"What the devil are you going to do, my dear sir?" cried the Minister.
"I am going to leave Florence," I said, "so soon as ever I have done my present business."
Sir John puffed out his cheeks and let his relief escape in a volley. "Poh! How you put me about," said he. "I thought you were for the count's throat. I thought—body of me, I know not what I thought. As for the doctor, you'll find him easy handling. The good man knows where his comforts are, and whence they come. Why, supposing that you had never gone into his wife's cupboard and stalked out of it again, would he at this day have been snug upon the bench, with house-room at the Villa San Giorgio?" Here was something strange.
"At the Villa San Giorgio?" I echoed with astonishment. "Is Donna Giulia then——?"
Sir John looked sly. "Donna Giulia," he said, "was a sensible woman. She knew very well the length of her shoe. Donna Giulia has joined her husband at Naples—a Court appointment and a good house. Dr. Lanfranchi occupies the Villa San Giorgio. Now do you see how the land lies?" I frowned and squared my chin. I think that I was disturbed because I did not then see how the land lay. I suspected, however, that Sir John knew more than he chose to tell me. I rose to take leave of him. There was something about me which he noticed.
"You are going to the doctor?" he said. "You will find him in court."
"I am going," I said, "to the Villa San Giorgio."
He showed his alarm by saying, "You may regret it; you may regret it all your life long."
"I shall regret that I ever lived if I do not go," said I. As I went out Sir John threw up his hands.
I STAND AT A CROSS-ROAD
I did not go immediately to the Villa San Giorgio; it was necessary that I should be clear why I was to go there at all. How did I stand with regard to Donna Aurelia—did I love her still, or was I cured of my wound? If I loved her, to go to her now were to play the criminal; if I did not, it might be to play the fool.
Because—if I did not love her, why was I going? That is easily answered. I was going because I suspected that all was not well with her. Why was Donna Giulia in retirement? Why was the villa at the disposition of the learned judge? Why was Sir John Macartney so guarded in his admissions, and why so desirous that I should not see Count Giraldi? Apart from my private grievance against that person, which, after all, was only based on surmise and the convictions of Virginia, I could see no possible reason why I should not meet him, but one. That was, that he was fallen a victim to Aurelia's charms. And to a certain extent I felt that I should be responsible for that misfortune, for if I had never loved her she had never been in Florence; and if she had never been in Florence, she had never seen this accomplished, scoffing, cynical Tuscan.
I was not ashamed to confess that I still thought Aurelia the most beautiful woman in the world, the most heavenly in conversation as in person the most superb. All the old glamour was upon me still. I knew that I should be a child at her knees the moment I set eyes upon her again; I knew that I should be imparadised, longing after impossible goodness, filled with impossible joys. But I knew also that I did not desire her. She was sacred, she was so little of the earth that as well might one hope to wed a seraph, all compact of fire, as she. I set by her, in my mind's eye, that passionate Virginia—that faithful, clinging, serving mate of what I knew were my happiest days. Ah, my sweet, lovely, loving wife! Virginia's long kisses, Virginia's close arms, her beating bosom, her fury of love, the meekness, obedience, steadfastness into which it could all be changed at a mere lift of my brows—ah, nuptial love, wedded bliss, the joys of home and the hearth, English joys! Virginia meant all this and more to me. I swore to myself that without her I could not live, that to deserve her I would renounce the world, my patrimony, my country, and that not even a changed Aurelia—changed from Seraph to calling Siren—could keep me from her side.
But Aurelia—Aurelia Gualandi, that delicate flower of Siena, that youngest of the angels, that fount of poesy—what of her? What had she to say to such a certainty as this of mine? In my mind's eye I saw them stand together, she and Virginia, those two beautiful girls, Virginia a head the taller, proudly erect, with arms folded over her chest, and her dark brows forming a bar across her forehead. I saw her in white bodice and green petticoat, her arms and neck bare, her feet in old slippers, her black hair loosely coiled and stuck with a silver pin. I saw her hold herself aloof and dubious, proud and coldly chaste. "Call me and I come," she seemed to say to me between her shut lips, "Call me and I follow you over the world like a dog at your heels. Send me into infamy and I go; expect me to woo you there and I will die sooner. Yours, if you will have me; nobody's, anybody's, if you will not!" In my fancy I could hear her very words, see her steady eyes, her pure and moving lips.
And Aurelia—how did she stand there? I saw her too in my mind's eye; dazzlingly, provokingly, like a creature of pure light, with thrown-back head and parted lips, with jewels about her neck, as I had seen her in the theatre at Siena; and jewels also in her hair. Like a queen of beauty at a love-court, conscious of her power, loving it, proving it; she smiled, she shook her cloudy tresses, she demanded my worship as of right. "If I choose I shall call thee," she seemed to say, "and thee— and thee—and thee again, to stand behind my chair, to kneel at my feet, to be my slave. And wilt thou deny me, Francis—or thou—or thou?"
Her soft eyes, how they peered and sparkled! Her soft lips, how they faltered between laugh and pout! "If I need him I can have him here," I heard her say. "I have but to thrill his name—to call Checho—Checho— and he comes. Is it not so, Checho? Is it not so?"
Call you me, Virginia; call you me in turn, my girl! What said she now but, "Povera Virginia, che fara? Don Francesco non ti ama piu. Ebbene— pazienza!" Virginia shrugged her proud shoulders and turned her grey eyes away. Virginia refused to plead, and was too proud to command.
So stood I, In my fancy, irresolute between these two, their battleground, the prize, it would seem, of one who now refused to fight for it, and of one already sure of victory. But this was very odd about the affair, that the stiffer Virginia grew, as I saw her there, the more indurate, the more ruggedly of the soil, declining battle, the more Aurelia shrank in my eyes, the less confident her call to me, the more frail her hold of my heart. Virginia stood apart like a rock and turned away her eyes from me. "Thou shalt seek me out of thine own will, Francis, for I will never come to thee again of mine!" But Aurelia's halo had slipped; her wings drooped lifeless, her glitter was dimmed. Her appeal was now urgent; her arms called me as well as her voice; but I seemed to shrink from them, as if there were danger in her.
This very singular hallucination of mine decided me to go, for now I was curious. The strife, in which I had had so little to do, had been most vivid, the parties to it so real, that there were moments when I caught myself speaking aloud to one of my phantoms. That one was always Virginia; therefore I dared to go, knowing full well that she would now go with me.
And it was so. At six o'clock of an evening I went out of doors and turned my face towards the east. It was a mild evening as that on which I had seen Virginia for the first time in the wood, her faggot on her head. I seemed to see her now going bravely before me. So clearly did she show, I quickened my steps to overtake her; and again my heart beat, and again I thought of the nymphs and all the soft riot of the woodland scents and sounds. Strange! how the slim figure of the peasant-girl possessed me. I thought of her as I entered the grove of cypresses which led to the villa, and if my heart was in high trouble as I asked for Donna Aurelia, it was the surmise that I should again see Virginia fluttering among the trees that set my blood a-tingling.
But she left me there, as I waited in the saloon open to the shadowed garden; and I knew not whether I felt her the more certainly for her absence than for her former persistent company.
AGITATIONS AT THE VILLA SAN GIORGIO
The servant, an old one of Donna Giulia's, who knew me well by sight, had grimaced pleasantly as he saluted. "Buon di, signoria," he had said, and "Servitore del 'lustrissimo." The padrona, he felt sure, was in the house, and the Excellency of the count was paying a visit. Let the 'lustrissimo accommodate himself, take repose, walk in the garden, do his perfect pleasure. In two little moments the padrona should be informed. With that he had gone away, leaving a volley of nods, winks and exclamations behind him. The windows stood open, the hour, the season invited. I saw the long, velvety vista of the cypress avenue, the slender feathers of trees in young leaf, the pleasantness of the grass, heard the invitation of a calling thrush, thought poignantly of Virginia, and went out, hoping to see her spirit there.
I paced the well-remembered long avenue to where it opened into a circle to meet two others. A sun-dial stood here in the midst and marked a point from which you could look three ways—behind you to the house, to the right and to the left. I chose for the right, and sauntered slowly towards the statue of the Dancing Faun, which closed that particular alley.
Strange, indeed, it was to be within the personal circle of Donna Aurelia, and undisturbed! But I did not realise then how near her I was.
The sound of voices in debate broke in upon my meditations—a woman's clear "No, no. At this hour, no!" and a man's, which urged, "Signora, if my devotion—" I knew both voices—the woman's was not to be mistaken. Aurelia was there—the divine Aurelia—close at hand. Without thinking what I did, I took a strong breath and stepped forward to my task. I reached the statue of the faun, which leered and writhed its leathery tongue at me; and in the bay which opened out beyond it I found Aurelia and the count together.
The fair Aurelia was flushed and disarrayed. Her hair was half uncoiled, her bodice undone. She lay, or rather reclined, upon a garden seat; one hand was clapped to her side, one hand guarded her bosom. The count, who had his back to me, was upon one knee before her. He was, or had been, eloquent. At the moment of my appearance he had finished his period, and still trembled with the passion of it. For the cynic philosopher he professed to be, he was, at the moment, singularly without relish of the humours of his position.
Coming upon all this, I stopped suddenly short. Aurelia saw me, and uttered a cry. At the same instant her hands were busy with her dress. The count, on his feet in a moment, turned his head, started violently, then controlled himself, and advanced to meet me, whom he had once called his friend.
"My dear Don Francis," he said briskly, "let me be one of the first to welcome you. I had heard of your arrival only to-day—indeed, I came here to prepare Donna Aurelia for a pleasant surprise. I believe I was being eloquent on your account at this moment. You may have overheard me—if I was too partial, blame my esteem."
I scarcely heard him, and was perhaps barely civil. I went past him, hat in hand, towards the lady. I saluted her profoundly.
"Madam," I said, "my intrusion is pure accident. I was told that your ladyship was in the house. Ten thousand pardons that I come unannounced before you—unwelcome I must needs be, unworthy of your clemency—since we parted unhappily. Forgive me, I beseech you." I then offered the count my hand.
"Oh, Signor Francesco," says Aurelia in a twitter, "I am glad to see you again." She was tremulous, beautiful; she had her old wayward, ardent ways, her childish bloom and roundness had not left her, nor her sumptuousness, nor her allure—and yet I could look calmly into her face and know that she had no charm left for me.
"Madam," I said, "since you showed me so plainly that my company was not to your taste, I have no right to be here. My fault—my old fault—is so clearly before me that I should not have dared commit another. If I may once more ask your pardon——"
"Oh, my pardon!" cried she, faltering. "Why, what harm have you done me now, pray?"
"Madam," says the count, "my young friend's fault is a very natural one. If he is a sinner, what must your ladyship be? For if it is sinful to love, is it not worse to inspire it?" The lady made no reply at this gallant diversion.
The position was very awkward. I could not speak as I felt, or as I ought to feel; the count would not, and Donna Aurelia was on the verge of tears. Obviously I must retire.
"Madam," I said, "I intruded upon you by misfortune, and may not trespass. I beg my service to the learned judge, my profoundest respect to your ladyship. The young man who once showed himself unworthy to be at your feet may now stand upon his own. Don Francis has offended Donna Aurelia——"
"Oh, no, no, no!" said Aurelia in distress. "Oh, Checho, don't leave me."
I came off my stilts, for I saw that she was unhappy.
"Can I serve you?" I asked her. "Can I be so honoured?"
"Yes, yes," she said brokenly, "stay with me. I need you—stay." Count Giraldi took a step forward.
"Madam," he said, "I salute your ladyship's hand, and shall do myself the honour to wait upon you upon a less urgent occasion. Don Francis, your humble servant—to meet again, no doubt."
He bowed himself away, and left me alone with Aurelia.
For some time neither of us spoke. She sat pensive, with signs of distress—storm signals—still displayed; she was very nervous, looking at her fingers at play in her lap. I stood up beside her, not knowing, in truth, what in the world she wanted with me. The silence, as it became oppressive, made Aurelia angry. She bit her lip.
"Well," she said at last. "Well! have you nothing to say to me, now that you have found me?"
"Madam," said I, "my fault——"
"Oh," cried she in a rage. "Your fault! Do you not see how hateful your 'fault' makes me appear? Do you think the best way of amending this wonderful fault of yours is to be for ever bewailing it? Has a gentleman never loved a lady before, or am I a lady whom no man should love? Do you suppose I am flattered to learn that you have hunted me all over Italy only for the pleasure of telling me that you are ashamed of ever having loved me?"
I said, "I loved you unworthily—I played a knave's part. I distorted your lovely image, I presumed upon your gracious kindness. I was accursed—accursed. I did sacrilege—I profaned the temple." I strode about before her declaiming against myself, not looking at her.
She laughed her vexation away. "My poor Checho," she said, "if you knew, if you could understand! Those days and nights of ours were very sweet. Come, let us walk a little. It is chilly here. Come, we will go into the house and you shall tell me of your travels." She took my arm; I led her back to the house.
I sat by her side in the little saloon which had been Donna Giulia's boudoir, and served Aurelia now for the same purpose; and judging honesty the kindest, and only, course, I told her everything of my defence of Virginia, hinting at the same time at my suspicions of Count Giraldi. I said that the poor child had certainly been betrayed to the marchese, that the count and Father Carnesecchi alone had known her story, that I could not suspect the Jesuit, and therefore——At this point Aurelia stopped me, not by any words, but by her appearance of being upon the point of words. She was very much excited, but she controlled her speech; and I went on to tell her that, in consequence of that betrayal, I had felt bound to make Virginia my wife. At this I thought that she was ill. She stared at me as if I had suddenly stabbed her; she went perfectly white. "Your wife!" she whispered—"you have—— "
"Madam," I said, "that is the truth. I have never shrunk from my duty, I believe, and never saw duty plainlier than then. I married Virginia, or thought that I did; but it now appears that my marriage was none at all— not by my fault, but by that noble girl's mistaken generosity. And now that I have lost her I must by all means find her. She must be mine for ever."
Aurelia had recovered her colour and self-possession. She was now also very angry, tapping her foot and breathing fast. She looked disdainfully at me, and reproachfully. "But," she said, with scorn, "But what I am to think of you, Don Francis? Do you purpose to spend your life seeking ladies whom you have compromised? No sooner have you lost me than you look for another! And when you find your wife—as you choose to call her—if you are so fortunate, shall you treat her as you have treated me?"
"I hope so," said I. "My first duty will be to ask her forgiveness; my second to convince her of my repentance; my third——"
"Oh, spare me your THIRDLY," said Aurelia drily. "I have no doubt what your third duty will be, and I am sure you will perform it admirably." She grew red, tears gathered in her eyes—she stamped her foot. "Vexatious boy!" she cried out, "I wish to Heaven I had never seen you! You loved me once—but I was not ready. Now that I am—what I am—you are not ready." "I did you a wrong—I was a villain." A great terror struck me. "God have mercy upon me," I cried. "Aurelia! is it possible— is it possible—that you——?"
She came very near me—so near that her quick breath fanned my face—so near that I could distinguish her heart-beats. She took my hands, tried to draw me to her.
"Yes, yes—it is possible—it is possible—it is certain—it is true! I love you—I need you—I will follow you across the world. Do you think me bold? Judge then of my need. Do you suppose such a confession easy to a woman—or lightly made——? Do you think me a bad woman? I shall not deny it—but I shall add to your judgment that I am a loving one. Ah, there was a time," she said bitterly—for she saw my dismay—"there was a time when you prayed me to love you, and I refused. If then I had agreed, would you have gone white and red by turns—would you have averted your eyes—would you have looked on the ground?" She took me in her eager arms, she clung to me, she strove, panted for a kiss. "To me, to me, Francis—you loved me first—you taught me—I am yours by right of conquest. Here I am—on your breast, the forgiving, the longing Aurelia!"
I cannot express what I felt during this scene. Painful as it was to me to know myself unaffected by it, it was exquisite grief to me to have her unqueen herself before my eyes. O Aurelia, to stoop from thy celestial commerce to barter for a kiss! I know not what I said, nor can remember exactly what it was that I did. I was, I trust, gentle with her. I disengaged myself without abruptness and led her to a seat. I said nothing—but when she was more at ease within herself, I knelt before her, kissed her hand respectfully, and left her. It was, I am sure, a case where fewest words were best. I believe that she was weeping; I know that I was.
Going out of the villa gates into the street, I was aware of a cloaked figure standing at the first corner towards Florence, evidently upon the watch for me. The moment I was clear of the gate he came to meet me, and I saw that he was followed by another muffled man, and that both carried swords. I kept my course, however, as if they were no concern of mine, and made room for them to pass me on the side of the wall. But the first of them stopped in front of me.
"A fine night, Don Francis," he said. It was Count Giraldi.
I CONFRONT MY ENEMIES
I could not see his face, for besides that it was now very dark, he kept his cloak up, and had pulled his hat downwards over his brow; but his voice was perfectly familiar. His companion was similarly muffled; I did not then recognise him.
I saluted the count and admitted the fineness of the night. It seemed to me that he had more to say—and he had.
"I have wished a little conversation with you, Don Francis," he said. "Shall we walk together? You are returning to your lodging—after an interview which, to judge from its duration, must have been pleasant."
"My dear count," said I, "Donna Aurelia, as you know, is an old friend of mine. We had much to say. I will walk with you by all means. But your friend here——"
He laughed. "My friend will not disturb us. Let me make two gentlemen acquainted, who should know each other, at least, by name. Marchese, let me present you to my friend Mr. Francis Strelley. Don Francis, be pleased to salute the illustrious Marchese Semifonte."
I began to smell mischief—indeed I had smelt it already. I knew that the count was no longer my friend; and as for Semifonte, no doubt he would murder me if he durst. Here, then, were these two worthies in league, and waiting for me in a lonely place. Lucky that I had my sword.
In the meantime Semifonte raised his hat and bowed; I returned the salutation and said that I had had the advantage of meeting his lordship already. To that he made no reply. We then walked on together—I on the inside, next to me the count, the marchese on the outside.
The count began by congratulating me upon my escape from Florence, and from what might have been a most awkward affair. "Luckily for me," he added, "I was out of the city at the time, or, between my duty and my inclination, I should have found myself in a dilemma."
To that I replied that it was sufficient for me to be sure that he had been absent. "If I had known that Donna Aurelia was still in the Villa San Giorgio," I went on, "at the time when I was hiding from your excellency's servants, I believe I should have pushed my importunities so far as her door."
"You would have asked Donna Aurelia to interest herself in the cause of your charming—your too charming——" I could not see his face, but could have sworn that he was showing his teeth.
"Not at all, count," I said, "not at all. But I should have asked the Grand Duke's principal Minister to remember that he had betrayed an innocent girl's whereabouts to those who sought her ruin, and to give fair play to him who had risked his life to protect her."
"You wrong me, sir," he said warmly; "you accuse me of treachery. Of that I am incapable. As for my distinguished friend here——"
"Let your distinguished friend deny that he purchased Virginia Strozzi from her parents," I retorted; "that he has sought her ever since—that he sent Palamone to murder me—that he still intends some mischief. Let him deny these things, and I speak no more of them."
The marchese said not a word. The count took up the tale.
"Let me, in my turn, trouble you with a few denials. I do not deny that Donna Aurelia was in Florence earlier than you supposed, nor that I kept you in ignorance of it. It was judged better on all accounts. Father Carnesecchi was of that opinion. I believe that the lady had no desire to see you. Perhaps you will pardon my franchise when I say that it would have been singular if she had. She desired to be accommodated with her husband—and that was done. My part in that affair, which I am very ready to defend, need not concern you, though (if I remember rightly) you professed yourself anxious on that account. Now for my denials. I deny flatly that I did any service to my distinguished friend at your expense. I deny it point-blank. And I deny that, when—not for the first time—you took the law into your own hands, I purposely removed myself from the city. That suspicion of yours is not worth so many words. What should my purpose be? What object could I have? Why should I become your enemy?"
"That, sir," I said, "is what I intend to find out. Be so good as to add these to your denials if you can. Will you deny that you witnessed the performance of the Donne Furlane in Siena on the occasion of the Grand Duke's birthday last year?"
He said, "I remember it, and a remarkable performance it was."
"And did you see it in company of Donna Aurelia?"
"And did you give yourself the pain to send officers to arrest an actor called De' Pazzi?"
He was silent. I said then:
"And did you not know that I was that actor? Now, Count Giraldi, since you cannot deny these facts, I will ask you why you are my enemy? For you are not a man who acts without reason."
We were upon the river bank a little short of the Rubiconte Bridge. The water rippled languidly over the muddy reaches, but the rush of the weir was audible. Not another sound was to be heard, not a soul was in sight. We three stopped—I was facing the two men, my back to the low river wall. I heard Giraldi's breath come short and whistling through his fine nose; I heard Semifonte breathing through his mouth—shorter breaths—he was panting.
Count Giraldi spoke, using great command of himself, measuring his words.
"I think I will tell you the facts," he said, "I think that will be best. You can then judge my actions, and, as a reasonable man, govern your own by them.
"Man of the world as I am," he continued, "I must confess that you surprised me upon our first acquaintance. I could not tell whether I was consorting with a very refined profligate or (forgive me) a very singular fool. You came into the city in search (as you told me) of a lady with whom you had had an abortive affair—but you came in company with an attractive person, in a relationship with her which could only bear one interpretation—No, no, you must hear me out, if you please," he said peremptorily, stopping my protest before it could be framed in words. "Upon your representations I interested myself in Donna Aurelia. I judged her attractive by your report; I found that your discernment was even better than I had expected. She came to the convent in some distress, I saw her, she was charming, she charmed me. She was in a chastened mood, subdued, softly melancholy. I believe—indeed, I know— that she had a tenderness for you. Well, I was prepared to be loyal, no one is to say in my presence that I am a false friend. I WAS loyal until—Pest!" cried he, "what did I find? I found that, while you professed the most extravagant regard for the lady, you asked nothing better for yourself than that she should return to the arms of her horrible old spouse! I found also that you had recovered possession of your straight young Contadina by means which were more ingenious than lawful—that she was in your lodgings—your friend—your——"
Semifonte here gave a harsh guttural cry. Giraldi spoke to him in an undertone, then resumed:
"You may remember my interest in that young woman's appearance and manner, when I chanced to find her in your lodgings in the dress of a fine lady. You remember that you then told me her history? Believe me when I say that I did not tell my illustrious friend here of the adventure. He was told, it is true, but not by me. If it will satisfy you, I will take my oath to that. I had no intention of depriving you of your mistress; far from it, that would have destroyed my particular object, which, I will now confess, was to take your place in Donna Aurelia's regard, for which you would not ask. I own also that I did not care to have you in her neighbourhood, and that I very much desired to get rid of you. Why? Because I could see that Donna Aurelia was in love with you."
He paused while I admired his affectation of candour. Presently he went on: "When my friend here proposed to secure your mistress by means of the Capuchin I gave him a free hand; that is to say, I gave you no warning, I admit that. Why again? Because I knew you, Don Francis, and was certain that you would never allow a hand to be laid upon her. I was right, you did not. You did precisely what I desired. You as good as killed the Capuchin and you went into hiding. I wished to keep you there, and so I did. If I had not sent Carabineers into the Piazza—if I had been accessible to your messengers—you would have been fatally in my way. You were never in danger of arrest or imprisonment—but you believed that you were, and that served my purpose.
"You left our State. All was well until you entered it again. I admit that when I saw you in Siena I was in Donna Aurelia's company, and feared the effect of your apparition upon her. She did not recognise you, but I did. I confess that I had you arrested, and assure you that you would never have gone to Volterra, but to Leghorn. You would have been placed upon an English ship and sent to your own country, where your peculiar qualities would have had freer play. Lastly, I admit that I was vexed at your reappearance here in circumstances of prosperity which forbade my touching you. I admit that I have resented this late visit of yours to Donna Aurelia and am still smarting at the length of it. Ridiculous, but so it is! I know that she has a feeling for you—I am not secure—I wish you to go. You are really unconscionable, you must let me say. You have deprived the marchese of a possible mistress, and now you seem inclined to deprive me of an actual mistress. You are exorbitant, my young sir——"
"Stop there, Count Giraldi," I said in a voice which I myself hardly knew for my own. "Stop there. Repeat your last words. You say that I am for robbing you—of what?"
"Donna Aurelia," said he deliberately, "has done me great honour. I am her accepted cavalier. She has accorded me the highest favour. She occupies my villa—the doctor is my humble servant. You will not wish me to enlarge upon this?"
"You are a liar," I said, "you are a liar," and struck him full in the face with my open hand. His white face was nearly all I could see of him.
He recoiled—he had not expected it, I am sure. At that moment, before he could recover his self-possession, Semifonte gave another hoarse cry and leapt at me with a dagger. I caught him under the arm-pit, closed with him and threw him easily. His back gave at the first jerk—there was no strength in him—and when he was on the ground I disarmed him with ease and bade him lie still. I put my foot upon his neck, and drew my sword. "If you stir, assassin, I shall run you through," I said. "Now, Count Giraldi, I am at your service."
"You are bolder than I thought, and readier," the count said; "but you have gone too far, and I shall meet you as soon as you please. I don't know whether you believe that this has been part of my plan, or whether you care to hear me deny it. If you believe me a liar, you can easily believe me assassin also. I will bid you good-night, Don Francis. We know where to find each other."
I told him that my friend, Mr. Robert Malcolm, of the English Legation, would receive any friend of his, at any hour—the sooner the better. He went away.
I removed my foot from the marchese's neck and told him to get up.
"You see, my lord, what your friend thinks of you by the way he has disavowed your performance and left you in the mud," I said. "Give yourself the trouble to go to your own house." I gave him the road and waited while he walked swiftly away. I incline to believe that he was mad, this miserable man. He said nothing—not one word—but did exactly as he was told. I could barely make out the outline of him in the darkness, and could not see his eyes. I know that they were white and scared.
Bob Malcolm came to see me early in the morning with news that the count's cartel had been delivered in form. He told me that I might as well fight the Grand Duke—"For if you kill, Frank, if you kill," says he, "you'll be in a fortress for life; and if you don't kill, why, then you're a dead man. Body of a dog, as they say here, you're a dead man either way." Good Bob was much put about.
I did my best to hearten him. I said that I would take the risk of Volterra, as I had taken it before, and should do my best to kill the count. He was, I said, a lying blasphemer whose death would be an act of justice. Malcolm whistled.
"This is a devilish sharp-set affair," says he; "for that is just how the marchese put his man's frame of mind. He stipulates, it seems, that you fight to the death. Look out for him too, Frank," he added. "He is dangerous. I never liked him; and to-day he looked like a sick wolf."
"Who is your marchese?" I asked without interest.
"Semifonte," says Bob, "and as mad as a March hare." I got up at once. I said, "I shall kill Count Giraldi."
We met in the Cascine at six o'clock of a foggy morning; the light bad, the ground heavy from a night's rain. The marchese wore black, I remember, and looked horrible; a wan, doomed face, a mouth drawn down at one corner, a slavered, untidy red beard; and those wide fish-eyes of his which seemed to see nothing. Count Giraldi bore himself gallantly, as he always did. I was extremely cool.
We stripped and faced each other, the swords were produced and measured; we saluted, and the count at once began a furious attack. I think that on any ordinary occasion he would have proved the better man; he was fully as strong as myself, and as good in the wind—for he lived temperately; and he had had more experience. But to-day, as I soon discovered, he was flurried and made mistakes; twice in the first five minutes I could have disarmed him, and once I very nearly had his life. He was foolhardy to an extraordinary degree; his eyes were unsteady; it seemed to me that he was thinking of something else; and before we had been long engaged I discovered that he was thinking of two things, the first, his own certain death, the second, the state of mind of the Marchese Semifonte. My finding out of the second of these made me resolute to bring about the first of them; otherwise, so wildly was he at work I don't believe I could have brought myself to kill such a tyro as he was proving.
The fact which determined me to kill him was this. I had pushed him vigorously, after parrying with ease half a dozen of his frenzied attacks—I had pushed him, and he had given ground as usual; but, although I did not perceive it at the time, in giving way he had worked back towards his second, who had not budged; so that, as I advanced, I got to be actually within wounding distance of the marchese. Bob Malcolm ought to have knocked our swords up, no doubt; but he did not. In the full tide of my attack, then, when I had my man almost at my mercy, I felt a sudden and sharp pain in the side, and at the same moment heard Malcolm's cry, "Ah, bloody villain, none of that!" Almost immediately I heard the clash of swords, and turning my head for a moment, saw our seconds engaged. In that same instant of forgetfulness Giraldi was upon me, lunged furiously and ran his blade through my sword arm. There was an assassination, planned and nearly achieved!
Red rage now possessed me; I do not believe an angelic messenger could have stopped me now. Changing my sword hand, I attacked my man, who ran lightly back to avoid me. I pursued him, I closed with him, we had a desperate rally for perhaps a minute and a half. I know that I pinked him twice, for I saw the blood on his shirt; in another few seconds I had his sword flying out of his hand and himself his full length on the sward.
There then lay this shameful enemy, traducer of ladies, treacherous friend, hirer of murderers—why should I spare him? I did not intend it. I went up to him fully prepared to deal death upon him, fallen though he were. At that moment I thought that no power of earth or Heaven could have saved his life. And yet there was one power which could and did: the power of Aurelia's name.
His pocket-handkerchief was stuck in his waistband; and as I stood above him full of meditated and most reasonable murder, I happened to see upon it, in red letters, his cipher; a coronet, and under that the initials of his name, Amadeo Giraldi. They struck me like the writing on the wall, as if they had been letters of fire. A. G., I read there—the letters of Aurelia's virgin name! A. G.—Aurelia Gualandi, untried maiden of Siena once, innocent of all the evil that men could devise against her, unsullied rose dropped from the lap of Mary the mother of us all! Could I dare—could I indeed dare to slay one who bore, though shamefully, those letters of hers whose perfection I was here to maintain? I knew that I could not; I lowered my sword.
I looked at him where he lay, perfectly still, calm now, with his black eyes fixed upon mine. I said, "I hope that you are prepared for justice, Count Giraldi, at my hands."
He replied with a smile, "I am prepared for anything, my dear sir. Least of all, perhaps, for justice at this moment."
"It is what you least deserve," I said, "since it is what you practise least; but there are circumstances at work in your favour. You must, however, confess yourself a liar. That is indispensable. Come now, what do you say?" At this moment Malcolm came back with a red sword.
"I have paid him in his own coin," he said, "but I think we had best be off."
"Go, my dear Malcolm," I told him. "Do not delay a moment. I shall not leave Florence in any case."
"Are you mad, my dear?" he cried. I said that I had no notion whether I was mad or not; but that I had work to do in Florence, and intended to finish it. I persuaded him at last to get away to Lucca at once, where I hoped to join him. The doctor came up to report Semifonte quite dead.
I returned to the count, who said to me, "Every man over forty is, and must be, a liar, since, in a sense, his very existence is a lie. If it will satisfy you, I will assure you that I am over forty."
I accepted that periphrasis. "And now," I said, "I will tell you to whom you owe your life. It is to that lady whom you have dared to traduce—to her and no other. I gather that you will not repeat your slander."
"I promise you that, sir," said he. "But I am curious to learn how Donna Aurelia can have interceded."
"Her name in maidenhood," I said, "was Aurelia Gualandi. There upon your handkerchief I read her initials, 'A. G.'"
"The handkerchief is my own, I swear it!" he cried with passion. "Will you make the merest coincidence accuse her again? Shame upon you, sir."
"Never in the world," said I. "I never doubted but it was your own. The cipher saved you, not the handkerchief."
I suppose that he was too faint by now to understand me, for he only put his hand up and shook it to and fro. "Exquisite fool!" I heard him say, and then with a groan, "Gesu, I die!" he fainted in earnest. I helped the surgeon carry him to his coach, then walked to my lodging, leaving the marchese astare at the trees.
I was to dine that night with the Prior of Saint Mark's, a former acquaintance of mine, and I kept my engagement, though I left the party early. My wound, which was painful but not dangerous, was not the cause of that. The fact is that I was arrested while we were sitting over our fruit and wine, at a moment when I was enunciating a favourite theory of mine that this world is a garden for every man alive of us who happens to be a gardener, and for no other; and that he only is a gardener who lives for the joy of his labour and not for the material profit he can make out of his toil. The Grand Inquisitor—that pock-marked Dominican who had treated me with uncharitable harshness upon my first visit to Florence—was present at table, and was upon the point of denouncing my argument as perverse, unchristian and I know not what else; he had said, "It is my deliberate opinion that detestable beliefs as are Atheism, Calvinism, Mahometanism and the tenets of the Quietists, it were better for a man to embrace all of them in one vast, comprehensive blasphemy, than depend for their refutation upon any argument which Mr. Strelley can advance——" when a friar opened the door and ushered in a lieutenant of police and his guard. The officer saluted the company in general and myself in particular. "Sir," he said politely to me, "I have the honour to arrest you, in the Grand Duke's name, for the barbarous murder of the most illustrious Marchese Deifobo Semifonte, for the attempted murder of his Excellency Count Amadeo Giraldi, and for contravention of the law of duelling. By express command of the Syndic I am to put your honour in irons. Corporal, do your duty."
I said nothing in reply, but took leave of my host with all the proper form of society, assuring him that I should take with me whithersover I went a grateful memory of his beautiful and peaceful retirement; I bowed to my fellow-guest, and then suffered the corporal to chain my hands behind me. A coach was awaiting me at the gate; I entered it with the lieutenant and was driven to the Bargello.
I was not ill-treated by any means. I had a small but decent chamber assigned to me, and I was alone. When I demanded that my accusation should be read over, in order that I might engage a lawyer for my defence, I was assured that this would not be at all necessary, as there would be no trial. In that case, I begged them to leave me to repose and meditation, which they were so good as to do. I had an excellent night's rest, and was very ready for my chocolate at eight o'clock in the morning.
Whilst I was sipping this, expecting every moment the arrival of my servant with my clothes, clean linen, letters, and a barber, I heard the key turn in the lock, and made sure that it was Federigo. But the warder introduced a muffled figure of a woman, who, when he had retired, came quickly towards me, as if she was about to stab me. "Miserable young man!" she said fiercely. It was Aurelia!
I sprang up, took, saluted her hand, "Madam," I said, "this is a condescension which I am far from deserving. I have done nothing but my duty."
Her eyes were very bright, and she was distressed for breath; but there was an intensity in her manner—a fire, a flame—which made her vehement.
"Your duty, indeed!" she cried. "When may I expect you to find your duty elsewhere than in my affairs? Am I never to have paid off my original debt to your lordship? It is not enough, it appears, that you make love to me—but you must tell my husband all about it! It is not enough that he drives me out of doors and that you refuse to come with me—no, but you must wander about by yourself, telling all the world what you have done. It is not enough that you make me love you, but you must needs intrigue with a low-born girl, a thing of naught! And now, finally, you come galloping into Florence again, and you—you——Oh, Heavens, I have no patience left to speak of such things! How did you dare"—she stamped her foot furiously, her cheeks were flame-red—"How did you dare do such deeds? You have killed the marchese—dead; you have given Count Amadeo three dangerous wounds and a fever; you are in every mouth, and not you only, you wicked boy, but myself and my husband—and—and——" She wrung her hands, she shook with anger, but at last she was silent. I ventured to say that she did me wrong, though any wrong she did me would be benevolence compared to my trespasses against her. I said that I had not killed the marchese, who, on the contrary, had done his best to murder me twice; and that as for the count, who had slandered her vilely and deserved a felon's death, I had spared his life upon his retractation of his calumny. "I hope," I said in conclusion, "that he told you to whom he actually owed his life."
"He did, sir," said she haughtily; "he told me that you had been very absurd, and had made him feel a fool—which he did not at all relish. Oh, oh, oh!" she broke out with a little burst of laughter, "how could you be so mad as to spare him for his pocket-handkerchief!"
"For a reason, madam," I said, "which does not amuse me at all."
"Nor should it," she agreed. "That was a serious thing that you did, Checho. It was more serious than you seem to suppose. The wounds in his person are nothing compared to what you did beside. He is a proud man, and you have wounded his vanity. I doubt if he will ever be healed of that stroke. Do you know what he said to me just now?"
She was perfectly friendly now, by my side, almost touching me with her quick beautiful hands. With what seemed to me a levity no longer becoming the woman she was grown to be, she talked of serious things with sparkling eyes, and would give me confidences which she had received from an impudent liar. In reply to her question I shook my head. I could not speak to her just then, nor could I look at her.
She told me her story. "Count Amadeo said to me this morning, 'My friend, the fact that I owe you this preposterous debt of initials makes it more than doubtful whether I can ever endure to pay it off. I could have had no objection to stand indebted to Don Francis for my life, but I am a man of honour, with a name which I have some reason to value, and I assure you that it is not tolerable to me that I should owe its continuance in my person to the fact that my mistress's maiden name began with the same letters.' He said also——"
But I had caught her by the arm. "No more," I cried, "No more, O God!"
She was alarmed. "You are ill, you are ill, Checho?"
I said, "I stand at a death-bed. Love lies dying down there. Hush. We should be on our knees."
She was now weeping bitterly. "O lasso! O lasso! What have I done to you?"
"I fought in your honour, madam," I said, commanding myself, "I dared a murder in your defence. I would have stormed Hell's ramparts and put the baleful city to the sword in the same cause. From that accursed day on which I first saw you until now I have held you high before my face as the glory of womanhood. And now you repeat the slander for which that monster lay at my mercy. You repeat it—you allowed him to say it in your ear!"
She was pale, her eyes were wide; but she did not retreat. "But," she said, "but it is true, Checho. It is true. What he said to you was true— and now—" she frowned as she pondered out what was to come; clouds gathered over her beautiful, soulless face; she folded her arms, clenched her teeth and stormed at me.
"You fool, you fool, you fool!" she said fiercely, panting for breath with which to end me. "Oh, you dream-child, you moonraker, what are you doing in a world where men work for their pleasures and women have to cringe for the scraps? What was I to do when Porfirio shut me out of doors, and you—you, who had caused it, refused to come with me? Was I to spread my wings and fly straight into the lap of the Madonna? You would say so, I suppose! Your flights were very fine, but one cannot live on the wind. Any man but a poet would have picked me up at the door and taken care of me with a 'Come, my beloved, we will fly together.' But no! You were making eyes at the stars, and protesting that two of them were my eyes, and the moon my forehead. And then—O Dio! and then, when you found me again in Florence, what did you do? I was at my wit's ends, and you kissed my hands! There! That was all—all—all—on the word of a Christian! Did I not try to get more from you? Any one but a poet would know that I did. I heard your long poems, I touched you, I ran to meet you, I was kind, I was cross, I called you to me and then turned my back upon you. And then I found out, sir, what your baciar-di- mani, and bowings and reverences were worth. They were worth—myself. You had your Virginia snug at home, in a brocaded gown, and a fan, my word! Do you think I could not guess the truth of your story about her? Her honour indeed! What have such rubbish to do with honour? A Virginia, a baggage for your arms—and I, to have my hand kissed, and to yawn over dreary verses! By the Madonna, but I did my best to stop that play. Let me tell you, Don Francis, that it was I—I—I"—she struck her bosom with each naming of herself—"who told Semifonte where he could lay hands upon his chattel. You believed it was the count—it was I!" Quivering, breathing fire and anger, beautiful as a goddess and wicked as a fiend—what was I to say to this terrible witness? She had stayed for lack of breath, panting, tapping her foot, her bosom heaving like the sea under her close arms—and I was face to face with her, alone, with ruin between us. So with a stamp of her little foot, so with a flick of the fingers, it seems, she had broken her own image and killed love outright. There and then love died, and his funeral knell was the horrid barking laughter with which I greeted this end of her story.
"Madam," I said, when I had laughed hatefully and long, "I have robbed you of a lover, and you, in return, have robbed me of my love. You ought to be as much obliged to me as I am to you."
She scowled at me darkly. I think she would have stabbed me gladly, but just then the warder entered with my servant, and an official from the palace. This latter, with a profound salutation, handed me a letter from the count. Asking leave, I opened it and read as follows:
MY DEAR DON FRANCIS,—I have just learned, with concern, that you are in prison upon two charges—one false, and another which is trumpery. I hasten to assure you that orders have been given which will satisfy your sense of justice, and, I hope, improve your opinion of myself. I believe that by this time you will have been assured that it was not I who betrayed your confidences to Semifonte—who, between you and me, has got his deserts, or (according to the orthodox) must now be getting them. As for my more recent offence—the real ground of our little encounter—I can assure you of this, that if I ever make any such assertion again, and you again call me a liar, I shall not resent it; for a liar I shall be. I kiss your hands and am, with the most perfect esteem,
"My dear Don Francis,
"Your most obedient, faithful, humble servant,
"COUNT AMADEO GIRALDI.
"P. S.—It may be discreet in you to repair to Lucca for the summer heats. Pray command me in any occasion you may have."
My doors were set open. The first use I made of my freedom was to escort Donna Aurelia to her chair. Without a word spoken between us, I handed her in and shut to the door. The chairman asked me for a direction.
"To the house of Dr. Lanfranchi the learned judge," I said.
THE FINAL PROOF
Free in every sense of the term—free, of prison, free of debt (for if Aurelia had paid me, I had now paid her husband), free of every obligation but guilt, I was all on fire for Lucca and that service which is perfect freedom, voluntary bondage to Virginia, whom I could now love whole-heartedly as she deserved. Artemis! Artemis! Chaster than a fire— what wonder is it that she had prevailed in that dream-strife which I had witnessed in the villa garden, what wonder when she had to contend with the soiled wife of a vile man—with Aurelia, the lovely, caressing, silken woman, bought by a place, bought by a house, who, possessed by two men, sought yet another. Ah, thou glowing, honey-tongued, unhappy one, in what a horrible web of affairs was I enmeshed along with thee! What a world was that into which I went ruffling with my money, and rank and fine prospects! Never more, never more would I enter that world of bargain and sale.
So I swore, and so purposed; but in pursuance of a plan which I had formed in my most private mind, I travelled to Lucca in a coach and four horses, with postillions before and my body-servant behind. On this occasion I was furnished with a passport and abundance of money. All my property in Florence, all my household gear had been transferred to the city of my choice. I left behind me in Florence not one vestige of myself, and (so far as I know) not one true friend. I intended to be two days upon the road, and lay the night at Empoli; early on the following morning, a fine day in early autumn, I departed from the inn for my final stage, and fared without incident as far as Ponte a Cappiano.
Before the hill of Altopascio is reached, the traveller must accomplish a lonely stretch of road, which runs for some three miles through a ragged wood. This place bears a bad name; it is debatable land, as we say, between the Republic of Lucca and the Grand Duchy, and a well-known haunt for footpads, highwaymen, outlaws, and other kinds of cut-throat. So, at least, my servant said when, stopping the carriage, I got out and proposed to walk through the wood by a direct path and meet my conveyance at the top of the pass. He begged me very earnestly to do nothing of the kind. "The road is the only tolerable way for your lordship," he assured me; and then, with a start, he added, "Hark, sir, hark! As I live by bread, we are pursued even now." I listened, and could hear a long way off the regular pounding of a horse.
However, I paid no more attention to that than to see to the priming of my pistols. I had been near death too often of late to stand on any ceremony with it; and there are times in life when one can see beyond it. I had a certainty that I should not die until I had found Virginia. Therefore I dismissed the carriage and walked on. Now and again, as I entered more deeply into the thicket, I caught the sound of hoofs; but I soon grew to disregard them and presently forgot their menace altogether.
This wood, of holm-oak, holly and beech for the most part, rises and dips twice before it climbs the final ascent to the crown above Altopascio. A cart-track runs through it, deeply rutted and always miry, on either hand of which glades are revealed of great beauty. Here, if the trees are remote, the grass grows lush and green. Hereabouts are the flowers, tall and plenty—foxgloves and mullein, such as we have at home, and loosestrife (lysimachia), both the yellow and the purple. The sun shone brilliantly between the leaves, the air was sweetly tempered, the wood was empty. I felt exalted, as I always do when I am alone. I was hopeful; I was still young. God, methought, was about to bless me abundantly, after making stern trial of me. My secret thought ran rhythmically in my head. I walked briskly up the first slope, surmounted it, and stood looking down upon a scene more charming than that which I was about to leave—a deeper, greener glade, with a clearing in the midst, and a rude gipsy tent and a little fire, and two persons beside it. As I stood looking I heard the crackling of the brushwood and dead twigs behind me. The horseman, whoever he was, had entered the wood and was following the track.
But the encampment below me engrossed all my eyes. In that windless hollow a thin spire of smoke rose blue towards the blue. An iron pot was suspended on three poles; the smoke hugged it closely, united above it, and rose in a column. The couple, a young man and woman, sat still, watching it. Their meal was ended, I judged, and they were summoning resolution for the road. The woman, with a pretty, weary gesture, put her head upon the man's shoulder. He embraced her with his arm, bent his head and kissed her. Stooping yet lower, he kissed her lap. I saw that she had a child asleep there. Just then both of them heard, as I did, the horse's hoof strike on a stone. They both started, and looked up towards me. My heart stood still, my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. Those two were Belviso and Virginia—and the child! the child! In a flash of instantaneous reflection I remembered that a year ago Belviso had gone to Lucca to find Virginia, had reported her to me as not there, and at Arezzo had asked leave to seek her again.
Oh, monstrous thought! Oh, monstrous thinker, Francis! But I was incapable of justice or reason. I thought here to see the mockery of God; and I, who imagined so wickedly, went on to deal wickedness.
I strode down the hill upon them without a word, my eyes blazing like coals. Both recognised me at the same moment. Virginia stood up, holding her child close to her, but never budged; Belviso cried, "Master!" and started towards me. When he saw with what countenance I was coming, he faltered and stood ill at ease. In my blind fury I put this down to his guilt; good God, what more did I meditate? Oh, horrible! I stopped and cocked my pistol.
"Ah, false wife once," I said terribly, "and now false mistress! Traitress, with this traitor whom I believed my friend——"
Belviso here gave a cry and held up his hand. He was looking, not at me, but behind me to the slope down which I had come. "Master, beware, beware," he called out in his ringing young voice. "Palamone is behind you. Treachery indeed!"
I turned, and saw that he spoke the truth. Fra Palamone, booted and spurred, with a huge black cloak flagging about him, was close upon me, walking his horse tenderly down the hill. His face was distorted with a grin, there was a light, scared look in one of his eyes, whose brow was lifted more than the other. If ever appearance foretold mischief, that did his.
He saw that I was armed, no doubt, for he reined up out of shooting distance, bowed to me, and spoke my name. I asked him what he wanted.
"A little talk, if you please, Don Francis," he said in his blandest tone, "a little friendly talk."
"You rascal," said I, "a cudgelling was the upshot of your last. Do you want another? Have you earned it yet?"
"God do so unto me if I meditate any harm to your Excellency," said the old villain. "Upon Christ's life and death I can do you a service at last, and so I will. Know first of all that the most charitable deed you ever did in your life was to break your cane over my wicked body. Yes, yes, I tell you truly, you saved a soul that day, and I care not who knows it. Sir, sir!" said he earnestly, "I am here not only to thank you for having restored me my soul, but to give you a letter which will restore you your wife, and tell you the whole truth about her into the bargain."
"Who wrote your letter?" I asked him, and he told me, "One who knows. Miriam the Jewess."
I am to confess that he deceived me again. I was fool enough to believe that he could explain to me the guilty history of these two persons behind me—these two and their child. We believe what we desire to believe, whether it be of good or evil report. I bade him give me his letter; he dismounted and came towards me, fumbling in his cloak. "'Tis here," he was muttering to himself. "No, no, that is my pardon from his Holiness. Ah, what have we here? Nay, 'tis my certificate of communion. How, how? Have I lost it?" Grumbling and mumbling, grating his loose tooth, he was close upon me, his hand deep in his cloak. "Ha, ha!" he suddenly cried, "now I have it!" and whipped out his hand. Belviso shrieked my name aloud, "Francis, my lord and king!" and flung himself upon my breast. There was a shocking report of a pistol, discharged close at hand. Belviso shuddered and fell limp—a dead weight. I raised my arm, levelled, and shot Palamone through the head.
We picked up the lifeless form of that lad whom I had once loved for his love of me and laid him by the fire. Virginia knelt beside him, pale and tearless; pale, stern and tearless also I stood above him, my weapon still reeking in my hand. "Woman," said I hoarsely, "would that I had fired that shot. Do you dare to say that he has not got his deserts?"
She did not answer me; she was busy with the dead. She opened his jacket and vest and put her hand below his shirt to feel if his heart yet fluttered. Then she lifted to me a stern pure face. "His deserts, my lord, say you? Come, kneel you by me, and see whether he have them or no."
Some impulse, I know not what, made me obey. I kneeled down by Virginia. She opened reverently the clothing of Belviso, laid back the vest, laid back the cotton shirt. Wonder, terror, a flood of shame came scalding into my eyes. I had looked upon, but now could not see, the young breasts of a girl. My proof had turned to my reproof. I was humbled to the dust. "Poor child," said Virginia very softly, "poor sinner, who died to save him that had once saved thee, I pray to God that thou knowest now how innocently he did thee this wrong." She stooped and kissed the cold lips, but I fell upon the cold bosom and wept bitterly.
She let me sob my full. Not until I was calmer did the noble girl touch me upon the shoulder and call me by my name. "Francis," she said, "do not reproach yourself any more. This poor soul has done what she must in any case have done. Her heart was yours, and yours, she knew, could never have been given her. She was loyal to you through all and deceived you through loyalty. She is repaid in the only coin she could have asked. God have her soul." [Footnote: Belviso's tragic masquerade was not at all uncommon in Italy at the time of which I write. If a girl were desirous of becoming a comedian she must, unless her talents were extraordinary, appear to be a male. The salaries of women, to begin with, were high and out of the reach of poor companies of players; and secondly, as I have said in the text, some States, such as the Roman, forbade the appearance of women upon the scene. Women's parts, therefore, would be taken by castrati, or boys, whose sex it was necessary for a woman to assume. There was another reason which, I fondly believe, induced Belviso to adopt that name and appearance. A woman appearing as such must be morally ruined. I never heard of an exception to the rule. Belviso's real name was Geronima Sastre, and she was a native of the Trentino.—F. A. S.] I looked up at my beloved—now at last my entirely beloved—wife. Bare as she was, her neck bare of covering, her finger of the ring, she was my wife before God and the angels. I rose and faced her, she met my looks without flinching, in her eyes was no shame. The child lay sleeping in her shawl.
My heart beat high. I lifted up my face to the sky and laughed aloud. "O God, O God, Thou hast redeemed me!" I cried. Then to Virginia I said, "This child of thine——"
"It is thine," said Virginia.
My arms embraced both mother and babe, but with a hand I took her by the chin. She turned her face to me, and with her clear eyes searched my face. "It is ours," she said, and blushed.
"And I am yours, my Virginia," I said, and stooped to her. Our lips met and stayed together. We kissed long, drinking the joy of one another. The Fool would err no more.
HERE BELVISO LIES WHO DIED TO SAVE HIS FRIEND
Under this superscription we consigned to the dust the dust of our dear benefactor; and that reverently done, we settled ourselves in Lucca, where we have remained ever since, where I have written these pages, where I intend to live and die. Of my true marriage with my beloved, expect no raptures in this place, seek no further, ask no more. This is holy ground. In all these years wherein she has been spared to be my well of bliss, my fountain of nourishment, my stem of solace, I declare with my hand on my heart, never for one moment did she cease to be my loving, willing, chaste and discerning wife. We have been poor, for I renounced my inheritance in favour of my next brother, retaining nothing of it, and began the world again where I left it when I was driven from Lucca by misfortunes; and by industry and thrift we have risen to a competence enough to educate our children according to the degree marked out by their birth. I did this deliberately, having found out by hard experience that money was the bondslave of lust, and rank the breastplate of inanity. Had I taken my wife to England I must have retained my wretched panoply; but England also I renounced, and that also deliberately. I shall take leave to close my relation with a few words upon my choice of life.
It has been said, with truth and reason, that our vices are but the excrescences of our virtuous essence. If I am justly to be called a Fool then, and my folly a vice, it is because it has ever been a ruling need of my nature to be naked, and to desire to deal nakedly with my neighbours, who, to serve my ends, must themselves be unclad. Let the light scoffer understand me. I speak of the soul, and of spiritual and moral matters. All my good fortune, and I have had much, was due to my ability to indulge that spiritual urgency of mine, and to my having been dealt with as I desired to deal; all my troubles, and they were not few, were bruises inflicted upon my simple soul by others, who opposed their mail-clad might to my tenderness. Not once, but many times, in the course of this narration, I have had occasion to show how the poor, the outcast, the forsaken and the very young entreated me, as one must suppose the Saviour of us all, His Divine Mother, and the guardian angels would entreat each other or us. The proud, the greatly circumstanced, the rich, the enclosed, the sitters in chief seats, wounded me, shocked, rebuffed, cast me down. But in this land the Genius of the place delights only to dwell in the hearts of the poor. They are the true Tuscan nations, and in spite of governments they remain the salt of the earth and the heirs of all that is good in it. In England it is not so. There the poor are serfs; there feudalism forbids intercourse; there the weak suspect (and rightly) the benevolence of the strong; and the strong can only be benevolent in proportion as they are weak. Consider for a moment what flows from these axiomata; it will result, I think, that Honour, Religion, and Love, the three fortresses of the human soul, will be found deeply involved with them.
Honour, as I understand it, consists in the nice adjustment of what is due to me from my neighbours, and to them from me. Here, among the poor, where a native reserve has not grown, as a fungus upon it, a native cant, where there is no desire to seem better than one is, and no belief that one is so by seeming—here, I say, among the Tuscan poor, there is never any difficulty, for here there is no excrescence to the substantial quality of the soul, but precisely to the contrary, there is, if anything, a denudation. The fault of the Tuscans is, perhaps, a carelessness of opinion, and an ignorance of it, and, springing from that, a lack of reserve which occasionally approaches the shocking. Be this as it may, here it is possible for man to envisage man, each as he really is and can be discerned to be.
In England it is not so. Honour is an artificial, manufactured thing, depending upon accepted, volunteered relationships. What is due from me to my lord differs from that which his lordship owes to me: so in any traffic between me and my valet, or my valet and the kitchen-boy. So also it is with Religion. The Englishman dare not even strip before his God, but will bear his garter or his worsted-braid, his cocked or cockaded hat, his sword or his dung-fork up to the very sanctuary rails— lest, forsooth, by leaving them at home he should either seem so poor as to be without them, or so rich as to be able to discard them. But here, what a difference! Not only is man naked before God, but God stands naked before man. The church is their common ground; the church is their inn, and the blessed table their market ordinary. At this board, God and man, man and the saints, meet as friends. The sweetest intercourse possible on earth is not denied them. They may be gossips, God and man; they may be lovers, bosom friends. Is this not a hopeful estate for the tried and erring, naturally affectionate soul? I trow that it is.
And as with Honour, as with Religion, so with that child of the pair, so with Love. Boy and maid, man and woman, in this country stand as children hand in hand before their parent, who is God. Hand in hand, in seemly innocence, naked, without shame, or underthought or afterthought, they stray about the flowery meads. Their hearts are by chance enkindled, each burns, fire seeks the embrace of fire; they touch, they mingle, they soar together. Wedded love, which neither soars nor leaps like a furnace, but glows steadily with equable and radiant heat—wedded love ensues this passionate commingling. But the pair remain what they were at first, simple, naked, unashamed, unshameful, with all things displayed, even to the very aspirations of the secret soul, in blessed sympathy, in union blessed and to be blessed.
Such, I say, may be, and indeed is, the case with many honoured, wedded pairs observed by me. Such, I thank God, has been my own lot, since that day when, after long tribulation, I took Virginia into my arms and held her to my breast. But of that, and of her, I dare write no more. Judge me favourably, reader, for her sake; and so farewell.
LUCCA, October 20, 1741.
[Mr. Strelley lived, I believe, until the spring of 1759, and was buried behind the altar of San Romano. His house, now a hospital, is still intact, and may be visited by the curious, as it was by me.—M. H.]