"I will not go back yet," said Roma, and thereupon the priest and his assistants stepped into the carriages. The drivers lit cigarettes and started off at a brisk trot.
It had been a gorgeous funeral, and the soul of the Countess would have been satisfied. But the grinning King of Terrors had stood by all the time, saying, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
Roma bought a wreath of wild flowers at a stall outside the cemetery gates, and by help of a paper given to her in the office she found the grave of little Joseph. It was in a shelf of vaults like ovens, each with its marble door, and a photograph on the front. They were all photographs of children, sweet smiling faces, a choir of little angels, now singing round the throne in heaven. The sun was shining on them, and the tall cypress trees were singing softly in the light wind overhead. Here and there a mother was trimming an oil-lamp that hung before her baby's face, and listening to the little voice that was not dead but speaking to her soul's soul.
Roma hung her wreath on Joseph's vault and turned away. Going out of the gates she met a great concourse of people. At their head was a Capuchin carrying a black wooden cross with sponge, spear, hammer and nails attached. Two boys in blue and white carried candles by his side. The crowd behind were of the poorest, chiefly women and girls with shawls and handkerchiefs on their heads. It was Friday, and they were going to the Church of San Lorenzo to make the procession of the Stations of the Cross. Scarcely knowing why she did so, Roma followed them.
The people filled the Basilica. Their devotion was deep and touching. As they followed the friar from station to station they sang in monotonous tones the strophes of the Stabat Mater.
"Ah, Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the strength of sorrow that I may mourn with thee."
Their prayer seemed hardly needful. They were the starving wives and daughters of men in prison, men in hospital, and reserve soldiers. Poor wrecks on life's shore, thrown up by the tide, they had turned to religion for consolation, and were sending up their cry to God.
When they had finished their course and ended their canticles of grief they gathered about the pulpit and the Capuchin got up to preach. He was a bearded man with a face full of light, almost of frenzy, and a cross and a rosary hung from his girdle. He spoke of their poverty, their lost ones, their privations, of the dark hour they were passing through, and of answers to prayer in political troubles. During this time the silence was breathless; but when he told them that God had sent their sufferings upon them for their sins, that they must confess their sins, in order that their holy mother, the Church, might save them from their sins, there was a deep hum in the air like the reverberation in a great shell.
A line of confessional boxes stood in each of the church aisles, and as the preacher described the sorrows of the man-God, His passion, His agony, His blood, the women and girls, weeping audibly, got up one by one and went over to confess. No sooner had one of them arisen than another took her place, and each as she rose to her feet looked calm and comforted.
The emotion of the moment was swelling over Roma like a flood. If she could unburden her heart like that! If she could cast off all the trouble of her days and nights of pain! One of the confessional boxes had a penitential rod protruding from it, and going past the front of it she had seen the face of a priest. It was a soft, kindly, human face. She had seen it before somewhere—perhaps in the Pope's procession.
At that moment a poor girl with a handkerchief on her head, who had knelt down crying, was getting up with shining eyes. Roma was shaken by violent tremors. An overpowering desire had come upon her to confess. For a moment she held on to a chair, lest she should fall to the floor. Then by a sudden impulse, in a kind of delirium, scarcely knowing what she was doing until it was done, she flung herself in the place the girl had risen from, and with a palpitating heart said in a tremulous voice through the little brass grating:
"Father, I am a great sinner—hear me, hear me!"
The measured breathing inside the confessional was arrested, and the peaceful face of the priest looked out at the hectic cheeks and blazing eyes.
"Wait, my daughter, do not agitate yourself. Say the Confiteor."
She tried to speak, but her words were hardly audible or coherent.
"I confess ... I confess ... I cannot, Father."
A pinch of snuff dropped from the old man's fingers.
"Are you not a Christian?"
"I have not been baptized, but I was educated in a convent, and...."
"Then I cannot hear your confession. Baptism is the door of the Church, and without it...."
"But I am in great trouble. For Our Lady's sake, listen to me. Oh, listen to me, Father, only listen to me."
Although accustomed to the sufferings of the human heart, a measureless pity came over the old priest, and he said in a kind and tender voice:
"Go on, my daughter. I cannot give you absolution, for you are not a child of the Church; but I am an old man, and if I can help your poor soul to bear its burden, God forbid that I should turn you away."
In a torrent of hot words Roma poured out her trouble, hiding nothing, extenuating nothing, and naming and blaming no one. At length the throbbing breath and quivering voice died down, and there was a moment's silence, in which the dull rumble in the church seemed to come from far away. Then the voice behind the grating said in tender tones:
"My daughter, you have committed no sin in this case and have nothing to repent of. That you should be troubled by scruples shows that your soul is pure and that you are living in communion with God. Your bodily health is reduced by nervousness and anxiety, and it is natural that you should imagine that you have sinned where you have not sinned. That is the sweet grace of most women, but how few men! What sin there has been is not yours; therefore go home, and God comfort you."
"But, dear Father ... it is so good of you, but have you forgotten...."
"Your husband? No! Whether you should tell him it is beyond my power to say. In itself I should be against it, for why should you disturb his conscience and endanger the peace of a family? Your scruples about Nature coming to convict you, being without grounds of reason, are temptations of the devil and should be put behind your back. But that your marriage was a religious one only, that the other person (you did right not to name him, my child) may use that circumstance to separate you, and that your confession to your husband, if it came too late, would come prejudiced and worse than in vain, these are facts that make it difficult to advise you for your safety and peace of mind. Let me consult some one wiser than myself. Let me, perhaps, take your secret to a high place, a kindly ear, a saintly heart, a venerable and holy head. Come again, or leave me your name if you will, and if that holy person has anything to say you shall hear of it. Meantime go home in peace and content, my daughter, and may God bring you into His true fold at last."
When Roma got up from the grating of the confessional she felt like one who had passed through a great sickness and was now better. Her whole being was going through a miraculous convalescence. A great weight had been lifted off; she was renewed as with a new soul and her very body felt light as air.
The preacher was still preaching in his tremulous tones, and the women and girls were still crying, as Roma passed out of the church, but now she heard all as in a dream. It was not until she reached the portico, and a blind beggar rattled his can in her face, that the spell was broken, so sudden and mysterious was the transition when she came back from heaven to earth.
By the first post next morning "Sister Angelica" received a letter from David Rossi.
"Dearest,—Your budget arrived safely and brought me great joy and perhaps a little sadness. Apart from the pain I always suffer when I think of our poor people, there was a little twinge as I read between the lines of your letter. Are you not dissimulating some of your happiness to keep up my spirits and to prevent me from rushing back to you at all hazards? You shall be really happy some day, my dear one. I shall hear your silvery laugh again as I did on that glorious day in the Campagna. Wait, only wait! We are still young and we shall live.
"Pray for me, my heart, that what my hand is doing may not be done amiss. I am working day and night. Meetings, committees, correspondence early and late. A great scheme is afoot, dearest, and you shall hear all about it presently. I am proud that I judged rightly of the moral grandeur of your nature, and that it is possible to tell you everything.
"We have elected a centre of action and mapped out our organisation. Everybody agrees with me on the necessity for united action. Europe seems to be ready for a complete change, but the first great act must be done in Rome. I find encouragement everywhere. The brotherly union of the peoples is going on. A power stronger than brute force is sweeping through the world.
"Poor Bruno! You are no doubt right that pressure is being put upon him to betray me. It is not for myself only that I am troubled. It would be a lasting grief to me if his mind were poisoned. Charles Minghelli being in prison in the disguise of a prisoner means that anything may happen. When the man came to me after his dismissal in London, it was to ask help to assassinate the Baron. I refused it, and he went over to the other side. The secret tribunal in which cases are prepared for public trial is a hellish machine for cruelty and injustice. It has been abolished in nearly every other civilised country, but the courts and jails of our beautiful Italy continue to be the scene of plots in which helpless unfortunates are terrorised by expedients which leave not a trace of crime. A prisoner is no longer a man, but a human agent to incriminate others. His soul is corrupted, and a price is put upon treachery. See Bruno yourself if you can, and save him from himself and the people whose only occupation in life is to secure convictions.
"And now, as to your friend. Comfort her. The poor girl is no more guilty than if a traction engine had run over her or a wild beast had broken on her out of his cage. She must not torture herself any longer. It is not right, it is not good. Our body is not the only part of use that is subject to diseases, and you must save her from a disease of the soul.
"As to whether she should tell her husband, I can have but one opinion. I say, Yes, by all means. In the court of conscience the sin, where it exists, is not wholly or mainly in the act. That has been pardoned in secret as well as in public. God pardoned it in David. Christ pardoned it in the woman of Jerusalem. But the concealment, the lying and duplicity, these cannot be pardoned until they have been confessed.
"Another point, which your pure mind, dearest, has never thought of. There is the other man. Think of the power he holds over your friend. If he still wishes to possess her in spite of herself, he may intimidate her, he may threaten to reveal all to her husband. This would make her miserable, and perhaps in the long run, her will being broken, it might even make her yield. Or the man may really tell her husband in order to insult and outrage both of them. If he does so, where is she? Is her husband to believe her story then?
"To meet these dangers let her speak out now. Let her trust her husband's love and tell him everything. If he is a man he will think, 'Only her purity has prompted her to tell me,' and he will love her more than ever. Some momentary spasm he may feel. Every man wishes to believe that the flower he plucks is flawless. But his higher nature will conquer his vanity and he will say, 'She loves me, I love her, she is innocent, and if any blow is to be struck at her it must go through me.'
"My love to you, dearest. Your friend must be a true woman, and it was very sweet of you to be so tender with her. It was noble of you to be severe with her too, and to make her go through purgatorial fires. That is what good women always do with the injured of their own sex. It is a kind of pledge and badge of their purity, and it is a safeguard and shield, whatever the unthinking may say. I love you for your severity to the poor soiled dove, my dear one, just as much as I love you for your tenderness. It shows me how rightly I judged the moral elevation of your soul, your impeccability, your spirit of fire and heart of gold. Until we meet again, my darling, D. R."
"MY DEAR DAVID ROSSI,—All day long I've been carrying your letter round like a reliquary, taking a peep at it in cabs, and even, when I dare, in omnibuses and the streets.
"What you say about Bruno has put me in a fever, and I have written to the Director-General for permission to visit the prison. Even Lawyer Napoleon is of opinion that Bruno is being made a victim of that secret inquisition. No Holy Inquisition was ever more unscrupulous. Lawyer N. says the authorities in Italy have inherited the traditions of a bad regime. To do evil to prevent others from doing it is horrible. But in this case it is doing evil to prevent others from doing good. I am satisfied that Bruno is being tempted to betray you. If I could only take his place! Would their plots have any effect upon me? I should die first.
"And now about my friend. I can hardly hold my pen when I write of her. What you say is so good, so noble. I might have known what you would think, and yet....
"Dearest, how can I go on? Can't you divine what I wish to tell you? Your letter compels me to confess. Come what may, I can hold off no longer. Didn't you guess who my poor friend was? I thought you would remember our former correspondence when you pretended to love somebody else. You haven't thought of it apparently, and that is only another proof—a bitter sweet one this time—of your love and trust. You put me so high that you never imagined that I could be speaking of myself. I was, and my poor friend is my poor self.
"It has made me suffer all along to see what a pedestal of purity you placed me on. The letters you wrote before you told me you loved me, when you were holding off, made me ashamed because I knew I was not worthy. More than once when you spoke of me as so good, I couldn't look into your eyes. I felt an impulse to cry, 'No, no, no,' and to smirch the picture you were painting. Yet how could I do it? What woman who loves a man can break the idol in his heart? She can only struggle to lift herself up to it. That was what I tried to do, and it is not my fault that it is not done.
"I have been much to blame. There were moments when duty should have made me speak. One such moment was before we married. Do you remember that I tried to tell you something? You were kind, and you would not listen. 'The past is past,' you said, and I was only too happy to gloss it over. You didn't know what I wished to say, or you would not have silenced me. I knew, and I have suffered ever since. I had to speak, and you see how I have spoken. And now I feel as if I had tricked you. I have got you to commit yourself to opinions and to a line of conduct. Forgive me! I will not hold you to anything. Take it all back, and I shall have no right to complain.
"Besides, there are features in my own case which I did not present to you in my friend's. One of them was the fear of being found out. Dearest, I must not shield myself behind the sweet excuse you find for me. I did think of the other man. It wasn't that I was afraid that he would intimidate me, and so corrupt my love. Not all the tyrannies of the world could do that now. But if from revenge or a desire to wrest me away from you by making you cast me off he told you his story before I had told you mine! That was a day-long and night-long terror, and now I confess it lest you should think me better than I am.
"Another thing you did not know. Dearest, I would give my life to spare you the explanation, but I must tell you everything. You know who the man is, and it is true before God that he alone was to blame. But my own fault came afterwards. Instead of cutting him off, I continued to be on good terms with him, to take the income he allowed me from my father's estate, and even to think of him as my future husband. And when your speech in the piazza seemed to endanger my prospects I set out to destroy you.
"It is terrible. How can I tell you and not die of shame? Now you know how much I deceived you, and the infamy of my purpose makes me afraid to ask for pardon. To think that I was no better than a Delilah when I met you first! But Heaven stepped in and saved you. How you worked upon me! First, you re-created my father for me, and I saw him as he really was, and not as I had been taught to think of him. Then you gave me my soul, and I saw myself. Darling, do not hate me. Your great heart could not be capable of a cruelty like that if you knew what I suffered.
"Last of all love came, and I wanted to hold on to it. Oh, how I wanted to hold on to it! That was how it came about that I went on and on without telling you. It was a sort of gambling, a kind of delirium. Everything that happened I took as a penance. Come poverty, shame, neglect, what matter? It was only wiping out a sinful past, and bringing me nearer to you. But when at last he who had injured me threatened to injure you through me, I was in despair. You could never imagine what mad notions came to me then. I even thought of killing myself, to end and cover up everything. But no, I could not break your heart like that. Besides, the very act would have told you something, and it was terrible to think that when I was dead you might find out all this pitiful story.
"Now you know everything, dearest. I have kept nothing back. As you see, I am not only my poor friend, but some one worse—myself. Can you forgive me? I dare not ask it. But put me out of suspense. Write. Or better still, telegraph. One word—only one. It will be enough.
"I would love to send you my love, but to-night I dare not. I have loved you from the first, and I can never do anything but love you, whatever happens. I think you would forgive me if you could realise that I am in the world only to love you, and that the worst of my offences comes of loving you more than reason or honour itself. Whatever you do, I am yours, and I can only consecrate my life to you.
"It is daybreak, and the cross of St. Peter's is hanging spectral white above the mists of morning. Is it a symbol of hope, I wonder? The dawn is coming up from the south-east. It would travel quicker to the north-west if it loved you as much as I do. I have been writing this letter over and over again all night long. Do you remember the letter you made me burn, the one containing all your secrets? Here is a letter containing mine—but how much meaner and more perilous! Your poor unhappy girl, ROMA."
Next day Roma removed into her new quarters. A few trunks containing her personal belongings, the picture of her father and Elena's Madonna, were all she took with her. A broker glanced at the rest of her goods and gave a price for the lot. Most of the plaster casts in the studio were broken up and carted away. The fountain, being of marble, had to be put in a dark cellar under the lodge of the old Garibaldian. Only one part of it was carried upstairs. This was the mould for the bust of Rossi and the block of stone for the head of Christ.
Except for her dog, Roma went alone to the Piazza Navona, Felice having returned to the Baron and Natalina being dismissed. The old woman was to clean and cook for her and Roma was to shop for herself. It didn't take the neighbours long to sum up the situation. She was Rossi's wife. They began to call her Signora.
Coming to live in Rossi's home was a sweet experience. The room seemed to be full of his presence. The sitting-room with its piano, its phonograph, and its portraits brought back the very tones of his voice. The bedroom was at first a sanctuary, and she could not bring herself to occupy it until she had set upon the little Madonna. Then it became a bower, and to sleep in it brought a tingling sense which she had never felt before.
Living in the midst of Rossi's surroundings, she felt as if she were discovering something new about him every minute. His squirrels on the roof made her think of him as a boy, and his birds, which were nesting, and therefore singing from their little swelling throats the whole day long, made her thrill and think of both of them. His presents from other women were a source of almost feverish interest. Some came from England and America, and were sent by women who had never even seen his face. They made her happy, they made her proud, they made her jealous.
It was Rossi, Rossi, always Rossi! Every night on going to bed in her poor quarters her last thought was a love-prayer in the darkness, very simple and foolish and childlike, that he would love her always, whatever she was, and whatever the world might say or evil men might do.
This mood lasted for a week and then it began to break. At the back of her happiness there lay anxiety about her letter. She counted up the hours since she posted it, and reckoned the time it would take to receive a reply. If Rossi telegraphed she might hear from him in three days. She did not hear.
"He thinks it better to write," she told herself. Of course he would write immediately, and in five days she would receive his reply. On the fifth day she called on the porter at the convent. He had nothing for "Sister Angelica."
"There must be snow on the Alps, and therefore the mails are delayed," she thought, and she went down to Piale's, where they post up telegrams. There was snow in Switzerland. It was just as she imagined, and her letter would be delivered in the morning. It was not delivered in the morning.
"How stupid of me! It would be Sunday when my letter reached London." She had not counted on the postal arrangements of the English Sabbath. One day more, only one, and she would hear from Rossi and be happy.
But one day went by, then another and another, and still no letter came. Her big heart began to fail and the rainbow in the sky of her life to pale away. The singing of the birds on the roof pained her now. How could they crack their little throats like that? It was raining and the sky was dark.
Then the Garibaldian and his old wife came upstairs with scared looks and with papers in their hands. They were summoned to give evidence at Bruno's trial. It was to take place in three days.
"Well, I'm deaf, praise the saints! and they can't make much of me," said the old woman.
Roma put on her simple black straw hat with a quill through it and set off for the office of the lawyer, Napoleon Fuselli.
"Just writing to you, dear lady," said the great man, dropping back in his chair. "Sorry to say my labour has been in vain. It is useless to go further. Our man has confessed."
"Confessed?" Roma clutched at the lapel of her coat.
"Confessed, and denounced his accomplices."
"Rossi in particular, whom he has implicated in a serious conspiracy."
"That is not yet disclosed. We shall hear all about it the day after to-morrow."
"But why? With what object?"
"Pardon! Apparently they have promised the clemency of the court, and hence in one sense our object is achieved. It is hardly necessary to defend the man. The authorities will see to that for us."
"What will be the result?"
"Probably a trial in contumacy. As soon as Parliament rises for Easter Rossi will be summoned to present himself within ten days. But you will be the first to know all about it, you know."
"The summons will be posted upon the door of the house he lived in, and on the door of any other house he is known to have frequented."
"But if he never hears of it, or if he takes no heed?"
"He will be tried all the same, and when he is a condemned man his sentence will be printed in black and posted up in the same places."
"Then Rossi's life in Rome will be at an end. He will be interdicted from all public offices and expelled from Parliament."
"He will be a free man the following morning."
Roma went home dazed and dejected. A letter was waiting for her. It was from the Director of the Roman prisons. Although the regulations stipulated that only relations should visit prisoners, except under special conditions, the Director had no objection to Bruno Rocco's former employer seeing him at the ordinary bi-monthly hour for visitors to-morrow, Sunday afternoon.
At two o'clock next day Roma set off for Regina C[oe]li.
The visiting-room of Regina C[oe]li is constructed on the principle of a rat-trap. It is an oblong room divided into three compartments longitudinally, the partition walls being composed of wire and resembling cages. The middle compartment is occupied by the armed warder in charge who walks up and down; the compartment on the prison side is divided into many narrow boxes each occupied by a prisoner, and the compartment on the world side is similarly divided into sections each occupied by a visitor.
When Roma entered this room she was deafened by a roar of voices. Thirty prisoners and as many of their friends were trying to talk at the same time across the compartment in the middle, in which the warder was walking. Each batch of friends and prisoners had fifteen minutes for their interview, and everybody was shouting so as to be heard above the rest.
A feeling of moral and physical nausea took possession of Roma when she was shown into this place. After some minutes of the hellish tumult she had asked to see the Director. The message was taken upstairs, and the Director came down to speak to her.
"Do you expect me to speak to my friend in this place and under these conditions?" she asked.
"It is the usual place, and these are the usual conditions," he answered.
"If you are unable to allow me to speak to him in some other place under some other conditions, I must go to the Minister of the Interior."
The Director bowed. "That will be unnecessary," he said. "There is a room reserved for special circumstances," and, calling a warder, he gave the necessary instructions. He was a good man in the toils of a vicious system.
A few minutes afterwards Roma was alone in a small bare room with Bruno, except for two warders who stood in the door. She was shocked at the change in him. His cheeks, which used to be full and almost florid, were shrunken and pale; a short grizzly beard had grown over his chin, and his eyes, which had been frank and humorous, were fierce and evasive. Six weeks in prison had made a different man of him, and, like a dog which has been changed by sickness and neglect, he knew it and growled.
"What do you want with me?" he said angrily, as Roma looked at him without speaking.
She flushed and begged his pardon, and at that his jaw trembled and he turned his head away.
"I trust you received the note I sent in to you, Bruno?"
"When? What note?"
"On the day after your arrest, saying your dear ones should be cared for and comforted."
"And were they?"
"Yes. Then you didn't receive it?"
"I was under punishment from the first."
"I also paid for a separate cell with food and light. Did you get that?"
"No, I was nearly all the time on bread and water."
His sulkiness was breaking down and he was showing some agitation. She lifted her large dark eyes on him and said in a soft voice:
"Poor Bruno! No wonder they have made you say things."
His jaw trembled more than ever. "No use talking of that," he said.
"Mr. Rossi will be the first to feel for you."
He turned his head and looked at her with a look of pity. "She doesn't know," he thought. "Why should I tell her? After all, she's in the same case as myself. What hurts me will hurt her. She has been good to me. Why should I make her suffer?"
"If they've told you falsehoods, Bruno, in order to play on your jealousy and inspire revenge...." "Where's Rossi?" he said sharply.
"And where's Elena?"
"I don't know."
He wagged his poor head with a wag of wisdom, and for a moment his clouded and stupefied brain was proud of itself.
"It was wrong of Elena to go away without saying where she was going to, and Mr. Rossi is in despair about her."
"You believe that?"
"Indeed I do."
These words staggered him, and he felt mean and small compared to this woman. "If she can believe in them why can't I?" he thought. But after a moment he smiled a pitiful smile and said largely, "You don't know, Donna Roma. But I do, and they don't hoodwink me. A poor fellow here—a convict, he works on the Gazette and hears all the news—he told me everything."
"What's his name?" said Roma.
"Number 333, penal part. He used to occupy the next cell."
"Then you never saw his face?"
"No, but I heard his voice, and I could have sworn I knew it."
"Was it the voice of Charles Minghelli?"
"Time's up," said one of the warders at the door.
"Bruno," said Roma, rising, "I know that Charles Minghelli, who is now an agent of the police, has been in this prison in the disguise of a prisoner. I also know that after he was dismissed from the embassy in London he asked Mr. Rossi to assist him to assassinate the Prime Minister."
"Right about," cried the warder, and with a bewildered expression the prisoner turned to go. Roma followed him through the open courtyard, and until he reached the iron gate he did not lift his head. Then he faced round with eyes full of tears, but full of fire as well, and raising one arm he cried in a resolute voice:
"All right, sister! Leave it to me, damn me! I'll see it through."
The private visiting-room had one disadvantage. Every word that passed was repeated to the Director. Later the same day the Director wrote to the Royal Commissioner:
"Sorry to say the man Rocco has asked for an interview to retract his denunciation. I have refused it, and he has been violent with the chief warder. But inspired by a sentiment of justice I feel it my duty to warn you that I have been misled, that my instructions have been badly interpreted, and that I cannot hold myself responsible for the document I sent you."
The Commissioner sent this letter on to the Minister of the Interior, who immediately called up the Chief of Police.
"Commendatore," said the Baron, "what was the offence for which young Charles Minghelli was dismissed from the embassy in London?"
"He was suspected of forgery, your Excellency."
"The warrant for his arrest was drawn out but never executed?"
"That is so, and we still hold it at the office...."
"Let the papers that were taken at the domiciliary visitation in the apartments of Deputy Rossi and his man Bruno be gone through again—let Minghelli go through them. You follow me?"
"Let your Delegate see if there is not a letter among them from Rossi to Bruno's wife—you understand?"
"If such a letter can be found let it be sent to the Under Prefect to add to his report for to-morrow's trial, and let the Public Prosecutor read it to the prisoner."
"It shall be done, your Excellency."
At eight o'clock the next morning Roma was going into the courtyard of the Castle of St. Angelo when she met the carriage of the Prime Minister coming out. The coachman was stopped from inside, and the Baron himself alighted.
"You look tired, my child," he said.
"I am tired," she answered.
"Hardly more than a month, yet so many things have happened!"
"Oh, that! That's nothing—nothing whatever."
"Why should you pass through these privations? Roma, if I allowed these misfortunes to befall you it was only to let you feel what others could do for you. But I am the same as ever, and you have only to stretch out your hand and I am here to lighten your lot."
"All that is over now. It is no use speaking as you spoke before. You are talking to another woman."
"Strange mystery of a woman's love! That she who set out to destroy her slanderer should become his slave! If he were only worthy of it!"
"He is worthy of it."
"If you should hear that he is not worthy—that he has even been untrue to you?"
"I should think it is a falsehood, a contemptible falsehood."
"But if you had proof, substantial proof, the proof of his own pen?"
"Good-morning! I must go."
"My child, what have I always told you? You will give the man up at last and carry out your first intention."
With a deep bow and a scarcely perceptible smile the Baron turned to the open door of his carriage. Roma flushed up angrily and went on, but the poisoned arrow had gone home.
The military tribunal had begun its session. A ticket which Roma presented at the door admitted her to the well of the court where the advocates were sitting. The advocate Fuselli made a place for her by his side. It was a quiet moment and her entrance attracted attention. The judges in their red armchairs at the green-covered horse-shoe table looked up from their portfolios, and there was some whispering beyond the wooden bar where the public were huddled together. One other face had followed her, but at first she dared not look at that. It was the face of the prisoner in his prison clothes sitting between two Carabineers.
The secretary read the indictment. Bruno was charged not only with participation in the riot of the 1st of February, but also with being a promoter of associations designed to change violently the constitution of the state. It was a long document, and the secretary read it slowly and not very distinctly.
When the indictment came to an end the Public Prosecutor rose to expound the accusation, and to mention the clauses of the Code under which the prisoner's crime had to be considered. He was a young captain of cavalry, with restless eyes and a twirled-up moustache. His long cloak hung over his chair, his light gloves lay on the table by his side, and his sword clanked as he made graceful gestures. He was an elegant speaker, much preoccupied about beautiful phrases, and obviously anxious to conciliate the judges.
"Illustrious gentlemen of the tribunal," he began, and then went on with a compliment to the King, a flourish to the name of the Prime Minister, a word of praise to the army, and finally a scathing satire on the subversive schemes which it was desired to set up in place of existing institutions. The most crushing denunciation of the delirious idea which had led to the unhappy insurrection was the crude explanation of its aims. A universal republic founded on the principles enunciated in the Lord's Prayer! Thrones, armies, navies, frontiers, national barriers, all to be abolished! So simple! So easy! So childlike! But alas, so absurd! So entirely oblivious of the great principles of political economy and international law, and of impulses and instincts profoundly sculptured in the heart of man!
After various little sallies which made his fellow-officers laugh and the judges smile, the showy person wiped his big moustache with a silk handkerchief, and came to Bruno. This unhappy man was not one of the greater delinquents who, by their intelligence, had urged on the ignorant crowd. He was merely a silly and perhaps drunken person, who if taken away from the wine-shop and put into uniform would make a valiant soldier. The creature was one of the human dogs of our curious species. His political faith was inscribed with one word only—Rossi. He would not ask for severe punishment on such a deluded being, but he would request the court to consider the case as a means of obtaining proof against the dark if foolish minds (fit subjects for Lombroso) which are always putting the people into opposition with their King, their constitution, and the great heads of government.
The sword clanked again as the young soldier sat down. Then for the first time Roma looked over at Bruno. His big rugged face was twisted into an expression of contempt, and somehow the "human dog of our curious species," sitting in his prison clothes between the soldiers, made the elegant officer look like a pet pug.
"Bruno Rocco, stand up," said the president. "You are a Roman, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am—I'm a Roman of Rome," said Bruno.
The witnesses were called. First a Carabineer to prove Bruno's violence. Then another Carabineer, and another, and another, with the same object. After each of the Carabineers had given his evidence the president asked the prisoner if he had any questions to ask the witnesses.
"None whatever. What they say is true. I admit it," he said.
At last he grew impatient and cried out, "I admit it, I tell you. What's the good of going on?"
The next witness was the Chief of Police. Commendatore Angelelli was called to prove that the cause of the revolt was not the dearness of bread but the formation of subversive associations, of which the "Republic of Man" was undoubtedly the strongest and most virulent. The prisoner, however, was not one of the directing set, and the police knew him only as a sort of watch-dog for the Honourable Rossi.
"The man's a fool. Why don't you go on with the trial?" cried Bruno.
"Silence," cried the usher of the court, but the prisoner only laughed out loud.
Roma looked at Bruno again. There was something about the man which she had never seen before, something more than the mere spirit of defiance, something terrible and tremendous.
"Francesca Maria Mariotti," cried the usher, and the old deaf mother of Bruno's wife was brought into court. She wore a coloured handkerchief on her head as usual, and two shawls over her shoulders. Being a relative of the prisoner, she was not sworn.
"Your name and your father's name?" said the president.
"Francesca Maria Mariotti," she answered.
"I said your father's name."
"Seventy-five, your Excellency."
"I asked you for your father's name."
"None at all, your Excellency."
A Carabineer explained that the woman was nearly stone deaf, whereupon the president, who was irritated by the laughter his questions had provoked, ordered the woman to be removed.
"Tommaso Mariotti," said the president, after the preliminary interrogations, "you are porter at the Piazza Navona, and will be able to say if meetings of political associations were held there, if the prisoner took part in them, and who were the organising authorities. Now answer me, were meetings ever held in your house?"
The old man turned his pork-pie hat in his hand, and made no answer.
"Answer me. We cannot sit here all day doing nothing."
"It's the Eternal City, Excellency—we can take our time," said the old man.
"Answer the president instantly," said the usher. "Don't you know he can punish you if you don't?"
At that the Garibaldian's eyes became moist, and he looked at the judges. "Generals," he said, "I am only an old man, not much good to anybody, but I was a soldier myself once. I was one of the 'Thousand,' the 'Brave Thousand' they called us, and I shed my blood for my country. Now I am more than threescore years and ten, and the rest of my days are numbered. Do you want me for the sake of what is left of them to betray my comrades?"
"Next witness," said the president, and at the same moment a thick, half-stifled voice came from the bench of the accused.
"Why the —— don't you go on with the trial?"
"Prisoner," said the president, "if you continue to make these interruptions I shall stop the trial and order you to be flogged."
Bruno answered with a peal of laughter. The president—he was a bald-headed man with the heavy jaw of a bloodhound—looked at him attentively for a moment, and then said to the men below:
The next witness was the Director of Regina C[oe]li. He deposed that the prisoner had made a statement to him which he had taken down in writing. This statement amounted to a denunciation of the Deputy David Rossi as the real author of the crime of which he with others was charged.
After the denunciation had been read the president asked the prisoner if he had any questions to put to the witness, and thereupon Bruno cried in a loud voice:
"Of course I have. It is exactly what I've been waiting for."
He had risen to his feet, kicked over a chair which stood in front of him, and folded his arms across his breast.
"Ask him," said Bruno, "if he sent for me late at night and promised my pardon if I would denounce David Rossi."
"It was not so," said the Director. "All I did was to advise him not to observe a useless silence which could only condemn him to further imprisonment if by speaking the truth he could save himself and serve the interests of justice."
"Ask him," said Bruno, "if the denunciation he speaks of was not dictated by himself."
"The prisoner," said the Director, "made the denunciation voluntarily, and I rose from my bed to receive it at his urgent request."
"Ask him if I said one word to denounce David Rossi."
"The prisoner had made statements to a fellow-prisoner, and these were embodied in the document he signed."
The advocate Fuselli interposed. "Then the Court is to understand that the Director who dictated this denunciation knew nothing from the prisoner himself?"
The Director hesitated, stammered, and finally admitted that it was so. "I was inspired by a sentiment of justice," he said. "I acted from duty."
"This man fed me on bread and water," cried Bruno. "He put me in the punishment cells and tortured me in the strait-waistcoat with pains and sufferings like Jesus Christ's, and when he had reduced my body and destroyed my soul he dictated a denunciation of my dearest friend and my unconscious fingers signed it."
"Don't shout so loud," said the president.
"I'll shout as loud as I like," said Bruno, and everybody turned to look at him. It was useless to protest. Something seemed to say that no power on earth could touch a man in a mood like that.
The next witness was the chief warder. He deposed that he was present at the denunciation, that it was made voluntarily, and that no pressure whatever was put upon the prisoner.
"Ask him," cried Bruno, "if on Sunday afternoon, when I went into his cabinet to withdraw the denunciation, he refused to let me."
"It is not true," said the witness.
"You liar," cried Bruno, "you know it is true; and when I told you that you were making me drag an innocent man to the galleys I struck you, and the mark of my fist is on your forehead still. There it is, as red as a Cardinal, while the rest of your face is as white as a Pope."
The president no longer tried to restrain Bruno. There was something in the man's face that was beyond reproof. It was the outraged spirit of Justice.
The chief warder went on to say that at various times he had received reports that Rocco was communicating important facts to a fellow-prisoner.
"Where is this fellow-prisoner? Is he at the disposition of the court?" said the president.
"I'm afraid he has since been set at liberty," said the witness, whereupon Bruno laughed uproariously, and pointing to some one in the well, he shouted:
"There he is—there! The dandy in cuffs and collar. His name is Minghelli."
"Call him," said the president, and Minghelli was sworn and examined.
"Until recently you were a prisoner in Regina C[oe]li, and have just been pardoned for public services?"
"That is true, your Excellency."
"It's a lie," cried Bruno.
Minghelli leaned on the witness's chair, caressed his small moustache, and told his story. He had occupied the next cell to the prisoner, and talked with him in the usual language of prisoners. The prisoner had spoken of a certain great man and then of a certain great act, and that the great man had gone to England to prepare for it. He understood the great man to be the Deputy Rossi, and the great act to be the overthrow of the constitution and the assassination of the King.
"You son of a priest," cried Bruno, "you lie!"
"Bruno Rocco," said the president, "do not agitate yourself. You are under the protection of the law. Be calm and tell us your own story."
"Your Excellency," said Bruno, "this man is a witness by profession, and he was put into the next cell to torture me and make me denounce my friends. I didn't see his face, and I didn't know who he was until afterwards, and so he tore me to pieces. He said he was a proof-reader on the Official Gazette and heard everything. When my heart was bleeding for the death of my poor little boy—only seven years of age, such a curly-headed little fellow, like a sunbeam in a fog, killed in the riot, your Excellency—he poisoned my mind about my wife, and said she had run away with Rossi. It was a lie, but I was brought down by flogging and bread and water and I believed it, because I was mad and my soul was exhausted and dead. But when I found out who he was I tried to take back my denunciation, and they wouldn't let me. Your Excellency, I tell you the truth. Everybody should tell the truth here. I alone am guilty, and if I have accused anybody else I ask pardon of God. As for this man, he is an assassin and I can prove it. He used to be at the embassy in London, and when he was sacked he came to Mr. Rossi and proposed to assassinate the Prime Minister. Mr. Rossi flung him out of the house, and that was the beginning of everything."
"This is not true," said Minghelli, red as the gills of a turkey.
"Isn't it? Give me the cross, and let me swear the man a liar," cried Bruno.
Roma was breathing hard and rising to her feet, but the advocate Fuselli restrained her and rose himself. In six sentences he summarised the treatment of Bruno in prison, and denounced it as worthy of the cruellest epochs of tyrannical domination, in which men otherwise honourable could become demons in order to save the dynasty and the institutions and to make their own careers.
"Mr. President," he cried, "I call on you in the name of humanity to say that justice in Italy has nothing to do with a barbarous system which aims at obtaining denunciations through jealousy and justice through revenge."
The president was deeply moved. "I have made a solemn promise under the shadow of that venerable image"—he pointed to the effigy above him—"to administer justice in this case, and to the last I will do my duty."
The Public Prosecutor rose again and obtained permission to interrogate the prisoner.
"You say the witness Minghelli told you that your wife had fled with the Honourable Rossi?"
"He did, and it was a lie, like all the rest of it."
"How do you know it was a lie?"
Bruno made no answer, and the young officer took up a letter from his portfolio.
"Do you know the Honourable Rossi's handwriting?"
"Do I know my own ugly fist?"
"Is that the Honourable Rossi's writing?" said the officer, handing the envelope to the usher to be shown to Bruno.
"It is," said Bruno.
"Sure of it?"
"You see it is a letter addressed to your wife?"
"I see. But you needn't go on washing the donkey's head, Mister—I know what you are getting at."
"You must not speak like that to him, Rocco," said the president. "Remember, he is the honourable representative of the law."
"Mustn't I, Excellency? Then tell his honourableness that David Rossi and my wife are like brother and sister, and anybody who makes evil of that isn't stuff to take with a pair of tongs."
Saying this, Bruno flung the letter back on to the table.
"Don't you want to read it?"
"Not I! It's somebody else's correspondence, and I'm not an honourable representative of the law."
"Then permit me to read it to you," said the Public Prosecutor, and taking the letter out of the envelope he began in a loud voice:
"That's nothing," Bruno interrupted. "They're like brother and sister, I tell you."
The Public Prosecutor went on reading:
"'I continue to be overwhelmed with grief for the death of our poor little Joseph.'"
"That's right! That's David Rossi. He loved the boy the same as if he had been his own son. Go on."
"'... Our child—your child—my child, Elena.'"
"Nothing wrong there. Don't try to make mischief of that," cried Bruno.
"'But now that the boy is gone, and Bruno is in prison, perhaps for years, the obstacles must be removed which have hitherto prevented you from joining your life to mine and living for me, as I have always lived for you. Come to me then, my dear one, my beloved....'"
Here Bruno, who had been stepping forward at every word, snatched the letter out of the Public Prosecutor's hand.
"Stop that! Don't go reading out of the back of your head," he cried.
No one protested, everybody felt that whatever he did this injured man must be left alone. Roma felt a roaring in her ears, and for some minutes she could scarcely command herself. In a vague way she was conscious of the same struggle in her own heart as was going on in the heart of Bruno. This, then, was what the Baron referred to when he spoke of Rossi being untrue to her, and of the proof of his disloyalty in his own handwriting.
Bruno, who was running his eyes over the letter, read parts of it aloud in a low husky voice:
"'And now that the boy is gone and Bruno is in prison ... perhaps for years ... the obstacles must be removed....'"
He stopped, looked up, and stared about him. His face had undergone an awful change. Then he returned to the letter, and in jerky sentences he read again:
"'Come to me then ... my dear one ... my beloved....'"
Until that moment an evil spirit in Roma had been saying to her, in spite of herself: "Can it be possible that while you have been going through all those privations for his sake he has been consoling himself with another woman?" Impossible! The letter was a manifest imposture. She wouldn't believe a word of it.
But Bruno was still in the toils of his temptation. "Look here," he said, lifting a pitiful face. "What with the bread and water and the lashes I don't know that my head isn't light, and I'm fancying I see things...."
The paper of the letter was crackling in his hand, and his husky voice was breaking. Save for these sounds and the tramp—tramp—tramp of the soldiers drilling outside, there was a dead silence in the court.
"You are not fancying at all, Rocco," said the Public Prosecutor. "We are all sorry for you, and I am sure the illustrious gentlemen of the tribunal pity you. Your comrade, your master, the man you have followed and trusted, is false to you. He is a traitor to his friend, his country, and his King. The denunciation you made in prison is true in substance and in fact. I advise you to adhere to it, and to cast yourself on the clemency of the court."
"Here—you—shut up your head and let a man think," said Bruno.
Roma tried to rise. She could not. Then she tried to cry out something, but her tongue clave to the roof of her mouth. Would Bruno break down at the last moment?
Bruno, whose face was convulsed with agony, began to laugh in a delirious way. "So my friend is false to me, is he? Very well, I'll be revenged."
He reeled a little and the letter dropped from his hand, floated a moment in the air, and fell to the ground a pace or two farther on.
"Yes, by God, I'll be revenged," he cried, and he laughed again.
He stopped, lifted one leg, seemed to pull at his boot, and again stood erect.
"I always knew the hour would come when I should find myself in a tight place, and I've always kept something about me to help me to get out of it. Here it is now."
In an instant, before any one could be aware of what he was doing, he had uncorked a small bottle which he held in his hand and swallowed the contents.
"Long live David Rossi!" he cried, and he flung the empty bottle over his head.
Everybody was on his feet in a moment. It was too late. In thirty seconds the poison had begun its work, and Bruno was reeling in the arms of the Carabineers. Somebody called for a doctor. Somebody else called for a priest.
"That's all right," said Bruno. "God is a good old saint. He'll look after a poor devil like me." Then he began to sing:—
"The tombs are uncovered, The dead arise, The martyrs are rising Before our eyes."
"Long live David Rossi!" he cried again, and at the next moment he was being carried out of court.
In the tumult that ensued everybody was standing in the well of the judges' horse-shoe table. The deaf old woman, with her shawls slipping off her shoulders, was wringing her hands and crying. "God will think of this," she said. The Garibaldian was gazing vacantly out of his rheumy eyes and saying nothing. Roma, who had recovered control of herself, was looking at the letter, which she had picked up from the floor.
"Mr. President," she cried over the heads of the others, "this letter is not in Mr. Rossi's handwriting. It is a forgery. I am ready to prove it."
At that moment one of the Carabineers came back to tell the judges that all was over.
"Gone!" said one after another, more often with a motion of the mouth than with the voice.
The president was deeply agitated. "This court stands adjourned," he said, "but I take the Almighty to witness that I intend to ascertain all responsibility in this case and to bring it home to the guilty ones, whosoever and whatsoever they may be."
"MY DEAR DAVID ROSSI,—You will know all about it before this letter reaches you. It is one of those scandals of the law that are telegraphed to every part of the civilised world. Poor Bruno! Yet no, not poor—great, glorious, heroic Bruno! He ended like an old Roman, and killed himself rather than betray his friend. When they played upon his jealousy, and tempted him by a forged letter, he cried, 'Long live David Rossi!' and died. Oh, it was wonderful. The memory of that moment will be with me always like the protecting and strengthening hand of God. I never knew until to-day what human nature is capable of. It is divine.
"But how mean and little I feel when I think of all I went through in the court this morning! I was really undergoing the same tortures as Bruno, the same doubt and the same agony. And even when I saw through the whole miserable machination of lying and duplicity I was actually in terror for Bruno lest he should betray you in the end. Betray you! His voice when he uttered that last cry rings in my ears still. It was a voice of triumph—triumph over deception, over temptation, over jealousy, and over self.
"Don't think, David Rossi, that Bruno died of a broken heart, and don't think he went out of the world believing that you were false. I feel sure he came to that court with the full intention of doing what he did. All through the trial there was something in his bearing which left the impression of a purpose unrevealed. Everybody felt it, and even the judges ceased to protest against his outbursts. The poor prisoner in convict clothes, with dishevelled hair and bare neck, made every one else look paltry and small. Behind him was something mightier than himself. It was Death. Then remember his last cry, and ask yourself what he meant by it. He meant loyalty, love, faith, fidelity. He intended to say, 'You've beaten me, but no matter; I believe in him, and follow him to the last.'
"As you see, I am here in your own quarters, but I keep in touch with 'Sister Angelica,' and still have no answer to my letter. I invent all manner of excuses to account for your silence. You are busy, you are on a journey, you are waiting for the right moment to reply to me at length. If I could only continue to think so, how happy I should be! But I cannot deceive myself any longer.
"It is perhaps natural that you should find it hard to forgive me, but you might at least write and put me out of suspense. I think you would do so if you knew how much I suffer. Your great soul cannot intend to torture me. To-night the burden of things is almost more than I can bear, and I am nearly heartbroken. It is my dark hour, dearest, and if you had to say you could never forgive me, I think I could easier reconcile myself to that. I have been so happy since I began to love you; I shall always love you even if I have to lose you, and I shall never, never be sorry for anything that has occurred.
"Not receiving any new letters from you, I am going back on the old ones, and there is a letter of only two months ago in which you speak of just such a case as mine. May I quote what you say?
"'Yet even if she were not so (i.e. worthy of your love and friendship), even if there were, as you say, a fault in her, who am I that I should judge her harshly? ... I reject the monstrous theory that while a man may redeem the past a woman never can.... And if she has sinned as I have sinned, and suffered as I have suffered, I will pray for strength to say, 'Because I love her we are one, and we stand or fall together.'
"It is so beautiful that I am even happy while my pen copies the sweet, sweet words, and I feel as I did when the old priest spoke so tenderly on the day I confessed, telling me I had committed no sin and had nothing to repent of. Have I never told you about that? My confessor was a Capuchin, and perhaps I should have waited for his advice before going farther. He was to consult his General or his Bishop or some one, and to send for me again.
"But all that is over now, and everything depends upon you. In any case, be sure of one thing, whatever happens. Bruno has taught me a great lesson, and there is not anything your enemies can do to me that will touch me now. They have tried me already with humiliation, with poverty, with jealousy, and even with the shadow of shame itself. There is nothing left but death. And death itself shall find me faithful to the last. Good-bye! Your poor unforgiven girl, ROMA."
The morning after writing this letter Roma received a visit from one of the Noble Guard. It was the Count de Raymond.
"I am sent by the Holy Father," he said, "to say that he wishes to see you."
PART SEVEN—THE POPE
On the morning appointed for the visit to the Vatican, Roma dressed in the black gown and veil prescribed by etiquette for ladies going to an audience with the Pope.
The young Noble Guard in civilian clothes was waiting for her in the sitting-room. When she came out of the bedroom he was standing with a solemn face before the bust of David Rossi, which she had lately cast afresh and was beginning to point in marble.
"This is wonderful," he said. "Perfectly wonderful! A most astonishing study."
Roma smiled and bowed to him.
"Christ of course, and such reality, such feeling, such love! But shall I tell you what surprises me most of all?"
"What surprises me most is the extraordinary resemblance between your Christ and the Pope."
"Indeed yes! Didn't you know it? No? It is almost incredible. Younger certainly, but the same features, the same expression, the same tenderness, the same strength! Even the same vertical lines over the nose which make the shako dither on one's head when something goes wrong and His Holiness is indignant."
Roma's smile was dying off her face like the sun off a field of corn, and she was looking sideways out of the window.
"Has the Pope any relations?" she asked.
"None whatever, not a soul. The only son of an only son. You must have been thinking of the Holy Father himself, and asking yourself what he was like thirty years ago. Come now, confess it!"
Roma laughed. The soldier laughed. "Shall we go?" she said.
A carriage was waiting for them, and they drove by the Tor di Nona, a narrow lane which skirts the banks of the Tiber, across the bridge of St. Angelo, and up the Borgo.
Roma was nervous and preoccupied. Why had she been sent for? What could the Pope have to say to her?
"Isn't it unusual," she asked, "for the Pope to send for any one—especially a woman, and a non-Catholic?"
"Most unusual. But perhaps Father Pifferi...."
"He is the Holy Father's confessor."
"Is he a Capuchin?"
"Yes. The General at San Lorenzo."
"Ah, now I understand," said Roma. Light had dawned on her and her spirits began to rise.
"The Pope is very tender and fatherly, isn't he?"
"Fatherly? He is a saint on earth, that's what he is! Impetuous, perhaps, but so sweet and generous and forgiving. Makes you shake in your shoes if you've done anything amiss, but when all is over and he puts his arm on your shoulder and tells you to think no more about it, you're ready to die for him even at the stake."
Roma's spirits were rising every minute, and her nervousness was fading away. Since things had fallen out so, she could take advantage of her opportunities. She would tell the Pope everything, and he would advise with her and counsel her. She would speak about David Rossi, and the Pope would tell her what to do.
The great clock of the Basilica was striking ten with a solemn boom as the carriage rattled over the stones of the Piazza of St. Peter's—wet with the play of the fountains and bright with the rainbows made by the sun.
They alighted at the bronze gate, ascended the grand staircase, crossed a courtyard, passed through many gorgeous chambers, and arrived finally at an apartment hung with tapestries and occupied by a Noble Guard, who wore a brass helmet and held a drawn sword. The next room was the throne room, and beyond it were the Pope's private apartments.
A chaplain of the Pope's household came to say that by request of Father Pifferi the lady was to step into an anteroom; and Roma followed him into a small adjoining chamber, carpeted with cocoanut matting and furnished with a marble-topped table and two wooden chest-seats, bearing the papal arms. The little room opened on to a corridor overlooking a courtyard, a secret way to the Pope's private rooms, and it had a door to the throne room also.
"The Father will be here presently," said the chaplain, "and His Holiness will not be long."
Roma, who was feeling some natural tremors, tried to reassure herself by asking questions about the Pope. The chaplain's face began to gleam. He was a little man, with round red cheeks and pale grey eyes, and the usual tone of his voice was a hushed and reverent whisper.
"Faint? Yes, ladies do faint sometimes—often, I may say—and they nearly always cry. But the Holy Father is so gentle, so sweet."
The door to the throne room opened and there was a gleam of violet and an indistinct buzz of voices. The chaplain disappeared, and at the next moment a man in the dress of a waiter came from the corridor carrying a silver soup dish.
"You're the lady the Holy Father sent for?"
Roma smiled and assented.
"I'm Cortis—Gaetano Cortis—the Pope's valet, you know—and of course I hear everything."
Roma smiled again and bowed.
"I bring the Holy Father a plate of soup every morning at ten, but I'm afraid it is going to get cold this morning."
"Will he be angry?"
"Angry? He's an angel, and couldn't be angry with any one."
"He must indeed be good; everybody says so."
"He is perfect. That's about the size of it. None of your locking up his bedroom when he goes into the garden and putting the key into the pocket of his cassock, same as in the old Pope's days. I go in whenever I like, and he lets me take whatever I please. At Christmas some rich Americans wanted a skull-cap to save a dying man, and I got it for the asking. Now an old English lady wants a stocking to cure her rheumatism, and I'll get that too. I've saved a little hair from the last cutting, and if you hear of anybody...."
The valet's story of his perquisites was interrupted by the opening of the door of the throne room and the entrance of a friar in a brown habit. It was Father Pifferi.
"Don't rise, my daughter," he said, and closing the door behind the valet, he gathered up the skirts of his habit and sat down on the chest-seat in front of her.
"When you came to me with your confidence, my child, and I found it difficult to advise with you for your peace of mind, I told you I wished to take your case to a wiser head than mine. I took it to the Pope himself. He was touched by your story, and asked to see you for himself."
"Don't be afraid, my daughter. Pius the Tenth as a Pope may be lofty to sternness, but as a man he is humble and simple and kind. Forget that he is a sovereign and a pontiff, and think of him as a tender and loving friend. Tell him everything. Hold nothing back. And if you must needs reveal the confidences of others, remember that he is the Vicar of Him who keeps all our secrets."
"He is so high, so holy, so far above the world and its temptations...."
"Don't say that, my daughter. The Holy Father is a man like other men. Shall I tell you something of his life? The world knows it only by hearsay and report. You shall hear the truth, and when you have heard it you will go to him as a child goes to its father, and no longer be afraid."
"Thirty-five years ago," said Father Pifferi, "the Holy Father had not even dreamt of being Pope. He was the only child of a Roman banker, living in a palace on the opposite side of the piazza. The old Baron had visions, indeed, of making his son a great churchman by the power of wealth, but these were vain and foolish, and the young man did not share them. His own aims were simple but worldly. He desired to be a soldier, and to compromise with his father's disappointed ambitions he asked for a commission in the Pope's Noble Guard."
The old friar put his hands into the vertical pockets in the breast of his habit, and looked up at the ceiling as he went on speaking.
"All this is no secret, but what follows is less known. The soldier, who had the charm of an engaging personality, led the life of an ordinary young Roman of his day, frequenting cafes, concerts, theatres, and balls. In this character he met a poor woman of the people, and came to love her. She was a good girl, with soft and gentle manners, but a heart of gold and a soul of fire. He was a good man and he meant to marry her. He did marry her. He married her according to the rites of the Church, which are all that religion requires and God calls for."
Roma was leaning forward on her seat and breathing between tightly-closed lips.
"Unhappily, then as now, a godless legislature had separated a religious from a civil marriage, and the one without the other was useless. The old Baron heard of what had happened and tried to defeat it. A cardinal had just been created in Australia, and an officer of the Noble Guard had to be sent with the Ablegate to carry the biglietto and the skull-cap. At the request of the Baron his son was appointed to that mission and despatched in haste."
Roma could scarcely control herself.
"The young husband being gone, the father set himself to deal with the wife. He had not yet relinquished his hopes of seeing his son a churchman, and marriage was a fatal impediment. A rich man may have many instruments, and the Baron was able to use some that were evil. He played upon the conscience of the girl, who was pure and virtuous; told her she was not legally married, and that the laws of her country thought ill of her. Finally, he appealed to her love for her husband, and showed her that she was standing in his way. He was not a bad man, but he loved his son beyond truth and to the perversion of honour, and was ready to sacrifice the woman who stood between them. She allowed herself to be sacrificed. She wiped herself out that she might not be an obstacle to her husband. She drowned herself in the Tiber."
Roma could not control herself any longer, and made a half-stifled exclamation.
"Then the young husband returned. He had been travelling constantly, and no letters from his wife had reached him. But one letter was waiting for him at Rome, and it told him what she had done. It was then all over; there was no help for it, and he was overwhelmed with horror. He could not blame the poor dead girl, for all she had done had been done in love; he could not blame himself, for he had meant no wrong in making the religious marriage, and had hastened home to complete the civil one; and he could not reproach his father, for if the Baron's conduct had led to fearful consequences, it had been prompted by affection for himself. But the hand of God seemed to be over him, and his soul was shaken to its foundations. From that time forward he renounced society and all worldly pleasures. For eight days he went into retreat and prayed fervently. On the ninth day he joined a religious house, the Novitiate of the Capuchins at San Lorenzo. The young soldier, so gay, so handsome, so fond of social admiration, became a friar."
The old Capuchin looked tenderly at Roma, whose wet eyes and burning cheeks seemed to tell of sympathy with his story.
"In those days, my daughter, the nuns of Thecla served the Foundling of Santo Spirito."
Roma began to look frightened and to feel faint.
"It was usual for a member of our house to live in the hospital in order to baptize the children and to confess the sick and the dying. We took it in turns to do so, staying one year, two years, three years, and then going back to the monastery. I was myself at Santo Spirito for this purpose at the time I speak about, and it was not until three or four years afterwards that I became Superior of our House and returned to San Lorenzo. There I found the young Noble Guard, and, wisely or unwisely, I told him a new phase of his own story."
"There was a child?" said Roma, in a strange voice.
The Capuchin bent his head. "That much he knew already by the letter his wife had left for him. She had intended that the child should die when she died, and he supposed that it had been so. But pity for the little one must have overtaken the poor mother at the last moment. She had put the babe in the rota of the hospital, and thus saved the child's life before carrying out her purpose upon her own."
The Capuchin crossed his knees, and one of his bare feet in its sandal showed from under the edge of his habit.
"We had baptized the boy by a name which the mother had written on a paper attached to his wrist, and the identity of that name with the name of the Noble Guard led to my revelation. Nature is a mighty thing, and on hearing what I told him the young brother became restless and unhappy. The instincts of the man began to fight with the feelings of the religious, and at last he left the friary in order to fulfil the duty which he thought he owed to his child."
"He did not find him?"
"He was too late. According to custom, the boy had been put out to nurse on the Campagna, by means of the little dower that was all his inheritance from the State. His foster parents passed him over to other hands, and thus by the abuse of a good practice the child was already lost."
Roma tried to speak, but she could not utter a word.
"What happened then is a long story. The old Baron was now dead and the young friar had inherited his princely fortune. Dispensations got over canonical difficulties, and in due course he took holy orders. His first work was to establish in Rome an asylum for friendless orphans. He went out into the streets to look for them, and brought them in with his own hands. His fame for charity grew rapidly, and he knew well what he was doing. He was looking for the little fatherless one who owned his own blood and bore his name."
Roma was now sitting with drooping head, and her tears were falling on her hands.
"Five years passed, and at length he came upon a trace of the boy and heard that he had been sent to England. The unhappy father obtained permission and removed to London. There he set up the same work as before and spent in the same way his great wealth. He passed five years more in a fruitless search, looking for his lost one day and night, winter and summer, in cold and heat, among the little foreign boys who play organs and accordions in the streets. Then he gave up hope and returned to Rome. His head was white and his heart was humble, but in spite of himself he rose from dignity to dignity until at length the old Baron's perverted ambitions were fulfilled. For his great and abounding charity, and still greater piety, he was promoted to be Bishop; seven years afterwards he was created Cardinal; and now he is Pope Pius the Tenth, the saint, the saviour of his people, once the storm-tossed, sorrowing, stricken man...."
The Capuchin bowed. "That was the Holy Father's name. He committed no sin and has nothing to reproach himself with, but nevertheless he has known what it is to fall and to rise again, to suffer and be strong. Tell me, my daughter, is there anything you would be afraid to confide to him?"
"Nothing! Nothing whatever!" said Roma, with tears choking her voice and streaming down her cheeks.
The door to the throne room opened again and a line of Cardinals came out and passed down the secret corridor, talking together as they walked, old men in violet, most of them very feeble and looking very tired. At the next moment the chaplain came in for Roma.
"The Holy Father will be ready to receive you presently," he said in a hushed and reverent whisper, and she rose to follow him.
A moment later Roma was at the door of the grand throne room. A chamberlain took charge of her there, and passed her to a secret chamberlain at the door of an anteroom adjoining. This secret chamberlain handed her on to a Monsignor in a violet cassock, and the Monsignor accompanied her to the door of the room in which the Pope was sitting.
"As you approach," he said in a low tone, "you will make three genuflexions—one at the door, another midway across the floor, the third at the Holy Father's feet. You feel well?"
"Yes," she faltered.
The door was opened, the Monsignor stepped one pace into the room, and then knelt and said—
"Donna Roma Volonna, your Holiness."
Roma was on her knees at the threshold; a soft, full, kindly voice, which she could have believed she had heard before, called on her to approach; she rose and stepped forward, the Monsignor stepped back, and the door behind her was closed.
She was in the Presence.
The Pope, dressed wholly in white, was seated in a simple chair by a little table in a homely room, surrounded by bookcases and some busts of former pontiffs. There were little domesticities of intimate life about him, an empty soup-dish, a cruet-stand, a plate and a spoon. He had a face of great sweetness and spirituality, and as Roma approached he bent his head and smiled a fatherly smile. She knelt and kissed his ring, and continued to kneel by his chair, putting one hand on the arm. He placed his own mittened hand over hers and patted it tenderly, while he looked into her face.
The little nervous perturbation with which Roma had entered the room began to leave her, and in the awful wearer of the threefold crown she saw nothing but a simple, loving human being. A feminine sense crept over her, a sense of nursing, almost of motherhood, and at that first moment she felt as if she wanted to do something for the gentle old man. Then he began to speak. His voice had that tone which comes to the voice of a man who has the sense of sex strong in him, when a woman is with him and his accents soften perceptibly.
"My daughter," he said, "Father Pifferi has spoken about you, and by your permission, as I understand it, he has repeated the story you told him. You have suffered, and you have my sympathy. And though you are not among the number of my children, I sent for you, that, as an old man to a young woman, by God's grace I might strengthen you and support you."
She kissed his ring again and continued to kneel by the arm of his chair.
"Long ago, my child, I knew one who was in something like the same position, and perhaps it is the memory of what befell that poor soul which impels me to speak to you.... But she is dead, her story is dead too; let time and nature cover them."
His voice had a slight tremor. She looked up. There was a hush, a momentary thrill. Then he smiled again and patted her hand once more.
"You must not let the world weaken you, my child, or cause you to doubt the validity of your marriage. Whether it is a good marriage, in effect as well as intention (one of you being still unbaptized), it is for the Church, not the world, to decide."
Again Roma kissed the ring of the Pope, and again he patted the hand that lay under his.
"Nevertheless, there is something I wish you to do, my daughter," he said, in the same low tones. "I wish you to tell your husband."
"Holy Father," said Roma, "I have already told him. I had done so before I spoke to Father Pifferi, but only under the disguise of another woman's story."
"And what did your husband say?"
"He said what your Holiness says. He was very charitable and noble; so I took heart and told him everything."
"And what did he say then?"
A cloud crossed her face. "Holy Father, he has not yet said anything."
"He is away; he has not replied to my letter."
"Has there been time?"
"More than time, your Holiness, but still I hear nothing."
"And what is your conclusion?"
"That my letter has awakened some pity, but now that he knows I am the wife I spoke about and he is the husband intended, he cannot forgive me as he said the husband would forgive, and his generous soul is in distress."
"My daughter, could you wish me to speak to him?"
The cloud fled from her face. "It is more than I deserve, far more, but if the Holy Father would do that...."
"Then I must know the names—you must tell me everything."
"Who is your father, my child?"
"My father died in banishment. He was a Liberal—he was Prince Prospero Volonna."
"As I thought. Who was the other man?"
"He was a distant kinsman of my father's, and I have lately discovered that he was the principal instrument in my father's deportation. He was my guardian, a Minister and a great man in Italy. It is the Baron Bonelli, your Holiness."
"Just so, just so!" said the Pope, tapping his foot in obvious heat. "But go on, my child. Who is your husband?"
"My husband is a different kind of man altogether."
"He has done everything for me, Holy Father—everything. Heaven knows what I should have been now without him."
"God bless him! God bless both of you!"
"I came to know him by the strangest accident. He is a Liberal too, and a Deputy, and thinking of the corruptions of the Government, he pointed to me as the mistress of the Minister. It was not true, but I was degraded, and ... and I set out to destroy him."
"A terrible vengeance, my child. Only the Minister could have thought of it."
"Then I found that my enemy was one of my father's friends, and a true and noble man. Holy Father, I had begun in hate, but I could not hate him. The darkness faded away from my soul, and something bright and beautiful came in its place. I loved him, and he loved me. With all our hearts we loved each other."
"Then he came back to me. I knew all the secrets I had set out to learn, but I could not give them up, and when I refused he threatened me."
"And what did you do?"
"I married my husband and withstood every temptation. It wasn't so very hard, for I cared nothing for wealth and luxury now. I only wanted to be good. God Himself should see how good I could be."
The Pope's eyes were moist. He was patting the young woman's trembling hand.
"My blessing rest on you, my daughter, and may the man you have married be worthy of your love and trust."
"Indeed, indeed he is," said Roma.
"He was your father's friend, you tell me?"
"Yes, your Holiness, and although we met again so recently, I had known him in England when I was a child."
"A Liberal, you say?"
"Yes, your Holiness."
"The enmity of the Minister was the fruit of political warfare?"
"Nothing but that at first, though now...."
"I see, I see. And the secrets you speak of are only...."
"Only the doings of twenty years ago, which are dead and done with."
"Then your husband is older than you are?"
The young woman broke into a sunny smile, which set the Pope smiling.
"Only ten years older, your Holiness. He is thirty-four."
"Where does he come from, and what was his father?"
"He was born in Rome, but he does not know who his father was."
"What is he like to look upon?"
"He is like ... I have never seen any one so like ... will your Holiness forgive me?"
The colour had mounted to her eyes, her two rows of pearly teeth seemed to be smiling, and the sunny old face of the Pope was smiling too.
"Say what you please, my daughter."
"I have never seen any one so like the Holy Father," she said softly.
Her head was held down and there was a little nervous tremor at her heart. The Pope patted her hand affectionately.
"Have I asked you his name, my child?"
"His name is David Rossi."
The Pope rose suddenly from his seat, and for the first time his face looked dark and troubled.
"David Rossi?" he repeated in a husky voice.
Roma began to tremble. "Yes," she faltered.
"David Rossi, the Revolutionary?"
"Indeed no, your Holiness, he is not that."
"But, my child, my child, he is the founder of a revolutionary society which this very day the Holy Father has condemned."
He walked across the room and she rose to her feet and looked after him.
"One of the men who are conspiring against the peace of the Church—banded together to fight the Church and its head."
"Don't say that, your Holiness. He is religious, deeply religious, and far more an enemy of the Government and the King."
She began to talk wildly, almost aimlessly, trying to defend Rossi at all costs.
"Holy Father," she said, "shall I tell you a secret? There is nobody else in the world to whom I could tell it, but I can tell it to you. My husband is now in England organising a great scheme among the exiles and refugees of Italy. What it is I don't know, but he has told me that it will lead to the conquest of the country and the downfall of the throne. Whether it is to be a conspiracy in the ordinary sense, or a constitutional plan of campaign, he has not said, but everything tells me that it is directed against the politics of Rome, and not against its religion, and is intended to overthrow the King, and not the Pope."
The Pope, who had been standing with his back to Roma, turned round to her with a look of fright. His eyebrows had met over the vertical lines on his forehead, and this further reminder of another face threw Roma into still greater confusion.
"'When I come back, it will be with such a force behind me as will make the prisons open their doors and the thrones of tyrants tremble.' That's what he said, your Holiness. The movement will come soon, too, I am sure it will, and then your Holiness will see that, instead of being irreligious men, the leaders of the people...."
The Pope held up his hand. "Stop!" he cried. "Say no more, my child. God knows what I must do with what you have said already."
Then Roma saw what she had done in the wild gust of her emotion, and in her terror she tried to take it back.
"Holy Father, you must not think from what I say that David Rossi is for revolution and regicide...."
"Don't speak, my child. You cannot know what an earthquake you have opened at my feet. Let me think!"
There was silence for a moment, and then Roma gulped down the great lumps in her throat and said: "I am only an ignorant woman, Holy Father, and perhaps I have said too much, and do not understand. But what I have told your Holiness was told me in love and confidence. And the Holy Father is wise and good, and whatever he does will be for the best."
The Pope returned to his chair with a bewildered look, and did not seem to hear. Roma sank to her knees by his side and said in a low, pleading tone:
"My husband's faith in me is so beautiful, your Holiness. Oh, so beautiful. I am the only one in the world to whom he has told all his secrets, and if any of them should ever come back to him...."
"Don't be afraid, my daughter. What you said in simple confidence shall be as sacred as if it had been spoken under the seal of the confessional."
"If I could tell your Holiness more about him—who he is and where he comes from—a place so lowly and humble, your Holiness...."
"Tell me no more, my child. It is better I should not know. Pity ought to have no place in what duty tells me to do. But I can love David Rossi for all that. I do love him. I love him as a lost and wayward son, whose hand is raised against his Father, though he knows it not."
There was a bell button on the Pope's chair. He pressed it, and the Participante returned to the room without knocking. The Pope rose and took Roma's hand.
"Go in peace and with my blessing, my child. I bless you! May my fatherly blessing keep you pure in heart, may it strengthen you in all temptations, comfort you in all trials, avert from you every evil omen, and bring you into the fold of Christ's children at the last."
The Participante stepped forward and signed to Roma to withdraw. She rose and left the presence chamber, stepping backward and too much moved to speak. Not until the door had been closed did she realise that she was crossing the throne room, and that the Bussolante was walking beside her.
When the Pope walked in his garden that afternoon as usual, the old Capuchin was with him. From the door of the Vatican they drove in the Pope's landau with two of the Noble Guard riding beside the carriage, and one of the chamberlains walking behind it, through lanes enshrouded in laurel and ilex, until they reached the summer-house on the top of the hill. There the old men stepped down, the Pope in his white cassock, white overcoat and red hat, the Capuchin in his brown habit, skull-cap and sandals. The Pope's cat, a creature of reddish coat, which followed him into the garden as a dog follows his master, leapt out of the carriage after them.
The Pope was more than usually grave and silent. Once or twice the Capuchin said, "And how did you find my young penitent this morning?"
"Bene, bene!" the Pope replied.
But at length the Pope, scraping the gravel at his feet with the ferrule of his walking-stick, began to speak on his own initiative.
"The inscrutable decree of God which made me your Pontiff has not altered our relations to each other as men?"
The Capuchin took snuff and answered, "Your Holiness is always so good as to say so."
"You are my master now just as you were thirty years ago, and there is something I wish to ask of you."
"What is it, your Holiness?"
"You have been a confessor many years, Father?"
"Forty years, your Holiness."
"In that time you have had many difficult cases?"
"Father, has it ever happened that a penitent, has revealed to you a conspiracy to commit a crime?"
"More than once it has happened."
"And what have you done?"
"Persuaded him to reveal it to the civil authorities, or else tell it to me outside the confessional."
"Has the penitent ever refused to do so?"
"But if ... if the case were such as made it difficult for the penitent to reveal the conspiracy to the civil authorities, having regard to the penalties the revelation would bring with it ... if by reason of ties of blood and affection such revelation were humanly impossible, and it would even be cruel to ask for it, what would you do then?"
"Nothing, your Holiness."
"Not even if the crime to be committed were a serious one, and it touched you very nearly?"
The Capuchin shook out his coloured print handkerchief and said, "That could make no difference, your Holiness."
"But suppose you heard in confession that your brother is to be assassinated, what is your duty?"
"My duty to the penitent who reveals his soul to me is to preserve his secret."
"And what is your duty to God?"
The handkerchief dropped from the Capuchin's hand.
The Pope paused, scraped the gravel with the ferrule of his stick, and said:
"Father, I am in the position of the confessor who has guilty knowledge of a conspiracy against the life of his enemy."
The Capuchin pushed his handkerchief into his sleeve and dropped back into his seat. After a moment the Pope told the story of what Roma had said of Rossi's plans abroad.
"A conspiracy," he said, "plainly a conspiracy."
"And what do you understand the conspiracy to be?"
"Who can say? Perhaps a recurrence to the custom of the Middle Ages, when citizens who had been banished by their opponents used to apply themselves in exile to attempt the reconquest of their country by stirring up the factions at home."
"You think that is Rossi's object?"
The Capuchin shifted uneasily the skull-cap on his crown and said:
"Holy Father, I trust your Holiness will leave the matter alone."
"In reading history I do not find that such enterprises have usually been successful. I see, rather, how commonly they have failed. And if it was so in the Middle Ages when the arts of war were primitive, how much less likely are the conspiracies of secret societies, the partial and superficial risings of refugees, to be serious now in the days of standing armies."
"True. But is that a good reason for doing nothing in this instance?"
"But, Holy Father, think. You cannot disclose the secrets this poor lady has revealed to you. Her confession was only a confidence, but your Holiness knows well that there is such a thing as a natural secret which it would be a great fault to reveal. Facts which of their own nature are confidential belong to this order. They are assimilated to the confessional, and as such they should be respected."
"Indeed they should."
"Then it is not possible for your Holiness to reveal what you heard this morning without bringing trouble to the penitent and wronging her in relation to her husband."
"God forbid that I should do so, whatever happens. But is a priest forbidden to speak of a sin heard in confession if he can do so in such a way that the identity of the penitent cannot be discovered?"
"Your Holiness intends to do that?"
"The Holy Father knows best. For my own part, your Holiness, I think it a danger to tamper with the secrets of a soul, whatever the good end in view or the evil to be prevented."
The Capuchin looked round to where the horses were pawing the path and the Guards stood by the carriage.
"Thirty-five years ago we had a terrible lesson in such dangers, your Holiness."
The Pope dropped his head and continued to scrape the gravel.
"Your Holiness remembers the poor young woman who told her confessor she was about to marry a rich young man. The confessor thought it his duty to tell the young man's father in general terms that such a marriage was to be contracted. What was the result? The marriage took place in secret and ended in grief and death."
The Pope rose uneasily. "We will not speak of that. It was a case of a father's pride and perverted ambition. This is a different case altogether. A man who is a prey to diabolical illusions, an enemy of the Church and of social order, is hatching a plot which can only end in mischief and bloodshed. The Holy Father knows it. Shall he keep this guilty knowledge locked in his own bosom? God forbid!"
"Then you intend to warn the civil authorities?"
"I must. It is my duty. How could I lay my head on my pillow and not do it? But I will do it discreetly. I will commit no one, and this poor lady shall remain unknown."
The venerable old men, each leaning on his stick, walked down a path lined by clipped yews, shaded by cypresses, and almost overgrown with crocus, anemone, and violet. Suddenly from the bushes there came a flutter of wings, followed by the scream of a bird, and in a moment the Pope's cat had leapt on to a marble which stood in the midst of the jungle. It was an ancient sarcophagus, placed there as a fountain, but the spring that had fed it was dry, and in its moss-grown mouth a bird had made its nest. The cat was about to pounce down on the eggs when the Pope laid hold of it.
"Ah, Meesh, Meesh," he said, "what an anarchist you are, to be sure!... Monsignor!"
"Yes, your Holiness," said the chamberlain, coming up behind.
"Take this gatto rosso back to the carriage, and keep him in domicilio coatto until we come."
The Monsignor laughed and carried off the cat, and the Pope put his mittened hand gently on the little speckled eggs.
"Poor things! they're warm. Listen! That's the mother bird screaming in the tree. Hark! She's watching us, and waiting for us to go. How snugly she thought she kept her secret."
The Capuchin drew a long breath. "Yes, nature has the same cry for fear in all her offspring."
"True," said the Pope.
"It makes me think of that poor girl this morning."
The Pope walked back to the carriage without saying a word. As he returned to the Vatican, the Angelus was ringing from all the church bells of Rome, the city was bathed in crimson light, the sun was sinking behind Monte Mario, and the stone pines on the crest of the hill, standing out against the reddening sky, were like the roofless columns of a ruined temple.
Next day Francesca came up with a letter. The porter from Trinita de' Monti had brought it and he was waiting below for a present. In a kind of momentary delirium Roma snatched at the envelope and emptied her purse into the old woman's hand.