WHOSOEVER SHALL OFFEND
F. MARION CRAWFORD
Author of Saracinesca, The Heart Of Rome, etc, etc.
With Eight Illustrations Drawn in Rome with the Author's Suggestions
by Horace T. Carpenter
"Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a mill stone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea"
"Suddenly he heard an Italian voice very near to him, calling him by name, in a tone of surprise"
"'I call it the sleeping death,' answered the Professor"
"He flushed again, very angry this time, and he moved away to leave her, without another word"
" ... the door was darkened, and the girl stood there with a large copper 'conca' ..."
"He moved a step towards the bed, and then another, forcing himself to go on"
"Ercole left his home after sunset that evening"
"Regina made a steady effort, lifting fully half Aurora's weight with her"
"She sat there like a figure of grief outlined in black against the moonlight on the great wall"
When the widow of Martino Consalvi married young Corbario, people shook their heads and said that she was making a great mistake. Consalvi had been dead a good many years, but as yet no one had thought it was time to say that his widow was no longer young and beautiful, as she had always been. Many rich widows remain young and beautiful as much as a quarter of a century, or even longer, and the Signora Consalvi was very rich indeed. As soon as she was married to Folco Corbario every one knew that she was thirty-five years old and he was barely twenty-six, and that such a difference of ages on the wrong side was ridiculous if it was not positively immoral. No well-regulated young man had a right to marry a rich widow nine years older than himself, and who had a son only eleven years younger than he.
A few philosophers who said that if the widow was satisfied the matter was nobody's business were treated with the contempt they deserved. Those who, on the contrary, observed that young Corbario had married for money and nothing else were heard with favour, until the man who knew everything pointed out that as the greater part of the fortune would be handed over to Marcello when he came of age, six years hence, Corbario had not made a good bargain and might have done better. It was true that Marcello Consalvi had inherited a delicate constitution of body, it had even been hinted that he was consumptive. Corbario would have done better to wait another year or two to see what happened, said a cynic, for young people often died of consumption between fifteen and twenty. The cynic was answered by a practical woman of the world, who said that Corbario had six years of luxury and extravagance before him, and that many men would have sold themselves to the devil for less. After the six years the deluge might come if it must; it was much pleasanter to drown in the end than never to have had the chance of swimming in the big stream at all, and bumping sides with the really big fish, and feeling oneself as good as any of them. Besides, Marcello was pale and thin, and had been heard to cough; he might die before he came of age. The only objection to this theory was that it was based on a fiction; for the whole fortune had been left to the Signora by a childless relation.
These amiable and interesting views were expressed with variations by people who knew the three persons concerned, and with such a keen sense of appropriate time and place as made it quite sure that none of the three should ever know what was said of them. The caution of an old fox is rash temerity compared with the circumspection of a first-rate gossip; and when the gossips were tired of discussing Folco Corbario and his wife and her son, they talked about other matters, but they had a vague suspicion that they had been cheated out of something. A cat that has clawed all the feathers off a stuffed canary might feel just what they did.
For nothing happened. Corbario did not launch into wild extravagance after all, but behaved himself with the faultless dulness of a model middle-aged husband. His wife loved him and was perfectly happy, and happiness finally stole her superfluous years away, and they evaporated in the sunshine, and she forgot all about them. Marcello Consalvi, who had lost his father when he was a mere child, found a friend in his mother's husband, and became very fond of him, and thought him a good man to imitate; and in return Corbario made a companion of the fair-haired boy, and taught him to ride and shoot in his holidays, and all went well.
Moreover, Marcello's mother, who was a good woman, told him that the world was very wicked; and with the blind desire for her son's lasting innocence, which is the most touching instinct of loving motherhood, she entreated him to lead a spotless life. When Marcello, in the excusable curiosity of budding youth, asked his stepfather what that awful wickedness was against which he was so often warned, Corbario told him true stories of men who had betrayed their country and their friends, and of all sorts of treachery and meanness, to which misdeeds the boy did not feel himself at all inclined; so that he wondered why his mother seemed so very anxious lest he should go astray. Then he repeated to her what Corbario had told him, and she smiled sweetly and said nothing, and trusted her husband all the more. She felt that he understood her, and was doing his best to help her in making Marcello what she wished him to be.
The boy was brought up at home; in Rome in the winter, and in summer on the great estate in the south, which his father had bought and which was to be a part of his inheritance.
He was taught by masters who came to the house to give their lessons and went away as soon as the task was over. He had no tutor, for his mother had not found a layman whom she could trust in that capacity, and yet she understood that it was not good for a boy to be followed everywhere by a priest. Besides, Corbario gave so much of his time to his stepson that a tutor was hardly needed; he walked with him and rode with him, or spent hours with him at home when the weather was bad. There had never been a cross word between the two since they had met. It was an ideal existence. Even the gossips stopped talking at last, and there was not one, not even the most ingeniously evil-tongued of all, that prophesied evil.
They raised their eyebrows, and the more primitive among them shrugged their shoulders a little, and smiled. If Providence really insisted upon making people so perfect, what was to be done? It was distressing, but there was nothing to be said; they must just lead their lives, and the gossips must bear it. No doubt Corbario had married for money, since he had nothing in particular and his wife had millions, but if ever a man had married for money and then behaved like an angel, that man was Folco Corbario and no other. He was everything to his wife, and all things to his stepson—husband, father, man of business, tutor, companion, and nurse; for when either his wife or Marcello was ill, he rarely left the sick-room, and no one could smooth a pillow as he could, or hold a glass so coaxingly to the feverish lips, or read aloud so untiringly in such a gentle and soothing voice.
No ascendency of one human being over another is more complete than that of a full-grown man over a boy of sixteen, who venerates his elder as an ideal. To find a model, to believe it perfection, and to copy it energetically, is either a great piece of good fortune, or a misfortune even greater; in whatever follows in life, there is the same difference between such development and the normally slow growth of a boy's mind as that which lies between enthusiasm and indifference. It is true that where there has been no enthusiastic belief there can be no despairing disillusionment when the light goes out; but it is truer still that hope and happiness are the children of faith by the ideal.
A boy's admiration for his hero is not always well founded; sometimes it is little short of ridiculous, and it is by no means always harmless. But no one found fault with Marcello for admiring his stepfather, and the attachment was a source of constant satisfaction to his mother. In her opinion Corbario was the handsomest, bravest, cleverest, and best of men, and after watching him for some time even the disappointed gossips were obliged to admit, though without superlatives, that he was a good-looking fellow, a good sportsman, sufficiently well gifted, and of excellent behaviour. There was the more merit in the admission, they maintained, because they had been inclined to doubt the man, and had accused him of marrying out of pure love of money. A keen judge of men might have thought that his handsome features were almost too still and too much like a mask, that his manner was so quiet as to be almost expressionless, and that the soft intonation of his speech was almost too monotonous to be natural. But all this was just what his wife admired, and she encouraged her son to imitate it. His father had been a man of quick impulses, weak to-day, strong to-morrow, restless, of uncertain temper, easily enthusiastic and easily cast down, capable of sudden emotions, and never able to conceal what he felt if he had cared to do so. Marcello had inherited his father's character and his mother's face, as often happens; but his unquiet disposition was tempered as yet by a certain almost girlish docility, which had clung to him from childhood as the result of being brought up almost entirely by the mother he worshipped. And now, for the first time, comparing him with her second husband, she realised the boy's girlishness, and wished him to outgrow it. Her own ideal of what even a young man should be was as unpractical as that of many thoroughly good and thoroughly unworldly mothers. She wished her son to be a man at all points, and yet she dreamed that he might remain a sort of glorified young girl; she desired him to be well prepared to face the world when he grew up, and yet it was her dearest wish that he might never know anything of the world's wickedness. Corbario seemed to understand her better in this than she understood herself, and devoted his excellent gifts and his almost superhuman patience to the task of forming a modern Galahad. Her confidence in her husband increased month by month, and year by year.
"I wish to make a new will," she said to her lawyer in the third year of her marriage. "I shall leave my husband a life-interest in a part of my fortune, and the reversion of the whole in case anything should happen to my son."
The lawyer was a middle-aged man, with hard black eyes. While he was listening to a client, he had a habit of folding his arms tightly across his chest and crossing one leg over the other. When the Signora Corbario had finished speaking he sat quite still for a moment, and then noiselessly reversed the crossing of his legs and the folding of his arms, and looked into her face. It was very gentle, fair, and thoughtful.
"I presume," answered the lawyer, "that the clause providing for a reversion is only intended as an expression of your confidence in your husband?"
"Affection," answered the Signora, "includes confidence."
The lawyer raised one eyebrow almost imperceptibly, and changed his position a little.
"Heaven forbid," he said, "that any accident should befall your son!"
"Heaven forbid it!" replied the Signora. "He is very strong," she continued, in the tone people use who are anxious to convince themselves of something doubtful. "Yet I wish my husband to know that, after my son, he should have the first right."
"Shall you inform him of the nature of your will, Signora?" inquired the lawyer.
"I have already informed him of what I mean to do," replied Signora Corbario.
Again the lawyer's eyebrow moved a little nervously, but he said nothing. It was not his place to express any doubt as to the wisdom of the disposition. He was not an old family adviser, who might have taken such a liberty. There had been such a man, indeed, but he was dead. It was the duty of the rich woman's legal adviser to hinder her from committing any positive legal mistake, but it was not his place to criticise her judgment of the man she had chosen to marry. The lawyer made a few notes without offering any comment, and on the following day he brought the will for the Signora to sign. By it, at her death, Marcello, her son, was to inherit her great fortune. Her husband, Folco Corbario, was constituted Marcello's sole guardian, and was to enjoy a life-interest in one-third of the inheritance. If Marcello died, the whole fortune was to go to Corbario, without any condition or reservation whatsoever.
When the will was executed, the Signora told her husband that she had done what she intended.
"My dear," said Corbario, gently, "I thank you for the true meaning of it. But as for the will itself, shall we talk of it thirty years hence, when Marcello's children's children are at your knee?"
He kissed her hand tenderly.
Marcello stood at an open window listening to the musical spring rain and watching the changing lights on the city below him, as the dove-coloured cloud that floated over Rome like thin gauze was drawn up into the sunshine. Then there were sudden reflections from distant windows and wet domes, that blazed like white fires for a little while, till the raindrops dried and the waves of changing hues that had surged up under the rain, rising, breaking, falling, and spreading, subsided into a restful sea of harmonious colour.
After that, the sweet smell of the wet earth came up to Marcello's nostrils. A light breeze stirred the dripping emerald leaves, and the little birds fluttered down and hopped along the garden walks and over the leaves, picking up the small unwary worms that had been enjoying a bath while their enemies tried to keep dry under the ilex boughs.
Marcello half closed his eyes and drank the fragrant air with parted lips, his slim white hands resting on the marble sill. The sunshine made his pale face luminous, and gilded his short fair hair, casting the shadow of the brown lashes upon his delicate cheeks. There was something angel-like in his expression—the look of the frescoed angels of Melozzo da Forli in the Sacristy of St. Peter's. They are all that is left of something very beautiful, brought thither broken from the Church of the Holy Apostles; and so, too, one might have fancied that Marcello, standing at the window in the morning sunshine, belonged to a world that had long passed away—fit for a life that was, fit for a life to come hereafter, perhaps, but not fit for the life that is. There are rare and beautiful beings in the world who belong to it so little that it seems cruelty and injustice to require of them what is demanded of us all. They are born ages too late, or ages too soon; they should not have been born now. Their very existence calls forth our tenderest sympathy, as we should pity a fawn facing its death among wolves.
But Marcello Consalvi had no idea that he could deserve pity, and life looked very bright to him, very easy, and very peaceful. He could hardly have thought of anything at all likely to happen which could darken the future, or even give him reasonable cause for anxiety. There was no imaginative sadness in his nature, no morbid dread of undefined evil, no melancholy to dye the days black; for melancholy is more often an affliction of the very strong in body or mind than of the weak, or of average men and women. Marcello was delicate, but not degenerate; he seemed gentle, cheerful, and ready to believe the world a very good place, as indeed it is for people who are not too unlike their neighbours to enjoy it, or too unlucky to get some of its good things, or too weak to work, fight, and love, or too clever to be as satisfied with themselves as most men are. For plain, common, everyday happiness and contentment belong to plain, average people, who do what others do and have a cheerfully good opinion of themselves. Can a man make a good fight of it if he does not believe himself to be about as good as his adversary?
It had never occurred to Marcello that he might have to fight for anything, and if some one had told him on that spring morning that he was on the very verge of a desperate struggle for existence against overwhelming odds, he would have turned his bright eyes wonderingly to the prophet of evil, asking whence danger could come, and trying to think what it might be like.
At the first appearance of it he would have been startled into fear, too, as many a grown man has been before now, when suddenly brought face to face with an unknown peril, being quite untried: and small shame to him. He who has been waked from a peaceful sleep and pleasant dreams to find death at his throat, for the first time in his life, knows the meaning of that. Samson was a tried warrior when Delilah first roused him with her cry, "The Philistines are upon thee!"
Marcello was no youthful Samson, yet he was not an unmanly boy, for all his bringing up. So far as his strength would allow he had been accustomed to the exercises and sports of men: he could ride fearlessly, if not untiringly; he was a fair shot; he had hunted wild boar with his stepfather in the marshy lands by the sea; he had been taught to fence and was not clumsy with weapons, though he had not yet any great skill. He had always been told that he was delicate and must be careful, and he knew that he was not strong; but there was one good sign in that his weakness irritated him and bred at least the desire for strength, instead of the poor-spirited indolence that bears bodily infirmity as something inevitable, and is ready to accept pity if not to ask for it.
The smell of the damp earth was gone, and as the sun shone out the air was filled with the scent of warm roses and the faintly sweet odour of wistaria. Marcello heard a light footstep close to him, and met his mother's eyes as he turned.
Even to him, she looked very young just then, as she stood in the light, smiling at him. A piece of lace was drawn half over her fair hair, and the ends went round her throat like a scarf and fell behind her. Its creamy tints heightened the rare transparency of her complexion by faint contrast. She was a slight woman and very graceful.
"I have looked for you everywhere," she said, and she still smiled, as if with real pleasure at having found him.
"I have been watching the shower" Marcello answered, drawing her to the window. "And then the earth and the roses smelt so sweet that I stayed here. Did you want me, mother?"
"I always like to know where you are."
She passed her arm through his with a loving pressure, and looked out of the window with him. The villa stood on the slope of the Janiculum, close to the Corsini gardens.
"Do I run after you too much?" the mother asked presently, as if she knew the answer. "Now that you are growing up, do I make you feel as if you were still a little boy? You are nearly nineteen, you know! I suppose I ought to treat you like a man."
Marcello laughed, and his hand slipped into hers with an almost childish and nestling movement.
"You have made a man of me," he answered.
Had she? A shadow of doubt crossed her thoughtful face as she glanced at his. He was so different from other young men of his age, so delicately nurtured, so very gentle; there was the radiance of maidenly innocence in his look, and she was afraid that he might be more like a girl than a man almost grown.
"I have done my best," she said. "I hope I have done right."
He scarcely understood what she meant, and his expression did not change.
"You could not do anything that was not right," he answered.
Perhaps such a being as Marcello would be an impossibility anywhere but in Italy. Modern life tears privacy to tatters, and privacy is the veil of the temple of home, within which every extreme of human development is possible, good and bad. Take privacy away and all the strangely compound fractions of humanity are soon reduced to a common denomination. In Italy life has more privacy than anywhere else west of Asia. The Englishman is fond of calling his home his castle, but it is a thoroughfare, a market-place, a club, a hotel, a glass house, compared with that of an average Italian. An Englishman goes home to escape restraint: an Italian goes out. But the northern man, who lives much in public, learns as a child to conceal what he feels, to be silent, to wear an indifferent look; whereas the man of the south, who hides nothing when the doors of his house are shut, can hide but little when he meets his enemy in the way. He laughs when he is pleased, and scowls when he is not, threatens when he is angry, and sheds tears when he is hurt, with a simplicity that too often excites the contempt of men accustomed to suffer or enjoy without moving a muscle.
Privacy favours the growth of individual types, differing widely from each other; the destruction of it makes people very much alike. Marcello's mother asked herself whether she had done well in rearing him as a being apart from those amongst whom he must spend his life.
And yet, as she looked at him, he seemed to be so nearly the ideal of which she had dreamt throughout long years of loving care that she was comforted, and the shadow passed away from her sweet face. He had answered that she could do nothing that was not right; she prayed that his words might be near the truth, and in her heart she was willing to believe that they were almost true. Had she not followed every good impulse of her own good heart? Had she not tried to realize literally for him the most beautiful possibilities of the Christian faith? That, at least, was true, and she could tell herself so without any mistaken pride. How, then, had she made any mistake? The boy had the face of a young saint.
"Are you ready, my dear?" she asked suddenly, as a far-off clock struck.
"Yes, mother, quite ready."
"I am not," she answered with a little laugh. "And Folco is waiting, and I hear the carriage driving up."
She slipped from Marcello's side and left the room quickly, for they were going to drive down to the sea, to a little shooting-lodge that belonged to them near Nettuno, a mere cottage among the trees by the Roman shore, habitable only in April and May, and useful only then, when the quail migrate along the coast and the malarious fever is not yet to be feared. It was there that Marcello had first learned to handle a gun, spending a week at a time there with his stepfather; and his mother used to come down now and then for a day or two on a visit, sometimes bringing her friend the Contessa dell' Armi. The latter had been very unhappy in her youth, and had been left a widow with one beautiful girl and a rather exiguous fortune. Some people thought that it was odd that the Signora Corbario, who was a saint if ever there was one, should have grown so fond of the Contessa, for the latter had seen stormy days in years gone by; and of course the ill-disposed gossips made up their minds that the Contessa was trying to catch Marcello for her daughter Aurora, though the child was barely seventeen.
This was mere gossip, for she was quite incapable of any such scheme. What the gossips did not know was something which would have interested them much more, namely, that the Contessa was the only person in Rome who distrusted Folco Corbario, and that she was in constant fear lest she should turn out to be right, and lest her friend's paradise should be suddenly changed into a purgatory. But she held her tongue, and her quiet face never betrayed her thoughts. She only watched, and noted from month to month certain small signs which seemed to prove her right; and she should be ready, whenever the time should come, by day or night, to help her friend, or comfort her, or fight for her.
If Corbario guessed that the Contessa did not trust him, he never showed it. He had found her installed as his wife's friend, and had accepted her, treating her with much courtesy and a sort of vicarious affection; but though he tried his best he could not succeed in reaching anything like intimacy with her, and while she seemed to conceal nothing, he felt that she was hiding her real self from him. Whether she did so out of pride, or distrust, or jealousy, he could never be sure. He was secretly irritated and humiliated by her power to oppose him and keep him at a distance without ever seeming to do so; but, on the other hand, he was very patient, very tenacious of his purpose, and very skilful. He knew something of the Contessa's past, but he recognised in her the nature that has known the world's worst side and has done with it for ever, and is lifted above it, and he knew the immense influence which the spectacle of a blameless life exercises upon the opinion of a good woman who has not always been blameless herself. Whatever he had been before he met his wife, whatever strange plans had been maturing in his brain since he had married her, his life had seemed as spotless from that day as the existence of the best man living. His wife believed in him, and the Contessa did not; but even she must in time accept the evidence of her senses. Then she, too, would trust him. Why it was essential that she should, he alone knew, unless he was merely piqued by her quiet reserve, as a child is when it cannot fix the attention of a grown-up person.
The Contessa and her daughter were to be of the party that day, and the carriage stopped where they lived, near the Forum of Trajan. They appeared almost directly, the Contessa in grey with a grey veil and Aurora dressed in a lighter shade, the thick plaits of her auburn hair tied up short below her round straw hat, on the theory that she was still a school-girl, whose skirt must not quite touch the ground, who ought not to wear a veil, and whose mind was supposed to be a sensitive blank, particularly apt to receive bad impressions rather than good ones. In less than a year she would be dancing all night with men she had scarcely heard of before, listening to compliments of which she had never dreamt—of course not—and to declarations which no right-minded girl one day under eighteen could under any circumstances be thought to expect. Such miracles as these are wrought by the eighteenth birthday.
Corbario's eyes looked from the mother to the daughter, as he and Marcello stood on the pavement to let them get in. The Contessa touched his outstretched hand without restraint but without cordiality, smiling just as much as was civil, and less readily than would have been friendly. Aurora glanced at him and laughed prettily without any apparent reason, which is the privilege of very young girls, because their minds are supposed to be a blank. Also because her skirt must not quite touch the ground, one very perfect black silk ankle was distinctly visible for a moment as she stepped into the carriage. Note that from the eve of her eighteenth birthday till she is old enough to be really wicked no well-regulated young woman shows her ankles. This also is one of the miracles of time.
Marcello blushed faintly as he sat down beside Aurora. There were now five in the big carriage, so that she was between the two men; and though there was enough room Marcello felt the slight pressure of her arm against his. His mother saw his colour change, and looked away and smiled. The idea of marrying the two in a few years had often crossed her mind, and she was pleased whenever she saw that Marcello felt a little thrill of emotion in the girl's presence. As for Aurora, she looked straight before her, between the heads of the two elder women, and for a long time after they had started she seemed absorbed in watching the receding walls of the city and the long straight road that led back to it. The Contessa and her friend talked quietly, happy to be together for a whole day. Corbario now and then looked from one to the other, as if to assure himself that they were quite comfortable, and his still face wore an unchanging look of contented calm as his eyes turned again to the sunlit sweep of the low Campagna. Marcello looked steadily away from Aurora, happily and yet almost painfully aware that her arm could not help pressing against his. The horses' hoofs beat rhythmically on the hard high road, with the steady, cheerful energy which would tell a blind man that a team is well fed, fresh from rest, and altogether fit for a long day's work. The grey-haired coachman sat on his box like an old dragoon in the saddle; the young groom sat bolt upright beside him with folded arms, as if he could never tire of sitting straight. The whole party looked prosperous, harmonious, healthy, and perfectly happy, as if nothing in the least unpleasant could possibly happen to them, still less anything terrible, that could suddenly change all their lives.
One of fate's favourite tricks is to make life look particularly gay and enjoyable, and full of sunshine and flowers, at the very moment when terror wakes from sleep and steps out of the shadow to stalk abroad.
The cottage where the party were going to spend the next few days together was built like an Indian bungalow, consisting of a single story surrounded by a broad, covered verandah, and having a bit of lawn in front. It was sheltered by trees, and between it and the beach a bank of sand from ten to fifteen feet high ran along the shore, the work of the southwest gales during many ages. In many places this bank was covered with scrub and brushwood on the landward side.
A little stream meandered down to the sea on the north side of the cottage, ending in a pool full of tall reeds, amongst which one could get about in a punt. The seashore itself is very shelving at that place, and there is a bar about a cable's length out, over which the sea breaks with a tremendous roar during westerly storms. Two hundred yards from the cottage, a large hut had been built for the men-servants and for the kitchen; near by it there was a rough coach-house and a stable with room for a dozen horses. The carriage usually went back to Rome on the day after every one had arrived, and was sent for when wanted; but there were a number of rough Campagna horses in the stable, such as are ridden by the cattle herders about Rome, tough little beasts of fairly good temper and up to a much heavier weight than might be guessed by a stranger in the country. In the morning the men of the party usually went shooting, if the wind was fair, for where quail are concerned much depends on that. Dinner was in the middle of the day, and every one was supposed to go to sleep after it. In the late afternoon the horses were saddled, and the whole party went for a gallop on the sands, or up to classic Ardea, or across the half-cultivated country, coming back to supper when it was dark. A particularly fat and quiet pony was kept for Marcello's mother, who was no great rider, but the Contessa and Aurora rode anything that was brought them, as the men did. To tell the truth, the Campagna horse is rarely vicious, and, even when only half broken, can be ridden by a lady if she be an average horsewoman.
Everything happened as usual. The party reached the cottage in time for a late luncheon, rested afterwards, and then rode out. But the Signora Corbario would not go.
"Your pony looks fatter and quieter than ever," said Maddalena dell' Armi with a smile. "If you do not ride him, he will turn into a fixture."
"He is already a very solid piece of furniture," observed Folco, looking at the sleek animal.
"He is very like the square piano I practise on," said Aurora. "He has such a flat back and such straight thick legs."
"More like an organ," put in Marcello, gravely. "He has a curious, half-musical wheeze when he tries to move, like the organ in the church at San Domenico, when the bellows begin to work."
"It is a shame to make fun of my horse," answered the Signora, smiling. "But really I am not afraid of him. I have a little headache from the drive, that is all."
"Take some phenacetine," said Corbario with concern. "Let me make you quite comfortable before we start."
He arranged a long straw chair for her in a sheltered corner of the verandah, with cushions and a rug and a small table beside it, on which Marcello placed a couple of new books that had been brought down. Then Folco went in and got a little glass bottle of tablets from his wife's travelling-bag and gave her one. She was subject to headaches and always had the medicine with her. It was the only remedy she ever carried or needed, and she had such confidence in it that she felt better almost as soon as she had swallowed the tablet her husband gave her.
"Let me stay and read to you," he said. "Perhaps you would go to sleep."
"You are not vain of your reading, my dear," she answered with a smile. "No, please go with the others."
Then the Contessa offered to stay, and the good Signora had to use a good deal of persuasion to make them all understand that she would much rather be left alone. They mounted and rode away through the trees towards the beach, whence the sound of the small waves, breaking gently under the afternoon breeze, came echoing softly up to the cottage.
The two young people rode in front, in silence; Corbario and the Contessa followed at a little distance.
"How good you are to my wife!" Folco exclaimed presently, as they emerged upon the sand. "You are like a sister to her!"
Maddalena glanced at him through her veil. She had small and classic features, rather hard and proud, and her eyes were of a dark violet colour, which is very unusual, especially in Italy. But she came from the north. Corbario could not see her expression, and she knew it.
"You are good to her, too," she said presently, being anxious to be just. "You are very thoughtful and kind."
Corbario thought it wiser to say nothing, and merely bent his head a little in acknowledgment of what he instinctively felt to be an admission on the part of a secret adversary. Maddalena had never said so much before.
"If you were not, I should never forgive you," she added, thinking aloud.
"I don't think you have quite forgiven me as it is," Folco answered more lightly.
"For marrying your best friend."
The little speech was well spoken, so utterly without complaint, or rancour, or suggestion of earnestness, that the Contessa could only smile.
"And yet you admit that I am not a bad husband," continued Folco. "Should you accept me, or, say, my exact counterpart, for Aurora, in a year or two?"
"I doubt whether you have any exact counterpart," Maddalena answered, checking the sharp denial that rose to her lips.
"Myself, then, just for the sake of argument?"
"What an absurd question! Do you mind tightening the girth for me a little? My saddle is slipping."
She drew rein, and he was obliged to submit to the check. As he dismounted he glanced at Aurora's graceful figure, a hundred yards ahead, and for one instant he drew his eyelids together with a very strange expression. He knew that the Contessa could not see his face.
Marcello and Aurora had been companions since they were children, and just now they were talking familiarly of the place, which they had not seen since the previous year. All sorts of details struck them. Here, there was more sand than usual; there, a large piece of timber had been washed ashore in the winter gales; at another place there was a new sand-drift that had quite buried the scrub on the top of the bank; the keeper of the San Lorenzo tower had painted his shutters brown, though they had always been green; here was the spot where Aurora had tumbled off her pony when she was only twelve years old—so long ago! And here—they looked at each other and then quickly at the sea, for it was here that Marcello, in a fit of boyish admiration, had once suddenly kissed her cheek, telling her that she was perfectly beautiful. Even now, he blushed when he thought of it, and yet he longed to do it again, and wondered inwardly what would happen if he did.
As for Aurora, though she looked at the sea for a moment, she seemed quite self-possessed. It is a strange thing that if a boy and a girl are brought up in just the same way, by women, and without many companions, the boy should generally be by far the more shy of the two when childhood is just past.
"You are very fond of your stepfather, are you not?" asked Aurora, so suddenly that Marcello started a little and hesitated slightly before he answered.
"Yes," he said, almost directly, "of course I am! Don't you like him, too?"
"I used to," answered Aurora in a low voice, "but now his eyes frighten me—sometimes. For instance, though he is a good way behind, I am sure he is looking at me now, just in that way."
Marcello turned his head instinctively, and saw that Folco had just dismounted to tighten the girth of the Contessa's saddle. It was exactly while Aurora was speaking that he had drawn his eyelids together with such a strange expression—a mere coincidence, no doubt, but one that would have startled the girl if she could have suddenly seen his face.
They rode on without waiting for the others, at an even canter over the sand.
"I never saw anything in Folco's eyes that could frighten anybody," Marcello said presently.
"No," answered Aurora. "Very likely not."
Marcello had always called Corbario by his first name, and as he grew up it seemed more and more natural to do so. Folco was so young, and he looked even younger than he was.
"It must be your imagination," Marcello said.
"Women," said Aurora, as if she were as near thirty as any young woman would acknowledge herself, "women have no imagination. That is why we have so much sense," she added thoughtfully.
Marcello was so completely puzzled by this extraordinary statement that he could find nothing to say for a few moments. Then he felt that she had attacked his idol, and that Folco must be defended.
"If you could find a single thing, however small, to bring against him, it would not be so silly to say that his eyes frighten you."
"There!" laughed Aurora. "You might as well say that because at this moment there is only that one little cloud near the sun, there is no cloud at all!"
"How ridiculous!" Marcello expressed his contempt of such girlish reasoning by putting his rough little horse to a gallop.
"Men always say that," retorted Aurora, with exasperating calm. "I'll race you to the tower for the first choice of oranges at dessert. They are not very good this year, you know, and you like them."
"Don't be silly!" Marcello immediately reined his horse back to a walk, and looked very dignified.
"It is impossible to please you," observed Aurora, slackening her pace at once.
"It is impossible, if you abuse Folco."
"I am sure I did not mean to abuse him," Aurora answered meekly. "I never abuse anybody."
"Women never do, I suppose," retorted Marcello, with a little snort of dissatisfaction.
They were little more than children yet, and for pretty nearly five minutes neither spoke a word, as their horses walked side by side.
"The keeper of the tower has more chickens this year," observed Aurora. "I can see them running about."
This remark was evidently intended as an overture of reconciliation. It acted like magic upon Marcello, who hated quarrelling, and was moreover much more in love with the girl than he knew. Instinctively he put out his left hand to take her right. They always made peace by taking hands.
But Aurora's did not move, and she did not even turn her head towards him.
"Take care!" she said quickly, in a low tone. "They are watching us."
Marcello looked round and saw that the others were nearer than he had supposed, and he blushed foolishly.
"Well, what harm would there be if you gave me your hand?" he asked. "I only meant—"
"Yes, I understand," Aurora answered, in the same tone as before. "And I am glad you like me, Marcello—if you really do."
"If I do!" His tone was full of youthful and righteous indignation.
"I did not mean to doubt it," she said quickly. "But it is getting to be different now, you know. We are older, and somehow everything means more, even the little things."
"Oh!" ejaculated Marcello. "I begin to see. I suppose," he added, with what seemed to him reckless brutality, "that if I kissed you now you would be furious."
He glanced uneasily at Aurora's face to note the effect of this terrible speech. The result was not exactly what he had expected. A faint colour rose in her cheeks, and then she laughed.
"When you do," she said, "I would rather it should not be before people."
"I shall try to remember that," answered Marcello, considerably emboldened.
"Yes, do! It would be so humiliating if I boxed your ears in the presence of witnesses."
"You would not dare," laughed Marcello.
From a distance, as Aurora had guessed, Folco was watching them while he quietly talked to the Contessa; and as he watched, he understood what a change had taken place since last year, when he had seen Marcello and Aurora riding over the same stretch of sand on the same little horses. He ventured a reflection, to see what his companion would answer.
"I daresay many people would say that those two young people were made for each other."
Maddalena looked at him inquiringly and then glanced at her daughter.
"And what do you say?" she asked, with some curiosity.
"I say 'no.' And you?"
"I agree with you. Aurora is like me—like what I was. Marcello would bore her to death in six months, and Aurora would drive him quite mad."
"I had hoped," he said, "that women with marriageable daughters would think Marcello a model husband. But of course I am prejudiced. I have had a good deal to do with his bringing up during the last four years."
"No one can say that you have not done your duty by him," Maddalena answered. "I wish I could feel that I had done as well by Aurora—indeed I do!"
"You have, but you had quite a different nature to deal with."
"I should think so! It is my own."
Corbario heard the little sigh as she turned her head away, and being a wise man he said nothing in answer. He was not a Roman, if indeed he were really an Italian at all, but he had vaguely heard the Contessa's story. She had been married very young to a parliamentary high-light, who had made much noise in his day, had spent more than half of her fortune after getting rid of his own, and had been forgotten on the morrow of his premature death. It was said that she had loved another man with all her heart, but Corbario had never known who it was.
The sun was almost setting when they turned homeward, and it was dark when they reached the cottage. They found an unexpected arrival installed beside the Signora in the doorway of the sitting-room.
"Professor Kalmon is here," said the Signora's voice out of the gloom. "I have asked him to stay till to-morrow."
The Professor rose up in the shadow and came forward, just as a servant brought a lamp. He was celebrated as a traveller, and occupied the chair of comparative physiology in the University of Milan. He belonged to the modern type of scientific man, which has replaced the one of fifty years ago, who lived in a dressing-gown and slippers, smoked a long pipe, and was always losing his belongings through absence of mind. The modern professor is very like other human beings in dress and appearance, and has even been known to pride himself on the fit of his coat, just like the common people.
There were mutual greetings, for the Professor knew all the party, and everybody liked him. He was a big man, with a well-kept brown beard, a very clear complexion, and bright brown eyes that looked as if they would never need spectacles.
"And where have you been since we last saw you?" asked Corbario.
"Are your pockets full of snakes this time?" asked Aurora.
The Professor looked at her and smiled, realising that she was no longer the child she had been when he had seen her last, and that she was very good to look at. His brown eyes beamed upon her benevolently.
"Ah, my dear young lady, I see it is all over," he said. "You will never pull my beard again and turn my pockets inside out for specimens when I come back from my walks on the beach."
"Do you think I am afraid of you or your specimens?" laughed Aurora.
"I have got a terrible thing in my waistcoat pocket," the Professor answered. "Something you might very well be afraid of."
"What is it? It must be very small to be in your waistcoat pocket."
"It is a new form of death."
He beamed on everybody with increasing benevolence; but somehow nobody smiled, and the Signora Corbario shivered and drew her light cloak more closely round her, as the first gust of the night breeze came up from the rustling reeds that grew in the pool below.
"It is time to get ready for supper," said Folco. "I hope you are not hungry, Kalmon, for you will not get anything very elaborate to eat!"
"Bread and cheese will do, my dear fellow."
When Italians go to the country they take nothing of the city with them. They like the contrast to be complete; they love the total absence of restraint; they think it delightful to dine in their shooting-coats and to eat coarse fare. If they had to dress for dinner it would not be the country at all, nor if dinner had to begin with soup and end with sweets just as it does in town. They eat extraordinary messes that would make a Frenchman turn pale and a German look grave. They make portentous pasties, rich with everything under the sun; they eat fat boiled beef, and raw fennel, and green almonds, and vast quantities of cream cheese, and they drink sour wine like water; and it all agrees with them perfectly, so that they come back to the city refreshed and rested after a gastronomic treatment which would bring any other European to death's door.
The table was set out on the verandah that evening, as usual in spring, and little by little the Professor absorbed the conversation, for they all asked him questions, few of which could be answered shortly. He was one of those profoundly cultivated Italians who are often to be met nowadays, but whose gifts it is not easy to appreciate except in a certain degree of intimacy. They are singularly modest men as a rule, and are by no means those about whom there is the most talk in the world.
The party sat in their places when supper was over, with cloaks and coats thrown over them against the night air, while Kalmon talked of all sorts of things that seemed to have the least possible connection with each other, but which somehow came up quite naturally. He went from the last book on Dante to a new discovery in chemistry, thence to Japanese monks and their beliefs, and came back smiling to the latest development of politics, which led him quite naturally to the newest play, labour and capital, the German Emperor, and the immortality of the soul.
"I believe you know everything!" exclaimed Marcello, with an admiring look. "Or else I know nothing, which is really more probable!" The boy laughed.
"You have not told us about the new form of death yet," said Aurora, leaning on her elbows and burying her young hands in her auburn hair as she looked across the table at Kalmon.
"You will never sleep again if I tell you about it," answered the Professor, opening his brown eyes very wide and trying to look terrible, which was quite impossible, because he had such a kindly face. "You do not look frightened at all," he added, pretending to be disappointed.
"Let me see the thing," Aurora said. "Perhaps we shall all be frightened."
"It looks very innocent," Kalmon answered. "Here it is."
He took a small leather case from his pocket, opened it, and drew out a short blue glass tube, with a screw top. It contained half a dozen white tablets, apparently just like those in common use for five-grain doses of quinine.
A little murmur of disappointment went around the table. The new form of death looked very commonplace. Corbario was the only one who showed any interest.
"May I see?" he asked, holding out his hand to take the tube.
Kalmon would not give it to him, but held the tube before his eyes under the bright light of the lamp.
"Excuse me," he said, "but I make it a rule never to let it go out of my hands. You understand, don't you? If it were passed round, some one might lay it down, it might be forgotten, somebody might take it for something else."
"Of course," said Folco, looking intently at the tube, as though he could understand something about the contents by mere inspection. "You are quite right. You should take no risks with such things—especially as they look so innocent!"
He leaned back in his chair again, as if satisfied, and his eyes met the Contessa's at the same moment. There was no reason why she should not have looked at him just then, but he rested one elbow on the table and shaded his eyes from the light.
"It is strange to reflect," said Kalmon, looking at the tube thoughtfully, "that one of those little things would be enough to put a Hercules out of misery, without leaving the slightest trace which science could discover."
Corbario was still shading his eyes from the light.
"How would one die if one took it?" asked Aurora. "Very suddenly?"
"I call it the sleeping death," answered the Professor. "The poisoned person sinks into a sweet sleep in a few minutes, smiling as if enjoying the most delightful dreams."
"And one never wakes up?" inquired Marcello.
"Never. It is impossible, I believe. I have made experiments on animals, and have not succeeded in waking them by any known means."
"I suppose it congests the brain, like opium," observed Corbario, quietly.
"Not at all, not at all!" answered Kalmon, looking benevolently at the little tube which contained his discovery. "I tell you it leaves no trace whatever, not even as much as is left by death from an electric current. And it has no taste, no smell,—it seems the most innocent stuff in the world."
Corbario's hand again lay on the table and he was gazing out into the night, as if he were curious about the weather. The moon was just rising, being past the full.
"Is that all you have of the poison?" he asked in an idle tone.
"Oh, no! This is only a small supply which I carry with me for experiments. I have made enough to send all our thirty-three millions of Italians to sleep for ever!"
Kalmon laughed pleasantly.
"If this could be properly used, civilisation would make a gigantic stride," he added. "In war, for instance, how infinitely pleasanter and more aesthetic it would be to send the enemy to sleep, with the most delightful dreams, never to wake again, than to tear people to pieces with artillery and rifle bullets, and to blow up ships with hundreds of poor devils on board, who are torn limb from limb by the explosion."
"The difficulty," observed the Contessa, "would be to induce the enemy to take your poison quietly. What if the enemy objected?"
"I should put it into their water supply," said Kalmon.
"Poison the water!" cried the Signora Corbario. "How barbarous!"
"Much less barbarous than shedding oceans of blood. Only think—they would all go to sleep. That would be all."
"I thought," said Corbario, almost carelessly, "that there was no longer any such thing as a poison that left no traces or signs. Can you not generally detect vegetable poisons by the mode of death?"
"Yes," answered the Professor, returning the glass tube to its case and the latter to his pocket. "But please to remember that although we can prove to our own satisfaction that some things really exist, we cannot prove that any imaginable thing outside our experience cannot possibly exist. Imagine the wildest impossibility you can think of; you will not induce a modern man of science to admit the impossibility of it as absolute. Impossibility is now a merely relative term, my dear Corbario, and only means great improbability. Now, to illustrate what I mean, it is altogether improbable that a devil with horns and hoofs and a fiery tail should suddenly appear, pick me up out of this delightful circle, and fly away with me. But you cannot induce me to deny the possibility of such a thing."
"I am so glad to hear you say that," said the Signora, who was a religious woman.
Kalmon looked at her a moment and then broke into a peal of laughter that was taken up by the rest, and in which the good lady joined.
"You brought it on yourself," she said at last.
"Yes," Kalmon answered. "I did. From your point of view it is better to admit the possibility of a mediaeval devil with horns than to have no religion at all. Half a loaf is better than no bread."
"Is that stuff of yours animal, vegetable, or mineral?" asked Corbario as the laughter subsided.
"I don't know," replied the Professor. "Animal, vegetable, mineral? Those are antiquated distinctions, like the four elements of the alchemists."
"Well—but what is the thing, then?" asked Corbario, almost impatiently. "What should you call it in scientific language?"
Kalmon closed his eyes for a moment, as if to collect his thoughts.
"In scientific language," he began, "it is probably H three C seven, parenthesis, H two C plus C four O five, close parenthesis, HC three O."
Corbario laughed carelessly.
"I am no wiser than before," he said.
"Nor I," answered the Professor. "Not a bit."
"It is much simpler to call it 'the sleeping death,' is it not?" suggested the Contessa.
"Much simpler, for that is precisely what it is."
It was growing late, according to country ideas, and the party rose from the table and began to move about a little before going to bed. The moon had risen high by this time.
Marcello and Aurora, unheeded by the rest, went round the verandah to the other side of the house and stood still a moment, looking out at the trees and listening to the sounds of the night. Down by the pool a frog croaked now and then; from a distance came the plaintive, often repeated cry of a solitary owlet; the night breeze sighed through the long grass and the low shrubbery.
The boy and girl turned to each other, put out their hands and then their arms, and clasped each other silently, and kissed. Then they walked demurely back to their elders, without exchanging a word.
"We have had to give you the little room at the end of the cottage," Corbario was saying to Kalmon. "It is the only one left while the Contessa is here."
"I should sleep soundly on bare boards to-night," Kalmon answered. "I have been walking all day."
Corbario went with him, carrying a candle, and shielding the flame from the breeze with his hand. The room was furnished with the barest necessities, like most country rooms in Italy. There were wooden pegs on which to hang clothes instead of a wardrobe, an iron bedstead, a deal wash-stand, a small deal table, a rush-bottomed chair. The room had only one window, which was also the only door, opening to the floor upon the verandah.
"You can bolt the window, if you like," said Corbario when he had bidden the Professor good-night, "but there are no thieves about."
"I always sleep with my windows open," Kalmon answered, "and I have no valuables."
"No? Good-night again."
Corbario went out, leaving him the candle, and turned the corner of the verandah. Then he stood still a long time, leaning against one of the wooden pillars and looking out. Perhaps the moonlight falling through the stiff little trees upon the long grass and shrubbery reminded him of some scene familiar long ago. He smiled quietly to himself as he stood there.
Three hours later he was there again, in almost exactly the same attitude. He must have been cold, for the night breeze was stronger, and he wore only his light sleeping clothes and his feet were bare. He shivered a little from time to time, and his face looked very white, for the moon was now high in the heavens and the light fell full upon him. His right hand was tightly closed, as if it held some small object fast, and he was listening intently, first to the right, whence he had come, then to the left, and then he turned his ear towards the trees, through which the path led away towards the hut where the men slept. But there was no sound except the sighing of the wind. The frog by the pool had stopped croaking, and the melancholy cry of the owlet had ceased.
Corbario went softly on, trying the floor of the verandah with his bare feet at each step, lest the boards should creak a little under his weight. He reached the window door of his own room, and slipped into the darkness without noise.
Kalmon cared little for quail-shooting, and as the carriage was going back to Rome he took advantage of it to reach the city, and took his departure about nine o'clock in the morning.
"By the way, how did you sleep?" asked Corbario as he shook hands at parting. "I forgot to ask you."
"Soundly, thank you," answered the Professor.
And he drove away, waving his felt hat to his hosts.
Marcello coughed a little as he and Corbario trudged home through the sand under the hot May sun. It was sultry, though there were few clouds, and everything that grew looked suddenly languid; each flower and shrub gave out its own peculiar scent abundantly, the smell of last year's rotting leaves and twigs all at once returned and mingled with the odours of green things and of the earth itself, and the heavy air was over-rich with it all, and hard to breathe. By and by the clouds would pile themselves up into vast grey and black fortresses, far away beyond Rome, between the Alban and the Samnite hills, and the lightning would dart at them and tear them to pieces in spite, while the thunder roared out at each home-thrust that it was well done; and then the spring rain would sweep the Campagna, by its length and breadth, from the mountains to the sea, and the world would be refreshed. But now it was near noon and a heavy weariness lay upon the earth.
"You are tired," said Corbario, as they reached the shade of some trees, less than half a mile from the cottage. "Let us sit down for a while."
They sat down, where they could see the sea. It was dull and glassy under the high sun; here and there, far out, the sluggish currents made dark, irregular streaks.
Corbario produced cigarettes and offered one to Marcello, but the boy would not smoke; he said that it made him cough.
"I should smoke all the time, if I were quite well," he said, with a smile.
"And do many other things that young men do, I daresay," laughed Corbario. "Ride steeplechases, play cards all night, and drink champagne at breakfast."
"Perhaps." Marcello was amused at the picture. "I wonder whether I ever shall," he added.
Corbario glanced at him curiously. There was the faintest accent of longing in the tone, which was quite new.
"Why not?" Folco asked, still smiling. "It is merely a question of health, my dear boy. There is no harm in steeplechases if you do not break your neck, nor in playing cards if you do not play high, nor in drinking a glass of champagne now and then—no harm at all, that I can see. But, of course, so long as your lungs are delicate, you must be careful."
"Confound my lungs!" exclaimed Marcello with unusual energy. "I believe that I am much stronger than any of you think."
"I am sometimes inclined to believe it too," Corbario answered encouragingly.
"And I am quite sure that it would do me good to forget all about them and live as if there were nothing the matter with me. Don't you think so yourself?"
Corbario made a gesture of doubt, as if it were possible after all.
"Of course I don't mean dissipation," Marcello went on to say, suddenly assuming the manner of an elderly censor of morals, simply because he did not know what he was talking about. "I don't mean reckless dissipation."
"Of course not," Folco answered gravely. "You see, there are two sorts of dissipation. You must not forget that. The one kind means dissipating your fortune and your health; the other merely means dissipating melancholy, getting rid of care now and then, and of everything that bores one. That is the harmless sort."
"What they call 'harmless excitement'—yes, that is what I should like sometimes. There are days when I feel that I must have it. It is as if the blood went to my head, and my nerves are all on edge, and I wish something would happen, I don't know what, but something, something!"
"I know exactly what you mean, my dear boy," said Corbario in a tone of sympathy. "You see I am not very old myself, after all—barely thirty—not quite, in fact. I could call myself twenty-nine if it were not so much more respectable to be older."
"Yes. But do you mean to say that you feel just what I do now and then?" Marcello asked the question in considerable surprise. "Do you really know that sensation? That burning restlessness—that something like what the earth must feel before a thunderstorm—like the air at this moment?"
Not a muscle of Folco's still face moved.
"Yes," he answered quietly. "I know it very well. It is nothing but the sudden wish for a little harmless excitement, nothing else in the world, my dear boy, and it is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It does not follow that it is at all convenient to yield to it, but we feel it because we lead such a very quiet life."
"But surely, we are perfectly happy," observed Marcello.
"Perfectly, absolutely happy. I do not believe that there are any happier people in the world than we three, your mother, you, and I. We have not a wish unfulfilled."
"No, except that one, when it comes."
"And that does not count in my case," answered Folco. "You see I have had a good deal of—'harmless excitement' in my life, and I know just what it is like, and that it is quite possible to be perfectly happy without it. In fact, I am. But you have never had any at all, and it is as absurd to suppose that young birds will not try to fly as that young men will not want amusement, now and then."
"I suppose that women cannot always understand that," said Marcello, after a moment.
"Women," replied Folco, unmoved, "do not always distinguish quite closely between excitement that is harmless for a man and excitement which is not. To tell the truth," he added, with a laugh, "they hardly ever distinguish at all, and it is quite useless to talk to them about it."
"But surely, there are exceptions?"
"Not many. That is the reason why there is a sort of freemasonry among men of the world, a kind of tacit agreement that women need not be told what goes on at the clubs, and at men's dinners, and late at night when old friends have spent an evening together. Not that there is any harm in it all; but women would not understand. They have their innocent little mysteries which they keep from us, and we have harmless little secrets which we do not let them know."
Folco laughed softly at his own way of putting it, and perhaps because Marcello so easily accepted his point of view.
"I see," said the boy. "I wonder whether my mother would not understand that. It seems so simple!"
"She will, when the time comes, no doubt," answered Corbario. "Your mother is a great exception, my dear boy. On the other hand, she is so anxious about your health just now, that, if I were you, I would not say anything about feeling the want of a little excitement. Of course your life is monotonous. I know it. But there is nothing more monotonous than getting well, is there? The best part of it is the looking forward to what one will do when one is quite strong. You and I can talk of that, sometimes, and build castles in the air; but it is of no use to give your mother the idea that you are beating your wings against the bars of your cage, is it?"
Folco was quite lyric that day, but the words made exactly the impression he wished.
"You are right," Marcello said. "You always are. There is nobody like you, Folco. You are an elder brother to me, and yet you don't preach. I often tell my mother so."
This was true, and what Marcello told her added to her happiness, if anything could do that, and she encouraged the two to go off together as much as possible. She even suggested that they should go down to San Domenico for a fortnight, to look after the great Calabrian estate.
They rose and began to walk toward the cottage. The shooting had been good that morning, as quail-shooting goes, and the man who acted as keeper, loader, gardener, and general factotum, and who went out with any one who wanted to shoot, had gone on to the cottage with the bag, the two guns, and the animal which he called his dog. The man's name was Ercole, that is to say, Hercules; and though he was not a giant, he certainly bore a closer resemblance to the hero than his dog did to dogs in general.
"He was born in my house," Ercole said, when any one asked questions. "Find a better one if you can. His name? I call him Nino, short for John, because he barks so well at night. You don't understand? It is the 'voice of one crying in the wilderness.' Did you never go to Sunday school? Or do you call this place a garden, a park, a public promenade? I call it a desert. There are not even cats."
When an Italian countryman says of a place that even cats will not stay in it, he considers that he has evoked a picture of ultimate desolation that cannot be surpassed. It had always been Ercole's dream to live in the city, though he did not look like a man naturally intended for town life. He was short and skinny, though he was as wiry as a monkey; his face was slightly pitted with the smallpox, and the malaria of many summers had left him with a complexion of the colour of cheap leather; he had eyes like a hawk, matted black hair, and jagged white teeth. He and his fustian clothes smelt of earth, burnt gunpowder, goat's cheese, garlic, and bad tobacco. He was no great talker, but his language was picturesque and to the point; and he feared neither man nor beast, neither tramp nor horned cattle, nor yet wild boar. He was no respecter of persons at all. The land where the cottage was had belonged to a great Roman family, now ruined, and when, the land had been sold, he had apparently been part of the bargain, and had come into the possession of the Signora Corbario with it. In his lonely conversations with Nino, he had expressed his opinion of each member of the family with frankness.
"You are a good dog, Nino," he would say. "You are the consolation of my soul. But you do not understand these things. Corbario is an assassin. Money, money, money! That is all he thinks of from morning till night. I know it, because he never speaks of it, and yet he never gives away anything. It is all for himself, the Signora's millions, the boy's millions, everything. When I look at his face, a chill seizes me, and I tremble as when I have the fever. You never had the malaria fever, Nino. Dogs don't have it, do they?"
At the question Nino turned his monstrous head to one side and looked along his muzzle at his master. If he had possessed a tail he would have wagged it, or thumped the hard ground with it a few times; but he had none. He had probably lost it in some wild battle of his stormy youth, fought almost to death against the huge Campagna sheep-dogs; or perhaps a wolf had got it, or perhaps he had never had a tail at all. Ercole had probably forgotten, and it did not really matter much.
"Corbario is an assassin," he said. "Remember that, Nino. As for his poor lady, she is a little lacking, or she would never have married him. But she is a saint, and what do saints want with cleverness? They go to paradise. Does that need much sense? We should all go if we could. Why do you cock your head on one side and look at me like a Christian? Are you trying to make me think you have a soul? You are made of nothing but corn meal and water, and a little wool, poor beast! But you have more sense than the Signora, and you are not an assassin, like her husband."
At this, Nino threw himself upon his back with his four legs in the air and squirmed with sheer delight, showing his jagged teeth and the roof of a very terrible mouth, and emitting a series of wolfish snorts; after which he suddenly rolled over upon his feet again, shook himself till his shaggy coat bristled all over his body, walked sedately to the open door of the hut, and sat down to look at the weather.
"He is almost a Christian," Ercole remarked under his breath, as if he were afraid the dog might hear the compliment and grow too vain.
For Ercole was a reticent man, and though he told Nino what he thought about people, he never told any one else. Marcello was the only person to whom he ever showed any inclination to attach himself. He regarded even the Contessa with suspicion, perhaps merely because she was a woman; and as for Aurora, girls did not count at all in his cosmogony.
"God made all the other animals before making women," he observed contemptuously one day, when he had gone out alone with Marcello.
"I like them," laughed the boy.
"So did Adam," retorted Ercole, "and you see what came of it."
No answer to this argument occurred to Marcello just then, so he said nothing; and he thought of Aurora, and his mother, and the sad-eyed Contessa, and wondered vaguely whether they were very unlike other women, as Ercole implied.
"When you know women," the man vouchsafed to add presently, "you will wish you were dead. The Lord sent them into the world for an affliction and for the punishment of our sins."
"You were never married, were you?" asked Marcello, still smiling.
Ercole stopped short in the sand, amongst the sea-thistles that grew there, and Nino trotted up and looked at him, to be ready if anything happened. Marcello knew the man's queer ways, and waited for him to speak.
"Married?" he snorted. "Married? You have said it!"
This seemed enigmatical, but Marcello understood the words to convey an affirmation.
"Well?" he asked, expecting more.
"Well? Well, what?" growled Ercole. "This is a bad world. A man falls in love with a pretty little caterpillar; he wakes up and finds himself married to a butterfly. Oh, this is a very bad world!"
Marcello was struck by the simile, but he reflected that Aurora looked much more like a butterfly than a caterpillar, a fact which, if it meant anything, should signify that he knew the worst beforehand. Ercole declined to enter into any account of his conjugal experiences, and merely shrugged his shoulders and went on through the sand.
With such fitting and warning as this to keep him out of trouble, Marcello was to face life: with his saintly mother's timid allusions to its wickedness, with Corbario's tempting suggestions of harmless dissipation, with an unlettered peasant's sour reflections on the world in general and women in particular.
In the other scale of the balance fate set his delicate and high-strung nature, his burning desire for the great unknown something, the stinging impatience of bodily weakness, and the large element of recklessness he inherited from his father, besides a fine admixture of latent boyish vanity for women to play upon, and all the ordinary weaknesses of human nature in about the same proportion as every one has them.
Given a large fortune and ordinary liberty, it might be foreseen that the boy would not reach the haven of maturity without meeting a storm, even if the outward circumstances of chance were all in his favour, even if no one had an interest in ruining him, even if Folco Corbario did not want all for himself, as poor Ercole told his dog that he did in the solitude of his hut.
Marcello had a bad chance at the start, and Maddalena dell' Armi, who knew the world well in all its moods, and had suffered by it and sinned for it, and had shed many tears in secret before becoming what she was now, foresaw danger, and hoped that her daughter's fate might not be bound up with that of her friend's son, much as she herself liked the gentle-hearted boy. She wondered how long any one would call him gentle after he got his first taste of pleasure and pain.
It was very early morning, and there was no shooting, for a southwesterly gale had been blowing all night, and the birds passed far inland. All along the beach, for twenty-five miles in an unbroken line, the surf thundered in, with a double roar, breaking on the bar, then gathering strength again, rising grey and curling green and crashing down upon the sand. Then the water opened out in vast sheets of crawling foam that ran up to the very foot of the bank where the scrub began to grow, and ran regretfully back again, tracing myriads of tiny channels where the sand was loose; but just as it had almost subsided, another wave curled and uncurled itself, and trembled a moment, and flung its whole volume forwards through a cloud of unresisting spray.
It had rained a little, too, and it would rain again. The sky was of an even leaden grey, and as the sun rose unseen, a wicked glare came into it, as if the lead were melting; and the wind howled unceasingly, the soft, wet, southwest wind of the great spring storms.
Less than a mile from the shore a small brigantine, stripped to a lower topsail, storm-jib, and balance-reefed mainsail, was trying to claw off shore. She had small chance, unless the gale shifted or moderated, for she evidently could not carry enough sail to make any way against the huge sea, and to heave to would be sure destruction within two hours.
The scrub and brushwood were dripping with raindrops, and the salt spray was blown up the bank with the loose sand. Everything was wet, grey, and dreary, as only the Roman shore can be at such times, with that unnatural dreariness of the south which comes down on nature suddenly like a bad dream, and is a thousand times more oppressive than the stern desolation of any northern sea-coast.
Marcello and Aurora watched the storm from a break in the bank which made a little lee. The girl was wrapped in a grey military cloak, of which she had drawn the hood over her loose hair. Her delicate nostrils dilated with pleasure to breathe the salt wind, and her eyelids drooped as she watched the poor little vessel in the distance.
"You like it, don't you?" asked Marcello, as he looked at her.
"I love it!" she answered enthusiastically. "And I may never see it all again," she added after a little pause.
"Never?" Marcello started a little. "Are you going away?"
"We are going to Rome to-day. But that is not what I mean. We have always come down every year for ever so long. How long is it, Marcello? We were quite small the, first time."
"It must be five years. Four or five—ever since my mother bought the land here."
"We were mere children," said Aurora, with the dignity of a grown person. "That is all over."
"I wish it were not!" Marcello sighed.
"How silly you are!" observed Aurora, throwing back her beautiful head. "But then, I am sure I am much more grown up than you are, though you are nineteen, and I am not quite eighteen."
"You are seventeen," said Marcello firmly.
"I shall be eighteen on my next birthday!" retorted Aurora with warmth. "Then we shall see who is the more grown up. I shall be in society, and you—why, you will not even be out of the University."
She said this with the contempt which Marcello's extreme youth deserved.
"I am not going to the University."
"Then you will be a boy all your life. I always tell you so. Unless you do what other people do, you will never grow up at all. You ought to be among men by this time, instead of everlastingly at home, clinging to your mother's skirts!"
A bright flush rose in Marcello's cheeks. He felt that he wanted to box her ears, and for an instant he wished himself small again that he might do it, though he remembered what a terrible fighter Aurora had been when she was a little girl, and had preserved a vivid recollection of her well-aimed slaps.
"Don't talk about my mother in that way," he said angrily.
"I'm not talking of her at all. She is a saint, and I love her very much. But that is no reason why you should always be with her, as if you were a girl! I don't suppose you mean to begin life as a saint yourself, do you? You are rather young for that, you know."
"No," Marcello answered, feeling that he was not saying just the right thing, but not knowing what to say. "And I am sure my mother does not expect it of me, either," he added. "But that is no reason why you should be so disagreeable."
He felt that he had been weak, and that he ought to say something sharp. He knew very well that his mother believed it quite possible for a boy to develop into saintship without passing through the intermediate state of sinning manhood; and though his nature told him that he was not of the temper that attains sanctity all at once, he felt that he owed to his mother's hopes for him a sort of loyalty in which Aurora had made him fail. The reasonings of innocent sentiment are more tortuous than the wiles of the devil himself, and have amazing power to torment the unfledged conscience of a boy brought up like Marcello.
Aurora's way of thinking was much more direct.
"If you think I am disagreeable, you can go away," she said, with a scornful laugh.
"Thank you. You are very kind." He tried to speak sarcastically, but it was a decided failure.
To his surprise, Aurora turned and looked at him very quietly.
"I wonder whether I shall like you, when you are a man," she said in a tone of profound reflection. "I am rather ashamed of liking you now, because you are such a baby."
He flushed again, very angry this time, and he moved away to leave her, without another word.
She turned her face to the storm and took no notice of him. She thought that he would come back, but there was just the least doubt about it, which introduced an element of chance and was perfectly delightful while it lasted. Was there ever a woman, since the world began, who did not know that sensation, either by experience or by wishing she might try it? What pleasure would there be in angling if the fish did not try to get off the hook, but stupidly swallowed it, fly and all? It might as well crawl out of the stream at once and lay itself meekly down in the basket.
And Marcello came back, before he had taken four steps.
"Is that what you meant when you said that you might never come here again?" he asked, and there was something rough in his tone that pleased her.
"No," she answered, as if nothing had happened. "Mamma talked to me a long time last night."
"What did she say?"
"Do you want to know?"
"There is no reason why I should not tell you. She says that we must not come here after I go into society, because people will think that she is trying to marry me to you."
She looked at him boldly for a moment, and then turned her eyes to the sea.
"Why should she care what people think?" he asked.
"Because it would prevent me from marrying any one else," answered Aurora, with the awful cynicism of youth. "If every one thought I was engaged to you, or going to be, no other man could ask for me. It's simple enough, I'm sure!"
"And you wish other men to ask you to marry them, I suppose?"
Marcello was a little pale, but he tried to throw all the contempt he could command into his tone. Aurora smiled sweetly.
"Naturally," she said. "I'm only a woman."
"Which means that I'm a fool to care for you!"
"You are, if you think I'm not worth caring for." The girl laughed.
This was so very hard to understand that Marcello knit his smooth young brow and looked very angry, but could find nothing to say on the spur of the moment. All women are born with the power to put a man into such a position that he must either contradict himself, hold his tongue, or fly into a senseless rage. They do this so easily, that even after the experience of a life-time we never suspect the trap until they pull the string and we are caught. Then, if we contradict ourselves, woman utters an inhuman cry of triumph and jeers at our unstable purpose; if we lose our tempers instead, she bursts into tears and calls us brutes; and finally, if we say nothing, she declares, with a show of reason, that we have nothing to say.
Marcello lost his temper.
"You are quite right," he said angrily. "You are not worth caring for. You are a mere child, and you are a miserable little flirt already, and you will be a detestable woman when you grow up! You will lead men on, and play with them, and then laugh at them. But you shall not laugh at me again. You shall not have that satisfaction! You shall wish me back, but I will not come, not if you break your silly little heart!"
With this terrific threat the boy strode away, leaving her to watch the storm alone in the lee of the sandbank. Aurora knew that he really meant to go this time, and at first she was rather glad of it, since he was in such a very bad temper. She felt that he had insulted her, and if he had stayed any longer she would doubtless have called him a brute, that being the woman's retort under the circumstances. She had not the slightest doubt of being quite reconciled with him before luncheon, of course, but in her heart she wished that she had not made him angry. It had been very pleasant to watch the storm together, and when they had come to the place, she had felt a strong presentiment that he would kiss her, and that the contrast between the kiss and the howling gale would be very delightful.
The presentiment had certainly not come true, and now that Marcello was gone it was not very amusing to feel the spray and the sand on her face, or to watch the tumbling breakers and listen to the wind. Besides, she had been there some time, and she had not even had her little breakfast of coffee and rolls before coming down to the shore. She suddenly felt hungry and cold and absurdly inclined to cry, and she became aware that the sand had got into her russet shoes, and that it would be very uncomfortable to sit down in such a place to take them off and shake it out; and that, altogether, misfortunes never come singly.
After standing still three or four minutes longer, she turned away with a discontented look in her face, all rosy with the wind and spray. She started as she saw Corbario standing before her, for she had not heard his footsteps in the gale. He wore his shooting-coat and heavy leathern gaiters, but he had no gun. She thought he looked pale, and that there was a shade of anxiety in his usually expressionless face.
"We wondered where you were," he said. "There is coffee in the verandah, and your mother is out already."
"I came down to look at the storm," Aurora answered. "I forgot all about breakfast."
They made a few steps in the direction of the cottage. Aurora felt that Corbario was looking sideways at her as they walked.
"Have you seen Marcello?" he asked presently.
"Did you not meet him?" Aurora was surprised. "It is not five minutes since he left me."
"No. I did not meet him."
"That is strange."
They went on in silence for a few moments.
"I cannot understand why you did not meet Marcello," Aurora said suddenly, as if she had thought it over. "Did you come this way?"
"Perhaps he got back before you started. He walks very fast."
"Perhaps," Corbario said, "but I did not see him. I came to look for you both."
"Expecting to find us together, of course!" Aurora threw up her head a little disdainfully, for Marcello had offended her.
"He is generally somewhere near you, poor boy," answered Corbario in a tone of pity.
"Why do you say 'poor boy' in that tone? Do you think he is so much to be pitied?"
"A little, certainly." Corbario smiled.
"I don't see why."
"Women never do, when a man is in love!"
"Women"—the flattery was subtle and Aurora's face cleared. Corbario was a man of the world, without doubt, and he had called her a woman, in a most natural way, as if she had been at least twenty years old. It did not occur to her to ask herself whether Folco had any object in wishing to please her just then, but she knew well enough that he did wish to do so. Even a girl's instinct is unerring in that; and Corbario further pleased her by not pursuing the subject, for what he had said seemed all the more spontaneous because it led to nothing.
"If Marcello is not in the cottage," he observed, as they came near, "he must have gone off for a walk after he left you. Did you not see which way he turned?"
"How could I from the place where I stood?" asked Aurora in reply. "As soon as he had turned behind the bank it was impossible to say which way he had gone."
"Of course," assented Folco. "I understand that."
Marcello had not come home, and Aurora was sorry that she had teased him into a temper and had then allowed him to go away. It was not good for him, delicate as he was, to go for a long walk in such weather without any breakfast, and she felt distinctly contrite as she ate her roll in silence and drank her coffee, on the sheltered side of the cottage, under the verandah. The Signora Corbario had not appeared yet, but the Contessa was already out. As a rule the Signora preferred to have her coffee in her room, as if she were in town. For some time no one spoke.
"Had we not better send Ercole to find Marcello?" the Contessa asked at last.
"I had to send Ercole to Porto d'Anzio this morning," Corbario answered. "I took the opportunity, because I knew there would be no quail with this wind."
"Marcello will come in when he is hungry," said Aurora, rather sharply, because she really felt sorry.
But Marcello did not come in.
Soon after eight o'clock his mother appeared on the verandah. Folco dropped his newspaper and hastened to make her comfortable in her favourite chair. Though she was not strong, she was not an invalid, but she was one of those women whom it seems natural to help, to whom men bring cushions, and with whom other women are always ready to sympathise. If one of Fra Angelico's saints should walk into a modern drawing-room all the men would fall over each other in the scramble to make her comfortable, and all the women would offer her tea and ask her if she felt the draught.
The Signora looked about, expecting to see her son.
"Marcello has not come in," said Folco, understanding. "He seems to have gone for a long walk."
"I hope he has put on his thick boots," answered the Signora, in a thoughtful tone. "It is very wet."
She asked why Folco was not with him shooting, and was told that there were no birds in such weather. She had never understood the winds, nor the points of the compass, nor why one should see the new moon in the west instead of in the east. Very few women do, but those who live much with men generally end by picking up a few useful expressions, a little phrase-book of jargon terms with which men are quite satisfied. They find out that a fox has no tail, a wild boar no teeth, a boat no prow, and a yacht no staircase; and this knowledge is better than none.
The Signora accepted the fact that there were no birds that morning, and began to talk to Maddalena. Aurora got a book and pretended to read, but she was really listening for Marcello's footsteps, and wondering whether he would smile at her, or would still be cross when he came in. Corbario finished his paper and went off to look at the weather from the other side of the house, and the two women talked in broken sentences as old friends do, with long intervals of silence.
The wind had moderated a good deal, but as the sun rose higher the glare in the sky grew more yellow, the air was much warmer, and the trees and shrubs and long grass began to steam as if they had been half boiled. All manner of tiny flies and gnats chased each other in the lurid light.
"It feels as if there were going to be an earthquake," said Maddalena, throwing back the lace from her grey hair as if even its light weight oppressed her.
The women sat in silence, uneasy, their lips a little parted. Not that an earthquake would have disturbed them much, for slight ones are common enough in Italy, and could do no harm at all to a wooden cottage; it was a mere physical breathlessness that they felt, as the gale suddenly dropped and the heavy air became quite still on the sheltered side of the cottage.
Aurora threw aside her book impatiently and rose from her chair.
"I am going to look for Marcello," she said, and she went off without turning her head.
On the other side of the cottage, as she went round, she found Folco sitting on the steps of the verandah, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his folded hands, apparently in deep thought. He had a cigar between his teeth, but it had gone out.
"I am going to look for Marcello," said Aurora, as she passed close beside him.
He said nothing, and hardly moved his head. Aurora turned and looked at him as she stepped upon the path.
"What is the matter?" she asked, as she saw his face. "Is anything wrong?"
Corbario looked up quickly, as if he had been in a reverie.
"Anything the matter? No. Where did you say you were going?"
"To find Marcello. He has not come in yet."
"He has gone for a walk, I suppose. He often walks alone on off days. He will be back before luncheon, and you are not going to town till the afternoon."
"Will you come with me?" Aurora asked, for she was in a good humour with Folco.
He rose at once.
"I'll go with you for a stroll," he said, "but I don't think it is of any use to look for Marcello near the house."
"It can do no harm."
"And it will do us good to walk a bit."
They went down the path and through the trees towards the break in the bank.
"The sand was very wet this morning, even inside the bank," Aurora said. "I daresay we shall find his footsteps and be able to guess which way he went."
"Very likely," Folco answered.
He pushed back his tweed cap a little and passed his handkerchief across his smooth brow. Aurora noticed the action, because he did not usually get warm so easily.
"Are you hot?" she asked carelessly.
"A little," he answered. "The air is so heavy this morning."
"Perhaps you are not quite well," said Aurora. "You are a little pale."
Apparently something in her youthfully patronising tone came as near irritating him as anything ever could.
"What does it matter, whether I am hot or not?" he asked, almost impatiently, and again he passed his handkerchief over his forehead.
"I did not mean to annoy you," Aurora answered with uncommon meekness.
They came near the break in the bank, and she looked at the sand on each side of her. She thought it seemed smoother than usual, and that there were not so many little depressions in it, where there had been footsteps on previous days, half obliterated by wind and rain.
"I cannot see where you and I passed an hour ago," she said, in some surprise.
"The wind draws through the gap with tremendous strength," Folco explained. "Just before the gale moderated there was a heavy squall with rain."
"Was there? I did not notice that—but I was on the lee side of the house. The wind must have smoothed the sand, just like a flat-iron!"
"Yes." Corbario answered indifferently and gazed out to sea.
Aurora left his side and looked about, going to a little distance from the gap, first on one side and then on the other.
"It is as if the wind had done it on purpose!" she cried impatiently. "It is as smooth as if it had all been swept with a gardener's broom."
Corbario turned, lighted his extinguished cigar, and watched her, as she moved about, stooping now and then to examine the sand.
"I don't believe it is of any use to look here," he said. "Besides, he will be back in time for luncheon."
"I suppose so," answered Aurora. "Why do you look at me in that way?" she asked, standing upright and meeting his eyes suddenly.
He laughed softly and took his cigar from his mouth.
"I was watching you. You are very graceful when you move."
She did not like his expression.
"I wish you would think less about me and more about finding Marcello," she said rather sharply.
"You talk as if he were lost. I tell you he will surely come back before long."
"I hope so."
But Marcello did not come back, and after Aurora had returned to the cottage and was seated in her chair again, with her book, she grew restless, and went over in her memory what had passed in the morning. It was not possible that Marcello should really mean to carry out his threat, to go away without a word, to leave her, to leave his mother; and yet, he was gone. A settled conviction came over her that he was really gone, just as he was, most probably back to Rome. She had teased him, and he had been very angry, absurdly angry; and yet she was perhaps responsible, in a way, for his disappearance. Presently his mother would grow anxious and would ask questions, and then it would all come out. It would be better to be brave and to say at once that he had been angry with her; she could confess the truth to her mother, to the Signora, if necessary, or even to both together, for they were women and would understand. But she could not tell the story before Corbario. That would be out of the question; and yet, anything would be better than to let them all think that something dreadful had happened to Marcello. He had gone to Rome, of course; or perhaps only to Porto d'Anzio, in which case he would meet Ercole coming back.
The hours wore on to midday, and Signora Corbario's uneasiness grew into real anxiety. The Contessa did her best to soothe her, but was anxious herself, and still Aurora said nothing. Folco was grave, but assured every one that the boy would soon return, though the Signora would not believe it.