the near future, and was afraid for herself. In some way she might yet be made to pay for what she had done in wreaking her vengeance on Pignaver. Cardinal Altieri might protect Stradella and Ortensia if the Senator tried to have them murdered, but if he demanded that Pina, his household servant, should be arrested and sent back to Venice to be punished for helping the runaways, who would protect her? At the mere thought she often turned very pale and bent nearly double, as if she felt bodily pain. For of all things, she feared that most. Sooner than suffer it again she would betray Ortensia into Alberto Altieri's hands, as she had almost forced her into Stradella's arms in order to be revenged on Pignaver himself.
'I have been thinking,' she said after a long pause. 'It would be well for you to go to those Venetian gentlemen and beg them to help us, if they will. You need not say that I suggested it, Sor Antonino.'
'Why should I speak of you at all, Donna Pina?' asked the hunchback, a little surprised.
'Exactly! There is no need of it, and you are very tactful. You will find out if they suspect anything, for after the affair of the serenade I am sure that they must have watched Don Alberto anxiously, to be sure that he had not found out who wounded him.'
'Perhaps I had better talk to Tommaso first. We are on very good terms, you know.'
'By all means, talk with him first.'
A distant handbell tinkled, and as Pina heard it through the open door she rose to her feet, for it was Ortensia's means of calling her.
Cucurullo thought over the conversation and reasoned about it with himself most of the night, and, so far as Pina was concerned, the more he reflected the farther he got from the truth. For he was grateful because she was kind to him in their daily life, and he could not possibly have believed that she was no more really attached to Ortensia than she was to the Queen of Sweden, and was even now meditating a sudden flight from Rome, which should put her beyond the reach of justice, if the law ever made search for her. In his heart he was sure that she must be as devoted to her mistress as he was to Stradella, though it was true that Ortensia had never saved her life. But Cucurullo saw good in every one, and thought it the most natural thing in the world that a faithful servant should be ready to die for his master.
On the following day he lay in wait for Tommaso near the main entrance of the inn, where the Via dell' Orso meets the Via di Monte Brianzo, which then bore the name of Santa Lucia.
It was long before the man appeared, and then he seemed to be in a great hurry, and did not see Cucurullo till the latter overtook him and spoke to him, for the hunchback had long legs and could walk quite as fast as any able-bodied young man.
'I have been waiting a long time in the hope of seeing you this morning,' he said.
'And now I am in such haste that I have no time to talk with you,' replied the other, going on.
'We can talk while we are walking,' suggested Cucurullo, keeping pace with him easily. 'How are the masters, Tommaso? Quite well, I hope?'
'Oh, perfectly well, thank you,' answered Tommaso, increasing his speed. 'I am sorry that I am in such a hurry, my friend, but it cannot be helped.'
'Do not mention it,' said Cucurullo, breathing quietly. 'I generally walk briskly myself.' Thereupon he quickened his stride a little.
'You certainly walk surprisingly fast,' said the ex-highwayman, who now had to make an effort himself in order to keep up with his companion.
The people in the street stared at the two in surprise, for they seemed to be walking for a match, and it looked as if the hunchback were getting the better of it.
'I trust,' he said in a quiet undertone, 'that Count Trombin is in no apprehension owing to his having wounded the Pope's nephew under our windows the other night?'
'Not at all,' answered the other. 'So you saw it, did you?'
'I saw it with satisfaction, for I was at the window, and I recognised the Count's voice at once. What do you think, my friend? Will that young gentleman come serenading again?'
'How can I tell?' Tommaso was by this time a little short of breath.
'You might have heard your two gentlemen say something about it,' Cucurullo said. 'Am I walking too fast for you? You said you were in a hurry, you know.'
'Yes,' Tommaso said, rather breathlessly. 'I was—that is—I am in—in a moderate hurry!'
'My reason for going with you is that I want your valuable advice,' Cucurullo went on, still keeping up the tremendous pace without the least apparent difficulty.
'About what?' gasped the highwayman, ashamed to be beaten by a hunchback.
'Your gentlemen have already helped my master and mistress so much, that even without the Maestro's knowledge I should like to ask their protection for his wife. That is, if you approve, my friend. I want your advice, you see.'
'You will have to—to walk slower—if you—want to get it!'
Tommaso was by this time puffing like a porpoise, for he was not as young as when he had been the terror of the Bologna road, and he had been living on the fat of his masters' plentiful leavings for weeks, with a very liberal allowance of the white wine of Marino. Moreover, knowing what he did of the Bravi's intentions, Cucurullo's suggestion seemed at once highly comic and extremely valuable. But Cucurullo himself, good soul, was pleased at having forced Tommaso to slacken his pace and listen to him.
'I come of my own intention, dear friend,' he said, 'because I am in constant anxiety about the Lady Ortensia. For Don Alberto is nephew to both the Popes, as they say here, and it would be an easy matter for him to carry her off into the country; the more so as she and my master are living in his own palace, and it sometimes happens that the Maestro goes out alone to a rehearsal of music, leaving only me and Pina to protect his lady, and what could we do if Don Alberto came at such a time with a band of men and simply carried the lady downstairs to his own coach and drove away with her?'
'My dear friend,' answered the other, who had now recovered his breath, 'I do not know what you could do. Am I a prophet, that you ask me riddles? The book of wisdom is buried under the statue of Pasquin, as these Romans say! If such a thing happened to me, I should consider the safety of my own skin, which is worth more to me than many other skins, even than the skins of lions for which His Holiness pays a great price, they tell me, when travellers bring them from Africa! For you might as well resist the Tiber in a flood, as try to hinder the Pope's favourite nephew from doing what he likes! Not that the Pope, or even the Cardinal, knows what he does; but he has a golden key to every door in Rome, a papal pass for every gate of the city, and a roll of blank pardons, duly signed and sealed, for any misdeed his servants may commit! What could you or I do against such a man?'
Having had his haste fairly run out of his legs, Tommaso was now inclined to be talkative, though what he said led to no particular conclusion, except that it would not be safe to interfere with Don Alberto's plans. The truth was that he saw magnificent possibilities for his masters in Cucurullo's request for protection, and he had not the smallest intention of risking a mistake by answering for them, still less of discouraging Cucurullo's hope that they would protect Ortensia.
Cucurullo answered a little despondently.
'I know it,' he said. 'All you say is true. And yet when I remember how your gentlemen wounded him and then drove the watch before them like sheep, and yet never so much as showed their faces, I cannot help hoping that they will do something for us.'
'Hope by all means, my dear friend, for, as you say very well, my masters are no ordinary fine gentlemen, made up of curls and lace collars, and paste buckles and satin, and drawing-room small-swords of about the size and temper of a silver hairpin! Why, most of these young dandies are no better than girls, and are not half such men as some priests I have known! Either of my masters could skewer a round dozen of them while the bells are ringing for noon, and sit down to dinner at the last stroke as cool as if I had just shaved them and smoothed their clean collars over their coats! But after all, dearest Cucurullo, they are only two, and I might bear them a hand with my cudgel, and we should be three—only three men against the whole army of the Pope, horse, foot, and artillery, besides the Swiss Guard and the five or six hundred sbirri in plain clothes whom the Cardinal maintains in the holy city! It would not be a fair fight, my friend!'
Cucurullo smiled at Tommaso's voluble statement of the odds, for the hunchback was not without a certain sense of humour.
'No doubt you are right,' he said, 'but if Don Alberto tried to carry off my master's lady, he would avoid the publicity of an escort of three or four thousand men! Indeed, I doubt whether he would take more than two or three of his servants with him, for whom you three would certainly be a match.'
'A match!' cried Tommaso, suddenly indignant. 'We would make sausage meat of them! We would mince them as fine as forcemeat in five minutes! Their bones would be nothing but a cloud of dust before you could count ten! A match, indeed! My dearest friend, you do not know what you are saying!'
'I do, but you have a greater command of language than I,' answered Cucurullo quietly. 'When I said that you would be a match for them, I meant that you could destroy them in an instant.'
'I see,' said Tommaso, pacified. 'But if you think I can talk, you should hear Count Trombin! Now listen, most worthy friend. If you desire it, I will speak with my masters for you; for the truth is, they are two very noble cavaliers, and would ask nothing better than to help a lady in distress, and I will meet you where you please, and tell you what they say. Or, if you prefer to speak with them yourself, go back to the inn now, and you will find them upstairs eating their morning dish of fruit. Do as you please, but perhaps I shall be able to speak to them at a moment when they are particularly well disposed. When they have dined well, for instance, they are always in a pleasant humour. They often give me a Giulio then.'
'You will do me the greatest service, my friend,' Cucurullo said. 'Pray speak for me with your gentlemen, telling them that I came to you entirely on my own responsibility. That is important, for I would not have them think that my master would approach them through his servant, which would be beneath their dignity and unworthy of his good manners.'
'I shall be most careful,' answered Tommaso blandly. 'But listen to me again. If, for instance, my gentlemen should desire to meet your gentleman and his lady in some quiet out-of-the-way place, in order to talk over the circumstances at leisure, do you think there would be any objection?'
'Why should there be?' asked Cucurullo in surprise. 'Are they not the best of friends?'
'Indeed they are!' replied the other with alacrity. 'I wish you could hear how my masters talk of the Maestro Stradella's genius, and of his voice, and then of his noble air and manner, and of the Lady Ortensia's beauty and modest deportment! It would do your heart good, most estimable friend!'
'It is a pleasure even to hear you tell me of it,' Cucurullo answered, much delighted, for he worshipped Stradella, and thought him perfection now that he was at last properly married, and there was an end of his love-scrapes, and of carrying letters to his sweethearts, and of silk ladders and all the rest of it.
'I have not told you half,' said Tommaso readily. 'And now, as I have an important errand, and my gentlemen are waiting to be shaved, I shall say good-bye. Will it suit you to meet me this afternoon about twenty-three o'clock, at the Montefiascone wine-cellar in the Via dei Pastini? It is a quiet place, and there is a light white wine there which is cooling in this warm weather.'
'I will be there,' Cucurullo answered with a friendly nod by way of taking leave.
Though they had slackened their pace to an ordinary walk that suited Tommaso's breathing powers, they had covered a good deal of ground in the five or six minutes during which they had been talking, and they were close to the Church of the Minerva, not far from the Altieri palace. As it was quite clear that Tommaso wished to go on his errand alone, Cucurullo turned into a narrow street when he left him, and walked slowly, picking his way over the uneven pavement. It was an unsavoury lane, that ran between tall houses, from the windows of which everything that was objectionable indoors was thrown out; and as His Eminence the Cardinal Vicar's sweepers were only supposed to pass that way once a week, on Thursdays, and sometimes forgot about it, the accumulations of dirt were pestiferous. Rome in those days was what all Naples was twenty years ago, and still is, in parts; it was full of the most astounding extremes of splendour and incredible poverty, of perfect cleanliness and abominable filth, and the contrast between the stringency of the law and the laxity of its execution was often not less surprising. Under the statutes, a man could be punished with torture and the galleys for owning a dark lantern, for carrying a pointed knife in his pocket, or for wearing a sword without leave; but, as a matter of fact, the detailed manuscript accounts of scores of crimes committed in Rome in the seventeenth century, and later, show that almost every one went armed, that any one who could dress like a gentleman wore a rapier when he pleased, and that dark lanterns were commonly used in defiance of the watch, the sbirri in plain clothes, the Bargello who commanded both, and the Governor who was his only superior in matters relating to public order.
I have digressed a little, both to explain the affair of the serenade under the Altieri palace, and to prepare my readers for what followed, and especially for the lawless doings of Trombin, Gambardella, and Don Alberto, which came to a climax during the night of Saint John's Eve, in spite of the many admirable regulations about lanterns and weapons which should have made the city a paradise of safety for unprotected females. But, after all, progress has not done much for us since then, for the cities are always growing faster than the police possibly can, so that it is in the very greatest capitals that the most daring crimes are committed with apparent impunity in our own time.
Cucurullo picked his way through the dirty side street, and was just emerging into a broader and cleaner one, when some one overtook him and tapped him on his hump, though he had not noticed the sound of footsteps behind him. He stopped, and saw a man in dusty and shabby black clothes, whom he took for a sbirro.
'Good-morning, Master Alessandro,' said the man with some politeness.
'That is my master's name,' answered Cucurullo, 'not mine, and he is not deformed. Therefore, if you are jesting with me, I beg you to pass on in peace.'
'Your pardon, sir,' the man said, lifting his hat, 'have I not the honour of addressing Signor Alessandro Guidi, the poet, for whom I have a message from Her Majesty the Queen of Sweden, whose servant I am?'
'No,' replied the other, pacified at being taken for the misshapen bard. 'I am only a servant like yourself, and my name is Cucurullo.'
The man seemed reassured and much amused, for he was a Piedmontese.
'Cuckoo-rulloo-cuckoo what?' he asked, laughing. 'I did not catch the rest!'
Cucurullo fixed his unwinking blue eyes on the speaker's face with a displeased expression, and after a moment the man turned pale and began to tremble, for he saw that he had given grave offence, and to rouse the anger of a hunchback, especially in the morning, might bring accident, ruin, and perhaps sudden death before sunset. He shook all over, and the blue eyes never winked, and seemed to grow more and more angry till they positively blazed with wrath, and, at last, the fellow uttered a cry of abject fright and turned and ran up the dirty street at the top of his speed. But Cucurullo went quietly on his way, smiling with a little satisfaction; for, after all, it was something to command kindness and hospitality, or inspire mortal terror, by the deformity that afflicted him. Possibly, too, in his humble heart he was pleased at having been taken for such a social personage as a scholar and a man of letters; for he had always been very careful to keep himself very clean and neat, and if he had any vanity it was that no one could ever detect a spot on his clothes. For instance, he always carried with him a little piece of brown cotton, folded like a handkerchief, which he spread upon the pavement in church before he knelt down, lest the knees of his breeches should be soiled, and he treasured a pair of old goatskin gloves which he had bought at a pawnshop in Venice, and which he put on when he cleaned his master's boots or did any other dirty work.
After he had parted from Tommaso, the latter went about his business, though not in breathless haste. His errand, as he had called it, took him amongst the dealers in coaches, new and second-hand, who had their warehouses near the Massimo palace and in the neighbourhood of Saint Mark's, and in other regions near by, from which the public conveyances started and where private carriages could be bought or hired.
The Bravi, who were practical men, judged that a former highway robber should be a good judge of such vehicles, and had commissioned Tommaso, who had stopped and plundered hundreds of them on the Bologna road, to find one that would suit their purpose. It was to be perfectly sound, not large, comfortably cushioned and provided with solid shutters to draw up outside the windows. There were to be good locks to the doors, with keyholes inside and out, and a boot for luggage, also provided with a safe fastening. It was no easy matter to find exactly what the Bravi wanted, without paying a high price for a perfectly new carriage, and it was a prime necessity that the one Tommaso was to buy for them should be able to stand a rather unusual journey without once breaking down.
They also needed good horses of their own, for there were several reasons why they could not hire a team from the post for the start, and they meant to trust to luck for exchanging or selling theirs at the end of the first stage. Tommaso was a capital judge of horseflesh, as they had found out on the journey from Venice, and they confidently left the whole matter in his hands while they occupied themselves with graver affairs, or sought relaxation in the pleasures which the city afforded.
Ortensia had told her husband everything that had passed between her and Don Alberto, and Stradella's first instinct was to seek him out, insult him, and force him into a duel. Ortensia saw the big vein swelling ominously in the middle of the white forehead, the tightening of the lips, and the unconscious movement of the fingers that closed upon an imaginary sword-hilt; she saw all this and was pleased, as every woman is when the man she loves is roused and wants to fight for her. But Ortensia did not mean that there should be any bloodshed, and she soothed her husband and made him promise that he would only watch over her more jealously than ever, and make it impossible for Don Alberto ever to be left alone with her again. If he would promise that, she said, she should feel quite safe.
He promised reluctantly, but said that he would not stay under Altieri's roof another day; he would not owe such an obligation to a man who had attacked his honour, he would not tolerate the thought that his wife was actually dwelling in the house of the wretch against whom she asked his protection. But Ortensia besought him to do nothing hurriedly, lest he should cause a scandal which would do more harm to her good name than Don Alberto's foolish declarations, which could be kept a secret.
Stradella yielded to her entreaties at first, for he saw that there was some sense in what she said; but his pride could not bear such a situation long, and with every day that passed he became more anxious to leave the palace. He began to look about for lodgings when he went out alone in the morning, and he saw more than one that would have suited him; but none of them would be free until the Feast of Saint John, which was then the quarter-day in Rome, on which leases began and expired. He wanted a dwelling with a hall large enough for rehearsing with his orchestra, and having a loggia looking towards the south, like the one at the Orso inn.
And now it happened, on that same morning when Cucurullo went to find Tommaso, that Stradella himself had gone out to see another house of which he had heard; and Don Alberto, who was well informed of the movements of the little household, judged the moment favourable for visiting Ortensia, since he had observed that Stradella was usually away at least an hour, and often much longer, when he went out early; and if Cucurullo should return sooner, it would not matter.
Ten minutes after the hunchback had left the palace Don Alberto knocked at the door of the small apartment halfway down the grand staircase. Pina opened almost immediately, not suspecting anything, but started in surprise when she saw who the visitor was.
'I desire to speak with the Lady Ortensia,' said Don Alberto suavely.
'The master is gone out,' Pina answered, 'and my mistress would never receive a gentleman's visit alone, sir.'
'The matter is urgent and concerns the Maestro,' Don Alberto explained, and at the same time he made the gold pieces in his pocket jingle, as if quite accidentally.
'The Maestro will be at home in two hours,' said Pina firmly, and making as if she would shut the door.
'I am too busy to wait so long,' objected the young man. 'My dear good woman, do you know who I am?'
'Perfectly, sir. You are Don Alberto Altieri, His Eminence's nephew.'
'Well, then, you need not make so much trouble about letting me in, my dear, for this is my own house, and a lady may surely see her landlord on a matter of business!'
Thereupon he took out a gold florin and tried to put it into Pina's palm in a coaxing way and with a smile. But she shut her hand quickly and held it behind her back, shaking her head. Don Alberto was not used to servants who refused gold. He tried flattery.
'Really,' he cried, 'for a girl with such a sweet face, you are very obstinate! If you will not take an Apostolic florin, I will give you the Apostolic kiss, my dear!'
He tried to kiss her, trusting that a middle-aged serving-woman could not resist the Pope's nephew when he called her a sweet-faced girl. But she kept him at arm's length with surprising energy.
'You are mistaken,' she said in a low voice, lest Ortensia should hear her within; 'I am neither young, nor pretty, nor quite a fool!'
Don Alberto suddenly seized her wrist unawares and held it fast.
'No,' he answered, 'you are not a fool, but you are Filippina Landi, a runaway nun, and though you once got a pardon, you are in Rome now, and I can have it revoked in an hour, and you will be lodged in the Convent of Penitent Women before night, to undergo penance for the rest of your life.'
Pina shivered from head to foot and turned very pale. He dropped her wrist, and, as if she were overcome by an invisible power, she stood aside, hanging her head, and let him pass in. For more than a minute after he had disappeared, she stood leaning against the marble door-post, pressing her left hand to her heart and breathing hard.
Don Alberto knew the small apartment well, for he had once lived in it with his tutor, before the Cardinal had left the palace to take up his quarters in the Quirinal. He went directly to the large sitting-room, from the windows of which Ortensia and Stradella had listened to the serenade and had seen the fighting; he tapped at the door, and Ortensia's voice bade him enter.
She was seated in one of those wooden chairs with arms and a high flat leathern back, which one often sees in Rome even now, chiefly in outer reception-halls and ranged in stiff order against the walls. The shutters were drawn near together to keep out the heat and to darken the room a little. She had a lute on her knees, but her hands held a large sheet of music, from which she had been reading over the words of the song before trying it. She did not look up as the door opened and was shut, for she supposed it must be Cucurullo who had come to ask a question. Don Alberto stood still a few seconds in silent admiration. She had evidently been washing her hair, for it was loose and was combed out over her shoulders in red-auburn waves; and the shorter locks at her temples and round her forehead floated out in little clouds full of rich but transparent colour. The morning was warm, and she was still clad in a loose dressing-gown of thin white silk trimmed with a simple lace. Never, in many misspent days, had Altieri seen a more radiant vision. When she had read all the words of the song, she laid the sheet on the table beside her, and spoke without looking round, for, as her chair was placed, the door was a little behind her, and she was sure that it was Cucurullo who had entered, since she had not heard the slight sound of Pina's cotton skirt.
'What is it?' she asked quietly.
'A thief, dear lady,' answered Don Alberto, smiling; 'one who has forced your door to steal a sight of you——'
At the first word she had risen, turning towards him as she rose, and laying the lute on the table at her left, which was between her and the door.
'How dare you come here?' she cried, indignantly interrupting his pretty speech.
'I dare everything and—nothing,' he answered; 'everything for the happiness of seeing you and hearing your voice, but nothing else that can displease you! See, I do not move a step, I stand here your prisoner on parole, for I give you my word that I will not run away! I will stand here like a statue, or kneel if you bid me, or lie prostrate at your feet!'
'I bid you go, sir! I bid you leave me, for you have no right to be here!'
'No right? I have the right to live, sweet lady! The meanest creature has that.'
'I do not bid you die,' Ortensia answered with some contempt. 'I only tell you to go!'
'And so to die most painfully, for I cannot live without seeing you! Therefore I will do anything but go away before my eyes have fed me full of you and I can bear another day's fasting!'
'Then, sir,' said Ortensia proudly, 'it is I that will leave you; and if you mean in earnest not to displease me, you will not stay here.'
She made two steps towards the door of her own room, before he moved; then he sprang nimbly forward and placed himself in front of her, at a little distance.
'I ask nothing but a kind word,' he said earnestly, 'or if you will not speak it, give me one thought of pity, and I shall see it in your eyes! You love your husband, and I respect your love—I admire you the more for it, upon my soul and honour I do! Did I not promise to be a true friend to you both? Have I broken my promise because I am here now, only to see your dear face for a few moments and bear away your image to cheer my lonely life?'
'Your lonely life!' Ortensia smiled, though scornfully enough.
'Yes, my lonely life,' he answered, repeating the words with grave emphasis. 'What would yours be, pray, if you were forced to be for ever a central figure amongst men and women who wearied you with adulation and never ceased from flattering except to ask favours for themselves and their relatives? And if, with that, you loved Stradella as you do, and he was another woman's husband and would not even look at you, nor let you hear his voice, would your existence not be lonely, I ask? In the desert of your life, would you not hide yourself in the hermitage of your heart, with the image of the man you loved upon your only altar? Would you not feel alone all day, and lonelier still all night, though the whole world pressed upon you, even at your rising and your lying down, to call you beautiful and gifted beyond compare, and a divine being on earth, and in return to beg a benefice for a graceless younger son, or a curacy for a starving cousin of a priest, or the privilege of providing the oil for the lamps in the Vatican? That is my life, if you call it a life! It is all I have, except my love for you—my honouring, respecting, venerating love!'
He spoke his words well, with changing tone and moving accent, but the one great gift he had received from nature was his wonderful and undefinable charm of manner; and surely of all marketable commodities, from gold and silver coin to coloured beads and cowry shells, there is none that can be so readily exchanged for almost anything in the world its possessor wants. Ortensia felt it in spite of herself, and while she was not touched by his attempts at eloquence, she was more inclined to laugh than to be angry at what he said. There was something in him and in his way that disarmed and made it almost impossible not to forgive him anything in reason.
'If my husband were only here,' Ortensia said, 'this would be as amusing as a comedy, but a lady cannot go to the play alone. Will you wait till he comes home? Then we will listen to you together, and you will get twice as much applause, for it is really very good acting, I must admit!'
A professional love-maker always knows when to stop being serious during the early stages of the game, and when to leave off laughing later on; for there is nothing so sure to weary and irritate an average woman as perpetual seriousness at first, when she has not yet made up her mind and perhaps never may, nor is there anything more ruinous than to jest about love when she herself feels it and bestows it. The reason of this must be that if you are too grave while she is still undetermined, she will believe that you are taking her love for granted, which is an unpardonable sin, whereas after she has unfolded her heart and given you the most precious part of herself, she trembles at the merest suggestion that you may not be in earnest.
Don Alberto was a professional love-maker, and at Ortensia's last speech he laughed so readily and naturally that she could not help joining him.
'The truth is,' he said presently, 'the Queen is going to have a little comedy performed by her friends, and I have been giving you some bits from my part. If you really think I do it well, I will wait for the Maestro, as you say, and he shall hear it too, for his opinion is valuable.'
'If you had told me the other day at the palace that you were only rehearsing, it would have been better,' Ortensia said, still smiling.
'No,' answered the young man, 'for I can only judge of my own acting when it carries so much conviction with it that it is mistaken for truth. Is that not sound reason?'
'Sound reason, but poor compliment, sir! In future, pray choose some one else for your experiments. I have heard a Latin proverb quoted which says that the experiment should be made on a body of small value! You hold me cheap, sir, since you try your experiments on me.'
'I hold you dearer than you guess,' answered Don Alberto gaily. 'But I am no match for you in argument. Giovanni Fiorentino tells the story of a lady who played lawyer to defend her lover against a money-lender to whom he had promised a pound of his flesh if he failed to pay. I think you must be of her family, and a Doctor in Law!'
'If I have won my case against you,' retorted Ortensia, 'there is nothing left for you but to retire from the court, acknowledging that you are beaten.'
'Beaten as a lawyer, but successful as an actor,' laughed Altieri, 'and a good friend at your service, as ever. Will you give me your hand, lady?'