Belviso set off early in the morning with his monstrous old wife of the occasion. He embraced me warmly before he left me. "Keep a good heart, Don Francis," he said, "and trust in your friends. All that is possible shall be done, you may be sure. I shan't dare to look you in the face if I come back without your Virginia."
TEMPTED IN SIENA, BELVISO SAVES ME
The company, of which I was now enrolled a member, moved on towards Siena, that city for which—as Aurelia's cradle—I had a feeling of profound reverence; towards which now, in spite of all that had occurred, I could not approach without a quickening of the pulse, an aching heart, and a longing mind. We travelled with a large caravan of donkeys and mules to carry the baggage and women—La Panormita, her gross old mother, and two hags, who called themselves the mothers, and were really the owners, of the boys. The rest of us, the men and the boys themselves, trudged afoot. We begged, jigged, or bullied for food as we went, having scarcely any money among us; for just now, after a disastrous week in Florence, the company was by way of starving until it could earn some pence-halfpence in Siena. The first night we slept in a rick-yard—a bitter wet night it was; the next, we reached Certaldo, and cajoled the landlord of the Ghirlanda out of house-room. This he only consented to upon the condition of our giving free entertainment then and there to his customers. We had been all day on the road; but what choice is open to the needy traveller? Footsore, muddy to the eyes, hungry, thirsty as we were—our clothes of the stage sodden with rain, our finery like wet weeds, our face-powder like mud and our paints like soup—we must perforce open our packs, don our chill motley, daub our weary faces, and caper through some piece of tomfoolery which, if it had not been so insipid, would have been grotesquely indecent. All I remember about it now is that it was called La Nuova Lucrezia ossia La Gatteria del Spropositi, a monstrous travesty of the story of Lucrece. One of the castrati—Pamfilo by name—played the part of Lisetta, "una putta di undici anni," and exhibited the most remarkable turn of satirical observation and humour I have ever seen before or since. Horrible in a manner as it was, it would have redeemed any performance. This demon of ingenuity and wit was little more than fourteen years old, and sang like an angel of Paradise. Another of them was the Lucrezia, the Roman matron—put into the short skirts, spangles, and mischievous peering glances of Colombina. Belviso would have sustained it had he been present. Adone, his understudy, took his place. My own share in the mummery was humble and confusing. In toga and cothurnus I had to read a pompous prologue, and did it amid shouts of "Basta! basta!" from the audience. I don't believe that I was more thankful than they were when I had done. The less I say about the rest of the evening and night the better. The people of Certaldo more than maintain the popular reputation of their great townsman, Boccaccio. They are as light-hearted, as impertinent, as amorous as he; and they diverted themselves with our company in a manner which did credit to his example. Such things, I hope I may say, were very little to my taste; but it was necessary for me not to seem singular, and I fancy that I did not.
After a similar night's entertainment at Poggibonsi we set out, intending to be at Siena that same night. I need hardly say that the so near prospect filled me with various and contending emotions. I might hope, in the first place, to find Belviso there, returned with Virginia, my faithful and tender wife. To know her safe, to have her by my side, to be conscious, as I could not fail to be, of her deep and ardent love for me testified in every glance of her eyes—such could not fail to be a satisfaction to any honest, any sensible man. Such, too, I hope they were. But I must needs confess that not this confident expectation (for confident I was of Belviso's success) alone moved me and elated me at the moment. No, it is the truth that, the nearer I came to Siena, the more I realised the abiding influence of Aurelia upon my heart and conscience. I could not but tremble at the thought that in so few hours I should be treading the actual earth which her feet had lightly pressed during the years when she must have been at her happiest, and if not also at her loveliest—since when was she not at that?—assuredly at her purest and most radiant hour; before she had been sullied by the doctor's possessory rights, before she had been hurt by my dastardly advances. This, then, this it was which really affected me, to feel like some pilgrim of old, to Loreto, may be, or Compostella, to Walsingham, to Rome—nay, to the very bourne and goal of every Christian's desire, Jerusalem, the Holy City, itself—to feel, I say, singularly uplifted, singularly set apart and dedicated to the privilege which was now at last to be mine. From the moment of departure from Poggibonsi to that moment when I saw, upon a background of pure green sky, the spear-like shafts, the rose-coloured walls and churches of Siena, I kept my eyes steadily towards my Mecca, speaking very little, taking no heed of the manner of our progress. I had other sights than those to occupy me. I saw hedge-flowers which Aurelia might have plucked, shade where she might have rested, orchards where she might have tasted fruit, wells which might have cooled her feet. Some miles before I was in actual sight of my desired haven I was in a thrill and tension of expectancy, wrought upon me by these hopeful auguries, which I cannot describe. I was in a perpetual tremble, my lips were dry. We passed Castiglioncello; we rested for noonday at Monteriggione; at Castello del Diavolo, in full sight of all men, I kissed the stony road. In my own country, I know very well, I should have been hooted as a madman, but here, where a man does what nature, or something higher, prompts him without shame or circumspection, I was never molested. My companions were undoubtedly curious. Pamfilo said that I was going to meet my amica at Siena; La Panormita supposed that I regretted some bouncing girl of Certaldo. But I was soaring now to such a height that I cared nothing. We entered the Porta Camollia at half-past five o'clock in the evening, and trailed up the steep Via di Citta, between houses like solemn cliffs, and in the midst of a throng which, in the dusk of that narrow pass, seemed like dense clouds, lit up by innumerable moons, to our lodging at an inn called Le Tre Donzelle. These moons I found out were the wide straw hats of the lovely daughters of Siena, sisters of Aurelia, companions of her maiden hours! It made my heart jump into my throat to see in the doorway of the inn a girl of her own tender and buoyant shape, to hear her very tones, with that caressing fall which never failed to move me, and to see the quick turn of a crowned head exactly in her own manner. Before many hours were over I found myself stabbed more or less vividly by every young woman I met. There was no escaping from Aurelia in Aurelia's own city.
Indifferent alike to the orgies of my companions or to their reproaches of me for not sharing them, I spent a solitary, wakeful night in great exaltation of mind; with the first ray of dawn I was out and about, gaining in entire loneliness my first view of the sacred city. I stood, awestruck and breathless, under the star-strewn roof of the great church; I knelt where Aurelia's knees must have kissed the storied pavement. I walked in the vast Campo, which has been called, and justly called, the finest piazza in Europe; wondered over the towered palace of the ancient Commune; prayed at the altar of St. Catherine. Prepared then by prayer and meditation, I made solemn and punctilious visits to what I must call the holy places of Aurelia's nation: the Madonna del Bordone, the Madonna delle Grazie, and the Madonna called of Provenzano. Before each of these ladies—mournful, helpful, heaven-conversing deities—I prayed devoutly, on my knees. I anointed the feet of each with my tears, I offered up to each the incense of a sigh from my overcharged heart. From the last and most gracious of the three ladies I received what seems to have been a remarkable counsel.
I fell into conversation with the sacristan of her church—Santa Maria di Provenzano is its name—who told me the tale of this wonder-working image, a mutilated bust of the Holy Virgin, veiled and crowned. He said that his Madonna was kind to all the unfortunate world, and famous all over it, but that to the most unfortunate of all she was mother and friend. "And whom do you call the most unfortunate of all?" I asked him.
He looked at me as he uttered these curious words. "The most unfortunate of all, sir," he said, "are they that have to pretend to love when they do not feel it. And theirs is the class of which our Madonna is the patroness."
Padrona degli Sventurati, Helper and Friend of those who must serve Love without loving! What a Goddess was this! I drew apart from my informant and communed alone with the mysterious Emblem. "O most tender Advocate of them that need Thee," said I, "O loving Mother of Sinners! Clean Champion of the unclean, Stem, Leaf, Blossom and Fruit of the abounding promise of Heaven that a seed of hope may fructify in our ineffable corruption! cast down Thy compassionate eyes upon me too, that in their light I may strive again."
This was my prayer, a general one for grace rather than a particular for some specific grace. Now for what I consider to have been a direct answer to it. On the steps of the church, on going out, I saw Belviso waiting for me. I saw that he was alone—and that at once brought before my mind the picture of Virginia, the brave and passionate dark-browed girl, my stormy lover and my wife; whom I, alas, was hired by gratitude and the sacrament to love, though love her as I ought I did not. I stood speechless and thunderstruck. Here now, sinner, is the answer to thy prayer! Art not thou, poor Francis, one of Love's hirelings? Dost not thou need the Padrona degli Sventurati? I asked myself these questions; Belviso would answer them for me.
He told me how he had sped. He had been to Lucca and seen Teresa, Gioiachino's wife. Gioiachino, poor fellow, was in prison, but not for long, it was thought. Virginia was gone, but Aquamorta remained in the city. My poor girl had left a note for me with Teresa, which Teresa handed on to Belviso and he to me—to this effect. I read it with tears:
"MASTER, LORD, AND EXCELLENT HUSBAND," it began—("Padrone, Signor, ed egregio marito mio")—"Thy child is unhappy, but having learned from thee how necessary it is to regard her own honour, is resolved to fly danger rather than brave it. I have gone to Arezzo with all thy money safe in my bosom, to put the breadth of Tuscany between me and my persecutor. Make thy affairs as thou wilt, thou art free of Virginia, who will never blame thee. If thou need her or what she hath of thine, thou wilt find her at Arezzo, an honest woman,
"Who kisses thy hands,
Without a word of explanation I returned to the church and held up my letter before the veiled image of the Madonna of Provenzano. "Here, lady, is my duty," I said, "here is my hire. The lowliest of thy clients, I will never shirk the yoke put upon me. Yet do Thou, Patroness, make it sweet!" I kissed the letter and put it in my bosom; then I went back to Belviso, embraced him, thanked him for his extraordinary pains on my behalf, and said that as soon as possible after the forthcoming performances of the company I should go to Arezzo. He sighed and looked unhappy. "I knew that you would leave us," he said; "it was only to be expected."
"Yes, yes, Belviso," said I, "I must indeed rejoin Virginia. I see very well that she is my only means of redemption."
"And what is to become of me, Don Francis?" says he suddenly, catching hold of my hand and staying me in the street. "What is to become of me without you, who are in turn MY only means of redemption?"
I said, "My poor youth, you are putting upon me more than I can bear—or rather you are putting a fresh weight upon Virginia. If by her I can be redeemed, and by me only you can be redeemed, then that untried girl is charged with the redemption of both of us—a singular tax for one whose redemption was originally my own care."
He agreed with me that the position was unusual, but affirmed with energy that he had truly stated it so far as he was concerned. "I owe you, sir," he said, "the dearest thing a lad can possess, which is his self-respect restored, his courage reborn. In the light of your approbation I can face even my miserable trade and hope to grow up as I should. If you cast me off I am undone——"after which, as I made no immediate reply, with a pretty gesture, as of a girl wheedling for a favour, he touched my cheek with his hand and begged me to take him with me to Arezzo. I told him I would consider of it; but made no promise.
MY UNREHEARSED EFFECT AND ITS MIDNIGHT SEQUEL
I do not know whether any other man in the world has been so unfortunate as I in making resolutions and finding opportunities to break them, but I am persuaded none can have made more abundant use of his occasions. My only consolation is that my performances have been exemplary, since punishment has ever followed hot-foot upon the offence.
Let it be observed that on the eve of my public appearance upon the scene in Siena with the rest of the company, I was resolved, and had fortified myself with a solemn vow to the Madonna of Provenzano, to return to Virginia's side and act, if I did not feel, the part of her faithful and assiduous husband. Never mind whether I believed this to be due to Aurelia, and that it was the strongest testimony I could give her of my love—this did not, in my opinion, make me disloyal to my wife, because the very act of pleasing her involved the putting out of mind that dear mistress of my heart. My resolution was indeed my final offering at the shrine of mystical love; it was to be an act comparable with Dante's—who, loving Beatrice, married Germma Donati, and proved the reality of his tie by making her the mother of many children. It will readily be believed, I suppose, that so fine a proposition made me enthusiastic, that I was impatient for the moment when I could put it into practice, recover Virginia, press her to my bosom and cherish her as so beautiful and loving a girl deserved to be cherished; but it must be almost incredible to every reader of my book that in one moment I could not only quench my own fire, but make it impossible to light it again. This, however, is the plain state of the case.
In honour of the Grand Duke's birthday a great many festivities were preparing in Siena. The city was full of visitors, for a Palio was to be run in the Campo, the Cardinal Archbishop of Florence was to celebrate pontifically in the cathedral, and our company of actors—not because it was the best, but as being the only one available—was commanded to perform in the theatre before the Podesta, the Gonfalonier and Senate, and all the representatives of Government, of the university, and of the garrison. The whole of the boxes was bespoken, and our manager was given to understand that his expenses for this night were guaranteed. As we had so far had very indifferent houses, it may be gathered that he looked upon this as the occasion of his lifetime. We were put into vigorous rehearsal, and worked most of the day, besides playing at night. We were to give the Artaserse, a tragedy of extreme length and magniloquence, and conclude with the Donne Furlane.
The night arrived; the theatre was full from parterre to gallery; the boxes presented a truly brilliant spectacle. The curtain went up, and the play began.
I shall only say of Artaserse that La Panormita was the Aspasia of the piece, and Belviso the Berenice, her foster-sister and companion. My role was that of the Messenger, and only gave me one long speech, recounting the miraculous preservation of Artaspe and Spiridate, sons of King Artaserse and lovers of the two ladies; the treachery, discovery, and violent end of Dario—in fact, the untying of the knot firmly twisted in the third act. The audience paid visits, talked, laughed, played faro, so far as I could learn, throughout the play. Nor do I wonder at it, for not the finest acting in the world could have galvanised into life any one link of its dreary chain. When the curtain was raised; however, upon the second piece, there was a perceptible settling down to listen, behold, and be amused. Tragedy was the fashion, and must be endured, but all the Italians loved the masks.
The Donne Furlane was the piece, a comedy of art as they call it here— or, as we say, a comedy of masks—wherein the stock characters of Harlequin, Columbine, Brighella and Pantalone are given a rag of a plot, and are expected to embroider that with follies, drolleries and obscenities according as their humour of the moment may dictate. The persons who give the title to this particular farce—the Donne Furlane— are the lowest class of Venetian women, and their ceremonious name implies what we in England imply when we speak of the nymphs of Drury Lane or the sirens of Radcliffe Highway, calling them, in fact, exactly what they are not. According to the plot of the play, Pantalone is an old merchant of Rimini who arrives in Venice with his family. Colombina is his daughter, and was played, of course, by Belviso; Arlecchino and Brighella are his simpleton sons—they were the manager and myself. Il Nanno was Punchinello, his Neapolitan servant, Il Dottore his travelling physician. They come ashore in the quarter of the Furlani, and all the zest of the play lies in the equivoque which contrasts the knavery of the inhabitants with the naivete of the visitors. Pantalone's family is fair game. A bully called Truffaldino poses as a marchese and wins the affections of Colombina; Brighella is entrapped by a Donna Furlana into a promise of marriage; the Dottore finds himself engaged to cure half a dozen of the same sort of ladies of the maladies incident to their career; finally, Pantalone is claimed as their long-lost uncle, who was supposed to have abandoned them in their days of infant orphanage. Such promise of diversion as this imbroglio had, it was rendered still more to the taste of the audience by the license which the actors allowed themselves. Belviso was perfection as the simple country girl; one could hardly credit a lad of his age with such niceness of observation, such humorous yet whimsical representation of an honest, foolish young woman flattered by the attention of a villain. His "La la," his "Sissioria," and "'Lustrissimo, si!" which marked so well the growth of self-esteem; his finger in the mouth, his twisting apron-corner, which betrayed embarrassment when the siege was too vigorous; his "Io non so gniente," when sheepishness was the only defence—here was the highest art of the stage. I, as Brighella his brother, aped him as well as I could. I was a clown, tickled by, yet pondering, the hardy advances of a baggage, who, in the expert person of Pamfilo, was only too well performed. If it was my business to look a fool, God knows I played better than any. The audience stormed us with delight, and I do believe I was having my share of the triumph, and might have been emboldened by success to have deserved it, had not all my sham tremors been shent—in one moment—by a shaft most real and memorable, whose fatal delivery I must now relate.
We had reached a point in our absurdity where, by the direction of Il Nanno, who had a sure dramatic sense, a little touch of tragic meaning was to be brought into the action. The play was suddenly to deepen into seriousness; the masqueraders were to be discovered—momentarily—for men and women, with hearts to be broke and souls to be tortured. I believe it was I who gave him the hint; for he had said to me one day at rehearsal, "Don Francis, you have tragedy in your face, a mouth of pure sorrow. That is a valuable asset for our business." May be that he had thought to use me at my best when he suffered this little shiver of serious surmise to be blown across the painted scene. The worthy little monster was pardonably proud of his conception, and explained it to me point by point. Touchy as his infirmities had left him, his vanity of author made him as tender as a green wound. He set all his hopes upon his invention; rightly rendered, he said, the whole theatre would be moved by it. It should be received with a moment of absolute silence, a sixty-seconds' silence; then, with one consent, the audience would rise en masse and cheer the actor—myself—and the poet—himself. Admiring the thought, feeling the force of it, I promised him that he might depend upon me.
His point was this. At a certain stage in the play, Brighella, the country clown, observes his pretended inamorata, the sham contessa, in the embrace of the pretended marchese, Truffaldino, who by his lies and flatteries has ensnared the heart of Colombina. Now Colombina is the beloved sister of Brighella; and the doubt is to dawn upon him that possibly his wonderful contessa and his sister's imposing marchese are no better than they should be. Why is she in the arms of the marchese? Are these perhaps the customs of the world of fashion? Punchinello, the family servant, suggests that the marchese and contessa may be brother and sister. "O Dio, no!" cries poor Brighella. "I know what brothers and sisters do. I love Colombina and she me, but we don't kiss and hug in a corner. That is what the contessa taught me to do—I thought it very beautiful. It was our secret, do you see? But she seems to have taught the marchese—and it is a secret no more, and not beautiful at all." He begins to wonder to himself, and grows suddenly homesick under disenchantment. He has many artless, touching things to say concerning his happiness with his sister in his own country, there far away on the lonely Adriatic shore.
I was doing my best with the part; Il Nanno, as Punchinello, was at my side watching and moving every turn of the dialogue; in the back of the scene were Truffaldino and the Furlana at their kissing. The audience, quick to feel the pathos, was very quiet, and gave me courage.
"Go to your mistress, Brighella," says Punchinello; "reproach her, pull her away."
"No, no," say I, "that would not be honourable. That would show that I doubted her. That would be an insult to her ladyship, and no comfort to me."
There was a murmur of applause, low but audible, and that stir which I know is more enheartening to the player than all the bravas in the world; but just then, as if directed by some inward motion, my eyes wandered about the auditorium, and (as happens but rarely), I saw faces there. In a box on the grand tier I saw Aurelia herself in a yellow silk gown and a hood of the same, half fallen from her dark hair. There she sat, as if absorbing the light—Aurelia, and no other, in a gallant company. She was smiling, interested, eager. Her lips were parted; I saw her little teeth; I saw the rise and fall of her white breast. Starting violently, a sharp intense pain pierced my heart. I shut my eyes and tried to recall myself, while the theatre was hushed, like death. I felt myself swaying about, and to save myself from falling, stretched out my hand for some support. Unfortunately I found it; for I caught and held the bony ridge of the nose of Il Nanno, which was just on the level of my elbow, and drove my fingers into it until he yelled with pain. Risu solvuntur! The audience rose at us in wild delight—but I, in my horror and concern, knew nothing but that here was I, a poor fool in motley, and there, at some few paces from me, radiant as a star in the firmament, was the adorable being under whose maddening rays I had fallen, as struck by the sun. I gave one short cry, and fell on my knees. "Pardon, pardon, queen of my soul!" I began, when Il Nanno, beside himself with mortification, sprang at me like a wild beast and gripped my throat. Had not the contessa and Truffaldino pulled him off me, I should have been strangled. The audience hushed, the curtain fell. I knew no more until I found myself lying on my strand paillasse at the inn and saw Belviso, yet in his skirt and spangles, leaning over me with vinegar in a sponge.
Refusing me leave to talk, he told me that he had done his best to pacify the dwarf, and hoped he had succeeded. The audience had been entirely misled. They had believed this ending to have been devised for their entertainment, and had completely approved of it. Our manager had been sent for by the Syndic, congratulated and rewarded by a handsome present. The piece was to be repeated next evening, and, for the sake of that, it was even promised that the public would sit through the Artaserse again. Higher testimony, said Belviso, could not have been given to Aristarcho as author, or to me as his exponent. Far from being in disgrace, I was the hero of Siena. The Piazza, the cafes were alive with my performance, my stage name of Francesco de' Pazzi was in everybody's mouth. I murmured the name of Aurelia, but Belviso had no notion of that part of my story, and begged me to sleep. So, after a time, I think I did—and he also.
At some later hour of the night, which must have been near the edge of dawn, Belviso woke me by springing off his bed and going to the door. Presently I heard voices downstairs, stern, short, official voices, and the hasty whispers of two or three answering at once. What was this? Steps resounded on the stair, a chink in the door revealed a light growing in brightness. We were broken in upon where we crouched in alarm; and I saw a Corporal of the Guard, two or three troopers, the scared faces of some of our companions.
The corporal held up his candle to look at me. Our colloquy was very brief.
"You are Francis Strelley, an Englishman?"
"You killed a Capuchin in Florence and fled to Lucca?"
"You were chastised, and expelled the Republic?"
"You are my prisoner, in the Grand Duke's name. Get up, dress yourself and follow me."
Il Nanno had betrayed me, or some other more inveterate enemy. I rose, put on my shoes and a cloak, and told the officer I was ready. As I was tying my shoe, Belviso whispered in my ear, "Courage, I follow." He bade me a mock farewell, with tears and embraces, and I went out a prisoner.
I understood that I was to be taken at once to the Fortress of Volterra. Now, indeed, this famous, infamous prison was to have me and bury me alive.
I COMMIT A DOUBLE MURDER
Francis Antony Strelley, Tennis-ball of Fate, should be inscribed upon my tomb, unless like the wandering Jew I were not destined to have any other than that restless globe upon whose shelving surfaces I was for ever to slip and slide. Here was I once more buffeted on to the road; and yet I could not fairly pretend that there was no fault of mine concerned in the stroke. O, fatal dower of beauty that was thine, Aurelia! Could I say that, had I maintained my firm resolve of a few days' date, and fixed my heart and inclination where they were due— towards the loving bosom and welcoming arms of my Virginia—this new shame had come upon me? Alas, what malign influence drew thee, lady, to Siena, to rekindle my flame, to melt my conjugal desires, to betray me into the old passion, to draw me into the old despair? Thus I bitterly questioned myself as, guarded on either hand by mounted men, I descended the silent street on the way to what I must needs consider perpetual imprisonment.
Going out of the Porta Romana, where we were obliged to wait in the cold drizzle of a cheerless dawn for the porter to open the gate, a deeply veiled, respectably dressed young woman asked the favour of our escort from the corporal, and received it, probably on account of her good looks, which should be extraordinary. She was going, she said, to join her husband at Volterra, and feared the brigands who were notoriously rife in that country. The corporal offered to take her pillion behind him. "Willingly, sir," she said, and was lifted up by the troopers. As we went out of the gate she raised her veil to use her handkerchief and to look at me. In a moment I saw that it was my brave and affectionate Belviso, and was no little comforted by the thought that here, at any rate, was one heart in Siena generously inclined to mine.
We baited at Colle, and rested there two or three hours; from thence we mounted a very steep hill and reached a country of abounding desolation and misery, where bare grey hills alternated with dense thickets, and were told that there was not a human habitation for the rest of the journey to Volterra. Our guards saw to the priming of their muskets before they started from Colle, and kept a sharp lookout on all sides of the way. We met nothing, however, threatening or otherwise, for nearly half our journey, but somewhere about four o'clock of the afternoon, when we were traversing a barren moor, the corporal gave a sharp cry and reined up his horse. Before I knew what he was about a pistol had been placed in my hands, and he said, "Every man for himself now. You are free, sir."
"How—free?" I asked him.
His reply was to point ahead of us. "Brigands," he said, "and the Kingdom of Heaven in view."
The troopers got off their horses, lashed them by the bridles, head to head, and stood behind them with their muskets pointed the way the enemy was coming. They were upon us almost before I had seen anything but a cloud of whirling dust. They came on at a furious pace, yelling and discharging their arms, and made short work of our defenses. The three soldiers were killed and rifled. I and Belviso had our hands tied, were strapped on to horses, put in the midst of the band, who were all masked, and carried off at a terrible rate across the open country. We went down a mountain side, crossed a torrent and crashed into a thick belt of woodland which lay beyond it. In the midst of this a ruined chapel or hermitage seemed to serve our captors for a camp; for here they drew rein and disposed of us, their booty. My feet were bound, as my hands already had been, and I was thrown thus helpless on my face on one side; the miserable Belviso, whose disguise and beauty made him appear what he had so unhappily pretended to be, had his hands tied behind him, but his ankles left free. Him they placed on the other side of the ruin at some distance from me. They had made no effort to search me, my wretched rags of a clown of the theatre being my protection, and by that means only I was able to keep the pistol given me by the corporal. Mercifully I had not used it yet, for when the attack was made I saw that I had better make no defence if I wished to save my life; and I could not see that I had any good reason for risking it on behalf of the soldiers. I suppose it must have been evident that I was a prisoner, and that it would be better worth their while to keep and sell me as a slave than to blow my brains out. It was only too clear what they intended to do with my poor friend.
The brigands, so soon as they were rid of us, set to work preparing a meal for themselves. They lit a fire in the chapel, filled a cauldron, fed and watered their horses. Very soon they were all about the pot, eating and drinking like wild beasts; and when the meat was done they went on with the wine and brandy which they had in abundance, played cards and dice, quarrelled or caroused far into the night. It was densely dark, save for the chance flames of the fire, when I heard them all wrangling together and had some hopes of a fight which might turn to our advantage. But whatever was the subject of their disputations, their fury died down into grumbling. They had decided on drawing lots for possession of us, as I now understand—but some were too drunk to take a part, and some too indifferent. It came down to three who went on with the contest, while three fell asleep and snored through all the noise.
I saw the whole affair: how three billets were put into an empty crock and one was drawn out. The man who drew it had won me, I could tell, because when he had shown his paper to the others, he came over to where I was and touched me with his foot to learn whether I was safe. I shammed sleep, and never moved; so presently he lay down by the side of me and himself slept. Meantime another, of the remaining two, had drawn Belviso and had gone towards his victim. I saw the loser creep after him, and lost sight of both in the dark; but then, after a horrible pause, I heard my wretched friend begin to cry for mercy, to confess the truth, to pray to God, to shriek in a way I shuddered to hear. The ruffian at my side, like his companions by the fire, slept through all, and this dared me to what sounds like an act of madness. With a temerity born of my anguish on Belviso's account, I rolled over and over until I was close to the fire. There, I thrust my ankles into the flames, regardless of the excruciating pain, and burnt away the cord that tied me. I served my hands in the same way, and springing up, crept swiftly to where I heard the crying lad and the scuffling. By what light the fire afforded I saw that the two men were fighting for possession. One was full length on the ground, the other crouched over him and upon him with a knife in his teeth, but so intent upon his murderous design that he had no eyes for me. I came quite close, made a sudden snap at the knife, and plunged it with all my force into the neck of the topmost. It drove right through him and pierced his victim; I think they must have died at once, for except for one horrible gasping snort I heard nothing. At the moment I felt myself caught by the ankle and heard, "Francis, Francis, it is I." I pulled Belviso to his feet, cut the cord at the wrist and plunged forward into the black of the wood, running downhill, as near as I could judge, towards where I knew the brook was. We were pursued, but in a darkness so impenetrable the chances were in our favour, and we were never within a quarter-mile of being caught. We gained the river side. "Jump!" I cried, and dragged Belviso in after me. We could just bottom it. There we stayed, under a shelving bank, up to our necks in cold water until the day began to break—not daring to move lest we should happen upon our enemies, our teeth chattering together, in a state of semi-death. How we endured it I don't know; but life is sweet to young men.
Looking about with great caution, I could see nothing nor hear anything of the brigands. We crossed the river and ran as fast as we could— Belviso in dripping weeds and myself in my wet rags of the comedy. By very good luck he had had some four lire in the pocket of his gown.
When we had recovered something of blood and heart by our running, I told Belviso to keep himself snug in some bushes while I went marketing with his four lire. I had seen some herdboys on the hill and was determined to supply him with clothes proper to his sex. I went up to the boys and offered a lire for a pair of breeches. Half a dozen pairs were off and under my nose before I had done speaking. I chose two pair, begged a hunch of bread into the bargain, and made them happy as kings with three lire. I asked them my whereabouts and learned that I was four leagues from Volterra and seven from Pomarance. I was south of Volterra, south-west of Siena, but Pomarance was on my road to Arezzo. To Pomarance, therefore, so soon as we were clothed in the one indispensable garment of manhood, we determined to go.
To reach our haven it was necessary to cross one of the main lines of communication with Siena, that from Florence, namely, by the Val d'Elsa, or that from Rome by San Quirico and the Val d'Orcia. We agreed that the latter was the safer for us as being further from the seat of Government, though much the more difficult. The country was mountainous and thinly populated. If we ran in no danger of robbery—as how should we, who had nothing but rags and empty stomachs about us?—we might easily starve, or keep the beasts from starvation. There were wolves in these hills, and dogs, turned rogue, which were as bad or worse. All this, however, we were ready to face so soon as we had eaten bread, washed ourselves at a well by the roadside, and commended ourselves to God. "Come, brother," I said, "our fortunes must needs mend since they can never be more broken. In this world there is no stay, but a thing gets better or worse. I believe we may be happy yet."
"Brother," replied Belviso, "I am sure of it, and I promise you I have never looked forward to happiness before. This well in which I have washed myself is lustral water. I have fouled it with the vile thing I was once. In return it has made a new creature of me, thanks to God and you."
"Bravo," said I, "and now, Avanti!"
"Pronti," says Belviso, and we struck east along a fine grassy valley where the trees were in the full glory of early summer. I was full of hope, which I could neither explain nor justify, and though I did not know it then I had some grounds to be so. I shall not inflict upon the reader the vicissitudes of our wearisome journey of three weeks over the sharp-ridged valleys of lower Tuscany. We sometimes begged, sometimes worked for the bread we ate and the sheds in which we slept. We were tanned to the colour of walnuts, healthy as young cattle, merry as larks in the sky. We gave each other our full confidence, or so I believed. At any rate I kept nothing from my friend. He was more reticent. "The past is past," he used to say. "My safety is only in the future; let me talk to you of that." And so he did. A friendship was sealed between us which no difference of race, degree or age could ever break in upon; we loved each other tenderly, we were as brothers. Belviso was at one and the same time the most affectionate, the shrewdest, and the most candid boy that ever was conceived in sin and nurtured in vice. No shameful dealing had left a mark upon him, he was fine gold throughout. But so I have found it always in this dear country of my adoption, that it takes prosperity, never misery, to corrupt its native simplicity. The lower you descend in the scale of human attainment the greater the hopes you may conceive of what humanity may be permitted to attain. The poor drab, the world's hire for the price of a rush-light, the lurking thief, the beggar at the church door, the naked urchin of the gutter—these, though they live with swine and are of them, have the souls of children new and clean from God. Neither malice nor forethought of evil, nor craft, nor hatred, nor clamour, nor the great and crowning sin is in their hearts. A kind word, a touch, a kiss redeems them. Thus they, whom the tyrants of Italy have enslaved, are in truth the very marrow of Italy, without whom she would never have done anything in this world. And the sorrowful verity is that slaves they must remain if Italy is to live on. For prosperity, which fattens their bodies, chokes and poisons their souls.
AN UNEXPECTED MESSENGER LIFTS ME UP
Destitute as we were of anything but the sinews of our backs and arms, we were forced, if we would live, to work our way to Arezzo; and it often fell out that the piece-work we engaged to do kept us long in one place. Near Sinalunga, in particular, in a green pastoral country, we hired ourselves out to a peasant to hoe his vines, and were busy there for nearly three weeks. I cannot say that I was discontented; indeed, I have always found that the harder my labour is and the straiter my lot, the less room I have for discontent. With this peasant, his family, his pigs, hens and goats, Belviso and I lived, in a hovel which, had it not been roofed over, might have been a cote or a pigsty. The man's name was Masuccio, his wife's Gioconda; between them they had a brood of nine children—a grown daughter of fourteen, three stout lads, four brats, and a child not breeched; and in addition to all these, and to Belviso and myself, to a sow in farrow, four goats, and hens innumerable, the good man's father was posed as veritable master of the whole—an old man afflicted with palsy, who did nothing but shake and suck at his pipe, but who, nevertheless, had, by virtue of his years and situation, the only semblance of a bed, the first of everything, and the best and the most of that. The rest of us, higgledy-piggledy, lay by night on the mud-floor, with a little pease-straw for litter, and scrambled all together for the remnants of the old tyrant's food. Yet nobody questioned his absolute right, and nobody seemed unhappy, nor looked out at any prospect but unremitting, barely remunerative labour from year's end to year's end. This is, I am now convinced, the true philosophy of life—that labour is a man's only riches, and food, shelter, rest, and the satisfaction of appetite his means whereby to grow rich. In other walks of life the practice is reversed, and labour is looked upon as the means, appetite and comfort as the end. Inconceivable folly! since labour alone brings health, and health content. But I must relate how I was cozened out of my own healthy contentment.
One day, when I was afield in the vines not far from the high road which ran from Sinalunga to still distant Arezzo, as I was resting on my hoe in the furrow, I saw a man come by walking a pretty good horse. He was an elderly, bearded man, very portly, and wore the brown garb of the Capuchins, which I certainly had no reason to love. His bald head, gleaming in the sun, was of the steep and flat-topped shape of our English quartern-loaves; and it came upon me with a shock that here was that Fra Palamone, whom I had last seen extended, shot by my hand, in the Piazza Santa Maria at Florence. This alarming discovery was verified by his nearer approach. I recognised his twinkling, tireless eyes, his one long tooth, like a tusk, and even the scar on his right brow. It was Fra Palamone in the flesh—and in great and prosperous flesh.
Although this apparition made me vaguely uneasy, I was relieved to find that I had not his death upon my conscience. On the other hand, I felt no yearning of the bowels towards him, and did not propose to go one inch over the newly turned clods to bid him good-day. Supported by my hoe, chin on hands, I watched him, tolerably sure that he would never mark me down. I was as brown as the earth in which I delved, scarce distinguishable from it. I had on my head an old felt hat of no shape at all; I had a cotton shirt open to the navel, and a pair of blue cotton drawers which failed me at the knees. I was bleached and tanned again, stained and polished by the constant rub of weather and hard work—a perfect contrast to my last appearance before him. Then it had been my heart that was rent, not my garments; then my spirit was fretted and seamed, not my skin. Then I had had a fine cloth coat and lace ruffles; but my soul was soiled and my honour in tatters. The hand which shot him down had been covered in a scented glove; but pride had flaunted it upon me, naked and unashamed. The contrast assured me, while it gave me confidence enough to watch my wily enemy.
He saw me, however—he saw me and reined up his horse. He beckoned me towards him in the way of free command which a mounted man assumes with peasants. As it would have been more singular to stand than to obey, I went slowly over the furrows and saluted him, responding to his bluff "Buon di" with a "Servo suo." The shadow of my hat was now my only hope; but I felt his sharp eyes burn their way through that, and now I am sure that he recognised me at the first moment. He pretended, however, that he had not, saving up, as I suppose, his acclamations to be the climax of the little drama he had schemed. Addressing me as his "honest lad," he asked his way to Fojano, with particulars of fords, bridle-tracks and such like. This was a game of which I, at least, was soon weary; I never could play pretences. I said, "I have told you what you want to know, Fra Palamone. It is three good leagues to Fojano. I hope you are sufficiently recovered of your wound to attempt it." At the same time I pushed up the brim of my hat, and looked him in the face.
He maintained his silly comedy for a little while longer, the old knave, staring at me as if I had been a ghost, muttering names, as if to recall mine. Then with a glad shout of, "It is, it is my Francis of old!" he threw up his arms to Heaven and broke into doggerel—
"'Si, benedetta tu, O Maria, Madre di Gesu, Regina Coeli intemerata, Atque hominum Advocata!
"O what perils by land and sea," he continued, "what racking of entrails! What contumely, what anguish of hunger and thirst, have I not undergone for this—for this—for this! Now I can say, Domine, nunc dimittis, with a full heart. Now, indeed, is the crown of lilies set upon the life-work of wayworn, sad-browed Palamone!"
Sad-browed Palamone! He threw a leg over his horse's ears, and slid to the ground with a thud which made earth shake. He stretched out his arms to beckon me home; and when I would not budge, he scrambled through the briery hedge and took me, whether I would or no, into his strenuous embrace. He wept over me as a long-lost child of his, slobbered me, patted my head, back, breast. He held me at arm's-length to look at me better, hugged me again as if at last he was sure. "This is verily and indeed," he cried, "my friend and companion for many years, ardently loved, ardently served, lost for a season, searched for with blood- shedding, and found with tears of thankfulness. O dearest brother, let us kneel down and thank the Giver of all good, the only True Fount, for this last and most signal instance of His provident bounty!" He did kneel, and had the hardihood to drag me with him; I believe he would have prayed over me like a bishop at a confirmation—but this blasphemous farce was too much for me. I jumped up and away in a rage.
"Fra Palamone," I said, "I don't know whither this pretence of yours is designed to lead you, but I know well whither it will lead myself— namely, with this hoe of mine, to complete the work which I bungled in Florence. And to the achievement of that I shall instantly proceed, unless you get up from your polluted knees and tell me your real and present business with me here."
He got up at once—one of those lightning alterations of his from the discursive to the precise.
"Va bene," says he, "you shall be satisfied in a moment." He fumbled for his pocket-book, and from that selected three papers, which he handed to me in silence and in due order. They were:
1. A power of attorney to Fra Palamone by name from Sir John Macartney, his Britannic Majesty's representative at the Grand Ducal Court, authorising him to use all diligence and spare no expense in finding Francis-Antony Strelley of Upcote Esquire, wherever he might be in Italy; and with further authority to secure honour for his drafts upon the banking-house of Peruzzi in Florence to the extent of five hundred pounds sterling.
2. A letter to the said Sir John Macartney from Mr. Simcoe of Gray's Inn Square, announcing the death of my father, Antony Strelley Esquire.
3. A letter addressed to me by my honoured, dear and now widowed mother.
Over these documents—especially the last two of them—and my mournful reflections upon them, I draw that veil, which no one who has been a bad but repentant son to a saintly parent, will ever ask me to lift up.
My first desire was to be rid of Palamone, my next to think. I turned shortly on the frate.
"I am obliged to you for your diligence in my affairs," I said to him, "though I don't understand how you procured the means of using it. However, as you seem willing to serve me, you will have the goodness to ride on to Sinalunga and buy me three horses, two suits of clothes, with riding-boots and cloaks for each; body linen sufficient for two persons, valises and whatever else may be necessary—all being duplicates, remember. The whole of these necessaries you will bring back to that house which you see in the valley, together with a proper supply of ready money, within three hours of this. Now be off."
It was his turn to salute me now, and for him to say, "Servo suo."
I found Belviso helping Filippa, the daughter of the house, to milk the goats, and when he had done, drew him apart and told him my news. He received it gravely, without surprise. "Don Francis," he said, "what do you expect of me, except 'Of course!' It did not need much penetration on my part to see that you were a signorino. The whole of our company knew it. As far as I am concerned, it only makes your goodness to me the more inexplicable, while it perfectly explains my willingness to serve you; and since you have added condescension to charity I am the more sincerely grateful. As you will now wish to be rid of me, I can assure you that I am strong enough to stand alone. I believe that I shall make my way in the world by honest courses in the future; but I shall never cease to bless your name."
"Belviso," I said, "as to leaving me, that is your affair, for I tell you that the separation will never spring from me. We have been brothers in misery, and may be no less so in good fortune. At any rate, I shall not leave you to this life of a beast. Come with me to Arezzo, and after that to Florence. Then we will talk of all our businesses, and hear what Virginia has to say."
He looked serious. "Ah," he said, "I know beforehand what your Virginia will say. She will say as I do. I will follow you to the gates of Heaven or Hell, Don Francis, but only in one capacity!"
I said, "There is only one possible capacity."
"I know that very well," replied the boy. "We agree to that point, but differ beyond it."
"What do you mean?" I asked him, puzzled.
He was very serious, and said, "Don Francis, if I go with you from this place, I go as your servant, and in no other fashion." To that I said, "Never," and invoked the aid of Heaven. Shrugging, he turned away, saying, "As you will. Then it is farewell, padrone."
"You will make me angry," I said; and he answered, "It is your right."
"My right, is it?" said I. "If so, then, I command you."
"What!" he exclaimed. "You command me to be your brother? Dear sir!"
At this I became angry in good earnest, and showed it very plainly. He was extremely patient under it, but equally firm. He said, "Don Francis, your generosity has gone near to be your ruin, because, though it would be good logic in Heaven, we are not there yet. You say that you and I are equal. I say that we are nothing of the sort; and the proof would be that if we started level from this door, and as we stand, in six months' time you would remain a gentleman, and I the son of a shoemaker of Cadorre. A gentleman you are, because you were born so. If you took me up to your right hand, whether in this hovel or in the palace which is yours by reason, still you would be the gentleman and I the cobbler's son. And though I might prosper in business and become rich, and finding you in want, might take you up to my right hand, call you my brother, make you my heir—still you would be the gentleman condescending, and I the cobbler's son making myself ridiculous. Your misfortunes—every one of them—have arisen from the fact that you persist in treating your inferiors as your equals. I should be sorry to tell you—it would be a great impertinence—how far back into your career in Italy I can trace this foible of yours."
He was no doubt in the right. A little more generosity on my part would have told him so. I said that I could not convince him, and that I should leave Virginia to do that.
"Oh, sir, it is she that has convinced me already," says he.
The return of Fra Palamone with the gear put an end to our talk. I said, "Come with me, Belviso, as you will—but come"; and his reply was, "Servo suo."
I left the honest family at Sinalunga calling blessings on my name, and rode forward on a good horse to Arezzo. By my orders Fra Palamone kept behind me. By his own determination, Belviso held him company, and led the sumpter-horse.
VIRGINIA DECLINES THE HEIGHTS
I took up my lodgings at the Bear, in Arezzo, and made all such preparations to receive my wife as were becoming. I engaged a woman to wait upon her, had a withdrawing-room—as the French say, a boudoir— fitted up, and caused her bedchamber to be hung with the best curtain and wall furniture the place could afford, I then proceeded to dine, but told the landlord that he must be prepared at any moment to place a fresh cover on the table, with a bottle of his most excellent wine. To Belviso, who persisted in playing valet, and who told me that he had been in Arezzo before more than once, I entrusted the privilege—though I grudged it him—of seeking far and wide through the town for Virginia's lodging. I said, "Brother, you failed me once, in spite of yourself, when you tried so bravely to find my wife. Don't fail me this time, I beseech you."
He looked troubled; he fingered the tablecloth before he spoke. I encouraged him to open me his mind. "Well, Don Francis," said he, most uncomfortably, "the task you put upon me then was very easy but for the one little circumstance that Virginia was not there. But this present is of enormous difficulty."
"Why so, my dear?" I asked him.
"For the one little circumstance that Virginia IS here," said he; and then, seeing my bewilderment, he added, "You don't know the Tuscans of her class as well as I do, that's certain. You know them as children, as warm-hearted, passionate simpletons; but you have yet to learn how tender they are of their reputation, and how quick to feel a touch. I have never seen your Virginia, but I'll warrant her as proud as fire. I believe that she would rather die than occupy that damask-hung bed, even with your honour for mate. And supposing she consented to that, do you not guess what would be the first thing she would do? It would be to scratch the eyes out of that Donna di Camera you have given her. And she would do that, mind you, in self-defence, for the Donna di Camera (who is probably a little above her in degree) would certainly do the same for Virginia."
I own to having been somewhat put about. "My dear Belviso," I said, "Virginia is liable to impulse, it may be admitted; but she is never likely to forget what wifely duty involves. I was not a cruel husband to her, and left her through no fault of my own. I will answer for her that she will be a good wife."
"A good wife—for Francesco the carpenter," said Belviso. "Yes, it may be so, though I own that her marriage puzzles me. But wife to Don Francesco—nobile Inglese—never in the world!"
I said, "Belviso, I never asked you to be my servant, as you very well know. The proposal came from you against my will. But if my servant you are, I will make free to remind you that I have given you an order, and shall be obliged if you will set about performing it." The good lad dropped on one knee, took my hand and kissed it, and turned to obey me without a word. Ashamed of myself, I patted him on the shoulder in token of forgiveness, and saw the tears spring into his eyes. Before he could reach the door, Fra Palamone had filled up the entry, panting, holding out a note.
"For the Excellency of Don Francesco," says he, "just delivered at the door by a young female." I took it from him; it was in the hand of Virginia, the hand I myself had guided, the good and docile hand which had formed itself on mine.
I read—O Heaven, can I say so? The words, like knives at work, cut themselves deep into the fibres of my heart.
"MOST EXCELLENT DON FRANCIS,—
"That cavalcade of his lordship's, of four horses and two servants, entering this city of Arezzo at three o'clock in the afternoon of to- day, was witnessed by a concourse of people, always eager to see a great gentleman, and to secure some part of his bounty. Had his lordship lifted his eyes to the windows of the shops and houses of the poor as he passed by, he would have seen Virginia Strozzi at her needlework—that poor creature whose virtue his lordship was so benevolent as to protect; for which truly gracious act his same poor Virginia must always be grateful. It would have been a great kindness in his lordship to have allowed one, who ever tried to be faithful and obedient, to kiss his noble hand; and his Virginia cannot doubt but that she might have done so. His lordship's nobility of mind and generosity of heart are so well known, that for the very reason of them she has not dared to present herself. I know what my duty is; I cannot come to you. I beg him not to seek me; I am going away so soon as I have delivered this letter. Do not ask me to come, Francis, I cannot, I cannot, I cannot.
"Your VIRGINIA, who tries to be good."
This letter stunned me. I sank under it, as under a violent blow. With me also fell, dashed to the ground, all my honourable resolutions, all my hopes of gaining self-respect. I will not deny also that I was savagely stung by mortification; for a man is so made that he does not relish a refusal any the more for being aware that he has not too anxiously sought acceptance; but, on the contrary, his self-reproach for that tardiness of his is made more bitter by the rebuff. He feels that he has deserved it, and is the more deeply wounded.
And had I not deserved it? Why had I not crept back into Lucca—in any disguise, by any subterfuge—when I was driven out? Why had I not braved a second disgrace—nay, imprisonment, stripes, even death, on Virginia's account? Alas, it was because Virginia's account was not heavy enough in my books. Pass that, and have at me again. Why, when I knew her whereabouts, did I not strike off across the hills to find her? Was it that she would not have welcomed me naked, have cherished me dying, have died herself to save me? Alas, no! It was because I had been drawn on to Siena by that lovely, haunting, beckoning, beguiling vision of Aurelia, my torture and stem of shame. Why, finally, were my eyes not lifted up to her wistful eyes, as she sat—poor sempstress—in that upper room? It was because of my accursed prosperity. It was because my eyes were cased and swollen in pride; because my fine horse held them; because I thought I had but to nod and be obeyed by—my wife! Thy wife, sayest thou, Francis? Nay, wretched fool, but thy SLAVE! Out upon thee—out!
White and suffering, not knowing what to do, I sat by my untasted board and gave the letter into Belviso's hand to read. He read it carefully, and Fra Palamone peeped over his shoulder. He was the first to speak.
He clacked his tongue to his palate—that gross and forcible rogue; he looked all about him with his arms spread abroad, as if he were scouring the air to find Virginia. "She's off," he said, "she's off, that's plain. Bolted like a coney to the hills. Now, who's our man?"
I struck my breast. "It is I, Fra Palamone. I am her man."
He inspected me for half a moment, as if to judge of the possibility; but took no further notice of me. He walked to the window and looked out—up and down the street. "Clean heels," says he, "and she was within reach of my hand."
"What!" I cried. "It was she who——" I did not finish but rushed at the door. Belviso, divining my insane purpose, caught me by the coat.
"Stay, Don Francis—let any one go but you." Seeing that I paused irresolute, he went on to urge me by all that I held dear to do nothing so foolish. "Do you suppose," he said, "that YOU will find her—knowing nothing of Arezzo—and she knowing all? Do you think her so light, that, having borne the first sight of you already without faltering, she will fall to you at the second? You have taught me wiselier about her out of your own mouth. Let us question the friar." He turned to Palamone, who had his mouth open and was scratching in his beard.
The frate said that Virginia herself had delivered the letter into his hands as he stood taking the air at the inn door. He scoffed at the notion that he could be mistaken; had he not nearly lost his life for her already? He described her in terms too luscious to be palatable—a fine and full wench, he called her, bare-headed, bare-necked, with the breasts of Hebe. "And," says he, "Don Francis, you may call her your wife or by what other pleasant phrase you please, but though I'd allow you, to do you pleasure, that that were what she ought to be—wife, at least, to somebody—saving your respect, she's no wife at all. There's not a wedded woman in all Italy would go abroad with a bare bosom—you may take the word of an expert for that. She's tricked you, sir,—or you have tricked her. She has had what she has had without responsibility— and now she's away; and if I may be allowed the remark, I should say you were well rid of her. An excellent dinner awaits you here—more than enough for one, a bare pittance for two; a courteous banker awaits you in Florence. Old Palamone will scratch his eyes out to save you. After dinner, sir, half of Arezzo—"
I said, "Palamone, I lay this command upon you, since you profess yourself my friend. Find me Virginia, wheresoever she may be. I will give you a thousand guineas. Without her you have not one farthing of mine."
He seized my hands. "A thousand devils would not send me faster— consider her in your arms." He went gaily out of my presence with a song on his lips. I heard him singing it lustily down the street of the town, and saw no more of him for some days.
Belviso was of great comfort to me during my time of anxiety; without the faithful creature I should have run my feet off my legs and my wit out of my head in futile search. He was much too tactful to remind me of his warnings, but did not cease to show me all sorts of reasonable grounds for Virginia's conduct, which had the effect of keeping his first prognostication always before me. "The girl," he said—I repeat the sum of his many discourses—"is evidently a good girl, and of strong character. She is perfectly reasonable. She married you—I take that for granted—when you were broken, beyond all prospect of repair. She now finds you restored to your proper station in the world, and will be no party to pulling you off your throne. She sees very well how that must end—unhappily. How can she hope to be a companion of your companions, a friend of your friends, a sharer in your amusements? Mistress she might be, your toy; wife she can never be. That parade of her neck and bosom— a desperate measure I assure you—shows to my mind that you will never possess her again, but as you would not care to do. You assure me that you married her, you name the church, describe the rites. All seems to be in order; but the more I understand your Virginia in these late proceedings, the less I understand that wedding in the Ghetto. Everything I learn of her from her own acts convinces me of her good sense; but of her acts as reported by you, Don Francis, I reserve my judgment."
My heart and whole mind being now set upon finding her, my chagrin may be imagined when Fra Palamone returned without her. He demanded money to prosecute his researches beyond the confines of Arezzo. "She's a deep one," he said, "she's as deep as the sea. Who can tell where she is by now? May be in Venice, may be in Rome, may be in the attics of this inn." I gave him twenty guineas, and he disappeared again for ten days. At the end of that time he returned once more, horribly dishevelled, dirty and extended. He looked to be just out and about again after a ruinous debauch. He talked in hollow whispers, he trembled in the limbs, he started and turned pale at a shadow, or the sound of a mouse in the wainscot. He said he had been to Ancona, Gubbio, Rimini, Ravenna, Chioggia, Venice, Udine, Trieste. He demanded money—fifty guineas; but this time I gave him nothing. I was preparing to go to Florence, and had other agents than him in view. I dismissed him from my service, and told him to go to the devil. He left me for the moment, vowing as he did it that he should never, never quit my service, and I found that it was no easier to get rid of him now than it had ever been. I saw him on the morrow; I saw him every day. The more I saw of him the more I abhorred him; and the more I made this plain the more devoted he professed himself. Wherever I went he shadowed me. He lurked in the dark corners of churches where I made my devotions, or studied the monuments until I rose from my knees. If I rode in the country I knew that he was not far away, if I frequented public assemblies I saw his keen eyes upon me, and his wide mouth fixed at a patient grin. He was oppressively, sickeningly affectionate, his role being that of the old friend of my family, who had rocked my cradle and held me by my leading-strings. At meals he came skipping about me with little offerings: "A rose-bud for my bosom's king!" he would say; "Fresh-pulled radishes for my heart's blood!"; and once, while I was at dinner, he danced up to the table with a large and bleeding rabbit, saying, "A coney for my dear, of old Palamone's wiring!" This was too much for my patience; I swung the beast about his ears, drove him from the room and flung his catch after him. He brought me no more presents, but did not cease to be my shadow.
I GET RID OF MY ENEMY AND PART FROM MY FRIEND
When the day drew near upon which I had appointed to depart from Florence, I saw that I must come to terms with the fellow. I sent Belviso out to look for him—and to find him at no greater distance than the other side of the door, with his eye at the keyhole. He came in, blinking like an owl, still weak with his recent excesses, and very nervous. I felt my gorge rise at the sight of him, but did my best to be cool.
"Palamone," I began, "it appears that you have recently done me a service——"
He leered at me. "My Francis! When—and at what hour of day or night have I not been ready to serve you?"
"Why, that's as may be," said I. "I think I could remind you of a night attack at Pistoja——"
"Oh, cruel," he said, "oh, cruel!"
"Of a ravishment—of the strappado applied to a man bound hand and foot—"
He pretended to weep. "Cruel, cruel Francis!"
"Of detestable treachery in Florence when you set to work to entrap a good girl who had done you no harm in the world—and, Fra Palamone, I think I may remind you of the payment of those services of yours IN KIND, in the Piazza of Santa Maria."
With clasped hands, streaming eyes, he beamed upon me. "Generous hand! Oh, healing, life-giving blood!"
"I am glad," I said, "that you consider yourself healed by bleeding. But now, it appears, you have appointed yourself messenger from my friends, and have succeeded in benefiting me without extraordinary robbery. I cannot suppose that you did this for love."
"Believe it," says he, "believe it, Francis."
"You must forgive me if I cannot," said I. "On the contrary, I believe that you have acted for what profit you can make out of it. I never asked you to interfere in my affairs, and owe you less than nothing, but to make an end of you, since you do, perhaps, believe that you have served me with this late news of what you, no doubt, would call my 'good fortune,' I will give you more than you deserve." I counted out ten guineas, or their equivalent, and held them out to him.
His eyes gleamed, as if a fire had suddenly been kindled in them by the sight of money. He pounced at my hand and emptied it, as a dog scrapes in the ground. Holding his coins close to his breast, he snarled at me of his astuteness, and took obscene pride in his guile. "Is Palamone an old fool then? Eh, mercy and truth, was there ever such a wise old fox born into this world? Did I not, when I saw you at Rovigo, lay this finger to this nose, and say, 'La, la, Palamone, fratello, here is a pigeon for your plucking hand'? Did I not know you for an Englishman, for a nobleman born? For what do you take me? I knew that you had run away out of a scrape, I knew that the money-bags would be emptied to find you. Wise old Palamone! Deep-browed old night-bird! Darkly thinking, quickly acting old Fox-Palamone! And now, take heed to this, I have never lost you, but have been hard on your heels though Jesuits and Ministers and woman after woman have beset you on all sides. And what have I gained by all this? A wound in the breast, my conscience! A slug through the lung, on the word of a Christian—and my Francis, the child of my sorrow, fed upon my tears, talks to me of profit—O Dio! O Dio!" He wrung his hands and howled; then, grinning like a wolf, he came creeping to me, his fingers gripping the air like claws. "Give me more money, Francis, you who have so much—give me the guineas of England, fifty, a hundred, a thousand—what are they to you? To me they are meat and drink, Paradise and the Mercy Seat." He was now hovering close to me, terribly possessed by greed. "If you do not give me money, Francis, I shall kill you with these hands." So he threatened me, raving.
My anger got the better of my judgment. "You black-souled thief," I said, "you shall have just what you deserve."
He still grinned and glared. I think he still hoped for more money. I had my malacca cane in my hand, caught him with the other by the neck- gear and beat him till the stick was in splinters. It was like thrashing a sack of flour, for he lay like that under his punishment, and the dust that flew out of him filled the room. When I had done I threw him from me, went to the door and opened it. Belviso was outside, pale and trembling. I sent him for a corporal's guard, at the sound of which order, before the lad could obey it, the frate rose, howling like a lost dog, ran swiftly to the window and leapt out into the street. He was not hurt, apparently, for I heard his howls far down the Via di Citta; and he must have run like the wind, for when they searched the country half an hour later there was no sign of him to be seen.
Belviso, who had witnessed this startling end, came trembling out of the corner of the room with his hands stretched out. He knelt down before me, his face hidden between his arms.
"Terrible man!" he said, shuddering; "but oh, signore, he has awoken the God in you. Have no fear, he will trouble you no more."
"I believe not," said I. "On the other hand, he will not find me Virginia. Get up, Belviso, let us take counsel together. What is your opinion?"
Belviso, thus adjured, rose to his feet and stood humbly before me. He was agitated—if by fear, then curiously; but it did not seem to be fear which put the slurred accents into his voice.
"Senta, Don Francesco," he began, "what Virginia has done was all for love. She has acted according to her nature—as many would act—as all would act towards you, who knew your worth. O Dio!" cried the lad suddenly, gripping his chest with both hands, "O Dio! I would prove my love in the same sort if I were—if I were not—if you were—if you were not——" He began to weep piteously.
I stared. "What is the matter with you, Belviso?" I asked him. "What would you do if you were, or were not, something which you are, or are not? Riddles, riddles, my dear." I was sorry he had seen me in such a rage, and laid a kindly arm upon his drooped shoulders. But Belviso sprang away.
"Don't touch me—do not touch me," he said, panting. "You little know— you cannot guess—and you never shall! What! shall I prove such an ingrate? You have befriended me, lifted me out of the mud. I have a soul now, it is worth saving. Virginia, that savage, fine girl, is not the only servant in the world. No, Mother Diana, we have hearts too in the Veneto——" He swept the storm from his eyes and calmed himself by the gesture. "Don Francis," he said, "let me leave you at this moment. I will find your Virginia—that fine girl. Trust me, leave all to me. I know Tuscany and the Tuscans. I will give her to you, never fear. In six weeks from now I will have her snug in Lucca. There you shall find her if you still want her, and if you do not——"
"If I do not," I said, "you may blot the name of Francis Strelley from the Book of Life and Judgment. God bless you, Belviso, dear friend. Your words convince me. Go in peace. Take money, take what you choose—my love, my gratitude—-"
"I choose nothing but your confidence, and a kiss of your noble hand," said Belviso.
"You shall grasp, not kiss, my hand," I told him. "You are a man, or will be one, as I am. Let us love, trust, meet, part, as men."
I held out my hand, he took it, pressed it, seemed unable to let it go. Suddenly he dropped down and kissed my knee—but with ardour, with reverence, indescribable devotion; then sprang to his feet, and was gone.
I made all preparations for my journey to Florence.
I RETURN TO FLORENCE AND THE WORLD OF FASHION
Upon my arrival in the capital, my first care, after securing a lodging on the Lung' Arno, was to pay a visit to the Ghetto, where I had spent those happy three days with my newly wedded wife—if wife indeed she had been. I found the church, but not the priest; I found the old Jewess, Miriam, in whose house we had lodged. She made short work of my doubts. "You are no more married to your Virginia than you are to me," she curtly said. "You are as little married as any young man of my acquaintance. Married, indeed! Why, that church hadn't had a Mass said in it to my knowledge for fifty years, except a black one now and again to oblige the jaded vicious; and as for your priest, 'tis true he was a priest once, but he had been degraded for a bad affair of robbery with violence and inhibited from his business—and, now I come to think on it, he was hanged outside the Bargello no earlier than last week."
I was aghast at this news, which, as it was delivered, I could hardly doubt. Virginia then had deceived me. I had trusted her in all things and she had played me false. Designing to do her honour, I had done her the greatest dishonour—but through her means. Blind fool that I was! Playing the husband, complacently accepting her play of the wife as serious. O Heaven, and she had let me ruin her, and now was gone! I own that I was angry at being made the victim of a trick, indignant at having been forced into a thing which I should never have dreamed of doing. But when I turned severely to Miriam and accused her of being a party to the fraud, she laughed in my face, and put the case before me in a way which made me sing a tune in the minor. "Fiddlededee!" she retorted, her arms stuck out akimbo, "what in the world had I to do with your fooleries? 'Twas the girl arranged it all—and for reasons which do her more credit than YOU seem able to do her. I think she's a very good girl—a thousand times too good for you. If you find her again I shall be sorry for her—and I'll tell you this much, that I shan't help you."
She had me pleading after this; but it took two or three visits and very liberal treatment before she would condescend to tell me anything. Finally, however, she gave it as her opinion that Fra Palamone, whom I had been so short-sighted as to dismiss, was more likely to know of her whereabouts than any one; and that I had better beware of the Marchese Semifonte, a man well known to her. She plainly told me that she thought next to nothing of my chances, and that the best thing I could do was to go back to England. "You don't understand our women, nor will you ever— you and the likes of you," she said. "They have more sound sense in their little fingers than your nation in its collected Parliament. Do you imagine a girl like Virginia wants to be your lady? What on earth should she do in such a place? Lie on a couch and order menservants about? Oh, preposterous! What pleasures does Virginia know but those of bed and board and hoard? She'll be merry in the first, and hearty at the second, and passionate for filling the crock with gold pieces. But your manners would freeze the heart out of her; and if you have more guineas than you can spend, where's the joy of sweating to get 'em, or of hiding 'em under the flag-stones against a lean year? No, no, she knew better than you, and did better. A gentleman may play the beggar for a while, but sooner or later his own will have him—and what's Virginia to do then? Do you dare," she said sternly, "do you dare to blame her for what she has done? She has done incredibly well; and if you in all the rest of your life can prove a tithe of her nobility, you will be a greater man than I have reason to believe you."
"I cannot blame her, Miriam," I said, "I love her too much. I shall never rest until I find her." The tears stood in my eyes—I was indeed humiliated; but my shame, though bitter, was not without fruit.
Shortly afterwards, in order to clear up the affairs of my inheritance, I presented myself before Sir John Macartney, the English Minister, at his weekly levee in the Palazzo C——. A bluff, soldierly man, of Irish birth and English opinions, he received me with particular civility, in which curiosity may perhaps have played its part. He deplored my loss of an excellent father, rejoiced in my gain of an excellent estate, hoped I should return to England, cry for King George, hunt the country, and keep a good head of game. He alluded, as delicately as he could, to religious differences. "I know very well that you're no turncoat, Mr. Strelley," he said; "no, dammy, your house is inveterate for the Pope. But your father was never a Stuart's man, and I hope you'll follow him there. You'll stand apart—'tis only natural—but, curse me, let us have no Jesuit rogues in our women's quarters—hey? No, no—you must uphold the Protestant succession, Mr. Strelley, like your father before you."
My reply, I fancy, somewhat sobered the heart of Sir John. I said that I preferred the Republican form of government as I had seen it in Venice and Lucca, and that I should certainly have nothing to question in the authority of King George, seeing that that authority had been conferred upon him by Parliament. I added that my plans were very uncertain, and did not at present include hunting the county of Oxford. "I have done much hunting since I have been in Italy," I said ruefully, "I have been as often quarry as huntsman. At present I am hunting for my——." But there I stopped. Wife I could not say—mistress I would not.
Sir John saved me the trouble. He was a man of the world.
"Young blood!" he cried. "I envy you that. At your age, my dear sir, that too was my game." He took snuff, then said in an undertone, "I am not too old but I can feel for you, and not so young neither that I shall pretend more ignorance of your troubles than you could believe me to have. For reasons of your own, you chose not to seek my good offices when you were last in Florence, and it was not for me to thrust myself upon you. There was a lady, I believe—pooh, man, never blush for that; there is always a lady at your happy age. Well, I can give you news. That lady is still here in Florence—a charming creature, Mr. Strelley! Upon my soul, if I were younger by a decade—tut, tut! what am I saying?"
What was he saying, indeed! He was reminding me of one I desired extremely to forget; he was diverting my mind from another whom I must by all means remember. Honestly, I did not wish to see Donna Aurelia— but Sir John must have out his news.
He told me that Donna Aurelia and her husband were established in Florence. Count Giraldi, said Sir John, had used his great authority with the Sovereign to obtain a fine position for the professor. Dr. Lanfranchi had been made a Judge of the Court of Cassation, and had been in residence some six months or more. Fine as this position was, however, it was nothing, said Sir John, to the position of the judge's lady. "She's a leader of the mode, I can assure you," said he, "and any little difficulty you may have had in that quarter, you may be sure, will be none now. Count Giraldi will, no doubt, be enchanted to present you there. I recommend you to keep in with the count."
I felt that I could not love Count Giraldi any more. I told Sir John that my duties towards Donna Aurelia and her husband were of a peculiar kind, not to be assisted or made more difficult by Count Giraldi. "There was a moment," I added, "when his Excellency could have served me—when, having played the part of an honest man, I called for the help of one who had pretended himself my friend. He failed me then, I know not why; and he might fail me now. If you will pardon me for saying so, what I now have to do in the case of this lady—if there is anything for me to do—is by no means the business of his Excellency."
"I hope not, I hope not," said Sir John. "Go your own way—and count upon me, at least, in the pinch—if pinch there is to be. But remember this. Count Giraldi is the Chief Minister of this Government, and this Government is your host. Count Giraldi is therefore major-domo. Keep in with him, my dear sir, by all means, unless you desire (a) your conge, or (b) an extortionate bill for breakages and arrears. I need only mention the name of the Marchese Semifonte—no more on that head."
"No more indeed," says I, very short. "But as to Count Giraldi, I can assure you that I have no quarrel with his Excellency, who (idle rumours apart) has never, to my knowledge, impugned my honour."
"Why no," said Sir John, with a queer frown, "nor need he ever—so long as you clearly perceive wherein your honour lies."
"I do perceive it most clearly," I replied, "and believe that I have always perceived it since that fatal night when I forgot that I had any. I am so sure of it now that I shall not hesitate for a moment. With your permission, sir, I shall set about it this very hour."