So strange a result of philosophy, reacting upon itself, however, did not disturb his serenity, but, on the contrary, added to his diversions; for he confessed that his highest pleasure in this life was to discover fresh follies of which he could be capable. He considered himself as an inexhaustible quarry of humours, vanities, jealousies, whims, absurd enthusiasms, absurd mortifications. He was able, as he said, to sit at his ease in the side-scene and see himself jigging on the stage in motley or the tragic sock—see himself as a lover, and cry aloud in delight at the mad persistence of the fool he appeared; see himself directing the affairs of the nation, and be ready to die of laughing at himself for pretending to be serious, and at his countrymen for thinking him so. He loved art and spent large sums upon his collection; yet, said he, "I should grudge the money for other occasions did it not furnish me with the entrancing spectacle of a middle-aged statesman panting after masterpieces, fingering this or that painted board, and staking his position in this world and the next upon the momentous question, Is this ear in the manner of Fra Angelico? or, Could Mantegna have so foreshortened a leg? I tell you, Don Francis, there is no more outrageous comedy, no more fantastic extravaganza playing in Venice at this hour than every moment of my own life can furnish me with. What! I hold in my hand the destinies of a million of souls, and the iron enters into mine—not because those others are in danger, not because those others are enslaved—no! but because at Donna Violante's card-table the Marchesa Serafina disregards my call for trumps! I rise up from my escritoire, where lie papers of State—a threat from the King of Spain, declaration of war from the Emperor, a petition of right from some poor devil who has been shamefully used by one of my Ministers; I rise, I say, and leave them lying—and for what? To dangle at some faded opera, which I have heard a thousand times, behind the chair of some fine lady whose person I could possess (if I wanted it) for the writing of a billet. Is it not incredible? But there is more to come. My future master, the Grand Prince, is more of a fool than I am, because he doesn't know it. Yet I read more consequence out of some petulant freak of his than from all the despair of a nation starving to death; and I know very well which would disturb my department the more effectually— whether it would be a revolution or his being late for Mass. Is not this a humorous state of affairs? Does not this tickle your sense of the ridiculous? I assure you I have never regretted for a moment my having been involved in the business of the State. I can laugh at myself day in and day out."
The whimsicality of this kind of talk robbed it of its sting; but what is really curious about the count was that he was perfectly serious.
He gave the princes—both him who reigned and him who hoped to reign— very bad characters, but said that for purposes of government he preferred a vicious to a bigoted fool. The first, he said, will be ruled by minions, who can be paid. This makes administration a simple matter of finance. The second sort of princes are ruled by the frati, who pay themselves. The distinction is material. "The Grand Duke Cosimo," he said on another occasion, "is living of fright." "Do you not mean dying of it?" I asked him. "No," said he, "he is living of it. The frati have been at him for years; and now he is so terrified lest he may make a bad death that he has forgotten to die at all. But, of course, his fears will wear out in time, and then he will perish like any ordinary man of sense. As for my future master, Don Gastone, he will live just so long as his zest for iniquity endures. When, like some Alexander of the stews, he has no more vices to conquer, he will die of ennui. It is surprising how few are the changes you can ring upon the human appetite. Gluttony, drunkenness—"
"Spare me the catalogue, count," I begged him.
"I was enumerating for my own convenience," he said, "as I frequently do, to see if I cannot discover one new variety. Don Gastone has not yet exhausted acquisition. He has become a numismatist, and ploughed up a populous village the other day in the search for a penny of Charlemagne's, supposed to have been dropped there in passing. Then there is horticulture—which is one of my own vices; and, of course, I do not forget piety; but things are not so bad as that just yet. It is important that he should survive his father, because he is the last of the line of Medici, and I foresee troubles ahead. We shall have an Austrian prince who will make soldiers of us, or a revolution, when our throats will be cut. An unpleasant alternative—to kill or be killed!" With these and similar reflections he now dazzled and now depressed, but always interested me.
Count Giraldi had three palaces in or near Florence, or rather, he had four. He himself occupied the great house of his race, the Palazzo Giraldi, a magnificent pile, built by Muchelozzo, on the Lung' Arno. The Villa Felice, also, on the hillside below Fiesole was reserved for himself and his friends. His wife, a frigid, devout, elderly lady, had her own establishment, the splendid Palazzo Manfredi, in Oltr' Arno, and received him with great ceremony once a week for an hour in the afternoon. Never, so long as I had any familiarity with the count, did she set foot in either of his houses; but he always spoke of her with great respect as the only person of his acquaintance who had never provided him with matter for amusement. The fourth, of which I have spoken, was smaller than any, but the most elegant of all. That, too, was over Arno, in a retired street near the Porta San Giorgio, but within a garden of its own which withdrew it yet more from observation or annoyance. I call it his, since he assured me of it at a later day; but at this time I knew it as in the occupation of the Contessa Giulia Galluzzo, a charming lady, charming hostess, centre and inspiration of a charming circle. The count took me with him, very soon after we had become intimate, to wait upon her; she received me with all possible favour. I never failed of attending her assemblies, never found her otherwise than amiable, nor her circle than varied and entertaining. Without suspecting in the least how Count Giraldi really stood with regard to her, I could see that he was free of the house. She called him "Caro amico," and paid great deference to his opinions. He, on his side, addressed her as "Madonna," was tender without being impresse, alert without seeming to be so, and whether he intended to take her advice or not, never failed to pay her the compliment of asking it. I am thus particular in speaking of these things for reasons which will shortly appear.
In the Villa San Giorgio, most of all in the society of its graceful chatelaine, I had my fill of poetry and the other ornamental arts. Wit, love, philosophy, literature, bric-a-brac, religion—each had its petit- maitre, and each its sparkling Muse. It was before the day of Arcadia and shepherdesses, those flowers of our more jaded years; women were still called divine, but it was very possible, or we used to think it so, to discuss matters which you did not understand, and express sentiments which you did not feel without the prop of a crook, or garters of blue ribbon. At my impressionable age, with my impressionable habit, I took kindly to all this; I discussed love with Donna Giulia, and puzzled her sadly; I expressed my feelings upon religion to the Abbe Loisic, the count's bookbinder, and bored him to extinction. One day I was presented to a tall cadaverous gentleman with red eyelashes and eyes so pale as to seem almost white. I had a suspicion that I had seen him in some former existence, and so soon as the name of the Marchese Semifonte was mentioned, remembered Prato with horror. The marchese may well have thought me reserved, for it is true that I could barely be civil to him. He argued from that, as I learned afterwards from Donna Giulia, that I was of a ducal family, and in proportion as I froze, so did he thaw. As I receded, so did he advance. He pressed invitations upon me, all of which I could not decline; it was proper that I should offer him some hospitality in return—and I did. He supped with me once or twice in my lodgings, lost money to me at cards and so had some grounds for believing himself "my friend." Presuming upon this, he was not long in discovering himself to me for the monomaniac he was, one of those miserable men devoured by a passion which may lift us to the stars or souse us in the deepest slime of the pit. He made proposals to me, tentatively at first, then with increasing fervency, at last with importunity which would have wearied me inexpressibly if it had not disgusted me beyond endurance—proposals, I mean, to share his depraved excursions. Outraged as I was, loathing the man (as I had good reason) from the bottom of my heart, I was driven to confide in Count Giraldi something of my knowledge of him. I had the good sense, it is true, to withhold the fact that Virginia, his intended victim, was in Florence; but that is the extent of my prudence. It might have served me, but for the accident which I must relate in the next chapter.
I WORK FOR AURELIA, AND HEAR OF HER
It was to the sympathetic ears of Donna Giulia, first of all, that I imparted the state of my feelings, my hopes, fears and prayers with regard to Aurelia. There was that about Count Giraldi, a diamantine brilliancy, a something hard and crystalline, a positiveness, an incisiveness of view and reflection, which on first acquaintance decided me not to take him into my confidence. When I came to know him better, or to think that I did, I followed my natural bent and talked to him unreservedly; but in the lady, from the beginning, I found a very interested listener. She led me on from stage to stage of my story until she had it all, and gave me the sum of her thoughts freely and with candour. "I agree with you, Don Francis," she said, "that your lady will be in Florence before long. A wounded bird makes straight for the nest, and only puts into a thicket on the way to recover itself for the longer flight. You will have to make the most of your time here, for I do not believe that even your eloquence—and you are most eloquent—will hold her from her mother's arms, as things are now. You will be sure to follow her to Siena, and can there make your arrangements at ease."
"My arrangements, dear madam, are very simple," said I. "Pardon is all I ask, and leave to serve her. She may give me these in Florence as well as in Siena."
"Pardon you may be certain of," said Donna Giulia.
"What has she to pardon you but the fact that you admired her, and told her so? I assure you we don't think that an irremediable sin in Italy. Permission to serve her, in other words, permission to prove your admiration by deeds (not words), is another affair. She will certainly wish to consult her mother about that."
"Her husband too, madam," said I; "this is the real difficulty of the case." She gave me a queer look.
"It is unusual to consult the husband," she said. "It puts him in a difficult position."
"It is my fault," said I ruefully, "that he has been put there already."
"Undoubtedly it is," returned Donna Giulia. "You should have remained in the cupboard. Why, the fact that she put you there is proof of that. She has given you all possible encouragement."
I said no more on the subject just then, but a few days afterwards, being out with the count on horseback, he himself spoke to me about my business, frankly owning that it was none of his. "Donna Giulia mentioned it to me in secrecy," he said, "in the charitable hope that I might be of use to you. Need I say that all my abilities are at your service in an affair of the sort? I have had a good deal of experience: are you inclined to make use of me? Let me add, that if you are not, I am discretion itself. I shall understand your reticence, and even take it as a compliment; for if you think I am not the kind of man whom you would care to interest in your mistress, it will be a gratifying proof that I am younger than I venture to think myself."
My reply to this frankly stated case was to put before him the tale of the fair Aurelia, the cupboard and the pilgrimage of penitence. Count Giraldi, greatly to his credit, listened without the alteration of a muscle, and expressed at the close of my blushing narrative his convictions that Aurelia must be a charming lady, and that I should prove an equally charming damerino when I had learned the rules of the game, "One of which," he added with mock severity, "One of which is that while the husband must know everything, he is to be told nothing. To break that rule is to outrage society." It may be that something of bewilderment and pain upon my face told him that he had overstepped his path. He changed the conversation rapidly, encouraged me to talk of Aurelia's perfections and of my own shortcomings as I would, reserving, no doubt, his private view of each; and ended the conversation by promising me to put all his interest at my service. "I will do what I can, and welcome," he said. "I will make friends with the doctor, and perhaps find a place for him under this Government; I will introduce the doctor's wife to Donna Giulia, and listen to your reading of your poetry at least as readily as she will. More, I will make you acquainted with my personal bookbinder, the Abbe Loisic, a truly great virtuoso. If Donna Aurelia won't accept your sonnets in the dress of his providing, you may give up the case as hopeless. In a word, my dear Francis," he said laughing, "there shall be only one thing wanting to complete your felicity, and even that I may be able to afford you. You will have your mistress at hand, her husband accommodated, and will only need a rival, it seems to me, to stimulate you to a pleasant exertion of your powers. There ought not to be much difficulty in finding one in Florence." He was silent awhile, then said, as if musing on the absurdity, "Semifonte, for example!" I begged him not to mention that man.
The weeks passed thus pleasantly for me, and I was wafted from winter into the fragrant chambers of spring before I was aware. On the morning of April 23, as I was sitting in my lodging, drinking my chocolate, I received a letter from Father Carnesecchi, saying that Aurelia was in Florence; and while I was still standing in ferment with his note shaking in my hand, Virginia burst into my room, fell at my feet, clasped me by the knees. "Master, news, news!" she cried, and kissed my hands with passion.
The mingling of emotions, like that of two waters, may produce a volume whose direction cannot be calculated by any previous knowledge of the separate streams. In my case, just described, the reader has seen that while my heart was still palpitating at the news of the recovery of a mistress, it was to be shaken anew by the sight of a dear friend. Two sorts of joy met and blended their forces within me; their issue in one turbulent flood, which I should have thought to see heading to Aurelia at the convent, instead of that poured themselves upon the bosom of Virginia. I raised her from my knees where, upon her own, she was clinging, and clasped her in my arms. I was, indeed, happy to see her again, and so much so that I forgot entirely that I had only myself to blame for our long separation. For the first time in our lives our lips met.
But if I was moved, what is to be said of her? I can hardly express the painful scene which followed. She lost all control of her senses; she clung to me as if I had been a spar in some stormy sea wherein she drowned; she uttered incoherent cries, she gasped, sobbed, was clean distraught. When I held her, when I kissed her, she struggled like a caught bird, fought furiously, used her teeth, her nails. And yet all the time she was caressing me with every diminutive, every sweet term of love which the most passionate people in the world can find as expression of their love-thoughts. She stroked my cheeks, hair and shoulders, crooned over me like a brooding dove, held me so straitly that I was near choking; or with tragic mouth and eyes of sombre fire she adjured me to kill her there and then, lest any subsequent moment of her life might be less full of bliss than the present. I know that my fancy was inflamed, and suspect that my senses—from whose occasional dominion I was no more free than most men—must have sprung into flame from this dangerous contact, had it not been that her excessive joy induced an attack of hysterics. For a time she was like a madwoman, beyond all human power; and she ended by fainting in my arms, and had to be carried by myself and Scipione, my servant, to a bed. There she lay moaning and muttering to herself for an hour or more. It may be imagined whether all this tended to calm my own agitation or to turn my thoughts towards that road whereby alone honour and salvation could be reached. I could not go out to see Aurelia; I could hardly even think of Aurelia while Virginia lay in my house with closed eyes, clenched hands and shuddering breath. I left Scipione in charge of her, and returned to my saloon, to pace the floor until he brought me word that she could be spoken with. This he did not do for some hours.
He came in at last, shaking his head. "That is a bad case, sir—porca miseria!" says he.
I hoped that she was better.
"She's ashamed of herself, sir," he said, "as well she may be. What a scandal, my word! But these baggages have no modesty."
The term offended me. I told him he was talking nonsense. "She is a true friend," I said, "whose sympathy may be excessive; but to take joy in my joy is the act of a friend."
Scipione saluted me. "Sir, if her joy is your honour's, I have no more to say. A gentleman is entitled to his pleasures, I hope. And she is a handsome girl, though she is thin."
"That will do, my man," said I. "You say that she is better."
"She is as well, sir, as she deserves," replied this assured fellow, "but she is mad."
"Mad!" I cried.
"Why, yes, sir," says he. "Judge for yourself. Here is a girl frying in love, wanting to tell your honour that another is yours for the asking." He angered me by this freedom—which I can assure the reader is not uncommon in this country—and I dismissed him with a few directions. I said that I must go out at once and was uncertain when I should return. Meantime Virginia was to have every care, and was to be provided with— among other things—suitable clothes for one in the position of a house- servant. Those in which she had made her sudden appearance before me were obviously peculiar to the convent in which she worked, and to her standing there. I left some money with Scipione and went out.
Perhaps it had been better to have interrogated Virginia before taking the step I now took, and so I should have done had I not been rather disturbed in my mind, first, by my own pleasure at seeing her again— which I now considered to have been disloyal to Aurelia—and next, by Scipione's account of her state of heart. Virginia in love with me! This was not the first time I had suspected it; but, reflecting upon our meeting, I was not able to deny that she had been very much moved. Now, should it be true, I thought to myself, what on earth was I to do? What, indeed, were the MERITS of the case? Was the fault mine—and how could I best repair it? These questions were beyond my then powers of resolution while I was uncertain of Aurelia's fate and prospects, and I deliberately put them aside. I turned all my powers of mind and heart to consider her injuries, probable sufferings and monstrous humiliations, and by the time I was near the Convent of SS. Maria e Giuseppe I was trembling in every limb, and in the state of apprehension and desire which becomes the devout lover of a lady incredibly lovely and wise.
I approached the shabby gate, and with uncovered head saluted the posts which held it up. I rang the bell, the portress appeared; I asked her for my mistress by name; she said that she would take up mine to the Lady Superior if my lordship would be pleased to wait. Then she disappeared, and my lordship stood fainting there.
Father Carnesecchi, I perceived, was with Aurelia; for the note brought back by the portress was all in his handwriting but the signature. The initials A. L. were in her own. She said, or the respectable Jesuit said for her, that she was highly sensible of my courtesy in waiting upon her, and deplored that, as she was somewhat fatigued and about to return to Padua, it was impossible for her to receive me at the moment. She hoped on a future occasion to find suitable expression of her feelings, and begged in the meantime to assure me of her entire respect.
At any other time I might have been chilled by the studious repression of this note; but at that moment I had but one aim. Begging the portress to wait, I tore a leaf from my pocket-book, wrote upon it, "Madam, forgive the wicked F. S.," and gave it over to the good nun. "I beg of you, my sister, to give this note into the hands of Donna Aurelia," I said. "It touches on a matter of the utmost consequence to me." She agreed, with an indulgent and somewhat intelligent smile, and retired once more. In half the time she came back with a little twisted note. "I hope that I can please you this time, sir," she said. "At any rate you may be sure of your correspondent, for Donna Aurelia wrote every word of it." There were but three words, "Si, si, si—Aurelia," I read, and turning my face to the Heavens, thanked God that I was absolved by the dear subject of my crimes.
Transformed, indeed, I trod upon air between the Prato and the Palazzo Giraldi. I was told that his Excellency was visiting the Contessa Galluzzo. I sailed, I soared, I flashed over Arno and into the house at the Porta San Giorgio. "Absolved! Absolved!" I cried, and kissed Donna Giulia's hand. The count pressed mine very warmly.
"Either the Church," said he, "has gained in you a remarkable champion, or the world lost a promising scoundrel. I had not suspected you of such a load of sin." I showed my precious paper and commented upon it with rapture.
"Count," I said in conclusion, "a truce to your sallies. Confess my Aurelia a pattern among ladies. What modesty! What clemency! What divine compassion! It is too much grace; it is dangerous; it tempts one to sin again." At the time of utterance I undoubtedly believed what I said.
"I am of your opinion," said the count. "I fancy that the lady is very ready to forgive you. I speak for myself when I say that I shall do everything in my power to assist her."
"Speak also for me, caro mio," said Donna Giulia. "I will wait upon Donna Aurelia as soon as may be. She will be better here than in the tiresome convent. I shall invite her to pay me a visit, which I hope," she added with a smile, "will not deprive us of the society of Don Francis." I warmly thanked my friends and took my leave.
On returning to my house I ended a day of agitation by an interview with Virginia. I found her in an abject way, scarcely able to speak, and very unwilling to raise her eyes. She was dressed, and perfectly composed, and said what she had to say in a tone deliberately dry. "I ask your lordship's pardon," she began at once, "for the tempest I raised in your house. I ask it on my knees. I forgot myself; I lost myself. I have not seen your lordship for many months."
I begged her to allude to it no more. I myself had been glad to see her, I said.
She looked up quickly—only for a moment—and showed a hint of her former fire. "I think that you were—I did think so," she said; then checked herself and was silent.
"There is no doubt about it," said I, "therefore let nothing disturb you. Take your time and tell me your news. You have seen—you have heard—-"
"Yes, yes," she said, "I have seen your Aurelia. She came to our convent a week ago in a chaise and pair."
This startled me—a week ago!
"I should have told you before if I could," she continued, "but they keep us close, us penitents. I have run away; I could not bear that you should remain ignorant. If they find me they will beat me to death."
I assured her of my protection and returned to the subject of Aurelia. How, I asked, had she come? Had she been ill—in distress?
"Not at all," said Virginia. "She was elegantly dressed. She was protected by an old woman. She wore a mask and a travelling hood, and went into the nuns' parlour. She asked for a cup of chocolate, which was brought her. I saw her in the chapel at the office."
How often had I seen her so—my saint on her knees!
"She was on her knees—yes," said Virginia, "but she yawned very much. She did not rise till noon on the next morning."
I clasped my friend's hand. "Oh, Virginia, you have seen her!" I cried. "You help me to see her. Is she not perfection?"
Virginia was rather cool. "Who knows?" she said, shrugging, "she is like all Sienese women. She is fatter than I am. I allow her shape. But she is not near so tall. She is a little thing. She wears her clothes well. And she is merry enough when she has her tongue." I could afford to smile at this grudging admiration. "My dear girl," I said, "you little know her—but how should you? Tell me more. Did you speak to her?" She nodded her head and told her story. "I waited my time. I was washing the canon's linen in the little cloister. That was my job, week in and week out. She came through. She was scolding her old woman. I followed her round the cloister, and when the coast was clear, said, 'Hist, Madonna.' She turned and looked at me with her eyes wide open. They are handsome eyes for a Sienese woman. That I allow. She said, 'Do you call me?' Says I, 'I do.' She says, 'Well?' I reply, 'He is well if you are.' 'Who, then?' says she. I say, 'Your lover.' This makes her jump like a flea on the bed. But she brazens it out finely, turning to her old crone with a 'What does the girl mean?' Bless you, THEY knew well enough. I folded my arms—so; I said, 'He has walked the stony hills barefoot to find you. He will be out of his skin, standing on his head, to know you are here.' She stamped her foot and flew into a passion. 'How dare you?' she cries out. 'Tell me of whom you are talking this rubbish.' I nodded my head many times—so—and said, 'You are lucky to have him so fast.' She went away. After that she never passed me without tossing her head; and presently I ran away." I was greatly perturbed by this tale of hers, and not unreasonably angry. I said, "Unhappy girl! you little know the harm you have done. Have I instructed you so badly in myself that you can think to serve me by your servant-girl mysteries and your nods and winks? I enjoin you to leave my affairs absolutely alone. You are to tell me no more, speak of me no more, see Donna Aurelia no more. Since you have left the convent and are in danger of punishment, you must, of course, stay here. You must be properly clothed and looked after. I will see to that. Now recover yourself, and remember what I have said." I was almost immediately sorry for my plain speaking; she was in extreme misery, I could see. Tears streamed through her fingers, her body was convulsed with grief. More than once she seemed upon the point of lashing out at me with some furious blast of indignation; but she always checked it, as it seemed, when it was at the edge of her lips. Unthinking fool that I was! I little knew or guessed what she had endured at the convent for my sake; how, treated as a sinful woman, she had been the object of hard judgment and undeserved reproach—preached at, prayed over, lectured, scolded, made a slave of; how she had loved me and believed in me through all; and how, unable to bear her lot, coming to me at last, I had proved the most cruel of her oppressors—and precisely the most cruel because, from me, she deserved the least reproach. However, I must not extenuate myself, nor forestall my history. I begged her pardon for my severity and obtained her ready forgiveness. From that hour forward she kept herself apart from me as my servant, having arranged for her share of his duties with Scipione; and she never by word or look recalled the time when a much closer intimacy had existed between us.
One disturbing incident in my affairs with her must be mentioned in this place, although it did not occur until I had twice waited upon Donna Aurelia. It was indeed upon my return from the second of those visits that Scipione came into the room after me with some secret or another which he itched, evidently, to impart to me. After some hesitation, he asked leave to exhibit Virginia to me, dressed, said he, according to the best of his ability as such a fine girl should be dressed. I nodded my head—having little attention to give him just then—and he presently returned, leading Virginia by the hand.
"There, sir," said the jaunty rogue. "Now perhaps your honour will say that she is worth looking at." I stared at Virginia, who coloured finely, and hung her head.
I must say that, preoccupied as I was, I was astonished at what I saw. He had transformed her by some means out of a sulky and dejected penitent into a young woman of noble appearance and refined beauty. I had seen that transformation once before—at Prato; but here was a more mature and assured fine lady. She wore her hair over a cushion, a handsome dress of yellow and white brocade upon a quilted petticoat, silk stockings, and high-heeled shoes. Not only were the clothes fine of their kind and well fitted to her person, but she wore them surprisingly well; their colour set off her clear, chiselled and dark beauty; and that, as if stung by the rivalry, came fiercely out to meet them. The joy and pride of battle tingled in her cheeks and shone in her eyes. She was of that aquiline, keen type of feature which we are accustomed to call patrician. She looked at once superb and secure, at once eager to contend and sure of the prize. It may have been that, as her name of Strozzi implied, she was a scion of that noble house, sunk by no faults of her own in servitude and obscurity; suffice it to say that she was strikingly handsome and perfectly aware of it. I was too much astonished to be angry with Scipione, as I might reasonably have been. Nor could I have had the heart, I acknowledge, to have dashed her natural pleasure at her success by any abrupt expression of annoyance. I said, "Why, Virginia, you are become a fine lady!" She stepped quickly forward, knelt, and kissed my hand—an act of humility which touched me.
"Sir," said Scipione, "I told you that she had the makings. Your honour can do as you please now, and nobody have a word to say. I can assure you that the count lost his breath and his heart at once when he saw her."
"The count!" I cried; and he told me that Count Giraldi had called for me that afternoon and had entertained himself greatly with Virginia.
I sent Scipione away. It was necessary to know more of this. The moment he was out of the room I asked her what had brought about this masquerade of hers. She said timidly that Scipione had a sister who was woman to a great lady. This person had several times been in to see her brother, and this dress was of her providing. She said that they had teased her about her appearance at Prato, where Scipione's sister had seen her, it appears, and had dared to prove to them that she was indeed that handsome lady with whom I had been observed. She hoped I should not take it amiss, or be angry with "my servant," by which she meant herself. I assured her that I was not at all angry—which was true, and then begged her to tell me what the count had wanted. She said he had called to leave me a message—an invitation to dine, I think—and that Scipione, maliciously or ingenuously, had shown him into the room where she was queening it in her borrowed finery.
I guessed there was more. "What had his Excellency to say on your account, my child?" I asked her.
"He thought at first that I was what I seemed, and was most gallant," she replied, to my consternation. "I told him, however, that he was very much mistaken, that I was a poor girl and your servant, playing as I should not. This tickled his Excellency—or so it appeared."
"And he said—what, Virginia?" I was careful to hide from her my discomfort over this foolish business.
Virginia, with what I am sure was perfect innocence of any evil, said, "He was most kind. He praised my looks, and vowed that you were happily served."
"And so I am," I said rather ruefully. "He was right. What next?"
"Next, sir," said this strange girl, "he praised my figure, which he thought was mightily becoming this gown."
"Well, well, and he was right," I admitted. "But did he say nothing more?"
Virginia would not look at me, but I caught the words, "He said that he envied you the arrangements of your household."
"Well?" I asked her.
"And he said that he was sure I was as good as I was good-looking, and gave your honour every satisfaction. And then he gave me a gold piece and a salutation and was going away, when—-"
"Well, well? Let me have the whole story."
"I shall vex you—but not more than I was vexed, I assure you. No harm had been done—for you don't suppose that I wanted his money, serving your honour. But just as he was going out what must that daughter of mischief—Scipione's sister—do but blurt out that she had seen me with your honour not near so well dressed at the fair at Prato. The count started and looked very much intrigued. He asked me a score of questions—artfully, you may be sure, as if to idle away the time. But I told him nothing at all, and he presently was tired of working a dry pump. He took his leave, and that Sataness went with him. God knows what she knows! If I come within distance of her I shall drag her tongue out of her throat, I promise you."
I told her not to trouble herself with what could not be helped. I did not see how she could be blamed, and after all the count was my friend and a man of honour. But I relieved my feelings by bestowing upon Master Scipione one of the handsomest drubbings his oily skin had ever received. I little knew then how richly he deserved it; but I found out before long, and then if I could have killed him I am sure I would have done it.
I PREPARE FOR BLISS
I must return to the natural order of my history, and relate my first interview with Aurelia in order that I may prepare the reader for the last. It was brought about by Father Carnesecchi, to whom I applied for it after my visit to the convent and reception of the note of forgiveness. I had a great respect for the good man, and owed him much for his kindness to me in my hour of need, but, as I never had the knack of concealing my feelings, I could not help showing him, I suppose, that I was aware that my mistress had been a week in Florence without my suspecting it. If I had thought to confuse him by any such reproach— which I had not—I should have been quickly undeceived.
Father Carnesecchi at once admitted that he had withheld, for what seemed very proper reasons, the fact of Aurelia's arrival. "The poor little lady," he said, "when she had recovered from fatigues which (without being harsh), I must say, were not brought upon her entirely unassisted, developed a very becoming and dutiful state of the soul. I have seldom been more hopeful of a case of conscience. But it is a sensitive plant, the soul of a young and naturally amiable girl; rough blasts may bruise it; even excessive nurture may cause an exuberance of growth and weaken the roots. I do not doubt your real repentance, my Francis—Heaven forbid it me, but I confess I do gravely doubt the expediency of your assuring Donna Aurelia of it otherwise than by a letter which I shall willingly convey to her. May I ask you now—since I stand to you in loco parentis; yes, yes, in loco parentis—how it was that you became acquainted with the fact of her having been a week in the Sienese convent?"
I told him the truth; and if the father was vexed he was not surprised.
"Beware," he said, "of that little parasite. You have a dangerous liking for female society, as I have told you before. Of your two intimacies, I much prefer that of Donna Aurelia for you. There, now, is a girl naturaliter Christiana—but that is characteristic of her nation: the elect city of Mary, indeed, as the pious Gigli has observed in a large volume. Come," he said suddenly, "come, Francis, I will take you to see Donna Aurelia this moment. There shall be no drawbacks to our mutual affection. What do you say?"
I stammered my thanks, shed tears and kissed my director's hands. The acts of the next half-hour were done to a wild and piercing music. I could scarcely breathe, let alone think or speak. I was swept along the streets, I achieved the portal, I achieved the parlour. Pictures of saints, wholly Sienese, reeled from the walls: a great white crucifix dipped and dazzled. Father Carnesecchi, after a time of shrill suspense, came in to fetch me, took me tottering up the stairs. My heart stood still; but the door was open. I blundered in, I saw her again—her lovely childish head, her innocent smile, her melting eyes, her colour of pale rose, her bounty, her fragrance, her exquisite, mysterious charm! Blushes made her divine; she curtseyed deeply to me; I fell upon my knee; and Count Giraldi rose from his seat and performed a graceful salute.
She told me that she freely forgave me an indiscretion natural to my youth and position, whose consequences, moreover, could not have been foreseen by either of us. She said that she was about to return to her husband, who would probably come to Florence to meet her—and she added that she hoped I should resume my studies at the university, and in serious preparation for the future obliterate all traces of the past. At these words, which I am inclined to fancy had been got by rote, she sighed and looked down. I promised her entire obedience in every particular, and growing bolder by her timidity, said that, with the doctor's permission, I should wait upon her at her convenience. Aurelia pressed me to come; and then told me that, thanks to the benevolence of Donna Giulia conveyed to her by the excellency of Count Giraldi, my visit might be made at the Villa San Giorgio at her ladyship's next reception. "I believe, Don Francis, that you know the way thither," she said. Very much affected, I kissed her hand again, and Father Carnesecchi, suggesting that she might be fatigued, took me away. My next visit to her was paid at the Villa San Giorgio, and on that occasion I saw her alone. Count Giraldi was, in fact, at that very hour, engaged with Virginia in my lodgings.
This time I was neither ridiculous nor thought to be so. My lady came into the saloon where I was and ran towards me, begging me not to kneel to her. She resumed for that happy moment at least her old part of guardian angel, sat on the couch by my side, and looking kindly at me from her beautiful eyes, said in the easiest way, "I see very well that you have not been cared for so well in Florence as in Padua. Now you are to be your good and obedient self again and do everything I tell you."
I murmured my long-meditated prayer for forgiveness, making a sad botch of its periods. She put her hand over my mouth.
"Not a word of that hateful affair," she said firmly. "You were absurd, of course, and I was to blame for allowing it; but I could not be angry with such a perfect little poet, and that monster should have known with whom he had to deal. He knows it now, I believe. He knows that a Gualandi of Siena is not at the beck and call of a pig of Padua. When he comes here, he will come in his right senses, you will see."
I begged her to tell me her story; but she said there was little to tell. She had not left Padua, as I had supposed, but had stayed with friends of hers in the hope that what she called the pazzeria of the doctor would be blown away. Finding that he was obstinate, she had gone to Modena, where she lived for a while as companion to an ancient lady, who became very fond of her. It needed, indeed, a convenient bronchitis to give her her liberty again. When this occurred she found herself provided with a pretty legacy—enough to make her independent of the doctor, but at the same time more necessary to his happiness. She had intended, she said, for Siena; but the hospitality of Donna Giulia was pressed upon her, and the good services of the count were freely hers. There was talk of a judgeship for her husband; she would see how events turned about before she made any plans. "And you, Francis," she continued, "are not to be ridiculous any more, nor wander about without shoes, nor consort with rubbish any more. You are to go back to your studies and your books, and take your degree. You are to say good-bye to Aurelia as soon as you are well enough, and forget that you ever knew her, if you can."
"If I forget you, Aurelia, I shall forget Heaven," I said.
"We will talk about Heaven another time," said Aurelia. "Who was that saucy girl I met at the convent, who seemed to know all about you?"
I told her Virginia's story exactly. She said, "The piece is madly in love with you." I assured her that she was mistaken, but she shook her head, then nodded it many times. "Certainly, certainly she is in love with you," and after a pause—"and I don't wonder. You have greatly improved, Francis."
To this I said that nothing was further from my thoughts than to do Virginia any harm. I promised to marry her to my man Scipione as soon as possible, since protection of some sort was necessary to a bondswoman who had run away from the land to which she belonged. Aurelia heard me thoughtfully, tapping her little foot on the floor in that quick, impatient way I loved so well in her. "Marry her—yes," she said, "that will be only prudent on your part. Well! it is not for me to quarrel with you—but—" she shrugged and went on quickly—"Oh, I don't deny that the wench is well enough in her broomstick way!" she cried out.
I said, No, she looked very well when she was dressed. This was an unlucky speech.
"So I have understood, sir," cried Aurelia, breathing fast. "I hear that you were seen with her at Prato; that she was dressed in silk and a hoop, and had her hair on a cushion, and I dare say a fan, of the afternoons. And you think her very well? So—so—so!" My beloved Aurelia had tears in her eyes—one dropped and lay upon her bosom. I fell on my knees before her and would have kissed her foot, but she sprang from me, and went quickly out of the room.
I was left alone in the greatest agitation. It was the recollection of this scene which troubled me when, returning to my lodging, I found Virginia again in masquerade.
I DISAPPOINT MY FRIENDS
My forebodings were more than fulfilled. The next time, which was at a week's interval, that I presented myself at the Villa San Giorgio, Donna Aurelia, in full reception, turned her back upon me and left the room in company of the Marchese Semifonte. I suffered the indignity as best I might—I did not quit the company; nobody, I flatter myself, knew what pangs of mortification I was feeling. I saw no more of Aurelia that evening, and a conversation which I had with Donna Giulia made matters no better. She spoke to me very plainly and with some warmth.
"Here you had, but a few days ago, your mistress in a most promising humour," she said, "detesting her doctor, yet resolved to have him back in order to give you a countenance. In Count Giraldi and myself you have, I take leave to say, two of the most complaisant friends in Europe; yet what are you doing? You maintain, for reasons best known to yourself, a pretty girl in your lodgings, pranked out in silks and furbelows—a runaway from a house of discipline—and (if it is all true that they tell me) one who, if she belongs to anybody, dare not belong, certainly, to you. Really, Don Francis, you are exorbitant. Pray, do you propose to us to keep Aurelia here in order that she may listen to your poetry, and then to return from your intellectual feast to the arms of your little peasant? And Aurelia is to know it and acquiesce? Good heavens! do you know that she is young, fresh, and charming, and of Siena? I ask your pardon, Don Francis—but oh, my perverse young friend, why on earth don't you take her?"
"Dearest lady!" I cried out, "what under Heaven am I to take? I adore Aurelia; I ask nothing better than leave to serve her, to kneel at her feet. If she is cruel to me, that is my pride. If she is kind, that is my humiliation. If she were to kill me, that would be my topmost reward."
"Very true indeed," she said. "And what if she were to do, as I should certainly do, ignore you altogether?"
"I should not cease to love her. I should have nothing to complain of," I said.
She tossed her hands up in despair. "If this is what conies of reading your Dante, I advise the 'Song of Solomon,'" she said. "I have never opened the 'Divine Comedy'—still less the 'Vita Nova'; but I consider the author a donkey, and am sure that was the opinion of his Donna Beatrice."
Count Giraldi, for some reason which I could not then comprehend, did not care to talk of my affair. He said nothing of Aurelia to me—and, so far as I could see, avoided the lady herself as much as the discussion of her position. He told me that he had been able to offer a judgeship of the Court of Cassation to Dr. Lanfranchi, and that he was in great hopes that he would take it. In that case he would, of course, reside in Florence; and "The rest," said he, "I shall leave to you."
I told him that, if Donna Aurelia was reconciled to her husband through his means, I should be eternally in his debt—and not less so though I should be in Padua and with the mountains between us.
He frowned, he was puzzled. "You leave us?" he said; "you abandon Donna Aurelia?" I told him that I could never cease to love her, but that love for a lady seemed to me an extremely bad reason for bringing about her ruin. I had gone so near to that already that nothing in the world would induce me to risk it again.
He affected to misunderstand me, in his scoffing way. "Admirable! Admirable!" he cried. "I see that you have recovered your spirits."
"I hope my spirit has never failed me yet when I have had need of it," I said. "I shall thank God on my knees this night that my lady has been saved alive. No lover in the world has ever begged for his mistress's surrender so heartily as I shall pray for the return of mine to her husband's arms."
He clapped me on the back. "You are a master of paradox indeed," he said.
I assured him that I was serious. "Then," said he, "I admire while I do not follow you. I ask you once more, do you wish me to understand that you abandon Donna Aurelia? I have my reasons, mind you, and have no wish to take you unawares."
"I cannot abandon what I do not pursue," I replied. "I can only repeat that it would be a very curious proof of my love for a lady to urge her to perdition on my account."
He looked at me oddly, fixedly, for a long time. Then he said, "It is true that you are an Englishman. I had forgotten it." Suddenly he threw up his hands. "What a nation! What a lover!" His hand came down and rested upon my shoulders. "My friend," he said, "I am not so young as I was, but I do believe that I can teach you something." With that he left me.
Upon returning to my house, sadly out of countenance by the coldness of Aurelia, I was met by Virginia, who reminded me that Scipione had obtained leave of absence for the night in order to visit his wife. She seemed excited and unlike herself, very careful to lock and bolt the front door, and was continually at the window, looking over the Piazza. Occupied as I was with my own troubles, I took no notice of her, and she, with the intelligence peculiar to her, saw how the land lay. She was not accustomed to pick her words with me—no Tuscan servants are— and after a time of silence on my part and pretended business about the room on hers, she asked leave to speak to me, and without getting it, said, "Excuse me, Don Francis, for the liberty I take, but I see you very miserable, and guess the reason. You have had words with your mistress—and no wonder. Let me tell you that you have not the rudiments of love in you."
"Enough of that, Virginia," I said; but she would not oblige me.
"Let me tell your honour," said she, "that your sex has had the monopoly of mine since this world was first put in order. If you want your Aurelia, as I told you before, you must take her. Your proposals towards her are very Christian, but I have noticed that it is not the Christians who have the prettiest women at their disposition, but the Turks, of whom there are more in the world than you think for. Your doctor, for example, was a Turk of the Turks; and what did your Aurelia do but grovel for his rod until you came along, and she said, 'Hey, here is one who is Turchissimo, the grandest of grand Turks, with a longer and sharper rod'? You had a great chance then, Don Francis—what under Heaven possessed you to break the rod in her presence, or rather to put it into her hands, saying, 'Behold, madam, the rod. It is yours, not mine; use it. I kneel to receive it'? Why, Lord of Mercies, is this madness? Let me remind you of what I told you at Prato not so long ago, that to pray at a lady's feet when you ought to have her in your arms is to prepare misery for the pair of you. The whole trouble about that precious fault of yours was—not that you committed it, Dio mio, but that you did not commit it again. There, sir, that is my opinion—make what you will of it."
I was too profoundly dejected to be angry as I ought to have been; I believe I made no reply. Emboldened, or piqued, by that, she came nearer and spoke with great passion. "I'll tell you another thing," she said. "I am in your way, and am quite aware of it. Donna Aurelia and all your fine friends believe that I am with you—as—as I am not. Well, now, Don Francis, you may be rid of me whenever you please. Fra Palamone is here, and the Marchese Semifonte also. I have seen them both—in this very Piazza—this afternoon. Once they were together, and once Palamone was here alone. That means something. Now, if you choose to hand me over to those two you will do a fine stroke of business. Your Count Giraldi has a fancy for Donna Aurelia, I can see that plainly. It suits him very well that I should be here. Get rid of me, and where is the count? Do you not see?"
I turned upon her then and reproved her. "You hurt yourself more than me, Virginia," I said, "by talking in this strain. Your word 'fancy' is a word of the market. Grooms FANCY a horse at the fair, housewives fancy a leg of lamb, leering ploughboys in a tavern FANCY the wench who cleans the pots. Gentlemen do not so use to beautiful and wise ladies. You use horrible words, my poor child, but non omnia possumus omnes."
She listened at first with lowering brows, and eyes which watched me guardedly. But as I went on, more scornfully than perhaps I thought, a change came over her. She let fall her arms, she drooped, became distressed. I saw a tear fall, but I believed that I did well to be angry.
"Be sure of this," I said sharply, "that I will suffer no word in disparagement of Donna Aurelia to be said in my presence. Your word 'fancy,' as applied to her, is horrible to me. You will take care not to repeat it. If you choose to whisper to your friends that I have a 'fancy' for you, or that the marchese has purchased Fra Palamone to indulge a similar 'fancy' on his account, I have nothing to say. No term of the sort is by this time too hard for me to bear; and the marchese, no doubt, can take care of himself. But Donna Aurelia, once and for all, is to be left out of your dictionary if you can only couple her name with a degrading qualification. Enough of that. I am about to return to Padua, and shall take you with me as far as Condoglia." This was indeed my intention, for I was hurt more than I cared to own by Donna Aurelia's reception of me, and yet knew all the time that I deserved nothing more.
Virginia listened with head hung down and clenched hands; when I had done she would have rushed headlong into speech—but she checked herself by biting her lip forcibly. She curtseyed to me, and went quickly out of the room. I spent a great part of the night in the destruction of papers, collection of objects which I wished to take with me, and in committing to the flame certain others which I now knew I must do without. Treasured memories of Aurelia went with them. She was still in my heart, and must ever remain there, patroness of my honest intention. Daylight was creeping over the Piazza and putting my candles to shame before I discovered how tired I was. I blew them out, opened windows and shutters, and leaned into the sweet air. St. Mary's church stared hard, an unearthly black and white; the Piazza, perfectly empty, looked of enormous size. In it the dawn-wind blew up little spirals of dust; and it was so quiet, that when a scrap of paper was whirled into the air, I heard the littering noise it made before it started on its flight. The sky was of exquisite purity, pale as milk, with a very faint flush of rose behind the church. In a few minutes the sun would be up from behind Vallombrosa, and all the glory of the Italian day would roll over Florence in a flood. I felt mortally and suddenly tired, too languid to face the richness of life to come, poor and famished as I must now be.
As I was turning from the window I saw the figures of two men come out of the sharp angle of St. Mary's and walk towards the town. Both were tall, both in cloaks; but one wore his hat and the other carried it. By this, as well as his drooping, deferential shoulders, I knew this latter to be the servant, the former his patron. Midway towards the Via de' Benci they stopped, while he of the bare head explained at length, pointing this way and that with his hat, then counting on his fingers. I was now expert enough to be able to read an Italian conversation more quickly than I could gather it in talk. There was no doubt what was meant. "I shall go to such and such place, come back to such and such place; the carriage will stay here; in eight hours from now your lordship shall be satisfied." The man of position nodded his agreement, acknowledged with another nod a low bow from his inferior, and walked into Florence. As he entered the Via de' Benci I saw him plainly. It was the Marchese Semifonte. I saw his pale, wandering eyes, his moth-white face. So then I knew who was the other, standing out in the Piazza by himself, looking up towards my room.
I SLAY A MAN
A sudden desire, whose origin I could not have defined, unless it sprang directly from alarm on her account, moved me away from the window towards the door of Virginia's room. I listened at it, but could hear nothing, so presently (fearing some wild intention of sacrifice on her part) I lifted the latch and looked in. No—she was there and asleep. I could see the dark masses of her hair, hear her quick breathing, as impatient as a child's, and as innocent. Poor, faithful, ignorant, passionate creature—had I wronged her? Did not her vehemence spring from loyalty? If she was mistaken, was it her fault? For what could she— that unkempt companion of pigs and chicken, offspring of parents little higher in degree—what could she know of exalted love? What, indeed?
I lit a candle and went to look at her. I considered her carefully, lying there prone, her face turned sideways to the pillow, one bare arm flung over her eyes. She looked beautiful asleep, for her mouth had relaxed its look of proud reserve, and all her lines were softened. She looked very tired, very pure, very young.
"God of Nature!" thought I. "Assuredly Thou didst not shape this fine, true creature for some villain's idle appetite. Assuredly also Thou didst put her in my way for her salvation—and, may be, for mine. I accept the sign. Do Thou, therefore, stand my friend." I shut the door softly and returned to my parlour. Very cautiously I drew near the window and peered out.
It was well that I took care. Fra Palamone was immediately underneath the window, grinning up, showing his long tooth, and picking at his beard. I do not think I ever saw such a glut of animal enjoyment in a man's face before. There was not the glimmer of a doubt what he intended. Semifonte had been told of his bondslave, and Palamone's hour of triumph was at hand. He would bring a warrant; no doubt he had it by him; he waited only for the police. I was laid by the heels.
A gust of anger, like a puff of hot wind, blew upon me and made my skin prick me. All that I had endured at this rascal's hands swelled within; and now I remembered also that I, a gentleman by birth and training, had been the galled slave of a low ruffian, who now intended to sell into vice and infamy an honest girl whom I was pledged to protect. Well- being, rehabilitation, the respect of my own world had done their work. He had to do with a man now, I told myself, not with a boy. I went to my bureau, took out, primed and cocked my pistols, returned to the window and showed myself full to the frate.
"I wish you good morning, Fra Palamone," I said. His grinning face grinned awry, I promise you; but he recovered himself and made a brave show.
"Buon di, Ser Francesco, buon di. You are betimes, I see. Or is it that you are belated like my injured friend Semifonte? The smarting of his honour has kept him from his bed, let me tell you. But he has gone thither now, I hope, appeased."
"You intend to appease him, I believe, in eight hours from now," said I. "The commissary will be at his chocolate at eight o'clock, at his office by eleven. It is now three."
"You are getting proficient in our tongue," he said, somewhat put out by my exactitude.
"Oh, I am proficient in more ways than one," I told him. "You taught me at Prato how to draw teeth, and I showed you, in the same town, how claws could be cut. What did you think of the carcere? Well, now I will show you another accomplishment I have. Draw teeth, cut claws! I can drill holes also, Palamone."
"What the devil are you talking about, poet?" says he, always quick to be amused.
"Why, this," I said. "I will come down to you in the Piazza. We have it to ourselves." I held up my pistol by the nozzle. He saw the butt. He said, "Oho! that's your work, is it? You are growing in grace, Don Francis; and I am not the little man to disoblige you. Many a score is on my slate to your name, and short scores make the longest friendships. Come down, my son, and play a better game than faro."
By the time I got down he had taken off his cloak and came smiling towards me with both his hands held out. He was going to embrace me—I knew that very well. He would have kissed me on both cheeks, warmly and with sincerity; and then, before his arms were loosed from my neck, by a sudden surging of his lust, he would have throttled me. All that was as clear in his looks as are the marks on this paper; but I could read my gentleman by now and was in no mood for his freakish humours. "Take warning," I said, "that if you move one step nearer to me I shoot you like a rabbit." I crooked my arm and levelled at him as I spoke. I suppose he saw truth in the mouth of the barrel, for he stopped, and looked at me, breathing hard.
"I admire you, Francis," he said. "I admire you more than ever before. If I had kissed you as I intended, you would have known it."
"I do know it, damn you!" I replied. "But you would have strangled me afterwards."
"Why, so I should," he confessed, "even as surely as I mean to shoot you now. But that is neither here nor there. I'm a wild, hungry old devil of a frate, but no man denies that I love a high spirit. I should have kissed you for that, and wrung the breath out of you afterwards for a starved, misbegotten spawn of an English apothecary—as you are, my son. Now hand me one of those pistols of yours, and say your paternoster while you are in the mind."
I handed him the weapon, telling him that I had loaded it myself overnight, but that if he wished to satisfy himself, I had both powder and ball at his service.
He looked somewhat offended. "Do you think, my lad, that I doubt you?" he said. "I tell you that I love you. I would as soon doubt my mother, who is in Heaven, or believe my father, who is not."
"You shall join one or the other of them," said I, "in a few moments. Have no doubt of that, and let me alone. One condition. I will drop my arm and walk into the house, placing my back at your disposal, if you, in the article of death, as you now stand, will pledge your word to save Virginia from Semifonte. What do you say?"
He gazed at me, open-mouthed, eyes aglow, as I stood waiting. I could see that he was torn; I could see the fiend working and gouging within him, and (I believe) a good angel contending against him. Some time this lasted. Then Palamone gave a bitter laugh—like the barking of a leopard in the night.
"Say?" he mocked me. "Why, I say that you are an exquisite, adorable fool—the very pink of fools. For two ticks I would have taken you at your word. For two ticks."
"It was the third that prevented you," says I. "You are not such a villain as you think yourself."
"I believe that I am not, indeed," he says ruefully. "I have lost a chance. Well, I am ready. But here the shadow is bad. Let us go to the obelisks and stand each back to one. There is a passable light there."
"As you will." I went directly out into the middle of the Piazza, and he followed—with my life between his wild hands.
I know not to this hour whether that act of mine was one of sublime courage or of the crassest folly; I remember that I strode blithely forward, and that he followed; that some chance thing or another caused me to turn my head—the sun burning in a casement, a pigeon, a cat, some speck of accident. That motion saved my life, for immediately afterwards I heard the report, and felt the ball flicker through my hair. The fiend had gouged him again, and he had tried to murder me. At that certainty, in all the fury of disgust that came with it, my stomach turned, and I was possessed by blind rage. I rounded full upon him, and he must have seen cold death in my eyes, for round went he too and ran for his life. I pelted after him.
He made for the angle of the church whence he had come. There were railings there about a loggia, much broken down, by which, I suppose, he hoped to get some sort of a screen, but I intended him to fight me in the Piazza, so increased my speed, and cut him off that retreat. He doubled, and scoured past the steps of the church, round by the hospital, making for the Via del Fosso; I cut a segment of his circle and stopped him there. Round he span, slavering at the lips, and went dead over the Piazza, to the obelisks, I so close on his traces that I could not have missed him if I had chosen for murder. It was like coursing a hare, for hare-like in his pains, he began to scream—not very loudly; a wretched, wrung and wiry appeal, like some bad woman's, was all he could muster. Between the obelisks he fell on his knees, and when I reached him was praying, "Sancta Mater! Diva Mater! Ab hostium incidiis libera me!" I saw a head at a window, a head in a night-cap—a man's. Over it peeped another—a woman's. But I knew my Florence: there would be no interference in a duel. I said, "Get up, Palamone, and fight with me."
He was wild with terror—cried, "No, no, no—spare me! I give you my word, my sacred word—"
"You have none to give; you have broken it," I told him. "I will have no word in pieces. Get up, liar, and fight."
I got him to his feet, set him by his obelisk to face me. I loaded his piece for him, put it into his hands, then stepped back, facing him always, till I was fifteen yards away. "Drop your glove when you are ready," I told him, "and fire first."
He took as good aim as he could, I am sure; but I could see his shaking arm quite well. He missed me by a full yard at least. Then he waited for me, having got his courage back. I shot him in the breast, and he fell at once, and lay still. The faces at the window had disappeared; looking round the Piazza, I could see nothing but blank green shutters.
When I went up to Palamone he opened his eyes. He was not bleeding freely, and seemed more weak than in pain. "I am a dead man," he said in a whisper—I had to kneel down to hear him—"a dead man who has got his deserts. Semifonte intended to have your Virginia—but it was not Giraldi—it was not Gir—" Strength failed him; I could not catch any more than the name of Aurelia.
"Where are you hurt? Shall I fetch a surgeon?" He was hardly bleeding at all now—a bad sign. He shook his head and lay quiet. I made a pillow of my coat.
When he opened his eyes again they were very dim. "I'm off," he said, in that same dry whisper. "You have served me right—I love you for it. I have always loved you—but—yes, always loved you. Kiss me, Francis, if you can."
I could not refuse. I did kiss him, and he me. "God receive you, Palamone, and forgive me. I shall go and fetch you a priest." My face being very near him, suddenly he lifted his head and caught my cheek in his teeth. They met there—the dying act of a savage. I wrenched myself free, and heard his head knock with a thud on the pavement. Then I felt the blood stream down my neck. Stopping it as best I could, I went for a surgeon and a priest.
When I came back with them—I may have been half an hour finding the couple—Fra Palamone was gone, and my pistol too, which had my name on the butt. "Gentlemen," I said, "I am very sorry, but I assure you that I left a dying man on this spot. I can only ask you to excuse me for breaking your repose."
The priest said, "He has been found and taken away—no doubt of it."
"He has walked off, most like," said the surgeon. I shook my head. I was sure I had killed him.
"If you are sure of it," said the surgeon, "there is little I could have done for him, and as it is far more to the purpose to dress a living man than a dead one, permit me to attack that ugly flesh wound in your cheek. God of mercy!" he cried, as he looked into it, "your man must have shot you with a currycomb."
When he had done his best for me I went to bed, and immediately fell asleep.
VIRGINIA ON HER METTLE
I slept like a log until the hour of noon—perfectly dreamless sleep. It was Virginia who awoke me then by shaking my shoulder, not (as usually) by opening the shutter. I heard the bells of the hour ringing and guessed the time; I remembered that Scipione was away; I remembered everything.
"I have your chocolate, Don Francis," she said. "Drink it and rise as soon as possible. You must be out of this."
I replied, "I see no reason for haste. I will write a letter—Ser Bartolo shall take it for me—the answer will be satisfactory."
Virginia kept herself calm by main force. "The house is surrounded," she said. "You will be taken in your bed if you don't leave it soon." I sat up.
"Virginia, I ask your pardon." She shivered and turned away.
"Speak no more of that."
"But I must. You were right, and I—" She threw up her head with a little cry, fell upon her knees. She took my hand and covered it with kisses.
"No more. I cannot bear it. Who am I? What am I? Say what you please to me, but never plead with me." I could see her shoulders shaking.
"I must say what I have to say—" I would have continued. She gave another sharp cry—shivered again miserably. In the half light of the room I could see her lift her pale face towards the ceiling. It seemed to me that she prayed. After a while she looked down again and said quietly, "Speak now—and have done with it."
I told her what had occurred in the small hours; I did not spare myself. When I said that I had shot Fra Palamone she shook her head.
"You might as well hope to shoot the devil. All you have done is to give yourself into the hands of them who hire him. You are to be sent to Volterra or the galleys for this. The men outside are sbirri."
I told her that I should write to Count Giraldi. She laughed. "Your Count Giraldi will be out of Florence. Do you think him a child? His one desire is to get rid of you. No, no. You must disguise yourself. This is a trap."
"I refused to take your word last night, my dear," I said, "and should be sorry to do it again. If the sbirri want me they can take me on a warrant."
"They have no warrant. They will get that afterwards. Do you think them so stupid? While they were getting their warrant you might get clear away. Or suppose you appeared? The whole story might come out, and a number of fine people implicated. And what of your English resident? And what of your Donna Aurelia, if you are not careful of yourself? Do you wish to get her name abroad? No, no. In Tuscany we imprison a man first and get the warrant afterwards, if necessary. That is how they will work, quietly, with decency—no conversations. They have been here since eight o'clock this morning, and the Piazza is quite empty. They have seen to that, of course. If you look through the shutter you can see them. They are in no sort of hurry."
I did look, and saw that she was right. There were no people in the Piazza—at midday—but four men, who stood at intervals in attitudes of detachment and irresponsibility far too pronounced to be real. The church was closed, most of the houses were shuttered; all this was too remarkable not to have been arranged. Virginia and I looked at one another; but she watched me like a cat, keeping guard over every movement of mine. One hand pressed her bosom, the other was stretched downwards—a straight, tense line from shoulder to finger-tips.
"Virginia, listen to me," I began; a heedless invocation. Every fibre of her listened and watched. "If this is a trap, as I agree it is, then you are the mouse. Nobody in Florence would care whether I have shot Fra Palamone, or he me. The count—taking him as you take him—knows that I have no intentions but honest ones towards Donna Aurelia; taking him as I take him he will defend me. No, my child, this is the marchese's affair. I can see that he has been after you from the time he saw you playing the handsome lady at Prato. He thinks he has you, but I will show him that he is wrong. Let me once get you away, be assured of your safety, and I shall open the door to the pleasure of these gentlemen. Father Carnesecchi—the count—oh, I have no fear of Palamone's posthumous acts, I can assure you."
I spoke cheerfully, confidently, but Virginia was put into great agitation. She began to flit about the room like a moth, wringing her hands and whimpering to herself.
"O Dio!" she fretted, "O Dio caro! What shall I do? Madonna, Madonna, Madonna, what will become of me?" She was quite inarticulate, could only repeat her names, and wail, and beat herself into a fever. I went to comfort her, and then, as if some tie were cut by the act, she turned upon me in a white tempest of fury, no longer a girl but a devil. "Do you dare?" she raved, "Do you dare? Oh, but I could kill you now with my hands!" She took me by the shoulders and stared into my face, panting her fierce breath upon me—blasts of breath as hot as fire. "Look at me, Francis, look at me, I say. You see the one person in the world who loves you. You fool, you fool, with your Giraldis and Aurelias and Jesuit dogs—with your head in the air, and your heart in your hand—to be thrown like soldi to these routing swine! Misery, ah, misery!" She flung her head sideways that she should not look at me, and with her hands gripped my shoulders till I winced. She tossed her hair from her face and leapt into the battle again, scolding, rating, praying like a mad thing. Her words came so fast that I cannot attempt their semblance here, and her voice rose and fell in a kind of querulous chant to which sometimes she nodded her head, as if she was beating the time. "Yes, I know, yes, I know—I will tell you the truth for once, and you shall kill Virginia with your own hands, and lay her on your bed and go away and be a fool. Your Jesuit wants your money, and your count your mistress, and Palamone will take you stripped of all and sell you to the Grand Duke. So you will kill your Virginia because she loves you, and love your Aurelia because she does not, and all those others will trick you, and play with you, and suck you dry, and throw you away like the rind of an orange. Ah, now you have the truth, and now you will kill me. Kill, kill, Francis!"
She had a fit of shivering which made her teeth chatter together and her breath draw in with a moaning most piteous to hear. She showed the whites of her eyes, swayed about, was on the point of falling, when all of a sudden she came to herself again, caught me in her arms, pressed her bosom against me, kissed me on the lips—kissed until I felt her teeth—then sprang from me, and before I could stop her was out of the room, and half way downstairs. Half divining her purpose, I flew to get her back, but was too late. I heard the street door open and shut. She was in the Piazza.
My landlord—he was a notary by trade, and by name Ser Torpe—was dismayed to see me in bedgown and slippers. "Never go as you are, sir!" he cried. "Go like an eccellenza, bid them fetch a chair. Light of Light, what a costume for Volterra!" I ran upstairs past him, took down my birding-piece, primed it and went to the window. Virginia was talking to two of the sbrri, putting up her hair as she did so, with complete unconcern of what she displayed. She was in her usual negligent undress— all her class are the same in the mornings—of a loose shift and stuff petticoat. Her bosom was bare, her bare feet were in slippers; for her hair she had but a single pin. It was to be seen that the men viewed her with admiration, as some wanton newly from her bed. They used an easy familiarity not at all pleasant; one of them, who could not take his eyes off her, said nothing, the other put his hand on her waist. I was angry with her, I confess without reason. She disengaged herself. I heard her impatient "No, no! ma senta—"; she continued in rapid undertones.
One of the men looked up at my window, and saw me, gun in hand. He shifted his glance a little higher and affected to be searching the roof of the house. A third man joined his companions; there was much laughing and jesting—no doubt some rough compliments passed. Virginia, however, steered her way to her main purpose through the tangle of confessions, excuses and refusals which they forced upon her; but I suppose she had to give some ground, for presently two of their heads came very close to hers. I saw their eager faces and Virginia's considering look. It was a courtship. She was playing her part, and they believed her to be what she appeared. That applied only to two of the three; the third, he who watched her so closely and said nothing, held apart. He had an ugly look. The others, absorbed in the pursuit, took no notice of him; but I kept my eyes upon him, and was not at all surprised at what followed.
Virginia, after long debate, pretended to yield. Something was proposed to her; she considered it. It was pressed upon her by two ardent voices; she looked awry and laughed. The chase quickened—one of the men took her hand, the other brought a coin from his pocket, spat on it, and pressed it on her. As she hesitated with the money on her palm, the silent watcher of all this whipped out a long knife and drove it into his comrade's back between the shoulders. He groaned deeply, flung his arms out and fell. The fourth man came running over the Piazza from his point, Virginia shrieked and ran back to the house. I saw—as if invisible barriers had been removed—men, women and boys come running in from all side streets. It was like a performance in a theatre.
Virginia, white and shaking, stood in my presence. "It is you they want, Francis, I have heard all. You must go at once—at once."
"What were you doing with the sbirri?" I asked her.
"They made love to me, all three of them; but that dark man meant it, and the others not. It is very fortunate—it will give us time, which we need. Your Count Giraldi is in the country, as I told you he would be. There is no warrant. Come, we will be off. It will be perfectly safe while this confusion lasts. Dress yourself, put on your cloak, take your sword and pistol and come."
"You, too, must be dressed, child."
"I?" said she. "No, I am better as I am. I can be of more use." But she had a wiser thought, it appears; for by the time I was ready, she looked modestly enough.
The plot, if plot it had been, had failed. I got out of the house unnoticed and unfollowed, Virginia with me in a hood. There were soldiers now in the Piazza, keeping back the crowd. The dead man lay there still, and his assailant wore shackles. Boys were racing in and out among the people singing the news which everybody knew. "Martirio d'un pio frate! Assassino per amore! Ohe! Ohe!"
We went down the Via Belle Donne and crossed a small Piazza, taking our way, said Virginia, to the Ghetto, where she thought we might be perfectly safe for the rest of the day. There were so many hunted men there, said she, that in the confusion some must needs get away. The curtains were drawn over the barbers' shops, all doors were shut—it was the hour of repose. A few beggars sat in converse on the steps of San Michele, many were asleep in the shade, there were no passengers, no sbirri to be seen until we reached the Via Campidoglio. Here Virginia drew me back into the shadow of a great house. "That way is stopped. They are watching the market. Come, we will try something else." I admired her resourceful audacity, and followed whither she chose to lead.
We ran up the Via Vecchietta without disturbance or alarm, and reached the church of San Lorenzo. We entered the cloister, which breathed the full summer, late as it was in the year. Bees hummed about the tree; the glossy leaves of the great magnolia seemed to radiate heat and glitter; above us the sky was of almost midsummer whiteness, and I could see the heat-waves flicker above the dome. "You shall hide in the Sagrestia to- night, if you will be ruled by me," Virginia said. "To-morrow morning before first Mass we will gain the Ghetto. I know a woman there who will keep us. My word, Don Francis, you little guess how near the Bargello you have been!"
I think she was eager for my praises, poor soul, by the shy light in her eyes—a kind of preparation for the blushes with which she always met any warmth in my tone. If I gave her none it was because she had displeased me by cheapening herself to the sbirri. But I was soon ashamed of myself.
I asked her, "When did you find out that the sbirri were waiting for me?"
"The second hour of the day, it was," she replied, "when I went out to buy milk for your chocolate. There were but two of them then. They asked me if you were in the house. I said no. They said that you had killed a frate, and I, that I was sure he had deserved it. One of them laughed and said that had nothing to do with it; he had been sent there to be killed. The other one, that black-browed fellow who stabbed his comrade, said nothing at all, but just looked at me hard. He never took his eyes away once, so I guessed how his barque was steering, and you saw what wind I blew."
"I saw it, Virginia."
"And disapproved! Per esempio, you disapproved!" Tears filled her eyes. She shrugged her shoulders, pitying herself. "Povera Virginia!" she said.
This made me ashamed enough to say, "Dear Virginia, I know that you acted for my safety."
"Yes, I did! Yes, I did! But I would do worse. Ah, you little know how bad I would make myself. And you reproach me—" She was on the edge of a frenzy, but checked herself. "What does it matter now that you are safe? We will stop in the Sagrestia all night. They will never look for you there."
"But, my dear," said I, "we have three hours to wait before the Sagrestia is opened. Do you ask me to stay here, in this cloister, for that time?"
She looked embarrassed, for the truth is that she would have asked me if I had not spoken of it. She had forgotten that I was not of her nation. "No, no," she said hastily, "that is ridiculous. How could I ask you to do such a thing as that? The question!"
"I am glad of it," I returned, "because there I can't oblige you. I must break my fast, so must you. By the time we have done, the Sagrestia may be ready for us. Observe also that in spending the night in that place I am obliging you, for I don't at all see why we should do it."
She searched my face with those grey eyes of hers, hunting my raillery out. The thing above all which she dreaded was to be laughed at. She never laughed herself, except bitterly, in anger, and hated the indulgence. Suspecting still what she failed to find, she fell in with my desire to eat, though she must have thought it preposterous, and me a madman to have it. She could never understand my attachment to custom, and never think of more than one thing at a time. Just now she was engaged in hiding me from justice—to succeed in which task she would have sat still for an eternity and gone without a thousand meals. What an outcry she must have had ready for me—and how she must have loved her hard taskmaster! She did violence to all her feelings, fell in with my desire at once.
"Naturally, Don Francis, you must eat. Naturally, I must eat. Naturally, by the time we have finished, the Sagrestia will be open. Very good, Don Francis. But as to spending the night in the Sagrestia, shall I be impertinent if I tell you that by this time there is not a locanda in Florence that has not got a full and exact description of you and me, and not a landlord among them that would not hand you over for two baiocchi?"
"How do you know that, my dear?" I asked.
She stretched out her arms. "How do I know? Hear him! How do I know that my mother is a woman and my father a man? Dio buono! Have I lived in my sty with my eyes shut? And herded with thieves, and taken them for marchesi? But you shall be fed, Don Francis. Leave that to me. Do you stay here quietly, I will get you some food."
I said that I must come with her, whereupon she began to cry bitterly, to call me heartless and cruel, to pity herself in the most deplorable terms. She nursed and fondled herself by name. "Povera Virginia! Poor little Virginia, that works so hard for her tyrant and gives herself no rest. But he is cruel—more cruel than if he beat her—stabs her heart with cold words, rends it with sharp fingers. Poor little Virginia, poor little outcast from the Madonna!"
I have not a heart of stone: I confess that her distress made me dreadfully ashamed. This good soul, whose only happiness lay in mine, who had trusted her all in all to me without flinching, whose life was now at my disposal as her honour had been for so long. Unworthy of the name of man had I been if I could wound her so lightly. I put my arm round her waist and drew her towards me with tenderness. I took her hands from her face and implored her forgiveness. I promised to offend her no more, to stay in the cloister until she came, to sleep in the Sagrestia, to do all her behests. In answer, the sun came out in her face. She listened to me with soft rapture, beautiful to see, and before I had done, the dear, generous creature snatched at my hand, and, kneeling, kissed it with a frenzy of devotion which brought the tears to my eyes. Immediately afterwards she was gone on her errand of mercy, leaving me in a glow of truly honest gratitude, which was to have its speedy fruit in an act which, though it fell short of my intention, was to prove for my ultimate content.