As he looked up to her with those glowing, passionate glances, a maiden fear and trembling for the first time came over her, an anxiety and timidity inexplicable to herself! Her delicate, transparent cheeks paled, tears filled her eyes, and, folding her hands with a childishly supplicating expression, she said in a low, tremulous tone: "My God, my God! Have mercy upon me! I am a wholly abandoned, solitary orphan! Rescue me yet from this trouble and distress, from this terrible loneliness!"
"Fear nothing, my charming angel," whispered Carlo, "I will be gentle as a lamb, and patient, very patient in my sorrow; I have sworn it and will keep my oath! But you must hear me! You must, only this one time, allow me to express in words my love and my sorrow, my misery and my ecstasy. Will you allow me this, my lily, my beautiful swan?"
He would have again grasped her hand, but she withdrew it with a proud, angry glance.
"Speak on," said she, wearily leaning her hand against the myrtle-bush. "Speak on, I will listen to you!"
And he spoke to her of his love; he informed her of his former life, his poverty, his want, his connection with Corilla, whom he had quitted in order to devote himself wholly to her, to obey, serve, and worship her all his life, and, if necessary, to die for her! "But you," he despairingly said, "you know not love! Your heart is cold for earthly love; like the angels in heaven, you love only the good and the sublime, you love mankind collectively, but not the individual. Ah, Natalie, you have the heart of an angel, but not the heart of a woman!"
The young maiden had half dreamingly listened to him, her hand leaned back and her glance directed toward the heavens. She now smiled, and, with an inimitable grace, laying her hand upon her bosom, said in a very low tone: "And yet I feel that a woman's heart is beating there. But it sleeps! Who will one day come to awaken it?"
Carlo did not understand these low whispered words; he understood only his own passion, his own consuming glow. And anew he commenced his love-plainings, described to her the torments and fierce joys of an unreturned love, which is yet too strong and overpowering to be suppressed. And Natalie listened to him with a dreamy thoughtfulness. His words sounded in her ears like a wonderful song from a strange, distant world which she knew not, but the description of which filled her heart with a sweet longing, and she could have wept, without knowing whether it was for sorrow or joy.
"Thus, Natalie," at length said Carlo, entirely exhausted and pale with emotion—"thus I love you. You must sometime have learned it, and have known that even angels cannot mingle with mortals unloved and unpunished. I should finally have been compelled to tell you that you might torture no longer, in cruel ignorance; that you, learning to understand your own heart, might tell me whether I have to hope, or only to fear!"
"Poor Carlo!" murmured Natalie. "You love me, but I do not love you! This has even now become clear to me; and while you have so glowingly described the passion, I have for the first time comprehended that I yet know nothing of that love, and that I can never learn it of you! This is a misfortune, Carlo, but as we cannot change, we must submit to it."
Carlo drooped his head and sighed. He had no answer to make, and only murmuringly repeated her words: "Yes, we must submit to it!"
"And why can we not?" she almost cheerfully asked, with that childlike innocence which never once comprehended the sorrow she was preparing for Carlo—"why can we not joyfully submit? We both love, only in a different manner. Let each preserve and persevere in his own manner, and then all may yet be well!"
"And it shall be well!" exclaimed Carlo, with animation. "You cannot love me as I love you, but I can devote my whole life to you, and that will I do! At home, in my charming Naples, a beautiful custom is prevalent. When one loves, he is adopted as a vapo, a protector, who follows the steps of the one he loves, who watches before her door when she sleeps, who secretly lurks at a distance behind her when she leaves her house, who observes every passer-by in order to preserve her from every murderous or other inimical attack, or in case of need to hasten to her assistance. Such a vapo protects her against the jealousy of her husband or the vengeance of a dismissed lover. Natalie, as I cannot be your lover, I will be your vapo. Will you accept my services?"
Giving him her hand, she smilingly said, "I will."
Carlo pressed that hand to his lips, and bedewed it with a warm tear.
"Well, then, I swear myself your vapo," said he, with deep emotion. "Wherever you may be, I shall be near you, I shall always follow to warn and to protect you; should you be in danger, call me and you will find me at your side, whether by night or by day; I shall always watch over you and sleep at the threshold of your door, and should a dream alarm you, I shall be there to tranquillize you. So long as I live, Natalie, so long as your vapo has a dagger and a sure hand, so long shall misfortune fail to penetrate into your dwelling. You cannot be mine, or return my love, but I can care for you and watch over you. In accepting me for your vapo, you have given me the right to die for you if necessary, and that of itself is a happiness!"
Thus speaking Carlo rose, and, no longer able to conceal his deep emotion and suppress his tears, he left Natalie, and hastened into the obscurest alleys of the garden.
The young maiden watched his retreat with a sad smile.
"Poor Carlo!" murmured she, "and ah! yet much poorer Natalie! He loves at least. But I, am I not much more to be pitied? I have no one whom I love. I am entirely isolated, and of what use is a solitary paradise?"
Corilla had kept her word. She had sent to Alexis Orloff, Carlo's brother, Joseph Ribas, the galley-slave, and with a malicious smile she had said to the latter, "You will avenge me on your treacherous brother?"
Count Orloff warmly welcomed Corilla's protege.
"If you give me satisfaction," said he, "you may expect a royal recompense, and the favor of the exalted Empress of Russia. First of all, tell me what you can do?"
"Not much," said Joseph Ribas, laughing, "and the little I can will yet be condemned as too much. I can very dexterously wield the dagger, and reach the heart through the back! Because I did that to a successful rival at Palermo, I was compelled by the police to flee to Naples. There a good friend taught me how to make counterfeit money, an art which I brought to some perfection, and which I successfully practised for some years. But the police, thinking my skill too great, finally relieved me from my employment, and gave me free board and lodging for ten years in the galley. Ah, that was a happy time, your excellency. I learned much in the galleys, and something which I can now turn to account in your service. I learned to speak the Russian language like a native of Moscow. Such a one was for seven years my inseparable friend and chain-companion, and as he was too stupid or too lazy to learn my language, I was forced to learn his, that I might be able to converse with him a little. That, your excellency, is about all I know; to wield the dagger, make counterfeit money, speak the Russian language, and some other trifling tricks, which, however, may be of service to your excellency."
"Who knows?" said Orloff, laughing. "Do you understand, for example, how to break into a house and steal gold and diamonds, without being caught in the act?"
"That," said Joseph, thoughtfully, "I should hope to be able to accomplish. I have, indeed, as yet, had no experience in that line, but in the galleys I have listened to the soundest instructions, and heard the experiences of the greatest master of that art, with the curiosity of an emulous student!"
Orloff laughed. "You are a sly fellow," said he, "and please me much. If you act as well as you talk, we shall soon be good friends! Well, to-morrow night you make your first essay. The business is an invasion."
"And that shall be my masterpiece!" responded Joseph Ribas.
"If you succeed, I will, in the name of my illustrious empress, immediately take you into her service, and you become an officer of the Russian marine."
Joseph Ribas stared at him with astonishment. "That is certainly an immense honor and a great good fortune," said he, "only I should like to know if the Russian marine engages in sea-fights, and if the officers are obliged to stand under fire?"
"Yes, indeed," cried Orloff, laughing, "but in such cases you can conceal yourself behind the cannon until the fight is over!"
"I shall remember your wise suggestion in time of need!" seriously responded Joseph Ribas, bowing to the count.(*) "And where, your excellency, is to be the scene of my present activity? Where am I to gain my epaulets?"
(*) And, in fact, Ribas did remember it! At a later period, having become a Russian admiral, he was intrusted with the command of the flotilla which was to descend the Danube to aid in the capture of Kilia and Ismail. But during the investment of Ismail (December 21, 1790), Ribas concealed himself among the reeds on the bank of the Danube, and did not reappear until the danger was over and he could in safety share in the booty taken by his sailors. But this cowardice and avarice of their admiral very nearly caused a mutiny among the sailors. It was not suppressed without the greatest efforts.
"I will myself conduct you to the spot and show you the house where a rich set of diamonds and some thousands of scudi are lying in company with your epaulets!"
"And as I have rather long fingers, I shall be able to grasp both the epaulets and the treasure," laughingly responded Ribas.
It was in the evening after this conversation of Orloff with Joseph Ribas, a wonderfully brilliant evening, such as is known only under Italian skies.
Natalie inhaled the soft air with delight, and drank in the intoxicating odor of the flowers which poured out their sweetest fragrance in the cool of the evening. She was on this evening unusually cheerful; with the smiling brow and childish gayety, as in happier days, she skipped down the alleys, or, with her guitar upon her arm, reposed upon her favorite seat under the myrtle-bush near the murmuring fountains.
"I am to-day so happy, ah, so happy," said she, "in consequence of having dreamed of Paulo—in my dream he was near me, spoke to me, and that is a sure sign of his speedy return! Oh, certainly, certainly! In my dream he announced it to me, and I distinctly heard him say: 'We shall meet again, Natalie. I shall soon be with you!'"
"Ah, may this dream but prove true!" sighed Marianne, Natalie's faithful companion. She was standing, not far from her mistress, with Carlo, and both were tenderly observing the young maiden, who now smilingly grasped her guitar and commenced a song of joy for Paulo's expected return!
"I have no faith in our count's return!" whispered Marianne while Natalie was singing. "It is a bad sign that no news, not a line, nor even the shortest message, had yet come from him. Something unusual, some great and uncontrollable misfortune, must have prevented his writing!"
"You do not think they have imprisoned him?" asked Carlo.
"I fear it," sighed Marianne. "And if so, what fate then awaits our poor princess? Helpless, alone, without means! For if the count is imprisoned, he will no longer be in a condition to send money as he promised. And we now possess only a thousand scudi, with double that amount in diamonds!"
"Then we are still rich enough to keep off deprivations for a time!" said Carlo.
"But when at length these last resources are exhausted?" asked Marianne—"when we no longer have either money or diamonds—how then?"
"Oh, then," exclaimed Carlo, with a beaming face, "then will we labor for her! That, also, will be a pleasure, Marianne!"
While the two were thus conversing, Natalie, with a happy smile and cheerful face, was still singing her hymn of joy for Paulo's approaching return to the accompaniment of the rustling trees, the murmuring fountains, and the chirping birds in the myrtle-bush. It was a beautiful night, and as the bright full moon now advanced between the pines, illuminating Natalie's face and form, the partially intoxicated and perfectly happy Carlo whispered: "Only look, Marianne! does she not resemble a blessed angel ready to spread her wings, and with the moonlight to mount up to the stars? Only look, seems it not as if the moonbeams tenderly embraced her for the purpose of leading an angel back to its home?"
"May she, at least, one day, with such a happy smile, take her departure for the skies!" sighed Marianne, piously folding her hands.
At this moment a shrill, cutting wail interrupted Natalie's song. A string of her guitar had suddenly snapped asunder; frightened, almost angry, Natalie let the instrument fall to the earth, and again the strings resounded like lamentations and sighs.
"That is a bad omen," sighed Natalie. "How, if that should be true, and not my dream?"
And trembling with anxiety, the young maiden stretched forth her hands toward her friends.
"Carlo—Marianne," she anxiously said, "come here to me, protect me with your love from this mortal fear and anguish which has suddenly come over me. See, the moon is hiding behind the clouds. Ah, the whole world grows dark and casts a mourning veil over its bright face!"
And the timid child, clinging to Marianne's arm, concealed her face in the bosom of her motherly friend.
"And you call that an omen!" said Carlo, with forced cheerfulness. "This time, princess, I am the fatum which has alarmed you! It is my own fault that this string broke. It was already injured and half broken this evening when I tuned the guitar, but I hoped it would suffice for the low, sad melodies you now always play. Yes, could I have known that you would have so exulted and shouted, I should have replaced it with another string, and this great misfortune would not have occurred."
While speaking, he had again attached the string and drawn it tight.
"The defective string is quickly repaired, and you can recommence your hymn of joy," he said, handing back the guitar to Natalie.
She sadly shook her head. "It is passed," said she, "I can exult and sing no more to-day, and have an aversion to this garden. See how black and threatening these pines rise up, and do not these myrtle-bushes resemble large dark graves? No, no; it frightens me here—I can no longer remain among these graves and these watchers of the dead! Come, let us go to our rooms! It is night—we will sleep and dream! Come, let us immediately go into the house."
And like a frightened roe she fled toward the house, the others following her.
In an hour all was silent in the villa. The lights were successively extinguished in Natalie's and Marianne's chambers; only in Carlo's little chamber yet burned a dull, solitary lamp, and occasionally the shadow of the uneasy singer passed the window as he restlessly walked his room. At length, however, this lamp also was distinguished, and all was dark and still.
About this time a dark shadow was seen creeping slowly and cautiously through the garden. Soon it stood still, and then one might have supposed it to be a deception, and that only the wind shaking the pines had caused that moving shadow. But suddenly it again appeared in a moonlighted place, where no bush or tree threw its shade, and, as if alarmed by the brightness, it then again moved aside into the bushes.
This shadow came constantly nearer and nearer to the house, and as the walks were here broader and lighter, one might distinctly discern that it was a human being, the form of a tall, stately man, that so cautiously and stealthily approached the house. And what is that, sparkling and flashing in his girdle—is it not a dagger, together with a pistol and a long knife? Ah, a threatening, armed man is approaching this silent, solitary house, and no one sees, no one hears him! Even the two large hounds which with remarkable watchfulness patrol the garden during the night, even they are silent! Ah, where, then, are they? Carlo had himself unchained them that they might wander freely—where, then, can they be?
They lie in the bushes far from the house, cold, stiff, and lifeless. Before them lies a piece of seductively smelling meat. That was what had enticed them to forget their duty, and, instead of growling and barking, they had with snuffling noses been licking this tempting flesh. Their instinct had not told them it was poisoned, and therefore they now lay stiff and cold near the food that had destroyed them.
No, from those hounds he had nothing more to fear, this bold, audacious man; the hounds will no more betray him, nor warningly announce that Joseph Ribas, the venturesome thief and galley-slave, is lurking about the house to steal or murder, as the case may be.
He has now reached the house. He listens for a moment, and as all remains still, no suspicious noise making itself heard, with pitch-covered paper, brought with him for the purpose, he presses in one of the window panes. Then, passing his hand through the vacancy caused by the absent pane of glass, he opens one wing of the French window, and, by a bold leap springing upon the parapet, he lets himself glide slowly down into the room.
Again all is still, and silent lies the solitary, peaceful villa. Suddenly appears a small but bright light behind one of these dark windows.
That is the thief's lantern, which Joseph Ribas has lighted to illuminate his dark, criminal way.
He cautiously ascends the stairs leading to the second story, and not a step jars under his feet, not one, nor does the slightest noise betray him.
He is now above, in the long corridor. Approaching the first door, he listens long. He hears a loud breathing—some one sleeps within. With one sole quick movement he turns the key remaining in the lock. The door is now locked, and the sleeper within remains undisturbed. Joseph creeps along to the next door, and again he listens to ascertain if there be anything stirring within. But no, he hears nothing! All is still behind the door.
He draws a pistol from his girdle, cocks it, and, thus prepared to resist every attack, he suddenly opens the door. No one is in the room, no one but Joseph Ribas the thief, who, with flashing eyes, suspiciously and carefully examines every hole and corner.
But no, no one is there. Calm and sure, Joseph Ribas, steps into the room, drawing and bolting the door behind him. No one can now surprise him, no one can fall upon him from behind. But yes, there is also a door on each side, right and left. He listens at the first, he thinks he hears a light breathing; here also he quickly shoves a bolt and passes over to the other door, which stands ajar. Cautiously he pushes it open and looks in. A small, dull lamp is burning there, lighting the lovely face of the sleeping Princess Natalie.
"That is she!" low murmured Ribas, as with eager glances he observes the young and charming maiden. He is drawn forward as if with invisible bands—he penetrates into this sacred asylum of the slumbering maiden. But he forcibly checks his advance. "I have sworn not to touch her, and I will keep my word, that I may secure my epaulets!" he muttered to himself, and, retreating into the first chamber, he bolts the door, to make all sure, that leads into Natalie's chamber.
"Now to the work!" said he, with decision. "Here stands the bureau, the treasure must be here."
And, placing his dark lantern upon a table, he draws forth his picklock and chisels, and commences breaking open the bureau. Right—this thievish instinct has not deceived him, he has found all, all. Here is the little box of sparkling diamonds, and here the full purses of money.
With a knavish smile, Joseph Ribas conceals the brilliants in his bosom, and deposits the money in his capacious pockets.
"It is a pity that this is not mine," he muttered with a grin, "but toward this count I must act as an honorable thief, and I have promised to bring it all truly to him."
The work is completed, the malicious criminal act is performed. He can now go, can again creep away from the house his feet have soiled.
Why does he not? Why does he linger in these rooms? Why directs he such wild and eager glances to the door behind which Natalie sleeps?
He cannot withstand the temptation, and even at the risk of awaking Natalie, he must see her once more! And, moreover, what had he to fear from an isolated young girl? He will only have one more look at her. Nothing more!
He noiselessly pushes back the bolt; noiselessly, upon tiptoe, with closed lantern, he creeps into the room and to Natalie's bedside.
She is wonderfully beautiful, and she smiles in her slumber. How charming is that placid face, that half-uncovered shoulder, that arm thrown up over her head, where it is half concealed under her luxuriant locks! Wonderfully beautiful is she. Dares he to touch that arm and breathe a kiss, a very light kiss, upon those fragrant lips? Why not? No one sees him, nor will Count Alexis Orloff ever know that his commands have been disobeyed.
But as he bent down, as his breath comes only in light contact with her cheek, she stirs! Maiden modesty never slumbers; it watches over the sleeping girl, it protects her. It is her good genius who never deserts her.
Drawing herself up, Natalie opens her eyes and starts up from her couch. Then she sees a large, threatening masculine form close before her, close before her that wildly-laughing face.
A shriek of terror and anguish bursts from her lips, and in a tone of alarm she calls: "Carlo, Carlo! Help! help! Carlo! Save—"
More she did not say. With a wild rage, angry, and ashamed of his own folly, Joseph Ribas rushes upon her.
"One more cry!" he threateningly said—"one more call for help, and I will murder you!"
But at this moment a small curtained door which Ribas had not remarked and hence not fastened, was suddenly opened, and Carlo rushed in.
"I am here, Natalie!—I am here!"
Rushing upon the stranger, and grasping him with gigantic strength, he thrust him down from the bed.
Joseph Ribas turned toward his new and unexpected enemy. The lamp lighted his face, and falling back Carlo shrieked, "My brother!"
Joseph Ribas broke out into a loud, savage laugh. "At length we meet, my brother," said he. "But this time you shall not hinder me in my work. This time I am the conqueror!"
"No, no, that you are not!" cried Carlo, beside himself with pain and rage. "Confess what you want in this house—confess, or you are a dead man!"
And with a drawn dagger he rushed upon his opponent!
A frightful struggle ensued. Natalie, in her night-dress, pale as a lily, knelt upon her bed and prayed. She had folded her hands over her breast, directly over the place where the papers confided to her by Paulo, in a little silken bag, always hung suspended by a golden chain.
"Grant, O my God," prayed she—"grant that I may keep my promise to Paulo, and that I may defend these papers with my life!"
And the two brothers were still struggling and contending; like two serpents they had coiled around each other, and held each other in their toils.
"Flee, flee, Natalie!" groaned Carlo, with a weakened voice—"flee away from here! I yet hold him, you are yet safe! Flee!"
But in this moment the maiden thought not of her own danger. She thought only of Carlo. Springing from her bed, with flashing eyes she boldly threw herself between the contending men.
"No, no," said she, courageously, "I will not flee—I shall at least know how to die!"
A shriek resounded from Carlo's lips, his arms relaxed and fell from his enemy, leaving his brother free.
"Ah, finally, finally!" gasped the panting Joseph. "That was an amusing carnival farce, my virtuous brother! Farewell! I am this time triumphant!"
With a wild leap he sprang to the door; brandishing his bloody dagger in his right hand, he ran through the corridor, down the stairs, and out into the garden.
"Saved!" said he, breathing more freely. "I think this Russian will be satisfied with me! I bring the money and the diamonds, and at the same time have effectually opened a vein for this troublesome protector! Ah, it seems to me I have very successfully put in practice my studies in the high-school of the galleys!"
And, humming a jovial song, Joseph Ribas swung himself into a tree close to the wall, and let himself down on the other side.
Above, in Natalie's chamber, Carlo long lay stretched on the floor, pale, with the death-rattle in his throat. In a bright stream flowed the blood from the wound made by his brother's dagger. Natalie knelt by him. No tear was in her eye, no lamentation escaped her lips. She seemed perfectly calm and collected in her excess of sorrow; she only sought with her robe and her hair to cover Carlo's wound and stop the flow of blood.
A happy smile played upon Carlo's blue lips.
"I die," he murmured, "but I die for thee! Thy vapo has kept his word, he has defended thee until his last breath! How good is God! He lets me die in thy service!"
"No, no, you must not die!" cried Natalie, her calmness giving way to the wildest sorrow. "No, Carlo, you must live! Oh, say not that you die! Ah, you love me, and yet you would leave me alone! Only live, and I also will love you, Carlo, as warmly and as glowingly as you love me! Do but remain with me, and my heart, my life shall be yours!"
"Too late! too late!" murmured Carlo, with dying lips. "Remember me, Natalie—I have dearly loved you. I die happy, for I die in your arms!"
"No, no, you shall live in my arms!" sobbed she. "I will be yours—your bride!"
"Kiss me, my bride," he falteringly stammered.
She bent over him, and with hers she touched his lips, already stiffening in death. She laid her warm, glowing cheek to his cold and marble-pale face; that full, fresh life pressed that which was cold and expiring to her bosom in an ardent struggle with death! In vain!
Death is inexorable. What he has once touched with his hand, that is past recovery, it is his.
The blood no longer flowed from Carlo's wound, the breath no longer rattled in his throat—it was silent; but a blessed smile still lay upon his lips. With this smile had he died, happy, blessed in the embrace of her he had so truly loved.
When Marianne, after long and vain efforts to open the door, had finally managed, by tying her bed-clothes together, to let herself down into the garden, and had thence hastened into the house, and up into Natalie's chamber, she found there all silent and still. Nothing stirred. Natalie lay in a deathlike swoon.
He, Carlo, already stiffened in death, and she, the senseless Natalie, with her head reclining against the marble face of her friend!
Poor Natalie! Why must Marianne succeed in awakening thee from thy swoon? Why did you not let her continue in her insensibility, Marianne? In sleep, she at least would not have realized that she was now left entirely alone, entirely abandoned, with no one to defend her against her cruel and artful enemies, of whose existence she never once dreamed!
Count Orloff lay in a comfortable, careless position upon his divan, leisurely smoking his long Turkish pipe. Before him stood Joseph Ribas, laughingly relating in his own comic manner the occurrences of the preceding night.
"You are a wonderful man," said Orloff, when Joseph had finished. "You have honestly earned your epaulets, and to-day you will for the first time appear at my dinner-table as a Russian officer. Ah, I prophesy a great future for you. You have the requisite skill and address to make your fortune. You are shrewd, daring, and you recoil from no means, finding them all good and useful when they forward your aims. With such principles one may go far in this world, and Russia in fact offers you the best opportunity for bringing all these fine talents into use."
"And, moreover, I commenced my Russian career with a good omen," said Joseph. "I have placed a murder at the head of my Russian deeds! That is a promising commencement, is it not, Sir Count? You must know that better than any one."
"Indeed yes, I must best know that," said the count, laughing, and continually stroking his long black beard. "By a fair and well-timed murder one can always make his fortune in Russia. A well-timed and well-executed murder is with us often rewarded with a barony and the title of count. Indeed, sometimes with the highest and tenderest imperial favor and grace. Ah, a murder at the right moment is an excellent thing, only one must be quite sure of himself, and not fail of hitting the right man. An unsuccessful murder is a very bad, and, indeed, a very dangerous thing. I would have nothing to do with one, and never have had any thing to do with one. Whatever I have undertaken I have always boldly and successfully accomplished. The good Emperor Peter III. knew that, and consequently trembled when I, with Passeb and Bariatinsky, entered his chamber. The good emperor! He did not tremble long, it was soon finished. Yes, yes, that was a deed done at the right time, and therefore has the great Catharine been so grateful to us, and honoured us above all the illustrious grandees of her empire."(*)
(*) Of the tragic and horrible events connected with Catharine's accession to the throne, and of the strangulation of Peter, in which he took so active a part, Orloff spoke in Rome with the greatest freedom and evident pleasure.
"My little opening murder has, indeed, less significance," sighed Joseph Ribas. "What was it but to help a humble musician to the blessedness and harmony of the spheres!"
"But that musician was your brother!"
Ribas shrugged his shoulders. "That is, he was so considered; but in reality I believe he was only a half-brother. My mother, of blessed memory, had many little adventures, and I think Carlo's birth was somewhat connected with them. Nor am I sure that it was not a necessary work to kill him, as it was surely my duty to avenge my father's injured honor, which is all I have done! Upon these grounds has a good, honest priest this day given me absolution, and I now stand before you pure and sinless as a maiden! We can therefore begin anew, your excellency. Have you still any commands for me?"
"You now have a very noble and sublime part to play," said Orloff, laughing. "You must now appear as the benefactor of our Russian princess, and as the mediating forerunner of my own person!"
"That will be indeed a charming role," said Ribas, rubbing his hands with delight. "I shall admirably acquit myself as benefactor and mediator. But give me some details, Sir Count!"
"You shall have them," said Orloff, "from the mouth of Stephano.—Stephano!"
The person called immediately appeared at the door of a side-room.
"Stephano," said Orloff, "now to work, friend. The courier who arrived to-day has brought us good news and full powers. Count Paul Rasczinsky is sent to Siberia for high-treason—his property is confiscated and falls to the state. I have an unlimited power, signed by the empress herself, to seize and sell his possessions here in the name of the empress. Take with you some attorney and officers and go to his villa. But, first of all, help our little Joseph Ribas to his uniform and epaulets, that he may be properly costumed for a rescuer and benefactor. And now, away with you! Instruct him well, Stephano. Ah, I should like to be present at this delightful comedy!"
And Count Orloff broke out into a hearty laugh.
"This whole affair is very entertaining and romantic," he said to himself, as soon as he was alone. "I am truly very thankful to Catharine for intrusting it to me. I love the adventurous and romantic. Indeed, whom else could she have chosen for this business? I should like to know who would dare to enter the lists with me, the Russian Hercules, and who would be so bold as to contend with me for this prize?"
Thus speaking, he rose from the divan and stepped to the great Venetian mirror, before which he long remained attentively viewing himself.
"Ahem! this tender Empress Catharine knows how to judge of manly beauty," murmured he, with a self-satisfied smile, "and I cannot blame her for so often giving me the preference over my brother Gregory. Besides, I shall first appear before this little Princess Natalie in my antique dress. Catharine has often told me I was enchanting in my antique costume. Well, we will also let this enchantment work a little here. But first we must think of what is nearest to us. This Corilla has rendered us a service, and we must be grateful. They say she loves diamonds. I shall therefore send her these diamonds which her eleve Joseph Ribas last night made the property of the Russian crown. And with them I will send a little billet, written with my own hand. Who knows but that this will give her more pleasure than the sparkling brilliants!"
In that, however, the handsome Count Orloff was mistaken. The poetess Corilla therein resembled to a hair the prima-donnas and heroines of the stage of the present day. She attached a great value to diamonds, and knowing that Russia was very rich in gold and diamonds, she always had an especially bewitching smile for Russian grandees. Had Count Orloff come in person to bring the diamonds, she would undoubtedly have more admired him, apparently been more pleased with his presence than with his costly gift; but, as he was not there, there was no necessity for dissimulation.
She read Count Orloff's billet with a satisfied smile; but soon laid it aside for the delight of examining the jewels.
"How that shines, and how that sparkles," said the exhilarated poetess; "not even a lover's eyes flash so brightly, nor is his smile so proud, so full of rich certainty, as the sparkling of these gems! They are enchanters, and a word from me can change these solitaires and rosettes into a beautiful villa, or into a fragrant park with silent arbors, intoxicating odors, and sweetly-singing birds. All that is promised me by these stones—a lover's promises do not express half so much. And only to think that it is Carlo, my former lover, to whom I am indebted for these diamonds! From love to him I wished to destroy Natalie, and that wish procured me the favor of the Russian count, and consequently these brilliants. Poor Carlo! these diamonds outlast you. How bright and beautiful were your glances that are now extinguished by death—but this cruel, inexorable death has no power over diamonds! It cannot strangle these as thou wert strangled, poor Carlo! I shall remember thee this evening, Carlo, and hope the thought of thee may inspire me for a right beautiful improvisation on death! I shall take pains to bring to mind thy beautiful form overflowed with blood. Yes, it will inspire in me a very effective improvisation, and I will at the same time make a selection from my dear poets of some striking rhymes upon death and the grave. And when I have the rhymes, the thoughts and words will come of themselves. Rhymes, rhymes, these are the main things with poets!"
And while the improvisatrice was thus speaking to herself, she had mechanically adorned her person with the brilliants, attaching the beautiful collar to her neck, the long pendants to her ears, and placing the splendid diadem upon her brow.
She looked exceedingly beautiful in these ornaments, and consequently rejoiced that her friend Cardinal Francesco Albani came at this precise moment.
"He will be ravished?" said she, with a smile, advancing to meet him with the proud and imposing dignity of a queen.
"You are beautiful as a goddess!" exclaimed the cardinal, "and whoever sees you thus has seen the protecting divinity of ancient Rome, the sublime Juno, queen of heaven!"
"Were I Juno, would you consent to be my Vulcan?" roguishly asked Corilla.
"No," said Albani, laughing; "the noble Juno was not exactly true to her Vulcan, and I require a faithful love! Would you be that, Corilla?"
"We shall see," said she, changing the arrangement of the diadem before the glass—"we shall see, my worthy friend. But forget not the conditions—first the laurel-crown!"
"You shall have it!" triumphantly responded the cardinal.
"Are you certain of that?" asked Corilla, with flashing eyes and glowing cheeks.
Cardinal Francesco Albani smiled mysteriously.
"Pope Ganganelli is ill," said he, "and it is thought he will die!"
THE DOOMING LETTER
Groaning, supported by his faithful Lorenzo's arm, Pope Ganganelli slowly moved through the walks of his garden. Some months had passed since the suppression of the order of the Jesuits—how had these few months changed poor Clement! Where was the peace and cheerfulness of his face, where was the sublime expression of his features, the firm and noble carriage of his body—where was it all?
Trembling, shattered, with distorted features, and with dull, half-closed eyes, crawled he about with groans, his brow wrinkled, his lips compressed by pain and inward sorrow.
No one dared to remain with him; he spoke to no one. But Lorenzo was yet sometimes able to drive away the clouds from his brow, and to recall a faint smile to his thin pale lips.
He had also to-day succeeded in this, and for the first time in several weeks had Ganganelli, yielding to his prayers, consented to a walk in the garden of the Quirinal.
"This air refreshes me," said the pope, breathing more freely; "it seems as if it communicated to my lungs a renewed vital power and caused the blood to flow more rapidly in my veins. Lorenzo, this is a singularly fortunate day for me, and I will make the most of it. Come, we will repair to our Franciscan Place!"
"That is an admirable idea," said Lorenzo, delighted. "If your holiness can reach it, you will recover your health, and all will again be well."
Ganganelli sighed, and glanced toward heaven with a sad smile.
"Health!" said he. "Ah, Lorenzo, that word reminds me of a lost paradise. The avenging angel has driven me from it, and I shall never see it again."
"Say not so!" begged Lorenzo, secretly wiping a tear from his cheek. "No, say not so, you will certainly recover!"
"Yes, recover!" replied the pope. "For death is a recovery, and in the end perhaps the most real."
They silently walked on, and making a path through the bushes, they at length arrived at the place, with the construction of which Lorenzo had some months before surprised the pope, and which Ganganelli had since named the "Franciscan Place."
"So," joyfully exclaimed Lorenzo, while the exhausted pope glided down upon the grass-bank—"so, brother Clement, now let us be cheerful! You know that here we have nothing more to do with the pope. You have yourself declared that here you would be brother Clement, and nothing more; now brother Clement was always a healthy man, full of juvenile spirits and strength."
"Ah, my friend," responded Ganganelli, "I fear the pope has secretly followed brother Clement even to this place, and even here no longer leaves him free! No, no, it is no longer brother Clement who sits groaning here, it is the vicegerent of God, the father of Christendom, the holy and blessed pope! And if you knew, Lorenzo, what this vicegerent of God has to suffer and bear, how his blood like streams of fire runs through his veins, carbonizing his entrails and parching the roof of his mouth, so that the tongue fast cleaves to it, and he has no longer the power to complain of his misery! And such a crushed earth-worm this miserable, infatuated people call the vicegerent of God, before whom they bow in the dust! Ah, foolish children, are you not yourselves disgusted with your masquerade, and do you not blush for this jest?"
"See you not," said Lorenzo, with forced cheerfulness, "that since you are here you have, against your will, again become brother Clement, and inveigh against God's vicegerent who holds his splendid court in the Vatican and Quirinal! Yes, yes that was what brother Clement used to do in the Franciscan convent; he was always scolding about the pope."
"And yet he let men befool him and make a pope of him," said Ganganelli. "Ah, Lorenzo, they were indeed good purposes that decided me, and good and holy resolutions were in me when I bore this crown of St. Peter for the first time. Ah, I was then so young, not in years, but in hopes and illusions. I was so enthusiastic for the good and noble, and I wished to serve it, to honor and glorify it in the name of God!"
"And in the end you have done so!" solemnly responded Lorenzo.
"I have wished to do so!" sighed Ganganelli, "but there it has ended. I have been hemmed in everywhere; wherever I wished to press through, I have always found a wall before me—a wall of prejudices, of ancient customs, once received as indifferent, and at this wall my cardinals and officials held watch, taking care that my will should be broken against it, and not be able to speak through, in order to let in a little freedom, a little fresh air, into our walled realm! They have curbed and weakened my will, until nothing more of it subsists, and of my holiest resolutions they have made a scarecrow before which foreign kings and princes cry murder, and prophesy the downfall of their kingdoms if I adhere to my innovations. Ah, the princes, the princes! I tell you, Lorenzo, it is the princes who have undermined the happiness of the world with their ideas of absolute power; they are the robbers of all mankind; for freedom, which is the common property of all men, that have they, like regular lawless highwaymen, appropriated for themselves alone. They plundered the luck-pennies of all mankind, and coined them into money adorned with their likenesses, and now all mankind run after this money, thinking: 'If I gain that, then shall I have recovered my part of human happiness which once belonged to all in common!' It has come to this, Lorenzo, through the rapacity of princes, and yet they still tremble upon their thrones, and fear that the people may one day awake from their stupid slumber, all rising as one man, and cry in the paling faces of their robbers: 'Give back what you have taken from us—we will have what is ours; we require freedom and human right; we will no longer remain slaves to tremble before a bugbear; we will be free children of God, and have no one to fear but the God above us and the consciences within our own breasts!' Come down, therefore, from your usurped thrones, become once more human—labor, enjoy, complain, and rejoice, as other men do; live not upon the sweat of your subjects, but nourish yourselves by your own efforts, that justice may prevail in the world, and humanity regain its rights!"
And Ganganelli's eyes flashed, his sunken cheeks were feverishly flushed, while he was thus speaking. Lorenzo observed it with anxious eyes; and when the pope made a momentary pause, he said: "You are again altogether the good and brave brother Clement, but even he should think about sparing himself!"
"And to what end should he spare himself?" excitedly exclaimed Ganganelli; "Death sits within me and laughs to scorn all my efforts, burying himself deeper and deeper in my inward life. You must know, Lorenzo, that my cause of sorrow is precisely this, that I now live in vain, and that I cannot finish what I began! I wished to make my people happy and free; that was what alarmed all these princes, that was an unheard-of innovation, and they have all put their heads together and whispered to each other, 'He will betray to mankind that they have rights of which we have robbed them. He wishes to give back to mankind his inherited portion of the booty! But what will then become of us? Will not our slaves rise up against us, demanding their human rights? We cannot suffer such innovations, for they involve our destruction!' Thus have they cried, and in their anxiety they have decided upon my death! Then they threw me in a crumb exactly suited to my dreams of improving the happiness of the people; they all consented that I should relieve mankind from that dangerous tapeworm, Jesuitism, and with secret laughter thought, 'It will be the death of him!' And they were right, these sly princes, it will be the death of me! I have abolished the order of Jesuits—in consequence of which I shall die—but the Jesuits will live, and live forever!"
The echo of approaching footsteps was now heard, and, sinking with fatigue, he directed Lorenzo to go and meet the intruder, and by no means to let any one penetrate to him.
Returning alone, Lorenzo handed the pope a letter.
"The courier whom you sent out some days since has returned," said he. "This is his dispatch."
Taking the letter, with a sad smile, the pope weighed it in his hand. "How light is this little sheet," said he, "and yet how heavy are its contents! Do you know what this letter contains, Lorenzo?"
"How can I? A poor cloister brother is not all-knowing!"
"This letter," said the pope, with solemnity, "Brings me life or death. It is the answer of the learned physician, Professor Brunelli, of Bologna!"
"You have written to him?" asked Lorenzo, turning pale.
"I wrote him, particularly describing my condition and sufferings; in God's name I conjured him to tell me the truth, and Brunelli is a man of honor; he will do it! Am I right, therefore, in saying that the contents of this letter are very heavy?"
Lorenzo trembled, and, grasping the pope's hand, he hastily and anxiously said: "No, read it not. Of what use will it be to learn its contents? It is tempting God to endeavor to learn the future in advance! Let me destroy this fatal letter!"
And, while his faithful servant respectfully stood back, Ganganelli broke the seal.
A pause ensued—a long, excruciating pause! Lorenzo, kneeling, prayed—Pope Ganganelli read the letter of the physician of Bologna. His face had assumed a mortal pallor; while reading, his lips trembled, and tear-drops rolled slowly down over his sunken cheeks.
Falling from his hand, the letter rustled to the earth; with hanging head and folded hands sat the pope. Lorenzo was still upon his knees praying. Ganganelli suddenly raised his head, his eyes were turned heavenward, a cheerful, God-given peace beamed from his eyes, and with a clear, exulting voice, he said: "Lord, Thy will be done! I resign myself to Thy holy keeping."
"The letter, then, brings good news?" asked Lorenzo, misled by the joyfulness of the pope. "There is, then, no ground for the presentiments of death, and the learned doctor says you will live?"
"The life eternal, Lorenzo!" said Ganganelli. "This letter confirms my suppositions! Brunelli is a man of honor, and he has told me the truth. Lorenzo, would you know what signifies this consuming fire, this weariness and relaxation of my limbs? It is the effect of Acqua Tofana!"
"Oh, my God," shrieked Lorenzo, "you are poisoned!"
"Irretrievably," calmly responded the pope; "Brunelli says it, and I feel in my burning entrails that he speaks the truth."
"And are there no remedies?" lamented Lorenzo, wringing his hands. "No means at least of prolonging your life?"
"There is such a means; and Brunelli recommends it. The application of the greatest possible heat, the production of a continual perspiration, which may a little retard the progress of the evil, and perhaps prolong my life for a few weeks!
"Lorenzo, it is my duty to struggle every day with death. I have yet much to complete before I die, yet much labor before I go to my eternal rest, and, as far as I can, I must bring to an end what I have commenced for the welfare of my people! Come, Lorenzo, let us return to the Vatican; set pans of coals in my room, procure me furs and a glowing hot sun! I would yet live some weeks!"
With feverish impetuosity Ganganelli grasped Lorenzo's arm and drew him away. Then, suddenly stopping, he turned toward his favorite place.
"Lorenzo," he said in a low tone, and with deep sadness, "it was yet very pleasant in the Franciscan cloister. Why did we not remain there? Only see, my friend, how beautifully the sun glitters there among the pines, and how delightfully this air fans us! Ah, Lorenzo, this world is so beautiful, so very beautiful! Why must I leave it so soon?"
Lorenzo made no answer; he could not speak for tears.
Ganganelli cast a long and silent glance around him, greeting with his eyes the trees and flowers, the green earth and the blue sky.
"Farewell, farewell, thou beautiful Nature!" he whispered low. "We take our leave of each other. I shall never again see these trees or this grassy seat. But you, Lorenzo, will I establish as the guardian of this place, and when you sometimes sit here in the still evening hour, then will you think of me! Now come, we must away. Feel you not this cool and gentle air? Oh, how refreshingly it fans and cools, but I dare not enjoy it—not I! This cooling cuts off a day from my life!"
And with the haste of a youth, Ganganelli ran down the alley. Bathed with perspiration, breathless with heat, he arrived at the palace.
"Now give me furs, bring pans of coals, Lorenzo, shut all the doors and windows. Procure me a heat that will shut out death—!"
But death nevertheless came; the furs and coverings, the steaming coal-pans with which the pope surrounded himself, the glowing atmosphere he day and night inhaled, and which quite prostrated his friends and servants, all that could only keep off death for some few weeks, not drive it away. More dreadful yet than this blasting heat with which Ganganelli surrounded himself, yet more horrible, was the fire that consumed his entrails and burned in his blood.
Finally, withered and consumed by these external and internal fires, the pope greeted Death as a deliverer, and sank into his arms with a smile.
But no sooner had he respired his last breath, no sooner had the death-rattle ceased in this throat, and no sooner had death extinguished the light in his eyes, than the cold corpse exhibited a most horrible change.
The thin white hair fell off as if blown away by a breath of air, the loosened teeth fell from their sockets, the formerly quietly smiling visage became horribly distorted, the nose sank in and the eyes fell out, the muscles of all his limbs became relaxed as if by a magic stroke, and the rapidly putrefying members fell from each other.
The pope's two physicians, standing near the bed, looked with terror upon the frightful spectacle.
"He was, then, right," murmured the physician Barbi, folding his hands, "he was poisoned. These are the effects of the Acqua Tofana!"
Salicetti, the second physician, shrugged his shoulders with a contemptuous smile. "Think as you will," said he, "for my part I shall prove to the world that Pope Clement XIV. died a natural death."
Thus saying, Salicetti left the chamber of death with a proud step, betaking himself to his own room, to commence his history of Ganganelli's last illness, in which, despite the arsenic found in the stomach of the corpse and despite the fact that all Rome was convinced of the poisoning of the pope, and named his murderer with loud curses, he endeavored to prove that Ganganelli died of a long-concealed scrofula!
And while Ganganelli breathed out his last sigh, resounded the bells of St. Peter's, thundered the cannon of Castle Angelo, and the curious people thronged around the Vatican, where the conclave was in solemn session for the choice of a new pope. Thousands stared up to the palace, thousands prayed upon their knees, until at length the doors of the balcony, behind which the conclave was in session, were opened, and the papal master of ceremonies made his appearance upon it.
At a given signal the bells became silent, the cannon ceased to thunder, and breathlessly listened the crowd.
The master of ceremonies advanced to the front of the balcony. A pause—a silent, dreadful pause! His voice then resounded over the great square, and the listeners heard these words: "Habemus pontificem maximum Pium VI.!" (We have Pope Pius VI.)
And the bells rang anew, the cannon thundered, drums beat, and trumpets sounded; upon the balcony appeared the new pope, Juan Angelo Braschi, Pius VI., bestowing his blessing upon the kneeling people.
As they now had a new pope, nothing remained to be done for the deceased pope but to bury him; and they buried him.
In solemn procession, followed by all the cardinals and high church officials, surrounded by the Swiss guards, the tolling of the bells and the dull rolling of the muffled drums, the solemn hymns of the priests, moved the funeral cortege from the Vatican to St. Peter's church. In the usual open coffin lay the corpse of the deceased pope, that the people might see him for the last time. As they passed the bridge of St. Angelo, when the coffin had reached the middle of the bridge, arose a shriek of terror from thousands of throats! A leg had become severed from the body and hung out of the coffin, swinging in a fold of the winding-sheet. Cardinal Albani, who walked near the coffin, was touched on the shoulder by the loosely swinging limb, and turned pale, but he yet had the courage to push it back into the coffin. The people loudly murmured, and shudderingly whispered to each other: "The dead man has touched his murderer. They have poisoned him, our good pope! His members fall apart. That is the effect of Acqua Tofana."(*)
(*) Archenholz relates yet another case where the Acqua Tofana had a similar violent and sudden effect. "A respectable Roman lady, who was young and beautiful, and had many admirers, made in the year 1778, a similar experiment, to rid herself of an old husband. As the dose was rather strong, death was followed by the rapid and violent separation of the members. They employed all possible means to retain the body in a human form until the funeral was over. The face was covered with a waxen mask, and by this means was the condition of the corpse concealed. This separation of the members seems to be the usual effect of this poison, and is said to occur as soon as the body is cold."
The infernal work had therefore proved successful, the vengeance was complete—Ganganelli was no more, and upon the papal throne sat Braschi, the friend of the Jesuits and of Cardinal Albani, to whom he had promised the crowning of the improvisatrice Corilla.
And as this cost nothing to the miserly Pope Pius, he this time found no inconvenience in keeping his sacred promise, though not so promptly as Corilla and the passionate cardinal desired.
Not until 1776, almost two years after Braschi had mounted the papal throne, took place the crowning of the improvisatrice in the capitol at Rome.
She had therefore attained the object of her wishes. She had finally reached it by bribery and intrigue, by hypocritical tenderness, by the resignation of her maiden modesty and womanly honor, and by all the arts of coquetry.
But this triumph of hers was not to be untroubled. The nobili shouted for her, and the cardinals and princes of the Church, but the people accompanied her to the capitol with hissing and howling. Poems came fluttering down on all sides; the first that fell upon Corilla's head, Cardinal Albani eagerly seized and unfolded for the purpose of reading it aloud. But after the first few lines his voice was silenced—it was an abusive poem, full of mockery and scorn.
But nevertheless she was crowned. She still stood upon the capitol, with the laurel-crown upon her brow, cheered by her respectable protectors and friends. But the people joined not in those cheers, and, as the exulting shouts ceased, there swelled up to the laurel-crowned poetess, from thousands of voices, a thundering laugh of scorn, and this scornful laugh, this hissing and howling of the people, accompanied her upon her return from the capitol, following her through the streets to her own door. The people had judged her!
Corilla was no poetess by the grace of God, and only by the grace of man had she been crowned as queen of poesy!
Mortified, crushed, and enraged, she fled from Rome to Florence. She knew how to flatter the great and win princes. She was a princess-poetess, and the people rejected her!
But the laurel was hers. She was sought and esteemed, the princes admired her, and Catharine of Russia fulfilled the promise Orloff had made the improvisatrice in the name of the empress. Corilla received a pension from Russia. Russia has always promptly and liberally paid those who have sold themselves and rendered services to her. Russia is very rich, and can always send so many thousands of her best and noblest to work in the mines of Siberia, that she can never lack means for paying her spies and agents.
THE RUSSIAN OFFICER
With Carlo's death, Natalie had lost her last friend; with the stolen money and diamonds, Marianne was robbed of her last pecuniary means. But Natalie paid no attention to Marianne's lamentations. What cared she for poverty and destitution—what knew she of these outward treasures, of this wealth consisting in gold and jewels? Natalie knew only that she had been robbed of a noble, spiritual possession—that they had murdered the friend who had consecrated himself to her with such true and devoted love, and, weeping over his body, she dedicated to him the tribute of a tear of the purest gratitude, of saddest lamentation.
But so imperfect is the world that it often leaves no time for mourning—that in the midst of our sorrow it causes us to hear the prosaic voices of reality and necessity, compelling us to dry our eyes and turning our thoughts from painfully-sweet remembrances of a lost happiness to the realities of practical life.
Natalie's delicately-sensitive soul was to experience this rough contact of reality, and, with an internal shudder, must she bend under the rough hand of the present.
Pale, breathless, trembling, rushed Marianne into the room where Natalie, in solitary mourning, was weeping for her lost friend.
"We are ruined, hopelessly ruined!" screamed Marianne. "They will drive us from our last possession, they will turn us out of our house! All the misfortunes of the whole world break over and crush us!"
The young maiden looked at her with a calm, clear glance.
"Then let them crush us," she quietly said. "It is better to be crushed at once than to be slowly and lingeringly wasted!"
"But you hear me not, princess," shrieked Marianne, wringing her hands. "They will drive us from here, I tell you; they will expel you from your house!"
"And who will do that?" asked the young maiden, proudly rising with flashing eyes. "Who dares threaten me in my own house?"
"Without are soldiers and bailiffs and the officers of the Russian embassy. They have made a forcible entrance, and with force they will expel you from the house. They are already sealing the doors and seizing everything in the house."
A dark purple glow for a moment overspread Natalie's cheeks, and her glance was flame. "I will see," said she, "who has the robber-like boldness to dispute my possession of my own property!"
With proud steps and elevated head she strode through the room to the door opening upon the corridor.
The bailiffs and soldiers, who had been placed there, respectfully stood aside. Natalie paid no attention to them, but immediately advanced to the officer who, with a loud voice, was just then commanding them to seal all the doors and see that nothing was taken from the rooms.
"I wish to know," said Natalie, with her clear, silver-toned voice—"I wish to know by what right people here force their way into my house, and what excuse you have for this shameless conduct?"
The officer, who was no other than Stephano, bowed to her with a slightly ironical smile.
"Justice needs no excuse," said he. "On the part and by command of her illustrious majesty, the great Empress Catharine, I lay an attachment upon this house and all it contains. It is from this hour the sacred possession of her Russian majesty."
"It is the exclusive property of the Count Paulo!" proudly responded Natalie.
"It was the property of Count Paul Rasczinsky," said Stephano. "But convicted traitors have no property. This criminal count has been convicted of high-treason. The mercy of the empress has indeed changed the sentence of death into one of eternal banishment to Siberia, but she has been pleased to approve the confiscation of all he possessed. In virtue of this approval, and by permission of the holy Roman government, I attach this house and its contents!"
Natalie no longer heard him. Almost unconscious lay she in Marianne's arms. Paulo was lost, sentenced to death, imprisoned, and banished for life—that was all she had heard and comprehended—this terrible news had confused and benumbed her senses.
"Sir!" implored Marianne, pressing Natalie to her bosom, "you will at least have some mercy upon this young maiden; you will not thrust us out upon the streets; you will grant us a quiet residence in this house until we can collect our effects and secure what is indisputably ours!"
"Every thing in this house is the indisputable property of the empress!" roughly responded Stephano.
"But not ourselves, I hope!" excitedly exclaimed Marianne. "This imperial power does not extend over our persons?"
Stephano roughly replied: "The door stands open, go! But go directly, or I shall be compelled to arrest you for opposing the execution of the laws, and stirring up sedition!"
"Yes, let us go," cried Natalie, who had recovered her consciousness—"let us go, Marianne. Let us not remain a moment longer in a house belonging to that barbarous Russian empress who has condemned the noble Count Paulo as a criminal, and, robber-like, taken forcible possession of his property!"
And, following the first impulse of her noble pride, the young maiden took Marianne by the hand and drew her away.
"They, at least, shall not forcibly eject us," said she; "no, no, we will go of our own free will, self-banished!"
"But where shall we go?" cried Marianne, wringing her hands.
"Where God wills!" solemnly responded the young maiden.
"And upon what shall we live?" wailed Marianne. "We are now totally destitute and helpless. How shall we live?"
"We will work!" said Natalie, firmly. A peculiar calm had come over her. Misfortune had awakened a new quality in her nature, sorrow had struck a new string in her being; she was no longer the delicate, gentle, suffering, unresisting child; she felt in herself a firm resolution, a bold courage, an almost joyful daring, and an invincible calmness.
"Work! You will work, princess?" whispered Marianne.
"I will learn it!" said she, and with a constantly quickened step they approached the outlet of the garden.
The gate which led out into the street was wide open; soldiers in Russian uniform had been stationed before it, keeping back with their carbines the curious Romans who crowded around in great numbers, glad of an opportunity to get a peep into the so-long-closed charmed garden.
"See, there she comes, the garden fairy!" cried they all, as Natalie neared the gate.
"How beautiful she is, how beautiful!" they loudly exclaimed.
"That is a real fairy, a divinity!"
Natalie heard none of these expressions of admiration—she had but one object, one thought. She wished to leave the garden; she wished to go forth; she had no regrets, no complaints, for this lost paradise; she only wished to get out of it, even if it was to go to her death.
But the soldiers stationed at the gate opposed her progress.
Natalie regarded them with terror and amazement.
"They cannot, at least, oppose my voluntary resignation of my property," said she. "Away with these muskets and sabres! I would pass out!"
And the young maiden boldly advanced a step. But those weapons stretched before her like a wall, and Natalie was now overcome by anguish and despair; the inconsolable feeling of her total abandonment, of her miserable isolation. Tears burst from her eyes, her pride was broken, she was again the trembling young girl, no longer the heroic woman; she wept, and in tremulous tone, with folded hands, she implored of these rough soldiers a little mercy, a little compassion.
They understood not her language, they had no sympathy; but the crowd were touched by the tears of the beautiful girl and by the sad lamentations of her companion. They screamed, they howled, they insulted the soldiers, they swore to liberate the two women by force, if the soldiers any longer refused them a passage. Dumb, unshaken, immovable, like a wall stood the soldiers with their weapons stretched forth.
Through the hissing and tumult a loud and commanding voice was suddenly heard to ask, "What is going on here? What means this disturbance?" An officer made his way through the crowd, and approached the garden gate. The soldiers respectfully gave way, and he stepped into the garden.
"Oh, sir," said Natalie, turning to him her tearful face, "if you are an honorable man, have compassion for an abandoned and unprotected maiden, and command these soldiers, who seem to obey you, to let me and my companion go forth unhindered."
The Russian officer, Joseph Ribas, bowed low and respectfully to her. "If it is the Princess Tartaroff whom I have the honor of addressing," said he, "I must in the name of my illustrious lord, beg your pardon for what has improperly occurred here; at his command I come to set it all right!"
Thus speaking, he returned to the soldiers, and in a low tone exchanged some words with their leader. The latter bowed respectfully, and at his signal the soldiers shut the gate and retired into the street.
"Am I to be detained here as a prisoner?" exclaimed Natalie. "Am I not allowed to leave this garden?"
"Your grace, preliminarily, can still consider this garden as your own property," he respectfully responded. "I am commanded to watch that no one dare to disturb you here, and for this purpose my lord respectfully requests that you will have the goodness to permit me to remain in your house as the guardian of your safety."
"And who is this generous man?" asked Natalie.
"He is a man who has made a solemn vow to protect innocence everywhere, when he finds it threatened!" solemnly responded Joseph Ribas. "He is a man who is ready to shed his blood for the Princess Tartaroff, who is surrounded by enemies and dangers; a man," he continued, in a lower tone, "who knows and loves your friend and guardian, Count Paulo, and will soon bring you secret and sure news from him!"
"He knows Count Paulo!" joyfully exclaimed Natalie. "Oh, then all is well. I may safely confide in whoever knows and loves Count Paulo, for he must bear in his bosom a noble heart!"
And turning to Joseph Ribas with a charming smile, she said, "Sir, lead me now where you will. We will both gladly follow you!"
"Let us, first of all, go into the villa, and send away those troublesome people!" said the Russian officer, preceding the two women to the house.
The bailiffs and soldiers were still there, occupied with sealing the doors and closets. Joseph Ribas approached them with angry glances, and, turning to Stephano, said, "Sir, I shall call you to account for this over-hasty and illegal proceeding!"
"I am in my right!" morosely answered Stephano. "Here is the command to attach this villa. It has fallen to the Russian crown as the property of the traitor Rasczinsky."
"There is only the one error to be corrected," said Joseph Ribas, "that this villa was not the property of Count Rasczinsky, as he some months ago sold it to his friend, my master. And as, so far as I know, the illustrious count, my master, never was a traitor, you will please to respect his property!"
"You will have first to authenticate your assertions!" responded Stephano, with a rude laugh.
"Here is the documental authentication!" said Joseph Ribas, handing a paper to Stephano. The latter, after attentively reading the documents, bowed reverentially, and said: "Sir, it appears that I was certainly mistaken. This deed of gift is en regle, and is undersigned by his grace the Russian ambassador. You will pardon me, as I only acted according to my orders."
Joseph Ribas answered Stephano's reverential bow with a haughty nod. "Go," said he, "take off the seals in the quickest possible time, and then away with you!"
But as Stephano was about retiring with his people, Joseph Ribas beckoned him back again.
"You have, therefore, recognized this deed of gift?" asked he, and as Stephano assented, he continued: "You therefore cannot deny that my master is the undisputed possessor of this villa, and can do with it according to his pleasure?"
"I do not deny it at all!" growled Stephano.
Joseph Ribas then drew forth another paper, which he also handed Stephano. "You will also recognize this deed of gift to be regular and legal! It is likewise undersigned and authenticated by our ambassador."
Stephano, having attentively read it, almost indignantly said:
"It is all right. But the count is crazy, to give away so fine a property!"
And still grumbling, he departed with his people.
Clinging to Marianne's side, Natalie had observed the whole proceeding with silent wonder; and, with the astonishment of innocence and inexperience, she comprehended nothing of the whole scene, nor was a suspicion awakened in her childishly pure soul.
"He is, then, really going?" she asked, as Stephano was slowly moving off.
"Yes, he is going," said Joseph Ribas, "and will never venture to disturb you again. Henceforth you will be in undisputed possession of your property. My lord has made this villa and garden forever yours by a regular legal deed of gift."
"And who is your lord?" asked Natalie. "Tell me his name—tell me where I may find him, that I may return him my thanks?"
"Yes, conduct us to him," said the weeping Marianne. "Let me clasp his feet and implore his further protection for my poor helpless princess."
"My lord desires no thanks," proudly responded Ribas. "He does good for his own sake, and protects innocence because that is the duty of every knight and nobleman."
"At least tell me his name, that I may pray for him," sobbed Marianne.
"Yes, his name," said Natalie, with a charming smile. "Ah, how I shall love that name!"
"His name is his own secret," said Ribas. "The world, indeed, knows and blesses him, calling him the bravest of the brave. But it is his command that you shall never be informed of it. He desires nothing, no thanks, no acknowledgments—he wishes only to secure your peace and happiness, and thus redeem the solemn vow he made to his friend, Count Paulo Rasczinsky, to guard and preserve you as a father, and to watch over you as your tutelar genius!"
"Thanks, thanks, my God!" cried Marianne, with her arms raised toward heaven. "Thou sendest us help in our need, Thou hast mercy on suffering innocence, and sendest her a saviour in her greatest distress!"
The young maiden said nothing. Her radiant glance was directed heavenward, and, folding her hands over her bosom, with a happy, grateful smile she murmured:
"I am therefore no longer alone, I have a friend who watches over and protects me. Whoever he may be, he is sent by Count Paulo. Whatever may be his name, I shall be forever grateful to him!"
From that day had a new and marvellous life commenced for Natalie. She felt herself surrounded by a dreamy, magic, fantastic, supernatural life; it seemed as if some invisible genius hovered over her, listening to all her thoughts, realizing all her wishes! And Joseph Ribas was the merry, always-cheerful, always-serious Kobold of this invisible deity!
"My lord is not satisfied with the modest furnishing of your villa," said he to Natalie, on the first day. "He begs to be allowed to adorn your chamber with a splendor suited to your rank and your future greatness!"
"And in what is my future greatness to consist?" asked the young maiden, with curiosity.
"That will be made known to you at the proper time," mysteriously replied Joseph Ribas.
"Who will tell me?"
"He, the count."
"I shall therefore see him!" she joyfully exclaimed.
"Perhaps! Will you, however, first allow me to have your room properly furnished?"
"This villa belongs to your lord," said Natalie. "It is for him, as lord and master, to do as he pleases in it."
And satisfied, Ribas hastened away, to return in a few hours with more than fifty workmen and artists, in order to commence the improvements.
Until now the villa had been finished and furnished with simple elegance. One missed nothing necessary for comfort or convenience, for pleasantness or taste. But it was still only the elegant and fashionable residence of a private person. Now, as by the stroke of a magic wand, this villa in a few days was converted into the splendid palace of some sultan or caliph. There were heavy Turkish carpets on the floors, velvet curtains with gold embroidery at the windows and on the walls, the richest and most comfortable divans and arm-chairs, covered with gold-embroidered stuffs; vases ornamented with the most costly precious stones, noble bronze statues, beautiful paintings, and between them the rarest ornaments, glistening with jewels, which modern times have designated by the name of ribs; there were delicate little trifles of inestimable value, and with refined taste and judgment every thing was sought out which luxury and convenience could demand. With childish astonishment and ecstasy, Natalie wandered through these rooms, which she hardly recognized in their splendid ornamentation, and stood before these treasures of trifles which she hardly dared to touch.
"This lord must be either a magician or a nabob," thoughtfully remarked Marianne; "it must have required millions to effect all this."
Natalie asked neither whether he was a magician, a millionaire, or a nabob; she only thought she was to see him, and be allowed to thank him—nothing further.
"Will he come now?" she constantly asked of the humble and slavishly devoted Joseph Ribas; "will he come now that his house is prepared for his reception?"
"It is adorned only for you, princess," humbly replied Ribas. "The count, my master, wishes for nothing but to see you in a habitation worthy of you!"
But what was this luxury, what cared she for these treasures the value of which she was incapable of estimating, and which were indifferent to her? She who had no conception of wealth or of money?—she, who knew not that there was poverty in the world, and who, raised in an Eden separated from the world, had no idea that hunger had ever made its appearance within it—she knew only the sorrows of the happy, the deprivations of the rich; she had never had either to struggle against real misfortune or to experience real want and deprivation.
Now, indeed, a deeper sorrow had entered into her life; she had lost her beloved paternal friend, Count Paulo; and Carlo, also, had been torn from her! That was certainly a more profound sorrow, and she had wept much for both of them,—but yet that was no real misfortune. She had never yet lost the whole substance of her life; for those two, however much she might always have loved them, had nevertheless, not entirely filled out her life; they had been a part of her happiness, but not that happiness itself.
And she awaited happiness! She awaited it with ecstasy and devotion, with feverish hope and glowing desire! She knew not and asked not in what this happiness was to consist, and yet her heart yearned for it; she called for this unknown and nameless happiness with a throbbing bosom and tremulously whispering lips!
She was so much alone, she had so much time for dreaming, and intoxicating herself with fantastic imaginations! She was surrounded by a fabulous world, and she was the fairy of that world! But out of that fabulous world she sometimes longed to be, out of the ideal into the real; she yearned for truth and actuality. Then she would call Joseph Ribas to her side and bid him relate to her of that unknown lord, his master.
He told her of his battles and his heroic deeds, of his wonderful acts of bravery, and the young maiden tremblingly and shudderingly listened to him. She feared this man, who had shed streams of blood, and whose enemies with their dying lips had lauded as the greatest of heroes! And Joseph Ribas smiled when he saw her turn pale and tremble, and he would speak to her of his generosity and humanity, of his knighthood and virtue; he related to her how, on one occasion, at the risk of his life he had protected and saved a persecuted young maiden; how on another he had taken pity on a helpless old man, and singly had defended him against a host of bloodthirsty enemies. He also spoke to her of the sorrow of his master on account of the ingratitude and deceptions he had experienced, and Natalie's eyes filled with tears as, with reproachful glances, she asked of Heaven how it could have permitted the virtue of this noble unknown hero to be so severely tried, and the baseness of mankind to trouble him.
"That is it, then," Ribas would often say; "he diffuses happiness everywhere around him, while he himself has it not! He makes glad and cheerful faces wherever he appears, and his own is the only serious and sad brow. Mankind have made him hopeless, and for himself he no longer believes in happiness!"
Ah, how then did the heart of this innocent child tremble, and how she longed to find some means for restoring his belief in happiness.
"But why does he not come to those who love him?" asked she. "Why does he decline the thanks of those whose hearts are truly devoted to him? Ah, in our humid eyes and joy-beaming faces he would recognize the truthfulness of our feelings! Why, then, comes he not?"
"I will tell you," said Ribas, with a smile; "he hates women, because the only one he ever loved was false to him, and now his love is changed to ardent hatred of all women!"
"I shall therefore never see him!" sighed the girl, hanging her head with the sadness of disappointment.
This expectation, this constantly increasing impatience, rendered her inaccessible to any other feeling, any other thought. He of whom she did not know even the name, was sent by Paulo, and therefore had she believed and confided in him from the first. Now had she already forgotten that she had confided in him on Paulo's account; she believed in him on his own account, and Paulo had retreated into the background. Occasionally also the bloody image of poor Carlo presented itself to her mind, and she secretly reproached herself for having mourned him for so short a time, for having so soon forgotten that faithful, self-sacrificing friend.
But even these reproaches were soon silenced when with a throbbing bosom she thought of this new friend, who like a divinity hovered over her at an infinite and unattainable distance, and whose mysteriously active nearness replaced both of those friends she had lost, and for whom she could no longer mourn.
"It is now high time!" said Joseph Ribas, one day, as, coming from Natalie, he entered the boudoir of Count Alexis Orloff. "Now, your excellency, the right moment has come! You must show yourself, or this curious child will consume herself with a longing that has changed her blood to fire! She thinks of nothing but you; with open eyes she dreams of you, and without the least suspicion that any one is listening to her, she speaks to you, ah, with what modest tenderness and with what humble devotion! I tell you, your excellency, you are highly blessed. There is no child more innocent, no woman more glowing with love. And she knows it not; no, she has not the least suspicion that she already loves you with enthusiasm, and thirsts for your kisses as the rose for the morning dew! She knows nothing of her love!"
"She shall learn something of it!" said Orloff, laughing. "It will be a pleasant task to enlighten this little unknowing one as to her own feelings. And I flatter myself I understand how to do that."
"Endeavor, above all things, your excellency, to realize the ideal she bears in her heart. She expects to see nothing less than an Apollo, whose radiant beauty will annihilate her as Jupiter did Semele!"
"Well, in that, I hope she has not deceived herself," responded Orloff, with a self-satisfied glance into the mirror. "If I am not Jupiter, yet they call me Hercules, and he, you know, was the son of Jupiter, and, indeed, his handsomest son!"
"And be you not only a Hercules, but a Zephyr and Apollo, at the same time. Make her tremble before your heroic character, and at the same time win her confidence in your humble, modest love—then is she yours. You must cautiously and noiselessly spread your nets, you must not wound her delicate sensitiveness by a word or look, or she will flee from you like a frightened gazelle!"
"Oh, should she wish to flee, my arms are strong enough to hold her!"
"Yet is it better to hold her so fast by her own enthusiasm, that she shall not wish to flee," said Ribas. "You must entirely intoxicate her with your humble and respectful love—then is she yours!"
"Does she know I am coming?" thoughtfully asked Orloff.
"No, she knows nothing of it. She sits in the garden and sighs, occasionally grasping the golden guitar that lies on her arm, and asks of the flowers: 'What is the name of my unknown friend? In what star does he dwell, and how shall I invoke him?'"
"I will, then, surprise her!" said Orloff. "Let her anticipate my coming, but do not promise it. It begins to grow dark. Where is she, evenings?"
"Always in the garden. There she sighs and dreams of you!"
"Persuade her to go into the house, and let it be well lighted up! I would appear to her in the full splendor of the lights! Ha, you ragamuffins, you hounds, bring me my oriental costume, the richest, handsomest; hasten, or I will throttle you!"
And Count Orloff hurried into his toilet-chamber, to the trembling slaves who there awaited him.
With a sly smile Joseph Ribas returned to the villa. As he had previously said, he found Natalie dreaming in the garden, the guitar upon her arm.
"You ought to go into the house this evening," said he, "the air is damp and cold, and may injure you."
"Of what consequence would that be?" she sadly responded. "Who would ask whether I was ill nor not? Who would weep for my death?"
"Oh, he!" sighed she. "He hates all women!"
"Excepting you!" whispered Ribas. "Princess, go into the house! Take care of your precious life. It is not I who beg it of you!"
"Who is it then?" she hastily interposed.
"It is he! He begs it of you!"
Natalie, springing up, hurried into the house.
"I will never again go into the garden in the evening!" said she. "It is his command! Thank God, there is yet something in which I can obey, and he commands it of me! But why these lights?" asked she, almost blinded by the brilliancy of the girandoles and chandeliers, the mirrors, and jewels.
"The count has so commanded!" said Ribas. "He loves a bright light! But, princess, cannot you remain in this boudoir for one evening? Only see how beautiful it is, how enticingly cool, with these fountains that refresh the air and diffuse fragrance! How delightfully still and snug it is! Reposing upon these velvet cushions, you can look through the whole suite of rooms, which in fact, tonight, flash and sparkle like the heavens, and yet in this boudoir there is a sweet twilight, refreshing to eye and heart!"
"No, no," said she, with a charming smile. "I also like brightness and light! It is too dusky here!"
"Nevertheless, remain here!"
"He wishes it!" said Ribas mysteriously.
"He wishes it?" cried Natalie, turning pale, and trembling. Then, suddenly, a purple flush spread over her brow, and, reeling, she was obliged to hold by a chair to prevent falling. "Ah," she stammered, "can it be possible? Can this happiness be intended? Is it true, what I read in your eyes? Is it? Comes he here?"
"Hope always!" said Ribas, suddenly disappearing through a side-door.
Natalie, benumbed by surprise, sank down upon the divan. A feeling of boundless anxiety, of immeasurable ecstasy suddenly overcame her. She could have fled, but she felt as if spell-bound; she could have concealed herself from him, and yet was joyfully ready to purchase with her life the happiness of seeing him. It was a strange mixture of delight and terror, of happiness and despair. She spread her arms toward heaven, she sought to pray, but she had no words, no thoughts, not even tears!
A slight rustle made her rise. Almost with terror flew her glance through the suite of rooms. There below she saw the approach of something strange, singular, magical. It was a never-before-seen form, but surrounded by a wonderfully bright halo, enveloped in rich, glittering garments, such as she had never before seen. It was a strange, unknown face, but of a sublime, heroic beauty, proud and noble, bold and mild.
"That is he!" she breathlessly and sadly murmured—"yes, that is he! That is a man and a hero! Ah, I shall die under his glance!"
He still continued to approach, and with every forward step he made she felt her heart contract with anxiety, admiration, and a feverish sadness.
Now he stood on the threshold of the boudoir—his glance fell upon her. And she? She lay, or rather half knelt upon the divan, motionless, pale as a marble statue, with that divine smile which we admire in ancient sculpture.
Touching was she to behold, white and delicate as a lily, so humble and devoted, so shelter-needing and love-imploring!
But Count Orloff felt neither sympathy nor compassion. He saw only that she was beautiful as an angel, an admirable woman, whom he desired to possess!
Proud as a king, and at the same time very reverential and submissive, he approached and sank upon his knee before the divan upon which she reclined in trembling yet blissful sadness.
"Princess Natalie," he murmured low, "will you be angry with your slave for daring to intrude upon you without knowing whether he would be welcome?"
She breathed freer. It was a relief to her to hear his voice—it made her feel easier. He was no magician, no demon, he was a man, and spoke to her with human words! That gave her courage and strength, it gave her back the consciousness of her own dignity. She was ashamed of her anxiety, her trembling, her childish helplessness. Yet she could say nothing, answer nothing. She only gave him her hand, and with a charming smile, an inimitable grace, and welcomed him with a silent inclination of the head.
Taking her hand he pressed it to his lips. His touch seemed to kindle in her an electric glow, and with something like alarm she withdrew her hand.
"Are you, then, angry with me?" he asked in a tone of sadness.
"No," said she, "I am not angry, but I fear you. You are so great a hero, and your sword has done so many brave deeds. I looked at your sword, and it alarmed me."
Count Orloff gave her a surprised and interrogating glance. Why said she that? Had she some suspicion, some mistrust, or was it only a presentiment, an inexplicable instinct, that made her tremble at his sword?
"No, she suspects nothing," thought he, as he gazed upon that pure, innocent, childish brow, which was turned toward him in pious confidence, and yet with timid hesitation.
He loosened his sword from his girdle, sparkling with diamonds, and humbly laid both at Natalie's feet.
"Princess," said he, "the empress herself girded me with this sword, and I swore it should never leave my side but with my life. You are dearer to me than my life or my honor, and I therefore break my sacred oath. Take my sword, I am now without arms, and you will no longer have occasion to tremble before me."
She smilingly shook her head. "You still remain a hero, though without arms—it lies in your eyes!"
"I would close my eyes," said he, "but then I should not see you, princess, and I have already so long languished for a sight of you!"
"Why, then, came you not sooner?" she asked, now feeling herself entirely cheerful and unembarrassed. "Oh, did you but know how impatiently I have awaited you!"
And with childish innocence she began to relate how much she had thought of him, how often she had dreamed of him, how she had sometimes spoken aloud to him, and almost thought she heard his answers!
Count Orloff listened to her with surprise and delight. Thus had he not expected to find her, so childishly cheerful, so charmingly innocent, and yet at the same time with so much maidenly reserve, so much natural dignity. Now she laughed like a child, now was her face serious and proud, now again tender and timid. She was at once a timid child and a glowing woman; she was innocent as an angel, and yet so full of sweet, unconscious maiden coquetry. She enchanted, while inspiring devotion, she excited passions and desires, while, with a natural maiden dignity, she kept one within the bounds of respect. She was entirely different from what Orloff had expected; perhaps less beautiful, less dazzling, but infinitely more lovely. She enchanted him with her smile, and her innocent childish face touched him.