F. MARION CRAWFORD AUTHOR OF "SARACINESCA," "FAIR MARGARET," ETC., ETC.
New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
All rights reserved
COPYRIGHT, 1908, BY F. MARION CRAWFORD.
COPYRIGHT, 1908, BY BUTTERICK PUBLISHING CO.
COPYRIGHT, 1909. BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up and electrotyped. Published October, 1909.
Norwood Press J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co. Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
'But Ortensia did not even hear him, and sat quite still in her chair' Frontispiece
'"This is the celebrated Maestro Alessandro Stradella of Naples"' 11
'The footman came back at last with a white face' 87
'The two Bravi faced the watch side by side' 243
'"The profession has two branches. We take lives, you take purses"' 282
'He began to look about for lodgings' 307
'Trombin advanced upon him slowly, looking more like an avenging demon than a man' 373
'She sat up in his arms and framed his face in her hands' 406
The Senator Michele Pignaver, being a childless widower of several years' standing and a personage of wealth and worth in Venice, made up his mind one day that he would marry his niece Ortensia, as soon as her education was completed. For he was a man of culture and of refined tastes, fond of music, much given to writing sonnets and to reading the works of the elegant Politian, as well as to composing sentimental airs for the voice and lute. He patronised arts and letters with vast credit and secret economy; for he never gave anything more than a supper and a recommendation to the poets, musicians, and artists who paid their court to him and dedicated to him their choicest productions. The supper was generally a frugal affair, but his reputation in aesthetic matters was so great that a word from him to a leader of fashion, or a letter of introduction to a Venetian Ambassador abroad, often proved to be worth more than the gold he abstained from giving. He spoke Latin, he could read Greek, and his taste in poetry was so highly cultivated that he called Dante's verse rough, uncouth, and vulgar—precisely as Horace Walpole, seventy or eighty years later, could not conceive how any one could prefer Shakespeare's rude lines to the elegant verses of Mr. Pope. For the Senator lived in the age when Louis XIV. was young, and Charles II. had been restored to the throne only a few years before the beginning of this story.
Pignaver was about fifty years old. There is no good reason why a widower of that age, robust and temperate, and hardly grey, should not take a wife; perhaps there is really no reason, either, why he should not marry a girl of eighteen, if she will have him, and where neither usage nor ecclesiastical ordinances are opposed to it, the young lady may even be his niece. Besides, in the present case, the Senator would appear to his peers and associates to be conferring a favour on the object of his elderly affections, and to be crowning the series of favours he had already conferred. For Ortensia was the penniless child of his brother-in-law, a scapegrace who had come to a bad end in Crete. The Senator's wife had taken the child to her heart, having none of her own, and had brought her up lovingly and wisely, little dreaming that she was educating her own successor. If she had known it, she might have behaved differently, for her lord had never succeeded in winning her affections, and she regarded him to the end with mingled distrust and dislike, while he looked upon her as an affliction and a thorn in his side. Yet they were both very good people in their way. She died comparatively young, and he deemed it only just that after enduring the thorn so long, he should enjoy the rose for the rest of his life.
When Ortensia was seventeen and a half her uncle announced his matrimonial intentions to her, fastened a fine string of pearls round her throat, kissed her on the forehead, and left her alone to meditate on her good fortune.
Her reflections were of a mixed character, however, and not all pleasant. The idea that she could disobey or resist did not occur to her, of course, for the Senator had always appeared to her as the absolute lord of his household, against whose will it was useless to make any opposition, and she knew what an important person he was considered to be amongst his equals.
But in her inmost heart she knew that he was not really what he made people think he was. She had a ready sense of humour, and she felt that under his ponderous disguise of importance he was quite a ridiculous person. He was miserly to meanness; he was as vain as an ape; he was a man who had flattered himself, and had been flattered by others, into a sort of artificially inflated doll that imposed on many people and deceived almost all. And yet Ortensia was aware of something in him that frightened her a little, though she could not quite tell what it was. Possibly, like many externally artificial people, there was a cruel side to his character. There are men who become ridiculous as soon as they cease to be dangerous, and who are most dangerous when they fear that they are just going to become a laughing-stock.
Ortensia reflected on these things after her uncle had given her the pearls and had kissed her on the forehead. The pearls were very beautiful, but the kiss had been distinctly disagreeable. The Senator waxed his moustaches to make them stay up, as many men did then, and she thought that if a cold hard-boiled egg, surrounded with bristles like a hair-brush, had touched her forehead, the sensation would have been very much the same, and she shook her delicate shoulders in disgust at the thought, and slowly rubbed the offended spot with two fingers, while her other hand played with the string of pearls in her lap.
It would be a great thing, of course, to be a senator's wife and the mistress of such a house as the Palazzo Pignaver, which she had first entered as a little orphan waif ten years ago. But to be kissed daily, even on the forehead, by her Uncle Michele, would be a high price to pay for greatness. She supposed that he would kiss her every day when she was married, for that was probably a part of marriage, which had always seemed to her a mysterious affair at best. Young girls looked forward to it with delight, and old women seemed to look back on it with disappointment, while those who were neither old nor young never said anything about it, but often seemed to be on bad terms with their husbands.
But Ortensia was a fatalist, like most Venetian maidens of her time. Whatever the master of the house and the head of the family decided would be done, and there could be no question of resistance. In due course she would marry her uncle, she would hold her tongue like other married women while he lived, and when he was dead she would be at liberty to tell her friends that her marriage had been a disappointment. Of course Uncle Michele would die long before her—that was one consolation—and the position of a rich widow in Venice was enviable.
Happily she had six months before her, during which time her education was to be completed; happily, too, a large part of it now consisted in music lessons, for she had a sweet voice, and the Senator meant that she should astound Venetian society by singing his own compositions to them, accompanying herself. She had great beauty, as well as some real talent, and he judged that the effect of his verses and music, when rendered by her, would be much enhanced by the magic light in her hazel eyes, by the contrasted splendour of her auburn hair and ivory complexion, and by the pretty motion of her taper fingers as they fluttered over the strings. He looked forward to exhibiting the loveliest young woman in Venice, who should sing his own songs divinely to an admiring circle of envious friends. That would be a magnificent and well-deserved triumph, after his long career as a gifted amateur and critic—and it would cost nothing. Why should a wife be more expensive than a niece? His first wife's brocades and velvets could easily be made over for Ortensia; and for that matter the young girl expected nothing better, since she had no family of her own to give her a great carved chest full of beautiful new clothes and laces.
Uncle Michele did not condescend to honour her with another kiss, after the formal occasion on which he had announced her betrothal to himself. But he showed a growing interest in her music-lessons as the weeks passed, and he frequently made her sing pieces of his own to him, correcting each shade of expression most fastidiously, and occasionally performing the more difficult passages himself, with many affected gestures and self-approving waggings of his head, though his voice was tuneless and harsh, and his ear anything but perfect.
'Of course,' he would say, 'it is only to give you an idea!'
The idea which he conveyed to Ortensia was that of a performing bear eating strawberries; but she managed to keep her countenance, and not to mimic him when she repeated the passage herself, profiting by his instruction. It was the sort of music that rich amateurs used to write by the ream, subject to the unacknowledged 'corrections' of a well-paid professional; but the girl's sweet voice and genuine talent made the airs sound passable, while her dreamy eyes and her caressing pronunciation of the trivial words did the rest. It was mere talent, for she hardly understood what she was saying, or singing, and she felt not the least emotion, but she seemed to kiss the syllables as they passed her lips.
The first bloom of young womanhood was already on her cheek, but the frosts of childhood's morning had not melted from her maiden heart.
One day she was sitting just at the edge of the sunshine that poured upon the eastern carpet from the high loggia. The room overlooked the garden court of the palace, and the palms and young orange-trees, in vast terra-cotta pots, laden with yellow fruit, had already been brought out and set in their places, for it was the spring-time; the sunshine fell slanting on the headless Ariadne, which was one of the Senator's chief treasures of art, and the rays sparkled in the clear water in the beautiful sarcophagus below. The lilies had already put out young leaves too, that lay rocking on the ripples made by the tiny jet of the fountain. There were long terra-cotta troughs full of white violets, arranged as borders along the small paved paths, and red flower-pots were set symmetrically in squares and rings and curves with roses just blooming, and mignonette, and carnations that still lingered in the bud. It was a formal little garden, but in the midst of its regularity, neither in the centre, nor at any of the artificially planned corners and curves, but out of line with all, one cypress reared up its height. Even as Ortensia saw it, looking out from her loggia, it overtopped the high wall that divided the garden from the canal and the low houses on the other side, showing its dark plume sharp and clear against the sunlit sky; but when the morning and the evening breezes blew in spring and summer, it swayed lazily, and the feathery top waved from side to side, and bent to the caressing air like a live thing. Ortensia loved the tree better than anything else in the garden; even better than the beautiful Greek Ariadne, which her uncle had himself brought from Crete in one of his ships.
She was watching it now, and where the sunlight played in the tip, she could see the golden and reddish lights of the cypress twigs through the deep green. On her knees she held a large musical instrument all made of ivory, and inlaid with black, a lute with eleven strings, but of the shorter kind with the head of the keyboard turned back at a right angle. It lay in her lap, in the ample straw-coloured folds of her silk skirt, and its broad white ribband was passed over her shoulder, and pressed on her lace collar on the left side of her neck.
At a considerable distance from her, a small, middle-aged woman in grey sat in a high chair, bending forward over the little green pillow on which she was making bobbin lace.
There was a good deal of furniture in the large room, and it belonged to different periods; some of it was carved, some inlaid, some gilt in the new French fashion. A great Persian carpet of most exquisite colours softened and blended by age lay on the floor, and the curtains of the doors were of rich old Genoa velvet, with palm leaves woven in gold thread on a faded claret ground.
The time lacked about an hour of noon, and in the deep stillness the trickling of the tiny fountain came up distinctly from the garden.
Something had just happened which Ortensia did not understand, and she had let her lute sink in her lap, to lean back and think, and wonder, watching the familiar outline of the dark cypress against the open sky.
She had been learning a song by a new composer, of whom she had never heard till now, and the manuscript lay open on a cushioned stool beside her. For a time she had followed the notes and words carefully with her voice, picking out the accompaniment on her lute from the figured bass, as musicians did in those days. At first it had not meant much to her; it was difficult, the intervals were unexpected and strange, she could not find the right chords, the words would not quite make sense, and some of them were unfamiliar to her.
But she was patient, and she had talent, and she had tried again and again, very soft and low, so that the woman in grey had nearly fallen asleep over her lace, nodding visibly and recovering herself each time with a little grunt.
Then, all at once, the breath of spring came in, like the breath of life, with the warm scent of the garden below, and the sunlight had stolen across the Persian carpet to her feet. She turned from the manuscript she had been studying, and without it her fingers suddenly found the chords, and her lips the words, and the melody floated out with them into the stillness, low, trembling, and passionate as the burden of a love-dream, a wonder to hear.
But she scarcely heard it herself, for it came unconsciously. The meaning had dawned upon her unawares, and she understood without ears, as if the music were all in her heart, and much nearer to her life than it could come by hearing alone.
It stirred delicious depths within her; the spring and the sun and the melody waked that in her which had slept the long sleep of childhood, while her beautiful outward self was maturing to the blossom.
She understood, and yet she did not; it was a bewildering joy, but it was a longing; it was an exquisite satisfaction, yet it was also a secret, unspeakable wish; it was the first thrill of a feeling too exquisite for words to describe, but with it there came a mysterious forelightening of something unknown that troubled her maiden peace.
Her lips quivered, her voice died away to a whisper, while her body vibrated still, like the last string she touched on the lute; a sudden warmth came to her face then, and sank suddenly away, and all at once it was all past, and she was gazing at the dark top of the cypress, and a strange, listless, half-sweet loneliness had come upon her, wherein nothing mattered any more, nor could anything ever matter again.
That was what had just happened. But the woman in grey had not noticed it, though she was wide awake now and busily plying her bobbins.
Then the heavy velvet curtain before the door was lifted, and a man's footstep was heard on the marble floor, and there was another step after it. Ortensia turned her head carelessly against the back of the chair to see who was coming, and then rose quickly to her feet.
The Senator had entered and was ushering in a man she had never seen, a handsome young man of five-and-twenty or so, with a thoughtful face and deep-set eyes, of a rather dark complexion, as if he came from the south; his manner was grave, and he was soberly dressed in a black velvet coat with purple silk facings, and wore a plain broad collar of linen instead of the fashionable lace; he was a man of middle height and well made, and he moved easily. In his left hand he carried a musical instrument in a purple bag.
He bowed very low as soon as the Senator stood still before Ortensia.
'This,' said the master of the house, 'is the celebrated Maestro Alessandro Stradella of Naples, by far the greatest musician and composer in Italy, who has very kindly consented to hear you sing, and to give you a few lessons if he finds you sufficiently advanced.'
Ortensia was surprised, and anything but displeased, but she showed no emotion. The young man before her was the composer of the song she had been studying, the very one that had so strongly disturbed her a few minutes ago; this of itself would have been interesting, even if he had not been such a singularly handsome young man.
The woman in grey, who was her nurse, had risen too, and was looking at the musician with more curiosity than might have been expected in a sober person of her years.
Ortensia bent her head a little, in acknowledgment of the introduction, but said nothing. She saw, however, that Stradella had already noticed the manuscript of his own music on the stool beside her.
'You may sing "Amor mi dice" to the Maestro,' said the Senator, taking a seat. 'A little composition of my own,' he added, with a self-satisfied smile, for the musician's information. 'I have taught it to my niece myself.'
For one instant Stradella's eyes met the young girl's and she returned their glance. It was enough; they already understood each other. Doubtless the composer had met his patron more than once and knew his weakness and what to expect now. Ortensia resumed her seat, and drew her full skirt into folds on her knee, for her lute to rest on. Stradella sat down at a little distance and looked at the Persian carpet, and she could not help seeing that he had remarkably well-turned legs and ankles, and wore very well-made shoes of soft purple leather with handsome chiselled silver buckles. She felt inclined to raise her eyes to his face again, but resisted the temptation, and turned resolutely towards her uncle as she struck the opening chords of the accompaniment.
The musician now looked up and watched her. At first he put on the amiable smile which professionals keep especially for amateurs, and as a matter of politeness he listened attentively, till he had convinced himself that the song, as he had expected, belonged to that large class of which the chief characteristic is a general resemblance to everything of the kind that was ever written before, and will ever be written hereafter. This being settled after hearing a few bars, Stradella quietly gave himself up to the pleasure of looking at the young girl, though he often turned towards the Senator, who expected admiration at every full close, and meant to get it.
He thought he did; for the effect of watching Ortensia was to bring to the musician's own face an expression of such genuine delight that Pignaver could not fail to be pleased, since he attributed it to the charm of his composition. He was in the seventh heaven. Here, at last, was a true genius, able to appreciate his talent as it deserved. Here was a master fit to teach such noble music, as it should really be sung. Ortensia should profit by the opportunity, even if Stradella asked a silver ducat for each lesson. For once, money was no object to the Senator. The triumph his young bride would certainly bring him, in singing his songs after being taught by Alessandro Stradella, would be worth much more than gold.
She sang the stuff as creditably as it deserved, her voice was fresh and true, and her touch on the lute was at once light and sure. With such a face, what did it matter that the song was exactly like a thousand others? The musician praised it so enthusiastically that the Senator was almost satisfied for once.
'You flatter me,' he said, bowing a little in his chair, spreading out his hands in a gesture of deprecation and grinning like a pleased monkey.
'Not in the least, my lord, I assure you,' answered Stradella with great emphasis. 'If I were capable of flattering you, I should not deserve the confidence you place in me, in desiring me to give this gifted young lady a few lessons.'
Ortensia pretended to be busy with her lute, bending over it and softly trying the upper strings, though they were already perfectly in tune. But she was listening to the young master, and she thought she had rarely heard a voice that had more winning tones in speaking, or an accent that pleased her better. And as she bent down she could just see his well-turned ankles and purple leather shoes.
'It would be my wish,' the Senator said, 'that you should give her some hints as to the performance of a number of my songs. Yes, I have devoted much time to your art as well as to poetry. Hitherto I have written ninety-seven songs, both words and music. Yes, I have been industrious. If my niece had my industry she would know them all by this time.'
Ortensia bent still lower, till her face almost touched the frets of the instrument, and she was biting her lip; but Stradella was imperturbable.
'I trust you may be spared to contribute many more beautiful compositions to the art treasures of our country,' he said politely.
'I hope so,' answered Pignaver with gravity.
And then—Ortensia looked up, and for the second time her eyes met the musician's, and she felt that he and she already understood each other.
With many patronising smiles on the Senator's part, and many flattering expressions of admiration and respectful salutations from Stradella, the two parted and Pignaver took himself off, leaving his niece to take her first lesson under the guardianship of the nurse, who moved her chair so that she could watch the pair while she was busy with her lace.
For a few seconds neither spoke, and they looked at each other in silence as if making better acquaintance through their eyes alone, by which they had quickly reached a first degree of understanding. Stradella's face was quite grave, while Ortensia's lips were just parted, as if she were ready to smile, if he would. But he would not, and he was the first to speak.
'How shall we begin?' he asked.
Ortensia hesitated and touched the strings of her lute idly, as it lay across her knee, just kept from slipping down by the broad ribband.
'When you came,' she said at last, 'I had been trying to learn a song of yours. It is beautiful. Will you show me how to sing it?'
She blushed faintly, and he smiled; but he shook his head.
'I saw it lying there as soon as I came in,' he said. 'But I understand it to be the Senator's wish that we should study his music rather than mine.'
She was disappointed, and did not try to hide it; but she was not used to asserting her own will, and her uncle's word had always been law in his house, to be obeyed whether he were present or not. As for Stradella, he would have sung his own song for her with delight, but he distrusted the woman in grey, who might be a spy for all he knew. He carefully withdrew his lute from the purple bag and began to tune the strings. It was a fine instrument, made in Cremona, but by no means so handsome in appearance as Ortensia's ivory one. It was differently designed, too, being much longer, with a double fret-board and no less than nineteen strings.
'Let me see,' Stradella said, when he was ready. 'That song of the Senator's you just sang—how was it?'
He struck chords, bent low over the lute, softly hummed a few snatches of the melody, and then, to Ortensia's surprise, he began to sing the piece as if he knew it well. He sang softly, without the least effort, and his voice seemed neither high nor deep, but there was a tone in it that the young girl had never heard before, and that sent a thrill to her heart at the very first note. She bent forwards, watching him with parted lips and eyes full of wonder, scarcely breathing till he finished the stanza and spoke to her again.
'Is that it?' he asked quietly, and he smiled as he looked at her.
'But you know it!' she cried. 'If I had ever heard you I should not have dared to try to sing before you!'
'I never heard it before,' Stradella answered, 'but I catch any tune easily. Shall we study it a little?' he went on, before she could speak again. 'I will accompany you at first, and I will stop you now and then, where I think you might do better. Shall we?'
Again he smiled, but this time it was by way of encouragement, and he at once began a little prelude on the lute.
'You will sing better if you stand up,' he suggested.
She rose, took her own lute from her neck, and stood resting one hand on the high back of her chair, turning her face from him; for she was afraid, now that she had heard him. It was as bad as the worst stage-fright; her tongue was paralysed, her limbs shook under her, she shivered with cold in the sunshine, and her forehead was damp. Yet she had not felt the slightest shyness a quarter of an hour earlier, when she had first sung the piece.
'Sing with me,' he said quietly, and he began the song again.
Presently she took courage and the notes came, unsteadily at first, but then true and clear; and Stradella's own voice died to a whisper, and she went on alone, to the accompaniment he played.
'You see,' he said, as she paused, 'it is better to stand. Now I will show you how to make one or two little improvements.'
So the lesson went on, and she conscientiously tried to do exactly what he taught her; and their eyes met often, but that could not be helped, for he showed her how to vary the quality of her tone by movements of the mouth, and to do this she had to watch his lips and he was obliged to look at hers, which is sometimes a dangerous exercise for young people, even at a first meeting. For acquaintance grows and ripens precociously when two people are busy together so that they depend on each other at every instant, as teacher and pupil, or as the chief actor and actress in a play, or as a man and a woman who are suddenly thrown together in adventure or danger.
When Stradella put his lute back into the purple bag at last, telling Ortensia that she had sung enough for one morning and that she must not tire her voice, she felt as if this could not possibly have been her first meeting with him. His face, his tone, his gestures, the way he held his lute, were all as familiar to her already as if he had given her half-a-dozen lessons; and when he was gone and she sat once more in her chair looking at the top of the cypress tree against the noonday sky, she saw and heard all again, and then again; but she neither saw nor heard her nurse, who had laid aside the lace-pillow and was standing at her elbow telling her that it was time for the mid-day meal and that her uncle did not like to be kept waiting. The nurse spoke three times before Ortensia heard her and looked up.
'They say well that music is a thief,' observed the middle-aged woman in grey, enigmatically, as she stood with her hands folded under her black apron, gazing intently at Ortensia's face.
The young girl laughed as she rose.
'Poor old Pina!' she answered, tapping her forehead with one finger as if to say that the nurse was weak-minded.
But Pina smiled, and made three gestures, without saying a word: first she pointed to herself, then she shook her forefinger, and lastly she jerked her thumb back in the direction of the door that led to the Senator's apartments. The weak-minded body was not Pina, but her master, since he had brought that handsome singer to teach Ortensia, who had never before exchanged two words with any young man, handsome or plain, except under the nose of the Senator himself; and that had always been at those great festivals to which the Venetian nobles took their wives and daughters, even when the latter were very young, to show off their fine clothes and jewels, though it meant comparing them publicly with quite another class of beauties.
For the Venetian maxim was that women and girls were safe in public or under lock and key, but that there was no salvation for them between those two extremes.
But, in the eyes of Pignaver, a musician was not a man, any more than a servant or a gondolier could be. Where a Venetian lady was concerned, nothing was a man that had not a seat in the Grand Council; that was the limit, below which the male population consisted of sexless creatures like domestics, shopkeepers, and workmen.
Furthermore, the vanity of Pignaver raised him above all other competitors as high as the Campanile stood above Saint Mark's and the Ducal Palace, not to mention the rest of Venice, and the idea that Ortensia, who had been informed that she was to be the wife of his transcendently gifted and desirable self, could stoop to look at a Sicilian music-master, would have struck him as superlatively comic, though his sense of humour was imperfect, to say the least of it.
Even if the great man could have set aside all these considerations for a moment, so as to look upon Stradella as a possible rival, he would still have believed that the presence of Pina during the lessons was a trustworthy safeguard against any 'accident to Ortensia's affections,' as he would have expressed the danger. He had unbounded faith in Pina's devotion to him and in her severity as a chaperon. On the rare occasions when the young girl was allowed to leave the palace without her uncle, Pina accompanied her in the gondola, and sometimes on foot as far as the church of the Frari, where she went to confession once a month; but, as a rule, she had her daily airing with the Senator himself, meekly sitting on his left, and pretending to keep her eyes fixed on an imaginary point directly ahead, as he insisted that she must, lest she should look at any of the handsome young nobles who were only too anxious to pass as near as possible on her side of the gondola.
For, though she was not eighteen years old, the reputation of her beauty was already abroad; and as it was said that she was to inherit her uncle's vast wealth, there were at least three hundred young gentlemen of high degree who desired her now, since no one knew that the Senator had determined to marry her himself. Their offers were constantly presented to him, sometimes by their fathers or mothers, and sometimes by ingenious elderly friends who undertook such negotiations for a financial consideration. But Pignaver always returned the same answer, politely expressing his thanks for the honour done his niece, but saying that he had 'other views for her.'
Pina, however, hated him for reasons of her own, which he had either forgotten, or which he disregarded because, in his opinion, she was under the greatest obligation to the house. Pina's hatred of her master was more sincere, if possible, than her affection for Ortensia, and her contempt for his intelligence was almost as profound as his own belief in its superiority over that of other men.
These facts explain why Pina acted as she did, though they could not possibly excuse her evil conduct in the eyes of righteous persons like the Senator and others of his class, who would have thought it a monstrous and unnatural thing that a noble Venetian girl should fall in love with a music-master, though he were the most talented and famous musician of his day.
This was what Pina did. In the middle of the fourth lesson she deliberately laid aside her lace-pillow and left the room, well knowing that her master would have her thrown out of the house at once, and ducked in the canal besides, if he ever heard of it. But he was a man of unchanging habits. Each time that Stradella came he led him in, sat down, listened while Ortensia sang one of his own pieces, and then went away, not to return that morning. So when Pina was quite sure that his coming and going had settled to a habit, she boldly ran the risk, if it was one, and left the two together.
Alessandro Stradella was a Sicilian on both sides, though he had been born in Naples, and he wasted no time when his chance came. He tried no little trick of word or glance, he did not gaze into Ortensia's eyes and sigh, still less did he boldly try to take her hand and pour out a fervid declaration of his love; for by this time, without the exchange of a word, the girl had taken hold of his heart, and he saw her eyes before him everywhere, in the sunlit streets and canals, and at night, in the dark, and in his dreams.
He did none of these things. He was the master singer of his age, and he himself had made divine melodies that still live; he knew his power, and he trusted to that alone. The velvet curtain had scarcely fallen behind Pina as she went out, when he bent over his lute, and with one look at Ortensia began to sing. But it was not one of those ninety-seven compositions on which the Senator prided himself: it was a love-song of Stradella's own that he had made within the week in the secrecy of his own room, and no one had heard it yet; and it was his masterpiece.
Ortensia felt that it was hers. That strange voice of his that was not deep, yet never seemed high-pitched, breathed softly through and through her being, as a spring breeze through young leaves, more felt than heard, yet a wonder to hear. The notes vibrated, but did not tremble; they swelled and grew strong and rang out fiercely, but were never loud; and again they died away, but were not quite silent, and lingered musically in the air, though a whisper would have drowned them.
The girl's eyes grew dark under their drooping lids, and her face was luminously pale; her delicate young lips moved now and then unconsciously, and they were icy cold; but she felt a wild pulse beating at her throat, as if her heart were there and breaking to be free.
She felt his look on her too, but she could not answer it, and when the song ended she turned from him and laid her white cheek against the high back of the chair, looking out at the cypress against the sky. She could not tell whether it was pain or pleasure she felt, but it was almost more than she could bear, and her hands strained upon each other, clasped together just on her two knees.
In the silence the velvet curtain was lifted and fell again, and Pina's step was heard on the marble floor.
'I have brought you some water to drink,' said the nurse quietly; and speaking to both, 'Your throats must be dry with so much singing!'
Ortensia took one of the tall glasses and drank eagerly before she turned her face from the window.
'Thank you,' she said, recovering herself and smiling at Pina.
'And you, Maestro?' asked the latter, offering Stradella the drink.
'Thank you,' he said, 'but it is too much. With your permission!'
And then, with the effrontery of youth in love, he deliberately took the almost empty glass from which Ortensia had drunk, poured a little into it from the other, and drank out of it with a look of undisguised gratitude on his handsome face. Thereupon a little colour came to Ortensia's ivory-pale cheek, and Pina smiled pleasantly. Instead of setting down the salver, however, she took it away, leaving the room again.
'How beautiful that song is!' Ortensia said in a low voice, and glancing at Stradella almost timidly, when they were again alone. 'How more than beautiful!'
'It is yours,' answered the musician. 'I made it for you—it is not even written down yet.'
'For me!' The exquisite colour deepened twice in her face and faded again as her heart fluttered.
'For you,' Stradella answered, so softly that she barely heard.
The nurse came back just then, having merely left the salver outside to be taken away. In her judgment things had gone far enough for the present. Then the mid-day bells clanged out, and it was time to end the lesson, and Stradella put his lute into its purple bag and bowed himself out as he always did; but to-day he kept his eyes on Ortensia's, and hers did not turn from him while she could see his face.
Love-dealings and Deceit, says an ancient poet, were born into the world together, daughters of Night; and several dry-hearted old critics, who never were in love and perhaps never deceived anybody in their lives, have had so much trouble in understanding why these divinities should have made their appearance in the world at the same time, that they have suspected the passage and written pages of learned trash about what Hesiod probably wrote instead of 'Love-dealings,' or the pretty word for which I can think of no better translation.
Pignaver was not a particularly truthful person himself, but he exacted strict truthfulness from others, which is good business if it is bad morality; and Ortensia had been brought up rigidly in the practice of veracity as a prime virtue. She had not hitherto been tempted to tell fibs, indeed; but she had always looked upon doing so as a great sin, which, if committed, would require penance.
Yet no sooner had she fallen in love with Alessandro Stradella than she found herself telling the most glaring untruths every day, with a readiness and self-possession that were nothing short of terrifying. For instance, her uncle often asked her to tell him exactly what she had been studying with the music-master, and he inquired especially whether the latter ever sang any of his own music to her. To these questions she answered that she was too anxious to profit by the lessons she was receiving, through her uncle's kindness, to waste the precious time in which she might be studying his immortal works.
She used those very words, without a blink, and Pignaver swallowed the flattery as a dog bolts a gobbet of meat. She added that the Maestro himself was so enthusiastic about the Senator's songs that he now cared for nothing else.
Yet the truth was that Stradella had summed up his criticism in a few words.
'They are all so much alike that they almost produce the impression of having been written by the same person.'
That was what he had really said, and Ortensia had laughed sweetly and cruelly; and even Pina, busy with her lace-pillow, had smiled with evil satisfaction in her corner, for she was a clever woman, who had been educated above her present station, and she understood.
Further, the Senator asked whether Stradella ever attempted to enter into conversation with his pupil, between one piece of music and the next.
'Conversation!' cried the young girl indignantly. 'He would not dare!'
If Pignaver noticed the slight blush that came with the words, he set it down to just anger at the mere suggestion that his future wife could stoop to talk with a music-master. Yet, being of a suspicious nature, he also made inquiries of Pina, whom he unwisely trusted even more than Ortensia herself.
'Conversation, Excellency? Your Excellency's niece in conversation with a fiddler, a public singer, a creature little better than a mountebank! My lady Ortensia would as soon talk with a footman! Shame, my lord! The suspicion is unworthy! I would scarcely answer to the young man himself, if he spoke to me, though I am only a poor servant! A fiddler, indeed! A lute-strummer, a catgut-pincher, and a Neapolitan into the bargain!'
Thus did Pina express herself, and while her rather hard grey eyes seemed to flash with anger, her mouth, that had once been handsome, curved in lines of scorn that were almost aristocratic.
It is as easy to deceive a very vain person in matters where vanity has a part to play as it is to cheat a blind man, and Pignaver was hoodwinked without difficulty by his niece and her nurse, and the love that had sprung up between the two young people almost at first sight grew at an amazing rate while they sang and looked at one another over their lutes.
But the first word had not been spoken yet, though it had been sung many times by both, separately and together. It was not that Stradella doubted how it would be received, if he spoke it when Pina was out of the room, nor was Ortensia not eager for it long before it came. Yet she could not be the first, and he would not, for reasons she understood so little that at last she began to resent his silence as if it were a slight. Few Italian girls of her age have ever known that sensation, which is familiar enough to many women of the world.
Stradella found himself faced by a most unexpected circumstance. He was not only in love; that had happened to him at regular intervals ever since he had been barely fourteen years old, when a beautiful Neapolitan princess heard him sing and threw her magnificent arms round his neck, kissing him, and laughing when he kissed her in return; and she had made him the spoilt darling of her villa at Posilippo for more than three weeks.
Since then he had regarded his love affairs very much as he looked upon the weather, as an irregular succession of fine days, dark days, and stormy days. When he was happily in love, it was a fine day; when unhappily, it was stormy; when not at all, it was dull—very dull. But hitherto it had never occurred to him that any one of the three conditions could last. Like Goethe, he had never begun a love-affair without instinctively foreseeing the end, and hoping that it might be painless.
But to his amazement, though he had been prepared to be as cheerfully cynical and as keen after enjoyment as usual, he now felt, almost from the first, that there was no end in sight, or even to be imagined. The beginnings had not been new to him; it was not the first time that beauty had stirred his pulse, or that a face had awakened sympathy in that romantic region of feeling between heart and soul which is as far above the brute animal as it is below the pure spirit. Before now his voice had brought fire to a woman's eyes, and her lips had parted with unspoken promises of delight. That was what had happened on the first day when Pina had left him alone with Ortensia and he had sung to her; that had all been normal and natural, and only not dull because the fountain of youth was full and overflowing; that might have happened to any man between twenty and thirty.
He had gone away light-hearted after the first lesson, with music in his heart and ears. Was not every beginning of new love a spring that promised summer, and sometimes a rich autumn too, all in a few weeks, and with only a dull day or two to follow at the end, instead of winter?
But the next time he saw Ortensia it was a little different, and after that the difference became greater, and at last very great indeed, till he no longer recognised the familiar turnings in light love's short path, and the pretty flowers he had so often plucked by the way did not grow on each side within easy reach, and the fruit of the garden seemed endlessly far away, though he knew it was hidden somewhere, far sweeter than any he had tasted yet. For it was a maiden's garden in which no man had trod before; and the maiden was of high degree, and could not wander along the path with him, yielding her will to his.
His light-heartedness left him then, his face grew grave, and his temper became melancholy, for the first time in his life. He was only to give her a few lessons, after all, and Pina would leave him with her for ten minutes, scarcely more, each time he came. One minute would be enough, it was true; if he spoke she would listen, if he took her hand she would let him hold it. But what would be the end of that? A kiss or two, and nothing more. When the lessons were finished he would be told by the Senator that his teaching was no longer needed, and after that there would be nothing. He might see her once a week in her gondola, at a little distance; but as for ever being alone with her again in his life for five minutes, that would be out of the question. Could he, a musician and an artist, a man sprung from the people, even think of aspiring to the hand of a Venetian senator's niece? In those days the idea was ludicrous. And as for her, though she might be in love with him—and he felt that she was—would she entertain for a moment the idea of escaping from her uncle's house, from Venice, to join her lot with a wandering singer's? That was still greater nonsense, he thought. Then what could come of it all but a cruel parting and a heartache, since this was real love and could not end in a laugh, like the lighter sort he had known so well? She was a mere child yet, she would forget in a few weeks; and he was a grown man, who had seen the world, and could doubtless forget if he chose, provided there were never anything to be forgotten beyond what there was already.
But if he should speak to her in one of those short intervals when they were alone, if she stretched out her hand, if he clasped her to him, if their lips met, things would not end so easily nor be so soon forgotten. He had the careless knowledge of himself that many gifted men have even when they are still very young; he knew how far he could answer for his own coolness and sense, and that if he allowed himself to cross the limit he would behave like a madman and perhaps like a criminal.
Therefore he set himself to be prudent till the lessons should be over, and he even thought of ending them abruptly and leaving Venice. His acquaintance with Ortensia would always be a beautiful recollection in his life, he thought, and one in which there could be no element of remorse or bitterness. He was not a libertine. Few great artists have ever been that; for in every great painter, or sculptor, or musician there is a poet, and true poetry is the refutation of vulgar materialism. In all the nobler arts the second-rate men have invariably been the sensualists; but the masters, even in their love affairs, have always hankered after an ideal, and have sometimes found it.
When the Senator ushered in Stradella one morning and quietly announced that the lesson was to be the last, Ortensia felt faint, and turned her back quite to the open window, against the light, so that the two men could not see how she changed colour. The nurse's hard grey eyes scrutinised Pignaver's face for an instant, and then turned to Stradella; he was paler than usual, but grave and collected, for the Senator had already informed him that his services would be no longer needed after that day.
Everything was to take place as usual. As usual, Ortensia was to sing one of her uncle's ninety-seven compositions to him while Stradella accompanied her; as usual, Pignaver would then go away; lastly, at the customary time, Pina would go out for ten minutes and reappear with water and sherbet.
Ortensia was shaking with emotion when the ordeal began, and for a moment she felt that it was hopeless to try to sing. Some sharp discordant sound would surely break from her lips, and she would faint outright in her misery.
She was on the very point of saying that she felt a sudden hoarseness, or was taken ill, when her pride awoke in a flash with a strength that amazed her, the more because she had never dreamed she had any of that sort. Stradella should not guess that she was hurt; she would rather die than let him know that her heart was breaking; more than that, she would break his, if there was time, and if she could!
She stood up by her chair and sang far better than she had ever sung before in Pignaver's hearing; she threw life and fire and passion into his mild composition, and she remembered every effective little trick Stradella had taught her for improving the dull melody and for emphasising the commonplace verses it was meant to adorn.
The Senator was surprised and delighted, and Stradella softly clapped his hands. She hated him for applauding her, yet she was pleased with the applause.
'What music, eh?' cried the Senator, with a grin of satisfied vanity.
'It is music indeed!' answered Stradella with a grave emphasis that gave the words great weight. 'It has been my endeavour to do justice to it, in instructing your gifted niece.'
'You have succeeded very well, dear Maestro,' Pignaver answered with immense condescension. 'The world will be much your debtor when it hears my melodies so charmingly sung!'
With this elephantine compliment the Senator nodded in a patronising way and took himself off, while Stradella bowed politely at his departing back.
When the curtain fell before the door, the singer turned to his pupil and sat down in his accustomed seat, with great apparent self-possession. Ortensia watched him, and her new-born resentment increased quickly.
'What will it please you to study to-day?' he inquired, just as easily as if it were not the very last time.
She felt much inclined to answer 'Nothing,' and to turn her back on him, but somehow her pride found a voice for her, as indifferent as his own, though she avoided his eyes and looked out of the window.
'It does not matter which song we take,' she answered. 'They are very much alike, as you have often said!' She even laughed, quite lightly and carelessly.
It was his turn to be surprised. Her tone was as natural and unstrained as a child's. At the sound of it, he asked himself whether this slip of a thing of seventeen years had not been acting emotions she had not felt, and laughing at him while he had been singing his heart out to her. Any clever girl could twist herself on her chair, and lay her cheek to the back of it, turning away as if she were really suffering, and twining her hands together till the little joints strained and turned even whiter than the fingers themselves.
At the thought that she had perhaps made a fool of him, Stradella nearly laughed, and he came near being cured then and there of his latest and most serious love-sickness. His lute was lying on his knees; he began to strum the opening chords of Pignaver's dullest composition, in the dull mechanical way the music deserved. He thought the effect might be to make Ortensia laugh and to change her mood.
But, to his annoyance, she rose, laid one hand on the back of the chair, and proceeded to sing the song with the greatest care for details, though by no means with the dashing spirit that had made him applaud her first performance that morning. She was evidently singing for study, as if she meant to profit by his teaching to the very last moment.
He accompanied her mechanically, wondering what was going to happen next, and when she had finished he eyed her with curiosity, but said nothing. She seemed completely changed.
'Why do you look at me in that way?' she asked with great calmness. 'Did I make any bad mistake?'
He smiled, but not very gaily.
'No,' he answered, 'you made no mistakes at all. You are admirable to-day! I quite understand that my services are no longer needed, for I can teach you nothing more!'
'I have done my best to improve under your instructions,' answered Ortensia primly.
She rested both her elbows on the back of the chair now and looked calmly out of the window at her favourite tree. Stradella pretended that his lute needed tuning, turned a peg or two and then turned each back again, and struck idle chords.
'When you are rested,' he said, 'I am at your service for another song.'
'I am ready,' Ortensia answered with a calmness quite equal to his own.
Pina, watching them from a distance and neglecting her lace-pillow, saw that something was the matter, and got up to leave the room at least half-an-hour earlier than usual; but because the Senator might come back unexpectedly during this last lesson, she went out through the other door beyond which a broad corridor led to his own apartments, and she stood where she could not fail to hear his steps in the distance if he should return.
Ortensia was still standing by her chair when Stradella left his seat and came towards her, holding his lute in one hand. It did not suit his male dignity to take leave of her without finding out whether she had been playing with him or not, though half-an-hour earlier he would not have believed it possible that vanity could enter into any thought he had of her.
He stood quite near her, and she met his eyes; she was rather frightened by his sudden advance, and shrank back behind the chair.
'You will find me in your loggia to-night, outside that window,' he said, pointing as he spoke. 'I shall be there an hour before midnight, and I shall wait till it is almost dawn.'
He paused, keeping his eyes on hers. She had started back at the first words, and now a deep colour had risen in her cheeks; he could not tell whether it meant anger or pleasure.
'I shall be there,' he repeated; 'I shall be there to say good-bye, if you will have it so, or to come again if you will. But if you do not open the window, I will come twice again at the same hour, to-morrow and the night after that, and wait for you till dawn.'
Ortensia turned from him without speaking and went out into the covered loggia. It was her instinct to look at the place where he was to be, and for the moment she could not answer him, for she did not know what to say; she herself could not have told whether she was angry or pleased, she only felt that something new was happening to her. Her mood had changed again in a few seconds.
He followed her to the threshold of the window, and stood behind her in the flood of sunshine, so near that he could whisper in her ear and be heard.
'There is love between us,' he said. 'We have seen it in each other's eyes ever since we first met, we have heard it in one another's voices every day! I will not leave you without saying it for us both, just as much for you as for myself! But I must say it all many times, and I must hear it from you too. Therefore I shall be here an hour before midnight to wait, and you will come, and you will open the window when you see me standing outside, and we shall be together! And if you will, we need never part again, for the world is as wide as heaven itself, for those who love to find a safe resting-place.'
She raised one hand as if to stop him, without turning round. While he spoke, she had turned pale again by soft degrees, and she drew her breath sharply once or twice, with an effort. He caught the hand she put out and kissed it slowly three times, as if he would leave the print of his young lips on the smooth white skin for a memory. She let him have his way, though she shook her head, and would not turn to him.
He was so near her that he could have bent and kissed her, just above the broad lace collar, behind her little ear, where the strong auburn hair sprang in silken waves from the ivory of her neck. The scent of lavender and violets rose from her dress to his nostrils in the warmth.
'You will come,' he whispered.
'How can I?' she asked, very low.
Then they heard Pina's voice behind them, not loud, but sharp and imperative.
'The Senator is coming back!' she called to them, as she dropped the curtain after entering and hastened to her seat.
Stradella crossed to the other side of the window in an instant, raising the lute he still carried in one hand.
'Sing!' he commanded, and he was already playing the accompaniment to one of Pignaver's everlasting songs.
As pride had helped her before, sheer desperation strengthened her now, and, without moving from her place, she began to sing, not very steadily at first, for her heart was beating terribly fast, but carefully, as if she were studying.
A moment later Pignaver noiselessly lifted the velvet curtain and looked in, confident that he had surprised them, and perfectly satisfied with the result. Beyond the fact that they were standing in the sunshine to sing and play, on opposite sides of the great window, everything was precisely as he had expected. When the song was ended, he revealed his presence by a word of approbation, and he installed himself to hear the rest of the lesson. When it was over, he himself accompanied Stradella to the stairs.
Ortensia heard the bells strike midnight. She was lying on her back, her eyes wide open, and staring at the rosette in the middle of the pink canopy over her head. She could see it plainly by the dim light of the tiny oil-lamp that hung above the kneeling-stool at which she said her prayers. She had said them with great fervour to-night, and had gone to bed with the firm intention of repeating the last one over and over to herself till she fell asleep.
But in this she had not succeeded. She had heard the bells at eleven o'clock and had been wide awake; at that moment Stradella was stepping over the marble balustrade into the loggia. She tried to say her prayer again, but it was of no use at all; she knew that he was standing there just outside the great closed window, waiting, and that to see him she had only to pass through her dressing-room, where Pina slept on a trestle-bed, which was taken away every morning. There was only one door to Ortensia's bedroom, which was the last on that floor of the house; for it was proper that a noble Venetian girl should be safely guarded, and every night the Senator locked both the outer doors of the sitting-room where she had her lessons, and he kept the key under his pillow. Pina and Ortensia were in prison together from ten o'clock at night till seven every morning, and the girl could not leave her own room without passing Pina.
To the Senator's insufficient imagination two things were out of the question; he was convinced that no one could get up into the loggia from below, and he was persuaded that Pina, unswerving in her devotion to his interests and honour, would guard Ortensia as jealously as the dragon guarded the Golden Fleece. Moreover, as to getting in by the window, a man would first have to get access to the walled garden below, which Pignaver regarded as another impossibility, for the wall was high, he himself kept the key of the postern that opened on the canal, and the gardener entered through the house.
Nevertheless Stradella was standing in the loggia at eleven o'clock; Ortensia was sure he was there, and at midnight she was still lying on her back, staring up at the canopy, with outstretched hands that clutched the edges of the bed on each side. Her idea of what was possible was quite different from her uncle's; the one thing which seemed to her out of the question was that she should lie where she was much longer, and she only succeeded by giving herself the illusion that her own hands held her down by main force. By and by they would be tired, she supposed, and then she would have to go to him.
She held fast and listened, hoping to hear the bells again, as if an hour could slip by as in a moment while she was awake; and suddenly she started, and one hand left its hold, for she heard a noise at her own window, a sharp tap, followed by another and another. Then there came a sharp rattling, and she knew that it was only raining, and tried to laugh at herself. The first big drops of the squall had struck the panes like little pebbles. Her hand went down to the edge of the bed again and clutched the mattress desperately, while she listened.
He was in the loggia, and the rain was driving in upon him as it was driving against her window. He would not move; he would wait there in the wet till dawn, for he had said so and she believed him. It was hard to hold herself down now, knowing that he was being wet through. He must have left his cloak behind, too, for he could not have been able to climb if hampered by the folds.
It was pouring now, and there was wind with the rain, since otherwise it could not have made such a noise against the glass. She had often stood inside the closed window of the sitting-room when it was raining from the same quarter, and she had seen how the gusts drove the water in sheets against the panes, till it ran down and made a river along the loggia and boiled at the grated gutter-sinks through which it ran off. He was perhaps nearly up to his ankles in the little flood by this time, but he would not go away for that. She knew he would wait.
Her hands let go and she was suddenly sitting on the edge of the bed, feeling for her slippers with her bare feet; with bare arms raised, she instinctively put up both hands to her hair at the same time, to be sure that it would not come down, for Pina always did it up at night in a thick coil on the top of her head.
She heard the rain even more distinctly now; it was coming down in torrents. She looked up at the little lamp burning quietly before Robbia's blue and white bas-relief of the infant Christ, and she thought of her prayers again; but it was positively wicked to let any one stand outside in the rain for hours, to catch his death of cold.
She slipped a silk skirt over her thin night-dress and put on her fur-edged dressing-gown over that, for those were the days of wonderful dressing-gowns, quilted with down, bordered with sable or ermine, and trimmed with lace. She drew the cords tightly round her slim waist, and she was ready.
For a moment she hesitated; there was no night-light where Pina slept, nor in the day-room beyond; the stormy night must be so dark that she would not be able to find her way to the windows. That thought decided her, and she stopped to light a small hand-lamp. Then she cautiously opened the door, shaded the flame from Pina's face with one hand, and passed quickly through the dressing-room. The nurse lay in her trestle-bed, well covered up, and did not move, and Ortensia shut the next door noiselessly.
She hastened to the window, and when she got there she started; his dripping face was flattened against the pane, so white and ghostly that it was like a vision of him dead, but his eyes were alive and were watching her, and when she was quite near the window he smiled. She set down her lamp on the floor at a little distance and began to undo the fastenings with the greatest caution, fearing to make any noise; but as soon as the bolt was drawn the wind forced the frame open so violently that it almost knocked her down. Stradella sprang in with the driving wet and only succeeded in shutting the window after several efforts, during which the lamp was almost blown out.
He stood before her then bare-headed, and the water ran down upon the marble floor from his drenched clothes. He had neither hat nor cloak, and his dark hair was matted with the rain; but his face was radiant.
'You are frozen! you are soaked through and through!' she cried anxiously. 'You will get an illness, and I can do nothing! There is not even a little wine here to warm you.'
He smiled and shook his head.
'Never mind me,' he answered. 'Or let me take your hand in mine for a moment and the chill will pass!'
He put out his own, and when she felt that it was cold and wet, she took it in both of hers and tried to dry it, and chafed it between her palms, till he drew it away rather suddenly with a low laugh.
'Thank you,' he said. 'That is enough!'
'No, let me warm it better, or give me the other!'
'There is too much fire in your touch,' he answered. 'It burns through cold and wet. It would burn through ice itself!'
His tone made her forget her first anxiety for him; but she felt that she must explain why she was there, if only to quiet her own conscience.
'I would not have come if it had not rained,' she said, avoiding his eyes, 'and now I must not stay with you. As soon as it stops you must let yourself out and go away. It was only when I heard the rain——'
'Blessings on the rain!' answered Stradella devoutly. 'I never loved it before!'
'You should not have come on such a night—I mean——'
She stopped and he saw her blush in the faint light that came up from the lamp on the floor.
'I had no choice, since I had promised,' he answered. 'And I promise you I will come to-morrow again——'
'Oh, do not promise—please!' She seemed distressed.
'Yes, I will come to-morrow and every night, until you come away with me. I will bring you a disguise in which you can travel safely till we are over the Venetian border and free.'
'But I cannot—I will not!' she protested. 'You speak as if—as if——'
'As if we loved each other, heart and soul, for life or death,' he said, not letting her go on, and taking her hand again. 'I speak as if we had been born into the world only for that, to love and live and die together! As if there were no woman for me but you in all the earth, and no man for you but me! As if our lips had promised and had met!'
She was drinking his words, and her eyes were in his as he bent to her face. But then she started, in returning consciousness, and tried to draw back.
'No, no!' she cried, in sudden maiden distress. 'Not yet! It is too soon!'
He drew her nearer to him in spite of herself, with both her hands in his, till he could speak close to her ear.
'Tell me you do not love me, love! Tell me you will not feel one little regret if you never see me again! Come, say it in my ear, sweetheart! Say that if I fall and am killed in climbing down when I leave you, it will make no more difference to you than if a dog were drowned in the canal! Is it not true, dear? Then say it quickly! Only whisper it in my ear, and I will go away and never come back. But you must say it——'
'Yes—please go!' she answered faintly. 'Go at once——'
'No, you must say the rest first,' he insisted, and his lips were almost touching her ear. 'Say it after me: "I hate you, I despise you, I loathe you, I do not care whether you live or die." Why do you not begin to repeat the words, heart of my heart?'
She turned suddenly in his hold, holding her head far back, wide-eyed and very pale. But she could not speak, or would not, foreknowing what must happen now that had never happened to her before.
He smiled faintly, and when he spoke again it was a sweet breath she felt, rather than a sound that reached her ear.
'Will you not say it?' he said, and his face came slowly nearer to hers. 'Would it not be true? No? Then say "I love you, love," or speak no word aloud but let your lips make syllables on mine, and, like the blind, the touch will tell me what you say.'
Her eyes closed of themselves, the speaking breath came nearer, and then, as lightning flashes through a summer's night, flame ran from her lips to her feet, and to her heart from her hands that lay in his and felt his life stirring.
It was innocent enough, a girl's first love-kiss, and the kiss of a man who loved in earnest for the first time, but it seemed a great and a fearful thing to her, irrevocable as lost innocence itself; and he, whose masculine light-heartedness made not much of mere kisses, and laughed at the thought that love could do much wrong, felt that he had given a pledge he must redeem and a promise he must honourably keep.
It was innocent enough. He held her by the hands as he bent and kissed her, for the water was still trickling down his drenched clothes, and her pretty dressing-gown would have been spoiled if he had even put one arm round her waist. There was a dash of the ridiculous in that, which would have made them both laugh if they had not been so simply and utterly in earnest. And then when he let her hands go and she sank upon a chair, he could not even sit down beside her, because the velvet seat would have been ruined. So he stood bolt upright in the midst of the little puddle the water had made round his feet.
She covered her face with her hands for a moment, not in any shame, but trying to make herself think.
'You must go now,' she said presently, looking up at him. 'It is enough to make the strongest man fall ill, to be drenched as you are. You will lose your voice——'
'What does that matter, if I have found you?' he asked. 'But I will do as you wish, for it has stopped raining at last, and it is growing late—you will lose half your sleep to-night.'
'Or all of it!' she answered softly, thinking of his kiss. 'How did you get up to the loggia? Have you a ladder?'
He had none. He had got over the outer wall by means of a rope with a grappling-hook fastened to it, which he had thrown up from the canal. Thence he had reached the loggia without much difficulty, for in the short intervals during the lessons he had more than once looked down and had seen that it was quite possible, and more a question of steady nerves than of great strength and activity. At the level of the loggia a stone ledge ran round the palace, and along this it was easy to creep on hands and knees. He had drawn himself up to it from the top of the wall, which joined the building at the corner of the garden.
'It is easy enough,' Stradella answered. 'And now good-bye. To-morrow night again, love, an hour before midnight.'
She rose and they joined hands again.
'I ought to tell you not to come,' she said in a weak voice, like a child's. 'But how can I say it—now—now that——'
If any other word would have followed, it could not. Once more her closed eyes saw sweet summer lightnings, and the thrill of the flame ran from her lips through every vital part.
He turned from her at last to unfasten the window, and for a moment she was too dazed to stop him, though she would have kept him still. Then she tried to follow him out into the loggia, but he would not let her.
'No, love,' he said, 'your wet shoes would tell tales.'
'But there is danger!' answered Ortensia, holding him by his drenched sleeve. 'I must know you are safe!'
'When I reach my boat I will whistle softly,' he said.
He was gone in the dark, and she was listening by the open window, her heart beating so that it seemed as if it must drown any other sound. But he made no noise as he crept along the ledge to the corner, and then cautiously let himself down upon the top of the wall, dropping astride of it then to pull himself along in that position by his hands till he found the grappling-hook of his rope. The wall rose perpendicularly from the canal, and he had moored his little skiff to the only ring he could find at the base of it, some distance from the corner.
Ortensia listened anxiously for the promised signal, and peered into the darkness, her hand on the window, ready to close it as soon as she knew he was safe.
But suddenly she heard the sound of oars striking the water, and a yellow glare rose above the wall from the other side.
'Who goes there?' asked a deep voice.
No one answered, but instantly there was a heavy splash, as of a body falling into the canal.
Half-an-hour later Ortensia was lying on her back again, staring up at the rosette in the canopy. But her face was distorted with horror now, and was whiter than the pillow itself.
In the day-room, by the light of Ortensia's little lamp, Pina was on her knees, carefully mopping up the water that had run down from Stradella's clothes, and drying the marble floor.
Soon after sunrise the Senator came and unlocked the doors of Ortensia's day-room. That had always been his custom, for he kept the key under his pillow, as has been said, and he would as soon have thought of sending a servant to liberate the girl and the woman in the morning as of letting any one but himself lock them in at night.
'The master's eye fattens the horse,' he said to himself, quoting a Spanish proverb without much regard for metaphors.
It was his wont to open the door, and to look into the large room before going away, for he was sure that his eye would at once detect the slightest disarrangement of the furniture, or anything else unusual which might warrant suspicion.
But this morning he did more: he entered the room, shut the door behind him and looked about. He went to the window and examined the fastenings carefully, opened it wide, went out into the loggia and looked down into the garden. Everything was in order there, not one flower-pot had been upset by the squall, not a branch of the cypress-tree was broken or even bent.
Then he came in again and tapped sharply at the door of the dressing-room where Pina slept. She appeared instantly, already dressed; but she laid one finger on her lips, to keep him silent, and came out into the room before she spoke.
She said that Ortensia had been kept awake half the night by the storm, and was now sound asleep.
'A thief tried to get into the house after midnight,' said Pignaver. 'Did you hear any noise?'
'I should think I did!' cried Pina promptly. 'I was going to tell your lordship of it. I was up with the young lady, and when the first squall was over and she was more quiet, I thought I would just come in here to see if any water had run in under the window as it sometimes does. Just then I saw a glare of light beyond the garden wall, and I opened the window at once and heard the Signor of the Night challenging a thief, and directly afterwards there was a splash in the canal, and then silence, and the light went away slowly. I hope the man was drowned, my lord!'
While she was speaking, Pignaver had nodded repeatedly, for her little story bore the stamp of truth.
'I grieve to say that the villain got away,' he answered. 'At daybreak an officer from the Signors of the Night was waiting downstairs to inform me of the attempt. The Signors' boat searched the canal for the body of the man during more than an hour, but found nothing. He must have been on the garden wall when he was seen, and he threw himself into the water to escape, leaving the rope by which he had climbed up.'
'Mercy!' cried Pina. 'We might have all been murdered in our beds!'
'No one shall get upon that wall again,' answered the master of the house. 'I will have the coping stuck full of broken glass from end to end before night.'
'Would it not be well to set a watch in the garden, too, my lord? We should sleep soundly then!'
'We shall see, we shall see,' answered Pignaver, repeating the words slowly, as he went off. 'We shall see,' he said once more, as he went out.
As soon as he was gone, Pina hastened to Ortensia's room.
'He is safe!' she cried as she entered. 'They searched the canal for a whole hour, and could not find him!'
Ortensia uttered a little cry and sat up in bed suddenly; but she could scarcely believe the news, till Pina had repeated all that the Senator had said. When she heard that the wall was to be crowned with broken glass, however, her face fell, for she saw in a flash of imagination how Stradella would climb up confidently in the dark and would cut his hand to the bone when he grasped the jagged points on the top.
'You must warn him!' cried Ortensia. 'You must go out and find him, and tell him not to come again!'
'I will find him,' answered Pina.
They had never spoken of Stradella before the night that was just past. Day after day, while the lessons were going on, Pina had left the two together, and Ortensia had silently accepted the nurse's conduct without understanding its cause; she was too proud to speak of it when they were together, or too shy, but she was sure from the first that Pina would stand by her, though it was the woman's sole business never to let her be out of her sight for a moment.
'And what shall I tell him?' Pina asked. 'What message shall he have from you? I will faithfully deliver your words.'
Ortensia covered her eyes with one hand, leaning on the other behind her, to steady herself as she sat up.
'Tell him that—that we must wait—and hope——'
'For what?' asked Pina bluntly. 'For the end of the world?'
Ortensia uncovered her eyes and looked up, surprised at the change of tone.
'Will you wait till you are the Senator's wife?' Pina asked, her grey eyes hardening suddenly. 'Will you hope that by that time the broken glass on the wall will have softened in the rain till it will not cut his hands? Or that you will be more free when you are married? You will not be. That is not the way in Venice. I am a serving-woman, and, besides, I am neither young nor pretty—I was once!—so I may go and come on your business and walk alone from the Piazza to Santa Maria dell' Orto. But you noble ladies, you are born in a cage, you live in bondage, and you die in prison! Will you wait? Will you hope? What for?'
'What do you mean?' asked Ortensia in a frightened voice. 'Am I never to see him again? Is my message to him to be a good-bye?'
'Good-bye is easily said,' Pina answered, shaking her head enigmatically.
The young girl let herself sink back on her pillow, and turned her face against her bare arm, so that at least her eyes were hidden from the nurse.
'I cannot!' she whispered to herself, drawing a breath that almost choked her.
'Yes,' Pina repeated harshly, 'it is easy to say farewell; and as for any hope after that, the devil lends it us at usury, and if we cannot pay on the day of reckoning he takes possession!'
'What cruel things you say!' Ortensia cried in a half-broken tone, turning her head slowly from side to side, with her face hidden in the soft hollow of her elbow.
'What hope will there be for you, child, when you are your uncle's wife? The hope of dying young—that is all the hope you will have left!'
The woman laughed bitterly, and Ortensia felt that she was going to cry, or wished that she could, she was not quite sure which.
'Therefore I say it is folly to send a man such a message. "Wait and hope," indeed! How long? His lifetime? Yours? You are both young, and you may wait and hope fifty years, till your hair and teeth fall out, and you discover that there is nothing in hope after all! Better say good-bye outright, though it kill you! Better try and forget than make a martyrdom of remembering! Better anything than hope!'
The grey-eyed woman's voice shook with an emotion which Ortensia could not have understood if she had noticed it, for she was dreadfully miserable just then. Pina bent down over her, smoothed her hair and patted her bare arm softly.
'Why hope for what you can take, if you have the courage?' she asked, dropping her voice to a whisper, as she glanced behind her towards the door.
Ortensia lifted her head and looked up, her lips parting in surprise.
'Why should you waste time in waiting?' Pina asked, still whispering. 'That is the message I would send if I were you,' she added. 'Shall I take it?'
'But how?—I do not understand—he cannot come to me here.'
'We can go to him,' answered the nurse. 'Is it not easy? The next time you confess at the Frari he will meet us. It is simple enough. Two long brown cloaks with hoods, such as old women wear, a few hundred yards to walk from the Frari to the Tolentini, his gondola there, and out by Santa Chiara to the mainland and Padua—who shall catch us then? You are young and strong, and I am tough; we shall not die of the fatigue; and by the next morning we shall all three be out of Venetian territory. What is easier?'
Ortensia listened to this bold plan in silence, too much surprised to ask why Pina was so ready to propose it, and a little frightened too, for she was a mere girl, and all the world beyond Venice was a mysterious immensity of Cimmerian gloom in the midst of which little pools of brilliant light marked the great and wonderful places she had heard described, such as Rome, Florence, and Milan, and royal Paris, and imperial Vienna.
'But my uncle would send men after us,' Ortensia objected. 'The Council of Ten will do anything he asks! They will give him soldiers, ships, anything! How can we possibly escape from him? We shall be caught and brought back!'
Pina smiled at such fears.
'Beyond the Venetian border they can do nothing,' she said. 'Do we mean to rob the Senator or murder him, that Venice should send an ambassador to claim us for trial under the laws of the Republic? Is it a crime for young people to love, and to run away and marry?'
'You do not know how powerful my uncle is,' Ortensia said.
Pina's face changed at once, and her expression became stony and impenetrable.
'You are wrong,' she answered in a hard voice. 'I know he is powerful. But if you fear him, as I do not, then wait and hope! Wait and hope!'
She laughed very strangely as she repeated the words, and her voice cracked on the last one, with a discordant note that frightened Ortensia, who was weary and overwrought.
'What is it, Pina?' asked the young girl quickly. 'What has happened?'
The nurse was already herself again, and pretended to cough a little.
'It is nothing,' she said presently. 'Something in my throat, just as I was speaking. It often happens. And as for what we were speaking of, there is no hurry. I will find the Maestro Alessandro before noon, and warn him not to come near our garden wall again, and I will tell him from you anything you wish, except that you do not care what becomes of him, for that would not be true!'
She laughed again, but quite gently this time, and began to busy herself about the room, making preparations for Ortensia to dress. The girl had laid her head on her pillow again, looking up at the little pink silk rosette in the middle of the canopy, and she was sure that it had a much less sad look now than it had worn in the small hours by the flickering night light. This seemed quite natural to Ortensia, for the familiar little objects in a girl's own room have a different expression for every hour of her life, to sympathise with each joy and sorrow, great or small, and with every hope, and surprise, and disappointment.
But Ortensia herself could not have told what she felt just then, for it was a sensation of startled unrest, in which great happiness and great fear were striving with each other to possess her; and she knew that if she yielded to the fear, she would lose the happiness, but that if she opened her heart to the happiness, the fear would at once become a terror so awful that she must certainly die of it.
She did not ask why her nurse was so ready to help her to run away. The fact was enough. The plan looked easy, and Stradella was the man to carry it out. She had only to consent, and in a week, or less, all would be done, and she would be joined to him for ever. If she refused, she must inevitably become the wife of Pignaver in a few months. She writhed on her pillow at the mere thought.
Two hours later she was standing before the big open window, watching three masons who were working on the top of the garden wall; they spread thick layers of stiff grey mortar over the old coping, and then stuck in sharp bits of broken glass, patting and pressing down the cement against each piece, to make the hold quite firm. The murderous splinters gleamed in the sunshine, and the men set them so near together that one could hardly have laid a finger anywhere between them.
Ortensia watched the work, and now and then she looked at the top of the cypress-tree, half-unconsciously wondering how many days would pass before she saw it for the last time. But in the broad daylight she lived over and over again every instant of that short night meeting that was the greatest event in all her life. If she only drooped her lids a little she saw Stradella there before her in his dripping clothes by the rays of the little lamp, his face was close to hers again, her lips touched his, and a delicate thrill ran through all her body and reminded her faintly but very sweetly of what she had felt when he kissed her.
Meanwhile, Pina had found the musician's lodging, near Santa Maria dell' Orto, which was a long way from the Senator's palace, for that quarter lies on the extreme outer edge of Venice, looking across the lagoon towards Murano. The door was opened for her by a hunchback, with a large, intellectual face, beardless and strongly modelled, such a face as Giotto would have taken as a model for a Doctor of the Church. The sad blue eyes looked up to Pina's with cold gravity; but when she explained that she came from the Palazzo Pignaver with a message, they brightened a little, and the man at once stood aside for her to enter.
She touched his hump lightly for luck in passing, as every Italian woman will to this day if she finds herself close to a hunchback in the street, and this act is rarely resented. Pina thought it a piece of unexampled good-fortune and of the best possible augury that the door should have been opened by a 'bringer-of-fortune,' and the deformed servant smiled gently at her touch, quite understanding. As he led the way in, after shutting the outer door, Pina saw that nature had meant him for a man of large proportions, and that his short stature was chiefly due to the terrible deformity of his back and chest, for his slightly bowed legs looked as sturdy as a street porter's, and his powerful arms were so long that his hands swung well below his knees when he walked. He wore plain brown clothes, and a broad white collar, and Pina, who was observant, noticed the neatness of his dress.
Stradella received her with a politeness to which, as a serving-woman, she was little accustomed, and he made her sit down in a comfortable chair before asking for news of Ortensia. He himself was none the worse for his wetting. The hunchback waited a moment as if expecting some order, but Stradella only nodded to him, and he went out.
'My young lady is well, and greets you, sir,' Pina said in answer to the Maestro's question, when the door was shut. 'She bids you be warned and not try to climb the wall again, for it is already being crowned with broken glass, which would cut your hands; and, moreover, the Senator will probably set a watch in the garden, since you were fortunately mistaken for a thief last night.'
Stradella listened to this business-like statement attentively, and watched Pina's face while she was speaking. Her hard grey eyes met his with perfect frankness.
'I see that you know everything,' he said. 'Tell me, then, how can I see the lady Ortensia? Surely you are not come to tell me that I am not to see her again.'
Pina unfolded her plan with a clearness and precision that first surprised him, and then roused his suspicion. For a few moments after she had ceased speaking he was silent, and examined his left hand with thoughtful interest, gently rubbing with his thumb the callous places made on the tips of his fingers by playing on stringed instruments. The woman puzzled him, for he understood well enough from her tone that she was not moved to help him merely by affection for her mistress, and she could certainly not be supposed to be actuated by any sudden devotion to himself. Besides, she must be aware that he was not a rich man, and could not requite with any large sum of money such a service as she offered. Her motive was a mystery. At last he spoke.
'Listen to me,' he said, watching her eyes. 'Your plan is good, and perfectly feasible. If you are in earnest, it can be carried out to-morrow, or whenever the lady Ortensia is ready. I will reward you as well as I can, but you must remember that I am a poor musician and not a Venetian senator——'
Pina's grey eyes were like steel, and her tone was cold, and not without a certain dignity.
'Have I asked money of you, sir?'
'Oh, no!' answered Stradella readily. 'I only wished——'
She interrupted him, as if she were his equal.
'Even a servant may love something better than a bribe!' she said.
'I beg your pardon,' Stradella found himself saying, a good deal to his own surprise, for he had not expected to hurt a serving-woman's feelings by speaking of money. 'I misunderstood you.'
'You did indeed, sir!' answered Pina. 'All I ask of you is that you will take me with you in your flight, for the Senator will certainly have me murdered if I am left behind. Afterwards, if my lady does not want me, I will look for another place, or live by lace-making.'
Stradella did not like the answer. The Sicilian character has grave defects: it is revengeful, over-proud, violent, and sometimes cruel; but it is generally truthful, and it is, above all, direct.
'You talk lightly of leaving your mistress,' said the musician. 'It is not for love of her that you are ready to help us.'
Pina faced him fearlessly.
'You are right,' she answered. 'And yet she is the one living being I love at all. Affection is not the only motive one may have, sir.'