BY F. MARION CRAWFORD
AUTHOR OF 'MR. ISAACS,' 'DR. CLAUDIUS,' 'A ROMAN SINGER,' 'ZOROASTER,' 'A TALE OF A LONELY PARISH,' ETC.
It was at first feared that the name Saracinesca, as it is now printed, might be attached to an unused title in the possession of a Roman house. The name was therefore printed with an additional consonant—Sarracinesca—in the pages of 'Blackwood's Magazine.' After careful inquiry, the original spelling is now restored.
In the year 1865 Rome was still in a great measure its old self. It had not then acquired that modern air which is now beginning to pervade it. The Corso had not been widened and whitewashed; the Villa Aldobrandini had not been cut through to make the Via Nazionale; the south wing of the Palazzo Colonna still looked upon a narrow lane through which men hesitated to pass after dark; the Tiber's course had not then been corrected below the Farnesina; the Farnesina itself was but just under repair; the iron bridge at the Ripetta was not dreamed of; and the Prati di Castello were still, as their name implies, a series of waste meadows. At the southern extremity of the city, the space between the fountain of Moses and the newly erected railway station, running past the Baths of Diocletian, was still an exercising-ground for the French cavalry. Even the people in the streets then presented an appearance very different from that which is now observed by the visitors and foreigners who come to Rome in the winter. French dragoons and hussars, French infantry and French officers, were everywhere to be seen in great numbers, mingled with a goodly sprinkling of the Papal Zouaves, whose grey Turco uniforms with bright red facings, red sashes, and short yellow gaiters, gave colour to any crowd. A fine corps of men they were, too; counting hundreds of gentlemen in their ranks, and officered by some of the best blood in France and Austria. In those days also were to be seen the great coaches of the cardinals, with their gorgeous footmen and magnificent black horses, the huge red umbrellas lying upon the top, while from the open windows the stately princes of the Church from time to time returned the salutations of the pedestrians in the street. And often in the afternoon there was heard the tramp of horse as a detachment of the noble guards trotted down the Corso on their great chargers, escorting the holy Father himself, while all who met him dropped upon one knee and uncovered their heads to receive the benediction of the mild-eyed old man with the beautiful features, the head of Church and State. Many a time, too, Pius IX. would descend from his coach and walk upon the Pincio, all clothed in white, stopping sometimes to talk with those who accompanied him, or to lay his gentle hand on the fair curls of some little English child that paused from its play in awe and admiration as the Pope went by. For he loved children well, and most of all, children with golden hair—angels, not Angles, as Gregory said.
As for the fashions of those days, it is probable that most of us would suffer severe penalties rather than return to them, beautiful as they then appeared to us by contrast with the exaggerated crinoline and flower-garden bonnet, which had given way to the somewhat milder form of hoop-skirt madness, but had not yet flown to the opposite extreme in the invention of the close-fitting princesse garments of 1868. But, to each other, people looked then as they look now. Fashion in dress, concerning which nine-tenths of society gives itself so much trouble, appears to exercise less influence upon men and women in their relations towards each other than does any other product of human ingenuity. Provided every one is in the fashion, everything goes on in the age of high heels and gowns tied back precisely as it did five-and-twenty years ago, when people wore flat shoes, and when gloves with three buttons had not been dreamed of—when a woman of most moderate dimensions occupied three or four square yards of space upon a ball-room floor, and men wore peg-top trousers. Human beings since the days of Adam seem to have retired like caterpillars into cocoons of dress, expecting constantly the wondrous hour when they shall emerge from their self-woven prison in the garb of the angelic butterfly, having entered into the chrysalis state as mere human grubs. But though they both toil and spin at their garments, and vie with Solomon in his glory to outshine the lily of the field, the humanity of the grub shows no signs of developing either in character or appearance in the direction of anything particularly angelic.
It was not the dress of the period which gave to the streets of Rome their distinctive feature. It would be hard to say, now that so much is changed, wherein the peculiar charm of the old-time city consisted; but it was there, nevertheless, and made itself felt so distinctly beyond the charm of any other place, that the very fascination of Rome was proverbial. Perhaps no spot in Europe has ever possessed such an attractive individuality. In those days there were many foreigners, too, as there are to-day, both residents and visitors; but they seemed to belong to a different class of humanity. They seemed less inharmonious to their surroundings then than now, less offensive to the general air of antiquity. Probably they were more in earnest; they came to Rome with the intention of liking the place, rather than of abusing the cookery in the hotels. They came with a certain knowledge of the history, the literature, and the manners of the ancients, derived from an education which in those days taught more through the classics and less through handy text-books and shallow treatises concerning the Renaissance; they came with preconceived notions which were often strongly dashed with old-fashioned prejudice, but which did not lack originality: they come now in the smattering mood, imbued with no genuine beliefs, but covered with exceeding thick varnish. Old gentlemen then visited the sights in the morning, and quoted Horace to each other, and in the evening endeavoured by associating with Romans to understand something of Rome; young gentlemen now spend one or two mornings in finding fault with the architecture of Bramante, and "in the evening," like David's enemies, "they grin like a dog and run about the city:" young women were content to find much beauty in the galleries and in the museums, and were simple enough to admire what they liked; young ladies of the present day can find nothing to admire except their own perspicacity in detecting faults in Raphael's drawing or Michael Angelo's colouring. This is the age of incompetent criticism in matters artistic, and no one is too ignorant to volunteer an opinion. It is sufficient to have visited half-a-dozen Italian towns, and to have read a few pages of fashionable aesthetic literature—no other education is needed to fit the intelligent young critic for his easy task. The art of paradox can be learned in five minutes, and practised by any child; it consists chiefly in taking two expressions of opinion from different authors, halving them, and uniting the first half of the one with the second half of the other. The result is invariably startling, and generally incomprehensible. When a young society critic knows how to be startling and incomprehensible, his reputation is soon made, for people readily believe that what they cannot understand is profound, and anything which astonishes is agreeable to a taste deadened by a surfeit of spices. But in 1865 the taste of Europe was in a very different state. The Second Empire was in its glory. M. Emile Zola had not written his 'Assommoir.' Count Bismarck had only just brought to a successful termination the first part of his trimachy; Sadowa and Sedan were yet unfought. Garibaldi had won Naples, and Cavour had said, "If we did for ourselves what we are doing for Italy, we should be great scoundrels;" but Garibaldi had not yet failed at Mentana, nor had Austria ceded Venice. Cardinal Antonelli had yet ten years of life before him in which to maintain his gallant struggle for the remnant of the temporal power; Pius IX. was to live thirteen years longer, just long enough to outlive by one month the "honest king," Victor Emmanuel. Antonelli's influence pervaded Rome, and to a great extent all the Catholic Courts of Europe; yet he was far from popular with the Romans. The Jesuits, however, were even less popular than he, and certainly received a much larger share of abuse. For the Romans love faction more than party, and understand it better; so that popular opinion is too frequently represented by a transitory frenzy, violent and pestilent while it lasts, utterly insignificant when it has spent its fury.
But Rome in those days was peopled solely by Romans, whereas now a large proportion of the population consists of Italians from the north and south, who have been attracted to the capital by many interests—races as different from its former citizens as Germans or Spaniards, and unfortunately not disposed to show overmuch good-fellowship or loving-kindness to the original inhabitants. The Roman is a grumbler by nature, but he is also a "peace-at-any-price" man. Politicians and revolutionary agents have more than once been deceived by these traits, supposing that because the Roman grumbled he really desired change, but realising too late, when the change has been begun, that that same Roman is but a lukewarm partisan. The Papal Government repressed grumbling as a nuisance, and the people consequently took a delight in annoying the authorities by grumbling in secret places and calling themselves conspirators. The harmless whispering of petty discontent was mistaken by the Italian party for the low thunder of a smothered volcano; but, the change being brought about, the Italians find to their disgust that the Roman meant nothing by his murmurings, and that he now not only still grumbles at everything, but takes the trouble to fight the Government at every point which concerns the internal management of the city. In the days before the change, a paternal Government directed the affairs of the little State, and thought it best to remove all possibility of strife by giving the grumblers no voice in public or economic matters. The grumblers made a grievance of tins; and then, as soon as the grievance had been redressed, they redoubled their complaints and retrenched themselves within the infallibility of inaction, on the principle that men who persist in doing nothing cannot possibly do wrong.
Those were the days, too, of the old school of artists—men who, if their powers of creation were not always proportioned to their ambition for excellence, were as superior to their more recent successors in their pure conceptions of what art should be as Apelles was to the Pompeian wall-painters, and as the Pompeians were to modern house-decorators. The age of Overbeck and the last religious painters was almost past, but the age of fashionable artistic debauchery had hardly begun. Water-colour was in its infancy; wood-engraving was hardly yet a great profession; but the "Dirty Boy" had not yet taken a prize at Paris, nor had indecency become a fine art. The French school had not demonstrated the startling distinction between the nude and the naked, nor had the English school dreamed nightmares of anatomical distortion.
Darwin's theories had been propagated, but had not yet been passed into law, and very few Romans had heard of them; still less had any one been found to assert that the real truth of these theories would be soon demonstrated retrogressively by the rapid degeneration of men into apes, while apes would hereafter have cause to congratulate themselves upon not having developed into men. Many theories also were then enjoying vast popularity which have since fallen low in the popular estimation. Prussia was still, in theory, a Power of the second class, and the empire of Louis Napoleon was supposed to possess elements of stability. The great civil war in the United States had just been fought, and people still doubted whether the republic would hold together. It is hard to recall the common beliefs of those times. A great part of the political creed of twenty years ago seems now a mass of idiotic superstition, in no wise preferable, as Macaulay would have said, to the Egyptian worship of cats and onions. Nevertheless, then, as now, men met together secretly in cellars and dens, as well as in drawing-rooms and clubs, and whispered together, and said their theories were worth something, and ought to be tried. The word republic possessed then, as now, a delicious attraction for people who had grievances; and although, after the conquest of Naples, Garibaldi had made a sort of public abjuration of republican principles, so far as Italy was concerned, the plotters of all classes persisted in coupling his name with the idea of a commonwealth erected on the plan of "sois mon frere ou je te tue." Profound silence on the part of Governments, and a still more guarded secrecy on the part of conspiring bodies, were practised as the very first principle of all political operations. No copyist, at half-a-crown an hour, had yet betrayed the English Foreign Office; and it had not dawned upon the clouded intellects of European statesmen that deliberate national perjury, accompanied by public meetings of sovereigns, and much blare of many trumpets, could be practised with such triumphant success as events have since shown. In the beginning of the year 1865 people crossed the Alps in carriages; the Suez Canal had not been opened; the first Atlantic cable was not laid; German unity had not been invented; Pius IX. reigned in the Pontifical States; Louis Napoleon was the idol of the French; President Lincoln had not been murdered,—is anything needed to widen the gulf which separates those times from these? The difference between the States of the world in 1865 and in 1885 is nearly as great as that which divided the Europe of 1789 from the Europe of 1814.
But my business is with Rome, and not with Europe at large. I intend to tell the story of certain persons, of their good and bad fortune, their adventures, and the complications in which they found themselves placed during a period of about twenty years. The people of whom I tell this story are chiefly patricians; and in the first part of their history they have very little to do with any but their own class—a class peculiar and almost unique in the world.
Speaking broadly, there is no one at once so thoroughly Roman and so thoroughly non-Roman as the Roman noble. This is no paradox, no play on words. Roman nobles are Roman by education and tradition; by blood they are almost cosmopolitans. The practice of intermarrying with the great families of the rest of Europe is so general as to be almost a rule. One Roman prince is an English peer; most of the Roman princes are grandees of Spain; many of them have married daughters of great French houses, of reigning German princes, of ex-kings and ex-queens. In one princely house alone are found the following combinations: There are three brothers: the eldest married first the daughter of a great English peer, and secondly the daughter of an even greater peer of Prance; the second brother married first a German "serene highness," and secondly the daughter of a great Hungarian noble; the third brother married the daughter of a French house of royal Stuart descent. This is no solitary instance. A score of families might be cited who, by constant foreign marriages, have almost eliminated from their blood the original Italian element; and this great intermixture of races may account for the strangely un-Italian types that are found among them, for the undying vitality which seems to animate races already a thousand years old, and above all, for a very remarkable cosmopolitanism which pervades Roman society. A set of people whose near relations are socially prominent in every capital of Europe, could hardly be expected to have anything provincial about them in appearance or manners; still less can they be considered to be types of their own nation. And yet such is the force of tradition, of the patriarchal family life, of the early surroundings in which are placed these children of a mixed race, that they acquire from their earliest years the unmistakable outward manner of Romans, the broad Roman speech, and a sort of clannish and federative spirit which has not its like in the same class anywhere in Europe. They grow up together, go to school together, go together into the world, and together discuss all the social affairs of their native city. Not a house is bought or sold, not a hundred francs won at ecarte, not a marriage contract made, without being duly considered and commented upon by the whole of society. And yet, though there is much gossip, there is little scandal; there was even less twenty years ago than there is now—not, perhaps, because the increment of people attracted to the new capital have had any bad influence, but simply because the city has grown much larger, and in some respects has outgrown a certain simplicity of manners it once possessed, and which was its chief safeguard. For, in spite of a vast number of writers of all nations who have attempted to describe Italian life, and who, from an imperfect acquaintance with the people, have fallen into the error of supposing them to live perpetually in a highly complicated state of mind, the foundation of the Italian character is simple—far more so than that of his hereditary antagonist, the northern European. It is enough to notice that the Italian habitually expresses what he feels, while it is the chief pride of Northern men that whatever they may feel they express nothing. The chief object of most Italians is to make life agreeable; the chief object of the Teutonic races is to make it profitable. Hence the Italian excels in the art of pleasing, and in pleasing by means of the arts; whereas the Northern man is pre-eminent in the faculty of producing wealth under any circumstances, and when he has amassed enough possessions to think of enjoying his leisure, has generally been under the necessity of employing Southern art as a means to that end. But Southern simplicity carried to its ultimate expression leads not uncommonly to startling results; for it is not generally a satisfaction to an Italian to be paid a sum of money as damages for an injury done. When his enemy has harmed him, he desires the simple retribution afforded by putting his enemy to death, and he frequently exacts it by any means that he finds ready to his hand. Being simple, he reflects little, and often acts with violence. The Northern mind, capable of vast intricacy of thought, seeks to combine revenge of injury with personal profit, and in a spirit of cold, far-sighted calculation, reckons up the advantages to be got by sacrificing an innate desire for blood to a civilised greed of money.
Dr. Johnson would have liked the Romans—for in general they are good lovers and good haters, whatever faults they may have. The patriarchal system, which was all but universal twenty years ago, and is only now beginning to yield to more modern institutions of life, tends to foster the passions of love and hate. Where father and mother sit at the head and foot of the table, their sons with their wives and their children each in his or her place, often to the number of twenty souls—all living under one roof, one name, and one bond of family unity—there is likely to be a great similarity of feeling upon all questions of family pride, especially among people who discuss everything with vehemence, from European politics to the family cook. They may bicker and squabble among themselves,—and they frequently do,—but in their outward relations with the world they act as one individual, and the enemy of one is the enemy of all; for the pride of race and name is very great. There is a family in Rome who, since the memory of man, have not failed to dine together twice every week, and there are now more than thirty persons who take their places at the patriarchal board. No excuse can be pleaded for absence, and no one would think of violating the rule. Whether such a mode of life is good or not is a matter of opinion; it is, at all events, a fact, and one not generally understood or even known by persons who make studies of Italian character. Free and constant discussion of all manner of topics should certainly tend to widen the intelligence; but, on the other hand, where the dialecticians are all of one race, and name, and blood, the practice may often merely lead to an undue development of prejudice. In Rome, particularly, where so many families take a distinct character from the influence of a foreign mother, the opinions of a house are associated with its mere name. Casa Borghese thinks so and so, Casa Colonna has diametrically opposite views, while Casa Altieri may differ wholly from both; and in connection with most subjects the mere names Borghese, Altieri, Colonna, are associated in the minds of Romans of all classes with distinct sets of principles and ideas, with distinct types of character, and with distinctly different outward and visible signs of race. Some of these conditions exist among the nobility of other countries, but not, I believe, to the same extent. In Germany, the aristocratic body takes a certain uniform hue, so to speak, from the army, in which it plays so important a part, and the patriarchal system is broken up by the long absences from the ancestral home of the soldier-sons. In France, the main divisions of republicans, monarchists, and imperialists have absorbed and unified the ideas and principles of large bodies of families into bodies politic. In England, the practice of allowing younger sons to shift for themselves, and the division of the whole aristocracy into two main political parties, destroy the patriarchal spirit; while it must also be remembered, that at a period when in Italy the hand of every house was against its neighbour, and the struggles of Guelph and Ghibelline were but an excuse for the prosecution of private feuds, England was engaged in great wars which enlisted vast bodies of men under a common standard for a common principle. Whether the principle involved chanced to be that of English domination in France, or whether men flocked to the standards of the White Rose of York or the Red Rose of Lancaster, was of little importance; the result was the same,—the tendency of powerful families to maintain internecine traditional feuds was stamped out, or rather was absorbed in the maintenance of the perpetual feud between the great principles of Tory and Whig—of the party for the absolute monarch, and the party for the freedom of the people.
Be the causes what they may, the Roman nobility has many characteristics peculiar to it and to no other aristocracy. It is cosmopolitan by its foreign marriages, renewed in every generation; it is patriarchal and feudal by its own unbroken traditions of family life; and it is only essentially Roman by its speech and social customs. It has undergone great vicissitudes during twenty years; but most of these features remain in spite of new and larger parties, new and bitter political hatreds, new ideas of domestic life, and new fashions in dress and cookery.
In considering an account of the life of Giovanni Saracinesca from the time when, in 1865, he was thirty years of age, down to the present day, it is therefore just that he should be judged with a knowledge of some of these peculiarities of his class. He is not a Roman of the people like Giovanni Cardegna, the great tenor, and few of his ideas have any connection with those of the singer; but he has, in common with him, that singular simplicity of character which he derives from his Roman descent upon the male side, and in which will be found the key to many of his actions both good and bad—a simplicity which loves peace, but cannot always refrain from sudden violence, which loves and hates strongly and to some purpose.
The hour was six o'clock, and the rooms of the Embassy were as full as they were likely to be that day. There would doubtless have been more people had the weather been fine; but it was raining heavily, and below, in the vast court that formed the centre of the palace, the lamps of fifty carriages gleamed through the water and the darkness, and the coachmen, of all dimensions and characters, sat beneath their huge umbrellas and growled to each other, envying the lot of the footmen who were congregated in the ante-chamber up-stairs around the great bronze braziers. But in the reception-rooms there was much light and warmth; there were bright fires and softly shaded lamps; velvet-footed servants stealing softly among the guests, with immense burdens of tea and cake; men of more or less celebrity chatting about politics in corners; women of more or less beauty gossiping over their tea, or flirting, or wishing they had somebody to flirt with; people of many nations and ideas, with a goodly leaven of Romans. They all seemed endeavouring to get away from the men and women of their own nationality, in order to amuse themselves with the difficulties of conversation in languages not their own. Whether they amused themselves or not is of small importance; but as they were all willing to find themselves together twice a-day for the five months of the Roman season—from the first improvised dance before Christmas, to the last set ball in the warm April weather after Easter—it may be argued that they did not dislike each other's society. In case the afternoon should seem dull, his Excellency had engaged the services of Signor Strillone, the singer. From time to time he struck a few chords upon the grand piano, and gave forth a song of his own composition in loud and passionate tones, varied with, very sudden effects of extreme pianissimo, which occasionally surprised some one who was trying to make his conversation heard above the music.
There was a little knot of people standing about the door of the great drawing-room. Some of them were watching their opportunity to slip away unperceived; others had just arrived, and were making a survey of the scene to ascertain the exact position of their Excellencies, and of the persons they most desired to avoid, before coming forward. Suddenly, just as Signor Strillone had reached a high note and was preparing to bellow upon it before letting his voice die away to a pathetic falsetto, the crowd at the door parted a little. A lady entered the room alone, and stood out before the rest, pausing till the singer should have passed the climax of his song, before she proceeded upon her way. She was a very striking woman; every one knew who she was, every one looked towards her, and the little murmur that went round the room was due to her entrance rather than to Signor Strillone's high note.
The Duchessa d'Astrardente stood still, and quietly looked about her. A minister, two secretaries, and three or four princes sprang towards her, each with a chair in hand; but she declined each offer, nodding to one, thanking another by name, and exchanging a few words with a third. She would not sit down; she had not yet spoken to the ambassadress.
Two men followed her closely as she crossed the room when the song was finished. One was a fair man of five-and-thirty, rather stout, and elaborately dressed. He trod softly and carried his hat behind him, while he leaned a little forward in his walk. There was something unpleasant about his face, caused perhaps by his pale complexion and almost colourless moustache; his blue eyes were small and near together, and had a watery, undecided look; his thin fair hair was parted in the middle over his low forehead; there was a scornful look about his mouth, though half concealed by the moustache; and his chin retreated rather abruptly from his lower lip. On the other hand, he was dressed with extreme care, and his manner showed no small confidence in himself as he pushed forwards, keeping as close as he could to the Duchessa. He had the air of being thoroughly at home in his surroundings.
Ugo del Ferice was indeed rarely disconcerted, and his self-reliance was most probably one chief cause of his success. He was a man who performed the daily miracle of creating everything for himself out of nothing. His father had barely been considered a member of the lower nobility, although he always called himself "dei conti del Ferice"—of the family of the counts of his name; but where or when the Conti del Ferice had lived, was a question he never was able to answer satisfactorily. He had made a little money, and had squandered most of it before he died, leaving the small remainder to his only son, who had spent every scudo of it in the first year. But to make up for the exiguity of his financial resources, Ugo had from his youth obtained social success. He had begun life by boldly calling himself "Il conte del Ferice." No one had ever thought it worth while to dispute him the title; and as he had hitherto not succeeded in conferring it upon any dowered damsel, the question of his countship was left unchallenged. He had made many acquaintances in the college where he had been educated; for his father had paid for his schooling in the Collegio dei Nobili, and that in itself was a passport—for as the lad grew to the young man, he zealously cultivated the society of his old school-fellows, and by wisely avoiding all other company, acquired a right to be considered one of themselves. He was very civil and obliging in his youth, and had in that way acquired a certain reputation for being indispensable, which had stood him in good stead. No one asked whether he had paid his tailor's bill; or whether upon certain conditions, his tailor supplied him with raiment gratis. He was always elaborately dressed, he was always ready to take a hand at cards, and he was always invited to every party in the season. He had cultivated with success the science of amusing, and people asked him to dinner in the winter, and to their country houses in the summer. He had been seen in Paris, and was often seen at Monte Carlo; but his real home and hunting-ground was Rome, where he knew every one and every one knew him. He had made one or two fruitless attempts to marry young women of American extraction and large fortune; he had not succeeded in satisfying the paternal mind in regard to guarantees, and had consequently been worsted in his endeavours. Last summer, however, it appeared that he had been favoured with an increase of fortune. He gave out that an old uncle of his, who had settled in the south of Italy, had died, leaving him a modest competence; and while assuming a narrow band of crepe upon his hat, he had adopted also a somewhat more luxurious mode of living. Instead of going about on foot or in cabs, he kept a very small coupe, with a very small horse and a diminutive coachman: the whole turn-out was very quiet in appearance, but very serviceable withal. Ugo sometimes wore too much jewellery; but his bad taste, if so it could be called, did not extend to the modest equipage. People accepted the story of the deceased uncle, and congratulated Ugo, whose pale face assumed on such occasions a somewhat deprecating smile. "A few scudi," he would answer—"a very small competence; but what would you have? I need so little—it is enough for me." Nevertheless people who knew him well warned him that he was growing stout.
The other man who followed the Duchessa d'Astrardente across the drawing-room was of a different type. Don Giovanni Saracinesca was neither very tall nor remarkably handsome, though in the matter of his beauty opinion varied greatly. He was very dark—almost as dark for a man as the Duchessa was for a woman. He was strongly built, but very lean, and his features stood out in bold and sharp relief from the setting of his short black hair and pointed beard. His nose was perhaps a little large for his face, and the unusual brilliancy of his eyes gave him an expression of restless energy; there was something noble in the shaping of his high square forehead and in the turn of his sinewy throat. His hands were broad and brown, but nervous and well knit, with straight long fingers and squarely cut nails. Many women said Don Giovanni was the handsomest man in Rome; others said he was too dark or too thin, and that his face was hard and his features ugly. There was a great difference of opinion in regard to his appearance. Don Giovanni was not married, but there were few marriageable women in Rome who would not have been overjoyed to become his wife. But hitherto he had hesitated—or, to speak more accurately, he had not hesitated at all in his celibacy. His conduct in refusing to marry had elicited much criticism, little of which had reached his ears. He cared not much for what his friends said to him, and not at all for the opinion of the world at large, in consequence of which state of mind people often said he was selfish—a view taken extensively by elderly princesses with unmarried daughters, and even by Don Giovanni's father and only near relation, the old Prince Saracinesca, who earnestly desired to see his name perpetuated. Indeed Giovanni would have made a good husband, for he was honest and constant by nature, courteous by disposition, and considerate by habit and experience. His reputation for wildness rested rather upon his taste for dangerous amusements than upon such scandalous adventures as made up the lives of many of his contemporaries. But to all matrimonial proposals he answered that he was barely thirty years of age, that he had plenty of time before him, that he had not yet seen the woman whom he would be willing to marry, and that he intended to please himself.
The Duchessa d'Astrardente made her speech to her hostess and passed on, still followed by the two men; but they now approached her, one on each side, and endeavoured to engage her attention. Apparently she intended to be impartial, for she sat down in the middle one of three chairs, and motioned to her two companions to seat themselves also, which they immediately did, whereby they became for the moment the two most important men in the room.
Corona d'Astrardente was a very dark woman. In all the Southern land there were no eyes so black as hers, no cheeks of such a warm dark-olive tint, no tresses of such raven hue. But if she was not fair, she was very beautiful; there was a delicacy in her regular features that artists said was matchless; her mouth, not small, but generous and nobly cut, showed perhaps more strength, more even determination, than most men like to see in women's faces; but in the exquisitely moulded nostrils there lurked much sensitiveness and the expression of much courage; and the level brow and straight-cut nose were in their clearness as an earnest of the noble thoughts that were within, and that so often spoke from the depths of her splendid eyes. She was not a scornful beauty, though her face could express scorn well enough. Where another woman would have shown disdain, she needed but to look grave, and her silence did the rest. She wielded magnificent weapons, and wielded them nobly, as she did all things. She needed all her strength, too, for her position from the first was not easy. She had few troubles, but they were great ones, and she bore them bravely.
One may well ask why Corona del Carmine had married the old man who was her husband—the broken-down and worn-out dandy of sixty, whose career was so well known, and whose doings had been as scandalous as his ancient name was famous in the history of his country. Her marriage was in itself almost a tragedy. It matters little to know how it came about; she accepted Astrardente with his dukedom, his great wealth, and his evil past, on the day when she left the convent where she had been educated; she did it to save her father from ruin, almost from starvation; she was seventeen, years of age; she was told that the world was bad, and she resolved to begin her life by a heroic sacrifice; she took the step heroically, and no human being had ever heard her complain. Five years had elapsed since then, and her father—for whom she had given all she had, herself, her beauty, her brave heart, and her hopes of happiness—her old father, whom she so loved, was dead, the last of his race, saving only this beautiful but childless daughter. What she suffered now—whether she suffered at all—no man knew. There had been a wild burst of enthusiasm when she appeared first in society, a universal cry that it was a sin and a shame. But the cynics who had said she would console herself had been obliged to own their worldly wisdom at fault; the men of all sorts who had lost their hearts to her were ignominiously driven in course of time to find them again elsewhere. Amid all the excitement of the first two years of her life in the world, Corona had moved calmly upon her way, wrapped in the perfect dignity of her character; and the old Duca d'Astrardente had smiled and played with the curled locks of his wonderful wig, and had told every one that his wife was the one woman in the universe who was above suspicion. People had laughed incredulously at first; but as time wore on they held their peace, tacitly acknowledging that the aged fop was right as usual, but swearing in their hearts that it was the shame of shames to see the noblest woman in their midst tied to such a wretched remnant of dissipated humanity as the Duca d'Astrardente. Corona went everywhere, like other people; she received in her own house a vast number of acquaintances; there were a few friends who came and went much as they pleased, and some of them were young; but there was never a breath of scandal breathed about the Duchessa. She was indeed above suspicion.
She sat now between two men who were evidently anxious to please her. The position was not new; she was, as usual, to talk to both, and yet to show no preference for either. And yet she had a preference, and in her heart she knew it was a strong one. It was by no means indifferent to her which of those two men left her side and which remained. She was above suspicion—yes, above the suspicion of any human being besides herself, as she had been for five long years. She knew that had her husband entered the room and passed that way, he would have nodded to Giovanni Saracinesca as carelessly as though Giovanni had been his wife's brother—as carelessly as he would have noticed Ugo del Ferice upon her other side. But in her own heart she knew that there was but one face in all Rome she loved to see, but one voice she loved, and dreaded too, for it had the power to make her life seem unreal, till she wondered how long it would last, and whether there would ever be any change. The difference between Giovanni and other men had always been apparent. Others would sit beside her and make conversation, and then occasionally would make speeches she did not care to hear, would talk to her of love—some praising it as the only thing worth living for, some with affected cynicism scoffing at it as the greatest of unrealities, contradicting themselves a moment later in some passionate declaration to herself. When they were foolish, she laughed at them; when they went too far, she quietly rose and left them. Such experiences had grown rare of late, for she had earned the reputation of being cold and unmoved, and that protected her. But Giovanni had never talked like the rest of them. He never mentioned the old, worn subjects that the others harped upon. She would not have found it easy to say what he talked about, for he talked indifferently about many subjects. She was not sure whether he spent more time with her when in society than with other women; she reflected that he was not so brilliant as many men she knew, not so talkative as the majority of men she met; she knew only—and it was the thing she most bitterly reproached herself with—that she preferred his face above all other faces, and his voice beyond all voices. It never entered her head to think that she loved him; it was bad enough in her simple creed that there should be any man whom she would rather see than not, and whom she missed when he did not approach her. She was a very strong and loyal woman, who had sacrificed herself to a man who knew the world very thoroughly, who in the thoroughness of his knowledge was able to see that the world is not all bad, and who, in spite of all his evil deeds, was proud of his wife's loyalty. Astrardente had made a bargain when he married Corona; but he was a wise man in his generation, and he knew and valued her when he had got her. He knew the precise dangers to which she was exposed, and he was not so cruel as to expose her to them willingly. He had at first watched keenly the effect produced upon her by conversing with men of all sorts in the world, and among others he had noticed Giovanni; but he had come to the conclusion that his wife was equal to any situation in which she might be placed. Moreover, Giovanni was not an habitue at the Palazzo Astrardente, and showed none of the usual signs of anxiety to please the Duchessa.
From the time when Corona began to notice her own predilection for Saracinesca, she had been angry with herself for it, and she tried to avoid him; at all events, she gave him no idea that she liked him especially. Her husband, who at first had delivered many lectures on the subject of behaviour in the world, had especially warned her against showing any marked coldness to a man she wished to shun. "Men," said he, "are accustomed to that; they regard it as the first indication that a woman is really interested; when you want to get rid of a man, treat him systematically as you treat everybody, and he will be wounded at your indifference and go away." But Giovanni did not go, and Corona began to wonder whether she ought not to do something to break the interest she felt in him.
At the present moment she wanted a cup of tea. She would have liked to send Ugo del Ferice for it; she did what she thought least pleasant to herself, and she sent Giovanni. The servants who were serving the refreshments had all left the room, and Saracinesca went in pursuit of them. As soon as he was gone Del Ferice spoke. His voice was soft, and had an insinuating tone in it.
"They are saying that Don Giovanni is to be married," he remarked, watching the Duchessa from the corners of his eyes as he indifferently delivered himself of his news.
The Duchessa was too dark a woman to show emotion easily. Perhaps she did not believe the story; her eyes fixed themselves on some distant object in the room, as though she were intensely interested in something she saw, and she paused before she answered.
"That is news indeed, if it is true. And whom is he going to marry?"
"Donna Tullia Mayer, the widow of the financier. She is immensely rich, and is some kind of cousin of the Saracinesca."
"How strange!" exclaimed Corona. "I was just looking at her. Is not that she over there, with the green feathers?"
"Yes," answered Del Ferice, looking in the direction the Duchessa indicated. "That is she. One may know her at a vast distance by her dress. But it is not all settled yet."
"Then one cannot congratulate Don Giovanni to-day?" asked the Duchessa, facing her interlocutor rather suddenly.
"No," he answered; "it is perhaps better not to speak to him about it."
"It is as well that you warned me, for I would certainly have spoken."
"I do not imagine that Saracinesca likes to talk of his affairs of the heart," said Del Ferice, with considerable gravity. "But here he comes. I had hoped he would have taken even longer to get that cup of tea."
"It was long enough for you to tell your news," answered Corona quietly, as Don Giovanni came up.
"What is the news?" asked he, as he sat down beside her.
"Only an engagement that is not yet announced," answered the Duchessa. "Del Ferice has the secret; perhaps he will tell you."
Giovanni glanced across her at the fair pale man, whose fat face, however, expressed nothing. Seeing he was not enlightened, Saracinesca civilly turned the subject.
"Are you going to the meet to-morrow, Duchessa?" he asked.
"That depends upon the weather and upon the Duke," she answered. "Are you going to follow?"
"Of course. What a pity it is that you do not ride!"
"It seems such an unnatural thing to see a woman hunting," remarked Del Ferice, who remembered to have heard the Duchessa say something of the kind, and was consequently sure that she would agree with him.
"You do not ride yourself," said Don Giovanni, shortly. "That is the reason you do not approve of it for ladies."
"I am not rich enough to hunt," said Ugo, modestly. "Besides, the other reason is a good one; for when ladies hunt I am deprived of their society."
The Duchessa laughed slightly. She never felt less like laughing in her life, and yet it was necessary to encourage the conversation. Giovanni did not abandon the subject.
"It will be a beautiful meet," he said. "Many people are going out for the first time this year. There is a man here who has brought his horses from England. I forget his name—a rich Englishman."
"I have met him," said Del Ferice, who was proud of knowing everybody. "He is a type—enormously rich—a lord—I cannot pronounce his name—not married either. He will make a sensation in society. He won races in Paris last year, and they say he will enter one of his hunters for the steeplechases here at Easter."
"That is a great inducement to go to the meet, to see this Englishman," said the Duchessa rather wearily, as she leaned back in her chair. Giovanni was silent, but showed no intention of going. Del Ferice, with an equal determination to stay, chattered vivaciously.
"Don Giovanni is quite right," he continued. "Every one is going. There will be two or three drags. Madame Mayer has induced Valdarno to have out his four-in-hand, and to take her and a large party."
The Duchessa did not hear the remainder of Del Ferice's speech, for at the mention of Donna Tullia—now commonly called Madame Mayer—she instinctively turned and looked at Giovanni. He, too, had caught the name, though he was not listening in the least to Ugo's chatter; and as he met Corona's eyes he moved uneasily, as much as to say he wished the fellow would stop talking. A moment later Del Ferice rose from his seat; he had seen Donna Tullia passing near, and thought the opportunity favourable for obtaining an invitation to join the party on the drag. With a murmured excuse which Corona did not hear, he went in pursuit of his game.
"I thought he was never going," said Giovanni, moodily. He was not in the habit of posing as the rival of any one who happened to be talking to the Duchessa. He had never said anything of the kind before, and Corona experienced a new sensation, not altogether unpleasant. She looked at him in some surprise.
"Do you not like Del Ferice?" she inquired, gravely.
"Do you like him yourself?" he asked in reply.
"What a question! Why should I like or dislike any one?" There was perhaps the smallest shade of bitterness in her voice as she asked the question she had so often asked herself. Why should she like Giovanni Saracinesca, for instance?
"I do not know what the world would be like if we had no likes and dislikes," said Giovanni, suddenly. "It would be a poor place; perhaps it is only a poor place at best. I merely wondered whether Del Ferice amused you as he amuses everybody."
"Well then, frankly, he has not amused me to-day," answered Corona, with a smile.
"Then you are glad he is gone?"
"I do not regret it."
"Duchessa," said Giovanni, suddenly changing his position, "I am glad he is gone, because I want to ask you a question. Do I know you well enough to ask you a question?"
"It depends—" Corona felt the blood rise suddenly to her dark forehead. Her hands burned intensely in her gloves. The anticipation of something she had never heard made her heart beat uncontrollably in her breast.
"It is only about myself," continued Giovanni, in low tones. He had seen the blush, so rare a sight that there was not another man in Rome who had seen it. He had not time to think what it meant. "It is only about myself," he went on. "My father wants me to marry; he insists that I should marry Donna Tullia—Madame Mayer."
"Well?" asked Corona. She shivered; a moment before, she had been oppressed with the heat. Her monosyllabic question was low and indistinct. She wondered whether Giovanni could hear the beatings of her heart, so slow, so loud they almost deafened her.
"Simply this. Do you advise me to marry her?"
"Why do you ask me, of all people?" asked Corona, faintly.
"I would like to have your advice," said Giovanni, twisting his brown hands together and fixing his bright eyes upon her face.
"She is young yet. She is handsome—she is fabulously rich. Why should you not marry her? Would she make you happy?"
"Happy? Happy with her? No indeed. Do you think life would be bearable with such a woman?"
"I do not know. Many men would marry her if they could—"
"Then you think I should?" asked Giovanni. Corona hesitated; she could not understand why she should care, and yet she was conscious that there had been no such struggle in her life since the day she had blindly resolved to sacrifice herself to her father's wishes in accepting Astrardente. Still there could be no doubt what she should say: how could she advise any one to marry without the prospect of the happiness she had never had?
"Will you not give me your counsel?" repeated Saracinesca. He had grown very pale, and spoke with such earnestness that Corona hesitated no longer.
"I would certainly advise you to think no more about it, if you are sure that you cannot be happy with her."
Giovanni drew a long breath, the blood returned to his face, and his hands unlocked themselves.
"I will think no more about it," he said. "Heaven bless you for your advice, Duchessa!"
"Heaven grant I have advised you well!" said Corona, almost inaudibly. "How cold this house is! Will you put down my cup of tea? Let us go near the fire; Strillone is going to sing again."
"I would like him to sing a 'Nune dimittis, Domine,' for me," murmured Giovanni, whose eyes were filled with a strange light.
Half an hour later Corona d'Astrardente went down the steps of the Embassy wrapped in her furs and preceded by her footman. As she reached the bottom Giovanni Saracinesca came swiftly down and joined her as her carriage drove up out of the dark courtyard. The footman opened the door, but Giovanni put out his hand to help Corona to mount the step. She laid her small gloved fingers upon the sleeve of his overcoat, and as she sprang lightly in she thought his arm trembled.
"Good night, Duchessa; I am very grateful to you," he said.
"Good night; why should you be grateful?" she asked, almost sadly.
Giovanni did not answer, but stood hat in hand as the great carriage rolled out under the arch. Then he buttoned his greatcoat, and went out alone into the dark and muddy streets. The rain had ceased, but everything was wet, and the broad pavements gleamed under the uncertain light of the flickering gas-lamps.
The palace of the Saracinesca is in an ancient quarter of Rome, far removed from the broad white streets of mushroom dwelling-houses and machine-laid macadam; far from the foreigners' region, the varnish of the fashionable shops, the whirl of brilliant equipages, and the scream of the newsvendor. The vast irregular buildings are built around three courtyards, and face on all sides upon narrow streets. The first sixteen feet, up to the heavily ironed windows of the lower storey, consist of great blocks of stone, worn at the corners and scored along their length by the battering of ages, by the heavy carts that from time immemorial have found the way too narrow and have ground their iron axles against the massive masonry. Of the three enormous arched gates that give access to the interior from different sides, one is closed by an iron grating, another by huge doors studded with iron bolts, and the third alone is usually open as an entrance. A tall old porter used to stand there in a long livery-coat and a cocked-hat; on holidays he appeared in the traditional garb of the Parisian "Suisse," magnificent in silk stockings and a heavily laced coat of dark green, leaning upon his tall mace—a constant object of wonder to the small boys of the quarter. He trimmed his white beard in imitation of his master's—broad and square—and his words were few and to the point.
No one was ever at home in the Palazzo Saracinesca in those days; there were no ladies in the house; it was a man's establishment, and there was something severely masculine in the air of the gloomy courtyards surrounded by dark archways, where not a single plant or bit of colour relieved the ancient stone. The pavement was clean and well kept, a new flagstone here and there showing that some care was bestowed upon maintaining it in good repair; but for any decoration there was to be found in the courts, the place might have been a fortress, as indeed it once was. The owners, father and son, lived in their ancestral home in a sort of solemn magnificence that savoured of feudal times. Giovanni was the only son of five-and-twenty years of wedlock. His mother had been older than his father, and had now been dead some time. She had been a stern dark woman, and had lent no feminine touch of grace to the palace while she lived in it, her melancholic temper rather rejoicing in the sepulchral gloom that hung over the house. The Saracinesca had always been a manly race, preferring strength to beauty, and the reality of power to the amenities of comfort.
Giovanni walked home from the afternoon reception at the Embassy. His temper seemed to crave the bleak wet air of the cold streets, and he did not hurry himself. He intended to dine at home that evening, and he anticipated some kind of disagreement with his father. The two men were too much alike not to be congenial, but too combative by nature to care for eternal peace. On the present occasion it was likely that there would be a struggle, for Giovanni had made up his mind not to marry Madame Mayer, and his father was equally determined that he should marry her at once: both were singularly strong men, singularly tenacious of their opinions.
At precisely seven o'clock father and son entered from different doors the small sitting-room in which they generally met, and they had no sooner entered than dinner was announced. Two words might suffice for the description of old Prince Saracinesca—he was an elder edition of his son. Sixty years of life had not bent his strong frame nor dimmed the brilliancy of his eyes, but his hair and beard were snowy white. He was broader in the shoulder and deeper in the chest than Giovanni, but of the same height, and well proportioned still, with little tendency to stoutness. He was to all appearance precisely what his son would be at his age—keen and vigorous, the stern lines of his face grown deeper, and his very dark eyes and complexion made more noticeable by the dazzling whiteness of his hair and broad square beard—the same type in a different stage of development.
The dinner was served with a certain old-fashioned magnificence which has grown rare in Rome. There was old plate and old china upon the table, old cut glass of the diamond pattern, and an old butler who moved noiselessly about in the performance of the functions he had exercised in the same room for forty years, and which his father had exercised there before him. Prince Saracinesca and Don Giovanni sat on opposite sides of the round table, now and then exchanging a few words.
"I was caught in the rain this afternoon," remarked the Prince.
"I hope you will not have a cold," replied his son, civilly. "Why do you walk in such weather?"
"And you—why do you walk?" retorted his father. "Are you less likely to take cold than I am? I walk because I have always walked."
"That is an excellent reason. I walk because I do not keep a carriage."
"Why do not you keep one if you wish to?" asked the Prince.
"I will do as you wish. I will buy an equipage tomorrow, lest I should again walk in the rain and catch cold. Where did you see me on foot?"
"In the Orso, half an hour ago. Why do you talk about my wishes in that absurd way?"
"Since you say it is absurd, I will not do so," said Giovanni, quietly.
"You are always contradicting me," said the Prince. "Some wine, Pasquale."
"Contradicting you?" repeated Giovanni. "Nothing could be further from my intentions."
The old Prince slowly sipped a glass of wine before he answered.
"Why do not you set up an establishment for yourself and live like a gentleman?" he asked at length. "You are rich—why do you go about on foot and dine in cafes?"
"Do I ever dine at a cafe when you are dining alone?"
"You have got used to living in restaurants in Paris," retorted his father. "It is a bad habit. What was the use of your mother leaving you a fortune, unless you will live in a proper fashion?"
"I understand you very well," answered Giovanni, his dark eyes beginning to gleam. "You know all that is a pretence. I am the most home-staying man of your acquaintance. It is a mere pretence. You are going to talk about my marriage again."
"And has any one a more natural right to insist upon your marriage than I have?" asked the elder man, hotly. "Leave the wine on the table, Pasquale—and the fruit—here. Give Don Giovanni his cheese. I will ring for the coffee—leave us." The butler and the footman left the room. "Has any one a more natural right, I ask?" repeated the Prince when they were alone.
"No one but myself, I should say," answered Giovanni, bitterly.
"Yourself—yourself indeed! What have you to say about it? This a family matter. Would you have Saracinesca sold, to be distributed piecemeal among a herd of dogs of starving relations you never heard of, merely because you are such a vagabond, such a Bohemian, such a break-neck, crazy good-for-nothing, that you will not take the trouble to accept one of all the women who rush into your arms?"
"Your affectionate manner of speaking of your relatives is only surpassed by your good taste in describing the probabilities of my marriage," remarked Giovanni, scornfully.
"And you say you never contradict me!" exclaimed the Prince, angrily.
"If this is an instance, I can safely say so. Comment is not contradiction."
"Do you mean to say you have not repeatedly refused to marry?" inquired old Saracinesca.
"That would be untrue. I have refused, I do refuse, and I will refuse, just so long as it pleases me."
"That is definite, at all events. You will go on refusing until you have broken your silly neck in imitating Englishmen, and then—good night Saracinesca! The last of the family will have come to a noble end!"
"If the only use of my existence is to become the father of heirs to your titles, I do not care to enjoy them myself."
"You will not enjoy them till my death, at all events. Did you ever reflect that I might marry again?"
"If you please to do so, do not hesitate on my account. Madame Mayer will accept you as soon as me. Marry by all means, and may you have a numerous progeny; and may they all marry in their turn, the day they are twenty. I wish you joy."
"You are intolerable, Giovanni. I should think you would have more respect for Donna Tullia—"
"Than to call her Madame Mayer," interrupted Giovanni.
"Than to suggest that she cares for nothing but a title and a fortune—"
"You showed much respect to her a moment ago, when you suggested that she was ready to rush into my arms."
"I! I never said such a thing. I said that any woman—"
"Including Madame Mayer, of course," interrupted Giovanni again.
"Can you not let me speak?" roared the Prince. Giovanni shrugged his shoulders a little, poured out a glass of wine, and helped himself to cheese, but said nothing. Seeing that his son said nothing, old Saracinesca was silent too; he was so angry that he had lost the thread of his ideas. Perhaps Giovanni regretted the quarrelsome tone he had taken, for he presently spoke to his father in a more conciliatory tone.
"Let us be just," he said. "I will listen to you, and I shall be glad if you will listen to me. In the first place, when I think of marriage I represent something to myself by the term—"
"I hope so," growled the old man.
"I look upon marriage as an important step in a man's life. I am not so old as to make my marriage an immediate necessity, nor so young as to be able wholly to disregard it. I do not desire to be hurried; for when I make up my mind, I intend to make a choice which, if it does not ensure happiness, will at least ensure peace. I do not wish to marry Madame Mayer. She is young, handsome, rich—"
"Very," ejaculated the Prince.
"Very. I also am young and rich, if not handsome."
"Certainly not handsome," said his father, who was nursing his wrath, and meanwhile spoke calmly. "You are the image of me."
"I am proud of the likeness," said Giovanni, gravely. "But to return to Madame Mayer. She is a widow—"
"Is that her fault?" inquired his father irrelevantly, his anger rising again.
"I trust not," said Giovanni, with a smile. "I trust she did not murder old Mayer. Nevertheless she is a widow. That is a strong objection. Have any of my ancestors married widows?"
"You show your ignorance at every turn," said the old Prince, with a scornful laugh. "Leone Saracinesca married the widow of the Elector of Limburger-Stinkenstein in 1581."
"It is probably the German blood in our veins which gives you your taste for argument," remarked Giovanni. "Because three hundred years ago an ancestor married a widow, I am to marry one now. Wait—do not be angry—there are other reasons why I do not care for Madame Mayer. She is too gay for me—too fond of the world."
The Prince burst into aloud ironical laugh. His white hair and beard bristled about his dark face, and he showed all his teeth, strong and white still.
"That is magnificent!" he cried; "it is superb, splendid, a piece of unpurchasable humour! Giovanni Saracinesca has found a woman who is too gay for him! Heaven be praised! We know his taste at last. We will give him a nun, a miracle of all the virtues, a little girl out of a convent, vowed to a life of sacrifice and self-renunciation. That will please him—he will be a model happy husband."
"I do not understand this extraordinary outburst," answered Giovanni, with cold scorn. "Your mirth is amazing, but I fail to understand its source."
His father ceased laughing, and looked at him curiously, his heavy brows bending with the intenseness of his gaze. Giovanni returned the look, and it seemed as though those two strong angry men were fencing across the table with their fiery glances. The son was the first to speak.
"Do you mean to imply that I am not the kind of man to be allowed to marry a young girl?" he asked, not taking his eyes from his father.
"Look you, boy," returned the Prince, "I will have no more nonsense. I insist upon this match, as I have told you before. It is the most suitable one that I can find for you; and instead of being grateful, you turn upon me and refuse to do your duty. Donna Tullia is twenty-three years of age. She is brilliant, rich. There is nothing against her. She is a distant cousin—"
"One of the flock of vultures you so tenderly referred to," remarked Giovanni.
"Silence!" cried old Saracinesca, striking his heavy hand upon the table so that the glasses shook together. "I will be heard; and what is more, I will be obeyed. Donna Tullia is a relation. The union of two such fortunes will be of immense advantage to your children. There is everything in favour of the match—nothing against it. You shall marry her a month from to-day. I will give you the title of Sant' Ilario, with the estate outright into the bargain, and the palace in the Corso to live in, if you do not care to live here."
"And if I refuse?" asked Giovanni, choking down his anger.
"If you refuse, you shall leave my house a month from to-day," said the Prince, savagely.
"Whereby I shall be fulfilling your previous commands, in setting up an establishment for myself and living like a gentleman," returned Giovanni, with a bitter laugh. "It is nothing to me—if you turn me out. I am rich, as you justly observed."
"You will have the more leisure to lead the life you like best," retorted the Prince; "to hang about in society, to go where you please, to make love to—" the old man stopped a moment. His son was watching him fiercely, his hand clenched upon the table, his face as white as death.
"To whom?" he asked with a terrible effort to be calm.
"Do you think I am afraid of you? Do you think your father is less strong or less fierce than you? To whom?" cried the angry old man, his whole pent-up fury bursting out as he rose suddenly to his feet. "To whom but to Corona d'Astrardente—to whom else should you make love?—wasting your youth and life upon a mad passion! All Rome says it—I will say it too!"
"You have said it indeed," answered Giovanni, in a very low voice. He remained seated at the table, not moving a muscle, his face as the face of the dead. "You have said it, and in insulting that lady you have said a thing not worthy for one of our blood to say. God help me to remember that you are my father," he added, trembling suddenly.
"Hold!" said the Prince, who, with all his ambition for his son, and his hasty temper, was an honest gentleman. "I never insulted, her—she is above suspicion. It is you who are wasting your life in a hopeless passion for her. See, I speak calmly—"
"What does 'all Rome say'?" asked Giovanni, interrupting him. He was still deadly pale, but his hand was unclenched, and as he spoke he rested his head upon it, looking down at the tablecloth.
"Everybody says that you are in love with the Astrardente, and that her husband is beginning to notice it."
"It is enough, sir," said Giovanni, in low tones. "I will consider this marriage you propose. Give me until the spring to decide."
"That is a long time," remarked the old Prince, resuming his seat and beginning to peel an orange, as though nothing had happened. He was far from being calm, but his son's sudden change of manner had disarmed his anger. He was passionate and impetuous, thoughtless in his language, and tyrannical in his determination; but he loved Giovanni dearly for all that.
"I do not think it long," said Giovanni, thoughtfully. "I give you my word that I will seriously consider the marriage. If it is possible for me to marry Donna Tullia, I will obey you, and I will give you my answer before Easter-day. I cannot do more."
"I sincerely hope you will take my advice," answered Saracinesca, now entirely pacified. "If you cannot make up your mind to the match, I may be able to find something else. There is Bianca Valdarno—she will have a quarter of the estate."
"She is so very ugly," objected Giovanni, quietly. He was still much agitated, but he answered his father mechanically.
"That is true—they are all ugly, those Valdarni. Besides, they are of Tuscan origin. What do you say to the little Rocca girl? She has great chic; she was brought up in England. She is pretty enough."
"I am afraid she would be extravagant."
"She could spend her own money then; it will be sufficient."
"It is better to be on the safe side," said Giovanni. Suddenly he changed his position, and again looked at his father. "I am sorry we always quarrel about this question," he said. "I do not really want to marry, but I wish to oblige you, and I will try. Why do we always come to words over it?"
"I am sure I do not know," said the Prince, with a pleasant smile. "I have such a diabolical temper, I suppose."
"And I have inherited it," answered Don Giovanni, with a laugh that was meant to be cheerful. "But I quite see your point of view. I suppose I ought to settle in life by this time."
"Seriously, I think so, my son. Here is to your future happiness," said the old gentleman, touching his glass with his lips.
"And here is to our future peace," returned Giovanni, also drinking.
"We never really quarrel, Giovanni, do we?" said his father. Every trace of anger had vanished. His strong face beamed with an affectionate smile that was like the sun after a thunderstorm.
"No, indeed," answered his son, cordially. "We cannot afford to quarrel; there are only two of us left."
"That is what I always say," assented the Prince, beginning to eat the orange he had carefully peeled since he had grown calm. "If two men like you and me, my boy, can thoroughly agree, there is nothing we cannot accomplish; whereas if we go against each other—"
"Justitia non fit, coelum vero ruet," suggested Giovanni, in parody of the proverb.
"I am a little rusty in my Latin, Giovanni," said the old gentleman.
"Heaven is turned upside down, but justice is not done."
"No; one is never just when one is angry. But storms clear the sky, as they say up at Saracinesca."
"By the bye, have you heard whether that question of the timber has been settled yet?" asked Giovanni.
"Of course—I had forgotten. I will tell you all about it," answered his father, cheerfully. So they chatted peacefully for another half-hour; and no one would have thought, in looking at them, that such fierce passions had been roused, nor that one of them felt as though his death-warrant had been signed. When they separated, Giovanni went to his own rooms, and locked himself in.
He had assumed an air of calmness which was not real before he left his father. In truth he was violently agitated. He was as fiery as his father, but his passions were of greater strength and of longer duration; for his mother had been a Spaniard, and something of the melancholy of her country had entered into his soul, giving depth and durability to the hot Italian character he inherited from his father. Nor did the latter suspect the cause of his son's sudden change of tone in regard to the marriage. It was precisely the difference in temperament which made Giovanni incomprehensible to the old Prince.
Giovanni had realised for more than a year past that he loved Corona d'Astrardente. Contrary to the custom of young men in his position, he determined from the first that he would never let her know it; and herein lay the key to all his actions. He had, as he thought, made a point of behaving to her on all occasions as he behaved to the other women he met in the world, and he believed that he had skilfully concealed his passion from the world and from the woman he loved. He had acted on all occasions with a circumspection which was not natural to him, and for which he undeniably deserved great credit. It had been a year of constant struggles, constant efforts at self-control, constant determination that, if possible, he would overcome his instincts. It was true that, when occasion offered, he had permitted himself the pleasure of talking to Corona d'Astrardente—talking, he well knew, upon the most general subjects, but finding at each interview some new point of sympathy. Never, he could honestly say, had he approached in that time the subject of love, nor even the equally dangerous topic of friendship, the discussion of which leads to so many ruinous experiments. He had never by look or word sought to interest the dark Duchessa in his doings nor in himself; he had talked of books, of politics, of social questions, but never of himself nor of herself. He had faithfully kept the promise he had made in his heart, that since he was so unfortunate as to love the wife of another—a woman of such nobility that even in Rome no breath had been breathed against her—he would keep his unfortunate passion to himself. Astrardente was old, almost decrepit, in spite of his magnificent wig; Corona was but two-and-twenty years of age. If ever her husband died, Giovanni would present himself before the world as her suitor; meanwhile he would do nothing to injure her self-respect nor to disturb her peace—he hardly flattered himself he could do that, for he loved her truly—and above all, he would do nothing to compromise the unsullied reputation she enjoyed. She might never love him; but he was strong and patient, and would do her the only honour it was in his power to do her, by waiting patiently.
But Giovanni had not considered that he was the most conspicuous man in society; that there were many who watched his movements, in hopes he would come their way; that when he entered a room, many had noticed that, though he never went directly to Corona's side, he always looked first towards her, and never omitted to speak with her in the course of an evening. Keen observers, the jays of society who hover about the eagle's nest, had not failed to observe a look of annoyance on Giovanni's face when he did not succeed in being alone by Corona's side for at least a few minutes; and Del Ferice, who was a sort of news-carrier in Rome, had now and then hinted that Giovanni was in love. People had repeated his hints, as he intended they should, with the illuminating wit peculiar to tale-bearers, and the story had gone abroad accordingly. True, there was not a man in Rome bold enough to allude to the matter in Giovanni's presence, even if any one had seen any advantage in so doing; but such things do not remain hidden. His own father had told him in a fit of anger, and the blow had produced its effect.
Giovanni sat down in a deep easy-chair in his own room, and thought over the situation. His first impulse had been to be furiously angry with his father; but the latter having instantly explained that there was nothing to be said against the Duchessa, Giovanni's anger against the Prince had turned against himself. It was bitter to think that all his self-denial, all his many and prolonged efforts to conceal his love, had been of no avail. He cursed his folly and imprudence, while wondering how it was possible that the story should have got abroad. He did not waver in his determination to hide his inclinations, to destroy the impression he had so unwillingly produced. The first means he found in his way seemed the best. To marry Donna Tullia at once, before the story of his affection for the Duchessa had gathered force, would, he thought, effectually shut the mouths of the gossips. From one point of view it was a noble thought, the determination to sacrifice himself wholly and for ever, rather than permit his name to be mentioned ever so innocently in connection with the woman he loved; to root out utterly his love for her by seriously engaging his faith to another, and keeping that engagement with all the strength of fidelity he knew himself to possess. He would save Corona from annoyance, and her name from the scandal-mongers; and if any one ever dared to mention the story—
Giovanni rose to his feet and mechanically took a fencing-foil from the wall, as he often did for practice. If any one mentioned the story, he thought, he had the means to silence them, quickly and for ever. His eyes flashed suddenly at the idea of action—any action, even fighting, which might be distantly connected with Corona. Then he tossed down the rapier and threw himself into his chair, and sat quite still, staring at the trophies of armour upon the wall opposite.
He could not do it. To wrong one woman for the sake of shielding another was not in his power. People might laugh at him and call him Quixotic, forsooth, because he would not do like every one else and make a marriage of convenience—of propriety. Propriety! when his heart was breaking within him; when every fibre of his strong frame quivered with the strain of passion; when his aching eyes saw only one face, and his ears echoed the words she had spoken that very afternoon! Propriety indeed! Propriety was good enough for cold-blooded dullards. Donna Tullia had done him no harm that he should marry her for propriety's sake, and make her life miserable for thirty, forty, fifty years. It would be propriety rather for him to go away, to bury himself in the ends of the earth, until he could forget Corona d'Astrardente, her splendid eyes, and her deep sweet voice.
He had pledged his father his word that he would consider the marriage, and he was to give his answer before Easter. That was a long time yet. He would consider it; and if by Eastertide he had forgotten Corona, he would—he laughed aloud in his silent room, and the sound of his voice startled him from his reverie.
Forget? Did such men as he forget? Other men did. What were they made of? They did not love such women, perhaps; that was the reason they forgot. Any one could forget poor Donna Tullia. And yet how was it possible to forget if one loved truly?
Giovanni had never believed himself in love before. He had known one or two women who had attracted him strongly; but he had soon found out that he had no real sympathy with them, that though they amused him they had no charm for him—most of all, that he could not imagine himself tied to any one of them for life without conceiving the situation horrible in the extreme. To his independent nature the idea of such ties was repugnant: he knew himself too courteous to break through the civilities of life with a wife he did not love; but he knew also that in marrying a woman who was indifferent to him, he would be engaging to play a part for life in the most fearful of all plays—the part of a man who strives to bear bravely the galling of a chain he is too honourable to break.
It was four o'clock in the morning when Giovanni went to bed; and even then he slept little, for his dreams were disturbed. Once he thought he stood upon a green lawn with a sword in his hand, and the blood upon its point, his opponent lying at his feet. Again, he thought he was alone in a vast drawing-room, and a dark woman came and spoke gently to him, saying, "Marry her for my sake." He awoke with a groan. The church clocks were striking eight, and the meet was at eleven, five miles beyond the Porta Pia. Giovanni started up and rang for his servant.
It was a beautiful day, and half Rome turned out to see the meet, not because it was in any way different from other meets, but because it chanced that society had a fancy to attend it. Society is very like a fever patient in a delirium; it is rarely accountable for its actions; it scarcely ever knows what it is saying; and occasionally, without the least warning or premeditation, it leaps out of bed at an early hour of the morning and rushes frantically in pursuit of its last hallucination. The main difference is, that whereas a man in a fever has a nurse, society has none.
On the present occasion every one had suddenly conceived the idea of going to the meet, and the long road beyond the Porta Pia was dotted for miles with equipages of every description, from the four-in-hand of Prince Valdarno to the humble donkey-cart of the caterer who sells messes of boiled beans, and bread and cheese, and salad to the grooms—an institution not connected in the English mind with hunting. One after another the vehicles rolled out along the road, past Sant' Agnese, down the hill and across the Ponte Nomentana, and far up beyond to a place where three roads met and there was a broad open stretch of wet, withered grass. Here the carriages turned in and ranged themselves side by side, as though they were pausing in the afternoon drive upon the Pincio, instead of being five miles out upon the broad Campagna.
To describe the mountains to southward of Rome would be an insult to nature; to describe a meet would be an affront to civilised readers of the English language. The one is too familiar to everybody; the pretty crowd of men and women, dotted with pink and set off by the neutral colour of the winter fields; the hunters of all ages, and sizes, and breeds, led slowly up and down by the grooms; while from time to time some rider gets into the saddle and makes himself comfortable, assures himself of girth and stirrup, and of the proper disposal of the sandwich-box and sherry-flask, gives a final word of instruction to his groom, and then moves slowly off. A Roman meet is a little less business-like than the same thing elsewhere; there is a little more dawdling, a little more conversation when many ladies chance to have come to see the hounds throw off; otherwise it is not different from other meets. As for the Roman mountains, they are so totally unlike any other hills in the world, and so extremely beautiful in their own peculiar way, that to describe them would be an idle and a useless task, which could only serve to exhibit the vanity of the writer and the feebleness of his pen.
Don Giovanni arrived early in spite of his sleepless night. He descended from his dogcart by the roadside, instead of driving into the field, and he took a careful survey of the carriages he saw before him. Conspicuous in the distance he distinguished Donna Tullia Mayer standing among a little crowd of men near Valdarno's drag. She was easily known by her dress, as Del Ferice had remarked on the previous evening. On this occasion she wore a costume in which the principal colours were green and yellow, an enormous hat, with feathers in the same proportion surmounting her head, and she carried a yellow parasol. She was a rather handsome woman of middle height, with unnaturally blond hair, and a fairly good complexion, which as yet she had wisely abstained from attempting to improve by artificial means; her eyes were blue, but uncertain in their glance—of the kind which do not inspire confidence; and her mouth was much admired, being small and red, with full lips. She was rapid in her movements, and she spoke in a loud voice, easily collecting people about her wherever there were any to collect. Her conversation was not brilliant, but it was so abundant that its noisy vivacity passed current for cleverness; she had a remarkably keen judgment of people, and a remarkably bad taste in her opinions of things artistic, from beauty in nature to beauty in dress, but she maintained her point of view obstinately, and admitted no contradiction. It was a singular circumstance that whereas many of her attributes were distinctly vulgar, she nevertheless had an indescribable air of good breeding, the strange inimitable stamp of social superiority which cannot be acquired by any known process of education. A person seeing her might be surprised at her loud talking, amused at her eccentricities of dress, and shocked at her bold manner, but no one would ever think of classing her anywhere save in what calls itself "the best society."
Among the men who stood talking to Donna Tullia was the inevitable Del Ferice, a man of whom it might be said that he was never missed, because he was always present. Giovanni disliked Del Ferice without being able to define his aversion. He disliked generally men whom he suspected of duplicity; and he had no reason for supposing that truth, looking into her mirror, would have seen there the image of Ugo's fat pale face and colourless moustache. But if Ugo was a liar, he must have had a good memory, for he never got himself into trouble, and he had the reputation of being a useful member of society, an honour to which persons of doubtful veracity rarely attain. Giovanni, however, disliked him, and suspected him of many things; and although he had intended to go up to Donna Tullia, the sight of Del Ferice at her side very nearly prevented him. He strolled leisurely down the little slope, and as he neared the crowd, spoke to one or two acquaintances, mentally determining to avoid Madame Mayer, and to mount immediately. But he was disappointed in his intention. As he stood for a moment beside the carriage of the Marchesa Rocca, exchanging a few words with her, and looking with some interest at her daughter, the little Rocca girl whom his father had proposed as a possible wife for him, he forgot his proximity to the lady he wished to avoid; and when, a few seconds later, he proceeded in the direction of his horse, Madame Mayer stepped forward from the knot of her admirers and tapped him familiarly upon the shoulder with the handle of her parasol.
"So you were not going to speak to me to-day?" she said rather roughly, after her manner.
Giovanni turned sharply and faced her, bowing low. Donna Tullia laughed.
"Is there anything so amazingly ridiculous in my appearance?" he asked.
"Altro! when you make that tremendous salute—"
"It was intended to convey an apology as well as a greeting," answered Don Giovanni, politely.
"I would like more apology and less greeting."
"I am ready to apologise—"
"Humbly, without defending yourself," said Donna Tullia, beginning to walk slowly forward. Giovanni was obliged to follow her.
"My defence is, nevertheless, a very good one," he said.
"Well, if it is really good, I may listen to it; but you will not make me believe that you intended to behave properly."
"I am in a very bad humour. I would not inflict my cross temper upon you; therefore I avoided you."
Donna Tullia eyed him attentively. When she answered she drew in her small red lips with an air of annoyance.
"You look as though you were in bad humour," she answered. "I am sorry I disturbed you. It is better to leave sleeping dogs alone, as the proverb says."
"I have not snapped yet," said Giovanni. "I am not dangerous, I assure you."
"Oh, I am not in the least afraid of you," replied his companion, with a little scorn. "Do not flatter yourself your little humours frighten me. I suppose you intend to follow?"
"Yes," answered Saracinesca, shortly; he was beginning to weary of Donna Tullia's manner of taking him to task.
"You had much better come with us, and leave the poor foxes alone. Valdarno is going to drive us round by the cross-roads to the Capannelle. We will have a picnic lunch, and be home before three o'clock."
"Thanks very much. I cannot let my horse shirk his work. I must beg you to excuse me—"
"Again?" exclaimed Donna Tullia. "You are always making excuses." Then she suddenly changed her tone, and looked down. "I wish you would come with us," she said, gently. "It is not often I ask you to do anything."
Giovanni looked at her quickly. He knew that Donna Tullia wished to marry him; he even suspected that his father had discussed the matter with her—no uncommon occurrence when a marriage has to be arranged with a widow. But he did not know that Donna Tullia was in love with him in her own odd fashion. He looked at her, and he saw that as she spoke there were tears of vexation in her bold blue eyes. He hesitated a moment, but natural courtesy won the day.
"I will go with you," he said, quietly. A blush of pleasure rose to Madame Mayer's pink cheeks; she felt she had made a point, but she was not willing to show her satisfaction.
"You say it as though you were conferring a favour," she said, with a show of annoyance, which was belied by the happy expression of her face.
"Pardon me; I myself am the favoured person," replied Giovanni, mechanically. He had yielded because he did not know how to refuse; but he already regretted it, and would have given much to escape from the party.
"You do not look as though you believed it," said Donna Tullia, eyeing him critically. "If you are going to be disagreeable, I release you." She said this well knowing, the while, that he would not accept of his liberty.
"If you are so ready to release me, as you call it, you do not really want me," said her companion. Donna Tullia bit her lip, and there was a moment's pause. "If you will excuse me a moment I will send my horse home—I will join you at once."
"There is your horse—right before us," said Madame Mayer. Even that short respite was not allowed him, and she waited while Don Giovanni ordered the astonished groom to take his hunter for an hour's exercise in a direction where he would not fall in with the hounds.
"I did not believe you would really do it," said Donna Tullia, as the two turned and sauntered back towards the carriages. Most of the men who meant to follow had already mounted, and the little crowd had thinned considerably. But while they had been talking another carriage had driven into the field, and had halted a few yards from Valdarno's drag. Astrardente had taken it into his head to come to the meet with his wife, and they had arrived late. Astrardente always arrived a little late, on principle. As Giovanni and Donna Tullia came back to their drag, they suddenly found themselves face to face with the Duchessa and her husband. It did not surprise Corona to see Giovanni walking with the woman he did not intend to marry, but it seemed to give the old Duke undisguised pleasure.
"Do you see, Corona, there is no doubt of it! It is just as I told you," exclaimed the aged dandy, in a voice so audible that Giovanni frowned and Donna Tullia blushed slightly. Both of them bowed as they passed the carriage. Don Giovanni looked straight into Corona's face as he took off his hat. He might very well have made her a little sign, the smallest gesture, imperceptible to Donna Tullia, whereby he could have given her the idea that his position was involuntary. But Don Giovanni was a gentleman, and he did nothing of the kind; he bowed and looked calmly at the woman he loved as he passed by. Astrardente watched him keenly, and as he noticed the indifference of Saracinesca's look, he gave a curious little snuffling snort that was peculiar to him. He could have sworn that neither his wife nor Giovanni had shown the smallest interest in each other. He was satisfied. His wife was above suspicion, as he always said; but he was an old man, and had seen the world, and he knew that however implicitly he might trust the noble woman who had sacrificed her youth to his old age, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that she might become innocently interested, even unawares, in some younger man—in some such man as Giovanni Saracinesca-and he thought it worth his while to watch her. His little snort, however, was indicative of satisfaction. Corona had not winced at the mention of the marriage, and had nodded with the greatest unconcern to the man as he passed.
"Ah, Donna Tullia!" he cried, as he returned their greeting, "you are preventing Don Giovanni from mounting; the riders will be off in a moment."
Being thus directly addressed, there was nothing to be done but to stop and exchange a few words. The Duchessa was on the side nearest to the pair as they passed, and her husband rose and sat opposite her, so as to talk more at his ease. There were renewed greetings on both sides, and Giovanni naturally found himself talking to Corona, while her husband and Donna Tullia conversed together.
"What man could think of hunting when he could be talking to you instead?" said old Astrardente, whose painted face adjusted itself in a sort of leer that had once been a winning smile. Every one knew he painted, his teeth were a miracle of American dentistry, and his wig had deceived a great portrait-painter. The padding in his clothes was disposed with cunning wisdom, and in public he rarely removed the gloves from his small hands. Donna Tullia laughed at what he said.