'What for, sir? I was sorry I did, the other day. I should have boxed your ears instead!'
'Do it now!'
With a careless laugh he dropped on his knees, just at her feet, folding his hands like a penitent; and laughing too, in spite of herself, she lightly tapped his left ear. He instantly turned the other towards her.
'Remember the gospel,' he said. '"If thine enemy smite thee on one cheek——"'
Again she laughed, but she would not touch him a second time, and she turned away. He sprang to his feet, and there was a flash of light in his eyes, and his hands trembled; for he was behind her, and the temptation to catch her in his arms was almost too strong for him. At that moment the door opened without any warning knock.
'The master is coming up the stairs,' said Pina quietly, and instantly she disappeared again.
Don Alberto started, but Ortensia was calm.
'Stay here and say you have come to see him,' she said, and before he could answer she was in her own room and the door was shut.
Don Alberto was himself again in a moment, for no experienced woman of the world could have done the right thing with more instant decision than Ortensia had shown. He understood, too, that he had so thoroughly frightened the wretched Pina that she was henceforth his slave, on whom he could count as safely as Stradella had depended on her in Venice. With the instinct of an old hand he glanced quickly round the room to see that no object had been displaced in a way to excite suspicion, and he then sat down in a straight chair, folded one knee over the other, and waited for Stradella's coming.
The musician entered a few moments later and stared in surprise as Don Alberto rose to meet him with outstretched hand and a friendly smile.
'Your servant told me that you would not be back for some time,' said Altieri, 'but I insisted on coming in. Pray forgive the intrusion, for the matter is very urgent.'
Stradella had taken his hand rather coolly, but he did not mean his visitor to see that he was displeased, and he now politely pushed a chair forward, and took another himself.
'I am glad to find you here,' he said, 'for I also wished to see you in order to thank you once more for the use of this apartment.'
'But you are not going away?' cried Don Alberto in astonishment.
'Not from Rome. But I have at last found a dwelling which will just suit us, and we mean to move on Saint John's Day.'
'On Saint John's Day!' repeated Don Alberto, with still more evident surprise. 'Really! Indeed! I assure you that I did not expect this, my dear Maestro, and I am almost inclined to think it a breach of friendship. Are you not well lodged here? Are the rooms too small for you and your lady? Or do you find them hot, or noisy? I do not understand.'
'Pray put it down to an artist's foolish love of independence,' Stradella answered with suavity. 'It is one thing for you rich nobles to accept favours from each other; you can return them; but we poor musicians cannot, and so we set a limit to what we think we may fairly receive.'
'You give what we never can,' objected Don Alberto, 'for you give us your genius and its works, and I suspect you have some reason hidden away of which you do not care to speak. I can only tell you how sorry I am that you should leave this house, where I had hoped you would live whenever you came to Rome, and where you will always be welcome if you wish to return.'
'It is impossible to be more courteous, and I wish I could express my gratitude as well as you have worded your most kind invitation.'
The musician bowed rather formally from his chair as he spoke, but Don Alberto was not pleased.
'Come, come, my dear Stradella,' he said familiarly, 'one would take us for a couple of courtiers making compliments at each other. We used to be good friends and comrades a year ago. Have you forgotten that carnival season, and how we supped together on ten consecutive nights in ten different eating-houses, with those two charming ladies from Genoa? Ah, my dear fellow, how you have changed! But you were not married then!'
'And never thought I should be! But I am not as much changed as you think, and I dare say you will soon come to find it out. You spoke of some urgent business that brings you here——'
'Yes. It is an important affair for you. His Holiness wishes you to compose a high mass for Saint Peter's Day, for the united choirs of the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter's.'
'But the feast is on the twenty-ninth of this month!' cried Stradella in surprise. 'The time is much too short! Less than three weeks for composing such a work! I cannot possibly undertake to turn out anything worthy in that time!'
'I give you the message as my uncle the Cardinal gave it to me,' Don Alberto answered with assurance, though he had invented the commission on the spur of the moment, quite sure that he could easily make it a genuine order, though it would never be executed if his own plans for carrying off Ortensia on Saint John's Eve succeeded.
'May I have a day in which to consider my answer?' asked the musician.
'If you like. But you will only lose twenty-four hours, since you will have to do what the Pope asks! A commission from the Sovereign is a command, you know. Besides, you must have a great many scraps of compositions and odds and ends of masses among your papers, a part of a Credo here, an Agnus Dei there—things you can string together and finish in a few days. The only part that must be new will be the Offertory for the day, unless you happen to have that too.'
'But the whole can never be harmonious if I do it in that way——'
'What has that to do with it, my dear friend?' asked Don Alberto. 'What has conscience to do with art, pray? If you do the work the Pope will be pleased, and you will be several hundred crowns the richer; but if you refuse to do it, His Holiness will be angry with you and the Cardinal, and the Cardinal will make you and me pay for the reproof he will receive! As for the music, nothing you write can be bad, because you have real genius, and the worst that any one may say will be that your mass for Saint Peter's Day is not your very best work. Therefore, in my opinion, you have no choice, and it is quite useless for you to take a whole day to consider the matter.'
'I suppose you are right,' Stradella answered.
He was not suspicious enough to guess that it was all an invention of Don Alberto's, and the latter had a very persuasive way with him.
'And now that it is all settled,' Altieri said pleasantly, 'I will take my leave. For during the next three weeks your own time will be more valuable than my company! My duty and homage to the Lady Ortensia, and good-bye; and if you will change your mind and stay here, I shall be much more in your debt than you in mine.'
'Thank you,' answered Stradella, rising to show him out.
When Ortensia had hurriedly left the room her intention had been to prevent any immediate trouble, but not to hide what had happened from her husband for more than a day or two. She was even more angry with Pina than with Don Alberto himself, for she could not but believe that the nurse had taken a bribe to admit him, and had then acted as if her mistress were in love with him, or at least willing to receive him alone in a toilet that could only imply great intimacy. The woman's sudden appearance and her face at the door recalled too well how she had come back suddenly, on the day of the last lesson in Venice, to warn the pair that Pignaver was near, and Ortensia could not bear to think that she could ever have been caught with young Altieri in such a situation as to make the warning positively necessary for her own safety. Indeed, she was so much ashamed of it now that she blushed scarlet, though she was alone, and wondered how she could possibly tell Stradella what had happened.
He found her sitting before her mirror near the window, and from her chair she could see the reflection of the door through which she had entered. When the handle turned she put up her hands and pretended to be arranging her hair, and in the mirror she saw her husband's face and understood that he was not angry, though he was by no means pleased. He came behind her, kissed her hair and then her forehead, as she bent her head backwards to look up into his face.
'Don Alberto has been here,' he said.
'Yes?' The interrogation in her tone might mean anything, and denied nothing.
'He came to tell me that the Pope wishes me to write a solemn mass for the feast of Saint Peter, on the twenty-ninth, and of course I was obliged to agree to do it. But Pina should not have let him in. Do you think she would take money? After what he told you about her I cannot help trusting her less.'
'Do you believe that what he told me is true?'
'It agrees well enough with what she said when she came to see me in Venice,' Stradella answered. 'Do you remember? Or did I never tell you? She made it a condition of our flight that we should take her with us, because, if she were left behind, your uncle would have her tortured, and she said she could bear anything but that. She said it in a way that made me sure she had already suffered the question, as Don Alberto has now told you is really the case.'
'It all agrees very well together,' Ortensia announced, shaking her head. 'Poor Pina! Perhaps Don Alberto threatened her, for I suppose he has power to do anything he pleases here in Rome.'
'I will go and ask her,' Stradella said. 'That is the simplest way.'
'No! Please——' Ortensia showed such signs of distress that her husband was surprised.
'Why not? Do you think it would be unfair, or would hurt her feelings? Then call her here, and ask her yourself before me. She will probably confess the truth.'
'She would be more likely to conceal it, since you have not the power to use threats!'
'Possibly, but I doubt it. The woman is a coward, and if you speak sharply she will be frightened. I do not like to think that when I am out of the house and my man is out too, anybody may get in. You are not safe in such conditions. Any ruffian who knew her story could force his way to you! No, no, love—we must speak to her at once!'
He was already going towards the door, but Ortensia rose quickly and overtook him before he could go out, catching him by the hand and holding him back.
'You must hear me first,' she cried in great anxiety, leading him to a seat beside her.
He had followed her without resistance, too much surprised to object. If any reason for her action suggested itself it was that she wished to spare Pina's feelings, probably out of affection for the nurse. But Ortensia took one of his hands and pressed it against her eyes as she began to speak, for she thought she had done something very wicked in concealing from him that she had really seen Don Alberto.
'I do not know why Pina let him in,' she said in a low voice, as if making a confession, 'but he found me there, in the next room, and he had come on purpose to see me, and not you.'
She went on and told Stradella everything she could remember, which, indeed, was most of the conversation, including Don Alberto's jesting pretence that he had been acting.
'I did not want to make trouble,' Ortensia concluded tearfully. 'I meant to tell you to-morrow—are you very angry? You can call Pina now, if you like——'
Stradella had risen and was pacing the room, evidently in no very gentle temper, though he was far too just to blame his wife for what had happened. After a few moments Ortensia rose and went to him, and as he stopped she laid her hands upon his shoulders, looking up into his eyes.
'You are angry with me,' she said very sorrowfully. 'I did the best I could. He would not go away.'
Instantly he took her in his arms, lifted her clear of the floor, and kissed her passionately, again and again; and at the very first touch of his lips she understood, though she could almost feel his anger against Altieri throbbing in the hands that held her.
'I have borne enough from that man,' he said, letting her stand on her feet again, and he slipped his right arm round her waist, and made her walk up and down with him. 'He will take no answer from you, he forces himself upon you when you are alone, he thinks that because he is the Pope's nephew no one dares to face him and say him nay!'
He was very angry, and at each phrase his hand unconsciously tightened its hold on Ortensia's waist, as if to emphasise what he was saying; and though he said little enough, she felt that his blood was up, and that it would be ill for Don Alberto to meet him in his present mood. A Tuscan would have dissolved his temper in a torrent of useless blasphemy, as Tuscans generally do, a Roman would have roared out fearful threats, a Neapolitan would have talked of the knife with many gestures; the Sicilian did not raise his voice, though it shook a little, and he only said he had borne enough, but if his enemy had appeared at that moment he would have killed him with his hands, and Ortensia understood him.
'You must think of me too,' she pleaded wisely. 'If you make him fight you, one of two things will happen: either you will kill him, and then no power can save you from the Pope's vengeance, or else he will kill you—for you will not yield till you are dead!—and I shall have to take my own wretched life to save myself from him!'
'God forbid!' cried Stradella in a troubled voice, and pressing her to his side again. 'To think that I imagined we should be safer in Rome than anywhere else! I suppose you are right, sweetheart. If any harm befalls me there is no hope for you. But what am I to do? Can I take you with me each time I am obliged to go out about my business? And if not, where can I find any one whom I can trust to watch over you? As for Don Alberto, it is easy to speak moderately when he is away, but if I meet him and talk with him——' He stopped short, unwilling to let his anger waste itself in words.
'Trust no one, love,' said Ortensia softly. 'Take me with you everywhere. I shall be far happier if you never let me be out of your sight an hour—far more happy, and altogether safe!'
'But I cannot take you up into the organ loft when I sing, or conduct music in church! You cannot go with me behind the lattice of the Sistine choir! On Saint John's Eve, for instance, at the Lateran, I shall have to be at least two hours with the singers and musicians. Who will take care of you?'
'Surely,' objected Ortensia, 'you can trust your own man. Let him stand beside me while I sit on the pedestal of the pillar nearest to the organ, where you can see me. Or ask our two mysterious friends to guard me, for they would overmatch a dozen of Don Alberto's sort!'
She laughed, though with a slight effort; but she saw that he was inclining to the side of discretion, at least for the present.
'And if worse comes to the worst,' she added, 'we must leave Rome and live in the South, in your own country. I have always longed to go there.'
'Even to starve with me, love?' Stradella smiled. 'It is not in Naples that I shall be offered three or four hundred crowns for writing a mass! Thirty or forty will be nearer the price! Instead of living in a palace we shall take up our quarters in some poor little house over the sea, at Mergellina or Posilippo, with three rooms, a kitchen, and a pigsty at the back, and we shall eat macaroni and fried cuttle-fish every day, with an orange for dessert, and a drive in a curricolo on Sunday afternoons! How will that suit the delicate tastes of the Lady Ortensia Grimani?'
'It sounds delicious,' Ortensia said, rubbing her cheek against his coat. 'I delight in macaroni and oranges as it is, and I can think of nothing I should like better than to have you to myself in a little house with three rooms looking over the sea! We will give Pina a present and send her away, and Cucurullo shall cook for us. I am sure he can, and very well, and why should I need a maid? Let us go, Alessandro; promise that we shall! When can we start?'
'Not till after Saint Peter's Day, at all events since I have that mass to finish and conduct,' Stradella answered, humouring her. 'But it is impossible,' he added, almost at once. 'You could not live in that way, and I have no right to let you try it.'
'We shall be happier than we ever were before!'
'For a few days, perhaps. But the plain truth is, that I am only a poor artist, and all I have saved is a matter of a thousand crowns in Chigi's bank. I must earn money for us both, and there is no place where I can earn as much as I can here, under the patronage of the Pope——'
'—and his nephews,' said Ortensia, completing the sentence as he hesitated; 'and one of those nephews is Don Alberto Altieri, who pays himself for his patronage by forcing himself upon my privacy when you are gone out! That is the short of a very long story!'
Stradella stood still, struck by what she said, and he looked into her eyes; they met his a little timidly, for she feared that she had hurt him.
'You are right,' he said. 'I will go at once to the Cardinal himself, and say that I cannot undertake to write the mass for the Pope. Instead of taking a new lodging, we will leave Rome on the feast of Saint John.'
The following days passed quietly, and Don Alberto did not again attempt to see Ortensia alone. He was, indeed, much occupied with more urgent affairs, for Queen Christina had noticed the signs of his approaching defection and was becoming daily more exigent. On his side, young Altieri only desired to be dismissed, and instead of submitting to her despotic commands in a spirit of contrition, he cleverly managed to obey them with a sort of superior indifference that irritated her to the verge of fury. She wreaked her temper on every one who came near her, and so far forgot her royal dignity as to box the ears of poor Guidi, the deformed poet, for pointing out a grammatical mistake in some Italian verses she had composed. But he would not bear the indignity of a blow, even from her royal hand, and on that same night he packed his manuscripts and his few belongings and left Rome to seek his fortune where he might. The ex-Queen had Rome searched for him the very next day by a score of her servants, and it was one of her grooms who had mistaken Cucurullo for Guidi, because he hardly knew the poet by sight, and thought that hunchbacks were all very much alike.
Don Alberto had not neglected to speak to the Cardinal about Stradella's mass, nor was he surprised at the careless way in which His Eminence acquiesced to the proposal and agreed that the composer should receive a handsome fee. The young man did not notice that his uncle's thin lips twitched a little, as if with amusement. The truth was that Stradella had come to him before Don Alberto, and had explained that it was materially impossible to do what His Eminence had so kindly proposed through his nephew. The Cardinal was well aware of the latter's passion for the musician's wife, and was not at all inclined to encourage it, judging that there was more political advantage to be gained by his young kinsman's continued intimacy with the ex-Queen than by a love-affair with Ortensia. For Christina was almost always engaged in some intrigue, if not in actual conspiracy, and though her dealings of this kind were as futile as her whole life had been, it was as well that the Papal Government should know what she was really about.
A week before the Feast of Saint John, Ortensia was already packing her own and Stradella's belongings for the journey to Naples. Though she and Pina had left Venice with no baggage but a piece of white Spanish soap, a comb, and a little yellow leather work-case, Ortensia now had enough linen and gowns, and laces and ribbons, to fill two respectable trunks, and Pina was well provided with all that a serving-woman needed in the way of clothes.
Nothing had yet been said between the nurse and her mistress about Don Alberto's last visit, but an explanation was inevitable. One day Pina asked if she might have a small box or a valise for her own things.
'We shall not want you in Naples,' said Ortensia quietly. 'You shall have your wages from the day when my uncle last paid you, and a present of ten gold florins for your long service; but I shall not want you any more.'
She had been folding some delicate laces while she spoke, and she did not look up till she heard a little choking cry from the nurse. Pina stood grasping the back of a chair to keep herself from falling, and her face was grey.
'Good heavens!' cried Ortensia. 'Are you ill? What is the matter with you?'
Pina could hardly speak; she slowly moved her bent head from side to side as if in an agony of pain.
'It is death!' she moaned. 'You are sending me to die!'
Ortensia went to her and took her by the arm energetically, as if to rouse her.
'This is absurd!' she cried. 'I know what you said to my husband before we fled from Venice, and it is of no use to pretend that you are going to die of grief if you leave me!'
But Pina only shook her head, and would not look up.
'And as for having been so very faithful,' Ortensia went on, in a tone of displeasure, 'it was only the other day that you took money from Don Alberto to let him see me when my husband was out and I was alone! Do not deny it!'
Pina looked up now, with something of a born lady's pride in her eyes and tone.
'I never took a bribe in my life!' she cried indignantly. 'Don Alberto threatened to have me arrested and put to the question, and I was afraid, and let him in. Yes, I was afraid. I am a coward, for I have felt pain. That was done to me once, to make me confess, and more too!'
She held out her broken thumb, and her hand shook; and Ortensia shuddered as she looked at it.
'He threatened to have my pardon cancelled, and to have me tortured again, and then sent to the Convent of Penitent Women for life! Do not be hard on me, for I was in one of those places of penance for three weeks before your uncle got me a pardon and took me to his house to be your nurse. Don Alberto frightened me—I was weak, cowardly—I let him in!'
'Poor Pina! Then it is all true? He told me your story, but I did not believe him.'
'It is all true. It was to be revenged on the Senator that I wanted you to run away. But even so, I have helped you to be happy, for I know you are. For the happiness you have had through me, forgive me! Do not leave me here at Don Alberto's mercy, for the sake of Heaven! He means to carry you off, I am sure he does; and if you escape him, he will visit it all on me!'
Her hands strained on the back of the chair till the knuckles whitened with the effort, while her body quivered as if she had been struck. Ortensia understood that she had told the truth, and that the mere thought of physical pain almost drove her mad.
'I will take you with me to Naples,' Ortensia said. 'You will be safe there. I am sorry for you; but how can I trust a woman who is so easily frightened?'
'Easily!' groaned Pina. 'You do not know what it is!'
But she took her mistress's hand and kissed it gratefully, with many tearful blessings.
'I must confess something else,' she said presently, 'though it is Cucurullo's business as well as mine. We have been so much afraid that Don Alberto would try to carry you off by some daring stroke that Cucurullo has secretly asked help of the two Venetian gentlemen, who are still here, and they have promised to watch over you and protect you as far as they can, even at the risk of their lives.'
'Cucurullo should not have gone to them without asking his master's consent,' said Ortensia, not altogether pleased. 'Do you know what Don Alberto told me? He said that Count Trombin and Count Gambardella are Bravi, the most famous in Italy!'
'It is not possible,' replied Pina, shaking her head. 'I do not believe it!'
'Don Alberto told me the truth about you, it seems,' Ortensia said rather coldly. 'Why should he have invented a story about the other two who signed the marriage register as witnesses? And besides, if he meant to carry me off by force, would he not very likely employ just such men to do the deed for him?'
Pina did not try to answer this argument, but her face showed her incredulity.
'I have told you what I know,' she said. 'If anything should happen, and if one of those two gentlemen should tell me to do anything for your safety, am I to obey? I must know that, for perhaps there will be no time to be lost.'
'I will ask my husband,' Ortensia said. 'Let us go on with our packing.'
Pina knelt down before the open trunk again. She had told her mistress exactly what Cucurullo had reported to her after his second interview with Tommaso, when the two men had met in the wine-shop of the Via dei Pastini. On that occasion the ex-highwayman had told the hunchback that his masters would be only too glad to protect Stradella and his wife against Don Alberto, to the last drop of their blood, and that Cucurullo was free to inform the musician of their promise or not, as he pleased. It would make no difference, they had said; henceforth Don Alberto should be watched continually, as a mouse is watched by a cat, or in fact by two cats; at the very first intimation that he meant mischief, they would send him to the permanent future abode of all mischief-makers; and as for the consequences of their action, if they were ever detected, they would take such a trifle as that upon themselves. Don Alberto might be the nephew of all the popes and anti-popes that had reigned, excepting those who were canonised saints, and who might therefore be offended by the statement that they did not care a cabbage who he was, not a farthing, not a fig! If he attempted anything against the Lady Ortensia or her husband, they would not only make him wish he were dead, but would at once oblige him by satisfying his wish. This, at least, was Tommaso's version of what they had said, and Cucurullo saw no reason to doubt the statement, since he had seen the two gentlemen demolish and put to flight a whole watch in a few moments in the affair of the serenade.
What the Bravi thought of their own situation on the morning of the Eve of Saint John is difficult to imagine; for they were in one of those exciting but equivocal situations in which modern financiers not infrequently find themselves. Their feelings might possibly be compared to those of Lord Byron when he had written offers of marriage to two young ladies on the same day, and both accepted him; or to those of an 'operator' who has advised one intimate friend to buy a certain stock at any price, and another to sell all he has, while he himself has not made up his mind as to what he had better do; or to those of a jockey who has taken money to pull a horse when he was sober, and has backed his mount when he was drunk.
The Bravi had, indeed, concocted a plan by which they hoped to win their money from three employers for doing three different things, each of which was contrary to the nature of the other two. And Gambardella might be satisfied if the attempt succeeded; but Trombin was not only his friend's partner in the whole scheme and intent on getting an equal share of the profits, he was also very foolishly in love with Ortensia on his own account, and was pondering how he might substitute himself for Don Alberto in the first act of the coming comedy, or drama.
The preparations were now completed, and the two cut-throats awaited the Eve of Saint John without the least qualm or the smallest fear for their own safety. Had they not three blank pardons in their pockets, for themselves and Tommaso, to be filled in with their names if necessary, or to be sold at a high price to some gentleman in trouble, if they did not need them?
Nothing was wanting. Tommaso had found the very carriage for the purpose and the horses for the first start, and he himself could drive them four-in-hand without a postillion, for he was as good a whip as any man who drove a papal stage-coach. He had seen Don Alberto again, and, besides the blank pardons, he had obtained the necessary order from the Governor of the city to pass out of any gate during the night. Don Alberto had, of course, ascertained without difficulty that Tommaso was only a servant who represented the two famous Bravi, and in the hands of such men young Altieri felt that the enterprise could not fail.
The little house in the Via di Santa Sabina was also ready, but he knew nothing of this arrangement, and was willing that the Bravi should keep secret the spot where he was to meet Ortensia, if they preferred to do so. When the evening came he meant that one of his own men, who had served him in a score of adventures, should follow him and Tommaso stealthily to the place of meeting and hold himself ready, within call, after Tommaso had gone away with the money that was to be paid on delivering up Ortensia.
Now before I go on to tell what happened on that memorable night, let me say that if any of the events I am about to describe seem improbable to a sceptical reader, he had better learn the Italian language and dive into one of those yellow manuscript accounts of similar affairs which were written out in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and of which whole volumes can still be bought in Italy for a few francs. He will not go far without finding matter quite as surprising as what I shall put down in this tale, though in all likelihood much more unsavoury to his modern taste. Moreover, there is proof that a good many of those accounts are quite as accurate as what a fairly decent newspaper gives us nowadays for truth; and they are not, as a whole, more nasty, though they are differently worded, because in those days Boileau was calling 'a cat a cat, and Rolet a rascal,' and even people who were not poets called a spade a spade.
A little rain fell during the night before Saint John's Eve, but the morning of the twenty-third of June was clear and calm, and the air had cooled a little. In Rome, for those who do not fear a little sunshine, June is the most beautiful of all the months, and the loveliest June days are those that follow showery nights. Then all the trees of the great villas are in full leaf and all the flowers are in bloom: the gorgeous, stiff-necked, courtly flowers in the formal beds and borders of the Pope's gardens; the soft, sweet-scented, shapely carnations that grow in broken pots and pitchers outside the humble windows of Trastevere; the stately lilies in the marble fountains behind the princely palace, and the roses that run riot in the poor Jewish burial-ground halfway up the Aventine; the heavy-scented tuberose and the rich blossom of bitter orange in the high Colonna gardens, and the sweet basil growing in a rusty iron pail in the belfry of Santa Maria Maggiore, where the old bell-ringer eats the savoury leaves with his coarse bread and cheese, while he rests after ringing the bells for high mass and waits till it is time to ring them again at noon, and he waters the plant from his drinking pitcher. Then the wild onion is in flower that scares away witches and keeps off the Evil Eye, and from all the broad Campagna the scent of new-mown hay is wafted through the city gates. Then, though the sun does not yet scorch the traveller, the shade is already a heavenly refreshment; and though a man is not parched with thirst, a cold draught from the Fountain of Egeria is more delicious than any wine, and under the ancient trees of the pagan grove the rose-purple cyclamens and the dark wood-violets are still blooming side by side. The air is full of the breath of life, the deep earth is still soft, and all trees and flowers and grasses still feel the tender youth of the spring that is not yet quite gone.
Then, too, the gilliflowers are out, and on Saint John's Eve before Vespers the Canons used to bless thousands upon thousands of them, tied up in neat bunches, in small flat baskets, and the poor of Rome came to the door of the sacristy on the south side and received them to take home to their sick and infirm, with the blessing of Saint John and a reviving breath of blossoming nature. But on that day many tents and booths of boughs were also set up on the broad green that stretched away to the hedges of vineyards and vegetable gardens, where modern houses now are built. In each booth there was a little kitchen, a mere earthen fire-pot, such as the alchemists used of old, but larger, and there were tables made of boards laid on trestles with rude benches for seats, and there were little ten-gallon barrels of wine still unbroached, and piles of loaves covered with clean white cloths, and there was much green lettuce for salad, floating in tubs full of water, and there were also fresh onions without end, with their long stalks and big bunches of tiny flowers. For on the Eve of Saint John the Baptist all fairies good and bad, and goblins that are black or grey, and the white hobgoblins too, and the shadowy, unearthly lemures, have deadly power; and ghosts and wraiths go wailing through lonely church-yards, and the fountain sprites float on the water and laugh in the pale moonlight; the misshapen things of evil that haunt murderers' graves move strangely in the gloom; and though the air be still, the chains that dangle from old gibbets all clank together wildly when the blood-spectres hang upon them with wan hands and swing themselves to and fro; then the banshee shrieks amongst the ancient elms, and deep down in the crypt of far San Sisto, by the Latin Gate, the Shining Corpse rises from his grave against the south wall and glares horribly all night at his fellow-dead. No wonder that against such terrors the Roman people thought it wise to eat snails fried in oil, and to carry onions in blossom in their hands, and especially to fortify their quailing spirits with many draughts of strong wine from Genzano, and Frascati, and Marino, till the grey dawn forelightened above the Samnite hills, and a decent man might go home to sleep safely by daylight, and be waked only by the bells that rang out for high mass at ten o'clock.
So in the late afternoon all those excellent preparations had been made for resisting ghostly fear, and as soon as the sun went down the firepots in the booths would be filled with charcoal, and presently a marvellous smell of frying oil would pervade the air, while thousands upon thousands of little lights would be lighted, all made of big snail-shells filled with olive oil and tallow and each having a tiny wick in it. But the sun was not low yet, and the great bells were ringing to call the people into the Basilica for Vespers.
Fine coaches drove up to the transept entrance, one after the other, bringing cardinals and princes and Roman ladies of high rank by the score; and their gorgeously liveried footmen followed them into the church carrying fald-stools and kneeling-cushions as if for a great ceremony in Saint Peter's; and though it was a cloudless day in June two huge closed umbrellas, of the colours of each family, were strapped upon the top of every coach, but those of the cardinals were scarlet. Amongst the many arrivals came the blue and yellow liveries of Christina of Sweden, and with her was Don Alberto in a wonderful summer suit of pale dove-coloured silk, and he wore the collar of the Order of Saint Gregory; there were several other gentlemen in her train, and not a few ladies, so that she was royally attended. She herself wore a three-cornered blue French hunting-hat on the top of her immense black wig, and a short riding-skirt of green cloth, and boots like a man.
The reason why there was such a concourse of society at the Lateran on the eve of the feast was that Alessandro Stradella was going to sing an air himself, and direct a part of the service which he had composed for the occasion; and besides, a vast number of the common people were collected about the Basilica, both from the city and from the Campagna, to enjoy the customary feast of snails as a defence against witches and fairies, and they thronged into the church through the great east door to hear the music too, till there was no standing-room at all in the transepts and little in the nave and aisles for thirty or forty yards below the tabernacle, close beside which the old organ used to stand. For there was no loft then, and the instrument stood out in the church with its wide wooden balcony, draped all in red, which is the colour appropriate to the Apostles, and to Martyrs also, of whom Saint John the Baptist is counted one. The organ was a new one then, and, by the same token, I saw it when I was young, and the keyboard was strangely made; for there were two black keys together everywhere where we have one, the first being for the sharp of the natural below it, and the second for the flat of the natural above; and this meant that the ingenious builder had thought he could get rid of the 'wolf' and produce an instrument with the combined advantages of the even temper and the uneven; and any one who does not know what that means may ask a tuner to explain it for him or not, just as he pleases; but the old organ had double black keys, for I saw and touched them myself, and that was the very instrument to which Stradella sang on the afternoon of Saint John's Eve so long ago. It has probably been destroyed altogether, but Rome is a great place for treasuring rubbish and rombowline, and perhaps the old keyboard still exists, with stacks of wooden and metal pipes and bundles of worm-eaten trackers, all piled up together and forgotten in some corner of the crypt, or in some high belfry room or long-closed attic above the gorgeous ceiling of the Basilica.
It is a long distance from the Palazzo Altieri to the Lateran, and the Canons sent one of their coaches to convey Stradella to the church. He brought Ortensia with him, and found Cucurullo already waiting at the transept door.
'It is impossible to get in by this way, sir,' said the hunchback, coming to the window of the carriage. 'All Rome is here, from the Sacred College and the Queen of Sweden to the poorest notary's clerk, and it would take an hour to make your way through the crowd. Below the tabernacle the church is nearly half full of country people.'
'You will have to go in by the main door,' Stradella said to Ortensia. 'Cucurullo will take you as far up the church as possible, and will not leave your side till I come. As for me, I must go round by the sacristy. Get up behind, Cucurullo, and tell the coachman to take us to the other entrance.'
Cucurullo obeyed with some difficulty, for a crowd of young idlers of the poorer sort had collected to see the cardinals and nobles go in, and they pressed upon him to touch his hump for luck, which should be at least double on such a day; and most of them blessed him, lest he should look round angrily and cast the Evil Eye upon them. But as he was short he found it hard to reach the footman's hanging strap, till a couple of strong fellows lifted him bodily and set him on the footboard. He submitted kindly to the touches he felt, and thanked his helpers with a smile. Then the coach drove away.
Leaning back in its depths, Ortensia wound her arms round her husband's neck, and kissed him tenderly.
'I shall sing for you only, love,' he said. 'Even if you cannot see me, you will know that every note comes from my heart, and is meant only for your ears!'
'One day more, and I shall have you all to myself,' she answered softly.
The coach stopped again, and Cucurullo dropped from the footboard behind and came to the door. Stradella had now no time to lose, and he let Ortensia get out alone and go in with his man, and before she had disappeared he was driven away to the door of the sacristy. A few moments later he was in the singers' robing-room, hastily getting into the purple silk cassock and the spotless lace-trimmed cotta which he had to wear when he appeared in the organ-loft of a basilica, or among the singers of the Sistine Chapel. He brought these things, with his own score of his music, in a purple cloth bag which Ortensia had worked for him, and she had embroidered a lyre on it in silver thread, with the word 'Harmonia' in cursive letters for a motto.
Half the singers were already in the organ loft, and the Canons were in their places droning the psalms for the day antiphonally, and very much through their portentous noses, even as they do to-day. As the noise they made was neither musical nor edifying, Roman society was conversing without the least restraint, except from the fact of being packed rather close together in a comparatively small space. Here and there little openings in the crowd marked the positions of the Cardinals and their parasites, of Queen Christina with her court, and of two or three of the greatest Roman ladies, such as the Princess Orsini and the Princess Rospigliosi, whose husbands were Princes of the Empire as well as Roman nobles. They all talked pleasantly and jested, and even laughed, as if they were anywhere but in church, only pausing when the Gloria Patri was sung from time to time at the end of a psalm.
Far overhead the level beams of the lowering sun poured through the northwest windows. From the ancient mosaic of the tribune vault the still faces of heavenly personages looked down at the doings of a half-believing age with a sad and solemn surprise.
While they talked, the ex-Queen and many others glanced occasionally at the balcony of the organ, and when Stradella at last appeared a little murmur of satisfaction ran through the courtly throng, quite different in tone from the hum of conversation that had preceded it; and as he looked down the great singer saw many acquaintances who made signs of greeting to him, and the ex-Queen waved her painted fan high in the air, while a sprightly little Neapolitan duchess, who was in Rome for a visit and had known him a long time, actually blew him a kiss from the tips of her small gloved fingers. He smiled gravely, nodded once or twice, and disappeared behind the other singers.
From the other side of the balcony, where it ran round the organ to the rickety wooden steps, his gaze searched the distance, looking for Ortensia; and at last he saw her on the outskirts of the crowd of common people and peasants, leaning against the corner of the third pilaster from the main entrance on his left as he looked down the church. His eyes were good, and, besides, though she wore a large veil exactly like that of many of the other ladies, he was sure it was she because Cucurullo was beside her, unmistakable by his deformity, even at that distance and in the shadow that darkened the nave below. Stradella had a roll of music in his hand and, looking towards his wife, he held it above his head for a signal; he immediately saw her raise her hand and wave it a little, and Cucurullo held up his broad hat too. They had seen him and he was satisfied; and at that moment the Canons reached the end of the last psalm, and Stradella joined in the Gloria that followed it, still standing where he was and looking at Ortensia in the distance. He let his voice ring out to her, as different in tone from all the other voices in the loft as strings are different from wood and brass instruments, and every syllable he sang reached her ear; and now she raised her hand again to show that she had heard him, and he held up his little roll of music to return her signal, and then went to the front of the organ to direct the concerted piece that was to follow.
If there had been time, he would have stopped and looked back again, for as he turned he had the impression, without the certainty, that Trombin and Gambardella were standing at the edge of the crowd on the other side of the nave from Ortensia. She had told him of the step Cucurullo had taken, and he had not blamed his man; on the contrary, the thought that the two Bravi were perhaps near her now was comforting, and he wished that he were quite sure of having seen them. As he took his place at the desk to direct, he glanced to his right again, but the singing men close to him hindered him from seeing the body of the church.
He had not been mistaken, however, for the Bravi were there and just in sight, at some little distance behind Ortensia, near the pilaster next beyond the one by which she stood. They were both dressed in black, and though it was a warm afternoon in June, each carried a black cloak on his arm. Their long hair was parted and smoothed with even more than customary neatness, and Trombin's yellow locks were so wonderfully arranged that they might easily have been taken for a wig. His pink face wore a more than usually boyish and innocent expression, and as he stood beside his companion listening to what the latter was saying in an undertone, his eyes gazed steadily at Ortensia's graceful figure. Both men were evidently indifferent to the possibility of her turning and seeing them, and in fact they had taken up their present position in the hope of being seen by Stradella himself from the organ, acting the part of protectors to his wife.
'We have trusted each other in much more dangerous affairs than this,' Gambardella said, almost in a whisper, 'but I have never before known you to lose your heart to the subject of our operations.'
'"Subject" is good!' answered Trombin. '"Subject" is excellent! You speak like a teacher of anatomy! But, so far, you are right, for I cannot take my eyes from that adorable lady. My friend, do you notice the exquisite curve from the throat to the shoulder and from the shoulder to the elbow? And the marvellously suggestive fall of the skirt? And the reflection of the sunshine from overhead in her wonderful hair where it shows from under her veil? Answer me, have you ever seen anything more perfect in art or nature?'
'No, nor anything more complete than your madness,' answered Gambardella. 'If you speak a little louder she will hear you!'
'And turn her angel's eyes to mine!' whispered Trombin sentimentally. 'There is no poetry in your soul, my friend! You were certainly born without any heart, or, if I may say so, with a heart like a German prune, all dried up and hard, and needing to be boiled for hours in syrup to soften it! On the other hand, I may compare my own to the fresh fruit on the tree in July, delicate, juicy, and almost palpitating in the sunshine with its own sweetness!'
Gambardella smiled sourly and shook his head.
'You once had a good intelligence,' he said, 'but it is shattered. Are you capable of listening to me like a sensible being, while that lady is in sight? If not, come with me behind the pilaster, for I have something to say before we separate.'
As if admitting that he was helpless so long as he could gaze on Ortensia, Trombin allowed his friend to lead him away into the shadow.
'Now, listen,' said Gambardella. 'We are playing three games, and if you call yours one, it is the fourth, and the stakes are high. The smallest mistake or hesitation will lose us everything, as you know, and before long we shall be living in an attic again and supping on salt fish and olives. But if we win we shall have money enough to enjoy a whole year of luxury, and with a little economy to live comfortably for a much longer time.'
'I know it,' answered Trombin, on whom the stronger will of his companion made an impression. 'I shall keep my head at the right moment, never fear!'
'But in order that we may risk nothing, I had better play the first part of the comedy, since that is the most important to the success of the whole.'
The two cut-throats looked at each other steadily for some moments, as if neither meant to give way, and possibly they remembered their first meeting, a good many years earlier; for their acquaintance had begun in a sharp quarrel, in which they had almost instantly fallen to fighting, and it was not till they had fenced for nearly twenty minutes, without a scratch on either side, though each was trying to kill the other, that they had both lowered their rapiers in mutual admiration, and had forthwith made the alliance which had never been shaken since.
Yet, though they were so evenly matched in strength and skill, Gambardella was the more determined character, and in important moments like the present his decision generally prevailed; and so it ended now, for Trombin at last turned his round eyes away and nodded his assent.
'Very well,' he said, in a tone of resignation. 'Then I will wait for Stradella at the door of the sacristy. That was the original plan. Hark! He is singing now!'
The two came out from behind the pillar and stood still to listen; and Gambardella's eyes gazed steadily at the vast mosaic above the tribune, while his friend's look fixed itself again on Ortensia's graceful figure, and he feasted his sight, while his ears were filled with the most rare music that the world had ever heard in that day.
Only those who have listened to a beautiful voice singing in the Lateran towards evening can understand that, in spite of the grievous disfigurements of the barocco age, and the exaggerated modern decorations of the nineteenth century, the 'Mother of all Churches,' as the Basilica is called, can still seem the most deeply and truly hallowed place of worship in Christendom. There is a mystery in it at the sunset hour which is felt by all men, though none can explain it; the light glows and fades there as nowhere else, the shadows have a sweet solemnity of their own, and consummate art, or supreme good-fortune, has made the vast nave and colonnaded aisles responsive to the softest notes the human voice can breathe. First the full organ blares out triumphantly alone, and by and by the chorus, borne up by the master instrument, swells from a hundred throats in such tremendous harmonies that the marble pavement seems alive and thrilling under a man's feet; yet the words are not lost in a clashing din of senseless noise, for every one of them is complete and reaches the astonished ear unbroken and distinct. Then, in an instant, the enormous gale of sound is hushed and leaves no echo, and one voice alone is singing a low melody, divinely spiritual as an angel's prayer. It rises presently, full and strong, but every syllable rings out clear and perfect, even to the outer doors; it sinks to all but a whisper, yet each delicate articulation floats unbroken to the remotest corner of the outer aisle, till he who listens feels the word vibrating in his heart rather than in his outward ears.
Ortensia felt more than that, for the music was that of the man she loved so well, and the single voice was his too, and the prayer it sang was for her, and was in her heart while she listened; and, moreover, Alessandro Stradella was not matched in voice or genius by any singer of his age. It would be as hopeless to attempt a description of his singing on that day as to analyse the feelings that thrilled Ortensia. There are delights that must be felt to be believed, and only three are noble, for they have their sources in true love, and in supreme art, and in honourable fight for wife and child and country. Ortensia felt the first two of these together; but he who dies, not having known even one of them, had better not have lived at all.
As afternoon turned to evening, the straight golden beams overhead melted to a red glow that spread downwards and illuminated all the great church for a little while; then the light deepened to purple, and that softened to violet, and the candles about the high altar under the tabernacle shone out through thin clouds of incense like many stars. Again Stradella's voice was heard alone, and Ortensia sank upon her knees beside her pillar, though it was not yet quite time for kneeling. It was as if she could bear no more of such intense pleasure without praying to heaven that it might be hers hereafter to love her true love to all ages, and for ever to hear his voice singing to her in a place of peace.
The Bravi had now parted company, and Trombin had quietly gone out of the church, leaving Gambardella alone. The dark-faced man in black moved slowly and noiselessly as a shadow; he crossed the nave far down by the door, and walked up the outer aisle on the south side, till he could go no farther up for the crowd; then he turned to his right, making his way quietly through the multitude wherever the people were least closely packed, and he emerged at last not far from where Ortensia was kneeling, and with all the appearance of having come out of the thick of the press, which was exactly what he wished her to believe.
She was still kneeling, and Cucurullo was standing beside her, hat in hand. It was now so dark in the body of the Basilica that Stradella could not possibly see any one there, especially as he was dazzled by the many candles that illuminated the upper end of the church.
Gambardella bowed gravely and bent down to speak near Ortensia's ear.
'I have a message from the Maestro for you,' he said, almost in a whisper.
Ortensia had already looked up with a little surprise, which now increased.
'A message?' she repeated. 'We came here together, and he has not left the organ loft since!'
'Precisely,' answered Gambardella, unmoved. 'I was standing in the crowd just below, and when he had finished directing the motett he made me a sign to go to the steps at the back. I went, and he was already halfway down the ladder. He seemed much agitated. You must have noticed how strangely his voice thrilled in that last piece he sang.'
'Yes. Tell me what he said!'
Ortensia was already breathless with anxiety, and as she spoke she got upon her feet. Gambardella helped her.
'He had a note in his hand. It was a warning which some one had brought to him in the loft. Altieri's plan is to conceal a number of men in your apartment this last night that you are to sleep there. When all is quiet they are to gag you and your husband, and carry you downstairs to Don Alberto's carriage. If you attempt to go home to the palace the scheme will inevitably succeed.'
Ortensia stood leaning back against the pilaster very white. Gambardella continued.
'The Maestro asked me if I knew of any place of safety to which you could both go to-night before leaving Rome to-morrow. I told him that my friend and I have just hired a small house in a quiet part of the city, which is at your service, especially as we have not yet moved to it. He begged me to take you there at once before Don Alberto can leave the church, and possibly see you driving away with me.'
'But my husband——' interrupted Ortensia.
'My friend Trombin is already at the door of the sacristy, and will bring him to you as soon as he can get away. It will be nearly half an hour before the Benediction is over. But there is no time to be lost. Ah—I forgot! He wished Cucurullo to hasten to the palace and get his manuscripts and his lute, and any small necessaries for you that can be hidden under a cloak. Your man can get there, and be on his way back before Don Alberto can be at home. Even if the men are already concealed in the apartment they will not trouble Cucurullo for fear of betraying their master. As for your woman, Altieri has probably had her arrested and taken away.'
Gambardella had purposely told his story so that Cucurullo could hear it, and had glanced at him from time to time to be sure that he understood.
'Are you afraid to go alone?' asked the Bravo, not at all contemptuously.
'No, sir. I am not afraid. Where shall I find my master when I have got the things?'
'Do you know where Santa Prassede is, in that narrow street near Santa Maria Maggiore?'
'Certainly, sir. Shall I wait at the side door of the church? It is a lonely place.'
'Yes. Be there as soon as you can. The house is close by, but I could not easily make you understand which it is.' Gambardella turned to Ortensia. 'Will you come with me?' he asked. 'My friend and I have a carriage, and it is at the main door.'
Ortensia laid her hand on the Bravo's arm, not doubting that she was obeying her husband's wishes for her safety and his. It would have taken more than Don Alberto's rude assertion to make her and Stradella distrust the men who had helped them so efficiently in their flight. The two might be Bravi, as he said, but they were friends, and in such a case as this they were the very friends the young couple needed.
The three entered the inner aisle to avoid all possibility of being seen by Don Alberto, and hastened towards the main door. Though Ortensia was not timid, her heart beat a little faster when she thought of the danger from which she was escaping. It was already nearly dark in the church, but the twilight was still bright outside, and the carriage was standing quite close to the old porch; for the present portico was not built then, and the steep carriage road ended in a square patch of pavement before the doors.
Cucurullo glanced at the coachman and recognised Tommaso, who nodded to him with a friendly smile. Then the hunchback hurried away on his errand, leaving Gambardella to take care of Ortensia, who was already getting in.
'To Santa Prassede,' said the Bravo to the coachman, in a tone meant for Ortensia's ears.
Then he got in, shut the door, and seated himself beside her, bolt upright, with his rapier between his knees, and his hands clasped on the hilt. Ortensia glanced at him in the dim light, and noticed his attitude with satisfaction, and not without reflecting on the terror she would feel if Don Alberto were in his place. Nothing could be more reassuring than Gambardella's behaviour.
'I suppose the carriage will go back for my husband?' she said. 'The Canons lent us one of theirs to bring us to the church and take us home, but you will not trust to that, will you?'
'No, indeed! If you do not mind being alone in the house for twenty minutes I will go back with this carriage, or it can go without me and I will stay with you.'
'I shall not be afraid,' Ortensia answered rashly. 'On the contrary, I shall feel much safer if I know that you are going for my husband yourself, for there can be no mistake then.'
'Precisely,' Gambardella said. 'That will be the best way.'
'How kind you are!' Ortensia sighed, and leaned back in the deep seat.
She did not know Rome very well yet, and it was the hour when all the little snail-shell lamps were being lighted for the feast, and their glimmer still further confused her; besides, she was not quite sure where Santa Prassede was, nor in what sort of neighbourhood it was situated. In that wide region, then almost without inhabitants, and mostly divided into hedged vineyards and market-gardens, small groups of houses stood here and there, more or less alike, but generally in the neighbourhood of the ancient churches which had been built before the city was unpeopled in the Middle Ages. Ortensia was not in the least surprised when the carriage stopped before a decent-looking little house, after ascending a steep hill. Gambardella opened the carriage and got out to help her down.
'Are you quite sure that you do not mind being left alone here for a while?' he asked, as he unlocked the door of the house, and held it open for her to go in.
'If you can give me a light I shall not mind being alone at all,' Ortensia answered, and she went in.
He followed her at once, shut the door behind him to keep out the chilly breeze, and began the process of getting a light with flint and steel and tinder and one of those wooden matches dipped in sulphur, which had then been recently invented. By the sparks he made Ortensia saw that he was standing beside an old marble table on which stood a brass lamp with a three-cornered bowl that slid up and down on a stem.
The place had the peculiar odour of small Italian houses that are built of stone, that stand in vineyards or market-gardens, and that are rarely opened; it is a smell compounded of the odour of the worm-eaten furniture, smoke-stained kitchen ceiling and wall, and the dusty plaster within the house, combined with a faint sub-odour of growing things, from vines to broccoli, which finds its way through the cracks of badly fitting doors and windows.
When there was light at last, Ortensia saw that she was in a commonplace little whitewashed vestibule, from which a single flight of stone stairs led directly to the door of the living rooms above. Gambardella went up first, holding the brass lamp low down for her to see the steps. The room into which he led her had a Venetian pavement, and was sufficiently well furnished. The walls were painted to represent views which were presumably visible from the windows by day.
'Are you quite sure there is no one in the house?' asked Ortensia, who liked the prospect of solitude less and less as the time for being left alone came nearer.
'There is a bedroom at each end,' answered Gambardella. 'You shall see for yourself. Above this there is a sort of attic which can only be reached from outside by steps that also lead to a terrace on the roof.'
He showed her the two bedrooms, which had evidently been just cleaned and put in order, and looked very neat. Ortensia was reassured.
'And what is there downstairs?' she asked.
'A kitchen and a dining-room,' Gambardella answered. 'But I must be off if I am to fetch the Maestro. We shall be here in half an hour at the utmost.'
Just then a great bell not very far off tolled three strokes, then four, then five, and then one, and an instant later it rang out in a peal.
'It is Ave Maria,' Gambardella said. 'The Benediction is over by this time. You had better come down with me and hook the chain inside the front door.'
Ortensia followed him down the stairs again, and he carried the lamp. As he went she heard him hurriedly repeating the Angelus.
'"Angelus Domini nuntiavit,"' he began, quite audibly, but the words that followed were said in a whisper.
Ortensia repeated the prayer to herself too, partly by force of habit, no doubt, but partly because it was a comfort to say it with the kind-hearted friend who had once more intervened to help her and her husband in time of danger. Even the Bravo, who could say his prayers uncommonly fast, had not finished when they reached the foot of the stairs, and as Ortensia set the lamp on the corner of the yellow marble table she distinctly heard him say the first words of the third responsory.
'"And dwelt with us,"' she answered quietly and clearly.
He laid his hand on the lock of the hall door, and when he turned to her his eyes met hers with a look she had never seen. Both repeated the third Ave Maria aloud, while he gazed earnestly at her pure young face, so sweetly framed in the soft folds of the veil. Then without waiting for the final prayer he opened the door, and as he shut it after him she heard him say something aloud, but the words were so strange and unexpected that she repeated them to herself twice while she was hooking the chain before she quite realised what they were, and understood them.
'"And Judas went out and hanged himself."'
That was what he had said as he went away.
When Stradella came down from the organ-loft after the Benediction he was in haste to reach the sacristy before any of the choristers, as he did not mean to keep Ortensia waiting a moment longer than necessary. But to his annoyance a number of his admiring acquaintances had already made their way to that side; and this was the more easy, because the throng of common people who had pressed upon the fashionable company had already retreated down the church to the main entrance in haste to see the beginning of the witches' feast and the snail-shell illumination.
At every step the musician had to shake hands and receive civilly the congratulations that were showered upon him; and suddenly Don Alberto was beside him, and was drawing him away.
'The Queen insists on thanking you herself, dear Maestro,' said the courtier, smiling. 'I see that you are in a hurry, but royalty is royalty, and you must sacrifice yourself on the altar of your own fame with a good grace!'
Unsuspecting of harm as he was, Stradella yielded, and tried not to look displeased. While speaking Altieri had dragged him through the crowd towards Christina, who was standing up, evidently waiting for them, and looking particularly mannish in her three-cornered hat and short skirt. The only ornament she had put on was the magnificent cross of diamonds which she wore on her bosom at all times.
'One has to come to church to see you, Maestro,' she cried in a heavily playful manner. 'Do you know that you have not darkened my doors for a fortnight, sir? What is the meaning of this? But I forgive you, for your music has ravished my soul, falling like a refreshing shower on my burning anger!'
The metaphors were badly mixed, but Stradella bent one knee and made a pretence of kissing the unshapely hand she held out to him, and he muttered a formula expressive of gratitude.
'I am overcome by your Majesty's kindness,' he said, or something to that effect.
'To-morrow,' said the ex-Queen, 'I shall send you the medal and diploma of my Academy as a slight acknowledgment of the pleasure I have had this afternoon. At present Don Alberto is going to introduce me to the quaint Roman custom of eating snails in the open air. Will you join us, Maestro? But I see that you are still in your robes, and I have no doubt you look forward to a more substantial supper than a dish of molluscs fried in oil! Good-night, my dear Maestro. Vale, as those delightful ancients used to say!'
She waved her hand affectedly as she turned to go. It seemed an age to Stradella before he reached the sacristy, and when he got there he was surprised to find Trombin waiting by the door of the choristers' robing-room. The Bravo went in with him, and began to help him out of his cotta and cassock.
'I came to tell you that your lady is already gone home,' Trombin said in a low voice. 'She felt a sudden dizziness and weakness, as if she were going to faint. Luckily I was not far off, and when I saw Cucurullo supporting her I went to his assistance, and we took her out to her carriage, which was waiting.'
Stradella looked at him anxiously, but the Bravo only smiled.
'Nothing serious, I am sure,' the latter said, in a reassuring tone. 'But she will be glad to see you as soon as possible, and if the Canons' carriage has not come back, my friend and I will take you home at once in ours; we have just bought one for our convenience.'
'Thank you,' Stradella answered, letting Trombin help him to pull his arms out of the tight sleeves of the purple silk cassock. 'You are very kind.'
He was evidently too anxious about Ortensia to say more, and in a few seconds he had got into his coat, and Trombin was arranging the broad linen collar for him as cleverly as any valet could have done.
Trombin was well aware that Tommaso was not coming back to the Lateran with the coach, since the bells were already ringing for Ave Maria, and the man was to meet Don Alberto behind the Baptistery in an hour—'the first hour of the night'; but he pretended angry surprise at not finding the carriage waiting. The one provided by the Canons was there, however, and Stradella recognised it, which Trombin could not have done, amongst the crowd of equipages that were waiting for the numerous ecclesiastics who had taken part in the service. It was now all but quite dark, but the coachman had received orders to be near the door and ready, lest the famous singer should catch cold.
Stradella was in far too great a hurry to question him, and jumped in at once, glad that Trombin should go with him. The carriage drove away at a smart pace, long before the owners of the other coaches were ready to go home.
Before the gateway of the Palazzo Altieri, Stradella got out, and tossed a florin up to the coachman, who caught it with a grin, and drove away at once.
'A thousand thanks!' the musician said, shaking Trombin's hand.
'I have done nothing,' the Bravo answered. 'I hope to hear to-morrow that your lady——'
But Stradella was already gone, and was running up the broad staircase at the top of his speed. A moment more and he knocked at his own door, of which the heavy key had been in Cucurullo's keeping when they had all left the house together to go to the Lateran.
Pina opened the door in her usual quiet way, and was a little surprised to see Stradella alone.
'How is she?' he asked, as soon as he saw her face by the light of the hanging lamp in the hall.
'Who, sir?' inquired the woman, not understanding.
'My wife——' He sprang past her to go in.
'The Lady Ortensia has not come home,' he heard Pina say behind him, in a tone of such astonishment that he stopped before he had reached the door of the sitting-room.
'Not come home?' he cried in amazement. 'You are out of your senses!'
Pina had shut the front door, and she followed him as he rushed into the sitting-room after speaking. She had lit the lamp, and it was burning quietly on the table. The door of the bedroom was opened wide to let the air circulate, but there was no light there. Nevertheless Stradella ran on to the bed.
'Ortensia!' he cried, feeling for her head on the pillows, for he could not see.
Then he uttered a low exclamation of surprise and looked round. Pina was already bringing in the lamp, and he realised at once that she had spoken the truth. Ortensia had not come home; but even now no doubt of the Bravi crossed his mind, and he was anxious only because Trombin had said that she was feeling ill. The carriage must have broken down or some other accident had happened which would explain why Trombin had not found the conveyance waiting as he had expected. The thought of a possible accident was distressing enough, but it was a comfort to think that Gambardella and Cucurullo were with her, and would bring her home in due time.
In a few words Stradella repeated to Pina what Trombin had told him, and in his own anxiety he did not see that she was now very pale, and that her hand shook so violently that she had to set down the lamp she held for fear of dropping it.
'She will be at home in a few minutes,' Stradella said in conclusion, trying to reassure himself. 'I will go downstairs again and wait for her. Give me my cloak, Pina, for I am very hot, and it will be cool under the archway.'
Trembling in every limb, Pina got his wide black cloak and laid it upon his shoulders. He drew up one corner of it and threw it round his neck, so as to muffle his throat against the outer air.
'Pina,' he said, 'your mistress was feeling ill. She was dizzy, my friend said. We must have something ready for her to take. What will be best?'
'Perhaps a little infusion of camomile,' Pina answered, her teeth chattering with fear.
He could not help noticing from her voice that there was something wrong, and he now looked at her for the first time and saw that she was livid.
'I have a chill,' she managed to say. 'I have caught the fever, sir. It does not matter! I have some camomile leaves, and I will make the infusion while you wait downstairs.'
'You ought to be in bed yourself,' Stradella said kindly, but at the same instant it occurred to him that Ortensia had perhaps taken a fever too. 'To-morrow I will try to procure from the Pope's physician some of that wonderful Peruvian bark that cures the fever,' he added. 'They call it quina, I think, and few apothecaries have it.'
This was true, though nearly forty years had then already passed since the Spanish Countess of Cinchon had first brought the precious bark to Europe, and had named it after herself, Cinchona.
Stradella was not yet by any means desperately anxious about his wife when he went downstairs again, as may be understood from his last words to the serving-woman. He was, in fact, wondering whether Ortensia herself had not a touch of the ague, which was so common then that no one thought it a serious illness. He went downstairs with the conviction that she would appear within a quarter of an hour escorted by Gambardella and Cucurullo, and he began to walk under the great archway, from the entrance to the courtyard and back again.
As soon as he was gone Pina went to her own little room, taking the lamp with her. First she dressed herself in her best frock, which was of good brown Florentine cloth; and then she took a large blue cotton kerchief and made a bundle consisting of some linen and a few necessaries. On that very morning Stradella had paid her wages, expecting to leave Rome the next day, and she took the money and tied it up securely in a little scrap of black silk and hid it in her dress. Lastly, she put on the same brown cloak and hood she had worn on the journey from Venice, took her bundle under it, replaced the lamp on the sitting-room table, and left the apartment by the small door which gave access to the servants' staircase; a few moments later she slipped out of the palace, unobserved except by the old door-keeper who kept the back entrance and let her out.
'I am going to the apothecary's for some camomile,' she said quietly, and the old man merely nodded as he opened the street door for her.
The Bravi had cared very little whether Pina was at home or not when Cucurullo came to get the objects for which Stradella had sent him at Gambardella's suggestion. One of two things must happen, they thought, for it was clear that Cucurullo would explain everything to her, if he saw her. Either she would come with him to Santa Prassede, and there she might wait with him all night, for all they cared; or else she would run away as soon as he left the house, for they guessed that she would be afraid. But things had turned out differently. When Cucurullo had reached the apartment Pina was not there, for she had just gone down the backstairs to get the evening supply of milk which the milkman left with the keeper of the back door. Cucurullo, not finding her, had picked up the lute, the case of manuscripts, and a small hand valise which was already packed for the journey with necessaries belonging both to Stradella and his wife, and he had gone off again before Pina had returned.
She did not miss the things till Stradella came, and she carried the lamp into the bedroom; but then she understood that some one had been in the house during her short absence, and it flashed upon her that Ortensia had already been carried off, though she could not have told why she connected such a possibility with what she took for a theft committed in the apartment. Insane terror took possession of her then, with the vision of being left behind at the mercy of Don Alberto, and she fled without hesitation, taking with her nothing that was not her own, and only what she could easily carry for a journey. As for Cucurullo, he had no time to waste, and thought that in any case she would be safe enough from Don Alberto's men, whose only business would be to seize her mistress. Being fearless himself, it never occurred to him that she would run away out of sheer fright.
Stradella paced the flagstones under the archway, waiting for the carriage, and as the time passed his anxiety grew steadily till it became almost unbearable. The tall bearded porter stood motionless by the entrance, resting both his hands on the huge silver pommel of his polished staff. He could stand in that position for hours without moving. At last Stradella spoke to him.
'Has Don Alberto come home yet, Gaetano?' he asked.
'No, sir.' The porter touched his large three-cornered hat respectfully, for the musician had that morning given him a handsome tip preparatory to leaving. 'His Excellency may not come home till very late,' he vouchsafed to add, with a faint smile.
Stradella saw that he was inclined to talk, and though he himself had no fancy for entering into conversation with servants, he made a remark in the nature of a question.
'I dare say his Excellency sometimes does not come home before morning.'
'Sometimes, sir,' answered Gaetano, grinning in his big black beard. 'But then he generally gives me notice, so that I need not sit up all night. He is a very good-hearted young gentleman, sir, as I dare say you know, for you are a friend of his. And since you have asked me if he has come home, and you are perhaps waiting for him, I can tell you that he will not be back to-night, nor perhaps to-morrow, for that was the message he sent me by his valet this afternoon.'
'Thank you,' said Stradella. 'But I am not waiting for him. I am expecting my wife and my man.'
He nodded and went back to his beat under the archway, and before he had walked twice the distance between the gate and the courtyard, all the bells of Rome rang out the first hour of the night. An hour had passed since Ortensia had let Gambardella out of the little house in the Via di Santa Sabina.
The peal was still ringing from the belfry of the Lateran when Don Alberto and Tommaso met on the green behind the church, not far from the closed door of the sacristy. They came from opposite directions, and Tommaso was leading two saddled mules. The young courtier had succeeded in making his escape from Queen Christina and her party, promising to join them at supper at the Palazzo Riario within an hour.
In the lonely little house in Via di Santa Sabina, Ortensia was sitting upstairs by the table, pale and upright in her chair, and listening for the slightest sound that might break the profound silence.
But she heard nothing. The three wicks of the brass lamp on the table burned with a steady flame, and without any of those very faint crepitations which olive-oil lamps make heard when the weather is about to change. There was not the least sound in the small house: if there were mice anywhere they were asleep; if worms were boring in the old furniture they were working silently; if any house swallows had made their nests under the eaves they were roosting. The stillness was like that of a solid and inert mass, as if all the world had been suddenly petrified and made motionless.
It seemed to Ortensia that she had never been quite alone for so long a time in her life; it was certainly true that she had never before been locked up in a lonely house at night without a human being within call. First, her feet grew strangely cold; then she felt a sort of creeping fear stealing up to her out of the floor, as if she had drunk hemlock and death were travelling slowly towards her heart, paralysing every limb and joint on its relentless way.
It was not senseless physical fright, like Pina's; it would not drive her to leave the house and run away into the darkness outside; if there were anything to face Ortensia would face it, or try to, but what terrified her now was that there was nothing, not a sound of life, not the breath of a night breeze amongst leaves outside, not the stirring of a mouse indoors. It was like the silence of the tomb.
Suddenly she heard bells, but they sounded far off, and all the windows were tightly closed. She crossed herself with difficulty, and whispered a 'Requiem aeternam' for all Christian souls, as good Catholics are enjoined to do at the first hour of night. But it was an effort to raise her hand to her forehead in making the sign; and suddenly, as if in answer to her prayer, she seemed to hear the Bravo's voice close beside her:—
'"And Judas went out and hanged himself."'
With the energy of a healthy young nature that revolts against supernatural fears, she rose to her feet and went to one of the windows, of which there were two on each side, looking over the road and towards the vineyard respectively. She tried the fastenings of the first and moved them, but she could not do more, though she used all her strength. The frame seemed to be stuck beyond the possibility of being opened without tools. She went to the next, and the next, till she had tried all four; then her fear came back, for it was all more like a bad dream than a reality, and the certainty flashed upon her that the windows had been purposely fastened with nails or screws to prevent her from looking out.
Gambardella had promised to come back with her husband in twenty minutes. Three times that interval had now passed, and more too, and she was still alone. It was not possible that any one should have knocked for admittance without her hearing the sound, for the door of the sitting-room was open to the stairs, and the house was no bigger than a cottage.
She went back to her chair by the table, ashamed of feeling that she could hardly stand. It was not strange that her fear of her own situation should be stronger just then than her anxiety for Stradella, believing, as she did, that Don Alberto had made his plans for that very night, and thinking, as was natural, that his great power in Rome might even have sufficed to have her followed from the Lateran, in which case he could well hinder her husband and Gambardella from joining her, and she would be at his mercy just as if she had gone home to sleep in the palace.
Tommaso and young Altieri rode quickly away from the illuminated meadow, which was now full of people who either thronged the overflowing booths, or walked about on the grass laughing and talking, and waiting till those who were supping should make room for them. The riding mules of those times were swift and much surer of foot than horses, and it was not long before the two men reached the rickety wooden gate of the old Jewish cemetery.
Here Tommaso dismounted, and whispering to Don Alberto to do the same, he tied the mules' bridles to the gate-post, which was still sound. Then he led the way up the hill, and both men trod so cautiously that when they passed the little house Ortensia did not hear a footfall in the road through the closed windows. Tommaso did not stop at the house door, however, but led Altieri on to the next, which was placed in the long wall and gave access to the vineyard. It was not fastened, and both went in, Tommaso putting his arm through Don Alberto's to guide him and help him if he stumbled.
The rain on the previous night had softened the earth, and there was a path between the inside of the wall and the trained vines. They followed this, until they were twenty paces from the house, when Tommaso stopped.
'The lady is alone in there,' he said, pointing. 'Show me the money.'
Don Alberto was prepared. With his left hand he produced a heavy deerskin purse, and with the other he drew a long knife from under his cloak. It gleamed in the starlight, and Tommaso saw it not far from his throat; but with the utmost coolness he took the purse and tried its weight in his hand, before untying the strings to feel the coins. When he was satisfied, he tied the purse again and gave it back to Don Alberto, who at once returned his knife to its sheath.
'To satisfy you,' said the old highwayman, 'I have set a ladder against the window of the room where she is probably waiting, and I have made a small hole through the outer shutter, through which you can see her. You will then come down the ladder, and I will let you into the house by the back door, which is open. Before you go in, you will hand me the money, and I will leave you, after giving you a light. We had better make no noise, lest she should come downstairs.'
'Very well. Take me to the ladder.'
Tommaso now struck through the vines, skirting the angle of the house at some distance, till he came to the straight walk that led to the back door. Don Alberto was used to night adventures, and saw the ladder distinctly before he came to it. When they had reached it, walking on tip-toe, Tommaso planted his foot firmly against the foot of it, so as to hold it steady, and he pointed to a little ray of light that shone out through the hole in the shutter. Don Alberto nodded and went up very cautiously. It was one of those long ladders used by Italian vine-dressers and had heavy rungs very far apart. Tommaso had wound rags round the tops of the side pieces, so that they should make no noise against the wall. Don Alberto stopped when his head was on a level with the ray of light, and applying his eye to the hole he saw the beautiful Venetian sitting motionless by the table. Having satisfied himself that she was within and alone, he lost no time in coming down, and the rest happened as Tommaso had explained that it should, except that it did not prove necessary to strike a light; for the back door opened under the stairs, in the small vestibule, and the door above being open, the lamp in the sitting-room sent down a glimmer from above that was quite enough to show the way.
At the first sound of steps below Ortensia started to her feet, understanding instantly that some one had entered the house by stealth, since she herself had put up the chain at the front door.
For one fatal moment she hesitated and stood motionless. Then, as the footsteps mounted the little staircase at a run, she sprang to shut the door; but it was too late, for Don Alberto was already on the threshold. He caught her with one arm and almost lifted her back into the room, while with the other hand he slammed the door, turned the key, and thrust it into his pocket.
She was struggling wildly in his arms then, but he laughed, as ruthless children do when they have caught a little bird and can torment it at their will.
'Softly, softly!' he cried. 'You will hurt yourself, my sweet! There, there! You have scratched your pretty arm already!'
It was true. She had cut her arm against one of the chiselled buttons of his coat, just above the wrist, and the red drops ran down over his lace wristband. But she felt no pain and she fought like a tigress against his hold; so far she had uttered no sound, but now her voice rang out.
'Coward!' she cried suddenly, and with one mad wrench she had her hands at his throat, and her strong little fingers were almost crushing his windpipe.
He could not hold her now, for she was strangling him; to free himself he let go of her waist and caught at her wrists to tear her hands away. But her strength was like a strong man's in that moment, and he could not loosen her hold.
He felt that in another moment she would have strangled him outright, for his eyes were already starting from his head, and the room swam. With furious violence he twisted himself sideways and tried to hurl her from him. Even then she did not loosen her desperate grip, but as he swung her and himself half round, her head struck the wall of the room. Then her hands relaxed instantly, and as he reeled backwards in regaining his balance, he saw her sink to the floor, stunned and unconscious.
A crash like thunder broke upon the moment's silence that followed. The window opposite the table was wide open and shattered, the frame and shutters split to matchwood, the glass in splinters, and, almost as Don Alberto started and turned round, Trombin sprang into the room hatless, with his long rapier in his hand, his round blue eyes wide open and glaring like a wild cat's, his pink cheeks fiery red, and his long yellow hair streaming out from his head like a mane.
At this terrific and most unexpected vision, young Altieri staggered back towards the locked door. Trombin advanced upon him slowly, sword in hand, till he was within three paces, looking more like an avenging demon than a man. Yet when he spoke his voice was calm and steady.
'If it is agreeable to you to draw, sir,' he said, 'I will do you the honour of killing you like a gentleman. If, on the other hand, as I gather from your attitude, you do not think the moment propitious for fighting, I will throw you out of the window as I would a lackey who insulted a lady, sir. Pray choose quickly, sir, before I have counted three, sir, for I am in haste. One—two—three!'