THE HEART OF ROME
A Tale of the "Lost water"
BY FRANCIS MARION CRAWFORD Author of "Cecilia," "Saracinesca," "In the Palace of the King," Etc.
THE HEART OF ROME
The Baroness Volterra drove to the Palazzo Conti in the heart of Rome at nine o'clock in the morning, to be sure of finding Donna Clementina at home. She had tried twice to telephone, on the previous afternoon, but the central office had answered that "the communication was interrupted." She was very anxious to see Clementina at once, in order to get her support for a new and complicated charity. She only wanted the name, and expected nothing else, for the Conti had very little ready money, though they still lived as if they were rich. This did not matter to their friends, but was a source of constant anxiety to their creditors, and to the good Pompeo Sassi, the steward of the ruined estate. He alone knew what the Conti owed, for none of them knew much about it themselves, though he had done his best to make the state of things clear to them.
The big porter of the palace was sweeping the pavement of the great entrance, as the cab drove in. He wore his working clothes of grey linen with silver buttons bearing the ancient arms of his masters, and his third best gold-laced cap. There was nothing surprising in this, at such an early hour, and as he was a grave man with a long grey beard that made him look very important, the lady who drove up in the open cab did not notice that he was even more solemn than usual. When she appeared, he gave one more glance at the spot he had been sweeping, and then grounded his broom like a musket, folded his hands on the end of the broomstick and looked at her as if he wondered what on earth had brought her to the palace at that moment, and wished that she would take herself off again as soon as possible.
He did not even lift his cap to her, yet there was nothing rude in his manner. He behaved like a man upon whom some one intrudes when he is in great trouble.
The Baroness was rather more exigent in requiring respect from servants than most princesses of the Holy Roman Empire, for her position in the aristocratic scale was not very well defined.
She was not pleased, and spoke with excessive coldness when she asked if Donna Clementina was at home. The porter stood motionless beside the cab, leaning on his broom. After a pause he said in a rather strange voice that Donna Clementina was certainly in, but that he could not tell whether she were awake or not.
"Please find out," answered the Baroness, with impatience. "I am waiting," she added with an indescribable accent of annoyance and surprise, as if she had never been kept waiting before, in all the fifty years of her more or less fashionable life.
There were speaking-tubes in the porter's lodge, communicating with each floor of the great Conti palace, but the porter did not move.
"I cannot go upstairs and leave the door," he said.
"You can speak to the servant through the tube, I suppose!"
The porter slowly shook his massive head, and his long grey beard wagged from side to side.
"There are no servants upstairs," he said. "There is only the family."
"No servants? Are you crazy?"
"Oh, no!" answered the man meditatively. "I do not think I am mad. The servants all went away last night after dinner, with their belongings. There were only sixteen left, men and women, for I counted them."
"Do you mean to say—" The Baroness stopped in the middle of her question, staring in amazement.
The porter now nodded, as solemnly as he had before shaken his head.
"Yes. This is the end of the house of Conti."
Then he looked at her as if he wished to be questioned, for he knew that she was not really a great lady, and guessed that in spite of her magnificent superiority and coldness she was not above talking to a servant about her friends.
"But they must have somebody," she said. "They must eat, I suppose! Somebody must cook for them. They cannot starve!"
"Who knows? Who knows? Perhaps they will starve."
The porter evidently took a gloomy view of the case.
"But why did the servants go away in a body?" asked the Baroness, descending from her social perch by the inviting ladder of curiosity.
"They never were paid. None of us ever got our wages. For some time the family has paid nobody. The day before yesterday, the telephone company sent a man to take away the instrument. Then the electric light was cut off. When that happens, it is all over."
The man had heard of the phenomenon from a colleague.
"And there is nobody? They have nobody at all?"
The Baroness had always been rich, and was really trying to guess what would happen to people who had no servants.
"There is my wife," said the porter. "But she is old," he added apologetically, "and the palace is big. Can she sweep out three hundred rooms, cook for two families of masters and dress the Princess's hair? She cannot do it."
This was stated with gloomy gravity. The Baroness also shook her head in sympathy.
"There were sixteen servants in the house yesterday," continued the porter. "I remember when there were thirty, in the times of the old Prince."
"There would be still, if the family had been wise," said the Baroness severely. "Is your wife upstairs?"
"Who knows where she is?" enquired the porter by way of answer, and with the air of a man who fears that he may never see his wife again. "There are three hundred rooms. Who knows where she is?"
The Baroness was a practical woman by nature and by force of circumstances; she made up her mind to go upstairs and see for herself how matters stood. The name of Donna Clementina might not just now carry much weight beside those of the patronesses of a complicated charitable organization; in fact the poor lady must be in a position to need charity herself rather than to dispense it to others. But the Baroness had a deep-rooted prejudice in favour of the old aristocracy, and guessed that it would afterwards be counted to her for righteousness if she could be the first to offer boundless sympathy and limited help to the distressed family.
It would be thought distinctly smart, for instance, if she should take the Princess, or even one of the unmarried daughters, to her own house for a few days, as a refuge from the sordid atmosphere of debt and ruin, and beyond the reach of vulgar creditors, one of whom, by the way, she knew to be her own excellent husband. The Princess was probably not aware of that fact, for she had always lived in sublime ignorance of everything connected with money, even since her husband's death; and when good Pompeo Sassi tried to explain things, telling her that she was quite ruined, she never listened to what he said. If the family had debts, why did he not borrow money and pay them? That was what he was paid for doing, after all. It was true that he had not been paid for a year or two, but that was a wretched detail. Economy? Had not the Princess given up her second maid, as an extravagance? What more did the man expect?
The Baroness knew all this and reflected upon what she knew, as she deliberately got out of her cab at the foot of the grand staircase.
"I will go upstairs myself," she said.
"Padrona," observed the porter, standing aside with his broom.
He explained in a single word that she was at liberty to go upstairs if she chose, that it was not of the least use to go, and that he would not be responsible for any disappointment if she were afterwards not pleased. There is no language in the world which can say more in one word than the Italian, or less in ten thousand, according to the humour of the speaker.
The Baroness took no notice as she went up the stairs. She was not very tall, and was growing slowly and surely stout, but she carried her rather large head high and had cultivated importance, as a fine art, with some success. She moved steadily, with a muffled sound as of voluminous invisible silk bellows that opened and shut at each step; her outer dress was sombre, but fashionable, and she wore a long gold chain of curious and fine workmanship to carry her hand-glass, for she was near-sighted. Her thick hair was iron-grey, her small round eyes were vaguely dark with greenish lights, her complexion was like weak coffee and milk, sallow, but smooth, even and healthy. She was a strong woman of fifty years, well used to the world and its ways; acquisitive, inquisitive and socially progressive; not knowing how to wish back anything from the past, so long as there was anything in the future to wish for; a good wife for an ambitious man.
The magnificent marble staircase already looked neglected; there were deep shadows of dust in corners that should have been polished, there was a coat of grey dust on the head and shoulders of the colossal marble statue of Commodus in the niche on the first landing; in the great window over the next, the armorial crowned eagle of the Conti, cheeky, argent and sable, had a dejected look, as if he were moulting.
It was in March, and though the sun was shining brightly outside, and the old porter wore his linen jacket, as if it were already spring, there was a cold draught down the staircase, and the Baroness instinctively made haste up the steps, and was glad when she reached the big swinging door covered with red baize and studded with smart brass nails, which gave access to the grand apartment.
By force of habit, she opened it and went in. There used to be always two men in the outer hall, all day long, and sometimes four, ready to announce visitors or to answer questions, as the case might be. It was deserted now, a great, dismal, paved hall, already dingy with dust. One of the box-benches was open, and the tail of a footman's livery greatcoat which had been thrown in carelessly, hung over the edge and dragged on the marble floor.
The Baroness realized that the porter had spoken the truth and that all the servants had left the house, as the rats leave a sinking ship. One must really have seen an old ship sink in harbour to know how the rats look, black and grey, fat and thin, old and young, their tiny beads of eyes glittering with fright as they scurry up the hatches and make for every deck port and scupper, scrambling and tumbling over each other till they flop into the water and swim away, racing for safety, each making a long forked wake on the smooth surface, with a steady quick ripple like the tearing of thin paper into strips.
The strong middle-aged woman who stood alone in the empty hall knew nothing of sinking vessels or the ways of rats, but she had known incidentally of more than one catastrophe like this, in the course of her husband's ascendant career, and somehow he had always been mysteriously connected with each one. An evil-speaking old diplomatist had once said that he remembered Baron Volterra as a pawn-broking dealer in antiquities, in Florence, thirty years earlier; there was probably no truth in the story, but after Volterra was elected a Senator of the Kingdom, a member of the opposition had alluded to it with piquant irony and the result had been the exchange of several bullets at forty paces, whereby honour was satisfied without bloodshed. The seconds, who were well disposed to both parties, alone knew how much or how little powder there was in the pistols, and they were discreet men, who kept the secret.
The door leading to the antechamber was wide open, and the Baroness went on deliberately, looking about through her hand-glass, in the half light, for the shutters were not all open. Dust everywhere, the dust that falls silently at night from the ancient wooden ceilings and painted beams of Roman palaces, the dust of centuries accumulated above and sifting for ever to the floors below. It was on the yellow marble pier tables, on the dim mirrors in their eighteenth century frames, on the high canopy draped with silver and black beneath which the effigy of another big cheeky eagle seemed to be silently moulting under his antique crown, the emblem of a race that had lived almost on the same spot for eight hundred years, through good and bad repute, but in nearly uninterrupted prosperity. The Baroness, who hankered after greatness, felt that the gloom was a twilight of gods. She stood still before the canopy, the symbol of princely rank and privilege, the invisible silk bellows were silent for a few seconds, and she wondered whether there were any procurable sum which she and her husband would grudge in exchange for the acknowledged right to display a crowned eagle, cheeky, argent and sable, in their hall, under a canopy draped with their own colours. She sighed, since no one could hear her, and she went on. The sigh was not only for the hopelessness of ever reaching such social greatness; it was in part the outward show of a real regret that it should have come to an untimely end. Her admiration of princes was as sincere as her longing to be one of them; she had at least the melancholy satisfaction of sympathizing with them in their downfall. It brought her a little nearer to them in imagination if not in fact.
The evolution of the snob has been going on quickly of late, and quicker than ever since vast wealth has given so many of the species the balance of at least one sort of power in society. His thoughts are still the same, but his outward shape approaches strangely near to that of the human being. There are snobs now, who behave almost as nicely in the privacy of their homes as in the presence of a duchess. They are much more particular as to the way in which others shall behave to them. That is a test, by the bye. The snob thinks most of the treatment he receives from the world; the gentleman thinks first how he shall act courteously to others.
The Baroness went on and entered the outer reception room, and looking before her she could see through the open doors of the succeeding drawing-rooms, where the windows had been opened or perhaps not closed on the previous evening. It was all vast, stately and deserted. Only ten days earlier she had been in the same place at a great reception, brilliant with beautiful women and handsome men, alive with the flashing of jewels and decorations in the vivid light, full of the discreet noise of society in good-humour, full of faces she knew, and voices familiar, and of the moonlight of priceless pearls and the sunlight of historic diamonds; all of which manifestations she dearly loved.
Her husband had perhaps known what was coming, and how soon, but she had not. There was something awful in the contrast. As she went through one of the rooms a mouse ran from under the fringe of a velvet curtain and took refuge under an armchair. She had sat in that very chair ten days ago and the Russian ambassador had talked to her; she remembered how he had tried to extract information from her about the new issue of three and a half per cent national bonds, because her husband was one of the financiers who were expected to "manipulate" the loan.
A portrait of a Conti in black velvet, by Velasquez, looked down, coldly supercilious, at the empty armchair under which the mouse was hiding. It could make no difference, great or small, to him, whether the Baroness Volterra ever sat there again to talk with an ambassador; he had sat where he pleased, undisturbed in his own house, to the end of his days, and no one can take the past from the dead, except a modern German historian.
Not a sound broke the stillness, except the steady plash of the water falling into the fountain in the wide court, heard distinctly through the closed windows. The Baroness wondered if any one were awake except the old porter downstairs. She knew the house tolerably well. Only the Princess and her two unmarried daughters slept in the apartment she had entered, far off, at the very end, in rooms at the corner overlooking the small square and the narrow street. The rest of the old palace was surrounded by dark and narrow streets, but the court was wide and full of sunshine. The only son of the house, though he was now the Prince, lived on the floor above, with his young wife and their only child, in what had been a separate establishment, after the old Roman custom.
The Baroness went to one of the embrasures of the great drawing-room and looked through the panes at the windows of the upper story. All that she could see were shut; there was not a sign of life in the huge building. Ruin had closed in upon it and all it held, softly, without noise and without pity.
It was their own fault, of course, but the Baroness was sorry for them, for she was not quite heartless, in spite of her hard face. The gloomiest landscape must have a ray of light in it, somewhere. It was all their own fault; they should have known better; they should have counted what they had instead of spending what they had not. But their fall was great, as everything had been in their prosperity, and it was interesting to be connected with it. She faintly hoped Volterra would keep the palace now that they could certainly never pay any more interest on the mortgage, and it was barely possible that she might some day live in it herself, though she understood that it would be in very bad taste to occupy it at once. But this was unlikely, for her husband had a predilection for a new house, in the new part of the city, full of new furniture and modern French pictures. He had a pronounced dislike for old things, including old pictures and old jewellery, though he knew much about both. Possibly they reminded him of that absurd story, and of his duel at forty paces.
Volterra would sell the palace to the Vatican, with everything in it, and would look about for another lucrative investment. The Vatican bought all the palaces in the market for religious institutions, and when there were not enough "it" built the finest buildings in Rome for its own purposes. Volterra was mildly anti-clerical in politics, but he was particularly fond of dealing with the Vatican for real estate. The Vatican was a most admirable house of business, in his estimation, keen, punctual and always solvent; it was good for a financier to be associated with such an institution. It drove a hard bargain, but there was never any hesitation about fulfilling its obligations to the last farthing. Dreaming over one of his enormous Havanas after a perfect dinner, Baron Volterra, Senator of the Kingdom of Italy, often wondered whether the prosperity of the whole world would not be vastly increased if the Vatican would consent to be the general financial agent for the European nations. Such stability as there would be, such order! Above all, such guarantees of good faith! Besides all that, there were its cordial relations with the United States, that is to say, with the chief source of the world's future wealth! The Senator's strongly-marked face grew sweetly thoughtful as he followed his own visions in the air, and when his wife spoke of living in an antiquated Roman palace and buying an estate with an old title attached to it, which the King might graciously be pleased to ratify, he playfully tapped his wife's sallow cheek with two fat fingers and smiled in a way that showed how superior he was to such weakness. It was not even worth while to say anything.
Once more the Baroness sighed as she turned from the window. She meant to have her own way in the end, but it was hard to wait so long. She turned from the window, glanced at a beautiful holy family by Bonifazio which hung on the opposite wall above an alabaster table, estimated its value instinctively and went on into the next drawing- room.
As she passed through the door, a low cry of pain made her start and hesitate, and she stood still. The degree of her acquaintance with the members of the family was just such that she would not quite dare to intrude upon them if they had given way to an expression of pardonable weakness under their final misfortune, whereas if they were bearing it with reasonable fortitude she could allow herself to offer her sympathy and even some judicious help.
She stood still and the sound was repeated, the pitiful little tearless complaint of a young thing suffering alone. It was somewhere in the big room, hidden amongst the furniture; which was less stiffly arranged here than in the outer apartments. There were books and newspapers on the table, the fireplace was half-full of the ashes of a burnt-out fire, there were faded flowers in a tall vase near the window, there was the undefinable presence of life in the heavier and warmer air. At first the Baroness had thought that the cry came from some small animal, hurt and forgotten there in the great catastrophe; a moment later she was sure that there was some one in the room.
She moved cautiously forward in the direction whence the sound had come. Then she saw the edge of a fawn-coloured cloth skirt on the red carpet by an armchair. She went on, hesitating no longer. She had seen the frock only a day or two ago, and it belonged to Sabina Conti.
A very fair young girl was kneeling in the shadow, crouching over something on the floor. Her hair was like the pale mist in the morning, tinged with gold. She was very slight, and as she bent down, her slender neck was dazzling white above the collar of her frock. She was trembling a little.
"My dear Sabina, what has happened?" asked the Baroness Volterra, leaning over her with an audible crack in the region of the waist.
At the words the girl turned up her pale face, without the least start of surprise.
"It is dead," she said, in a very low voice.
The Baroness looked down, and saw a small bunch of yellow feathers lying on the floor at the girl's knees; the poor little head with its colourless beak lay quite still on the red carpet, turned upon one side, as if it were resting.
"A canary," observed the Baroness, who had never had a pet in her life, and had always wondered how any one could care for such stupid things.
But the violet eyes gazed up to hers reproachfully and wonderingly.
"It is dead."
That should explain everything; surely the woman must understand. Yet there was no response. The Baroness stood upright again, grasping her parasol and looking down with a sort of respectful indifference. Sabina said nothing, but took up the dead bird very tenderly, as if it could still feel that she loved it, and she pressed it softly to her breast, bending her head to it, and then kissing the yellow feathers. When it was alive it used to nestle there, almost as it lay now. It had been very tame.
"I suppose a cat killed it," said the Baroness, wishing to say something.
Sabina shook her head. She had found it lying there, not wounded, its feathers not torn—just dead. It was of no use to answer. She rose to her feet, still holding the tiny body against her bosom, and she looked at the Baroness, mutely asking what had brought her there, and wishing that she would go away.
"I came to see your sister," said the elder woman, with something like apology in the tone.
Sabina was still very pale, and her delicate lips were pressed together, but there were no tears in her eyes, as she waited for the Baroness to say more.
"Then I heard the bad news," the latter continued. "I heard it from the porter."
Sabina looked at her quietly. If she had heard the bad news, why had she not gone away? The Baroness began to feel uncomfortable. She almost quailed before the pale girl of seventeen, slender as a birch sapling in her light frock.
"It occurred to me," she continued nervously, "that I might be of use."
"You are very kind," Sabina answered, with the faintest air of surprise, "but I really do not see that you could do anything."
"Perhaps your mother would allow you to spend a few days with me— until things are more settled," suggested the Baroness.
"Thank you very much. I do not think she would like that. She would not wish me to be away from her just now, I am sure. Why should I leave her?"
The Baroness Volterra did not like to point out that the Princess Conti might soon be literally homeless.
"May I ask your mother?" she enquired. "Should you like to come to me for a few days?"
"If my mother wishes it."
"But should you like to come?" persisted the elder woman.
"If my mother thinks it is best," answered Sabina, avoiding the Baroness's eyes, as she resolutely avoided answering the direct question.
But the Baroness was determined if possible to take in one of the family, and it had occurred to her that Sabina would really be less trouble than her mother or elder sister. Clementina was the eldest and was already looked upon as an old maid. She was intensely devout, and that was always troublesome, for it meant that she would insist upon going to church at impossibly early hours, and must have fish-dinners on Fridays. But it would certainly be conferring a favour on the Princess to take Sabina off her hands at such a time. The devout Clementina could take care of herself. With her face, the Baroness reflected, she would be safe among Cossacks; besides, she could go into a retreat, and stay there, if necessary. Sabina was quite different.
The Princess thought so too, as it turned out. Sabina took the visitor to her mother's door, knocked, opened and then went away, still pressing her dead canary to her bosom, and infinitely glad to be alone with it at last.
There was confusion in the Princess Conti's bedroom, the amazing confusion which boils up about an utterly careless woman of the great world, if she be accidentally left without a maid for twenty-four hours. It seemed as if everything the Princess possessed in the way of clothes, necessary and unnecessary, had been torn from wardrobes and chests of drawers by a cyclone and scattered in every direction, till there was not space to move or sit down in a room which was thirty feet square.
Princess Conti was a very stout woman of about the same age as her visitor, but not resembling her in the least. She had been beautiful, and still kept the dazzling complexion and magnificent eyes for which she had been famous. It was her boast that she slept eight hours every night, without waking, whatever happened, and she always advised everybody to do the same, with an airy indifference to possibilities which would have done credit to a doctor.
She was dressed, or rather wrapped, in a magnificent purple velvet dressing-gown, trimmed with sable, and tied round her ample waist with a silver cord; her rather scanty grey hair stood out about her head like a cloud in a high wind; and her plump hands were encased in a pair of old white gloves, which looked oddly out of place. She was standing in the middle of the room, and she smiled calmly as the Baroness entered. On a beautiful inlaid table beside her stood a battered brass tray with an almost shapeless little brass coffee-pot, a common earthenware cup, chipped at the edges, and three pieces of doubtful-looking sugar in a tiny saucer, also of brass. The whole had evidently been brought from a small cafe near by, which had long been frequented by the servants from the palace.
Judging from her smile, the Princess seemed to think total ruin rather an amusing incident. She had always complained that the Romans were very dull; for she was not a Roman herself, but came of a very great old Polish family, the members of which had been distinguished for divers forms of amiable eccentricity during a couple of centuries.
She looked at the Baroness, and smiled pleasantly, showing her still perfect teeth.
"I always said that this would happen," she observed. "I always told my poor husband so."
As the Prince had been dead ten years, the Baroness thought that he might not be wholly responsible for the ruin of his estate, but she discreetly avoided the suggestion. She began to make a little apology for her visit.
"But I am delighted to see you!" cried the Princess. "You can help me to pack. You know I have not a single maid, not a woman in the house, nor a man either. Those ridiculous servants fled last night as if we had the plague!"
"So you are going out of town?" enquired the Baroness, laying down her parasol.
"Of course. Clementina has decided to be a nun, and is going to the convent this morning. So sensible of her, poor dear! It is true that she has made up her mind to do it three or four times before now, but the circumstances were different, and I hope this will be final. She will be much happier."
The Princess stirred the muddy coffee in the chipped earthenware cup, and then sipped it thoughtfully, sipped it again, and made a face.
"You see my breakfast," she said, and then laughed, as if the shabby brass tray were a part of the train of amusing circumstances. "The porter's wife went and got it at some dirty little cafe," she added.
"How dreadful!" exclaimed the Baroness, with more real sympathy in her voice than she had yet shown.
"I assure you," the Princess answered serenely, "that I am glad to have any coffee at all. I always told poor dear Paolo that it would come to this."
She swallowed the rest of the coffee with a grimace. and set down the cup. Then, with the most natural gesture in the world, she pushed the tray a little way across the inlaid table, towards the Baroness, as she would have pushed it towards her maid, and as if she wished the thing taken away. She did it merely from force of habit, no doubt.
Baroness Volterra understood well enough, and for a moment she affected not to see. The Princess had the blood of Polish kings in her veins, mingled with that of several mediatized princes, but that was no reason why she should treat a friend like a servant; especially as the friend's husband practically owned the palace and its contents, and had lent the money with which the high and mighty lady and her son had finally ruined themselves. Yet so overpowering is the moral domination of the born aristocrat over the born snob, that the Baroness changed her mind, and humbly took the obnoxious tray away and set it down on another table near the door.
"Thank you so much," said the Princess graciously. "It smells, you know."
"Of course," answered the Baroness. "It is not coffee at all! It is made of chicory and acorns."
"I do not know what it is made of," said the Princess, without interest, "but it has an atrociously bad smell, and it has made a green stain on my handkerchief."
She looked at the bit of transparently fine linen with which she had touched her lips, and threw it under the table.
"And Sabina?" began the Baroness. "What shall you do with her?"
"I wish I knew! You see, my daughter-in-law has a little place somewhere in the Maremma. It is an awful hole, I believe, and very unhealthy, but we shall have to stay there for a few days. Then I shall go to Poland and see my brother. I am sure he can arrange everything at once, and we shall come back to Rome in the autumn, of course, just as usual. Sassi told me only last week that two or three millions would be enough. And what is that? My brother is so rich!"
The stout Princess shrugged her shoulders carelessly, as if a few millions of francs more or less could really not be such a great matter. Somebody had always found money for her to spend, and there was no reason why obliging persons should not continue to do the same. The Baroness showed no surprise, but wondered whether the Princess might not have to lunch, and dine too, on some nauseous little mess brought to her on a battered brass tray. It was quite possible that she might not find five francs in her purse; it was equally possible that she might find five thousand; the only thing quite sure was that she had not taken the trouble to look, and did not care a straw.
"Can I be of any immediate use?" asked the Baroness with unnecessary timidity. "Do you need ready money?"
"Ready money?" echoed the Princess with alacrity. "Of course I do! I told you, Sassi says that two or three millions would be enough to go on with."
"I did not mean that. I am afraid—"
"Oh!" ejaculated the Princess with a little disappointment. "Nothing else would be of any use. Of course I have money for any little thing I need. There is my purse. Do you mind looking? I know I had two or three thousand francs the other day. There must be something left. Please count it. I never can count right, you know."
The Baroness took up the mauve morocco pocket-book to which the Princess pointed. It had a clasp in which a pretty sapphire was set; she opened it and took out a few notes and silver coins, which she counted.
"There are fifty-seven francs," she said.
"Is that all?" asked the Princess with supreme indifference. "How very odd!"
"You can hardly leave Rome with so little," observed the Baroness. "Will you not allow me to lend you five hundred? I happen to have a five hundred franc note in my purse, for I was going to pay a bill on my way home."
"Thanks," said the Princess. "That will save me the trouble of sending for Sassi. He always bores me dreadfully with his figures. Thank you very much."
"Not at all, dear friend," the Baroness answered. "It is a pleasure, I assure you. But I had thought of asking if you would let Sabina come and stay with me for a little while, until your affairs are more settled."
"Oh, would you do that?" asked the Princess with something like enthusiasm. "I really do not know what to do with the girl. Of course, I could take her to Poland and marry her there, but she is so peculiar, such a strange child, not at all like me. It really would be immensely kind of you to take her, if your husband does not object."
"He will be delighted."
"Yes," acquiesced the Princess calmly. "You see," she continued in a meditative tone, "if I sent her to stay with any of our cousins here, I am sure they would ask her all sorts of questions about our affairs, and she is so silly that she would blurt out everything she fancied she knew, whether it were true or not—about my son and his wife, you know, and then, the money questions. Poor Sabina! she has not a particle of tact! It really would be good of you to take her. I shall be so grateful."
"I will bring my maid to pack her things," suggested the Baroness.
"Yes. If she could only help me to pack mine too! Do you think she would?"
"You are really the kindest person in the world," said the Princess. "I was quite in despair, when you came. Just look at those things!"
She pointed to the chairs and sofas, covered with clothes and dresses.
"But your boxes, where are they?" asked the Baroness.
"I have not the least idea! I sent the porter's wife to try and find them, but she has never come back. She is so stupid, poor old thing!"
"I think I had better bring a couple of men-servants," said the Baroness. "They may be of use. Should you like my carriage to take you to the station? Anything I can do—"
The Princess stared, as if quite puzzled.
"Thanks, but we have plenty of horses," she said.
"Yes, but you said that all your servants had left last night. I supposed the coachman and grooms were gone too."
"I daresay they are!" The Princess laughed. "Then we will go in cabs. It will be very amusing. By the bye, I wonder whether those brutes of men thought of leaving the poor horses anything to eat, and water! I must really go and see. Poor beasts! They will be starving. Will you come with me?"
She moved towards the door, really very much concerned, for she loved horses.
"Will you go down like that?" asked the Baroness aghast, glancing at the purple velvet dressing-gown, and noticing, as the Princess moved, that her feet, on which she wore small kid slippers, were stockingless.
"Why not? I shall not catch cold. I never do."
The Baroness would have given anything to be above caring whether any one should ever see her, or not, on the stairs of her house in a purple dressing-gown, without stockings and with her hair standing on end; and she pondered on the ways of the aristocracy she adored, especially as represented by her Excellency Marie-Sophie-Hedwige- Zenaide-Honorine-Pia Rubomirska, Dowager Princess Conti. Ever afterwards she associated purple velvet and bare feet with the idea of financial catastrophe, knowing in her heart that even ruin would seem bearable if it could bring her such magnificent indifference to the details of commonplace existence.
At that moment, however, she felt that she was in the position of a heaven-sent protectress to the Princess.
"No," she said firmly. "I will go myself to the stables, and the porter shall feed the horses if there is no groom. You really must not go downstairs looking like that!"
"Why not?" asked the Princess, surprised. "But of course, if you will be so kind as to see whether the horses need anything, it is quite useless for me to go myself. You will promise? I am sure they are starving by this time."
The Baroness promised solemnly, and said that she would come back within an hour, with her servants, to take away Sabina and to help the Princess's preparations. In consideration of all she was doing the Princess kissed her on both her sallow cheeks as she took her leave. The Princess attached no importance at all to this mark of affectionate esteem, but it pleased the Baroness very much.
Just as the latter was going away, the door opened suddenly, and a weak-looking young man put in his head.
"Mamma! Mamma!" he cried, in a thin tone of distress, almost as if he were going to cry.
He was nearly thirty years old, though he looked younger. He was thin, and pale, with a muddy and spotted complexion, and his scanty black hair grew far back on his poorly developed forehead. His eyes had a look that was half startled, half false. Though he was carefully dressed he had not shaved, because he could not shave himself and his valet had departed with the rest of the servants. He was the Princess's only son, himself the present Prince, and the heir of all the Conti since the year eleven hundred.
"What is the matter, sweetheart?" asked the Princess, with ready sympathy. "Your hands are quite cold! Are you ill?"
"The child! Something has happened to it—we do not know—it looks so strange—its eyes are turned in and it is such a dreadful colour—do come—"
But the Princess was already on her way, and he spoke the last words as he ran after her. She turned her head as she went on.
"For heaven's sake send a doctor!" she cried to the Baroness, and in a moment she was gone, with the weak young man close at her side.
The Baroness nodded quickly, and when all three reached the door she left the two to go upstairs and ran down, with a tremendous puffing of the invisible silk bellows.
"The Prince's little girl is very ill," she said, as she passed the porter, who was now polishing the panes of glass in the door of his lodge, because he had done the same thing every morning for twenty years.
He almost dropped the dingy leather he was using, but before he could answer, the cab passed out, bearing the Baroness on her errand.
Signor Pompeo Sassi sat in his dingy office and tore his hair, in the good old literal Italian sense. His elbows rested on the shabby black oilcloth glued to the table, and his long knotted fingers twisted his few remaining locks, on each side of his head, in a way that was painful to see. From time to time he desisted for an instant, and held up his open hands, the fingers quivering with emotion, and his watery eyes were turned upwards, too, as if directing an unspoken prayer to the dusty rafters of the ceiling. The furrows had deepened of late in his respectable, trust-inspiring face, and he was as thin as a skeleton in leather.
His heart was broken. On the big sheet of thick hand-made paper, that lay on the desk, scribbled over with rough calculations in violet ink, there were a number of trial impressions of the old stamp he had once been so proud to use. It bore a rough representation of the Conti eagle, encircled by the legend: "Eccellentissima Casa Conti." When his eyes fell upon it, they filled with tears. The Most Excellent House of Conti had come to a pitiful end, and it had been Pompeo Sassi's unhappy fate to see its fall. Judging from his looks, he was not to survive the catastrophe very long.
He loved the family, and yet he disliked every member of it personally except Sabina. He loved the "Eccellentissima Casa," the checky eagle, the Velasquez portraits and his dingy office, but he never had spoken with the Princess, her son, his wife, or his sister Clementina, without a distinct feeling of disapproving aversion. The old Prince had been different. In him Sassi had still been able to respect those traditional Ciceronian virtues which were inculcated with terrific severity in the Roman youth of fifty years ago. But the Prince had died prematurely at the age of fifty, and with him the Ciceronian traditions had ended in Casa Conti, and their place had been taken by the caprices of the big, healthy, indolent, extravagant Polish woman, by the miserable weaknesses of a degenerate heir, and the fanatic religious practices of Donna Clementina.
Sassi was sure that they all three hated him or despised him, or both; yet they could not spare him. For different reasons, they all needed money, and they had long been used to believing that no one but Sassi could get it for them, since no one else knew how deeply the family was involved. He always made difficulties, he protested, he wrung his hands, he warned, he implored; but caprice, vice and devotion always overcame his objections, and year after year the exhausted estate was squeezed and pressed and mortgaged and sold, till it had yielded the uttermost farthing.
Then, one day, the whole organization of Casa Conti stood still; the unpaid servants fled, the unpaid tradesmen refused to trust any longer, the unpaid holders of mortgages foreclosed, the Princess departed to Poland, the Prince slunk away to live on what was left of his wife's small estate, Donna Clementina buried herself in a convent to which she had given immense sums, the Conti palace was for sale, and Pompeo Sassi sat alone in his office, tearing his hair, while the old porter sat in his lodge downstairs peeling potatoes.
It was not for himself that the old steward of the estate was in danger of being totally bald. He had done for himself what others would not allow him to do for them, a proceeding which affords some virtuous people boundless satisfaction, though it procured him none at all. He was provided for in his old age. During more than thirty years he had saved and scraped and invested and added to the little sum of money left him by his father, an honest old notary of the old school, until he possessed what was a very comfortable competence for a childless old man. He had a small house of his own near the Pantheon, in which he occupied two rooms, letting the rest, and he had a hundred thousand francs in government bonds, besides a few acres of vineyard on the slope of Monte Mario.
More than once, in the sincerity of his devotion to the family he served, he had thought of sacrificing all he possessed in an attempt to stave off final ruin; but a very little reflection had convinced him that all he had would be a mere drop in the flood of extravagance, and would forthwith disappear with the rest into the bottomless pit of debt.
Even that generous temptation was gone now. The house having collapsed, its members appeared to him only in their true natures, a good-for-nothing young man, tainted with a mortal disease, a foolish mother, a devout spinster threatened with religious mania, and the last descendant of the great old race, one little girl-child not likely to live, and perhaps better dead. In their several ways they had treated him as the contemptible instrument of their inclinations; they were gone from his life and he was glad of it, when he thought of each one separately. Yet, collectively, he wished them all in the palace again, even a month ago, even on the day before the exodus; good, bad, indifferent, no matter what, they had been Casa Conti still, to the end, the family he had served faithfully, honestly and hopelessly for upwards of a third of a century. That might seem to be inconsistent, but it was the only consistency he had ever known, and it was loyalty, of a kind.
But there was one whom he wished back for her own sake; there was Donna Sabina. When he thought of her, his hands fell from his head at last, and folded themselves over the scrawled figures on the big sheet of paper, and he looked long and steadily at them, without seeing them at all.
He wondered what would become of her. He had seen her on the last day and he should never forget it. Before going away with the Baroness Volterra she had found her way to his dark office, and had stood a few moments before the shabby old table, with a small package in her hand. He could see the slight figure still, when he closed his eyes, and her misty hair against the cold light of the window. She had come to ask him if he would bury her dead canary, somewhere under the sky where there was grass and it would not be disturbed. Where could she bury it, down in the heart of Rome? She had wrapped it in a bit of pink satin and had laid it in a little brown cardboard box which had been full of chocolates from Ronzi and Singer's in Piazza Colonna. She pushed back the lid a finger's breadth and he saw the pink satin for a second. She laid the box before him. Would he please do what she asked? Very timidly she slipped a simple little ring off her finger, one of those gold ones with the sacred monogram which foreigners insist upon calling "Pax." She said she had bought it with her own money, and could give it away. She wished to give it to him. He protested, refused, but the fathomless violet eyes gazed into his very reproachfully. He had always been so kind to her, she said; would he not keep the little ring to remember her by?
So he had taken it, and that same day he had gone all the way to his lonely vineyard on Monte Mario carrying the chocolate box in his hands, and he had buried it under the chestnut-tree at the upper end, where there was some grass; and the breeze always blew there on summer afternoons. Then he had sat on the roots of the tree for a while, looking towards Rome.
He would have plenty of time to go to the vineyard now, for in a little while he should have nothing to do, as the palace was going to be sold. When he got home, he wrote a formal letter to Donna Sabina, informing her that he had fulfilled the commands she had deigned to give him, and ventured to subscribe himself her Excellency's most devoted, humble and grateful servant, as indeed he was, from the bottom of his heart. In twenty-four hours he received a note from her, written in a delicate tall hand, not without character, on paper bearing the address of Baron Volterra's house in Via Ludovisi. She thanked him in few words, warmly and simply. He read the note several times and then put it away in an old-fashioned brass-bound secretary, of which he always kept the key in his pocket. It was the only word of thanks he had received from any living member of the Conti family.
A month had passed since then, but as he sat at his desk it was all as vivid as if it had happened yesterday.
He was in his office to-day because he had received notice that some one was coming to look at the palace with a view to buying it, and he considered it his duty to show it to possible purchasers. Baron Volterra had sent him word in the morning, and he had come early. Then, as he sat in his old place, the ruin of the great house had enacted itself again before his eyes, so vividly that the pain had been almost physical. And then, he had fallen to thinking of Sabina, and wondering what was to become of her. That was the history of one half-hour in his life, on a May afternoon; but the whole man was in it, what he had been thirty years earlier, and a month ago, what he was to-day and what he would be to the end of his life.
If Sabina had known what was before her when she got into the Baroness Volterra's carriage and was driven up to the Via Ludovisi, followed by a cab with her luggage, she would probably have begged leave to go with her elder sister to the convent. Her mother would most likely have refused the permission, and she would have been obliged to accept the Volterras' hospitality after all, but she would have had the satisfaction of having made an effort to keep her freedom before entering into what she soon looked upon as slavery.
Her mother would have considered this another evidence of the folly inherent in all the Conti family. Sabina lived in a luxurious house, she was treated with consideration, she saw her friends, and desirable young men saw her. What more could she wish?
All this was true. The Baroness was at great pains to make much of her, and the Baron's manner to her was at once flattering, respectful and paternal. During the first few days she had discovered that if she accidentally expressed the smallest wish it was instantly fulfilled, and this was so embarrassing that she had since taken endless pains never to express any wish at all. Moreover not the slightest allusion to the misfortunes of her family was ever made before her, and if she was in total ignorance of the state of affairs, she was at least spared the humiliation of hearing that the palace was for sale, and might be sold any day, to any one who would pay the price asked.
From time to time the Baroness said she hoped that Sabina had good news of her mother, but showed no curiosity in the matter, and the girl always answered that she believed her mother to be quite well. Indeed she did believe it, for she supposed that if the Princess were ill some one would let her know. She wrote stiff little letters herself, every Sunday morning, and addressed them to her uncle's place in Poland; but no one ever took the least notice of these conscientious communications, and she wondered why she sent them, after all. It was a remnant of the sense of duty to her parents instilled into her in the convent, and she could not help clinging to it still, from habit.
She had a few friends of her own age, and they came to see her now and then. They were mostly companions of her recent convent days, and they asked her many questions, to most of which she had no answer. She noticed that they looked surprised, but they were well brought up girls, and kept their reflections to themselves, until they were at home.
The Conti had fewer near relations than most Roman families, for of late they had not been numerous. The Prince's only sister had died childless, the dowager Princess was a Pole, and her daughter-in-law was a Tuscan. Sabina and her generation had therefore no first cousins; and those who were one degree or more removed were glad that they had not been asked to take charge of the girl after the catastrophe. It would have been all very well merely to give her a room and a place at table, but the older ones shook their heads, and said that before long the Baroness Volterra would have to dress her too, and give her pocket-money. Her good-for-nothing brother would not do anything for her, if he could, and the Princess, who was amusing herself in Poland, if not in Paris, was capable of forgetting her existence for a year at a time.
All these things greatly enhanced the outward and visible merit of the Volterra couple, but made Sabina's position daily less endurable. So the Baroness laid up treasures in heaven while Sabina unwillingly stored trouble on earth.
She was proud, to begin with. It was bad enough to have been ordered by her mother to accept the hospitality of people she did not like, but it was almost unbearable to realize by degrees that she was living on their effusive charity. If she had been as vain as she was proud, she would probably have left their house to take refuge in her sister's convent, for her vanity could not have borne the certainty that all society knew what her position was. The foundation of pride is the wish to respect oneself, whatever others may think; the mainspring of vanity is the craving for the admiration of others, no matter at what cost to one's self-respect. In the Conti family these qualities and defects were unevenly distributed, for while pride seemed to have been left out in the character of Sabina's brother, who was vain and arrogant, she herself was as unspoilt by vanity as she was plentifully supplied with the characteristic which is said to have caused Lucifer's fall, but which has been the mainstay of many a greatly-tempted man and woman. Perhaps what is a fault in angels may seem to be almost a virtue in humanity, compared with the meanness of worse failings.
Sabina was not suspicious, yet she could not help wondering why the Baroness had been so very anxious to take her in, and sometimes she thought that the object might be to marry her to one of Volterra's two sons. One was in a cavalry regiment stationed in Turin, the other was in the diplomacy and was now in Washington. They were both doing very well in their careers and their father and mother often talked of them.
The Baron was inclined to be playful now and then.
"Ah, my dear young lady," he would cry, shaking one fat finger at Sabina across the dinner table, "take care, take care! You will lose your heart to both my boys and sow discord in my family!"
At this he never failed to laugh, and his wife responded with a smile of motherly pride, followed by a discreet side glance at Sabina's delicate face. Then the finely-pencilled eyebrows were just the least bit more arched for a second, and the slender neck grew slightly straighter, but that was all, and the Baron did not even see the change. Sometimes Sabina said nothing, but sometimes she asked if the sons were coming home on leave. No, they were not coming at present. In the spring Volterra and his wife generally spent a few weeks in Turin, to see the elder son, on their way to Aix and Paris, but his brother could hardly expect to come home for another year. Then the couple would talk about both the young men, until Sabina's attention wandered, and she no longer heard what they were saying.
She did not believe that they really thought of trying to marry her to one of the sons. In her own opinion they could gain nothing by it; she had no dowry now, and her mother had always talked of marriage as a business transaction. It did not occur to her that they could care to be allied with a ruined family, and that her mere name could be worth anything in their scale of values. They were millionaires, of course, and even the dowry which she might formerly have expected would have been nothing compared with their fortune; but her mother had always said that rich people were the very people who cared the most for money. That was the reason why they were rich. This explanation was so logical that Sabina had accepted it as the true one.
Her knowledge of the world was really limited to what she had learned from her mother, after she had come back from the convent six months before the crash, and it was an odd mixture of limitations and exaggerations. When the Princess was in a good humour she believed in everybody; when she was not, which was when she had no money to throw away, she attributed the basest motives to all mankind. According to her moods, she had encouraged Sabina to look forward to a life of perpetual pleasure, or had assured her with energy that all men were liars, and that the world was a wretched place after all. It was true that the Princess entertained the cheerful view more often than not, which was perhaps fortunate for her daughter; but in her heart the young girl felt that she would have to rely on her own common sense to form any opinion of life, and as her position became more difficult, while the future did not grow more defined, she tried to think connectedly about it all, and to reach some useful conclusion.
It was not easy. In her native city, living under the roof of people who held a strong position in the society to which she belonged, though they had not been born to it, she was as completely isolated as if she had been suddenly taken away and set down amongst strangers in Australia. She was as lonely as she could have been on a desert island.
The Volterra couple were radically, constitutionally, congenitally different from the men and women she had seen in her mother's house. She could not have told exactly where the difference lay, for she was too young, and perhaps too simple. She did not instinctively like them, but she had never really felt any affection for her mother either, and her own brother and sister had always repelled her. Her mother had sometimes treated her like a toy, but more often as a nuisance and a hindrance in life, to be kept out of the way as much, as possible, and married off on the first opportunity. Yet Sabina knew that far down in her nature there was a mysterious tie of some sort, an intuition that often told her what her mother would say or do, though she herself would have spoken and acted otherwise. She had felt it even with her brother and sister, but she could not feel it at all with the Baron or his wife. She never could guess what they might do or say under the most ordinary circumstances, nor what things they would like and dislike, nor how they would regard anything she said or did; least of all could she understand why they were so anxious to keep her with them.
It was all a mystery, but life itself was mysterious, and she was little more than a child in years though she had never had what one calls a real childhood.
She often used to sit by her window, the sliding blinds partly drawn together, but leaving a space through which she could look down at the city, with a glimpse of Saint Peter's in the distance against the warm haze of the low Campagna. Rome seemed as far from her then as if she saw it in a vision a thousand miles away, and the very faint sounds from the distance were like voices in a dream. Then, if she closed her eyes a moment, she could see the dark streets about the Palazzo Conti, and the one open corner of the palace, high up in the sunlight; she could smell the acrid air that used to come up to her in the early morning when the panes were opened, damp and laden with odours not sweet but familiar in the heart of Rome; odours compounded of cabbages, stables, cheese and mud, and occasionally varied by the fumes of roasting coffee, or the sour vapours from a wine cart that was unloading stained casks, all wet with red juice, at the door of the wine shop far below, a dark little wine shop with a dry bush stuck out through a smoky little grated window, and a humble sign displaying the prices of drink in roughly painted blue and red figures. For her room had looked upon the narrowest and darkest of the streets, though it had been stately enough within, and luxuriously furnished, besides containing some objects of value and beauty over which there would be much bidding and squabbling of amateurs and experts when the great sale took place.
It had been gloomy and silent and loveless, the life down there; and yet she would have gone back to it if she could, from the sunshine of the Via Ludovisi, and from the overpowering freshness of the Volterra house, where everything was modern, and polished, and varnished, and in perfect condition, suggesting that things had been just paid for. She had not liked the old life, but she liked her present surroundings even less, and at times she felt a furious longing to leave them suddenly, without warning; to go out when no one would notice her, and never to come back; to go she knew not where, out into the world, risking she knew not what, a high-born, penniless, fair-haired girl not yet eighteen.
What would happen, if she did? She rarely laughed, but she would laugh at that, when she thought of the consternation her flight would produce. How puzzled the fat Baron would look, how the Baroness's thin mouth would be drawn down at the corners! How the invisible silk bellows would puff as she ran up and down stairs, searching the house for Sabina!
There was more than one strain of wild blood in the delicate girl's veins, and the spring had come suddenly, with a bursting out of blossom and life and colour, and a twittering of nesting birds in the old gardens, and a rush of strange longings in her heart.
Then Sabina told herself that there was nothing to keep her where she was, but her own will, and that no one would really care what became of her in the wide world; certainly not her mother, who had never written her so much as a line, nor sent her a message, since they had parted on the day of the catastrophe; certainly not her brother; probably not even her sister, whose whole being was absorbed in the tyrannical government of what she called her soul. Sabina, in her thoughts, irreverently compared Clementina's soul to a race-horse, and her sister to a jockey, riding it cruelly with whip and spur to the goal of salvation, whether it liked it or not.
Sabina rose from her seat by the window, when she thought of liberty, and she walked up and down her room, driven by something she could not understand, and yet withheld by something she understood even less. For it was not fear, nor reflection, nor even common sense nor the thought of giving pain to any one that hindered her from leaving the house at such moments. It was not even the memory of the one human being who had hitherto loved her, and for whom she had felt affection and gratitude,—one of the nuns at the convent school, a brave, quiet little lady who made her believe in good. She meant to do no harm if she were free, and the nun would not really blame her, if she knew the truth.
It was not that. It was the secret conviction that there was harm in the world from which mere courage could not protect her; it was the sort of instinct that warns young animals not to eat plants that are poisonous; it was the maiden intuition of a strange and unknown danger.
She sat down again disconsolately. It was absurd, of course, and she could not run away. Where could she go? She had no money, and she would have to starve or beg before one day was out. She would be homeless, she would be driven to some house of charity, for a meal and a place to sleep, or else to sleep out under the sky. That would be delightful for once. She had always longed to sleep out of doors, to feel the breeze playing with her feathery hair in the dark, to watch the constellations turning slowly westwards, to listen to the night sounds, to the low rhythmical piping of the tree toad, the sorrowful cry of the little southern owl and the tolling of the hour in a far- off belfry.
But it might rain. At the idea, Sabina laughed again. It would be very unpleasant to be caught in a shower while napping on a bench in a public garden. Besides, if the policemen found her there, an extremely young lady, extremely well dressed but apparently belonging to no one, they would in all likelihood ask her name, and she would have to tell them who she was; and then she would be brought back to Baron Volterra's house, unless they thought it more prudent to take her to a lunatic asylum.
At that stage in her imaginings it was generally time to go out with the Baroness for the daily drive, which began with the leaving of cards and notes, then led to the country or one of the villas, and generally ended in a turn or two through the Corso before coming home. The worst part of the daily round was dinner when the Baron was at home. It was then that she felt most strongly the temptation to slip out of the house and never to come back. Often, however, he and his wife dined out, and then Sabina was served alone by two solemn men- servants, so extremely correct that they reminded her a little of her old home. These were the pleasantest evenings she spent during that spring, for when dinner was over she was free to go to her own room and curl herself up in a big armchair with a book, and read or dream till bedtime, as she pleased.
When she was alone, her life seemed less objectless, less inexplicably empty, less stupidly incomprehensible, less lonely than in the company of those excellent people with whom she had nothing in common, but to whom she felt that she was under a great obligation. In their company, it was as if her life had stopped suddenly at the beginning and was never to go on again, as if she had stuck fast like a fly in a drop of amber, as if nothing of interest could ever happen to her though she might live a hundred years.
She could hardly remember anything which had given her great pleasure. She did not remember to have been ever radiantly happy, though she could not recall much unhappiness since she had left the convent school. The last thing that had really hurt her had been the death of her pet canary, and she had kept her feelings to herself as well as she could, with the old aristocratic instinct of hiding pain.
It was all idle and strangely empty, and yet hard to understand. She would have been much surprised if she could have guessed how much its emptiness interested other people in Rome; how the dowagers chattered about her over their tea, abusing her mother and all her relations for abandoning her like a waif; how the men reasoned about Baron Volterra's deep-laid schemes, trying to make out that his semi- adoption of Sabina, as they called it, must certainly bode ruin to some one, since he had never in his life done anything without a financial object; how the young girls unanimously declared that the Baroness wanted Sabina for one of her sons, because she was such a dreadful snob; how Cardinal Della Crusca shook his wise old head knowingly, as he, who knew so much, always did on the rare occasions when he knew nothing about the matter in hand; how a romantic young English secretary of Embassy christened her the Princess in the Tower; and how old Pompeo Sassi went up to his vineyard on Monte Mario every Sunday and Thursday and sat almost all the afternoon under the chestnut-tree thinking about her and making unpractical plans of his own.
If Baron Volterra did not choose to sell the Palazzo Conti to the first comer, he doubtless knew his own business best, and he was not answerable to every one for his opinion that the fine old building was worth a good deal more than the highest offer he had yet received. Everybody knew that the palace was for sale, and some of the attempts made to buy it were openly discussed. A speculator had offered four hundred thousand francs for it, a rich South American had offered half a million; it was rumoured that the Vatican would give five hundred and fifty thousand, provided that the timbers of the carved ceilings were in good condition, but Volterra steadily refused to allow any of the carvings to be disturbed in order to examine the beams. During several days a snuffy little man with a clever face poked about with a light in dark places between floors, trying to find out whether the wood were sound or rotten, and asking all sorts of questions of the old porter, and of two workmen who went with him, and who had been employed in repairs in the palace, as their fathers had been before them, perhaps for generations. But their answers were never quite satisfactory, and the snuffy man disappeared to the mysterious regions beyond the Tiber, and did not come back.
Some people, knowing the ways of the Romans, might have inferred that the two workmen, a mason and a carpenter, had not been treated by Baron Volterra in such a way as to make them give a favourable report; and as he seemed perfectly indifferent about the result this is quite possible. At all events the carpenter made out that he could not get at the beams in question, without moving the decorations which covered them, and the mason affirmed that it was quite impossible to get a view of the foundations of the north-west corner of the palace, which were said to be weak, without knocking a hole through a wall upon which depended such solidity as there was. It was useless, he said. The snuffy gentleman could ask the Baron, if he pleased, and the Baron could do what he liked since the property now belonged to him: but he, the mason, would not lay hand to pick or crowbar without the Baron's express authorization. The Baron was a Senator of the Kingdom, said the mason, and could therefore of course send him to penal servitude in the galleys for life, if he pleased. That is the average Roman workman's idea of justice. The snuffy expert, who looked very much like a poor priest in plain clothes, though he evidently knew his business, made no reply, nor any attempt to help the mason's conscience with money.
But he stood a little while by the wall, with his lantern in his hands, and presently put his ear to the damp stones, and listened.
"There is running water somewhere not far off," he said, looking keenly at the workman.
"It is certainly not wine," answered the man, with a rough laugh, for he thought it a very good joke.
"Are there any 'lost waters' under the palace?" asked the expert.
"I do not know," replied the mason, looking away from the lantern towards the gloom of the cellars.
"I believe," said the snuffy gentleman, setting down his lantern, and taking a large pinch from a battered silver snuff-box, on which the arms of Pius Ninth were still distinguishable, "I believe that the nearest 'lost water' to this place is somewhere under the Vicolo del Soldati."
"I do not know."
The expert skilfully inserted the brown dust into his nostrils with his right thumb, scarcely wasting a grain in the operation.
"You do not seem to know much," he observed thoughtfully, and took up his lantern again.
"I know what I have been taught," replied the mason without resentment.
The expert glanced at him quickly, but said nothing more. His inspection was finished, and he led the way out of the intricate cellars as if he knew them by heart, though he had only passed through them once, and he left the palace on foot when he had brushed some of the dust from his shabby clothes.
The porter looked enquiringly at the two men, as they filled little clay pipes that had cane stems, standing under the deep entrance.
"Not even the price of half a litre of wine," said the mason in answer to the mute question.
"Church stuff," observed the carpenter discontentedly.
The porter nodded gravely, and the men nodded to him as they went out into the street. They had nothing more to do that day, and they turned into the dark little wine shop, where the withered bush stuck out of the blackened grating. They sat down opposite each other, with the end of the grimy board of the table between them, and the carpenter made a sign. The host brought a litre measure of thin red wine and set it down between them with two tumblers. He was ghastly pale, flabby and sullen, with a quarter of an inch of stubbly black beard on his unhealthy face.
The carpenter poured a few drops of wine into one of the tumblers, shook it about, turned it into the other, shook it again, and finally poured it on the unctuous stone floor beside him. Then he filled both glasses to the brim, and both men drank in silence.
They repeated the operation, and after the second glass there was not much left in the measure. The flabby host had retired to the gloomy vaults within, where he played cards with a crony by the light of a small smoking lamp with a cracked chimney.
"That was the very place, was it not?" asked the carpenter at last, in a low tone, and almost without moving his lips.
The mason said nothing, but shrugged his shoulders, in a sort of enigmatic assent. Both drank again, and after a long time the carpenter smiled faintly.
"He was looking for the 'lost water,'" he said, in a tone of contempt.
The faint smile slowly reflected itself in the mason's face. The two finished their wine, lit their pipes again, left the price of their drink on the table without disturbing the host and went away.
So far as any outsider could have judged, the expert's curiosity and the few words exchanged by the workmen referred to the so-called "lost water," which might be somewhere under the north-west corner of the Palazzo Conti, and no one unacquainted with subterranean Rome could possibly have understood what any of the three meant.
The "lost waters" of Rome are very mysterious. Here and there, under old streets and far down amongst the foundations of ancient palaces, there are channels of running water which have no apparent connection with any of the aqueducts now restored and in use. It is a water that comes no one knows whence and finds its way to the Tiber, no one knows how. It is generally clear and very cold, and in the days when the aqueducts were all broken and most people drank of the river, the "lost water" was highly prized. It appears in the most unexpected places, sometimes in great quantities and seriously interfering with any attempt to lay the foundations of a new building, sometimes black and silent, under a huge flagstone in an old courtyard, sometimes running with an audible rush through hidden passages deeper than the deepest cellars. It has puzzled archaeologists, hydraulic engineers and architects for generations, its presence has never been satisfactorily explained, there seems not to be any plan of the city which shows its whereabouts, and the modern improvements of the Tiber's banks do not appear to have affected its occult courses. By tradition handed down from father to son, certain workmen, chiefly masons and always genuine Romans, claim to know more about it than other people; but that is as much as can be said. It is known as the "lost water," and it rises and falls, and seeks different levels in unaccountable ways, as water will when it is confined under the earth but is here and there confronted by the pressure of the air.
But though the old-fashioned Roman workman still looks upon all traditional information about his trade as secret and never to be revealed, that fact alone might seem insufficient to account for the behaviour of Gigi the carpenter and of Toto the mason under the particular circumstances here narrated, still less for the contempt they showed for the snuffy expert who was apparently looking for the "lost water." An invisible witness would have gathered that they had something of more importance to conceal. To the expert, their conduct and answers must have been thoroughly unsatisfactory, for the Vatican was even said to have refused to pay the additional fifty thousand francs, On the ground that the state of the foundations was doubtful and that the timbers of the upper story were not sound.
Baron Volterra's equanimity was not in the least disturbed by this. On the contrary, instead of setting the price lower, he frankly told all applicants, through his agent, that he was in no hurry to sell, as he had reason to believe that the land about the Palazzo Conti would soon rise in value. He had settled with the representatives of the Conti family, and it was said that he had behaved generously. The family had nothing left after the crash, which might partially account for such an exhibition of generosity; but it was hinted that Baron Volterra had given them the option of buying back the palace and some other property upon which he had foreclosed, if they should be able to pay for it in ten years.
Soon after the visit of the snuffy expert, Volterra's agent informed the porter that a gentleman had taken the small apartment on the intermediate story, which had formerly been occupied by a chaplain but had been disused for years. It had been part of the Conti's folly that they had steadily refused to let any part of the vast building since the old Prince's death.
On the following day, the new-comer moved in, with his belongings, consisting of a small quantity of new furniture, barely sufficient for himself and his one servant, and a number of very heavy cases, which turned out to be full of books. Gigi, the carpenter, was at once sent for to put up plain shelves for these, and he took stock of the lodger while the latter was explaining what he wanted.
"He is a gentleman," said Gigi to Toto, that very evening, as they stood filling their pipes at the corner of the Vicolo del Soldati. "His name is Malipieri. He is as black as the horses at a funeral of the first-class, and he is not a Roman."
"Who knows what race of animal this may be?" Toto was not in a good humour.
"He is of the race of gentlemen," asserted Gigi confidently.
"Then he will end badly," observed Toto. "Let us go and drink. It is better."
"Let us go and drink," repeated Gigi. "You have a sensible thought sometimes. I think this man is an engineer, or an architect. He wants a draughtsman's table."
"Evil befall his little dead ones, whatever he is," returned the other, by way of welcome to the young man who had moved into the palace.
"He advanced me ten francs to buy wood for the shelves," said Gigi, who was by far the more cheerful of the two.
"Come and drink," returned Toto, relevantly or irrelevantly. "That is much better."
So they turned into the wine shop.
Baron Volterra introduced Marino Malipieri to the two ladies. The guest had come punctually, for the Baron had looked at his watch a moment before he was announced, and it was precisely eight o'clock.
Malipieri bowed to the Baroness, who held out her hand cordially, and then to Sabina.
"Donna Sabina Conti," said the Baron with extreme distinctness, in order that his guest should be quite sure of the young girl's identity.
Sabina looked down modestly, as the nuns had told her to do when a young man was introduced to her. At the same moment Malipieri's eyes turned quietly and quickly to the Baron, and a look of intelligence passed between the two men. Malipieri understood that Sabina was one of the family in whose former palace he was living. Then he glanced again at the young girl for one moment, before making a commonplace remark to the Baroness, and after that Sabina felt that she was at liberty to look at him.
She saw a very dark man of average height, with short black hair that grew rather far back from his very white forehead, and wearing a closely clipped black beard and moustache which did not by any means hide the firm lines of the mouth and chin. From the strongly marked eyebrows downward his face was almost of the colour of newly cast bronze, and the dusky hue contrasted oddly with the clear whiteness of his forehead. He was evidently a man who had lately been living much out of doors under a burning sun. Sabina thought that his very bright black eyes and boldly curved features suggested a young hawk, and he had a look of compact strength and a way of moving which betrayed both great energy and extreme quickness.
But there was something more, which Sabina recognized at the first glance. She felt instantly that he was not like the Baron and his wife; that he belonged in some way to the same variety of humanity as herself; that she would understand him when he spoke, that she would often feel intuitively what he was going to say next, and that he would understand her.
She listened while he talked to the Baroness. He had a slight Venetian accent, but his voice had not the soft Venetian ring. It was a little veiled, and though not at all loud it was somewhat harsh. Sabina did not dislike the manly tone, though it was not musical, nor the Venetian pronunciation, although that was unfamiliar. In countries like Italy and Germany, which have had many centres and many historical capital cities, almost all educated people speak with the accents of their several origins, and are rather tenacious of the habit than anxious to get rid of it, generally maintaining that their own pronunciation is the right one.
"Signor Malipieri," said the Baron to Sabina, as they went in to dinner, "is the celebrated archaeologist."
"Yes," Sabina answered, as if she knew all about him, though she had never heard him mentioned.
Malipieri probably overheard the Baron's speech, but he took no notice of it. At dinner, he seemed inclined to be silent. The Baron asked him questions about his discoveries, to which he gave rather short answers, but Sabina gathered that he had found something extraordinary in Carthage. She did not know where Carthage was, and did not like to ask, but she remembered that Marius had sat there among some ruins. Perhaps Malipieri had found his bones, for no one had ever told her that Marius did not continue to sit among the ruins to his dying day. She connected him vaguely with AEneas and another person called Regulus. It was all rather uncertain.
What she saw clearly was that the Baron wished to make Malipieri feel at his ease, but that Malipieri's idea of being at his ease was certainly not founded on a wish to talk about himself. So the conversation languished for some time.
The Baroness, who knew about as much about Carthage as Sabina, made a few disconnected remarks, interspersed with laudatory allusions to the young man's immense learning, for she wished to please her husband, though she had not the slightest idea why Malipieri was asked to dinner. Finding that he was not perceptibly flattered by what she said, she began to talk about the Venetian aristocracy, for she knew that his name was historical, and she recognized in him at once the characteristics of the nobility she worshipped. Malipieri smiled politely, and in answer to a direct question admitted that his mother had been a Gradenigo.
The Baroness was delighted at this information.
"To think," she said, "that by a mere accident you and Donna Sabina should meet here, the descendants of two of the oldest families of the Italian aristocracy!"
"I am a republican," observed Malipieri quietly.
"You!" cried the Baroness in amazement. "You, the offspring of such races as the Malipieri and the Gradenigo a republican, a socialist, an anarchist!"
"There is a difference," said Malipieri with a smile. "A republican is not an anarchist!"
"I can never believe it," answered the Baroness solemnly.
She ate a few green peas and shook her head.
"I went to Carthage because I was condemned to three years' confinement in prison," replied Malipieri with calm.
"Prison!" exclaimed the Baroness in horror, and she looked at her husband, mutely asking why in the world he had brought a convict to their table.
The Baron smiled benignly, as he disposed of an ample mouthful of green peas, before he spoke.
"Signor Malipieri," he said, when he had swallowed the last one, "founded and edited a republican newspaper in the north of Italy."
"And you were sent to prison for that?" asked Sabina with indignation.
"It is one thing to send a man to prison," said Malipieri. "It is another to make him go there. I escaped to Switzerland, and I came back to Italy quite lately, after the amnesty."
"I am amazed!" The Baroness looked at the servants timidly, as if she expected the butler and the footman to express their disapprobation of the guest.
"I have left politics for the present," Malipieri replied, looking at Sabina and smiling.
"Of course!" cried the Baroness. "But—" she stopped short.
"My wife," said the financier with a grin, "is afraid you have dynamite about you."
"How absurd!" The Baroness felt that she was ridiculous. "But I do not understand how you can be friends," she added, glancing from her husband to Malipieri.
"We are at least on good terms of acquaintance," said the younger man a little markedly.
Sabina liked the speech and the way in which it was spoken.
"We have a common ground for it in our interest in antiquities. Is it not true, Signer Malipieri?"
The Baron looked at him and smiled again, as if there were a secret between them, and Malipieri glanced at Sabina.
"It is quite true," he said gravely. "The Baron has read all I have written about Carthage."
Volterra possessed a sort of rough social tact, together with the native astuteness and great knowledge of men which had made him rich and a Senator. He suddenly became voluble and led the conversation in a new direction, which it followed till the end of dinner.
Several people came in afterwards, as often happened, before the coffee was taken away. They were chiefly men in politics, and two of them brought their wives with them. They were not the sort of guests whom the Baroness preferred, for they were not by any means all noble Romans, but they were of importance to her husband and she took great pains to make them welcome. To one she offered his favourite liqueur, which happened to be a Sicilian ratafia; for another she made the Baron send for some of those horribly coarse black cigars known as Tuscans, which some Italians prefer to anything else; for a third, she ordered fresh coffee to be especially made. She took endless trouble.
Malipieri seemed to know none of the guests, and he took advantage of the Baroness's preoccupation for their comforts to sit down by Sabina. He did not look at her, and she thought he looked bored, as he sat a moment in silence. Then a thin deputy with a magnificent forehead and thick grey hair began to hold forth on the subject of a projected divorce law and the guests gathered round him. Sabina had never heard of Sydney Smith, but she had a suspicion that nobody could be as great as the speaker looked. While she was thinking of this, Malipieri spoke to her in a low voice.
"I suppose that you are stopping in the house," he said.
Sabina turned her eyes a little, but did not look straight at him. She saw, however, that he was still watching the people in the room, and still looked bored, and she was quite unprepared for what followed.
"Are the affairs of your family finally settled?" he enquired, without changing his tone.
Sabina was so much surprised that she waited a moment before answering. Her first instinct was to ask him stiffly why he put such a question, and she would have replied to it in that way if it had come from any other guest in the room; but she changed her mind almost instantly.
"No one has told me anything," she said simply, in a low voice. Malipieri turned his head a little with a quick movement, and clasped his brown hands over one knee.
"You know nothing?" he asked. "Nothing whatever about the matter?"
He bit his lip as if he were indignant, and were repressing an exclamation.
"No one has written to me—for a long time," Sabina said, after a moment.
She had been on the point of saying that she had never received a line from any member of her family since the crash, but that seemed to sound like a confidence, and what she really said was quite true.
"Has not the Senator told you anything either?" Malipieri asked.
"No. I suppose he does not like to speak about our misfortunes before me."
"Have you, I mean you yourself, any interest in the Palazzo Conti now? Can you tell me that?"
"I know nothing—nothing!" Sabina repeated the word with a slight tremor, for just then she felt her position more keenly than ever before. "Why do you ask?"