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The Lady Paramount
by Henry Harland
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"Listen," she said, "and you shall hear of the midday quest of Commendatore Fregi. I will tell you step by step what steps you are to take. My cousin is staying with the Ponte brothers at their villa. Well,—first step of all,—you are to call upon him."

"No," said the Commendatore, jerking his head, his baldish old head with its fringe of iron-grey curls.

"Yes," said Susanna, resolutely compressing her lips.

"No," said he. "It is not etiquette. The new-comer pays the first call."

"That is Italian etiquette," said she. "But my cousin is an Englishman."

"Nun fa nien'e. He is in Italy. He must conform to the customs of the country," insisted Commendatore Fregi, in the dialect of Sampaolo, twirling his fierce old moustaches, glaring with his mild old eyes.

"No," said Susanna, softly, firmly; "we must stretch a point in his favour. He is English. We will adopt the custom of his country. So you will call upon him. I wish it."

"Ph-h-h," puffed the Commendatore, fanning himself with his cap. "Well—?" he questioned.

Susanna, in her diaphanous light-coloured frock, leaned back, smiling. The Commendatore fanned himself rapidly with his cap, and waited for her instructions.

"You call upon him, you introduce yourself as an old friend of the family. 'As a boy, I knew your grandfather, your grandmother, and I was a playfellow of your father's.'"

She threw back her head, pouted out her lips, and achieved a very admirable counterfeit of the Commendatore's manner.

"You ask the usual questions, pay the usual compliments. 'Can I have the pleasure of serving you in anyway? I beg leave to place myself at your disposal. You must not fail to command me'—and patati and patata."

"You are an outrageous little ape," said the Commendatore, grinning in spite of himself. "You would mimic the Devil to his face."

"No," said Susanna. "I only mimic people when I am fond of them."

And again she lifted her eyes to his, where they melted in her tender, teasing smile.

"Ph-h-h," puffed the Commendatore, agitating his cap.

"And then," pursued Susanna, "having paid the usual compliments, you rise to go."

"Ah—bene," said the Commendatore, and his lean old yellow face looked a good deal relieved.

"Yes," said she. "But then, having risen to go, then, like the wily and supple diplomat you are, you come to the real business of your visit."

"Oh?" said the Commendatore.

He sat forward, on the edge of his chair, and frowned. He had thought his troubles were over, and now it appeared that they had not yet begun.

"Yes," said Susanna. "Having risen to go, you pause, you hesitate, and then suddenly you take your courage in both hands. 'Count,' you say, 'I wish to speak to you about your cousin.' And thereupon, frankly, confidentially, you proceed to lay before him the difficulties of your position. 'I was your cousin's guardian; I am still her nearest friend; I occupy the place of a parent towards her, and feel myself responsible for her. And one of my chief concerns, one of my first duties, is, of course, to see that she makes a good marriage. She is a great heiress—she would be the natural prey of fortune-hunters. I must protect her, I must direct her. With one hand I must keep away undesirable suitors, with the other hand I must catch a desirable one. But now observe my perplexities. Your cousin is peculiar. She is not in the least like the typical submissive young Italian girl. She is excessively self-willed, capricious, fantastic, unreasonable——'"

"Bravo," put in the Commendatore, clapping his bony old hands. "I can say all that with a clear conscience." He twirled his moustaches again.

"Do you think I would ask you to say anything you could n't say with a clear conscience?" Susanna demanded, with a glance of reproach. "So, with a clear conscience, you go on: 'Your cousin is fantastic, unreasonable, sentimental, romantic, extravagant. And—to come to the point—she has got it into her unreasonable and romantic little head that she has no right to the position which she occupies. She has studied the history of her family, and she has got it into her perverse little head that by the changes which took place in 1850 a very great injustice was perpetrated. She has persuaded herself, in short, that the properties here at Sampaolo, which are technically and legally hers, are rightfully and morally yours; and, to tell you the whole truth, since my guardianship expired, a few months ago, I have had hard work to restrain her from taking measures to relinquish those properties in your favour.' No—don't interrupt," she forbade him, when the Commendatore made as if to speak.

A sound of guttural impatience died in the old man's throat. He fanned himself nervously, while Susanna, smiling, resumed the lesson.

"'But,' you declare with energy, 'I have restrained her, and I shall continue to restrain her. She could only make the properties over to you by becoming a nun and taking vows of perpetual poverty. I will fight to my dying gasp to prevent her from doing that. However'—and now you change your note, and speak as one anxious to conciliate and convince—'however, it has occurred to me that there is a simple course by which the whole awkward situation could be solved—by which your cousin's scruples could be set at rest, and you yourself put in possession of your ancestral estates. My dear Count, your cousin is a charming girl, and it is my chief concern and duty to arrange a suitable marriage for her. Let me have the very great satisfaction of arranging a marriage between her and you.'"

Susanna leaned back, and laughed. But the Commendatore frowned at her with genuine anger.

"Macche!" he cried. "What fool's talk is this? What farce are you preparing?"

"No farce," said Susanna, gently. "Only a wedding—at which you shall give the bride away. And now—the launch is waiting. The sooner you are off, the sooner you 'll return."

"Never," said the Commendatore. "I would sell myself to be chopped into sausage-meat, before I would become a party to any such carnival tricks."

"Carnival tricks? Do you call marriage a carnival trick?" Susanna wondered. "Or do you wish me to live and die an old maid? Is it or is it not your duty to arrange a suitable match for me?"

"It is not my duty to arrange a match for you with a foreigner whom I have n't the honour of knowing," he retorted.

"Well, then," urged Susanna, "go to my cousin and make him the proposition I have suggested. And if he says yes,—if he consents to marry me,—I give you my most solemn promise that not for any consideration in the world will I accept him."

"What?" questioned the Commendatore, blinking at her.

"If he says yes, I 'll say no. If he says no, he says no. So it is no, either way," she pointed out. "And meanwhile—the launch is waiting."

"If he says no!" scoffed the Commendatore. "Is the man born who will say no to a bag of gold?"

"That's exactly what you have now an opportunity of discovering," she replied. "But if he says yes, I give you my solemn promise, it will be the end of him, so far as I 'm concerned."

The Commendatore rubbed the back of his neck.

"I never heard such a gallimaufry of headless and tailless nonsense," he declared.

"Think of that poor long-suffering launch," said Susanna. "You are still keeping it waiting."

"It may wait till the sea dries up, for all of me," said the Commendatore, settling himself in his seat. "Do you take me for Pulcinella? I will not begin at my time of life to play carnival tricks."

"Ah, well, after all," said Susanna, "it does n't really matter very much."

And apparently she abandoned her intention. But after a pause she added, rather as if speaking to herself, "I must send for Father Angelo, I suppose."

"What?" snapped out the Commendatore, sitting up.

"Yes," said Susanna, dreamily, "Father Angelo. He won't refuse to do what I ask him to."

"Bah," said the Commendatore. "A priest—a monk—a shaveling—a bare-toes."

"A very good, kind, holy man," said Susanna. "And as my cousin is a faithful Catholic, I think on all accounts Father Angelo will serve my purpose best."

"Peuh—a Jesuit," said the Commendatore, elevating his nose.

"He is n't a Jesuit—he is a Capuchin," said Susanna.

"They are all Jesuits," said the Commendatore, with a sweeping gesture. "A brown-back—a funeral-follower—a prayer-monger," he growled, brushing his immense moustaches upwards, to emphasize his scorn.

"Hush," Susanna remonstrated, lifting her hand. "You must n't rail against religion."

"I do not rail against religion," answered the Commendatore. "Taken in moderation, religion is an excellent thing—for women. Did I not see that you were religiously brought up? But when it comes to these priests, these Jesuits,—when it comes to that Father Angelo,—I would have them all hung up and smoke-dried, to make bacon of. Garrh!" he snorted, tossing his head.

"Yes, I know," murmured Susanna. "You were always jealous of Father Angelo."

"I? Jealous of that gnawer of fish-bones? It is probable," sniffed the Commendatore.

He rose from his chair, and stood before her, very slim and erect, his chin thrust forward, so that the tendons of his long thin neck showed like wires.

"But I am an old ass. I can deny you nothing. I go to your cousin," he consented.

"You are an old dear," said Susanna. "I knew you would go."

Her eyes were brimming with mirth, with triumph, with fondness. She rose too, and gently patted his stiffly-starched white duck sleeve.

After he was gone, she crossed one of the light marble bridges, and walked in the garden on Isola Sorella, where it was shaded by a row of ilexes. Blackcaps (those tireless ubiquitous minstrels) were singing wildly overhead; ring-doves kept up their monotonous coo-cooing. Beyond, in the sun, butterflies flitted among the flowers, cockchafers heavily droned and blundered, a white peacock strutted, and at the water's edge two long-legged, wry-necked flamingoes stood motionless, like sentinels. At the other side of the ilexes stretched a bit of bright green lawn, with a fountain plashing in the middle, from whose spray the sun struck sparks of iridescent fire; and then, terrace upon terrace, the garden rose to a summit, where there was a belvedere.

I don't know how many times Susanna strolled backwards and forwards, I don't know how many times she looked at her watch. Here and there semi-circular marble benches were placed. Sometimes she would sit down and rest for a little; but she was soon up again, walking, walking, looking at her watch. At last she left the shade, crossed the lawn, ascended the terraces, between orange and lemon-trees with their undergrowth of jessamine, and entered the belvedere, having by this progress created a panic indescribable in the community of lizards.

From the belvedere she could command the whole sunlit surface of the bay, here blue, here silver, here deepening to violet, paling to green, here dimly, obscurely rose. A fleet of fishing-boats, their coloured sails decorated with stripes and geometric patterns, or even now and then with a representation of the owner's patron-saint, was putting out to sea in single file, between the Capo del Turco and the Capo del Papa. But Susanna concentrated her attention upon a part of the shore, perhaps half a mile distant, and half a mile to the east of Vallanza, where the grey-green of the prevailing olives was broken by the dark-green of a garden. The garden ran out into the bay a little, forming a point. Susanna waited and watched, watched and waited, till, by-and-by, from behind the point, a boat appeared, a launch, and came swiftly bobbing over the waves towards Isola Nobile. She must have kept very still during this vigil, for now, when she turned to leave the belvedere, she saw that at least a hundred lizards had come forth from their hiding-places, and were staring at her with their twinkling little pin-heads of eyes. But even as she saw them—zrrrp!—a flash, a rustle, and there was not a lizard anywhere in sight.

She went back to the colonnade.

"My dear," said Commendatore Fregi, "your cousin is an extremely fine fellow, and upon my word I am sorry that my mission to him has failed. I could not hope to find you a better husband."

Whatever the Commendatore's emotion might be, it generally impelled him to do something to his moustaches. Now he pulled them straight out at either side.

"Your mission has failed?" asked Susanna. "How do you mean?"

"He cannot marry you," said the Commendatore, with a shake of the head, a shrug of the shoulders. "He is engaged to a lady in England."

"Ah—I see," said Susanna.

"He is very good-looking," said the Commendatore. "He is his grandfather come back to life."

"Is he indeed?" said Susanna.

"Yes," affirmed the Commendatore. "He dresses well. He has a good manner. He is very quiet."

"Englishmen are apt to be quiet," said Susanna.

"He speaks Italian as well as I do," went on the Commendatore. "But he cannot speak Sampaolese."

"He could easily learn Sampaolese," said Susanna.

"Yes," said the Commendatore. "When I repeated that humbug about your becoming a nun and resigning the properties to him, he held up his hands in horror. 'She must not think of such a thing,' he cried. 'Tell the young lady that I could never conceivably accept such a sacrifice. I understand her scruples, and they do her great honour. But she and I and all of us must accept the situation as we find it. She must not think of becoming a nun.' You see, he has good sense as well as good feeling. That is what I have always told you myself—we must accept the situation as we find it. There's no use trying to open up the past."

"H'm," said Susanna, on a key of doubt.

"And then, with my heart in the business, for I had seen that he was of the right stuff, then I proposed a marriage," said the Commendatore. "I put it to him as strongly as I could. I painted the advantages in vivid colours. But it was no good. He cannot marry you. He is already betrothed."

"So you said," Susanna reminded him. "To a lady in England, I think?"

"Yes," assented the Commendatore. "It is a pity on our account that he will not throw her over. But it is to his credit. Let me tell you it is not every man in his position who would stick at the point of honour. Consider the alternative. He throws over his Englishwoman, and he becomes master not only of one of the noblest estates in Europe, but of an estate which must have for him the incalculable additional value of being his patrimony." Never chary of gesture, the speaker was at this point lavish of it.

"May I be permitted," said Susanna, raising her eyebrows, "to admire the light-hearted way in which you leave me out of the saga?"

"You?" puzzled the Commendatore. "Out of the—what? What is a saga?"

"A Scandinavian legend," Susanna instructed him. "Now see how you leave me out of your Scandinavian legend. 'Consider the alternative,' said you. 'He throws over his Englishwoman, and he becomes—' Well, you said, 'Master of a noble estate.' But a really gallant person might have said, 'Husband of a perfectly entrancing Italian woman.'"

She pulled a little face.

"Ha," laughed the Commendatore, briefly. "You must have your joke." And his hand instinctively made for his moustaches. "Well, I am sorry. I can never hope to find you a better husband."

"You need never try," said Susanna. "He will do."

"What?" said the Commendatore.

"He will do," said she. "We'll have a grand wedding in the Cathedral. The Bishop shall officiate, in his very best cope and mitre, and you, with your grandest flourish, shall give the bride away."

The Commendatore shrugged his shoulders, and gazed for commiseration at the sky.

"You are incomprehensible," he said. "Haven't I spent an hour telling you he is affianced to a lady in England?"

"No," said Susanna; "only something like ten minutes."

"Brrr," said the Commendatore, contemptuous of the quibble.

"And anyhow, I shall marry him," said Susanna. "You have made me quite fall in love with him, by your glowing description—and I rather liked him before. The lady in England is neither here nor there. We 'll be married in the Cathedral, where so many generations of our ancestors have been married. His friend Mr. Willes shall be best man; and the Pontes shall pontificate in their most British manner, with wedding-favours sent out from London. And so the ancient legitimate line of the Valdeschi shall be restored."

"You are mad," said the Commendatore, simply.

"And you shall offer us a wedding-breakfast at the Villa Fregi," she pursued. "We 'll have all sorts of nice things to eat and drink, and you shall propose the health of the bride, and make a magnificent speech. And I shall wear my coronet—which I have never yet worn—for then I shall be the Countess of Sampaolo with a clear right to the title. And now I 'll tell you a secret. Would you like me to tell you a secret?" she inquired.

"I can tell you a secret that will soon be a matter of public notoriety," said the Commendatore. "And that is that you 've clean gone out of your senses."

"The lady he is engaged to in England," said Susanna, "guess who she is. I give it to you in a million."

"How the devil can I guess who she is?" said the Commendatore.

"Well, then, listen," said Susanna. "You must n't faint, or explode, or anything—but the lady he's engaged to in England is your old friend—that bold adventuress, that knightess errant—the widow Torrebianca."

"Domeniddio!" gasped the Commendatore, falling back in his chair.

And I half think he would have pulled his moustaches out by their roots if Susanna had n't interceded with him to spare them.

"Don't—don't," she pleaded. "You won't have any left."

"Domeniddio!" he gasped three separate times, on three separate notes.

"If you're surprised," said Susanna, "think how much more surprised he will be."

"Do-men-id-dio!" said the Commendatore, in a whisper.

And then a servant came to announce that luncheon was ready.



XXIV

That morning Anthony had received a letter from Miss Sandus. It was dated and postmarked Craford, where, indeed, (although Miss Sandus was now at Isola Nobile), it had been written. It had been written at Susanna's request, almost under her dictation. Then she had given it to a confidential servant, with orders that it should be committed to the post three days after her departure.

"I sometimes forget, my dear," Miss Sandus had improved the occasion to remark, "that you are not English; but the Italian in you comes out in your unconquerable passion for intrigue."

The initial and principal paragraph of the letter ran as follows:—

"Do you remember once upon a time complaining to me of your lady-love that she was rich? and setting up her wealth as an obstacle to your happy wooing?—and how I pooh-poohed the notion? Well, now, it would appear, that obstacle is by way of being removed. You will have learned in your copy-book days that Fortune is a mighty uncertain goddess. And I am writing by Susanna's desire to let you know that circumstances have quite suddenly arisen which make it seem likely that she may be in some danger, if not actually on the point, of losing nearly everything that she possesses. I don't altogether clearly understand the matter, but it springs from some complication in her family, and a question whether a rather distant relative has n't a better claim than her own upon the properties she has been enjoying. She wishes me to tell you this, because, as she says, 'It may make some difference in his plans.' I am well aware, of course, as I have assured her, that it will make none—unless, indeed, it may intensify your impatience for an early wedding-day. But she insists upon my writing; and when she insists, I notice that no one ever for very long resists. What is that mysterious virtue, which some people have in abundance, (but most of us so abundantly lack), by which one is compelled, if they say go, to go, if they say come, to come? There is a question for you to meditate, as you walk by the shores of the Adriatic, under 'the golden leaves of the olives.' I wonder whether you will recollect from what poet that is quoted—'the golden leaves of the olives.' Well, they are golden in certain lights."

I dare say Anthony was still digesting his letter from Miss Sandus, when it was followed by the somewhat startling visit of Commendatore Fregi; and perhaps he was still under the impression of that, when, in the afternoon, he was summoned from a game of tennis, to receive the communication which I transcribe below, from the Contessa di Sampaolo. It was brought to him by a Capuchin friar, a soft-spoken, aged man, with a long milk-white beard, who said he would wait for an answer.

The Pontes, their tennis thus interrupted, strolled off towards the stables, leading Adrian with them,—an Adrian consumed, I fancy, by curiosity to know what business a Capuchin friar might have to transact with his friend. "Of course it is something to do with the plots and plans of my lady," he reflected; "but exactly what? If people take you into their confidence, they ought to take you into the entirety of it, and keep you au courant as the theme develops."

Anthony paused for an instant to admire his correspondent's strong, clear-flowing, determined hand; and then, in that stiff-jointed, formal Tuscan of the schools, which no human being was ever heard to speak, but educated Italians will persist in writing, he read:—

"Illustrissimo Signore e caro Cugino"—Nay, better translate:—

"Most Illustrious Sir and dear Cousin: From my earliest childhood I have always felt that the Revolution of 1850 was accompanied by great injustices, and particularly that, without reference to the political changes, there should have been no transfer of the hereditaments of our family from the legal heir, your Excellency's father, then a minor, to his uncle, my grandfather. At the age of twelve I made a vow, before the shrine of our Sainted Progenitor, that if ever the power to do so should be mine, I would set this injustice right.

"By the testament of my father, however, I was left under the control of a guardian until I was twenty-two, which age I attained in April last. Since April I have been constantly in the intention of restoring to the head of my family the properties that are rightly his. But many impeding circumstances, besides the dissuasions of friends whose age and wisdom I was concerned to regard, have detained me until now, when, learning that your Excellency is sojourning in the island, I feel that I must no longer postpone an act of due reparation.

"As I am but the life-tenant of these estates, and as your Excellency, being my nearest male kinsman, is legally my heir-apparent, (though morally always the head of our house), I can, I am informed, make the estates over to you by entering a Religious Order, and taking vows of celibacy for life. The small fortune which I have inherited from my mother will provide me with the dowry necessary to this step.

"Most Illustrious Sir and dear Cousin, it would give me great pleasure to make the acquaintance of your Excellency, and to do homage to the Chief of the House of San Guido, before my retirement from the world. The good Father Angelo, who bears this letter, who has my full confidence and approves of my purpose, will bring me your Excellency's answer, to say if and when you will honour me with your presence at Isola Nobile.

"I beg leave to subscribe myself. Most Illustrious Sir and dear Cousin, with sentiments of distinguished respect and affection, of your Lordship's Excellency the good cousin,

"S. del Valdeschi della Spina, Contessa di Sampaolo."

"Al Illmo. Signore, S. E. il Conte di Sampaolo, Alla Villa del Ponte, Vallanza."

Anthony, his cousin's letter held at arm's length, turned to the white-bearded Capuchin, where he stood in his brown habit, patiently waiting, with his clasped hands covered by his sleeves.

"My dear Father," he said, speaking quickly, his face white, his eyes troubled, "the Countess tells me that you have her full confidence and approve her purpose. But do you know what purpose she has intimated here?"

"Yes," said Father Angelo, calmly, bowing his head.

"But then," Anthony hurried on, his excitement unconcealed, "it is impossible you should approve it—it is impossible any one should approve it. She must be stopped. The thing she proposes to do is out of all reason. I cannot allow it. Her friends must not allow it. Her friends must prevent it."

"The thing she proposes to do is an act of simple justice," said the Father, in his soft voice.

Anthony waved his arms, intolerantly.

"Simple justice—or simple madness," he said, "it is a thing that must not even be discussed. She is twenty-two years old—she is a child—she is irresponsible—she does n't, she can't, know what she is doing. She proposes to impoverish herself, to condemn herself to a convent for life, and, so far as one can see, without the slightest vocation. Her friends must restrain her."

"She is not a person easily restrained, when she has made up her mind," said the Father, quietly.

"At all events," said Anthony, "she will be restrained in spite of herself, if the fact is impressed upon her that the sacrifice she contemplates making on my behalf is one that I will not accept—that no man could accept. She can't make her properties over to me if I refuse to accept them."

"No, I suppose she cannot," said Father Angelo. His hand came forth from his sleeve, to stroke his beard, thoughtfully. "But the properties are in all right and justice yours. Why should you not accept them? You are the legitimate Conte di Sampaolo. You are entitled to your own."

"My dear Father!" Anthony cried out, almost writhing. "It is a matter, I tell you, that I cannot even discuss. Accept them! And allow an inexperienced young girl, who can't possibly understand the consequences of her action, on a quixotic impulse, to beggar herself for me, to give up everything, to retire from the world and die by slow inches in a convent! The thing is too monstrous. A man could never hold up his head again."

"It would be well," said the Father, slowly, "if you were to tell her this in person. You had better see her, and tell her it in person."

"When can I see her?" Anthony asked, impetuous.

"When you will. She much desires to see you," the Father answered.

"The sooner, the better," said Anthony. "The sooner she definitely and permanently dismisses this folly from her mind, the better for every one concerned."

"Possibly you could go with me now?" the Father suggested. "Her launch, which brought me here, attends at the end of the garden."

"Certainly I will go with you now," said Anthony. "Wait while I put on a coat."

He ran back to the tennis-court, caught up his coat, and donned it. Then, all heated and in flannels as he was, he accompanied Father Angelo to the launch.



XXV

Susanna, Miss Sandus, a white peacock, and six ring-doves were taking refreshments in the garden, in the shade of an oleander-tree. There were cakes, figs, and lemonade, grains of dried maize, and plenty of good succulent hemp-seed. The ring-doves liked the hemp-seed and the maize, but the white peacock seemed to prefer sponge-cake soaked in lemonade.

"I know a literary man who once taught a peacock to eat sponge-cake soaked in absinthe," Miss Sandus remarked, on a key of reminiscence.

"Really? An unprincipled French literary man, I suppose?" was Susanna's natural inference.

"No, that's the funny part of it," said Miss Sandus. "He is an eminent and highly respectable English literary man, and the father of a family into the bargain. I dare n't give his name, lest he might have the law of me."

"He ought to have been ashamed of himself," Susanna said. "What became of the poor peacock? Did it descend to a drunkard's grave?"

"That's a long story," said Miss Sandus. "When you 're married and come to stay with me in Kensington, I 'll ask the literary man to dinner. Perhaps he 'll give you his account of the affair. Ah, here 's your ambassador returned," she exclaimed all at once, as Father Angelo, his beads swinging beside him, appeared advancing down the pathway.

"Well, Father——?" Susanna questioned, looking at him with eyes that were dark and anxious.

"Your cousin is a very headstrong person," said Father Angelo. "He refuses to accept your offer. He swept it aside like a whirlwind."

"Ah,—who told you he would?" crowed Miss Sandus.

"He is here to speak with you in person. He is waiting in the loggia," said Father Angelo.

Susanna leaned back in her chair. She had turned very pale.

"I think I am going to faint," she said.

"For mercy's sake, don't," Miss Sandus implored her, starting.

"I won't," Susanna promised, drawing a deep breath. "But you will admit I have some provocation. Must I—must I see him?"

"Must you?" cried Miss Sandus. "Are n't you dying to see him?"

"Yes," Susanna confessed, with a flutter of laughter. "I 'm dying to see him. But I 'm so afraid."

"I 'll disappear," said Miss Sandus, rising. "Then the good Father can bring him to you."

"Oh, don't—don't leave me," Susanna begged, stretching out her hand.

"My dear!" laughed Miss Sandus, and she tripped off towards the Palace.

"Well, Father," Susanna said, after a pause, "will you show him the way?"

The loggia, as Father Angelo called it, where he had left Anthony, while he went to announce his arrival, was the same long open colonnade in which, that morning, Susanna had had her conference with Commendatore Fregi. It was arranged as a sort of out-of-doors living-room. There were rugs on the marble pavement, and chairs and tables; and on the tables, besides vases with flowers, and other things, there were a good many books.

Absently, mechanically, (as one will when one is waiting in a strange place where books are within reach), Anthony picked a book up. It was an old, small book, in tree-calf, stamped, in the midst of much elaborate gold tooling, with the Valdeschi arms and coronet. Half-consciously examining it, he became aware presently that it was a volume of the poems of Ronsard. And then somehow it fell open, at a page that was marked by the insertion of an empty envelope.

The envelope caught Anthony's eye, and held it; and that was scarcely to be wondered at, for, in his own unmistakable handwriting, it was addressed to Madame Torrebianca, at the New Manor, Craford, England, and its upper corner bore an uncancelled twenty-five centime Italian postage-stamp.

On the page the envelope marked was printed the sonnet, "Voicy le Bois."

What happened at this moment in Anthony's head and heart? Many things must have become rather violently and painfully clear to him; many things must have changed their aspect, and adjusted themselves in new combinations. Many things that had seemed trifling or meaningless must have assumed significance and importance. No doubt he was shaken by many tumultuous thoughts and feelings. But outwardly he appeared almost unmoved. He returned the book to the table, and began to walk backwards and forwards, his head bowed a little, as one considering. Sometimes he would give a brief low laugh. Sometimes he would look up, frown, and vaguely shake his fist. Once, shaking his fist, he muttered, "Oh, that Adrian!" And once, with a delighted chuckle, "By Jove, how awfully she 'll be dished!"

Then Father Angelo came back.

"The Countess is in the garden. May I show you the way?" he said.

But when they had reached the marble bridge that connects the garden with the Palace, "I think it will be best if you see her alone," the Father said. "Cross this bridge, and keep straight up the path beyond, and you will come to her."

"Thank you, Father," said Anthony, and crossed the bridge.

He crossed the marble bridge, and kept straight up the path beyond. And there, at the end of the path, in the shade of an oleander-tree, with her back towards him, stood a young woman—a young woman in a pearl-grey frock, and a garden-hat, beneath which one could see that her hair was dark. Young women's backs, however, in this world, to the undiscerning eyes of men, are apt to present no immediately recognizable characteristic features; and so if it had n't been for Ronsard, I don't know what would have happened.

It was very still in the garden. The birds were taking their afternoon siesta. The breeze faintly lisped in the tree-tops. Even the sunshine, as if it were not always still, seemed stiller than its wont.

"Oh, what—what—what will he think, what will he say, what will he do, when I turn round, and he sees who I am?" The question repeated and repeated itself in Susanna's mind, rhythmically, to the tremulous beating of her heart, as she heard Anthony's footsteps coming near.

He walked quickly, but a few paces short of where she stood he halted, and for a breathing-space or two there was silence.

Then at last, in English, in his smoothest, his most detached, his most languid manner, but with an overtone of exultancy that could not be subdued, he said—

"These ingenuous attempts at mystification are immensely entertaining; but are there to be many more of them, before you can permit our little comedy to reach its happy denouement?"

"Good heavens!" thought Susanna, wildly.

She did n't turn round, but presently her shoulders began to shake. She could n't help it. The discomfiture was hers; she had been "awfully dished" indeed. But her shoulders shook and shook with silent laughter.

In the end, of course, she turned.

In her dark eyes disappointment, satisfaction, amazement, and amusement shone together.

"How in the world did you find out?" she asked. "How could you have found out? When did you find out? How long have you known? And if you knew, why did you pretend not to know?"

But Anthony, at the sight of her face, forgot everything.

"Oh, never mind," he cried, and advanced upon her with swift strides.

By-and-by, "Let me look at your right hand," said Susanna. "I want to see whether you have the Valdeschi pit."

"The Valdeschi what?" said Anthony.

"The Valdeschi pit," said she.

"What is that?" he asked.

"The Valdeschi pit!" she exclaimed. "Do you mean to say that you, the head of the family, don't know?"

"What is it?" he asked.

"Every true-born son or daughter of San Guido," she explained, "bears in the palm of the hand a little pit or dint, which is the survival in his descendants of the scar made by the thorn in the hand of San Guido himself. See—I have it."

She held out her hand.

Anthony took it, bent ever it, kissed it, studied it.

"It is a delicious hand—but I see no pit," he said.

"There," said she, placing the tip of her finger upon a tiny concavity in the rose-white flesh.

"That?" laughed Anthony. "That is nothing but a pretty little dimple."

"Oh, no," said she, seriously. "That is the mark of the Valdeschi. I 'm sure you have it too—we all have it. Let me see."

She took his lean brown hand, and examined it carefully, eagerly.

"There! I was sure!" she cried.

She pointed to where, in a position corresponding to that of the "mark of the Valdeschi" in her own hand, there was an indentation that looked like a half-obliterated scar.

Presently, in the direction of the Palace, a bell began to ring, rather a deep-toned bell, like a church-bell.

Susanna rose.

"When you were here the other day as a mere visitor," she said, "I suppose they did n't show you the chapel, did they?"

"No," said Anthony.

"They don't show it to mere visitors," she went on. "But come with me now, and you shall see it. Father Angelo is going to give Benediction. That is what the bell is ringing for."

She led the way towards the Palace. As they were crossing the bridge, "Look," she said, and pointed to a flagstaff that sprang from the highest pinnacle of the building. A flag was being hoisted there; and now it fluttered forth and flew in the breeze, a red flag with a design in gold upon it.

"The flag of the Count of Sampaolo: gules, a spine or," said Susanna. "Of course you know why they are flying it now?"

"No—?" wondered Anthony.

"Because the Count of Sampaolo is at home," she said.

Then they went in to Benediction.



THE END

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