IT was long before Orsino saw Maria Consuelo again, but the circumstances of his last meeting with her constantly recurred to his mind during the following months. It is one of the chief characteristics of Rome that it seems to be one of the most central cities in Europe during the winter, whereas in the summer months it appears to be immensely remote from the rest of the civilized world. From having been the prey of the inexpressible foreigner in his shooting season, it suddenly becomes, and remains during about five months, the happy hunting-ground of the silent flea, the buzzing fly, and the insinuating mosquito. The streets are indeed still full of people, and long lines of carriages may be seen towards sunset in the Villa Borghesa and in the narrow Corso. Rome and the Romans are not so easily parted as London and London society, for instance. May comes, the queen of the months in the south. June follows. Southern blood rejoices in the first strong sunshine. July trudges in at the gates, sweating under the cloudless sky, heavy, slow of foot, oppressed by the breath of the coming dog-star. Still the nights are cool. Still, towards sunset, the refreshing breeze sweeps up from the sea and fills the streets. Then behind closely fastened blinds the glass windows are opened, and the weary hand drops the fan at last. Then men and women array themselves in the garments of civilization and sally forth, in carriages, on foot, and in trams, according to the degrees of social importance which provide that in old countries the second class shall be made to suffer for the priceless treasure of a respectability which is a little higher than the tram, and financially not quite equal to the cab. Then, at that magic touch of the west wind the house-fly retires to his own peculiar Inferno, wherever that may be, the mosquito and the gnat pause in their work of darkness and blood to concert fresh and more bloodthirsty deeds, and even the joyous and wicked flea tires of the war dance and lays down his weary head to snatch a hard-earned nap. July drags on, and terrible August treads the burning streets, bleaching the very dust upon the pavement, scourging the broad campagna with fiery lashes of heat. Then the white-hot sky reddens in the evening when it cools, as the white iron does when it is taken from the forge. Then, at last, all those who can escape from the condemned city flee for their lives to the hills, while those who must face the torment of the sun and the poison of the air turn pale in their sufferings, feebly curse their fate, and then grow listless, weak, and irresponsible as over-driven galley slaves, indifferent to everything, work, rest, blows, food, sleep, and the hope of release. The sky darkens suddenly. There is a sort of horror in the stifling air. People do not talk much, and if they do are apt to quarrel, and sometimes to kill one another without warning. The plash of the fountains has a dull sound, like the pouring out of molten lead. The horses’ hoofs strike visible sparks out of the gray stones in broad daylight. Many houses are shut, and one fancies that there must be a dead man in each whom no one will bury. A few great drops of rain make ink-stains on the pavement at noon, and there is an exasperating halfsulphurous smell abroad. Late in the afternoon they fall again. An evil wind comes in hot blasts from all quarters at once; then a low roar like an earthquake, and presently a crash that jars upon the overwrought nerves ; great and plashing drops again, a sharp, short flash, —then crash upon crash, deluge upon deluge, and the worst is over. Summer has received its first mortal wound. But its death is more fatal than its life. The noontide heat is fierce, and drinks up the moisture of the rain, and the fetid dust with it. The fever-wraith rises in the damp, cool night, far out in the campagna, and steals up to the walls of the city, and over them and under them and into the houses. If there are those yet left in Rome who can by any possibility take themselves out of it, they are not long in going. Till that moment there has been only Suffering to be borne; now there is danger of something worse. Now, indeed, the city becomes a desert inhabited by white-faced ghosts. Now, if it be a year of cholera, the dead-carts rattle through the streets all night, on their way to the gate of St. Lawrence, and the workmen count their numbers when they meet at dawn. But the bad days are not many, if only there be rain enough; for a little is worse than none. The nights lengthen, and the September gales sweep away the poison-mists with kindly strength. Body and soul revive, as the ripe grapes appear in their vine-covered baskets at the street corners. Rich October is coining, the month in which the small citizens of Rome take their wives and the children to the near towns, —to Marino, to Frascati, to Albano and Aricia, — to eat late fruits and drink new must, with songs and laughter, and small miseries and great delights, such as are remembered a whole year. The first clear breeze out of the north shakes down the dying leaves and brightens the blue air. The brown campagna turns green again, and the heart of the poor lame cab-horse is lifted up. The huge porter of the palace lays aside his linen coat and his pipe, and opens wide the great gates; for the masters are coming back, from their castles and country places, from the sea and the mountains, from north and south, from the magic shore of Sorrento, and from distant French bathing - places, —some with brides or husbands, some with rosy Roman babies making their first triumphal entrance into Rome, and some, again, returning companionless to the home they left in companionship. The great and complicated machinery of social life is set in order and repaired for the winter; the lost or damaged pieces in the engine are carefully replaced with new ones which will do as well or better, the joints and bearings are lubricated, the whistle of the first invitation is heard, there is some puffing and a little creaking at first, and then the big wheels begin to go slowly round, solemnly and regularly as ever, while all the little wheels run as fast as they can, and set fire to their axles in the attempt to keep up the speed, and are finally jammed and caught up and smashed, as little wheels are sure to be when they try to act like big ones. But unless something happens to one of the very biggest the machine does not stop until the end of the season, when it is taken to pieces again for repairs.
That is the brief history of a Roman year, of which the main points are very much like those of its predecessor and successor. The framework is the same, but the decorations change, slowly, surely, and not, perhaps, advantageously, as the younger generation crowds into the place of the older, as young acquaintances take the place of old friends, as faces strange to us hide faces we have loved.
Orsino Saracinesca, in his new character as a contractor and a man of business, knew that he must either spend the greater part of the summer in town, or leave his affairs in the hands of Andrea Contini. The latter course was repugnant to him, partly because he still felt a beginner’s interest in his first success, and partly because he had a shrewd suspicion that Contini, if left to himself in the hot weather, might be tempted to devote more time to music than to architecture. The business, too, was now on a much larger scale than before, though Orsino had taken his mother’s advice in not at once going so far as he might have gone. It needed all his own restless energy, all Contini’s practical talents, and perhaps more of Del Ferice’s influence than either of them suspected, to keep it going on the road to success.
In July Orsino’s people made ready to go up to Saracinesca. The old prince, to the surprise of every one, declared his intention of going to England, and roughly refused to be accompanied by any one of the family. He wanted to find out some old friends, he said, and desired the satisfaction of spending a couple of months in peace, which was quite impossible at home, owing to Giovanni’s outrageous temper and Orsino’s craze for business. He thereupon embraced them all affectionately, indulged in a hearty laugh, and departed in a special carriage with his own servants.
Giovanni objected to Orsino’s staying in Rome during the great heat. Though Orsino had not as yet entered into any explanation with his father, the latter understood well enough that the business had turned out better than had been expected, and began to feel an interest in its further success for his son’s sake. He saw the boy developing into a man by a process which he would naturally have supposed to be the worst possible one, judging from his own point of view. But he could not find fault with the result. There was no disputing the mental superiority of the Orsino of July over the Orsino of the preceding January. Whatever the sensation which Giovanni experienced as he contemplated the growing change, it was not one of anxiety nor of disappointment. But he had a Roman’s well-founded prejudice against spending August and September in town. His objections gave rise to some discussion, in which Corona joined.
Orsino enlarged upon the necessity of attending in person to the execution of his contracts. Giovanni suggested that he should find some trustworthy person to take his place. Corona was in favor of a compromise. It would be easy, she said, for Orsino to spend two or three days of every week in Rome, and the remainder in the country with his father and mother. They were all three quite right according to their own views, and they all three knew it. Moreover, they were all three very obstinate people. The consequence was that Orsino, who was in possession, so to say, since the other two were trying to make him change his mind, got the best of the argument, and won his first pitched battle. Not that there was any apparent hostility, or that any of the three spoke hotly or loudly. They were none of them like old Saracinesca, whose feats of argumentation were vehement, eccentric, and fiery as his own nature. They talked with apparent calm through a long summer’s afternoon, and the vanquished retired with a fairly good grace, leaving Orsino master of the field. But on that occasion Giovanni Saracinesca first formed the opinion that his son was a match for him, and that it would be wise in future to ascertain the chances of success before incurring the risk of a humiliating defeat.
Giovanni and his wife went out together, and talked over the matter as their carriage swept round the great avenues of Villa Borghesa.
“There is no question of the fact that Orsino is growing up, — is grown up already, ” said Sant ’ Ilario, glancing at Corona’s calm, dark face.
She smiled with a certain pride, as she heard the words.
“Yes,” she answered, “he is a man. It is a mistake to treat him as a boy any longer. ”
“Do you think it is this sudden interest in business that has changed him so ? ”
“Of course; what else ? ”
“ Madame d’Aranjuez, for instance, ” Giovanni suggested.
“ I do not believe she ever had the least influence over him. The flirtation seems to have died a natural death.
I confess I hoped it might end in that way, and I am glad if it has. And I am very glad that Orsino is succeeding so well. Do you know, dear, I am glad because you did not believe it possible that he would.”
“No, I did not. And now that I begin to understand it, he does not like to talk to me about his affairs. I suppose that is only natural. Tell me, — has he really made money ? Or have you been giving him money to lose, in order that he may buy experience ?”
“He has succeeded alone,” said Corona proudly. " I would give him whatever he needed, but he needs nothing. He is immensely clever and immensely energetic. How could he fail? ”
“You seem to admire our firstborn, my dear, ” observed Giovanni, with a smile.
“To tell the truth, I do. I have no doubt that he does all sorts of things that he ought not to do, and of which I know nothing. You did the same at his age, and I shall be quite satisfied if he turns out like you. I should not like to have a ladylike son, with white hands, and delicate sensibilities, and hypocritical affectations of exaggerated morality. I think I should be capable of trying to make such a boy had, if it only made him manly, — though I dare say that would be very wrong. ”
“No doubt,” said Giovanni. “But we shall not be placed in any such position by Orsino, my dear. You remember that little affair, last year, in England? It was very nearly a scandal. But then, the English are easily led into temptation, and very easily scandalized afterwards. Orsino will not err in the direction of hypocritical morality. But that is not the question. I wish to know from you, since he does not confide in me, how far he is really succeeding. ”
Corona gave her husband a remarkably clear statement of Orsino’s affairs, without exaggeration so far as the facts were concerned, but not without highly favorable comment. She did not attempt to conceal her triumph, now that success had been in a measure attained, and she did not hesitate to tell Giovanni that he ought to have encouraged and supported the boy from the first.
Giovanni listened with very great interest, and bore her affectionate reproaches with equanimity. He felt in his heart that he had done right, and he somehow still believed that things were not in reality all that they seemed to be. There was something in Orsino’s immediate success against odds apparently heavy which disturbed him. He had not, it was true, any personal experience of the building speculations in the city, nor of financial transactions in general, as at present understood, and he had recently heard of cases in which individuals had succeeded beyond their own wildest expectations. There was, perhaps, no reason why Orsino should not do as well as other people, or even better, in spite of his extreme youth. Andrea Contini was probably a man of superior talent, well able to have directed the whole affair alone, if other circumstances had been favorable to him, and there was, on the whole, nothing to prove that the two young men had received more than their fair share of assistance or accommodation from the bank. But Giovanni knew well enough that Del Ferice was the most influential personage in the bank in question, and the mere suggestion of his name lent to the whole affair a suspicious quality which disturbed Orsino’s father. In spite of all reasonable reflections there was an air of unnatural good fortune in the case which he did not like, and he had enough experience of Del Ferice’s tortuous character to distrust his intentions. He would have preferred to see his son lose money through Ugo rather than that Orsino should owe the latter the smallest thanks. The fact that he had not spoken with the man for over twenty years did not increase the confidence he felt in him. In that time Del Feriee had developed into a very important personage, having much greater power to do harm than he had possessed ia former days, and it was not to be supposed that he had forgotten old wounds or given up all hope of avenging them. Del Ferice was not very subject to that sort of forgetfulness.
When Corona had finished speaking, Giovanni was silent for a few moments.
“Is it not splendid?” Corona asked enthusiastically. “Why do you not say anything ? One would think that you were not pleased.”
“On the contrary, so far as Orsino is concerned I am delighted. But I do not trust Del Ferice.”
“Del Ferice is far too clever a man to ruin Orsino, ” answered Corona.
“Exactly. That is the trouble. That is what makes me feel that though Orsino has worked hard and shown extraordinary intelligence, — and deserves credit for that, — yet he would not have succeeded in the same way if he had dealt with any other bank. Del Ferice has helped him. Possibly Orsino knows that as well as we do, but he certainly does not know what part Del Ferice played in our lives, Corona. If he did, he would not accept his help.”
In her turn Corona was silent, and a look of disappointment came into her face. She remembered a certain afternoon in the mountains when she had entreated Giovanni to let Del Ferice escape, and Giovanni had yielded reluctantly, and had given the fugitive a guide to take him to the frontier. She wondered whether the generous impulse of that day would bear evil fruit at last.
“Orsino knows nothing about it at all,” she said at last. “We kept the secret of Del Ferice’s escape very carefully; for there were good reasons to be careful in those days. Orsino only knows that you once fought a duel with the man and wounded him.”
“I think it is time that he knew more. ”
“Of what use can it be to tell him those old stories?” returned Corona. “And after all, I do not believe that Del Ferice has done so much. If you could have followed Orsino’s work, day by day and week by week, as I have, you would see how much is really due to his energy. Any other hanker would have done as much as he. Besides, it is in Del Ferice’s own interest ” —
“That is the trouble,” interrupted Giovanni. “It is bad enough that he should help Orsino. It is much worse that he should help him in order to make use of him. If, as you say, any other bank would do as much, then let him go to another bank. If he owes Del Ferice money at the present moment, we will pay it for him.”
“You forget that he has bought the buildings he is now finishing from Del Ferice, on a mortgage.”
Giovanni laughed a little.
“ How you have learned to talk about mortgages and deeds and all sorts of business! ” he exclaimed. “But what you say is not an objection. We can pay off this mortgage, I suppose, and take the risk ourselves.”
“Of course we could do that,” Corona answered thoughtfully. " But I really think you exaggerate the whole affair. For the time being Del Ferice is not a man, but a banker. His personal character and former doings do not enter into the matter.”
“ I think they do, ” said Giovanni, still unconvinced.
“At all events, do not make trouble now, dear,” said Corona in earnest tones. “Let the present contract be executed and finished, and then speak to Orsino before he makes another. Whatever Del Ferice may have done, you can see for yourself that Orsino is developing in a way we had not expected, and is becoming a serious, energetic man. Do not step in now and check the growth of what is good. You will regret it as much as I shall. When he has finished these buildings, he will have enough experience to make a new departure.”
“ I hate the idea of receiving a favor from Del Ferice, or of laying him under an obligation. I think I will go to him myself.”
“To Del Ferice?” Corona started and looked round at Giovanni as she sat. She had a sudden vision of new trouble.
“Yes. Why not? I will go to him and tell him that I should rather wind up my son’s business with him, as our former relations were not of a nature to make transactions of mutual profit either fitting or even permissible between any of our family and Ugo Del Ferice.”
“For Heaven’s sake, Giovanni, do not do that. ”
“ And why not ? ” He was surprised at her evident distress.
“For my sake, do not quarrel with Del Ferice. It was different then, in the old days. I could not bear it now.” She stopped, and her lower lip trembled a little.
“ Do you love me better than you did then, Corona? ”
“So much better, — I cannot tell you. ”
She touched his hand with hers, and her dark eyes were a little veiled as they met his. Both were silent for a moment.
“I have no intention of quarreling with Del Ferice, dear, ” said Giovanni gently.
His face had grown a shade paler as she spoke. The power of her hand and voice to move him had not diminished in all the years of peaceful happiness that had passed so quickly.
“I do not mean any such thing,” he said again. “But I mean this: I will not have it said that Del Ferice has made a fortune for Orsino, nor that Orsino has helped Del Ferice’s interests. I see no way but to interfere myself. I can do it without the suspicion of a quarrel.”
“It will be a great mistake, Giovanni. Wait till there is a new contract. ”
“I will think of it before doing anything definite.”
Corona well knew that she should get no greater concession than this. The point of honor had been touched in Giovanni’s sensibilities, and his character was stubborn and determined where his old prejudices were concerned. She loved him very dearly, and this very obstinacy of his pleased her. But she fancied that trouble of some sort was imminent. She understood her son’s nature, too, and dreaded lest he should be forced into opposing his father.
It struck Corona that she might herself act as intermediary. She could certainly obtain concessions from Orsino which Giovanni could not hope to extract by force or stratagem. But the wisdom of her own proposal in the matter seemed unassailable. The business now in hand should be allowed to run its natural course before anything was done to break off the relations between Orsino and Del Ferice.
In the evening she found an opportunity of speaking with Orsino in private. She repeated to him the details ot her conversation with Giovanni during the drive in the afternoon.
“My dear mother,” answered Orsino, “ I do not trust Del Ferice any more than you and my father trust, him. You talk of things which he did years ago, but you do not tell me what those things were. So far as I understand, it all happened before you were married. My father and he quarreled about something, and I suppose there was a lady concerned in the matter. Unless you were the lady in question, and unless what he did was in the nature of an insult to you, I cannot see how the matter concerns me. They fought, and it ended there, as affairs of honor do. If it touched you, then tell me so, and I will break with Del Ferice to-morrow morning.”
Corona was silent, for Orsino’s speech was very plain, and if she answered at all the answer must be the truth. There could be no escape from that. And the truth would be very hard to tell. At that time she had been the wife of old Astrardente, and Del Ferice’s offense had been that he had purposely concealed himself in the conservatory of the Frangipani palace in order to overhear what Giovanni Saracinesca was about to say to another man’s wife. The fact that on that memorable night she had bravely resisted a very great temptation did not affect the difficulty of the present case in any way. She asked herself rather whether Del Ferice’s eavesdropping would appear to Orsino to be in the nature of an insult to her, to use his own Words, and she had no doubt that it would seem so. At the same time, she would find it hard to explain to her son why Del Ferice suspected that there was to be anything said to her worth overhearing, seeing that she bore at that time the name of another man, then living. How could Orsino understand all that had gone before? Even now, though she knew that she had acted well, she humbly believed that she might have done much better. How would her son judge her? She was silent, waiting for him to speak again.
“ That would be the only conceivable reason for my breaking with Del Ferice,” Said Orsino. “We have only business relations, and I do not go to his house. I went once. I saw no reason for telling you so at the time, and I have not been there again. It was at the beginning of the whole affair. Outside of the bank we are the merest acquaintances. But I repeat what I said: if he ever did anything which makes it dishonorable for me to accept even ordinary business services from him, let me know it. I have some right to hear the truth.”
Corona hesitated, and laid the case again before her own conscience, and tried to imagine herself in her son’s position. It was hard to reach a conclusion. There was no doubt that when she had learned the truth, long after the event, she had felt that she had been insulted and justly avenged. If she said nothing now, Orsino would suspect something, and would assuredly go to his father, from whom he would get a view of the case not conspicuous for its moderation; and Giovanni would undoubtedly tell his son the de tails of what had followed, — how Del Ferice had attempted to hinder the marriage when it was at last possible, and all the rest of the story. At the same time, she felt that, so far as her personal sensibilities were concerned, she had not the least objection to the continuance of a mere business relation between Orsino and Del Ferice. She was more forgiving than Giovanni.
“I will tell you this much, my dear hoy, ” she said at last. “That old quarrel did concern me, and no one else. Your father feels more strongly about it than I do, because he fought for me, and not for himself. You trust me, Orsino. You know that I would rather see you dead than doing anything dishonorable. Very well. Do not ask any more questions, and do not go to your father about it. Del Ferice has only advanced you money in a business way, on good security and at a high interest. So far as I can judge of the point of honor involved, what happened long ago need not prevent your doing what you are doing now. Possibly, when you have finished the present contract, you may think it wiser to apply to some other bank, or to work on your own account with my money.”
Corona believed that she had found the best way out of the difficulty, and Orsino seemed satisfied, for he nodded thoughtfully and said nothing. The day had been filled with argument and discussion about his determination to stay in town, and he was weary of the perpetual question and answer. He knew his mother well, and was willing to take her advice for the present. She, on her part, told Giovanni what she had done, and he consented to consider the matter a little longer before interfering. He disliked even the idea of a business relation extremely, but he feared that there was more behind the appearances of commercial fairness than either he or Orsino himself could understand. The better Orsino succeeded, the less his father was pleased ; and his suspicions were not unfounded. He knew from San Giacinto that success was becoming uncommon, and he knew that all Orsino’s industry and energy could not have sufficed to counterbalance his inexperience. Andrea Contini, too, had been recommended by Del Ferice, and was presumably Del Ferice’s man.
On the following day, Giovanni and Corona, with the three younger boys, went up to Saracinesca, leaving Orsino alone in the great palace, to his own considerable satisfaction. He was well pleased with himself, and especially at having carried his point. At his age and with his constitution, the heat was a matter of supreme indifference to him, and he looked forward with delight to a summer of uninterrupted work in the not uncongenial society of Andrea Contini. As for the work itself, it was beginning to have a sort of fascination for him as he understood it better. The love of building, the passion for stone and brick and mortar, is inherent in some natures, and is capable of growing into a mania little short of actual insanity. Orsino began to ask himself seriously whether it were too late to study architecture as a profession, and in the mean while he learned more of it in practice from Contini than he could have acquired in twice the time at any polytechnic school in Europe.
He liked Contini himself more and more as the days went by. Hitherto he had been much inclined to judge his own countrymen from his own class. He was beginning to see that he had understood little or nothing of the real Italian nature when uninfluenced by foreign blood. The study interested and pleased him. Only one unpleasant memory occasionally disturbed his peace of mind. When he thought of his last meeting with Maria Consuelo, he hated himself for the part he had played, though he was quite unable to account logically, upon his assumed principles, for the severity of his selfcondemnation.
Orsino necessarily led a monotonous life, although his occupation was an absorbing one. Very early in the morning he was with Contini where the building was going on. He then passed the hot hours of the day in the office, which, as before, had been established in one of the unfinished houses. Towards evening he went down into the city to his home, refreshed himself after his long day’s work, and then walked or drove until half past eight, when he went to dinner in the garden of a great restaurant in the Corso. Here he met a few acquaintances who, like himself, had reasons for staying in town after their families had left. He always sat at the same small table, at which there was barely room for two persons ; for he preferred to be alone, and he rarely asked a passing friend to sit down with him.
On a certain hot evening in the beginning of August he had just taken his seat, and was trying to make up his mind whether he was hungry enough to eat anything, or whether it would not be less trouble to drink a glass of iced coffee and go away, when he was aware of a lank shadow cast across the white cloth by the glaring electric light. He looked up and saw Spicca standing there, apparently uncertain where to sit down, for the place was fuller than usual. He liked the melancholy old man, and spoke to him, offering to share his table.
Spicca hesitated a moment, and then accepted the invitation. He deposited his hat upon a chair beside him and leaned back, evidently exhausted either in mind or body, if not in both.
“I am very much obliged to you, my dear Orsino, ” he observed. “There is an abominable crowd here, which means an unusual number of people to avoid, — just as many as I know, in fact, excepting yourself.”
“ I am glad you do not wish to avoid me, too, ” remarked Orsino, by way of saying something.
“You are a less evil, so I choose you in preference to the greater,” Spicca replied. But there was a not unkindly look in his sunken eyes as he spoke.
He tipped the great flask of Chianti that hung in its swinging plated cradle in the middle of the table, and filled two glasses.
“Since all that is good has been abolished, let us drink to the least of evils,” he said; “in other words, to each other.”
“To the absence of friends,” answered Orsino, touching the wine with his lips.
Spicca emptied his glass slowly, and then looked at him.
“I like that toast,” he said. “To the absence of friends. I dare say you have heard of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Do they still teach the dear old tale in these modern schools ? No. But you have heard it ? Very well. You will remember that if they had not allowed the serpent to scrape acquaintance with them on pretense of a friendly interest in their intellectual development, Adam and Eve would still be inventing names for the angelic little wild beasts who were too well behaved to eat them. They would still be in Paradise. Moreover, Orsino Saracinesca and John Nepomucene Spicca would not be in daily danger of poisoning in this vile cookshop. Summary ejection from Eden was the first consequence of friendship, and its results are similar to this day. What nauseous mess are we to swallow tonight ? Have you looked at the card ? ”
Orsino laughed a little. He foresaw that Spicca would not be dull company on this particular evening. Something unusually disagreeable had probably happened to him during the day. After long and melancholy hesitation he ordered something which he believed he could eat, and Orsino followed his example.
“ Are all your people out of town ? ” Spicca asked, after a pause.
“Yes. I am alone.”
“What in the world is the attraction here? Why do you stay? I do not wish to be indiscreet, and I was never afflicted with curiosity; but cases of mental alienation grow more common every day, and as an old friend of your father’s I cannot overlook symptoms of madness in you. A really sane person avoids Rome in August.”
“It strikes me that I might say the same to you,” answered Orsino. “I am kept here by business. You have not even that excuse.”
“ How do you know ? ” asked Spicca sharply. “Business has two main elements, credit and debit. The one means the absence of the other. I leave it to your lively intelligence to decide which of the two means Rome in August, and which means Trouville or St. Moritz. ”
“I had not thought of it in that light.”
“No? I dare say not. I constantly think of it.”
“There are other places, nearer than St. Moritz,” suggested Orsino. “Why not go to Sorrento ?”
“There was such a place once, but my friends have found it out. Nevertheless, I might go there. It is better to suffer friendship in the spirit than fever in the body. But I have a reason for staying here just at present, — a very good one.”
“ Without indiscretion ? ”
“No, certainly not without considerable indiscretion. Take some more wine. When intoxication is bliss it is folly to be sober, as the proverb says. I cannot get tipsy, but you may, and that will be almost as amusing. The main object of drinking wine is that one person should make confidences for the other to laugh at; the one enjoys it quite as much as the other.”
“I would rather be the other, ” said Orsino, with a laugh.
“In all cases in life it is better to be the other person,” observed Spicca thoughtfully, though the remark lacked precision.
“ You mean the patient, and not the agent, I suppose ? ”
“No, I mean the spectator. The spectator is a well-fed, indifferent personage, who laughs at the play and goes home to supper, —perdition upon him and his kind! He is the abomination of desolation in a front stall, looking on while better men cut one another’s throats. He is a fat man, with a pink complexion and small eyes ; and when he has watched other people’s troubles long enough, he retires to his comfortable vault in the family chapel in the Campo Varano, which is decorated with colored tiles, embellished with a modern altar-piece, and adorned with a bust of himself by a good sculptor. Even in death he is still the spectator, grinning through the window of his sanctuary at the rows of nameless graves outside. He is happy and selfsatisfied still, even in marble. It is worth living to be such a man.”
“It is not an exciting life.”
“No. That is the beauty of it. Look at me. I have never succeeded in imitating that well-to-do, thoroughly worthy villain. I began too late. Take warning, Orsino. You are young. Grow fat and look on ; then you will die happy. All the philosophy of life is there. Farinaceous food, money, and a wife, — that is the recipe. Since you have money, you can purchase the gruel and the affections. Waste no time in making the investment.”
“I never heard you advocate marriage before. You seem to have changed your mind of late. ”
“Not in the least. I distinguish between being married and taking a wife, — that is all.”
“Rather a fine distinction.”
“The only difference between a prisoner and his jailer is that they are on opposite sides of the same wall. Take some more wine. We will drink to the man on the outside.”
“May you never be inside,” said Orsino.
Spicca emptied his glass, and looked at him as he set it down again.
“May you never know what it is to have been inside,” he said.
“ You speak as though you had some experience. ”
“Yes, I have, through an acquaintance of mine.”
“That is the most agreeable way of gaining experience. ”
“Yes,” answered Spicca, with a ghastly smile. “ Perhaps I may tell you the story some day. You may profit by it. It ended rather dramatically, so far as it can be said to have ended at all. But we will not speak of it just now. Here is another dish of poison. Do you call that thing a fish, Checco ? Ah, yes. I perceive that you are right. The fact is apparent at a great distance. Take it away. We are all mortal, Checco, but we do not like to be reminded of it so very forcibly. Give me a tomato and some vinegar.”
“And the birds, signore? Do you not want them any more?”
“The birds? Yes, I had forgotten. And another flask of wine, Checco.”
“It is not empty yet, signore,” observed the waiter, lifting the rush-covered bottle and shaking it a little.
Spicca silently poured out two glasses and handed the man the empty flask. He seemed to be very thirsty. Presently he got his birds. They proved eatable, — for quails are to be had all through the summer in Italy, — and he began to eat in silence. ’Orsino watched him with some curiosity, wondering whether the quantity of wine he drank would not ultimately produce some effect. As yet, however, none was visible; his cadaverous face was as pale and quiet as ever, and his sunken eyes had their usual expression.
“ And how does your business go on, Orsino?” he asked, after a long silence.
Orsino answered him willingly enough, and gave him some account of his doings. He grew somewhat enthusiastic as he compared his present busy life with his former idleness.
“ I like the way you did it, in spite of everybody’s advice, ” said Spicca kindly. “A man who can jump through the paper ring of Roman prejudice without stumbling must be nimble and have good legs. So nobody gave you a word of encouragement ? ”
“Only one person, at first. I think you know her, — Madame d’Aranjuez. I used to see her often just at that time. ”
“Madame d’Aranjuez?” The old man looked up sharply, pausing with his glass in his hand.
“ You know her ? ”
“Very well indeed, ” replied Spicca before he drank. “Tell me, Orsino,” he continued when he had finished the draught, “are you in love with that lady ? ”
Orsino was surprised by the directness of the question, but he did not show it.
“Not in the least,” he answered coolly.
“Then why did you act as though you were?” asked Spicca, looking him through and through.
“ Do yon mean to say that you were watching me all winter? " inquired Orsino, bending his black eyebrows rather angrily.
“Circumstances made it inevitable that I should know of your visits. There was a time when you saw her every day. ”
“I do not know what, the circumstances, as you call them, were, ” returned Orsino. “But I do not like to be watched, even by my father’s old friends. ”
“Keep your temper, Orsino,” said Spicca quietly. “Quarreling is always ridiculous unless somebody is killed, and then it is inconvenient. If you understood the nature of my acquaintance with Maria Consuelo — with Madame d’Aranjuez, you would see that, while not meaning to spy upon yon in the least, I could not be ignorant of your movements.”
“Your acquaintance must be a very close one, ” observed Orsino, far from pacified.
“So close that it has justified me in doing very odd things on her account. You will not accuse me of taking a needless and officious interest in the affairs of others, I think. My own are quite enough for me. It chances that they are intimately connected with the doings of Madame d’Aranjuez, and have been so for a number of years. The fact that I do not desire the connection to be known does not make it easier for me to act, when I am obliged to act at all. I did not ask an idle question when I asked you if you loved her. ”
“I confess that I do not at all understand the situation,” said Orsino.
“No. It is not easy to understand, unless I give you the key to it. And yet you know more already than any one in Rome. I shall be obliged if you will not repeat what you know.”
“You may trust me, ” returned Orsino, who saw from Spicca’s manner that the matter was very serious.
“ Thank you. I see that you are cured of the idea that I have been frivolously spying upon you for my own amusement. ”
Orsino was silent. He thought of what had happened after he had taken leave of Maria Consuelo. The mysterious maid who called herself Maria Consuelo’s nurse, or keeper, had perhaps spoken the truth. It was possible that Spicca was one of the guardians responsible to an unknown person for the insane lady’s safety, and that he was consequently daily informed by the maid of the coming and going of visitors, and of other minor events. On the other hand, it seemed odd that Maria Consnelo should be at liberty to go whithersoever she pleased. She could not reasonably be supposed to have a guardian in every city of Europe. The more he thought of this improbability, the less he understood the truth.
“ I suppose I cannot hope that you will tell me more? ” he said.
“I do not see why I should,” answered Spicca, drinking again. “I asked you an indiscreet question, and I have given you an explanation which you are kind enough to accept. Let us say no more about it. It is better to avoid unpleasant subjects.”
“I should not call Madame d’Aranjuez an unpleasant subject.”
“Then why did you suddenly cease to visit her?” asked Spicca.
“For the best of all reasons, — because she repeatedly refused to receive me.” He was less inclined to take offense now than five minutes earlier. “I see that your information was not complete. ”
“No. I was not aware of that. She must have had a good reason for not seeing you. ”
“ But you cannot guess what the reason was?”
“Yes, and no. It depends upon her character, which I do not pretend to understand.”
“I understand it well enough. I can guess at the fact. You made love to her, and one fine day, when she saw that you were losing your head, she quietly told her servant to say that she was not at home when you called. Is that it ? ”
“Possibly. You say you know her well; then you know whether she would act in that way or not. ”
“ I ought to know. I think she would. She is not like other women, she has not the same blood.”
“Who is she?” asked Orsino, with a sudden hope that he might learn the truth.
“A woman, rather better than the rest; a widow, too, - the widow of a man who never was her husband, thank God !”
Spicca slowly refilled and emptied his goblet for the tenth time.
“The rest is a secret,” he added, when he had finished drinking.
The dark, sunken eyes gazed into Orsino’s with an expression so strange and full of a sort of inexplicable horror as to make the young man think that the deep potations were beginning to produce an effect upon the strong old head. Spicca sat quite still for several minutes after he had spoken, and then leaned back in his cane chair with a deep sigh. Orsino sighed, too, in a sort of unconscious sympathy; for, even allowing for Spicca’s natural melancholy, the secret was evidently an unpleasant one. Orsino tried to turn the conversation, not, however, without a hope of bringing it back unawares to the question which interested him.
“And so you really mean to stay here all summer? ” he remarked, lighting a cigarette and looking at the people seated at a table behind Spicca.
Spicca did not answer at first, and when he did his reply had nothing to do with Orsino’s interrogatory observation.
“We never get rid of the things we have done in our lives, ” he said dreamily. “When a man sows seed in a ploughed field, some of the grains are picked out by birds, and some never sprout. We are much more perfectly organized than the earth. The actions we sow in our souls all take root, inevitably and fatally, and they all grow to maturity sooner or later.”
Orsino stared at him for a moment.
“You are in a philosophizing mood this evening,” he said.
“We are only logic’s pawns,” continued Spicca, without heeding the remark. “Or, if you like it better, we are the Devil’s chess pieces in his match against God. We are made to move each in his own way, — the one by short irregular steps in every direction, the other in long straight lines between starting-point and goal; the one stands still, like the king piece, and never moves unless he is driven to it ; the other jumps unevenly, like the knight. It makes no difference. We take a certain number of other pieces, and then we are taken ourselves — always by the adversary — and tossed aside out of the game. But then, it is easy to carry out the simile, because the game itself was founded on the facts of life by the people who invented it.”
“No doubt, ” said Orsino, who was not very much interested.
“Yes. You have only to give the pieces the names of men and women you know, and to call the pawns society — you will see how very like real life chess can be. The king and queen on each side are a married couple. Of course the object of each queen is to get the other king, and all her friends help her, — knights, bishops, rooks, and her set of society pawns. Very like real life, is it not? Wait till you are married.”
Spicca smiled grimly and took more wine.
“There at least you have no personal experience,” objected Orsino.
But Spicca only smiled again, and vouchsafed no answer.
“ Is Madame d’Aranjuez coming back next winter ?” asked the youngman.
“Madame d’Aranjuez will probably come back, since she is free to consult her own tastes,” answered Spicca gravely.
“ I hope she may be out of danger by that time, ” said Orsino quietly. He had resolved upon a bolder attack than he had hitherto made.
“ What danger is she in now ? ” asked Spicca.
“Surely you must know.”
“I do not understand you. Please speak plainly, if you are in earnest.”
“ Before she went away I called once more. When I was coming away, her maid met me in the corridor of the hotel and told me that Madame d’Aranjuez was not quite sane, and that she, the maid, was in reality her keeper, or nurse, or whatever you please to call her.”
Spicca laughed harshly. No one could remember to have heard him laugh many times.
“Oh, she said that, did she? ” He seemed very much amused. “Yes,” he added presently, “I think Madame d’Aranjuez will be quite out of danger before Christmas. ”
Orsino was more puzzled than ever. He was almost sure that Spicca did not look upon the maid’s assertion as serious, and in that case, if his interest in Maria Consuelo was friendly, it was incredible that he should seem amused at what was at least a very dangerous piece of spite on the part of a trusted servant.
“Then there is no truth in that woman’s statement?” asked Orsino.
“Madame d’Aranjuez seemed perfectly sane when I last saw her,” answered Spicca indifferently.
“Then what possible interest had the maid in inventing the lie? ”
“Ah, what interest? That is quite another matter, as you say. It may not have been her own interest.”
“You think that Madame d’Aranjuez had instructed her ? ”
“Not necessarily. Some one else may have suggested the idea, subject to the lady’s own consent. ”
“And she would have consented ? I do not believe that.”
“My dear Orsino, the world is full of such apparently improbable things that it is always rash to disbelieve anything on the first hearing. It is really much less trouble to accept all that one is told without question.”
“Of course, if you tell me positively that she wishes to be thought mad ” —
“I never say anything positively, especially about a woman, and least of all about the lady in question, who is undoubtedly eccentric. ”
Instead of being annoyed, Orsino felt his curiosity growing, and made a rash vow to find out the truth at any price. It was inconceivable, he thought, that Spicca should still have perfect control of his faculties, considering the extent of his potations. The second flask was growing light, and Orsino himself had not taken more than two or three glasses. Now a Chianti flask never holds less than two quarts. Moreover, Spicca was generally a very moderate man. He would assuredly not resist the confusing effects of the wine much longer, and he would probably become confidential.
But Orsino had mistaken his man. Spicca’s nerves, overwrought by some unknown disturbance in his affairs, were in that state in which far stronger stimulants than Tuscan wine have little or no effect upon the brain. Orsino looked at him, and wondered, as many had wondered already, what sort of life the man had led, outside and beyond the social existence which every one could see. Few men had been dreaded like the famous duelist, who had played with the best swordsmen in Europe as a cat plays with a mouse. And yet he had been respected as well as feared. There had been that sort of fatality in his quarrels which had saved him from the imputation of having sought them. He had never been a gambler, as reputed duelists often are. He had never refused to stand second for another man out of personal dislike or prejudice. No one had ever asked his help in vain, high or low, rich or poor, in a reasonably good cause. His acts of kindness came to light accidentally after many years. Yet most people fancied that he hated mankind, with that sort of generous detestation which never stoops to take a mean advantage. In his duels, he had always shown the utmost consideration for his adversary, and the utmost indifference to his own interest, when conditions had to be made. Above all, he had never killed a man by accident. That is a crime which society does not forgive. But he had not failed, either, when he had meant to kill. His speech was often bitter, but never spiteful, and, having nothing to fear, he was a very truthful man. He was also reticent, however, and no one could boast of knowing the story which every one agreed in saying had so deeply influenced his life. He had often been absent from Rome for long periods, and had been heard of as residing in more than one European capital. He had always been supposed to be rich, but during the last three years it had become clear to his friends that he was poor. That is all, roughly speaking, that was known of John Nepomucene, Count Spicca, by the society in which he had spent more than half his life.
Orsino, watching the pale and melancholy face, compared himself with his companion, and wondered whether any imaginable series of events could turn him into such a man at the same age. Yet he admired Spicca, besides respecting him. Boylike, he envied the great duelist his reputation, his unerring skill, his unfaltering nerve; he even envied him the fear he inspired in those whom he did not like. He thought less highly of his sayings now, perhaps, than when he had first been old enough to understand them. The youthful affectation of cynicism had agreed well with the old man’s genuine bitterness; but the pride of growing manhood was inclined to put away childish things, and had not yet suffered so as to understand real suffering. Six months had wrought a change in Orsino. and so far the change was for the better. He had been fortunate in finding success at the first attempt, and his passing passion for Maria Consuelo had left little trace beyond a certain wondering regret that it had not been greater, and beyond the recollection of her sad face at their parting and of the sobs he had overheard. Though he could give those tears only one meaning, Orsino realized less and less, as the months passed, that they had been shed for him.
That Maria Consuelo should often be in his thoughts was no proof that he still loved her in the smallest degree. There had been enough odd circumstances about their acquaintance to rouse any ordinary man’s interest, and just at present Spicca’s strange hints and half confidences had excited an almost unbearable curiosity in his hearer. But Spicca did not seem inclined to satisfy it any further.
One or two points, at least, were made clear. Maria Consuelo was not insane, as the maid had pretended. Her marriage with the deceased Aranjuez had been a marriage only in name, if it had even amounted to that. Finally, it was evident that she stood in some very near relation to Spicca, and that neither she nor he wished the fact to be known. To all appearance, they had carefully avoided meeting during the preceding winter, and no one in society was aware that they were even acquainted. Orsino recalled more than one occasion when each had been mentioned in the presence of the other. He had a good memory, and he remembered that a scarcely perceptible change had taken place in the manner or conversation of the one who heard the other’s name. It even seemed to him that at such moments Maria Consuelo had shown an infinitesimal resentment, whereas Spicca had faintly exhibited something more like impatience. If this were true, it argued that Spicca was more friendly to Maria Consuelo than she was to him. Yet on this particular evening Spicca had spoken somewhat bitterly of her; but then, Spicca was always bitter. His last remark was to the effect that she was eccentric. After a long silence, during which Orsino hoped that his friend would say something more, he took up the point.
“I wish I knew what you meant by ‘ eccentric,’ ” he said. “I had the advantage of seeing Madame d’Aranjuez frequently, and I did not notice any eccentricity about her.”
“Ah, perhaps you are not observant, or perhaps, as you intimate, we do not mean the same thing.”
“That is why I should like to hear your definition, ” observed Orsino.
“The world is mad on the subject of definitions, ” answered Spicca. “It is more blessed to define than to be defined. it is a pleasant thing to say to one’s enemy, ’Sir, you are a scoundrel.’ But when your enemy says the same thing to you, you kill him without hesitation or regret, — which proves, I suppose, that you are not pleased with his definition of you. You see, definition, after all, is a matter of taste. So, as our tastes might not agree, I would rather not define anything this evening. I believe I have finished that flask. Let us take our coffee. We can define that beforehand, for we know by daily experience how diabolically bad it is.”
Orsino saw that Spicca meant to lead the conversation away in another direction.
“May I ask you one serious question? ” he inquired, leaning forward.
“With a little ingenuity you may even ask me a dozen, all equally serious, my dear Orsino. But I cannot promise to answer all or any particular one. I am not omniscient, you know.”
“My question is this. I have no sort of right to ask it.— I know that. Are you nearly related to Madame d’Aranjuez ? ”
Spicca looked curiously at him.
“Would the information be of any use to you? ” he asked. “Should I be doing you a service in telling you that we are or are not related ? ”
“Frankly, no, ” answered Orsino, meeting the steady glance without wavering.
“ Then I do not see any reason whatever for telling you the truth, ” returned Spicca quietly. “But I will give you a piece of general information. If harm comes to that lady through any man whomsoever. I will certainly kill him, even it I have to be carried upon the ground.”
There was no mistaking the tone in which the threat was uttered. Spicca meant what he said, though not one syllable was spoken louder than another. In his mouth the words had a terrific force, and told Orsino more of the man’s true nature than he had learnt in years. Orsino was not easily impressed, and was certainly not timid, morally or physically; moreover, he was in the prime of youth, and not less skillful than other men in the use of weapons. But he felt at that moment that he would infinitely rather attack a regiment of artillery single-handed than be called upon to measure swords with the cadaverous old invalid who sat on the other side of the table.
“It is not in my power to do any harm to Madame d’Aranjuez,” he answered, proudly enough; “and you ought to know that if it were it could not possibly be in my intention. Therefore your threat is not intended for me. ”
“Very good, Orsino. Your father would have answered like that, and you mean what you say. If I were young, I think that you and I should be friends. Fortunately for you, there is a matter of forty years’ difference between our ages, so that you escape the infliction of such a nuisance as my friendship. You must find it bad enough to have to put up with my company. ”
“Do not talk like that,” answered Orsino. “The world is not all vinegar.”
“Well, well, you will find out what the world is in time. And perhaps you will find out many other things which you want to know. I must be going, for I have letters to write. Checco! my bill.”
Five minutes later they parted.
Although Orsino’s character was developing quickly in the new circumstances which he had created for himself, he was not of an age to be continually on his guard against passing impressions; still less could it be expected that he should be hardened against them by experience, as many men are by nature. His conversation with Spicca, and Spicca’s own behavior while it lasted, produced a decided effect upon the current of his thoughts, and he was surprised to find himself thinking more often and more seriously of Maria Consuelo than during the months which had succeeded her departure from Rome. Spicca’s words had acted indirectly upon his mind. Much that the old man had said was calculated to rouse Orsino’s curiosity ; but Orsino was not naturally curious, and though he felt that it would be very interesting to know Maria Consuelo’s story, the chief result of the count’s half-confidential utterances was to recall the lady herself very vividly to his recollection.
At first his memory merely brought back the endless details of his acquaintance with her, which had formed the central feature of the first season he had spent without interruption in Rome and in society. He was surprised at the extreme precision of the pictures evoked, and took pleasure in calling them up when he was alone and unoccupied. The events themselves had not, perhaps, been all agreeable, yet there was not one which it did not give him some pleasant sensation to remember. There was a little sadness in some of them, and more than once the sadness was mingled with something of humiliation. Yet even this last was bearable. Though he did not realize it, he was quite unable to think of Maria Consuelo without feeling some passing touch of happiness at the thought; for happiness can live with sadness, when it is the greater of the two. He had no desire to analyze these sensations. Indeed, the idea did not enter his mind that they were worth analyzing. His intelligence was better employed with his work, and his reflections concerning Maria Consuelo chiefly occupied his hours of rest.
The days passed quickly at first, and then, as September came, they seemed longer instead of shorter. Orsino was beginning to wish that the winter would come, that he might again see the woman of whom he was continually thinking. More than once he thought of writing to her, for he had the address which the maid had given him, an address in Paris, which said nothing; a mere number with the name of a street. He wondered whether she would answer him ; and at last, when he had reached the self-satisfying conviction that she would, he wrote a letter, such as any person might write to another. He told her of the weather, of the dullness of Rome, of his hope that she would return early in the season, and of his own daily occupations. It was a simply expressed, natural, and not at all emotional epistle, — not at all like that of a man in the least degree in love with his correspondent; but Orsino felt an odd sensation of pleasure in writing it, and was surprised by a little thrill of happiness as he posted it with his own hand.
He did not forget the letter when he had sent it, either, as one forgets the uninteresting letters one is obliged to write out of civility. He hoped for an answer. Even if she were in Paris, Maria Consuelo might not, and probably would not, reply by return of post. And it was not probable that she would be in town at the beginning of September. Orsino calculated the time necessary to forward the letter from Paris to the most distant part of frequented Europe, allowed her three days for answering, and three days more for her letter to reach him. The interval elapsed, but nothing came. Then he was irritated, and at last he became anxious. Either something had happened to Maria Consuelo, or he had somehow unconsciously offended her by what he had written. He had no copy of the letter, and could not recall a single phrase which could have displeased her, but he feared lest something might have crept into it which she might misinterpret. But this idea was too absurd to be tenable for long, and the conviction grew upon him that she must be ill or in some great trouble. He was amazed at his own anxiety.
Three weeks had gone by since he had written, and yet no word of reply had reached him. Then he sought out Spicca and asked him boldly whether anything had happened to Maria Consuelo, explaining that he had written to her and had got no answer. Spicca looked at him curiously for a moment.
“Nothing has happened to her, so far as I am aware, ” he said, almost immediately. “I saw her this morning. ”
“This morning? ” Orsino was surprised almost out of words.
“Yes. She is here, looking for an apartment in which to spend the winter.”
“ Where is she ? ”
Spicca named the hotel, adding that Orsino would probably find her at home during the hot hours of the afternoon.
“Has she been here long? ” asked the young man,
“I will go and see her at once. I may be useful to her in finding an apartment. ”
“That would be very kind of you,” observed Spicca, glancing at him rather thoughtfully.
On the following afternoon Orsino presented himself at the hotel and asked for Madame d’Aranjuez. She received him in a room not very different from the one which she had made her sitting-room during the winter. As always, one or two new books and the mysterious silver paper-cutter were the only objects of her own which were visible. Orsino hardly noticed the fact, however, for she was already in the room when he entered, and his eyes met hers at once.
He fancied that she looked less strong than formerly, but the heat was great and might easily account for her pallor. Her eyes were deeper, and their tawny color seemed darker. Her hand was cold.
She smiled faintly as she met Orsino, but said nothing, and sat down at a distance from the windows.
“ I heard only last night that you were in Rome,” he said.
“And you came at once to see me. Thanks. How did you find it out? ”
“Spicca told me. I had asked him for news of you.”
“Why him?” inquired Maria Consuelo, with some curiosity.
“Because I fancied he might know,” answered Orsino, passing lightly over the question. He did not wish even Maria Consuelo to guess that Spicca had spoken of her to him. “The reason why I was anxious about you was that I had written you a letter. I wrote some weeks ago to your address in Paris, and got no answer. ”
“You wrote?” Maria Consuelo seemed surprised. “ I have not been in Paris. Who gave you the address? What was it ? ”
Orsino named the street and number.
“I once lived there a short time, two years ago. Who gave you the address? Not Count Spicca? ”
Orsino hesitated to say more. He did not like to admit that he had received the address from Maria Consuelo’s maid, and it might seem incredible that the woman should have given the information unasked. At the same time, the fact that the address was to all intents and purposes a false one tallied with the maid’s spontaneous statement in regard to her mistress’s mental alienation.
“ Why will you not tell me? ” asked Maria Consuelo.
“The answer involves a question which does not concern me. The address was evidently intended to deceive me. The person who gave it attempted to deceive me about a far graver matter, too. Let us say no more about it. Of course you never got the letter? ”
“Of course not.”
A short silence followed, which Orsino felt to be rather awkward. Maria Consuelo looked at him suddenly.
“Did my maid tell you ? ” she asked.
“Yes, since you ask me. She met me in the corridor, after my last visit, and thrust the address upon me.”
“I thought so, ” said Maria Consuelo.
“You have suspected her before? ”
“What was the other deception ?”
“That is a more serious matter. The woman is your trusted servant. At least you must have trusted her when you took her ” —
“That does not follow. What did she try to make you believe? ”
“It is hard to tell you. For all I know, she may have been instructed, — you may have instructed her yourself. One stumbles upon odd things in life, sometimes. ”
“ You called yourself my friend once, Don Orsino. ”
“If you will let me, I will call myself so Still.”
“Then, in the name of friendship, tell me what the woman said!” Maria Consuelo spoke with sudden energy, touching his arm quickly with an unconscious gesture.
“Will you believe me? ”
“Are you accustomed to being doubted, that you ask? ”
“No. But this thing is very strange. ”
“Do not keep me waiting; it hurts me!”
“The woman stopped me as I was going away. I had never spoken to her. She knew my name. She told me that you were - how shall I say ? — mentally deranged.”
Maria Consuelo started and turned very pale.
“She told you that I was mad?” Her voice sank to a whisper.
“That is what she said.”
Orsino watched her narrowly. She evidently believed him. Then she sank back in her chair with a stifled cry of horror, covering her eyes with her hands.
“And you might have believed it !” she exclaimed. “You might really have believed it — you ! ”
The cry came from her heart, and would have shown Orsino what weight she still attached to his opinion, had he not himself been too suddenly and deeply interested in the principal question to pay attention to details.
“She made the statement very clearly,” he said. “What could have been her object in the lie ? ”
“ What object ? Ah, if I knew that! ”
Maria Consuelo rose and paced the room, her head bent and her hands nervously clasping and unclasping. Orsino stood by the empty fireplace, watching her.
“You will send the woman away, of course? ” he said in a questioning tone.
But she shook her head, and her anxiety seemed to increase.
“Is it possible that you will submit to such a thing from a servant? ” he asked in astonishment.
“I have submitted to much,” she answered in a low voice.
“The inevitable, of course. But to keep a maid whom you can turn away at any moment ” —
“Yes, but can I? ” She stopped and looked at him. “Oh, if I only could! If you knew how I hate the woman! ”
“ But then ” —
“ Yes ? ”
“ Do you mean to tell me that you are in some way in her power, so that you are bound to keep her always? ”
Maria Consuelo hesitated a moment.
“Are you in her power?” asked Orsino a second time. He did not like the idea, and his black brows bent themselves rather angrily.
“No, not directly. She is imposed upon me. ”
“By circumstances? ”
“No, again; by a person who has the power to impose much upon me. But this, — oh, this is almost too much! To be called mad! ”
“Then do not submit to it.”
Orsino spoke decisively, with a kind of authority which surprised himself. He was amazed and righteously angry at the situation so suddenly revealed to him, undefined as it was. He saw that he was touching a great trouble, and his natural energy bid him lay violent hands on it and root it out if possible.
For some minutes Maria Consuelo did not speak, but continued to pace the room, evidently in great anxiety. Then she stopped before him.
“It is easy for you to say ‘do not submit, ’ when you do not understand, ” she said. “If you knew what my life is, you would look at this in another way. I must submit, — I cannot do otherwise. ”
“If you would tell me something more, I might help you,” answered Orsino.
“You?” She paused. “I believe you would, if you could, ” she added thoughtfully.
“You know that I would. Perhaps I can, as it is, in ignorance, if you will direct me. ”
A sudden light gleamed in Maria Consuelo’s eyes, and then died away as quickly as it had come.
“After all, what could you do?” she asked, with a change of tone, as though she were somehow disappointed. " What could you do that others would not do as well, if they could, and with a better right? ”
“Unless you will tell me, how can I know ?”
“Yes, if I could tell you.”
She went and sat down in her former seat, and Orsino took a chair beside her. He had expected to renew the acquaintance in a very different way, and that he should spend half an hour with Maria Consuelo in talking about apartments, about the heat, and about the places she had visited. Instead, circumstances had made the conversation an intimate one, full of an absorbing interest to both. Orsino found that he had forgotten much which pleased him strangely now that it was again brought before him. He had forgotten most of all, it seemed, that an unexplained sympathy attracted him to her, and her to him. He wondered at the strength of it, and found it hard to understand that last meeting with her in the spring.
“Is there any way of helping you without knowing your secret?” he inquired in a low voice.
“No; but I thank you for the wish. ”
“Are you sure there is no way? Quite sure ? ”
“May I say something that strikes me? ”
“Say anything you choose.”
“There is a plot against you. You seem to know it. Have you never thought of plotting on your side? ”
“I have no one to help me.”
“You have me, if you will take my help; and you have Spicca. You might do better, but you might do worse. Between us we might accomplish something. ”
Maria Consuelo had started at Spicca’s name. She seemed very nervous that day.
“Do you know what you are saying?” she asked, after a moment’s thought.
“Nothing that should offend you, at least.”
“No; but you are proposing that I should ally myself with the man of all others whom I have reason to hate. ”
“You hate Spicca?” Orsino was passing from one surprise to another.
“ Whether I hate him or not is another matter. I ought to.”
“At all events, he does not hate you.”
“I know he does not. That makes it no easier for me. I could not accept his help.”
“All this is so mysterious that I do not know what to say,” said Orsino thoughtfully. “The fact remains, and it is bad enough. You need help urgently. You are in the power of a servant who tells your friends that you are insane and thrusts false addresses upon them, for purposes which I cannot explain.”
“Nor I either, though I may guess.”
“It is worse and worse. You cannot even be sure of the motives of this woman, though you know the person or persons by whom she is forced upon you. You cannot get rid of her yourself, and you will not let any one else help you. ”
“Not Count Spicca.”
“And yet I am sure that he would do much for you. Can you not even tell me why you hate him, or ought to hate him ? ”
Maria Consuelo hesitated, and looked into Orsino’s eyes for a moment.
“Can I trust you? ” she asked.
“He killed my husband.”
Orsino uttered a low exclamation of horror. In the deep silence which followed, he heard Maria. Consuelo draw her breath once or twice sharply through her closed teeth, as though she were in great pain.
“I do not wish it known,” she said presently, in a changed voice. “I do not know why I told you.”
“You can trust me.”
“I must, since I have spoken.”
In the surprise caused by the startling confidence, Orsino suddenly felt that his capacity for sympathy had grown to great dimensions. If he had been a woman, the tears would have stood in his eyes. Being what he was, he felt them in his heart. It was clear that she had loved the dead man very dearly. In the light of this evident fact, it was hard to explain her conduct towards Orsino during the winter, and especially at their last meeting.
For a long time neither spoke. Orsino, indeed, had nothing to say at first, for nothing he could say could reasonably be supposed to be of any use. He had learned of the existence of something like a tragedy in Maria Consuelo’s life, and he seemed to be learning the first lesson of friendship, which teaches sympathy. It was not an occasion for making insignificant phrases expressing his regret at her loss, and the language he needed in order to say what he meant was unfamiliar to his lips. He was silent, therefore, but his young face was grave and thoughtful, and his eyes sought hers from time to time, as though trying to discover and forestall her wishes. At last she glanced at him quickly, then looked down, and at last spoke to him.
“You will not make me regret having told you this, will you ? ” she asked.
“No. I promise you that.”
So far as Orsino could understand the words meant but little. He was not very communicative, as a rule, and would certainly not tell what he had heard, so that the promise was easily given and easy to keep. If he did not break it, he did not see that she could have any further cause for regretting her confidence in him. Nevertheless, by way of reassuring her, he thought it best to repeat what he had said in different words.
“You may be quite sure that whatever you choose to tell me is in safekeeping,” he said. “And you may be sure, too, that if it is in my power to do you a service of any kind, you will find me ready, and more than ready, to help you.”
“Thank you,” she answered, looking earnestly at him.
“Whether the matter be small or great,” he added, meeting her eyes.
Perhaps she expected to find more curiosity on his part, and fancied that he would ask some further question. He did not understand the meaning of her look.
“I believe you,” she said at last. “I am too much in need of a friend to doubt you.”
“You have found one.”
“I do not know. I am not sure. There are other things ” — She stopped suddenly and looked away.
“What other things? ”
But Maria Consuelo did not answer. Orsino knew that she was thinking of all that had once passed between them. He wondered whether, if he led the way, she would press him as she had done at their last meeting. If she did, he wondered what he should say. He had been very cold then, —far colder than he was now. He now felt drawn to her, as in the first days of their acquaintance. He felt always that he was on the point of understanding her, and yet that he was waiting for something which should help him to pass that point.
“What other things?” he asked, repeating his question. “Do you mean that there are reasons which may prevent me from being a good friend of yours ? ”
“I am afraid there are. I do not know. ”
“I think you are mistaken, madame. Will you name some of those reasons, or even one ? ”
Maria Consuelo did not answer at once. She glanced at him, looked down, and then her eyes met his again.
“ Do you think that you are the kind of man whom a woman chooses for her friend ? she asked at last, with a faint smile.
“I have not thought of the matter.”
“ But you should, before offering your friendship. ”
“ Why? It I feel a sincere sympathy for your trouble, if I am” — he hesitated, weighing his words — “if I am personally attached to you, why can I not help you ? I am honest and in
earnest. May I say as much as that of myself? ”
“I believe you are.”
“Then I cannot see that I am not the sort of man whom a woman might take for a friend, when a better is not at hand.”
“And do you believe in friendship, Don Orsino?” asked Maria Consuelo quietly.
“I have heard it said that it is not wise to disbelieve anything nowadays, ” answered Orsino.
“True; and the word ‘friend’ has such a pretty sound! ” She laughed, for the first time since he had entered the room.
“ Then it is you who are the unbeliever, madame. Is not that a sign that you need no friend at all, and that your questions are not seriously meant? ”
“Perhaps. Who knows?”
“ Do you know, yourself ? ”
“No.” Again she laughed a little, and then grew suddenly grave.
“ I never knew a woman who needed a friend more urgently than you do,” said Orsino. “I do not in the least understand your position. The little you have told me makes it clear enough that there have been and still are unusual circumstances in your life. One thing I see. That woman whom you call your maid is forced upon you against your will to watch you, and is privileged to tell lies about you which may do you a great injury. I do not ask why you are obliged to suffer her presence, but I see that you must, and I guess that you hate it. Would it be an act of friendship to free you from her, or not ? ”
“At present it would not be an act of friendship, ” answered Maria Consuelo thoughtfully.
“That is very strange. Do you mean to say that you submit voluntarily? ”
“The woman is a condition imposed upon me. I cannot tell you more.”
“And no friend, no friendly help, can change the condition, I suppose? ”
“I did not say that. But such help is beyond your power, Don Orsino,” she added, turning towards him rather suddenly. “Let us not talk of this any more. Believe me, nothing can be done. You have sometimes acted strangely with me, but I really think you would help me if you could. Let that be the state of our acquaintance. You are willing, and I believe that you are. Nothing more. Let that be our compact. But you can perhaps help me in another way, — a smaller way. I want a habitation of some kind for the winter, for I am tired of camping out in hotels. You who know your own city so well can name some person who will undertake the matter.”
“I know the very man,” said Orsino promptly.
“ Will you write out the address for me ?
“It is not necessary. I mean myself.”
“ I could not let you take so much trouble,” protested Maria Consuelo.
But she accepted, nevertheless, after a little hesitation. For some time they discussed the relative advantages of the various habitable quarters of the city, both glad, perhaps, to find an almost indifferent subject of conversation, and both relatively happy merely in being together. The talk made one of those restful interludes which are so necessary, and often so hard to produce, between two people whose thoughts run upon a strong common interest, and who find it difficult to exchange half a dozen words without being led back to the absorbing topic.
What had been said had produced a decided effect upon Orsino. He had come expecting to take up the acquaintance on a new footing, but ten minutes had not elapsed before he had found himself as much interested as ever in Maria Consuelo’s personality, and far more interested in her life than he had ever been before. While talking with more or less indifference about the chances of securing a suitable apartment for the winter, Orsino listened with an odd sensation of pleasure to every tone of his companion’s voice, and watched every changing expression of the striking face. He wondered whether he were not perhaps destined to love her sincerely, as he had already loved her in a boyish, capricious fashion which would no longer be natural to him now. But for the present he was sure that he did not love her, and that he desired nothing but her sympathy for himself, and to feel sympathy for her. Those were the words he used, and he did not explain them to his own intelligence in any very definite way. He was conscious, indeed, that they meant more than formerly, but the same was true of almost everything that came into his life, and he did not therefore attach any especial importance to the fact. He was altogether much more in earnest than when he had first met Maria Consuelo; he was capable of deeper feeling, of stronger determination, and of more decided action in all matters, and though he did not say so to himself he was none the less aware of the change.
“Shall we make an appointment for to-morrow ? ” he asked, after they had been talking some time.
“Yes. But there is one thing I wanted to ask you ” -
“What is that?” inquired Orsino, seeing that she hesitated.
The faint color rose in her cheeks, but she looked straight into his eyes with a kind of fearless expression, as though she were facing a danger.
“Tell me,” she said: “in Rome, where everything is known and every one talks so much, will it not be thought strange that you and I should be driving about together, looking for a house for me? Tell me the truth.”
“ What can people say ?” asked Orsino.
“ Many things. Will they say them ? ”
“ If they do, I can make them stop talking.”
“That means that they will talk, does it not? Would you like that? ”
There was a sudden change in her face, with a look of doubt and anxious perplexity. Orsino saw it, and felt that she was putting him upon his honor, and that, whatever the doubt might be, it had nothing to do with her trust in him. Six months earlier he would not have hesitated to demonstrate that her fears were empty; but he felt that six months earlier she might not have yielded to his reasoning. It was instinctive, but his instinct was not mistaken.
“I think you are right,” he said slowly. “We should not do it. I will send my architect with you.”
There was enough regret in the tone to show that he was making a considerable sacrifice. A little delicacy means more when it comes from a strong man than when it is the natural expression of an over-refined and somewhat effeminate character; and Orsino was rapidly developing a strength of which other people were conscious. Maria Consuelo was pleased, though she too was perhaps sorry to give up the projected plan.
“After all,” she said thoughtlessly, “ you can come and see me here, if ” —
She stopped and blushed again, more deeply this time; but she turned her face away, and in the half light the change of color was hardly noticeable.
“ You were going to say ‘ if you care to see me, ’ ” said Orsino. “ I am glad you did not say it. It would not have been kind. ”
“Yes, I was going to say that,” she answered quietly. “But I will not.”
“Why do you thank me? ”
“For not hurting me.”
“Do you think that I would hurt you willingly, in any way? ”
“I should rather not think so. You did once.”
The words slipped from his lips almost before he had time to realize what they meant. He was thinking of the night when she had drawn up the carriage window, leaving him standing on the pavement, and of her repeated refusals to see him afterwards. It seemed long ago, and the hurt had not really been so sharp as he fancied that it must have been, judging from what he now felt. She looked at him quickly, as though wondering what he would say next.
“I never meant to be unkind,” she said. “ I have often asked myself whether you could say as much.”
It was Orsino’s turn to change color. He was young enough for that, and the blood rose slowly in his dark cheeks. He thought again of their last meeting, and of what he had heard as he shut the door after him on that day. Perhaps he would have spoken, but Maria Consuelo was sorry for what she had said, as well as a little ashamed of her weakness, and she immediately turned back to a former point of the conversation, not too far removed from what had last been said.
“You see,” said she, “I was right to ask you whether people would talk. And I am grateful to you for telling me the truth. It is a first proof of friendship, — of something better than our old relations. Will you send me your architect to-morrow, since you are so kind as to offer his help ?”
After arranging for the hour of meeting Orsino rose to take his leave.
“May I come to-morrow? ” he asked. “People will not talk about that, ” he added, with a smile.
“You can ask for me. I may be out. If I am at home, I shall be glad to see you.”
She spoke coldly, and Orsino saw that she was looking over his shoulder. He turned instinctively, and found that the door was open and Spicca was standing just outside, looking in, and apparently waiting for a word from Maria Consuelo before entering.
F. Marion Crawford.
- Copyright, 1891, by Macmillan & Co.↩