THE WHITE SISTER
THE MACMILLAN COMPANY NEW YORK . BOSTON . CHICAGO SAN FRANCISCO
MACMILLAN & CO., Limited LONDON . BOMBAY . CALCUTTA MELBOURNE
THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, Ltd. TORONTO
The White Sister By F. Marion Crawford
Author of "The Diva's Ruby," "Saracinesca," "In the Palace of the King," etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY PUBLISHERS—NEW YORK
Macmillan Standard Library All Rights Reserved
COPYRIGHT, 1908, BY F. MARION CRAWFORD.
COPYRIGHT, 1909, BY F. MARION CRAWFORD.
COPYRIGHT, 1909, BY THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
Set up and electrotyped. Published May, 1909. Reprinted May, June, twice, July, August, twice, September, October, November, December, 1909; February, 1910; March, November, 1910; February, 1911; September, 1913.
THE WHITE SISTER
'I cannot help it,' said Filmore Durand quietly. 'I paint what I see. If you are not pleased with the likeness, I shall be only too happy to keep it.'
The Marchesa protested. It was only a very small matter, she said, a something in the eyes, or in the angle of the left eyebrow, or in the turn of the throat; she could not tell where it was, but it gave her niece a little air of religious ecstasy that was not natural to her. If the master would only condescend to modify the expression the least bit, all would be satisfactory.
Instead of condescending, Filmore Durand smiled rather indifferently and gave his pallet and brushes to his man, who was already waiting at his elbow to receive them. For the famous American portrait-painter detested all sorts of litter, such as a painting-table, brush-jars, and the like, as much as his great predecessor Lenbach ever did, and when he was at work his old servant brought him a brush, a tube of colour, a knife, or a pencil, as each was needed, from a curtained recess where everything was kept ready and in order.
'I like it as it is,' said Giovanni Severi, resting his hands on the hilt of his sabre, as he sat looking thoughtfully from the portrait to the original.
The young girl smiled, pleased by his approbation of the likeness, which she herself thought good, though it by no means flattered. On the contrary, it made her look older than she was, and much more sad; for though the spring laughed in her eyes when she looked at the officer to whom people said she was engaged, their counterparts in the portrait were deep and grave. Certain irregularities of feature, too, were more apparent in the painting than in nature. For instance, there was a very marked difference between the dark eyebrows; for whereas the right one made a perfect curve, the other turned up quite sharply towards the forehead at the inner end, as if it did not wish to meet its fellow; and the Marchesa del Prato was quite sure that Angela's delicate nose had not really that aquiline and almost ascetic look which the great master had given it. In fact, the middle-aged woman almost wished that it had, for of all things that could happen she would have been best pleased that her niece should turn out to have a vocation and should disappear into some religious order as soon as possible. This was not likely, and the Marchesa was by no means ready to accept, as an alternative, a marriage with Giovanni Severi, whom she had long looked upon as her own private property.
Filmore Durand glanced from one to another of the three in quick succession, stroked his rather bristly moustache, and lit a cigarette, not because he wanted to smoke, but because he could not help it, which is a very different thing. Then he looked at his picture and forgot that he was not alone with it; and it still pleased him, after a fashion, though he was not satisfied with what he had done.
Great artists and great writers are rarely troubled by theories; one of the chief characteristics of mature genius is that it springs directly from conception to expression without much thought as to the means; a man who has used the same tools for a dozen years is not likely to take his chisel by the wrong end, nor to hesitate in choosing the right one for the stroke to be made, much less to 'take a sledge-hammer to kill a fly,' as the saying is. His unquiet mind has discovered some new and striking relation between the true and the beautiful; the very next step is to express that relation in clay, or in colour, or in words. While he is doing so he rarely stops to think, or to criticise his own half-finished work; he is too sure of himself, just then, to pause, and, above all, he is too happy, for all the real happiness he finds in his art is there, between the painfully disquieting ferment of the mental chaos that went before and the more or less acute disappointment which is sure to come when the finished work turns out to be less than perfect, like all things human. It is in the race from one point to the other that he rejoices in his strength, believes in his talent, and dreams of undying glory; it is then that he feels himself a king of men and a prophet of mankind; but it is when he is in this stage that he is called vain, arrogant, and self-satisfied by those who do not understand the distress that has gone before, nor the disillusionment which will follow soon enough, when the hand is at rest and cool judgment marks the distance between a perfect ideal and an attainable reality. Moreover, the less the lack of perfection seems to others, the more formidable it generally looks to the great artist himself.
It was often said of Durand that his portraits were prophetic; and often again that his brushes were knives and scalpels that dissected his sitters' characters upon the canvas like an anatomical preparation.
'I cannot help it,' he always said. 'I paint what I see.'
It was not his fault if pretty Donna Angela Chiaromonte had thrown a white veil over her dark hair, just to try the effect of it, the very first time she had been brought to his studio, or that she had been standing beside an early fifteenth century altar and altar-piece which he had just bought and put up at one end of the great hall in which he painted. He was not to blame if the veiling had fallen on each side of her face, like a nun's head-dress, nor if her eyes had grown shadowy at that moment by an accident of light or expression, nor yet if her tender lips had seemed to be saddened by a passing thought. She had not put on the veil again, and he had not meant that a suggestion of suffering ecstatically borne should dim her glad girlhood in his picture; but he had seen the vision once, and it had come out again under his brush, in spite of him, as if it were the necessary truth over which the outward expression was moulded like a lovely mask, but which must be plain in her face to every one who had once had a glimpse of it.
The painter contemplated his work in silence from within an Olympian cloud of cigarette smoke that almost hid him from the others, who now exchanged a few words in Italian, which he only half understood. They spoke English with him, as they would have spoken French with a Frenchman, and probably even German with a German, for modern Roman society has a remarkable gift of tongues and is very accomplished in other ways.
'What I think most wonderful,' said the Marchesa del Prato, who detested her husband's pretty niece, 'is that he has not made a Carlo Dolce picture of you, my dear. With your face, it would have been so easy, you know!'
Giovanni Severi's hands moved a little and the scabbard of his sabre struck one of his spurs with a sharp clink; for he was naturally impatient and impulsive, as any one could see from his face. It was lean and boldly cut; his cheeks were dark from exposure rather than by nature, there were reddish lights in his short brown hair, and his small but vigorous moustache was that of a rather fair man who has lived much in sun and wind in a hot climate. His nose was Roman and energetic, his mouth rather straight and hard; yet few would have thought his face remarkable but for the eyes, which betrayed his nature at a glance; they were ardent rather than merely bold, and the warm, reddish-brown iris was shot with little golden points that coruscated in the rays of the sun, but emitted a fiery light of their own when his temper was roused. If his look had been less frank and direct, or if his other features had suggested any bad quality, his eyes would probably have been intolerably disagreeable to meet; as it was, they warned all comers that their possessor was one of those uncommon and dangerous men who go to the utmost extremes when they believe themselves in the right and are constitutionally incapable of measuring danger or considering consequences when they are roused. Giovanni Severi was about eight-and-twenty, and wore the handsome uniform of an artillery officer on the Staff. He had not liked the Marchesa's remark, and the impatient little clink of his scabbard against his spur only preceded his answer by a second.
'Happily for Angela,' he said, 'we are not in the studio of a caricaturist.'
The Marchesa, who could be near-sighted on occasion, put up her tortoiseshell-mounted eyeglass and looked at him aggressively; but as he returned her gaze with steadiness, she soon turned away.
'You are extremely rude,' she said coldly.
For she herself made clever caricatures in water-colours, and she knew what Giovanni meant. Angela's mother had been a very devout woman and had died young, but had incurred the hatred of the Marchesa by marrying the very man whom the latter had picked out for herself, namely, the elder of two brothers, and the Marchesa had reluctantly consented to marry the other, who had a much less high-sounding title and a far smaller fortune. She had revenged herself in various small ways, and had often turned her brother-in-law's wife to ridicule by representing her as an ascetic mediaeval saint, in contorted attitudes of ecstasy, with sunken cheeks and eyes like saucers full of ink. Like many other people, Giovanni had seen some of these drawings, for the resentful Marchesa had not destroyed them when the Princess Chiaromonte died; but no one had yet been unkind enough to tell Angela of their existence. The girl did not like her aunt by marriage, it was true, but with a singularly simple and happy disposition, and a total absence of vanity, she apparently possessed her mother's almost saintly patience, and she bore the Marchesa's treatment with a cheerful submission which exasperated the elder woman much more than any show of temper could have done.
Just now, seeing that trouble of some sort was imminent, she made a diversion by coming down from the low movable platform, on which her chair had been placed for the sitting, and she spoke to the artist while she studied her own portrait. Durand was a very thin man, and so tall that Angela had to look very high to see his face as she stood beside him.
'I could never be as good as the picture looks,' she said in English, with a little laugh, 'nor so dreadfully in earnest! But it is very nice of you to think that I might!'
'You will never be anything but good,' answered Filmore Durand, 'and it's not necessarily dreadful to be in earnest about it.'
'You are a moralist. I see.' observed the Marchesa, putting on a sweet smile as she rose and came forward, followed by Giovanni.
'I don't know,' replied the painter. 'What is a moralist?'
'A person who is in earnest about other people's morals,' suggested Angela gaily.
'Really!' cried the Marchesa, with a most emphatic English pronunciation of the word. 'One would think that you had been brought up in a Freemasons' lodge!'
In view of the fact that Angela's father was one of the very last survivors of the 'intransigent' clericals, this was quite the most cutting speech the Marchesa could think of. But Filmore Durand failed to see the point.
'What has Freemasonry to do with morality?' he inquired with bland surprise.
'Nothing at all,' answered the Marchesa smartly, 'for it is the religion of the devil.'
'Dear me!' The artist smiled. 'What strong prejudices you have in Rome!'
'Are you a Freemason?' the noble lady asked, with evident nervousness; and she glanced from his face to Angela, and then at the door.
'Well—no—I'm not,' the painter admitted with a slight drawl, and evidently amused. 'But then I'm not a moralist either, though I suppose I might be both and yet go on painting about the same.'
'I think not,' said the Marchesa so stiffly that Giovanni almost laughed aloud. 'We must be going,' she added, suddenly relaxing to graciousness again. 'It has been such a privilege to see you day after day, my dear Mr. Durand, and to watch you working in your own surroundings. My brother-in-law will come to-morrow. I have no doubt that he will be much pleased with the portrait.'
Filmore Durand smiled indifferently but with politeness as he bowed over the Marchesa's hand. He did not care a straw whether Angela's father liked the picture or not, being in love with it himself, and much more anxious to keep it than to be paid for it.
'When shall I see you again?' Giovanni had asked of Angela, almost in a whisper, while the Marchesa was speaking.
Instead of answering she shook her head, for she could not decide at once, but as her glance met his a delicate radiance tinged her cheeks for a moment, as if the rosy light of a clear dawn were reflected in her face. The young soldier's eyes flashed as he watched her; he drew his breath audibly, and then bit his upper lip as if to check the sound and the sensation that had caused it. Angela heard and saw, for she understood what moved him, so far as almost childlike simplicity can have intuition of what most touches a strong man. She was less like the portrait now than a moment earlier; her lips, just parting in a little half-longing, half-troubled smile, were like dark rose leaves damp with dew, her eyelids drooped at the corners for an instant, and the translucent little nostrils quivered at the mysterious thrill that stirred her maiden being.
The two young people had not known each other quite a year, for she had never seen Severi till she had left the convent to go out into society and to take her place at her widowed father's table as his only child; but at their first meeting Giovanni had felt that of all women he had known, none but she had ever called his nature to hers with the longing cry of the natural mate. At first she was quite unconscious of her power, and for a long time he looked in vain for the slightest outward sign that she was moved when she saw him making his way to her in a crowded drawing-room, or coming upon her suddenly out of doors when she was walking in the villa with her old governess, the excellent Madame Bernard, or riding in the Campagna with her father. Giovanni's duties were light, and he had plenty of time to spare, and his pertinacity in finding her would have been compromising if he had been less ingeniously tactful. It was by no means easy to meet her in society either, for, in spite of recent social developments, Prince Chiaromonte still clung to the antiquated political mythology of Blacks and Whites, and strictly avoided the families he persisted in calling 'Liberals,' on the ground that his father had called them so in 1870, when he was a small boy. It was not until he had bored himself to extinction in the conscientious effort to take the girl out, that he appealed to his sister-in-law to help him, though he knew that neither she nor his brother was truly clerical at heart. Even then, if it had been clear to him that Giovanni Severi had made up his mind to marry Angela if he married at all, the Prince would have forced himself to bear agonies of boredom night after night, rather than entrust his daughter to the Marchesa; but such an idea had never entered his head, and he would have scouted the suggestion that Angela would ever dare to encourage a young man of whom he had not formally approved; and while she was meeting Giovanni almost daily, and dancing with him almost every evening, her father was slowly negotiating an appropriate marriage for her with the eldest son of certain friends who were almost as clerical and intransigent as himself. The young man was a limp degenerate, with a pale face, a weak mouth, and an inherited form of debility which made him fall asleep wherever he was, if nothing especial happened to keep his eyes open; he not only always slept from ten at night till nine the next morning with the regularity of an idiot, but he went to sleep wherever he sat down, in church, at dinner, and even when he was driving. Neither his own parents nor Prince Chiaromonte looked upon this as a serious drawback in the matter of marriage. A man who slept all day and all night was a man out of mischief, not likely to grumble nor to make love to his neighbour's wife; he would therefore be a model husband. When he fell asleep in the drawing-room in summer, his consort would sit beside him and brush away the flies; in winter she would be careful to cover him up lest he should catch cold; at mass she could prick him with a hat-pin to keep him awake; as for the rest, she would bear one of the oldest names in Europe, her husband would be a strictly religious and moral person, and she would be very rich. What more could any woman ask? Evidently nothing, and Prince Chiaromonte therefore continued to negotiate the marriage in the old-fashioned manner, without the least intention of speaking about it to Angela till everything was altogether settled between the family lawyers, and the wedding could take place in six weeks. It was not the business of young people to fathom the intentions of their all-wise parents, and meanwhile Angela was free to go to parties with her aunt, and her intended husband was at liberty to sleep as much as he liked. The negotiations would probably occupy another two or three months, for the family lawyers had disagreed as to the number of times that Angela should be allowed to take the carriage out every day, and this had to be stipulated in the marriage contract, besides the number of dishes there were to be at luncheon and dinner and the question whether, if Angela took coffee after her meals, it should be charged to her husband, who took none, or against the income arising from her dowry. The family lawyers were both very old men and understood these difficult matters thoroughly, but neither would have felt that he was doing his duty to his client if he had not quarrelled with the other over each point. From week to week each reported progress to his employer, and on the whole the two fathers felt that matters were going on well, without any undue delay.
But the Fates frowned grimly on the marriage and on all things connected with it, for on the very morning during which Filmore Durand finished Angela's portrait, and before she had left his studio in the Palazzo Borghese, something happened which not only put a stop to the leisurely labours of the two lawyers, but which profoundly changed Angela's existence, and was the cause of her having a story quite different from that of a good many young girls who are in love with one man but are urged by their parents to marry another. The interest of this tale, if it has any, lies in no such simple conflict of forces as that, and it is enough to know that while her father had been busy over her marriage, Angela Chiaromonte had fallen in love with Giovanni Severi, and had, indeed, as much as promised to marry him; and that a good many people, including the Marchesa del Prato, already suspected this, though they had not communicated their suspicions to the girl's father, partly because he was not liked, and partly because he hardly ever showed himself in the world. The situation is thus clearly explained, so far as it was known to the persons concerned at the moment when the Great Unforeseen flashed from its hiding-place and hurled itself into their midst.
As Filmore Durand went with the Marchesa towards the entrance hall, followed by the young people, he called his man to open the outer door, but almost at the same moment he heard his voice at the telephone; the servant was a Swiss who spoke German, English, and Italian, and had followed the artist for many years. He was evidently answering an inquiry about the Marchesa just as he heard her step.
'The lady is here,' he said. 'She is coming to the telephone herself.'
He looked round as the four approached, for the instrument was placed on the right side of the large door that opened upon the landing.
'Some one for your ladyship,' he said in English, holding out the receiver to the Marchesa.
She took it and put it to her ear, repeating the usual Italian formula.
'Ready—with whom am I speaking? Yes. I am the Marchesa del Prato, she herself. What is it?'
There was a pause while she listened, and then Angela saw her face change suddenly.
'Dead?' she shrieked into the telephone. 'Half-an-hour ago?'
She still held the receiver to her ear, but she was stretching out her left hand as if she needed support. Durand took her by the arm and elbow, prepared to hold her up if she showed signs of fainting. Angela was already on her other side.
'Who is dead?' the girl asked quietly enough, but with evident anxiety.
'Your father,' answered the Marchesa, with such sudden and brutal directness that Giovanni started forward, and Durand stared in surprise, for he knew enough Italian to understand as much as that.
Angela made two steps backwards, slowly and mechanically, like a blind man who has unexpectedly run against a wall; like the blind, too, she held out her hands before her, as if to assure herself that she was getting out of reach of the obstacle. Her face had turned white and her eyes were half closed.
The Marchesa no longer seemed to be in need of support and watched her.
'My poor child!' she cried, in a tone of conventional sympathy. 'I should have broken the news to you gradually——'
'You should indeed!' answered Giovanni with stern emphasis.
He was already leading Angela to one of the nearest of the high-backed chairs that stood ranged against the dark-green wall of the hall. She sat down, steadying herself by his arm.
'Run over by a motor car almost at his own door,' said the Marchesa, in a lower tone and in English, as she turned slightly towards Durand. 'Killed on the spot! It is too awful! My poor brother-in-law!'
'Get some brandy and some cold water,' said the artist to his man, watching the girl's pale face and twitching hands.
'Yes,' said Giovanni, who was bending over her anxiously. 'Bring something quickly! She is going to faint.'
But Angela was not fainting, nor even half-unconscious. She had felt as if something hard had struck her between the eyes, without quite stunning her. She attempted to get up, but realised her weakness and waited a moment before trying again. Then she rose to her feet with an effort and stood straight and rigid before her aunt, her eyes quite open now.
'Come!' she said, almost imperiously, and in a voice unlike her own.
In a moment they were gone, and the artist was standing before the portrait he had finished, looking into its eyes as if it were alive. He had been deeply shocked by what had just happened, and was sincerely sorry for Angela, though he had not the least idea whether she had loved her father or not, but his face was calm and thoughtful again, now that she was gone, and expressed a quiet satisfaction which had not been there before. For it seemed to him that the picture was a precious reality, and that the young girl who had sat for it was only nature's copy, and not perfect at that; and perhaps the reality would not be taken from him, now, since Prince Chiaromonte had come to an untimely end; and the prospect of keeping the canvas was exceedingly pleasing to Filmore Durand. He had never painted anything that had disappointed him less, or that he was less willing to part with, and during the last day or two he had even thought of making a replica of it for the Prince in order to keep the original, for no copy, though it were made by himself most conscientiously, could ever be quite so good. But now that the Prince was dead, it was possible that the heirs, if there were any besides Angela, would be glad to be excused from paying a large sum for a picture they did not want. He was sure from the young girl's manner that she would no more care to possess a portrait of herself than a coloured postcard of the Colosseum or a plaster-cast of one of Canova's dancing-girls. This was not flattering to the artist, it was true, but in the present case he would rather keep his own painting than have it appreciated ever so highly by any one else.
Late in the afternoon he stopped before the closed gateway of the Palazzo Chiaromonte and pushed the little postern that stood ajar. The big porter was within, standing dejectedly before the door of his lodge, and already dressed in the deep mourning which is kept in readiness in all the great Roman houses. The painter asked in broken Italian if the bad news was true, and the man nodded gravely, pointing to the gates. They would not be shut unless the master were dead. Durand asked after Donna Angela, but the porter was not communicative. She had come in with her aunt and both were upstairs; he suspected the painter of being a foreign newspaper correspondent and would say nothing more.
The American thanked him and went away; after all, he had come to make sure that the Prince was really dead, and he was conscious that his wish to keep the portrait was the only motive of his inquiry.
He strolled away through the crowded streets, blowing such clouds of cigarette smoke about him that people looked at him in surprise. It was almost sunset, in February, and it was just before Lent. Rome is at her gayest then, though the old Carnival is as dead and gone as Pio Nono, Garibaldi, the French military occupation, the hatred of the Jesuits, and all that made the revival of Italy in the nineteenth century the most thrilling romance that ever roused Italian passion and stirred the world's sympathy. Durand was not old enough to remember those times, and he had never been in Rome at all till he was nearly thirty years of age and on the first wave of his high success; but he had read about the past, and to his unspoiled sight and vivid imagination Rome was still romantic and the greatest city in the world, ancient or modern; and somehow when he thought of his picture and of Angela's face, and remembered the scene at the telephone, he felt that he was himself just within the sphere of some mysterious and tragic action which he could not yet understand, but which might possibly affect his own life.
'This is a serio-comic world,' he said to himself as he slowly made his way down the Corso, watching the faces of the people he passed, because he never passed a face in the street without glancing at it, stopping now and then to look into a shop window where there was nothing to see that he had not seen a thousand times elsewhere, smoking cigarettes without number, thinking of Angela's portrait, and mechanically repeating his little epigram over and over again, to a sort of tune in his head, with variations and transpositions that meant nothing at all.
'This is a serio-comic world. This is a comico-serious world. This world is a serious comico-serial. This is a worldly-serious comedy.' And so forth, and so on; and a number of more or less good-looking women of the serio-comic world, whose portraits he had painted, and several more or less distinguished men who had sat to him, passed the man of genius and greeted him as if they were rather pleased to show that they knew him; but they would have been shocked if they could have heard the silly words the great painter was mechanically repeating to himself as he idled along the pavement, musing on the picture he hoped to keep, and already regarded as his masterpiece and chief treasure.
The excellent Madame Bernard had been Angela's governess before the child had been sent to the convent, on the Trinita dei Monti, and whenever she was at home for the holidays, and also during the brief interval between her leaving school and going into society; and after that, during the winter which preceded Prince Chiaromonte's death, she had accompanied the motherless girl to concerts and had walked with her almost daily in the mornings. She was one of those thoroughly trustworthy, sound-minded, well-educated Frenchwomen of the middle class of whom many are to be found in the provinces, though the type is rare in Paris; nearly fifty years of age, she had lived twenty years in Rome, always occupying the same little apartment in a respectable street of Trastevere, where she had a spare room which she was glad to let to any French or English lady of small means who came to Rome for a few months in the winter and spring.
Angela sent her maid for Madame Bernard on the day of the catastrophe, since her aunt neither offered to take her in at once nor seemed inclined to suggest any arrangement for the future. The Marchesa did, indeed, take charge of everything in the Palazzo Chiaromonte within an hour of her brother-in-law's death; she locked the drawers of his private desk herself, sent for the notary and had the customary seals placed on the doors of the inner apartments 'in the name of the heirs'; she spoke with the undertaker and made every arrangement for the customary lying in state of the body during the following night and day; saw to the erection of the temporary altar at which masses for the dead would be celebrated almost without interruption from midnight to noon by sixteen priests in succession; gave full instructions to the effect that the men-servants should take their turn of duty in regular watches, day and night, until the funeral; and finally left the palace, after showing herself to be an exceedingly practical woman.
When she went away, she was holding her handkerchief to her eyes with both hands and she forgot her parasol; but she remembered it as she was just going out by the postern, her carriage being outside because the gates were shut, and she sent her footman back for it and for the little morocco bag in which she carried her handkerchief and card-case. It was a small matter, but the porter, the footman, and the butler upstairs all remembered it afterwards, and the footman himself, while coming down, took the trouble to look into the little wallet, and saw that the card-case was there, but nothing else; for the Marchesa sometimes carried certain little cigarettes in it, which the man had found particularly good. But to-day there was not even one.
Madame Bernard arrived in tears, for she was a warm-hearted woman, and was overcome with sympathy for the lonely girl. She found Angela sitting by a small fire in her own little morning-room on the upper floor. A tray with something to eat had been set beside her, she knew not by whom, but she had not tasted anything. Her eyes were dry, but her hands were burning and when she was conscious of feeling anything she knew that her head ached. She had forgotten that she had sent for the governess, and looked at her with a vaguely wondering expression as if she took the kindly Frenchwoman in black for a new shadow in her dream.
But presently mechanical consciousness returned, though without much definite sensation, and she let Madame Bernard have her way in everything, not making the slightest resistance or offering the smallest suggestion; she even submitted to being fed like a little child, with small mouthfuls of things that had no taste whatever for her.
By and by there was a dressmaker in the room, with an assistant, and servants brought a number of big bandboxes with lids covered with black oilcloth; and Angela's maid was there, too, and they tried one thing after another on her, ready-made garments for the first hours of mourning. Then they were gone, and she was dressed in black, and the room was filled with the unmistakable odour of black crape, which is not like anything else in the world.
Again time passed, and she was kneeling at a faldstool in the great hall downstairs; but a dark screen had been placed so that she could not be seen by any one who came in to kneel at the rail that divided the upper part of the hall from the lower; and she saw nothing herself—nothing but a Knight of Malta, in his black cloak with the great white Maltese cross on his shoulder, lying asleep on his back; and on each side of him three enormous wax torches were burning in silver candlesticks taller than a tall man.
Quite at the end of the hall, five paces from the Knight's motionless head, three priests in black and silver vestments were kneeling before a black altar, reciting the Penitential Psalms in a quiet, monotonous voice, verse and verse, the one in the middle leading; and Angela automatically joined the two assistants in responding, but so low that they did not hear her.
The Knight bore a resemblance to her father, that was all. Perhaps it was only a waxen image she saw, or a wraith in that long dream of hers, of which she could not quite remember the beginning. She knew that she was nothing to the image, and that it was nothing to her. While her lips repeated the grand dirge of the King-poet in Saint Jerome's noble old Latin words, her thoughts followed broken threads, each cut short by a question that lacks an answer, by the riddle man has asked of the sky and the sea and the earth since the beginning: What does it mean?
What could it mean? The senseless facts were there, plain enough. That morning she had seen her father, she had kissed his hand in the old-fashioned way, and he had kissed her forehead, and they had exchanged a few words, as usual. She remembered that for the thousandth time she had wished that his voice would soften a little and that he would put his arms round her and draw her closer to him. But he had been just as always, for he was bound and stiffened in the unwieldy armour of his conventional righteousness. Angela had read of the Puritans in history, and an Englishman might smile at the thought that she could not fancy the sternest of them as more thoroughly puritanical than her father, who had been brought up by priests from his childhood. But such as he was, he had been her father that morning. The motionless figure of the Knight of Malta on the black velvet pall was not he, nor a likeness of him, nor anything human at all. It was the outward visible presence of death, it was a dumb thing that knew the answer to the riddle but could not tell it; in a way, it was the riddle itself.
While her half-stunned intelligence stumbled among chasms of thought that have swallowed up transcendent genius, her lips unconsciously said the Penitential Psalms after the priests at the altar. At the convent she had been a little vain of knowing them by heart better than the nuns themselves, for she had a good memory, and she had often been rebuked for taking pride in her gift. It was not her fault if the noble poetry meant nothing to her at the most solemn hour of her life, though its deep human note had appealed profoundly to her the last time she had repeated the words. Nothing meant anything now, in the face of the unanswered riddle; nothing but the answer could have any meaning.
The great apostle of modern thought asked three questions: What can I know? As a reasoning being what is it my duty to do in life? What may I dare to hope hereafter? Angela had never even heard of Kant; she only asked what it all meant; and the Knight of Malta was silent under the steady yellow light of the six wax torches. Perhaps the white cross on his cloak was the answer, but the emblem was too far from words for mere humanity to understand it. She wished they would take him away, for he was not her father, and she would be far better able to pray alone in her own room than in the stately presence of that one master whom all living things fear, man and bird and beast, and whatsoever has life in the sea.
To pray, yes; but for what? Rebellious against outward things, the girl's prime intuition told her that her father was quite separated from his mortal symbol now, having suddenly left that which could change to become a part of the unknown truth, which must be unchangeable if it is true; invisible, without form or dimension, 'being' not 'living,' 'conscious' not 'aware,' 'knowing' not 'seeing,' 'eternal' not 'immortal.' That might be the answer, but it meant too much for a girl to grasp, and explained too little to be comforting. The threads of thought broke short off again, and Angela's lips went on making words, while she gazed unwinking on the Knight's expressionless face.
Suddenly her mind awoke again in a sort of horror of darkness, and her lips ceased from moving for a while, for she was terrified.
Was there anything beyond? Was it really God who had taken her father from her in an instant, or was it a blind force that had killed him, striking in the dark? If that was the answer, what was there left?
The sensitive girl shivered. Perhaps no bodily danger could have sent that chill through her. It began in her head and crept quickly to her hands and then to her feet, for it was not a fear of death that came upon her, nor of anything outward. To lose life was nothing, if there was heaven beyond; pain, torture, martyrdom would be nothing if God the good was standing on the other side. All life was but one long opportunity for sinning, and to lose it while in grace was to be safe for ever; so much she had been taught and until now she had believed it. But what loss could be compared with losing God? There were unbelievers in the world, of course, but she could not understand how they could still live on, and laugh, and seek pleasure and feel it keenly. What had they to fill the void of their tremendous loss? Surely, not to believe was not to hope, to be for ever without hope was the punishment of the damned, and to live hopeless in the world was to suffer the pains of hell on earth.
She felt them now. 'The pains of hell gat hold upon me,' she moaned, heedless of the priest's recitation. Darkness rose like a flood-tide all round her and she shut her eyes to keep it out, for her will fought for hope, as her body would have struggled against drowning. It was no longer a mere question that assailed her, but imminent destruction itself.
It passed away this first time and she grew calm again. Not to believe was sin, and against all sin, prayer and steadfast will must be availing. The will, she had; she could remember many prayers, too, and say them earnestly, and was thankful for her memory which held orisons in readiness for every circumstance of daily duty or spiritual life. From her childhood she had found a gentle delight in the Church's liturgies and hymns, and now, as she prayed with the forms of language she had always loved, habit brought back belief to lighten her darkness. She still felt the bitter cold of the outer night that was very near her; but she kept it off now, and warmed her poor little soul in the fervour of her praying till she felt that she was coming again to life and hope.
She opened her eyes at last and saw that nothing was changed. The Knight of Malta slept on, as he was to sleep for ever; the priests knelt motionless before the black altar; their quiet, monotonous voices went on with the Penitential Psalms as priests had said them for at least fifteen centuries. Angela listened till she caught the words and then began to respond again, and once more her thoughts followed broken threads.
Surely, by all she had been taught, her father was in heaven already. It was not possible that any human being should obey every written and unwritten ordinance of his religion more strictly than he had done ever since she could remember him. He had been severe, almost to cruelty, but he had been quite as unyieldingly austere in dealing with himself. He had fasted rigidly, not only when fasts were ordered, but of his free will when others only abstained, he had never begun a day without hearing mass nor a week without confession and communion, he had retired into spiritual retreat in Lent, he had prayed early and late; in his dealings with men, he had not done to others what he would not have had them do to him, he had not said of his neighbour what he would not have said of himself, he had wronged no man; he had given much to charity and more to the 'imprisoned' head of the Church. He had so lived that no confessor could justly find fault with him, and he had never failed to pray for those in whom he discerned any shortcoming.
Who would condemn such a just person? Not God, surely. Therefore when his life had ended so suddenly that morning, his soul had been taken directly to heaven.
Such righteousness as his had venial sins to expiate, what hope was there left for men of ordinary earthly passions and failings?
It was a consolation to think of that, Angela told herself, now that the tide of darkness had ebbed back to the depth of terror whence it had risen; and when at last the long dream slowly dissolved before returning reality the lonely girl's eyes overflowed with natural tears at the thought that her father's motionless lips would never move again, even to reprove her, and that she was looking for the last time on all that earth still held of him who had given her life.
Three days later Angela sat alone in her morning-room, reading a letter from Giovanni Severi. All was over now—the lying in state, the funeral at the small parish church, the interment in the cemetery of San Lorenzo, where the late Prince had built a temporary tomb for himself and his family, under protest, because modern municipal regulations would not allow even such a personage as he to be buried within the walls, in his own family vault, at Santa Maria del Popolo. But he had been confident that even if he did not live to see the return of the Pope's temporal power, his remains would soon be solemnly transferred to the city, to rest with those of his fathers; and he had looked forward to his resurrection from a sepulchre better suited to his earthly rank and spiritual worth than a brick vault in a public cemetery, within a hundred yards of the thrice-anathematised crematorium, and of the unhallowed burial-ground set aside for Freemasons, anarchists, Protestants, and Jews. But no man can be blamed fairly for wishing to lie beside his forefathers, and if Prince Chiaromonte had failed to see that the destiny of Italy had out-measured the worldly supremacy of the Vatican in the modern parallelogram of forces, that had certainly been a fault of judgment rather than of intention. He had never wavered in his fidelity to his ideal, nor had he ever voluntarily submitted to any law imposed by the 'usurper.'
'That excellent Chiaromonte is so extremely clerical,' Pope Leo the Thirteenth had once observed to his secretary with his quiet smile.
But Angela missed her father constantly, not understanding that he had systematically forced her to look to him as the judge and master of her existence, and she wondered a little why she almost longed for his grave nod, and his stern frown of disapproval, and even for the daily and hourly reproof under which she had so often chafed. Madame Bernard had been installed in the palace since the day of the fatal accident, and she was kindness personified, full of consideration and forethought; yet the girl was very lonely and miserable from morning till night, and when she slept she dreamed of the dead Knight of Malta's face, of the yellow light of the wax torches, and the voices of the priests.
On the fourth day a letter came from Giovanni, the first she had ever received from him. She did not even know his handwriting, and she looked at the signature before reading the note to see who had written to her so soon. When she understood that it was he, a flood of sunshine broke upon her gloom. The bright morning sun had indeed been shining through the window for an hour, but she had not known it till then.
It was not a love-letter. He used those grammatically illogical but superfinely courteous forms which make high Italian a mystery to strangers who pick up a few hundred words for daily use and dream that they understand the language. He used the first person for himself, but spoke of her in the third singular; he began with: 'Most gentle Donna Angela,' and he signed his full name at the end of a formal phrase setting forth his profoundly respectful homage. She would have been much surprised and perhaps offended if he had expressed himself in any more familiar way. Brought up as she had been under the most old-fashioned code in Europe when at home, and under the frigid rule of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart when she was at school, any familiarity of language seemed to her an outrage on good manners, and might even be counted a sin if she condescended to it in speaking with a man who was not yet her husband. She had been made to address her father in the third person feminine singular ever since she had learned to talk, precisely as Giovanni wrote to her; and if she prayed to the Deity with the less formal second person plural, this was doubtless because the Italian prayers had been framed in less refined and courteous times than her own.
In spite of his stiff grammar, however, Severi managed to write things that brought the colour to her face and the light to her eyes. He said, for instance, that he was coming to see her that very afternoon; that in order not to attract attention at the gate of the palace he would wear civilian's dress, and that he hoped she would not only receive him, but would send Madame Bernard out of the room for a little while, so that he might speak to her alone.
The proposal was so delightful and yet so disturbing that Angela thought it must be wicked and tried to examine her conscience at once; but it shut up like an oyster taken out of the water and pretended to be perfectly insensible, turn it and probe it how she would.
So she gave it up; and she did so the more readily because it would be quite impossible to see Giovanni that afternoon, enchanting as the prospect would have been. Her aunt the Marchesa had sent word that she was coming at four o'clock with the lawyer to explain Angela's position to her, and it was impossible to say how long the two might stay. Meanwhile she must send word to Giovanni not to come, for it would not suffice that he should be refused admittance at the gate, since he might chance to present himself just when the Marchesa drove up, which would produce a very bad impression. Angela was ashamed to send her maid with a note to a young officer, and she would not trust one of the men-servants; she turned for advice to Madame Bernard, who was her only confidante.
'What am I to do?' she asked when she had explained everything. 'He is generally at the War Office at this time and he may not even go home before he comes here. I see no way but to send a note.'
'He would certainly go home to change his clothes,' answered the practical Frenchwoman; 'but it is not necessary for you to write. I will telephone to the War Office, and if the Count is there I will explain everything.'
Angela looked at her doubtfully.
'But then the servant who telephones will know,' she objected.
'The servant? Why? I do not understand. I shall speak myself. No one will be there to hear.'
'Yourself? My father never could, and I never was shown how to do it. Are you sure you understand the thing? It is very complicated, I believe.'
Madame Bernard was not surprised, for she knew the ways of the Palazzo Chiaromonte; but she smiled and assured the young girl that a telephone was not really such a dangerous instrument as she had been led to believe.
'I once tried to make a few stitches with a sewing-machine,' Angela said, apparently in explanation.
'A telephone is different,' Madame Bernard answered gravely. 'Shall I ask the Count to come to-morrow at four o'clock, instead of to-day?'
Angela hesitated, and then blushed faintly.
'Do you think——' she began, but she stopped and hesitated. 'He would be angry, I am sure——' She seemed to be suddenly distressed.
'Your father?' asked the Frenchwoman, guessing what she meant. 'My dear Princess——'
'Oh, please don't call me that!' cried Angela. 'You never do——'
'You see, you are a great personage now, my dear child,' Madame Bernard answered, 'and I am no longer your governess——'
'But you are my friend, dear, dear Madame Bernard! Indeed, I think you are my only friend now!'
And thereupon Angela threw her arms round the little woman's neck and kissed her very affectionately. Madame Bernard's fresh face beamed with pleasure.
'Thank you, my dear,' she answered. 'And as for your father, my child, he is without doubt in heaven; and that means that he now judges you by your intentions and no longer by appearances only.'
This sage little speech reassured Angela, though she soon afterwards asked herself whether it was quite loyal to allow any one to say that the Prince had ever judged her 'by appearances only.' But while she was making this reflection Madame Bernard was already telephoning to Giovanni, who was at the War Office, as Angela supposed, and he answered with alacrity that he would come to the palace on the following afternoon and ask to see Madame Bernard on a matter of business. It was really her business to teach French, as all the servants knew, and if they thought that the young officer came to ask about some lessons for himself or a friend, so much the better. Madame Bernard was naturally practical, and Giovanni was by nature quick-witted; so the matter was settled in a few words, to the satisfaction of both; and when Angela was merely told that he was coming she was much more pleased than she was willing to show, and she said no more about her father's hypothetical disapproval.
That afternoon she received the Marchesa del Prato and the lawyer downstairs in the second of the outer drawing-rooms. It was cold there, but she had not quite dared to order a fire to be made, because the Prince had never allowed fires except in the inner rooms, which were still closed under the notarial seals. The place had a certain grandeur of its own, for the massive decorations, the heavy furniture, and the rich brocade curtains all dated from the best period of Louis the Fourteenth's reign. On the walls there were four or five first-rate pictures, the largest of which was a magnificent portrait of a former Chiaromonte by Vandyke; there was a Holy Family by Guercino, another by Bonifacio, a Magdalen with the box of ointment, by Andrea del Sarto, and one or two smaller paintings of no inconsiderable value.
But at that hour the light was bad, for the afternoon had turned cold and rainy after a beautiful morning, and at four o'clock it was still too early to have lamps. A few moments after the hour, a servant opened the door, held the curtains aside, and announced the visitor.
'Her Excellency, the Princess Chiaromonte!'
Angela started slightly at the name. The last Princess Chiaromonte who had passed through that doorway had been her mother, and in her solitude the girl had not even been told that her uncle had already assumed the title of the head of the house. The lacquey paid no attention whatever to the quiet man in black who followed the Princess, holding his hat against his chest with both hands and advancing with a bowing motion at every step, as if he were saluting the family chairs as he passed them. Angela vaguely remembered his solemnly obsequious face.
Her aunt seemed to have grown taller and larger, as she bent to imprint a formal kiss on the girl's cheek, and then sat down in one of the huge old easy-chairs, while the lawyer seated himself at a respectful distance on an ottoman stool with his high hat on his knees. Angela took her place at one end of the stiff sofa that stood directly under the Vandyke portrait, and she waited for her aunt to speak.
The Princess had evidently prepared herself, for she spoke clearly and did not pause for some time.
'Your uncle has a slight attack of influenza,' she said; 'otherwise he would have come with me, and I should have been more than glad if he himself could have explained the whole situation to you instead of leaving that painful duty to me. You are well aware, my dear Angela, that your father always clung to the most prejudiced traditions of the intransigent clericals, and could never be induced to conform to any of the new regulations introduced by the Italian Government. In point of fact, I do not think he quite realised that the old order had passed away when he was a mere boy, and that the new was to be permanent, if not everlasting. If he had, he would have acted very differently, I am sure, and my present duty would have been much easier than it is. Are you quite certain that you understand that?'
Angela was quite certain that she did, and nodded quietly, though she could not see how her father's political convictions could affect her own present situation.
'I have no doubt,' continued the Princess, 'that he brought you up to consider yourself the heiress of all his fortune, though not of the title, which naturally goes to the eldest male heir. Am I right?'
'He never told me anything about my inheritance,' Angela replied.
'So much the better. It will be easier for me to explain your rather unusual position. In the first place, I must make it clear to you that your father and mother declined to go before the mayor at the Capitol when they were married, in spite of the regulations which had then been in force a number of years. They were devout Catholics and the blessing of the Church was enough for them. According to your father, to go through any form of civil ceremony, before or after the wedding, was equivalent to doubting the validity of the sacrament of marriage.'
'Naturally,' Angela assented, as her aunt paused and looked at her.
'Very naturally.' The Princess's eyes began to glitter oddly, and the lawyer turned his hat uneasily on his knees. 'Very naturally, indeed! Unfortunately for you, however, your father was not merely overlooking a municipal regulation, as he supposed; he was deliberately bidding defiance to the laws of Italy.'
'What do you mean?' asked Angela rather nervously.
'It is very painful to explain,' answered the elder woman with gleaming eyes and a disagreeable smile. 'The simple truth is that as your father and mother were not civilly married—civilly, you understand—they were not legally married at all, and the law will never admit that they were!'
Angela's hand tightened on the arm of the old sofa.
'Not married?' she cried. 'My father and mother not married? It is impossible, it is monstrous——'
'Not "legally" married, I said,' replied the Princess. 'To be legally married, it is absolutely necessary to go before the mayor at the Capitol and have the civil ceremony properly performed. Am I right?' she asked, turning suddenly to the lawyer. 'It is absolutely necessary, is it not?'
'Absolutely, Excellency,' the legal adviser answered. 'Otherwise the children of the marriage are not legitimate.'
'What does that mean?' asked Angela in a frightened tone.
'It means,' explained the Princess, 'that in the eyes of the law you do not exist——'
Angela tried to laugh.
'But I do exist! Here I am, Angela Chiaromonte, to say that I am alive!'
'Angela, but not Chiaromonte,' corrected the Princess, hardly able to hide her satisfaction. 'I am sorry to say that your dear father would not even submit to the regulation which requires all parents alike to declare the birth of children, and he paid a heavy fine for his refusal. The consequence is that when your birth was entered at the Municipality, you were put down as a foundling child whose parents refused to declare themselves.'
'A foundling! I, a foundling!' Angela half rose in amazed indignation, but almost instantly sat down again, with an incredulous smile. 'Either you are quite mad,' she said, 'or you are trying to frighten me for some reason I do not understand.'
The Princess raised her sandy eyebrows and looked at the lawyer, evidently meaning him to speak for her.
'That is your position, Signorina,' he said calmly. 'You have, unhappily, no legal status, no legal name, and no claim whatever on the estate of His Excellency Prince Chiaromonte, who was not married to your mother in the eyes of the law, and refused even to acknowledge you as his child by registering your birth at the mayoralty. Every inquiry has been made on your behalf, and I have here the certified copy of the register as it stands, declaring you to be a foundling. It was still in your father's power to make a will in your favour, Signorina, and as the laws of entail no longer exist, His Excellency may have left you his whole estate, real and personal, though his titles and dignities will in any case pass to his brother. I must warn you, however, that such a will might not prove valid in law, since His Excellency did not even legally acknowledge you as his child. So far, no trace of a will has been found with his late Excellency's notary, nor with his lawyer, nor deposited with his securities at his banker's. It is barely possible that some paper may exist in the rooms which are still closed, but I think it my duty to tell you that I do not expect to find anything of the kind when we break the seals to-morrow, in the presence of the heirs and witnesses.'
He ceased speaking and looked at the Princess as if asking whether he should say more, for Angela had bent her head and quietly covered her eyes with one hand, and in this attitude she sat quite motionless in her place. The lawyer thought she was going to burst into tears, for he did not know her.
'That will do, Calvi,' said the Princess calmly. 'You have made it all very clear, and you may retire for the present. The young lady is naturally overcome by the bad news, and would rather be alone with me for a little while, I daresay.'
Signor Calvi rose, made a profound obeisance to the Princess, scarcely bent his head to Angela, and retired, apparently bowing to the family chairs as he passed each. The young girl dropped her hand and looked after him with a sort of dull curiosity; she was the last person in the world to take offence or to suppose that any one meant to be rude to her, but it was impossible not to notice the lawyer's behaviour. In his opinion she was suddenly nobody, and deserved no more notice than a shop-girl. She understood enough of human nature to be sure that he counted on the Princess's approval.
The elder woman was watching her with a satisfaction she hardly tried to conceal. Her small hands were encased in marvellously fitting black gloves, though black gloves rarely fit so well as others, and were crossed on her knee over the little leather bag she always carried. She was leaning back in the great arm-chair, and the mourning she wore made her faultless complexion look even more brilliant than it was. No one knew how near forty the Princess might be, for she appeared in the Almanach de Gotha without a birthday, and only the date of her marriage was given; but the year was 1884, and people said it was impossible that she should have been less than seventeen when her parents had brought her to Rome and had tried to marry her to the elder of the Chiaromonte family; as twenty years had passed since they had succeeded in capturing the second son for their daughter, it was clear that she could not be under thirty-seven. But her complexion was extraordinary, and though she was a tall woman she had preserved the figure and grace of a young girl.
Angela did not look directly at her enemy for some seconds after the lawyer had left the room, closing the door behind him, not loudly but quite audibly; but she was the first to speak when she was sure that he was out of hearing.
'You hate me,' she said at last. 'What have I done to you?'
The Princess was not timid, nor very easily surprised, but the question was so direct that she drew further back into her chair with a quick movement, and her bright eye sparkled angrily as she raised her sandy eyebrows.
'In this world,' she said, 'the truth is always surprising and generally unpleasant. In consideration of what I have been obliged to tell you about yourself, I can easily excuse your foolish speech.'
'You are very kind,' Angela answered quietly enough, but in a tone that the Princess did not like. 'I was not asking your indulgence, but an explanation, no matter how disagreeable the rest of the truth may be. What have I done that you should hate me?'
The Princess laughed contemptuously.
'The expression is too strong,' she retorted. 'Hatred would imply an interest in you and your possible doings, which I am far from feeling, I assure you! Since it turns out that you are not even one of the family——'
She laughed again and raised her eyebrows still higher, instead of ending the speech.
'From what you say,' Angela answered with a good deal of dignity, 'I can only understand that if you followed your own inclination you would turn me out into the street.'
'The law will do so without my intervention,' answered the elder woman. 'If my brother-in-law had even taken the trouble to acknowledge you as his child, without legitimising you, you would have been entitled to a small allowance, perhaps two or three hundred francs a month, to keep you from starving. But as he has left no legal proof that you are his daughter, and since he was not properly married to your mother, you can claim nothing, not even a name! You are, in fact, a destitute foundling, as Calvi just said!'
'It only remains for you to offer me your charity,' Angela said.
'That was not my intention,' returned the Princess with a savage sneer. 'I have talked it over with my husband, and we do not see why he should be expected to support his brother's—natural child!'
Angela rose from her seat without a word and went quietly towards the door; but before she could reach it the Princess had followed her with a rush and a dramatic sweep of her black cloth skirt and plentiful crape, and had caught her by the wrist to bring her back to the middle of the great room.
'I shall not keep you long!' cried the angry woman. 'You ask me what you have done that I should hate you, and I answer, nothing, since you are nobody! But I hated your mother, because she robbed me of the man I wanted, of the only man I ever loved—your father—and when I married his brother I swore that she should pay me for that, and she has! If she can see you as you are to-day, all heaven cannot dry her tears, for all heaven itself cannot give you a name, since the one on her own tombstone is not hers by any right. I hope she sees you! Oh, I hope it was not for nothing that she fasted till she fainted, and prayed till she was hoarse, and knelt in damp churches till she died of it! I hope she has starved and whined her way to paradise and is looking down at this very moment and can see her daughter turned out of my house, a pauper foundling, to beg her bread! I hope you are in a state of grace, as she is, and that the communion of saints brings you near enough together for her to see you!'
'You are mad,' Angela said when the Princess paused for breath. 'You do not know what you are saying. Let go of my wrist and try to get back to your senses!'
Whether the Princess was really out of her mind, as seemed at least possible, or was only in one of her frequent fits of rage, the words had an instantaneous effect. She dropped Angela's wrist, drew herself up, and recovered her self-control in a few seconds. But there was still a dangerous glare in her cat-like eyes as she turned towards the window and faced the dull yellowish light of the late afternoon.
'You will soon find out that I have not exaggerated,' she said, dropping from her late tone of fury to a note of icy coldness. 'The seals will be removed to-morrow at noon, and I suppose no one can prevent you from being present if you choose. After that you will make such arrangements for your own future as you see fit. I should recommend you to apply to one of the two convents on which my brother-in-law lavished nearly three millions of francs during his life. One or the other of them will certainly take you in without a dowry, and you will have at least a decent roof over your head.'
With this practical advice the Princess Chiaromonte swept from the room and Angela was left alone to ask herself whether such a sudden calamity as hers had ever before overtaken an innocent girl in her Roman world. She went back very slowly to the sofa and sat down again under the great Vandyke portrait; her eyes wandered from one object to another, as if she wished to make an inventory of the things that had seemed to be hers because they had been her father's, but she was far too completely dazed by what had happened to think very connectedly. Besides, though she did not dare let the thought give her courage, she still had a secret conviction that it was all a mistake and that her father must have left some document which would be found among his papers the next day, and would clear away all this dreadful misunderstanding.
As for the rest of her aunt's story, no one had ever hinted at such a thing in her hearing, but Madame Bernard would know the truth. There was little indeed which the excellent Frenchwoman did not know about the old Roman families, after having lived among them and taught their children French for nearly a quarter of a century. She was very discreet and might not wish to say much, but she certainly knew the truth in this case.
It was not till she was upstairs in her own room, and was trying to repeat to her old governess just what had been said, that Angela began to realise what it meant. Madame Bernard was by turns horrified, righteously angry, and moved to profound pity; at first she could not believe her ears, but when she did she invoked the divine wrath on the inhuman monster who had the presumption to call herself a woman, a mother, and an aunt; finally, she folded Angela in a motherly embrace and burst into tears, promising to protect her at the risk of her own life—a promise she would really have kept if the girl had been in bodily danger.
In her secret heart the little Frenchwoman was also making some reflections on the folly and obstinacy of the late Prince, but out of sheer kindness and tact she kept them to herself for the present. Meanwhile she said she would go and consult one of the great legal lights, to whose daughters she had lately given lessons and who had always been very kind to her. It was nonsense, she said, to believe that the Prince's brother could turn Angela out of her home without making provision for her, such a liberal provision as would be considered a handsome dowry—four hundred thousand francs would be the very least. The Commendatore was a judge in the Court of Appeals and knew everything. He would not even need to consult his books! His brain was an encyclopaedia of the law! She would go to him at once.
But Angela shook her head as she sat looking at the small wood fire in the old-fashioned red-brick fireplace. Now that she had told her story she saw how very sure the Princess and the lawyer must have been to speak as they had both spoken.
But Madame Bernard put on her hat and went out to see the judge, who was generally at home late in the afternoon; and Angela sat alone in the dusk for a while, poking her little fire with a pair of very rusty wrought-iron tongs, at least three hundred years old, which would have delighted a collector but which were so heavy and clumsy that they hurt her hands.
Her aunt's piece of advice came back to her; she had better ask to be taken in at one of the convents which her father had enriched and where she would be received without a dowry. She knew them both, and both were communities of cloistered nuns; the one was established in a gloomy mediaeval fortress in the heart of the city, built round a little garden that looked as unhealthy as the old Prioress's own muddy-complexioned face and stubbly chin; the other was shut up in a hideous modern building that had no garden at all. She felt nothing but a repugnance that approached horror when she thought of either, though she tried to reprove herself for it because her father had given so much money to the sisters, and had always spoken of them to her as 'holy women.' No doubt they were; doubtless, too, Saint Anthony of Thebes had been a holy man, though it would have been unpleasant to share his cell, or even his meals. Angela felt that if she was to live on bread, water, and salad, she might as well have liberty with her dinner of herbs. It was heartless to think of marrying, no doubt, when her father had not yet been dead a week, but since she was forced to take the future into consideration, she felt sure that Giovanni would marry her without a penny, and that she should be perfectly happy with him. She could well afford to laugh at the Princess's advice so long as Giovanni was alive. He was coming to see her to-morrow, she would tell him everything, and when the year of her mourning expired they would be married.
The question was, what she was to do in the meantime, since it was quite clear that she must soon leave the home in which she had been brought up. Like all people who have never been face to face with want, or any state of life even distinctly resembling poverty, she had a vague idea that something would be provided for her. It was not till she tried to define what that something was to be that she felt a little sinking at her heart; but the cheering belief soon returned, that the whole affair was a mistake, unless it was a pure invention of her aunt's, meant to frighten her into abandoning her rights. In a little while Madame Bernard would come back, beaming with satisfaction, with a message from the learned judge to say that such injustice and robbery were not possible under modern enlightened laws; and Angela smiled to think that she could have been so badly frightened by a mad woman and an obsequious old lawyer.
Decidedly, in spite of her gift for remembering prayers and litanies, the mere thought of a cloistered life repelled her. Like most very religiously brought up girls she had more than once fancied that she was going to have a 'vocation' for the veil; but a sensible confessor had put that out of her head, discerning at once in her mental state those touches of maiden melancholy which change the look of the young life for a day or a week, as the shadow of a passing cloud saddens a sunlit landscape. It was characteristic of Angela that the possibility of becoming a nun as a refuge from present and future trouble did not present itself to her seriously, now that trouble was really imminent. She was too buoyant by nature, her disposition was too even and sensible, and above all, she was too courageous to think of yielding tamely to the fate her aunt wished to impose upon her.
It might have been expected that she should at least break down for a little while that afternoon and have a good cry in her solitude, while Madame Bernard was on her errand to the judge; but she did not, though there was a moment when she felt that tears were not far off. By way of keeping them back she went into her bedroom, lit a candle and knelt down to recite the prayers she had selected to say daily for her father. They were many, some of them were beautiful, and more than half of them were centuries old. Her conviction that the very just man was certainly in heaven already did not make it seem wholly useless to pray for him. No one could be quite sure of what happened in paradise, and in any case, if he was in no need of such intercession himself, she was allowed to hope that grace might overflow and avail to help some poor soul in purgatory, by means of the divine indulgence.
Madame Bernard came back at last, but there was consternation in her kindly face, for the great legal light had confirmed every word the Princess and her lawyer had said to Angela, and had shrugged his shoulders at the suggestion that a will might still be found. He had told the governess plainly that a man married to a woman only by a religious ceremony was not legally her husband, and that his children had neither name nor rights unless he went through the legal form of recognising them before the proper authorities. If the parents died without making a will, the children had no claim whatever on the estate unless they had been properly recognised. If there was a will, however, they might inherit, even if they had not been legitimised, provided that no lawful heirs of the testators were living, ascendants or descendants. The Commendatore had expressed great surprise that the late Prince should not have been warned of his daughter's irregular position by his legal advisers. It only showed, he said, how necessary the law was, since people who disregarded it got into such terrible trouble.
The French teacher instinctively felt that there was something wrong with the final syllogism, but it was only too clear that the Commendatore knew his business, and that unless a legally executed will were found on the morrow Angela had not the smallest chance of getting a penny from the great estate her father had left.
'If they are so inhuman as to turn you out of your home without providing for you,' Madame Bernard said, with tears in her eyes, 'I do not see what you are to do, my dear child. I am ashamed to offer you the little spare room I sometimes let to single foreign ladies—and yet—if you would take it—ah, you would be so welcome! It is not a bad exposure—it has the sun on it all day, though there is only one window. The carpet is getting a little threadbare, but the curtains are new and match the furniture—a pretty flowered chintz, you know. And I will make little dishes for you, since you have no appetite! A "navarin," my dear, I make it well, and a real "fricassee"! We Frenchwomen can all cook! The "navarin" was my poor husband's predilection—when he had eaten one made by me, he used to say that the fleshpots of Egypt were certainly the "navarin" and nothing else. But when I am alone it is not worth while to take so much trouble. An egg, five sous' worth of ham and brawn, and a roll—that suffices me when I am alone! But if you will accept the little room—ah, then I will put on an apron and go into the kitchen, and you shall taste the French cookery of a Frenchwoman!'
Angela was not listening to all this, for she was too much touched by the generous intention to hear half of what Madame Bernard said, and she could only press the little governess's hand again while she tried to edge in a word of thanks between the quick sentences.
'And as for the rest,' Madame Bernard ran on, 'I have chaperoned half the young girls in Roman society to concerts and to the dentist's, and I have a nice little sitting-room, and there is no reason in the world why Count Severi should not come to see us, until you can be married!'
This, at least, did not escape Angela, who squeezed the small plump hand very hard, and at last succeeded in speaking herself.
'You are too good!' she cried. 'Too kind! If it turns out to be true, if I am really to be a beggar, I would rather beg of you than of distant cousins and people I know! Besides, they are all so afraid of my aunt's tongue that not one of them would dare to take me in, even for a week! But I will not come unless you will let me work to help you, in some way—I do not know how—is there nothing I know well enough to teach?'
'Oh, la, la!' cried Madame Bernard. 'Will you please not say such things, my dear! As if it were not the greatest happiness in the world you will be giving me, a lonely old woman, to come and live with me, and help me take care of the parrot and water the flowers in the window every evening at sunset, and learn how to make a "navarin!" Work? Oh yes! You shall work, my dear child! If you think it is easy to please a parrot, try it! I only say that!'
'I will do my best,' Angela said, smiling. 'To-morrow, at this hour, we shall know what is to happen.'
'What has happened, has happened,' said Madame Bernard, as calmly as any Hindu, though she was not a fatalist. 'Even if there is a paper somewhere, do you think the Marchesa will not be the first to find it and tear it to a thousand bits? No, I will not call her "Princess Chiaromonte"! I, who knew your mother, my dear! Trust me, if there is a will in the sealed rooms, the Marchesa will discover it before any one!'
Angela thought that this might be true, for she had a most vivid recollection of her aunt's look and voice during the late interview. The more she thought of the immediate future, the clearer it became to her that she must accept her old governess's offer of shelter for the present. She could not bring herself to beg a lodging and the bare necessaries of life from any of those people whom she had called her friends. There were at least half-a-dozen girls with whom she had been intimate at the Sacred Heart, and during the past winter, and some of them were connections of her father's and would be profoundly shocked to learn what her position now was. No doubt their parents would take her in for a few days, and would very possibly do more than that, and formally protest to her aunt and uncle against the treatment she had received. But could she stay with any of them longer than a week on such a footing? Would she be anything better than a waif, not knowing where she should sleep or get a meal a few days hence? No; her only choice lay between accepting Madame Bernard's offer, and presenting herself as a candidate for charity at one of the two convents her father had protected. Afterwards, a year hence or more, when she should be married to Giovanni Severi, she would find some means of amply repaying the generous woman, without hurting her feelings. Until then, she must accept the kindness and be thankful that it came from such a true friend.
She had no intention of showing herself downstairs the next day, when the seals were to be removed and the papers examined. If she had cherished any illusion as to the existence of a document in her favour, Madame Bernard's last speech had effectually destroyed it, which was the best thing that could have happened. At least, she was sure of Giovanni, and a year must pass in a year's time! That was axiomatic, and when the twelve months were over she would be married quietly. She would not bring him a handsome dowry as she had fully expected to do, and though his father was well-off, there were other children, so that she could not expect to be rich; but what difference could that make to two young people who loved each other? Evidently, none at all.
It rained all the morning and Angela spent most of the time in a sort of apathy, so far as her companion could see, sitting still for an hour with a book she did not read, then moving about to rooms in an objectless way only to go back to her chair in a few minutes and to sit motionless again before the smouldering wood fire.
Madame Bernard, on the contrary, was very busy in making preparations to take her away if a sudden move should be necessary. Though the servants were evidently informed of what was taking place, she succeeded in getting a couple of trunks and a valise brought up, and she began to pack them with clothing from Angela's wardrobe, taking only such things as would be useful in the quiet life of mourning the girl was to lead for a year. The maid had disappeared, presumably to look for a place, and when it was time for luncheon it was not without difficulty that Madame Bernard got a footman to bring something cold on a tray. It was quite clear by this time that the whole household knew the truth and expected Angela to leave the palace that day, and the little woman paused more than once in her packing to shake her fist at the slim visions of the Princess Chiaromonte that crossed the field of her imagination.
Downstairs matters proceeded as she had foreseen. The Princess, two lawyers, a notary, and several clerks had removed the seals and locked themselves in the inner apartment to examine the papers and such valuables as were there; but it is needless to say that they found nothing in the nature of a will, nor any document even expressing a wish on the part of the deceased. The notary observed that it was very strange, but one of the lawyers shrugged his shoulders and smiled, while the other asked why, in the nature of things, a man so young and healthy as the late Prince should have been expected to make careful preparations against his sudden demise when he might well expect to live thirty years longer. The Princess said nothing, and her husband did not appear; indeed, he never did, and on all occasions of importance, like the present, the Princess was provided with a power of attorney to represent him, speak for him, decide for him, and sign documents for him. There were many stories about him in society, none of which contained more than the merest particle of truth. Some people said he was mad, others maintained that he was paralysed; there were those who confidently asserted that his face was disfigured by an unsightly claret mark, and it was even suggested that he was a leper. When any of these tales were repeated to his wife by dear friends, she answered that he was very well and had just gone to the Abruzzi to look after one of the large holdings of the estate, or that he was in Hungary, shooting with distant cousins who had lands there, or that, if the truth must be known, he had a touch of the influenza and would probably run down to Sicily for a change, as soon as he was able to travel. Angela herself had not seen him since she had been a mere child. She remembered that once, when she was at her aunt's, a tall, pale man with a thoughtful face had passed through the room quickly without paying the least attention to any one; she had asked her small cousins who he was, and had been told in an awe-struck whisper that it was their father. That was probably the only time she had ever laid eyes on him; and somehow she did not connect him with what was happening to her now. It was all her aunt's doing; the thin and thoughtful man had not looked as if he were heartless, he would not have allowed his brother's child to be turned out a beggar, under the letter of the law.
Yet the Princess's most ultimate and affectionate enemies had not succeeded in fathoming the mystery. Two of them, who were connections of her husband's, had once had a theory that she had locked him up and kept him a prisoner for her own ends; a similar case had then recently occurred in Palermo, where a widowed lady and her daughter had been kept in confinement during several years, and almost starved to death, by the wicked steward of their estates. Accordingly, the aforesaid connections had appealed to the chief of secret police for information about their relative; but in a few days he had been able to tell them confidently that the Marchese del Prato was in good health and quite free, that he was an enthusiastic scholar, and was writing an exhaustive work on the mythology of Pindar's Odes, and that there was no cause for any anxiety about him. So that matter was settled for ever.
At half-past three o'clock the Princess went away, leaving the lawyers and clerks to finish their work, for she was more than satisfied that no will nor any similar document would be found amongst the late Prince's papers, and everything else was mere formality; the regular inventories would be made later when the succession duties had to be paid, but meanwhile there was nothing to hinder her from taking possession in her husband's name. Before leaving the palace she sent for the butler, and told him that 'Signorina Angela' was to be requested to 'remove her effects' the next day. She further condescended to inform him that the 'Signorina' had been ascertained to be a nameless foundling who had no share in the inheritance and must shift for herself, as it was not the intention of the Prince to support such a person. The butler had learned something of the great Roman families during a brilliant career in the servants' hall, and he could have told some singularly romantic tales, but he had never had experience of anything like this. He tried to look at the Princess for a moment before he answered her, but he could not face her glittering eyes.
'Very well, Excellency,' he said, bowing. 'Is the young lady to have her meals here till she leaves? The French governess is also staying in the house.'
'Send them up something from the servants' dinner,' the Princess answered.
'Very well, Excellency.'
But the butler looked after her with considerable curiosity, watching her graceful figure as she went down the grand staircase and holding the swinging door open on the landing till she was out of sight. Then he went in again, looked round the empty hall, and spoke aloud, asking a question that has never had any answer.
'Women, women—who can understand you?'
Half-an-hour later Giovanni Severi entered the gate below in civilian's dress and asked if he could see Madame Bernard, the French teacher, who had let him know that she was stopping in the palace. The porter told him to ring at the right-hand door on the second landing, but added that it was doubtful whether any one would let him in, as there was 'confusion in the house.'
Madame Bernard was waiting for him, however; he had arrived punctually and she let him in herself.
'Have you heard, Monsieur?' she asked, before he could speak. 'Do you know what is happening?'
'Yes,' he answered. 'All Rome knows it by this time, for the story was in the morning papers. May I see Donna Angela?'
She had fastened the outer door while he was speaking, and she now led the way without any more words.
Angela knew Giovanni's step at a distance, and when he entered she was standing in the middle of the room. He had never before seen her in black, and she was paler than usual; he looked anxiously into her face as he took her hand, and she, meeting his eyes expectantly, saw a change in them. Neither Angela nor Severi spoke at first, and in the silence Madame Bernard passed them and went into the next room, shutting the door after her.
'Have you heard?' Angela asked, still standing and still holding Giovanni's hand.
'Yes. It is in all the papers to-day. There is an outcry. If your aunt shows herself in the streets she will be hissed. But she has the law on her side. I have been to two lawyers to inquire.'
He spoke in short sentences, nervously, and when he stopped he bit his moustache.
'There is something else,' Angela answered. 'I see it in your eyes. There is something I do not know, some still worse news. Sit down there by the fire opposite me and tell me everything, for I am not afraid. Nothing can frighten me now.'
She seated herself where she had sat more than half the day, and he took the chair to which she had pointed. She poked the small green logs with the antiquated tongs and watched the sparks that flew upwards with every touch while she waited for him to speak. But he looked at her in silence, forgetting everything for a while except that he was really alone with her, almost for the first time in his life. He changed his position and bent forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands together, so that he was nearer to her. Without turning her face from the fire she saw him in a side-glance, but made no answering motion.
'Tell me what it is,' she said softly. 'Only one thing could hurt me now.'
'It is hard to tell,' he answered in rather a dull voice.
She misunderstood, and turned to him slowly with wondering and frightened eyes. Her hand weakened, without quite losing its hold, and the ends of the clumsy tongs clattered on the brick hearth. The doubt that had sprung upon her like a living thing as soon as she saw him, began to dig its claws into her heart.