[Transcriber's note: Both "Matilde" and "Matilda" appear in the source text.]
F. MARION CRAWFORD
"Where shall I sign my name?"
Veronica Serra's thin, dark fingers rolled the old silver penholder nervously as she sat at one end of the long library table, looking up at the short, stout man who stood beside her.
"Here, if you please, Excellency," answered Lamberto Squarci, with an affable smile.
His fingers were dark, too, but not thin, and they were smooth and dingy and very pointed, a fact which the young princess noticed with dislike, as he indicated the spot on the broad sheet of rough, hand-made paper, where he wished her to sign. A thrill of repulsion that was strong enough to be painful ran through her, and she rolled the penholder still more quickly and nervously, so that she almost dropped it, and a little blot of ink fell upon the sheet before she had begun to write.
"Oh! It is of no importance!" said the Neapolitan notary, in a reassuring tone. "A little ink more or less!"
He had some pink blotting-paper ready, and was already applying a corner of it to the ink-spot, with the neat skill of a professional scribe.
"I will erase it when it is dry," he said. "You will not even see it. Now, if your Excellency will sign—that will make the will valid."
Three other persons stood around Donna Veronica as she set the point of her pen to the paper, and two of them watched the characters she traced, with eager, unwinking eyes. The third was a very insignificant personage just then, being but the notary's clerk; but his signature was needed as a witness to the will, and he patiently waited for his turn. The other two were husband and wife, Gregorio and Matilde, Count and Countess Macomer; and the countess was the young girl's aunt, being the only sister of Don Tommaso Serra, Prince of Acireale, Veronica's dead father. She looked on, with an eager, pleased expression, standing upright and bending her head in order to see the point of the pen as it moved over the rough paper. Her hands were folded before her, but the uppermost one twitched and moved once or twice, as though it would go out to get possession of the precious document which left her all the heiress's great possessions in case of Donna Veronica's death. It was a bit of paper well worth having.
The girl rose, slight and graceful, when she had written her name, and the finely chiselled lips had an upward curve of young scorn, as she turned from the table, while the notary and his clerk proceeded to witness the will. Immediately, the countess smiled, very brightly, showing beautiful teeth between smooth red lips, and her strong arms went round her young niece. She was a woman at least forty years of age, but still handsome.
"I thank you with all my heart!" she cried. "It is a proof of affection which I shall never forget! You will live a hundred years—a thousand, if God will it! But the mere wish to leave me your fortune is a token of love and esteem which I shall know how to value."
Donna Veronica kissed her aunt's fresh cheek coldly, and drew back as soon as she could.
"I am glad that you are pleased," she answered in a cool and colourless voice.
She felt that she had said enough, and, so far as she expected any thanks, her aunt had said too much. She had made the will and had signed it, for the sake of peace, and she asked nothing but peace in return. Ever since she had left the convent in which she had been educated and had come to live with her aunt, the question of this will had arisen at least once every day, and she knew by heart every argument which had been invented to induce her to make it. The principal one had always been the same. She had been told that if, in the inscrutable ways of Providence, she should chance to die young, unmarried and childless, the whole of the great Acireale property would go to relations whom she had never seen and of whom she scarcely knew the names. This, the Countess Macomer had insisted, would be a terrible misfortune, and as human life was uncertain, even when one was very young, it was the duty of Veronica to provide against it, by leaving everything to the one remaining member of the Serra family who, with herself, represented the direct line, who had taken a mother's place and duties in bringing up the orphan girl, and who had been ready to sacrifice every personal consideration for the sake of the child's welfare.
Veronica did not see clearly that the Countess Macomer had ever really sacrificed anything at all in the execution of her trust as guardian, any more than the count himself, who, with Cardinal Campodonico, was a joint trustee, had ever been put to any inconvenience, beyond that of being the uncle by marriage of one of the richest heiresses in Italy. It was natural that when she had signed the will at last, she should receive her aunt's effusive thanks rather coldly, and that she should show very little enthusiasm when her uncle kissed her forehead and expressed his appreciation of her loving intention. The plain truth was that if she had refused any longer to sign the will, the two would have made her life even more unbearable than it was already.
She knew that there was no reason why her life should be made hard to bear. She was not only rich, and a princess in her own right. She was young and, if not pretty, at least fairly well endowed with those gifts which attract and please, and bring their possessor the daily little satisfactions that make something very like happiness, before passion throws its load into the scales of life on the right side or the wrong. She knew that, at her age, she might have been married already, and she wondered that her aunt should not have proposed to marry her before now. Yet in this she was not displeased, for her best friend, Bianca Campodonico, had been married two years already to Corleone, of evil fame, and was desperately unhappy. Veronica dreaded a like fate, and was in no haste to find a husband. The countess told her always that she should be free to choose one for herself within reasonable limits of age, name, and fortune. Such an heiress, with such a fortune, said Matilde Macomer, could marry whom she pleased. But so far as Veronica had been allowed to see the world, the choice seemed anything but large.
The count and countess had always been very careful in the selection of their intimate associates—they could hardly be said to have any intimate friends. Since Veronica had come to them from the convent in Rome, where she had been educated according to her dead father's desire, they had been doubly cautious and trebly particular as to the persons they chose to receive. Their responsibility, they said openly, was very great. The child's happiness, was wholly in their hands. They would be held accountable if she should form an unfortunate attachment for some ineligible young man who might chance to dine at their table. The responsibility, they repeated with emphasis, was truly enormous. It was also an unfortunate fact that in their Neapolitan society there were many young men, princes and dukes by the score, who had nothing but their names and titles to recommend them, and who would have found it very hard to keep body and title together, so to say, if gambling had suddenly been abolished, or had gone out of fashion unexpectedly.
Then, too, the Macomer couple had always led a retired life and had kept aloof from the very gay portion of society. They lived well, according to their station, and so far as any one could see; but it had always been said that Gregorio Macomer was miserly. At the same time it suited his wife, for reasons of her own, not to be conspicuous in the world, and she encouraged him to lead a quiet existence, spending half the year in the country, and receiving very few people when in Naples during the winter and spring. Gregorio had one brother, Bosio, considerably younger than himself and very different in character, who was not married and who lived at the Palazzo Macomer, on excellent terms both with Gregorio and the countess, as well as with Veronica herself. The young girl was inclined to like him, though she felt dimly that she could never understand him as she believed that she understood her aunt and uncle. He was, indeed, almost the only man, excepting her uncle, whom she could be said to know tolerably well. He was not present on that afternoon when she signed the will, but his absence did not surprise her, for he had always abstained from any remarks about her property or his brother's and sister-in-law's guardianship, in such a marked way as to make her understand that he really wished to know nothing about the management or disposal of her fortune.
She liked him for several reasons,—for his non-interference in discussions about her affairs, for a certain quiet consideration, just a shade more friendly than deference, which he showed for her slightest wishes, and chiefly, perhaps, for his conversation and perfectly even temper.
Her uncle Macomer was not always good-tempered and he was never considerate. He was a stiff man, of impenetrable face, much older than his wife, cold when he was pleased, and harsh as rough ice when he was annoyed; a tall, bony man, with flattened lips, from which the grey moustaches and the beard were brushed smoothly away in all directions. He had very small eyes—a witty enemy of his said they were so small that one could not find them in his face, and those who knew him laughed at the jest, for they always seemed hard to find when one wished to meet them. His shoulders were unusually high and narrow, but he did not stoop. On the contrary, he habitually threw back his head, with a certain coldly aggressive stiffness, so that he easily looked above the person with whom he was talking. Though he had never been given to any sort of bodily exercise, his hands were naturally horny, and they were almost always cold. For the rest, he was careful of his appearance and scrupulous in matters of dress, like many of his fellow-countrymen. In his household he insisted upon a neatness as fastidious as his own, and nothing could have induced him to employ a Neapolitan servant. His family colours were green and black, and the green of his servants' liveries was of the very darkest that could be had.
He imposed his taste upon his household, and gave it a certain marked respectability which betrayed no information about his fortune. To all appearances he was not poor; but it would have been impossible to say with certainty whether he were rich or only in moderate circumstances. He was undoubtedly more careful than ninety-nine out of a hundred of his fellow-citizens, in getting the value of what he spent, to the uttermost splitting of farthings; and when he spoke of money there was a certain cruel hardening of the hard lines in his face, which Veronica never failed to notice with dislike. She wondered how her aunt could have led an apparently tranquil life with such a man during more than twenty years.
Doubtless, she thought, Bosio's presence acted as a palliative in the somewhat grim atmosphere of the Palazzo Macomer. He was utterly different from his brother. In the first place, he was gentle and kind in speech and manner, though apparently rather sad than gay. He was different in face, in figure, in voice, in carriage—having quiet brown eyes, and brown hair only streaked with grey, with a full, silky beard; a clear pale complexion; in frame shorter than Gregorio, with smaller bones, slightly inclined to stoutness, but rather graceful than stiff; small feet and well-shaped hands of pleasant texture; a clear, low voice that never jarred upon the ear, and a kindly, half-sad laugh in which there was a singular refinement, of the sort which shows itself more in laughter than in speech. Laughter is, indeed, a terrible betrayer of the character, and a surer guide in judgment than most people know. For men learn to use their voices skilfully and to govern their tones as well as their words; but, beyond not laughing too loud for ordinary decency of behaviour, there are few people who care, or realize, how they laugh; and those who do, and who, being aware that there is room for improvement, endeavour to improve, very generally produce either a semi-musical noise, which is false and affected, or a perfectly inane cachinnation which has nothing human in it at all.
Bosio Macomer was a refined man, not only by education and outward contact with the refinements he sought in others, but within himself and by predisposition of nature. He read much, and found beauties in books which his friends thought dull, but which appealed tenderly to his innate love of tenderness. He had probably lost many illusions, but the sweetest of them all was still fresh in him, for he loved nature unaffectedly. In an unobtrusive way he was something of an artist, and was fond of going out by himself, when in the country, to sketch and dream all day. Veronica did not understand how with such tastes he could bear the life in the Palazzo Macomer, for months at a time. He was free to go and come as he pleased, and since he preferred the country, she wondered why he did not live out of town altogether. His existence was the more incomprehensible to her, as he rarely lost an opportunity of finding fault with Naples as a city and with the Neapolitans as human beings. Sometimes he did not leave the house for many days, as he frankly admitted, preferring the little apartment in the upper story of the house, where he lived independently, with one old servant, amongst his books and his pictures, appearing downstairs only at dinner, and not always then. His place was always ready for him, but no one ever remarked his absence, nor inquired where he might be when he chose to stay away.
He was on excellent terms with every one. The servants adored him, while they feared his brother and disliked the countess; when he appeared he never failed to kiss the countess's hand, and to exchange a friendly word or two with Gregorio; but as for the latter, Bosio made no secret of the fact that he preferred the society of the ladies of the household to that of the count, with whom he had little in common. He certainly admired his sister-in-law, and more than once frankly confessed to Veronica that in his opinion Matilde Macomer was still the most beautiful woman in the world. Yet Veronica had observed that he was critical of looks in other women, and she thought his criticisms generally just and in good taste. For her part, however, if he chose to consider her middle-aged aunt lovely, Veronica would not contradict him, for she was cautious in a certain degree, and in spite of herself she distrusted her surroundings.
There were times when the Countess Macomer inspired her with confidence. Those very beautiful dark eyes of hers had but one defect, namely, that they were quite too near together; but they were still the best features in the elder woman's face, and when Veronica looked at them from such an angle as not to notice their relative position, she almost believed that she could trust them. But she never liked the smooth red lips, nor the over-pointed nose, which had something of the falcon's keenness without its nobility. The thick and waving brown hair grew almost too low on the white forehead, and, whether by art or nature, the eyebrows were too broad and too dark for the face, though they were so well placed as to greatly improve the defect of the close-set eyes. There was a marvellous genuine freshness of colour in the clear complexion, and the woman carried her head well upon a really magnificent neck. She was strong and vital and healthy, and her personality was as distinctly dominating as her physical self. Yet she was generally very careful not to displease her husband, even when he was capricious, and Veronica was sometimes surprised by the apparent weakness with which she yielded to him in matters about which she had as good a right as he to an opinion and a decision. The girl supposed that her aunt was not so strong as she seemed to be, when actually brought face to face with the rough ice of Gregorio Macomer's character.
Veronica made her observations discreetly and kept them to herself, as was not only becoming but wise. At first the change from the semi-cloistered existence of the convent in Rome to the life at the Palazzo Macomer had dazzled the girl and had confused her ideas. But with the natural desire of the very young to seem experienced, she had begun by manifesting no surprise at anything she saw; and she had soon discovered that, although she was supposed to be living in the society of the most idle and pleasure-loving city in the world, her surroundings were in reality neither gay nor dazzling, but decidedly monotonous and dull. She had dim, childish memories of magnificent things in her father's house, though the main impression was that of his death, following closely, as she had been told, upon her mother's. Of the latter, she could remember nothing. In dreams she saw beautiful things, and brilliant light and splendid pictures and enchanted gardens, and when she awoke she felt that the dreams had been recollections of what she had seen, and of what still belonged to her. But she sought the reality in vain. The grand old palace in the Toledo was hers, she was told, but it was let for a term of years to the municipality and was filled with public offices; the marble staircases were black and dingy with the passing of many feet that tracked in the mud in winter and the filthy dust of Naples in summer. Dark, poor faces and ill-clad forms moved through the halls, and horrible voices echoed perpetually in the corridors, where those who waited discussed taxes, and wrangled, and cursed those in power, and cheated one another, and picked a pocket now and then, and spat upon the marble pavement whereon royal and lordly feet had so often trod in days gone by. It had all become a great nest of dirt and stealing and busy chicanery, where dingy, hawk-eyed men with sodden white faces and disgusting hands lay in wait for the unwary who had business with the city government, to rob them on pretence of facilitating their affairs, to cringe for a little coin flung them in scorn sometimes by one who had grown rich in greater robbery than they could practise—sometimes, too, springing aside to escape a kick or a blow as ill-tempered success went swinging by, high-handed and vulgarly cruel, a few degrees less filthy and ten thousand times more repulsive.
Once, Veronica had insisted upon going through the palace. She would never enter it again, and after that day, when she passed it, she turned her face from it and looked away. Vaguely, she wondered whether they were not deceiving her and whether it were really the home she dimly remembered. There had been splendid things in it, then—she would not ask what had become of them, but without asking, she was told that they had been wisely disposed of, and that instead of paying people for keeping an uninhabited palace in order, she was receiving an enormous rent for it from the city.
Then she had wished to see the lovely villa that came back in the pictures of her dreams, and she had been driven out into the country according to her desire. From a distance, as the carriage approached it, she recognized the lordly poplars, and far at the end of the avenue the elaborately stuccoed front and cornices of the old-fashioned "barocco" building. But the gardens were gone. Files of neatly trimmed vines, trained upon poles stuck in deep furrows, stretched away from the avenue on either side. The flower garden was a vegetable garden now, and the artichokes and the cabbages and the broccoli were planted with mathematical regularity up to the very walls. There were hens and chickens on the steps and running in and out of the open door, and from a near sty the grunt of many pigs reached her ears. A pale, earthy-skinned peasant, scantily clad in dusty canvas, grinned sadly and kissed the hem of her skirt, calling her 'Excellency' and beginning at once to beg for reduction of rent. A field-worn woman, filthy and dishevelled, drove back half a dozen nearly naked children whose little legs were crusted with dry mud, and whose faces had not been washed for a long time.
And within, there was no furniture. In the rooms upstairs were stores of grain and potatoes, and red peppers and grapes hanging on strings. The cracked mirrors, built into the gilded stucco, were coated with heavy unctuous dust, and the fine old painted tiles on the floor were loose and broken in places. In the ceiling certain pink and well-fed cherubs still supported unnatural thunderclouds through which Juno forever drove her gold-wheeled car and team of patient peacocks, smiling high and goddess-like at the squalor beneath. Still Diana bent over Endymion cruelly foreshortened in his sleep, beyond the possibility of a waking return to human proportions. Mars frowned, Jove threatened, Venus rose glowing from the sea; and below, the unctuous black dust settled and thickened on everything except the cracked floors piled with maize and beans and lupins, and rubbed bright between the heaps by the peasants' naked feet.
Veronica turned her back upon the villa, as she had turned from the great palace in the Toledo. They whispered to her that the peasant's rent must not be reduced, for he was well able to pay, and they pointed to the closely planted vines and vegetables and olives that stretched far away to right and left, where she remembered in her dreams of far childhood that there had been lawns and walks and flowers. The man, she was told, was not the only peasant on the place. There were other houses now, and huts that could shelter a family, and there was land, land, always more land, as far as she could see, all as closely and neatly and regularly planted with vegetables and grain, vines and olives; and it was all hers, and yielded enormous rents which were wisely invested. She was very rich indeed, but to her it all seemed horribly sordid and grinding and mean—and the peasants looked prematurely old, labour-worn, filthy, wretchedly poor. If she had even had any satisfaction from so much wealth, it might have seemed different. She said so, in her heart. She was accustomed to tell her confessor that she was proud and uncharitable and unfeeling—not finding any real misdeeds to confess. She was willing to believe that she was all that and much more. If she had been living in the whirling, golden pleasure-storm of an utterly thoughtless world, she believed herself bad enough to have shut her memory's eyes to the haggard peasant-mother of the dirty half-clad children—to all the hundreds of them who doubtless lived just like the one she had seen, all upon her lands; she could have forgotten the busy-thieving, sodden-faced crowd that thronged the chambers wherein her fathers had been born and had feasted kings and had died—the very room where her own father had lain dead. She could have shut it all out, she thought, if she had held in her hands the gold that all this brought, to scatter it at her will; for she was sure that she had not a better heart than other girls of her age. But she had never seen it. The reality of her own life was too weak and colourless, by contrast, to make the name of fortune an excuse for the sordid facts of meanness. There was no splendour about her, no wild gaiety, none of the glorious extravagance of conscious young wealth, and there was very little amusement to divert her thoughts. The people she would have liked to know were kept at a distance from her. She was advised not to buy the things which attracted her eyes, and was told that they were not so good as they looked, and that on the whole it was better to keep money than to spend it—but that, of course, she might do as she pleased, and that when she wanted money her uncle Macomer would give it to her.
It all passed through his hands, and he managed everything, with the assistance of Lamberto Squarci the notary and of other men of business—mostly shabby-looking men in black, with spectacles and unhealthy complexions, who came and went in the morning when old Macomer was in his study attending to affairs. Veronica knew none but Squarci by name, and never spoke with any of them. There seemed to be no reason why she should.
The count had told her that when she wished it, he was ready to render an account of the estates and would be happy to explain everything to her at length. She understood nothing of business and was content to accept the roughest statement as he chose to give it to her. She was far too young to distrust the man whom she had been taught to respect as her guardian and as a person of scrupulous honesty. She was completely in his power, and she was accustomed to ask him for any little sums she needed. It never really struck her that he might misuse the authority she indifferently left in his hands.
It was her aunt who had induced her to make the will, and for whose conduct she felt a sort of undefined resentment and contempt. Considering, she thought, how improbable it was that she herself should die before Matilde Macomer, the latter had shown an absurd anxiety about the disposal of the fortune. If Veronica had yielded the point, she had done so in order to get rid of an importunity which wearied her perpetually. She was to marry, of course, in due time. God would give her children, and they would inherit her wealth. It was really ridiculous of her aunt to be so anxious lest it should all go to those distant relations in Sicily and Spain. Nevertheless, in order to have peace, she signed the will, and her aunt thanked her effusively, and old Macomer's flat lips touched her forehead while he spoke a few words of gratified approval.
In the evening she told Bosio, the count's brother, of what she had done. His gentle eyes looked at her thoughtfully for a few seconds, and he did not smile, nor did he make any observation.
A few minutes later he was talking of a picture he had seen for sale—a mere sketch, but by Ribera, called the Spagnoletto. She made up her mind to buy it for him as a surprise, for it pleased her to give him pleasure.
But when she was alone in her room that night she recalled Bosio's expression when she had told him about the will. She was sure that he was not pleased, and she wondered why he had not at least said something in reply—something quite indifferent perhaps, but yet something, instead of looking at her in total silence, just for those few seconds. After all, she was really more intimate with him than with her aunt and uncle, and liked him better than either of them, so that she had a right to expect that he should have answered with something more than silence when she told him of such a matter.
She sat a long time in a deep chair near her toilet table, thinking about her own life, in the great dim room which half a dozen candles barely lighted; and perhaps it was the first time that she had really asked herself how long her present mode of existence was to continue, how long she was to lie half-hidden, as it were, in the sombrely respectable dimness of the Macomer establishment, how long she was to remain unmarried. Knowing the customs of her own people in regard to marriage, as she did, it was certainly strange that she should not have heard of any offer made to her uncle and aunt for her hand. Surely the mothers of marriageable sons knew of her existence, of her fortune, of the titles she held in her own right and could confer upon her husband and leave to her children. It was not natural that no one should wish to marry her, that no mother should desire such an heiress for her son.
With the distrustful introspection of maiden youth, she suddenly asked herself whether by any possibility she were different from other girls and whether she had not some strange defect, physical or mental, of which the existence had been most carefully concealed from her all her life. In the quick impulse she rose and brought all the burning candles to the toilet table, and lighted others, and stood before the mirror, in the yellow light, gazing most critically at her own reflexion. She looked long and earnestly and quite without vanity. She told herself, cataloguing her looks, that her hair was neither black nor brown, but that it was very thick and long and waved naturally; that her eyes were very dark, with queer little angles just above the lids, under the prominent brows; that her nose, seen in full face, looked very straight and rather small, though she had been told by the girls in the convent that it was aquiline and pointed; that her cheeks were thin and almost colourless; that her chin was round and smooth and prominent, her lips rather dark than red, and modelled in a high curve; that her ears were very small—she threw back the heavy hair to see them better, turning her face sideways to the glass; that her throat was over-slender, and her neck and arms far too thin for beauty, but with a young leanness which might improve with time, though nothing could ever make them white. She was dark, on the whole. She was willing to admit that she was sallow, that her eyes had a rather sad look in them, and even that one was almost imperceptibly larger than the other, though the difference was so small that she had never noticed it before, and it might be due to the uncertain light of the candles in the dim room. But most assuredly there was no physical defect to be seen. She was not beautiful like poor Bianca Corleone; but she was far from ugly—that was certain.
And in mind—she laughed as she looked at herself in the glass. Bosio Macomer told her that she was clever, and he certainly knew. But her own expression pleased her when she laughed, and she laughed again with pleasure, and watched herself in a sort of girlish and innocent satisfaction. Then her eyes met their own reflexion, and she grew suddenly grave again, and something in them told her that they were not laughing with her lips, and might not often look upon things mirthful.
But she was not stupid, and she was not ugly. She had assured herself of that. The worst that could be said was that she was a very thin girl and that her complexion was not brilliant, though it was healthy enough, and clear. No—there was certainly no reason why her aunt should not have received offers of marriage for her, and many people would have thought it strange that she should be still unmarried—with her looks, her name, and that great fortune of which Gregorio Macomer was taking such good care.
On that same night, when Veronica had gone to her room, Bosio Macomer remained alone with the countess in the small drawing-room in which the family generally spent the evening. Gregorio was presumably in his study, busy with his perpetual accounts or otherwise occupied. He very often spent the hours between dinner and bed-time by himself, leaving his brother to keep his wife company if Veronica chose to retire early.
The room was small and the first impression of colour which it gave was that of a strong, deep yellow. There was yellow damask on the walls, the curtains were of an old sort of silk material in stripes of yellow and chocolate, and most of the furniture was covered with yellow satin. The whole was in the style of the early part of this century, modified by the bad taste of the Second Empire, with much gilded carving about the doors and the corners of the big panels in which the damask was stretched, while the low, vaulted ceiling was a mass of gilt stucco, modelled in heavy acanthus leaves and arabesques, from the centre of which hung a chandelier of white Venetian glass. There were no pictures on the walls, and there were no flowers nor plants in pots, to relieve the strong colour which filled the eye. Nevertheless the room had the air of being inhabited, and was less glaring and stiff and old-fashioned than it might seem from this description. There were a good many books on the tables, chiefly French novels, as yellow as the hangings; and there were writing materials and a couple of newspapers and two or three open notes. A small wood fire burned in a deep, low fireplace adorned with marble and gilt brass.
Matilde Macomer sat, leaning back, upon a little sofa which stood across a corner of the room far from the fire. One hand lay idly in her lap, the other, as she stretched out her arm, lay upon the back of the sofa, and her head with its thick, brown hair was bent down. She had fixed her eyes upon a point of the carpet and had not moved from her position for a long time. The folds of her black gown made graceful lines from her knees to her feet, and her imposing figure was thrown into strong relief against the yellow background as she leaned to the corner, one foot just touching the floor.
Bosio sat at a distance from her, on a low chair, his elbows on his knees, staring at the fire. Neither had spoken for several minutes. Matilde broke the silence first, her eyes still fixed on the carpet.
"You must marry Veronica," she said slowly; "nothing else can save us."
It was clear that the idea was not new to Bosio, for he showed no surprise. But he turned deliberately and looked at the countess before he answered her. There were unusual lines in his quiet face—lines of great distress and perplexity.
"It is a crime," he said in a low voice.
Matilda raised her eyes, with an almost imperceptible movement of the shoulders.
"Murder is a crime," she answered simply. Then Bosio started violently and turned very white, almost rising from his seat.
"Murder?" he cried; "what do you mean?"
Matilde's smooth red lips smiled.
"I merely mentioned it as an instance of a crime," she said, without any change of tone. "You said it would be a crime for you to marry Veronica. It did not strike me that it could be called by that name. Crimes are murder, stealing, forgery—such things. Who would say that it was criminal for Bosio Macomer to marry Veronica Serra? There is no reason against it. I daresay that many people wonder why you have not married her already, and that many others suppose that you will before long. You are young, you have never been married, you have a very good name and a small fortune of your own."
"Take it, then!" exclaimed Bosio, impulsively. "You shall have it all to-morrow—everything I possess. God knows, I am ready to give you all I have. Take it. I can live somehow. What do I care? I have given you my life—what is a little money? But do not ask me to marry her, your niece, here, under your very roof. I am not a saint, but I cannot do that!"
"No," answered the countess, "we are not saints, you and I, it is true. For my part, I make no pretences. But the trouble is desperate, Bosio. I do not know what to do. It is desperate!" she repeated with sudden energy. "Desperate, I tell you!"
"I suppose that all I have would be of no use, then?" asked Bosio, disheartened.
"It would pay the interest for a few months longer. That would be all. Then we should be where we are now, or shall be in three weeks."
"Throw yourself upon her mercy. Ask her to forgive you and to lend you money," suggested Bosio. "She is kind—she will do it, when she knows the truth."
"I had thought of that," answered Matilde. "But, in the first place, you do not know her. Secondly, you forget Cardinal Campodonico."
"Since he has left the management of her fortune in Gregorio's hands, he will not begin to ask questions at this point. Besides, the guardianship is at an end—"
"The estate has not been made over. He will insist upon seeing the accounts—that is no matter, for they will bear his inspection well enough. Squarci is clever! But Veronica sees him. She would tell him of our trouble, if we went to her. If not, she would certainly tell Bianca Corleone, who is his niece. If he suspected anything, let alone knowing the truth, that would be the end of everything. It would be better for us to escape before the crash—if we could. It comes to that—unless you will help us."
"By marrying Veronica?" asked Bosio, with a bitterness not natural to him.
"I see no other way. The cardinal could see the accounts. You could be married, and the fortune could be made over to you. She would never know, nor ask questions. You could set our affairs straight, and still be the richest man in Naples or Sicily. It would all be over. It would be peace—at last, at last!" she repeated, with a sudden change of tone that ended in a deep-drawn sigh of anticipated relief. "You do not know half there is to tell," she continued, speaking rapidly after a moment's pause. "We are ruined, and worse than ruined. We have been, for years. Gregorio got himself into that horrible speculation years and years ago, though I knew nothing about it. While Veronica was a minor, he helped himself, as he could—with her money. It was easy, for he controlled everything. But now he can do nothing without her signature. Squarci said so last week. He cannot sell a bit of land, a stick of timber, anything, without her name. And we are ruined, Bosio. This house is mortgaged, and the mortgage expires on the first of January, in three weeks. We have nothing left—nothing but the hope of Veronica's charity—or the hope that you will marry her and save us from starvation and disgrace. I got her to sign the will. There was—"
The countess checked herself and stopped short, turning an emerald ring which she wore. She was pale.
"There was what?" asked Bosio, in an unsteady tone.
"There was just the bare possibility that she might die before January," said Matilde, almost in a whisper. "People die young sometimes, you know—very young. It pleases Providence to do strange things. Of course it would be most dreadful, if she were to die, would it not? It would be lonely in the house, without her. It seems to me that I should see her at night, in the dark corners, when I should be alone. Ugh!"
Matilde Macomer shivered suddenly, and then stared at Bosio with frightened eyes. He glanced at her nervously.
"I am afraid of you," he said.
"Of me?" Her presence of mind returned. "What an idea! just because I suggested that poor little Veronica might catch a cold or a fever in this horrible weather and might die of the one or the other? And just because I am fond of her, and said that I should be afraid of seeing her in the dark! Heaven give her a hundred years of life! Why should we talk of such sad things?"
"It is certainly not I who wish to talk of them, or think of them," answered Bosio, thoughtfully, and turning once more to the fire. "You are overwrought, Matilde—you are unhappy, afraid of the future—what shall I say? Sometimes you speak in a strange way."
"Is it any wonder? The case is desperate, and I am desperate, too—"
"Do not say it—"
"Then say that you will marry Veronica, and save us all, and bring peace into the house—for my sake, Bosio—for me!"
She leaned forward, and her hands met upon her knee in something like a gesture of supplication, while she sought his eyes.
"For your sake," repeated Bosio, dreamily. "For your sake? But you ask the impossible, Matilde. Besides, she would not marry me. She would laugh at the idea. And then—for you and me—it is horrible! You have no right to ask it."
"No right? Ah, Bosio! Have I not the right to ask anything of you, after all these years?"
"Anything—but not that! Your niece—under your roof! No—no—no! I cannot, even if she would consent."
"Not even—" Matilda's splendid eyes, so cruelly close together, fastened themselves upon the weak man's face, and she frowned.
"Not even if you thought it would be much better for her?" she asked very slowly, completing the sentence.
Again he started and shrank from her.
"Just God!" he exclaimed under his breath. "That a woman should have such thoughts!" Then he turned upon her with an instinctive revival of manhood and honour. "You shall not hurt her!" he cried, as fiercely as his voice could speak. "You shall not hurt a hair of her head, not even to save yourself! I will warn her—I will have her protected—I will tell everything! What is my life worth?"
"You would merely be told that you were mad, and we should have you taken out to the asylum at Aversa—as mad as I am, or soon shall be, if this goes on! You are mad to believe that I could do such things—I, a woman! And yet, I know I say words that have no reason in them! And I think crimes—horrible crimes, when I am alone—and I can tell no one but you. Have pity on me, Bosio! I was not always what I am now—"
She spoke incoherently, and her steadiness broke down all at once, for she had been living long under a fearful strain of terror and anxiety. The consciousness that she could say with safety whatever came first to her lips helped to weaken her. She half expected that Bosio would rise, and come to her and comfort her, perhaps, as she hid her face in her hands, shivering in fear of herself and shaking a little with the convulsive sob that was so near.
But Bosio did not move from his seat. He sat quite still, staring at the fire. He was not a physical coward, but, morally speaking, he was terrified and stunned by what he had understood her to say. Probably no man of any great strength of character, however bad, could have lived the life he had led in that house for many years, dominated by such a woman as Matilde Macomer. And now his weakness showed itself, to himself and to her, in what he felt, and in what he did, respectively. A strong man, having once felt that revival of manly instinct, would have turned upon her and terrified her and mastered her; and, within himself, his heart might have broken because he had ever loved such a woman. But Bosio sat still in his seat and said nothing more, though his brow was moist with a creeping, painful, trembling emotion that twisted his heart and tore his delicate nerves. He felt that his hands were very cold, but that he could not speak. She dominated him still, and he was ashamed of the weakness, and of his own desire to go and comfort her and forget the things she had said.
If he had spoken to her, she would have burst into tears; but his silence betrayed that he had no strength, and she suddenly felt that she was strong again, and that there was hope, and that he might marry Veronica, after all. A woman rarely breaks down to very tears before a man weaker than herself, though she may be near it.
"You must marry her," said Matilde, with returning steadiness. "You owe it to your brother and to me. Should I say, 'to me,' first? It is to save us from disgrace—from being prosecuted as well as ruined, from being dragged into court to answer for having wilfully defrauded—that is the word they would use!—for having wilfully defrauded Veronica Serra of a great deal of money, when we were her guardians and responsible for everything she had. My hands are clean of that—your brother did it without my knowledge. But no judge living would believe that I, being a guardian with my husband, could be so wholly ignorant of his affairs. There are severe penalties for such things, Bosio—I believe that we should both be sent to penal servitude; for no power on earth could save us from a conviction, any more than anything but Veronica's money can save us from ruin now. Gregorio has taken much, but it has been, nothing compared with the whole fortune. If you marry her, she will never know—no one will know—no one will ever guess. As her husband you will have control of everything, and no one then will blame you for taking a hundredth part of your wife's money to save your brother. You will have the right to do it. Your hands will be clean, too, as they are to-day. What is the crime? What is the difficulty? What is the objection? And on the other side there is ruin, a public trial, a conviction and penal servitude for your own brother, Gregorio, Count Macomer, and Matilde Serra, his wife."
"My God! What a choice!" exclaimed Bosio, pressing both his cold hands to his wet forehead.
"There is no choice!" answered the woman, with low, quick emphasis. "Your mind is made up, and we will announce the engagement at once. I do not care what objection Veronica makes. She likes you, she is half in love with you—what other man does she know? And if she did—she would not repent of marrying you rather than any one else. You will make her happy—as for me, I shall at least not die a disgraced woman. You talk of choice! Mine would be between a few drops of morphia and the galleys,—a thousand times more desperate than yours, it seems to me!"
Her large eyes flashed with the furious determination to make him do what she desired. His hands had fallen from his face, and he was looking at her almost quietly, not yielding so much as she thought, but at least listening gravely instead of telling her that she asked the impossible.
The door opened discreetly, and a servant appeared upon the threshold.
"The Signor Duca della Spina begs your Excellency to receive him for a moment, if it is not too late."
"Certainly," answered the countess, instantly, and with perfect self-control.
The servant closed the door and went back to deliver the short message. Matilde threw the folds of her black gown away from her feet, so that she might rise to meet the visitor, who was an old man and a person of importance. She looked keenly at Bosio.
"Do not go away," she said quickly, in a low voice. "Your forehead is wet—dry it—compose yourself—be natural!"
Before Bosio had returned his handkerchief to his pocket the door opened again, and a tall old man entered with a stooping gait. He had weak and inquiring eyes that looked about the room as he walked. His head was bald, and shone like a skull in the yellow reflexion from the damask hangings. His gait was not firm, and as he passed Bosio in order to reach the countess, he had an uncertain movement of head and hand, as though he were inclined to speak to him first. Matilde had risen, however, and had moved a step forward to meet the visitor, speaking at the same time, as though to direct him to herself, with the somewhat maternal air which even young women sometimes assume in greeting old men.
The Duca della Spina smiled rather feebly as he took the outstretched hand, and slowly sat down upon the sofa beside Matilde.
"I feared it might be too late," he began, and his watery blue eyes sought her face anxiously. "But my son insisted that I should come this evening, when he found that I had not been able to see you this afternoon."
"How is he?" asked the countess, suddenly assuming an expression of great concern.
"Eh! How he is! He is—so," answered the Duca, with a gesture which meant uncertainty. "Signora Contessa," he added, "he is not well at all. It is natural with the young. It is passion. What else can I tell you? He is impatient. His nerves shake him, and he does not eat. Morning and evening he asks, 'Father, what will it be?' So, to content him, I have come to disturb you."
"Not in the least, dear Duca!"
The door opened again, and Gregorio Macomer entered the room, having been informed of the presence of a visitor. The Duca looked up, and his head shook involuntarily, as he at once began the slow process of getting upon his legs. But Macomer was already pressing him into his seat again, holding the old hand in both of his with an appearance of much cordiality.
"I hope that Gianluca is no worse?" he said, with an interrogation that expressed friendly interest.
"Better he is not," answered the Duca, sadly. "What would you? It is passion. That is why I have come at this hour, and I have made my excuses to the Signora Contessa for disturbing her."
"Excuses?" cried Gregorio, promptly. "We are delighted to see you, dear friend!"
But as he spoke he turned a look of inquiry upon his wife, and she answered by a scarcely perceptible sign of negation.
They had been taken by surprise, for they had not expected the Duca's visit. Not heeding them, his heart full of his son, the old man continued to speak, in short, almost tremulous sentences.
"It is certain that Gianluca is very ill," he said. "Taquisara has been with him to-day, and Pietro Ghisleri—but Taquisara is his best friend. You know Taquisara, do you not?"
"A Sicilian?" asked the countess, encouraging the old man to go on.
"Yes," said Macomer, answering for the Duca, for he was proud of his genealogical knowledge, "The only son of the old Baron of Guardia. But every one calls him Taquisara, though his father is dead. There is a story which says that they are descended from Tancred."
"It may be," said the old Duca. "There are so many legends—but he is Gianluca's best friend, and he comes to see him every day. The boy is ill—very ill." He shook his head, and bent it almost to his breast. "He wastes away, and I do not know what to do for him."
The Count and Countess Macomer also shook their heads gravely, but said nothing. Bosio, seated at a little distance, looked on, his brain still disturbed by what had gone before, and wondering at Matilde's power of seeming at her ease in such a desperate situation; wondering, too, at his brother's hard, cold face—the mask that had so well hidden the passion of the gambler, and perhaps many other passions as well, of which even Bosio knew nothing, nor cared to know anything, having secrets of his own to keep.
All at once, and without warning, after the short pause, the old man broke out in tremulous entreaty.
"Oh! my friends!" he cried. "Do not say no! I shall not have the courage to take such a message to my poor son! Eh, they say that nowadays old-fashioned love is not to be found. But look at Gianluca—he consumes himself, he wastes away before my eyes, and one day follows another, and I can do nothing. You do not believe? Go and see! One day follows another—he is always in his room, consuming himself for love! He is pale—paler than a sheet. He does not eat, he does not drink, he does not smoke—he, who smoked thirty cigarettes a day! As for the theatre, or going out, he will not hear of it. He says, 'I will not see her, for if she will not have me, it is better to die quickly.' A father's heart, dear Macomer—think of what I suffer, and have compassion! He is my only one—such a beautiful boy, and so young—"
"We are sorry," said Matilde, with firm-voiced sympathy that was already a refusal.
"You will not!" cried the old man, shakily, in his distress. "Say you will not—but not that you are sorry! And Heaven knows it is not for Donna Veronica's money! The contract shall be as you please—we do not need—"
"Who has spoken of money?" The countess's tone expressed grave indifference to such a trifle. "Dear Duca, do not be distressed. We cannot help it. We cannot dictate to Providence. Had circumstances been different, what better match could we have found for her than your dear son? But I told you that the girl's inclinations must be consulted, and that we had little hope of satisfying you. And now—" She looked earnestly at her husband, as though to secure his consent beforehand—"and now it has turned out as we foresaw. Courage, dear Duca! Your son is young. He has seen Veronica but a few times, and they have certainly never been alone together—what can it really be, such love-passion as that? Veronica has made her choice."
Not a muscle of Macomer's hard face moved. He knew that if his wife had a surprise for him on the spur of the moment, it must be for their joint interest. But the Duca della Spina's jaw dropped, and his hands shook.
"Yes,"—continued the countess, calmly, "Veronica has made her choice. It is hard for us to tell you, knowing how you feel for your son. Veronica is engaged to be married to Bosio, here."
Bosio started violently, for he was a very nervously organized man; but his brother's face did not change, though the small eyes suddenly flashed into sight brightly from beneath the drooping, concealing lids. A dead silence followed, which lasted several seconds. Matilde had laid her hand upon the Duca's arm, as though to give him courage, and she felt it tremble under her touch, for he loved his son very dearly.
"You might have written me this news," he said at last, in a low voice and with a dazed look. "You might—you might have spared me—oh, my son! My poor Gianluca!" His voice broke, and the weak, sincere tears broke from the watery eyes and trickled down the wasted cheeks piteously, while his head turned slowly from side to side in sorrowfully hopeless regret.
"It has only been decided this evening," said Matilde. "We should have written to you in the morning."
"Of course," echoed her husband, gravely. "It was our duty to let you know at once."
The Duca della Spina rose painfully to his feet. He seemed quite unconscious of the tears he had shed, and too much shaken to take leave with any formality. Bosio stood quite still, when he had risen too, and his face was white. The old man passed him without a word, going to the door.
"My poor son! my poor Gianluca!" he repeated to himself, as Gregorio Macomer accompanied him.
Matilde and Bosio were left alone for a moment, but they knew that the count would return at once. They stood still, looking each at the other, with very different expressions.
Bosio felt that, in his place, a strong, brave man would have done something, would have stood up to deny the engagement, perhaps, or would have left the room rather than accept the situation in submissive silence, protesting in some way, though only Matilde should have understood the protest. She, on her side, slowly nodded her approval of his conduct, and in her dark eyes there was a yellow reflexion from the predominating colour of the room; there was triumph and satisfaction, and there was the threat of the woman who dominates the man and is sure of doing with him as she pleases. Yet she was not so sure of herself as she seemed, and wished to seem, for she dreaded Bosio's sense of honour, which was not wholly dead.
"Do not deny it to Gregorio," she said, in a low tone, when she heard her husband's footstep returning through the room beyond.
Old Macomer came back and closed the door behind him.
"What is this?" he asked, at once; but though his voice was hard, it was trembling with the anticipation of a great victory. "Has Veronica consented?"
"No one has spoken to her," answered Bosio, before Matilde could speak.
"As though that mattered!" cried the countess, with contempt. "There is time for that!"
Gregorio's eyelids contracted with an expression of cunning.
"Oh!" he exclaimed thoughtfully, "I understand." He began to walk up and down in the narrow space between the furniture of the small sitting-room, bending his head between his high shoulders. "I see," he repeated. "I understand. But if Veronica refuses? You have been rash, Matilde."
"Veronica loves him," answered the countess. "And of course you know that he loves her," she added, and her smooth lips smiled. "You need not deny it before us, Bosio. You have loved her ever since she came from the convent—"
"I?" Bosio's pale face reddened with anger.
"See how he blushes!" laughed Matilde. "As for Veronica, she will talk to no one else. They are made for each other. She will die if she does not marry Bosio soon."
The yellow reflexion danced in her eyes, as she fastened them upon her brother-in-law's face, and he shuddered, remembering what she had said before the Duca had come.
"If that is the case," said Macomer, "the sooner they are married, the better. Save her life, Bosio! Save her life! Do not let her die of love for you!"
He, who rarely laughed, laughed now, and the sound was horrible in his brother's ears. Then he suddenly turned away and left the room, still drily chuckling to himself. It was quite unconscious and an effect of his overwrought and long-controlled nerves.
Matilde and Bosio were alone again, and they knew that he would not come back. Bosio sank into his chair again, and pressed the palms of his hands to his eyes, resting his elbows on his knees.
"The infamy of it!" he groaned, in the bitterness of his weak misery.
Matilde stood beside him, and gently stroked his hair where it was streaked with grey. He moved impatiently, as though to shake off her strong hand.
"No," she said, and her voice grew as soft as velvet. "It is to save me—to save us all."
He shook her off, and rose to his feet with spasmodic energy.
"I cannot—I will not—never!" he cried, walking away from her with irregular steps.
"But it will be so much better—for Veronica, too," she said softly, for she knew how to frighten him.
He turned with startled eyes. Then, with the impulse of a man escaping from something which he is not strong enough to face, he reached the door in two quick strides, and went out without looking back.
Matilde watched the door, as it closed, and stood still a few seconds before she left the room. Her eyes wandered to the clock, and she saw that it was nearly midnight.
The look of triumph faded slowly from her face, and the brows contracted in a look which no one could easily have understood, except Bosio himself, perhaps, had he still been there. The smooth lips were drawn in and tightly compressed; and she held her breath, while her right hand strained upon her left with all her might. Then the lips parted with a sort of little snap as she drew breath again; and she turned her head suddenly, and looked behind her, growing a trifle paler, as though she expected to see something startling.
She tried to smile, and roused herself, rang the bell for the servant to put out the lights, and left the room. It was long before she slept that night. In the next room she could hear Gregorio's slow and regular footsteps, as he walked up and down without ceasing. In his own room upstairs, Bosio Macomer sat staring at the ashes of the burnt-out fire on his hearth. Only Veronica was asleep, dreamless, young, and restful.
Naples, more than any other city of Italy, is full of the violent contrasts which belong to great old cities everywhere, and the absence of which makes new cities dull, be they as well built, as well situated, as civilized and as beautiful as they can be made by art handling nature for the greater glory of modern humanity.
In Naples, there is a fashionable new quarter, swept, watered, and garnished with plants and trees, but many of the great palaces stand in old and narrow streets, rising up, grim and solemn and proud, out of the recklessly vital life of one of the worst populaces in the world. Fifty paces away, again, is a wide thoroughfare, perhaps, raging and roaring with traffic from the port. A hundred yards in another direction, and there is a clean, deserted court, into which the midday sun pours itself as into a reservoir of light,—a court with a quiet church and simple old houses, through the doors of which pale-faced ecclesiastics silently come and go.
Round the next corner leads a dark lane, between hugely high buildings that press the air and keep out the sun and all sky but a thin ribband of blue. And the air is heavy with all vile things, from the ill-washed linen that hangs, slowly drying, from the upper windows, thrust out into the draught with sticks, to the rotting garbage in the gutters below. The low-arched doors open directly upon the slimy, black pavement; and in the deep shadows within sit strange figures with doughy faces and glassy eyes, breathing in the stench of the nauseous, steamy air,—working a little, perhaps, at some one of the shadowy, back-street trades of a great city, but poisoned to death from birth by the air they live in, diseased of the diseased, from very childhood, and prolific as disease itself, multiplying to fatten death at the next pestilence.
And then, again, a vast square, gaudy with coloured handbills, noisy with wheels and the everlasting Neapolitan chattering of a thick-lipped, loud, degenerate dialect. There the little one-horse cabs tear hither and thither, drivers lashing their wretched beasts, wheels whirling, arms gesticulating, bad eyes flashing and leering, thick lips chattering everlastingly: and the tram-cars roll along, crowded till the people cling to one another on the steps; and the small boys dodge in and out between the cars and the carriages and the horses and the foot-passengers, some screaming out papers for sale, some looking for pockets to pick, some hunting for stumps of cigars in the dust,—dirty, ragged, joyous, foul-mouthed, God-forsaken little boys; and then through the midst of all, as a black swan swimming stately through muddy waters, comes a splendid, princely equipage, all in mourning, from the black horses to the heavy veil just raised across a young widow's white face—and so, from contrast to contrast, through the dense city, and down to the teeming port, and out at last to the magic southern sea, where the clean life of the white-sailed ships passes silently, and scarce leaves a momentary wake to mar the pure waters of the tideless bay.
But there is life everywhere,—reckless, excessive, and the desire for life as a supreme good, worth living for its own sake—even if it is to be food for the next year's pestilence—a life that can support itself on anything, and thrive in its own fashion in the flashing sun, and the dust and the dirt, and multiply beyond measure and mysteriously fast. Only here and there in the swarm something permanent and fossilized stands solid and unchanging, and divides the flight of the myriad ephemeral lives—a monument, a church, a fortress, a palace: or, perhaps, the figure of some man of sterner race, with grave eyes and strong, thin lips, and manly carriage, looms in the crowd, and by its mere presence seems to send all the rest down a step to a lower level of humanity.
Such a man was Taquisara, the Sicilian, of whom the old Duca della Spina had spoken. He had no permanent abode in Naples, but lived in a hotel down by the public gardens, beyond Santa Lucia; and on the day after the Duca had been to see the Countess Macomer, he strolled up as usual, by short cuts and narrow streets, to see his friend Gianluca in the Spina palace, in the upper part of the city. Many people looked at him, as he went by, and some knew him for a Sicilian, by his face, while some took him for a foreigner, and pressed upon him to beg, or made faces and vile gestures at him, as soon as he could not see, after the manner of the lower Neapolitans. But he passed calmly on, supremely indifferent, his handsome, manly face turning neither to the right nor the left.
He might have stood for the portrait of a Saracen warrior of the eleventh century, with his high, dark features and keen eyes, his even lips, square jaw, and smooth, tough throat. He had, too, something of the Arabian dignity in his bearing, and he walked with long, well-balanced steps, swiftly, but without haste, as the Arab walks barefooted in the sand, not even suspecting that weariness can ever come upon him; erect, proud, without self-consciousness, elastic; collected and ever ready, in his easy and effortless movement, for sudden and violent action. He was not pale, as dark Italians are, but his skin had the colour and look of fresh light bronze, just chiselled, and able to reflect the sun, while having a light of its own from the strong blood beneath. That was the reason why the Neapolitans who did not chance to have seen Sicilians often, took him for a foreigner and got into his way, holding out their hands to beg, and making ape-like grimaces at him behind his back. But those who knew the type of his race and recognized it, did nothing of that sort. On the contrary, they were careful not to molest him.
The friend whom he sought, high up in the city, in a luxurious, sunlit room overlooking the harbour and the wide bay, was as unlike him as one man could be unlike another—white, fair-haired, delicate, with soft blue eyes and silken lashes, and a passive hand that accepted the pressure of Taquisara's rather than returned it—the pale survival of another once conquering race.
Gianluca was evidently ill and weak, though few physicians could have defined the cause of his weakness. He moved easily enough when he rose to greet his friend, but there was a mortal languor about him, and an evident reluctance to move again when he had resumed his seat in the sun. He was muffled in a thickly wadded silk coat of a dark colour. His fair, straight hair was brushed away from his thin, bluish temples, and the golden young beard could not conceal the emaciation of his throat when his head leaned against the back of his easy-chair.
Taquisara sat down and looked at him, lighted a black cigar and looked again, got up, stirred the fire and then went to the window.
"You are worse to-day," he said, looking out. "What has happened?" He turned again, for the answer.
"It is all over," said Gianluca. "My father was there last night. She is betrothed to Bosio Macomer."
His voice sank low, and his head fell forward a little, so that his chin rested upon his folded hands. Taquisara uttered an exclamation of surprise, and bit the end of his cigar.
"She? To marry Bosio Macomer? No—no—I do not believe it."
"Ask my father," said Gianluca, without raising his eyes. "Bosio was there, in the room, when they told my father the news."
"No doubt," said Taquisara, beginning to walk up and down. "No doubt," he repeated. "But—" He lit his cigar instead of finishing the sentence, and his eyes were thoughtful.
"But—what?" asked his friend, dejectedly. "If it had not been true, they would not have said it. It is all over."
"Life, you mean? I doubt that. Nothing is over, for nothing is done. They are not married yet, are they?"
"No, of course not!"
"Then they may never marry."
"Who can prevent it? You? I? My father? It is over, I tell you. There is no hope. I will see her once more, and then I shall die. But I must see her once more. You must help me to see her."
"Of course," answered Taquisara. "But what strange people you are!" he exclaimed, after a moment's pause. "Who can understand you? You are dying for love of her. That is curious, in the first place. I understand killing for love, but not dying oneself, just by folding one's hands and looking at the stars and repeating her name. Then, you do nothing. You do not say, 'She shall not marry Macomer, because I, I who speak, will prevent it, and get her for myself.' No. Because some one has said that she will marry him, you feel sure that she will, and that ends the question. For the word of a man or a woman, all is to be finished. You are all contemplation, no action—all heart, no hands—all love, no anger! You deserve to die for love. I am sorry that I like you."
"You always talk in that way!" said Gianluca, with a wearily sad intonation. "I suppose that life is different in Sicily."
"Life is life, everywhere," returned the Sicilian. "If I love a woman, it is not for the pleasure of loving her, nor for the glory of having it written on my tombstone that I have died for her. It is better that some one else should die and that I should have what I want. How does that seem to you? Is it not logic? It is true that I have never loved any woman in that way. But then, I am young, though I am older than you are."
"What can I do?" The pale young man smiled sadly and shook his head. "You do not understand our society. I cannot even see her except at a distance, unless they choose to permit it. I cannot write love letters to her, can I? In our world one cannot do such things, and it would be of no use if I could—"
"I would," said Taquisara. "I would write. I would see her—I would empty hell and drag Satan out by the hair to help me, if the saints would not. But you! You sit still and die of love. And when you are dead, what will you have? A fine tomb out in the country, and lights, and crowns, and some masses—but you will not get the woman you love. It is not love that consumes you. It is imagination. You imagine that you are going to die, and unless you recover from this, you probably will. With your temperament, the best thing you can do is to come with me to Sicily and forget all about Donna Veronica Serra. No woman would ever look at a man who loves as you do. She might pity you enough to marry you, if no one else presented himself just then; but when she was tired of pitying you she would love some one else. It is not life to be always pitying. That is the business of saints and nuns—not of men and women."
Gianluca was hurt by his friend's tone.
"You admit that you never were in love," he said; "how can you understand me?"
"That is just it! I do not understand you. But if I were you, I would take matters into my own hands. I will wager anything you please that Donna Veronica has never so much as heard that you wish to marry her—"
"But they have told her, of course!" interrupted Gianluca. "They have asked her—"
"Who told you so?" inquired Taquisara, incredulously. "And if any one has told you, why should you believe it? There are several millions on the one side, which Macomer wishes to possess, and there can be nothing on the other but the word of one of the interested persons. You have met her in the world and exchanged a few words—that has been all—"
"I have spoken with her five times," said Gianluca, thoughtfully.
"Have you counted?" Taquisara smiled. "Very good—five times—seventeen, if you like—you, sitting on the edge of your chair and opening your eyes wide to see her profile while she was looking at her aunt—you, saying that it was a fine day, or that Tamagno was a great singer; and she, saying 'yes' to everything. And you love her. Well, no doubt. I could love a woman with whom I might never have spoken at all—surely—and why not? But you take it for granted that she knows you love her and expects you to ask for her, and has been told that you have done so and has herself dictated the refusal. You are credulous and despondent, and you are not strong. Besides, you sit here all day long, brooding and doing nothing but expecting to die, and hoping that she will shed a tear when she hears of your untimely end. Is that what you call making love in Naples?"
"I have told you that I can do nothing."
"It does not follow that there is nothing to be done."
"What is there, for instance?"
"Go to the Palazzo Macomer and find out the truth yourself. Write to her—take your place before the door and stand there day and night until she sees you and notices you." Taquisara laughed. "Do anything—but do not sit here waiting to die in cotton wool with your feet to the fire and your head in the clouds."
"All that is absurd!" answered Gianluca, petulantly.
"Is it absurd? Then I will begin by doing it for you, and see what happens."
"You?" The younger man turned in surprise.
"I. Yes. All the more, as I have nothing to lose. I will go and find Bosio Macomer and talk with him—"
"You will insult him," said Gianluca, anxiously. "There will be a quarrel—I know you—and a quarrel about her."
"Why should we quarrel?" asked Taquisara. "I will congratulate him on his betrothal. I know him well enough for that, and in the course of conversation something may appear which we do not know. Besides, if I go to the house, I may possibly meet Donna Veronica; if I do, I shall soon know everything, for I will speak to her of you. I know her."
"One sees that you are not a Neapolitan," said Gianluca, smiling faintly.
"No," answered the other, "I am not." And he laughed with a sort of quiet consciousness of strength which his friend secretly envied. "It is true," he added, "that things look easy to me here, which would be utterly impossible in Palermo. We are different with our women—and we are different when we love. Thank Heaven, for the present—I am as I am."
He smiled and relit his cigar, which had gone out.
"No," said Gianluca. "You have never been in love, I think."
His fair young head leaned back wearily against the chair, and his eyes were half closed as he spoke.
"Nor ever shall be, in your way, my friend," answered the Sicilian, rising from his seat. "I suppose it is because we are so different that we have always been such good friends. But then—one need not look for reasons. It is enough that it is so."
Again he took the delicate, thin hand in his and pressed it, and went away, much more anxious about Gianluca than he was willing to show. For though he had suspected much of what he now saw, as a possibility, it was a phase too new and startling not to trouble him greatly. It will readily be conceived that if Gianluca had always been the weak and dejected and despairing individual from whom Taquisara parted that morning, there could never have been much friendship between the two. But Gianluca, not in love, had been a very different person. With an extremely delicate organization and a very sensitive nature, he was naturally of a gay and sunny temper. The two had done voluntary military service in the same regiment during more than a year, and their rank, together with the fact that they were both from the south, had in the first place drawn them together. Before long they had become firm friends. In his normal condition Gianluca, though never strong, was brave, frank, and cheerful. Taquisara thought him at times poetic and visionary, but liked the impossible loftiness of his young ideals, because Taquisara himself was naturally attracted by all that looked impossible. Amongst a number of rather gay and thoughtless young men, who jested at everything, Gianluca adhered to his faith openly, and no one thought of laughing at him. He must have possessed something of that wonderful simplicity, together with much of the extraordinary tact, which helped some of the early saints to be what they were—the saints who were beloved rather than those who were persecuted. Not, indeed, that his conduct was always saintly, by any means, nor his life without reproach. But in an existence which ruins many young men forever he preserved an absolutely unaffected admiration for everything good and high and true, and had the rare power of asserting the fact, now and then, without being offensive to others. Taquisara had no desire to imitate him, but was nevertheless very strongly attracted by him, and if Gianluca had ever needed a defender, the Sicilian would have silenced his enemies at the risk of his own life. Gianluca, however, was universally liked, and had never been in need of any such old-fashioned assistance.
Since he had been in love with Veronica Serra, he was completely changed, and it was no wonder that his friend was anxious about him. Taquisara, like most men of perfectly healthy mind and body, would have found it hard to believe that Gianluca was merely love-sick, and was literally 'consuming himself,' even to the point of death, in an unrequited passion. It was certainly true, however, that he had lost strength rapidly and without the influence of any illness which could be defined, ever since the negotiations for Veronica's hand had shown signs of coming to an unsatisfactory conclusion. And they had lasted long. Many letters had been exchanged. The old Duca had been several times to the Palazzo Macomer, and the count and countess had found many reasons by which to put off their decision. For Gianluca was a good match, and altogether an exceedingly desirable young man, and the countess had always thought that if she could not marry Veronica to Bosio, it might be wisest to accept Gianluca. He was always in delicate health, Matilda reflected, and he might possibly die and leave his wife still absolute mistress of her fortune, if the marriage contract were cleverly framed with a view to that contingency.
But the young man himself had been diffident from the beginning, and at the first hesitation on the other side he had taken it for granted that all was lost. His slight vitality sank instantly under the disappointment, he refused to eat, he could not sleep, and he was in a really dangerous state before ten days had passed. Then he had sent for Taquisara, who visited him daily for nearly a week, encouraging him in every way, until to-day, when the news of the refusal was no more to be denied. It was characteristic of the Sicilian that he at once attempted to interfere with destiny in favour of his friend. He was not a man to lose time when time was precious. His ardent temper loved difficulties, even when they were not his own. Bold, untiring, discreet, and loyal, if there were anything to be done in Gianluca's case, he was the man to do it.
Bosio Macomer was somewhat surprised that morning, when his old servant informed him that Taquisara was at the door. He knew him but slightly in the way of acquaintance, though very well by name and reputation, and he wondered what had brought him at that hour. He was inclined to say that he could not receive him, offering as an excuse that he was ill, which was almost true. But he reflected that such a man must have a good reason for wishing to see him. He remembered, too, that the Duca had spoken of him as Gianluca's friend, and in the terrible position in which Bosio himself was placed, it seemed to him possible that one of Gianluca's friends might help him,—how, he had not the power of concentrating his mind enough to guess,—and he ordered the servant to admit him.
Bosio had not slept that night. He had spent the six hours between midnight and the December dawn in his easy-chair before the fireplace. Once or twice, towards morning, he had felt sleep creeping upon him through sheer physical exhaustion, but he had fought it off, afraid to lose one of the precious moments which he still had before him in which to think over what he should do. They were few enough, for a man of his nature.
He knew the absolute truth of all that Matilde had told him, and he had even suspected much of it before she had first spoken. He knew that his brother had secretly ruined himself in financial speculations, in which he had employed Lamberto Squarci as his agent, and that, with Squarci's assistance, Gregorio had staved off the consequences of his actions by a fraudulent use of Veronica's fortune,—of such part of it as he could control, of course,—absorbing much of the enormous income, and even, from time to time, obtaining the consent of Cardinal Campodonico for the sale of certain lands, on pretence of making more profitable investments. During fully ten years, Gregorio's management of the estate must have been a systematic fraud upon Veronica Serra, carried on with sufficient skill to evade all inquiry from the cardinal. Gregorio's fictitious reputation as a strictly honourable man had helped him, together with the fact that his wife was the ward's own aunt, which was a strong presumption in favour of her honesty as a guardian. Then, too, it was generally believed that Macomer was a miser, and much richer than he allowed any one to suppose. As for the accounts of the estate, they could bear inspection, as Matilde had said, provided that no attempt were made to verify the existence of all the property therein described.
The worst of the case was that Squarci had been an accomplice from the beginning, and had doubtless enriched himself while Macomer had lost everything. In the event of a suit brought by the ward against the guardians, it would be in Squarci's power to turn evidence in favour of Veronica, and expose the whole enormous theft; and it would be like him to keep on the side of wealth against ruin. For Veronica was still very rich, in spite of all that had been stolen.
There could be little doubt but that in the event of an action, Gregorio and Matilde Macomer would be condemned to penal servitude, as the countess herself anticipated. It was equally certain that if Veronica married any one but Bosio, her husband and his family would demand that the accounts of the estate should be formally audited and the property scheduled; this must ultimately lead to the dreaded prosecution, which could have no possible conclusion but conviction and infamy.
Whatever Bosio's true relations with Matilde had been in the course of the last ten years, he had at least loved her faithfully, with the complete devotion of a man who not only loves a woman, but is morally dominated by her in all the circumstances of life. He had not the character which seeks ideals, and he asked for none.
Matilde's beauty and conversation had sufficed him, for in his opinion he had never known any one to be compared with her; and on her side she had been strong enough to make a slave of him from the first. To the extent of his weak character and considerable physical courage, there was no sacrifice which Bosio would not have been ready to make for her, and few dangers which he would not at least have attempted to face for her sake.
But where all moral sense of right and all natural action of conscience were gone, there remained in the man an inheritance of traditional feeling, which even Matilde's influence could not make him wittingly violate any further,—a remnant of honour, a thread, as it were, by which his soul was still held above the level of total destruction. There was nothing, perhaps, involving himself alone, which he would have refused to do for Matilde's sake, under the pressure of her strong will. But what she required of him now was more than that, and worse. After a night of thought, he still felt that he could not do it.
Of course, there was the possibility that Veronica herself might absolutely refuse to marry him, and thus save his weakness from the necessity of trying to be strong. But Bosio thought this improbable.
The fatherless and motherless girl had been purposely kept from all outside influences by Gregorio and Matilde, in order that they might control her disposition for their own interests. She had been taught to expect that in due time they would select a husband for her from the men who might offer themselves, and that it would be more or less her duty to accept their decision, as being really the best for her own happiness. They had hindered her from forming friendships with girls of her own age, and altogether from acquaintanceship with young married women, excepting Bianca Corleone, who had been her friend in the convent. In society, when she went with them, men were introduced to her very rarely. Bosio had been present once or twice on such occasions, and he remembered having seen her with Gianluca. It had been very much as Taquisara had described it to Gianluca himself—a mere exchange of a few words, while the girl watched her aunt almost all the time with a sort of childish fear of doing something not quite right. Veronica could not be said to know any man to the extent of exchanging ideas with him, except her uncle and Bosio himself. And she liked Bosio very much. It was not at all improbable, considering all the circumstances, that she might be delighted with the idea of marrying him, merely because she liked him, and he was familiar in her daily life. Bosio knew that Matilde would speak to her about it at once; and when he tried to think what he should do if Veronica readily accepted the proposition, the pain in his head grew intolerable, and he found it impossible to think connectedly. The horrible dishonour of it stared him in the face—and beyond the dishonour, still more fearfully imposing, rose the vision of sure disgrace and infamy for the woman he loved, if he himself refused to do this vile deed.
He looked ill, worn out with mental distress and physical exhaustion, when Taquisara entered the room, and the servant closed the door. The Sicilian came forward, and Bosio rose to meet him, still wondering why he had come, but far too much disturbed by his own troubles to care. Nevertheless, he supposed that the matter must be of some importance. Taquisara was surprised by his appearance, for he was evidently suffering.
"I ought almost to ask you to excuse me for having received you, in my condition," said Bosio, politely. "I have a violent headache. But I am wholly at your service. In what can I be of use to you?"
Taquisara found himself in an awkward position. He had expected to find Bosio Macomer radiant and ready to be congratulated by any one who chose to knock at his door. Instead, he found a man apparently both ill and distressed. He hesitated a moment, for he knew Bosio but slightly, after all.
"I do not know whether you will think it strange that I should come," he said, and his square face grew more square as he looked straight at Bosio. "I am Gianluca della Spina's best friend."
"Ah! Yes—I think I have heard so," answered Bosio, not startled, but considerably disturbed, as his gentle eyes met Taquisara's bold glance.
"I have come, as a friend, to ask whether it is really true that you are to marry Donna Veronica Serra," continued Taquisara, feeling that after all he might as well go straight to the point.
Bosio straightened himself a little in his chair, and there was a look of surprise in his face. But he hesitated an instant, in his turn.
"That was the answer which my brother and his wife gave to the Duca della Spina," he replied coldly.
"Yes," said Taquisara. "I know it was. That is the reason why I have come to you, directly, as Gianluca's friend."
"Does Don Gianluca propose to call me out, because he cannot marry Donna Veronica?" asked Bosio, in surprise, and in a tone which showed that he was already offended.
"No. He is very ill, and in no condition for that sort of amusement."
"I am sorry to hear it," said Bosio, with cold civility. "But you come to represent him, in some way. Do I understand?"
"He is ill—of love, as they say." Taquisara smiled at the idea, in spite of himself. "It is serious, at all events—so serious, that I have come in person to ask whether it is really true that you are betrothed to Donna Veronica, in order that I may take him the truth as I hear it from your lips. I daresay you think me indiscreet, Count Macomer, for I am only slightly acquainted with you. But I am sincerely devoted to Gianluca, and if you were a total stranger to me, I should come to you as I have come now."
"And if I refuse to answer your question, Baron Taquisara—what then?"
"As the answer—yes or no—cannot possibly involve anything in the slightest degree indelicate, I shall of course infer that you have no answer to give, and that the matter is not yet really settled."
Bosio's eyebrows contracted spasmodically, and his white hand stroked his silky beard, while his eyes turned quickly from his guest and looked down at the carpet. In two passes, as though they had been fencing together, this singularly direct man had thrust him to the wall, and was forcing him to make a decision. Of course it was still in his power to answer in one way or the other, though he was yet undecided. But he honestly could not bring himself to say that he would marry Veronica, and yet, if he denied that he was betrothed to her, he must put his brother and Matilde in the position of having told a deliberate lie to Gianluca's father. He felt that he was growing confused, and that his hesitation and confusion were every moment making it clearer to Taquisara that the betrothal was by no means as yet a fact. He tried to temporize.
"It depends upon what you understand by an engagement," he said. "With us, here in Naples, the betrothal means the signing of the marriage contract. Now, the contract has not even been discussed. I think that my brother's announcement was premature, though it was perhaps justifiable, as he wished to discourage any false expectations on the part of Don Gianluca."
"I am not a diplomatist," answered the Sicilian. "The statement was categorical—that you were betrothed to Donna Veronica. For the sake of my friend, I am indiscreet enough to wish to hear the confirmation of the statement from your own lips, without in the least questioning the right of the Count Macomer to make it last night. Gianluca is honestly and very deeply in love. The happiness of his whole life is involved. With his delicate constitution and sensitive temper, I believe that his life itself is in danger. You will be doing him an honourable kindness in letting him know the truth, through me."
"I will," said Bosio, absently, "I will—as soon as—" He checked himself and glanced nervously at Taquisara.
"As soon as you yourself have decided," said the latter, quietly. "I think I understand. Your brother and the countess feel quite sure of the fact, as though it had already taken place, but for some reason which does not concern me, you yourself are not so certain of the result. To be plain, there is still a possibility that the marriage may not take place. I need not tell you that in speaking to Gianluca I shall be very careful not to raise any false hopes in his mind. But I am exceedingly indebted to you for being so honourably frank with me."
Taquisara repressed a smile at his own words as he rose from his seat, for he was very far from wishing to offend Bosio. The latter rose, too, and looked at him with a dazed, uncertain expression, like a man not quite sure of being in his senses. He put out his hand mechanically, without speaking, and a moment later he was alone with the horror of his desperate difficulty.
The Sicilian descended the stairs slowly, and paused to look out of one of the big windows at a landing, which offered nothing in the way of a view but an almost blank wall on the other side of the narrow street. He did not know what to do next, and yet, being eminently a man of action, rather than of reflexion, he knew that he must do more to satisfy himself, for his suspicions were aroused. He had expected to find Bosio jubilant. From what he had seen, he had understood well enough that there was some mysterious trouble. He could not hope to extort any information from Macomer or his wife, and he had no means of reaching Veronica, nor could he have asked direct questions if he had succeeded in seeing her.
Suddenly, he thought of the young Princess Corleone, whom he knew tolerably well, Corleone being a Sicilian like himself. She was Veronica's only intimate friend. She was the niece of Cardinal Campodonico, one of Veronica's guardians. If any one knew the truth, she might be expected to know it.
Taquisara looked at his watch, lit a cigar, and left the gloomy Palazzo Macomer, glad to be outside and to turn his face to the sunshine, and his back upon all the wickedness of which its old walls kept the secret.
The villas along the shore towards Posilippo face the sun all day in winter, for they look due south from the water's edge, and their marble steps lead down into the tideless sea, as though it were a landlocked lagoon or a Swiss lake. In winter the roses blossom amongst the laurels, and before the rose leaves are all fallen the violets peep out in the borders; the broad, fan-like palms stand unsheltered in the south wind, and the oranges and lemons are left hanging on the trees for beauty's sake. There are but two changes in the year, from spring to summer, and from summer back to spring.
It is sometimes cold in Naples, high up in the city, when the northeast wind comes screaming from the snowy Abruzzi, and when Vesuvius is clad in white almost to the lower villages. In Naples it is sometimes dreary when the water-laden southwest sends up its mountains of black clouds. But somehow in soft Posilippo the wind is tempered and the rain seems but a shower, and spring and summer, summer and spring, ever join hands amongst the ilexes and the laurels and the orange trees.
On this day it was all summer, for there was not a cloud in the air nor a whitecap on the sea as the water gently lapped against the steps at the foot of Bianca Corleone's garden. It was so warm that she was sitting there herself, a book unread on her knees, her marvellous face towards the day, her small feet resting on the lower rail of another chair before her, just because the gravel might possibly be damp.
Beside her, and turned towards her, looking earnestly to her averted eyes, sat Pietro Ghisleri, the man who many years afterwards married Lady Herbert Arden, of whom many have heard,—a man young at that time and not world-worn as he was later, nor prematurely gaunt and weather-beaten. He was only five-and-twenty years of age, then, and the beautiful Bianca was but twenty-one, and had already been married two years to Corleone. But the suffering of a lifetime had been crushed into those two years; for Corleone was bad, from his head to his heart, all through, and she had believed that she loved him.
Then, half broken-hearted, she had listened to Ghisleri; and he loved her truly, with all his heart. Even society found little to say at that, and perhaps there was little enough to be said. To all intents and purposes, Corleone had abandoned her, and Ghisleri was often with her. It was not until later that her brother, Gianforte Campodonico, lifted up his hand against Ghisleri for the first time.
So Ghisleri was sitting beside Bianca on that morning, in her garden, when there was a sound of wheels, behind the house; and then, unannounced, as one familiar with the place, Veronica Serra came swiftly down the walk towards the pair. Ghisleri rose to his feet,—a tall, fair man, sunburnt, lean and strong, with bright blue eyes,—and Bianca turned in her chair, with a smile, and held out her hand, as she sat, to the young girl.
"You do not mind?" asked Veronica, smiling innocently. "Am I not interrupting you?"
"No, dear—no." A very faint dawn of colour rose in Bianca's almost unnatural pallor.
"Something so strange has happened," said Veronica.
Then she nodded to Pietro Ghisleri, realizing that she had forgotten him. He moved forward for her the chair on which he had been sitting, while he continued to stand. Veronica had often met him there before.
"Donna Veronica has something to say to you," he said to Bianca. "If you will allow me, I will go up to the stable and look at that dog."
Bianca nodded, as though it were a matter of course that Pietro should look after her dogs when there was anything the matter with them, and Veronica sat down. Her expression was strange, Bianca thought, as though she did not know whether to laugh or cry. Yet she looked fresh and well and not tired. The girl told her story in half a dozen words, as soon as Ghisleri was out of hearing.
"They want me to marry Bosio," she said, and then drew breath, holding both of Bianca's hands and looking into her eyes.
"You? Marry Bosio Macomer? Oh! no—Veronica—no!"
Bianca's voice expressed the greatest apprehension, for Veronica was almost her only intimate friend. Veronica seemed surprised.
"Why not?" she asked. "That is, if I wished to. Why do you speak in that way? Do you know anything about him which I do not know? You must have some reason."
Bianca's exquisite face grew calm and grave, and she looked away, and waited some seconds before she spoke. The sins of the earth were familiar to her before her time, and suffering and the payment. But Veronica was a child.
"It seems unfitting," she said quietly. "He is almost like your uncle. Of course, one may marry one's uncle—but he is too old for you, dear. And, after all, with your name, and all you have—"
"But I like Bosio," answered Veronica, simply. "He is always good to me. I talk with him a great deal. And he is really not old, though his hair is a little grey. I think I would perhaps rather have him just for a friend, instead of a husband. But then, he would be both. I do not know what to do, so I came to you for advice."
"Why do you not marry Gianluca della Spina?" asked Bianca, suddenly.
"Don Gianluca?" repeated Veronica, rather blankly. "Why him, particularly? I have only seen him three or four times."
"He is dying of love for you, my dear," said Bianca. "At least, every one says so. I have heard it from Taquisara and from Signor Ghisleri, who are friends of his."
"Dying of love for me?" Veronica broke out in a girlish laugh. "How absurd! Why does he not ask for me, if that is true? Not that I would ever marry him! He is like a Perugino angel, with his yellow hair and blue eyes."
She laughed again. Bianca knew from Ghisleri that Gianluca's father had done his best to bring about the marriage. She was amazed to find that Veronica knew nothing of the negotiations.
"It is very strange," she said thoughtfully, and hesitating as to how much she should tell of what she had heard.
"What is strange?" asked the young girl.
"That you should not have known about Gianluca. They go to see him every day. He is really madly in love with you, and is positively ill about it. That is why I say that you should marry him, if you marry at all—but not your uncle Bosio."
"He is not my uncle," said Veronica. "He is my aunt's brother-in-law."
"It is the same thing—"
"No. It is not the same. Tell me all about Don Gianluca. It is interesting—I feel like a heroine in a book—a man dying for love of me, whom I scarcely know! It is too ridiculous! He must be in love with my fortune, as my aunt says that so many people are."
"No, dear," said Bianca, gravely, "do not say that. It is for yourself, and he does not need your fortune."
"I did not mean to say anything unkind," answered Veronica. "But I scarcely know him—and I have heard nothing about it. Have they spoken of the marriage?"
They were interrupted by a servant, who came quickly down from the house. The man asked if the princess would receive Baron Taquisara. Bianca ordered him to be admitted, and told the man to ask Ghisleri to come back from the stables.
"Do you know Taquisara?" she asked Veronica.
"A Sicilian? With a bronze face and fiery eyes? I have seen him once or twice at balls, I think. Yes—he was introduced to me somewhere. I remember him because they say he is descended from Tancred."
"Yes," said Bianca. "I could not refuse to receive him, because Signor Ghisleri is here. They will both go away before long, and then we can talk. Can you stay to breakfast with me?"
"Oh, no! I should not dare to do that!" Veronica laughed a little. "No one knows where I am," she added. "My aunt thinks I have gone for a drive to think over the matter. I just pulled down the curtain of the brougham and told the man to bring me here—all alone."