Enchanter's Nightshade

XVI

‘Dunque, she committed suicide! Yes, with his revolver. They found her in her room, in the morning. It seems Zio Pipo telegraphed at once, but you see your father and mother and everyone were at the picnic, so they only heard last night, when they got back. Giacinta would not let a telegram be given to La Vecchia, so in the end Valentino opened it. I believe he sent a telegram to say Zio Francesco was away — so Roma said.’

‘But are you sure? Mama only said that she had died suddenly,’ Marietta said, still incredulous.

‘Perfectly sure. Roma told us so only just now, at colazione. She said she had heard it all from Zia Suzy,’ said Elena. ‘But Zio Francesco has gone to Bologna, no?’

‘Yes, he went this morning. To be with Zio Pipo, and to see about the funeral, and all that, Mama said — she came and told us. But she has to stay with Bonne-Mama, because of the shock. And she said I was to wear this,‘ Marietta said, indicating her white frock and black belt and ribbons, ‘ till she could see about proper mourning. And that we were to come out for a walk. So we came. I am glad we met you.’ She sighed — her small face was far from glad; a puzzled frown drew her delicate brows together. ‘It is better to know things, though they never think so.’ She sighed again.

‘But why,’ she went on after a moment’s pause — ‘Elena, why should she do this, now? That is what I do not understand — I thought it was all settled, after the consiglio, and that Zio Pipo was to give up that other, and they were to be happy again.’

The two cousins and Miss Prestwich were sitting under one of the pines on the Odredo ridge, on the dry grass. Almina had been told no more than Marietta, and was greatly shocked by Elena’s tidings — at this point, however, she felt that she must intervene.

‘I do not think we had better discuss it too much, do you, Elena?’ she said gently.

‘Oh, nonsense, Postiche! Why not? Marietta is not a baby, though they always think so. She would have been bound to hear it anyhow, quite soon. As to why she did it,’ Elena went on, ‘I don’t suppose we shall ever know, unless she left a letter. They do, sometimes. Roma had n’t heard of one, though. I suppose she felt that it was all more than she could bear,’ she pursued, thoughtfully, ‘and that there was no other way out for her. There are situations that cannot be supported.’

Almina was struck by Elena’s words. She remembered with sudden force her last sight of the Marchesa Nadia — seated in that chair; the ceaseless movement of her fingers over the carved arms, and the sort of despairing immobility of the rest of her figure. She was saddened by the death of that beautiful gracious creature, and pained to think of the misery and hopelessness which must have brought her to it, little as she could envisage them.

Marietta sat silent for some time. At last — ’Povera Zia Nadia,’she said, in a tone of indescribable sadness. ’I suppose I shall have to wait to understand. No, don’t explain any more, Elena — I don’t want to know!’ she said, with sudden passion. ‘Postiche, can’t we go home, now?’

‘You are very changeable,’Elena said — ‘a moment ago you wanted to know.‘

‘Yes — but not now. Elena, I am not cross — forgive me! But it is too difficult,’the child said, her face working. ‘Oh, Postiche, can’t we go?’ She burst into tears.

Fräulein Gelsicher, less than twentyfour hours before, had said to herself that ‘whatever happened’ she would speak to Miss Prestwich about Count Roffredo on the following day; and La Vecchia Marchesa, two days earlier, had also promised herself to deal faithfully with Suzy on the same subject as soon as the Meden picnic was over. But the Marchesa Nadia’s suicide was just one of those happenings, entirely outside human calculation, which prevent the carrying out of intentions except by very determined and remorseless people. As for La Vecchia Marchesa, for the time being the news put everything else out of her head. Of course she had to be told, and Suzy undertook this task, despite her private preoccupations, with her usual courage and insight. ‘BonneMama cara, I have terribly bad news for you, from Bologna,’ she had said simply, after she had sat with her for some minutes in her room.

‘She has left him after all?’ the old lady asked.

‘Yes — forever.’ She waited to see the effect of this announcement, and remained silent through the old lady’s first outburst of irritation. Her silence at last drew La Vecchia’s attention. ‘Where has she gone?’ she asked, rather tremulously, a fresh idea dawning on her.

‘She is dead, cara,‘ Suzy said, gently.

The old lady stared, at first incredulous, then with comprehension.

‘Elle s’est suicidée? ’ she asked, taking refuge in French from the bleakness of fact.

‘Yes — quite quickly. His revolver. She did it well — it must have been over in a second.‘

’Ma! She had courage, anyhow!’ the old woman said. ‘But how needless! Was Pipo there?’

‘Not that night — he came back next morning, soon after they found her. Francesco has gone to him.‘

She spent most of the morning with La Vecchia, listening and discussing — psychology was little known then, but a shrewd instinct told Suzy that the best way to minimize a shock was to let anyone talk it out, on the principle of sucking the poison from the wound. The main burden of La Vecchia’s observations was the folly and impatience of young people, who always attached such senseless importance to things that happened, and would never wait to let time bring its own solutions. By lunch time, however, Suzy had the satisfaction of seeing the old lady reasonably tranquil; she ate a good meal, and settled quietly down for her siesta. She had stood it far better than anyone could have hoped.

But Suzy was one of the very determined and remorseless people who carry out their plans regardless of the strokes of fate. Her drive home with Roffredo the previous evening had been a humiliating failure. She had begun by rallying him, with as much tact and gayety as she could summon, on the subject of Miss Prestwich; but the tact and gayety were thin to start with, and wore thinner against his stiff chilly refusal to discuss her at all. They had just avoided an open breach, but she had done no good whatever; she had said far more than she meant, had come near indeed to giving herself away completely — and she reached home entirely lost, at last, in jealous fury. It was her first failure, and to fail in competition with one’s own governess would be galling to any woman at any time— to do so, as Suzy did, just when her heart was stirring into flower at the touch of late passion was a peculiar cruelty. Before Roffredo set her down, at her request, at the little gate at the foot of the steps, she had decided to get rid of Miss Prestwich, and at once.

The news of her sister-in-law’s suicide really helped this scheme. She realized, with an added sense of jealous irritation, Marietta’s devotion to her governess — to send her away while the child was in the house would mean scenes and difficulties of every sort. Francesco too was sometimes tiresome about demanding inconveniently precise explanations for a course of action, and stubborn in his refusal to do what he did not approve of, as in the recent case — she had never quite followed his reasons there — of bringing pressure to bear on Pipo. But Francesco was now gone, for three or four days at least, and the old Marchesa, at her instance, was keeping her room — she had only to remove Marietta, and all would be easy. And the tragedy offered an ideal excuse for getting Marietta out of the house for a few days.

At the very time when the girls were discussing the news out on the stone-pine ridge, Suzy, at the heavy ormolu escritoire in her boudoir, was writing a note to Fräulein Gelsicher, asking her if it would be convenient to have Marietta to stay for a few days, alone. ‘This house is no place for her at the moment,’ she wrote, ‘and I am constantly occupied with the Marchesa. She has stood it marvelously, but she will need great care. But Miss Prestwich had better remain here, I think — there is so much to be done; so many notes, and the flowers, and I have the mourning to see to.’

She paused for a moment, after writing that, with suspended pen — that list of occupations for Miss Prestwich might look unpleasantly like a lie, later, and Suzy was always careful to cover her tracks. No — for she could let it be understood afterwards that the governess’s association with Roffredo had only come to her knowledge after she had made all these arrangements. She finished her letter, sealed and directed it with a firm hand, and gave orders for it to be sent to Odredo precisely at five o’clock, when Marietta would have returned for her English tea. And when the old Marchesa had finished her nap, and was fortified by a little glass of Marsala, she went and told her what she proposed. La Vecchia was pleased — it was a good idea to get the child away, and it showed a concern for the little one’s well-being which was rather unusual on Suzy’s part. She praised her daughter-in-law. ‘That was well thought of.’

So it was settled, and Marietta went off the following day immediately after colazione. Suzy was in a curious state of nervous tension till she had gone; it was as if she realized obscurely that the real danger, the most profound opposition to her will, lay concealed in that small childish figure. Even when the carriage had rolled out of the great entrance gates, Suzy did not feel really secure — she went up to her room, telling Miss Prestwich to remain in the house, as she would need her presently; and it was only when, three quarters of an hour later, she heard the carriage return and go round to the stables that she felt safe to embark upon her task. It was in the flower pantry that Suzy found Almina when she came down in search of her.

‘ Will you come up to the schoolroom, Miss Prestwich — I wish to speak to you,’ the Marchesa said.

Almina followed her upstairs. When they were in the schoolroom, the Marchesa turned about and faced her.

‘Miss Prestwich, I must ask you to leave my service,’ she said.

Almina stared at her, stupid with astonishment.

‘To leave?’ she faltered.

‘Yes. You will hardly need to be told why.’

The girl had turned very white — at the last words the color rushed into her face. She struggled with herself a moment, and then said, with a painful effort, ‘I should like to be told why, Marchesa.’

Suzy tapped on the floor with her foot — she had determined on an icy self-control, but at this show of firmness her temper began to rise.

‘When a governess conducts an intrigue with a young man in her employer’s house, and absents herself from her duties in order to enjoy his society, it is usual to dismiss her,’ she said, with bitter coldness.

Almina, with the misguided shrewdness of youth, seized on the weak point in this indictment.

‘May I know when I have absented myself from my duties to receive Count Roffredo’s addresses?’ she asked, choosing by instinct that particular and most wounding phrase.

Suzy stepped back, as if she had been struck.

‘At the picnic,’ she said, speaking with difficulty in her effort to control herself. ‘When you should have been in attendance on my daughter, you were in his arms! It was very well thought of, to return separately, and with flowers in your hand — but everyone is not quite a fool! You were seen.’

At that Almina’s resistance crumpled. Suzy thought that it was the consciousness of guilt; in fact it was the real hatred in the older woman’s tones which broke her down — she had never in her life heard those accents before, and they appalled her. A sudden realization of what this meant rushed over her: severance from Roffredo, though bitter, was the least of it; it was the return home, in disgrace, at the outset of her career; her mother’s sorrow. She began to tremble all over; she put out a hand to the table by which she stood, to steady herself. Oh, she must do something! With an effort which left her almost breathless, she forced herself to an attempt at submission, an appeal to the woman whose fault, she deeply felt, was so much greater than hers.

‘Marchesa, I have been in the wrong,’ she said, struggling to speak steadily. ‘I know that I ought to have told you, long ago, that Count Roffredo was paying me attentions. But there were — there were special difficulties,’ the poor child said, stumbling over this impossible aspect of the affair. ‘And I did once try to end it. But he would not accept that — and then it began again. And apart from my being in this position, there is of course no real reason why he should not — care for me. But I know that I did wrong not to tell you. But except at Meden, that once, I have never let it interfere in any way with my duties to Marietta — never. I have constantly been with her, and tried — oh, even out of lesson hours, I have tried so hard to help her, to make her happy!’ She fixed her eyes, now, on the Marchesa’s face, in an intense appeal. ‘So, if you could perhaps accept my apologies, and —’

Her voice died away, broken against the older woman’s stony silence, the cruel blankness in her eyes. Nothing she could have said would have shaken the young Marchesa’s angry resolve; but her words about having tried to end the Roffredo affair, and Roffredo’s having insisted on reopening it, woke fresh tortures of jealousy in Suzy’s heart. Well, she would do it no more!

‘I cannot alter my decision,’ she said coldly. ‘You must leave.’

‘When?’ Almina asked, with white lips. She had realized that there was nothing to be done, even before the Marchesa spoke.

‘At once. The carriage will be here at six to take you to the diligence. There is a train from Gardone to Vienna at eleven.’

Almina looked helplessly round the room, with her litter of possessions — then at the clock on the bookcase. It was already half-past three. She would barely have time to pack, she thought. Then, as the Marchesa turned towards the door, another thought struck her. Money! She had very little left. — not enough to take her to Vienna, far less back to England; she must get this, at least, arranged.

‘Marchesa!’ she said, rather hoarsely.

‘What is it?’ Suzy asked, her hand on the door.

‘My salary,’ the girl said. ‘There is a month owing, and I —’

‘When a person is dismissed for impropriety, it is not usual to pay any wages,’ the Marchesa said, in cold level tones.

’But you cannot! There has been no impropriety — you can’t do this!’ the girl stammered out. ‘I have a right to my month’s salary, at least. I must have money to get home with.’ She was almost beside herself.

Suzy had of course meant from the outset to pay the girl her wages, and indeed whatever was necessary to get her home — her one desire was to be rid of her. But that unlucky honesty of AImina’s about her attempts to end the affair had made her so angry that she lost all sense of reason. ‘I have nothing more to say. But remember that young women who have lost their character have no rights.’

Almina stood staring at her, her chest heaving with her difficult breath. ‘This — this is wickedness!’ she said, almost in a whisper. ‘I have n’t lost my character. You want to take it away, out of jealousy! Because he loves me, and he does n’t love you! I saw you and him, too — after Castel Vecchio! It is worse with you; you are married. I have a right to love him.’

At that, Suzy’s full fury, with difficulty held in check till now, blazed out.

‘Be silent! This is insolence!’ she said. ‘You will go, and you will go unpaid. Creeping and stealing out at night, to see him, and, if you could not do that, to spy! You have admitted your relation with him, and that you concealed it. If you were to speak, who would believe you — the governess who tries to seduce a rich young man? And you boast to me of your success! You are disreputable! Faugh! Go! ’ She went out of the room, shutting the door with a sharp snap behind her.

Almina remained standing where she was, looking at the painted panels of that slammed door, then began, wearily and mechanically, to collect her things and carry them into her own room; she pulled out her boxes and started to pack. She did it badly — her hands trembled so that she could hardly fold her dresses, and tears which she could not check constantly blurred her sight. But she went on, in a sort of blind haste — it was as if the need to be ready by six had mesmerized her. And such a horror of the young Marchesa now gradually took her that she wanted only to be gone — gone away, beyond all risk of seeing again that frightening face, distorted with fury, of hearing the terrifying hatred in that voice. What to do she had no real idea, but she must go — and so she must be quick! She was really near to hysteria before she had finished.

It was only when she was seated in the carriage, driving down the hill, that she began to think seriously what to do next. She counted her money — only forty-five lire. The diligence, with all that luggage, would be five, dinner would be five — where could she go, or stay, with thirty-five lire? She must do something. The thought of going to Odredo and appealing to Fräulein Gelsicher for help darted into her mind — but Marietta would be there, and Elena, and Giulio; she could not think how to contrive to get hold of Gela without being seen by some of them; and to face them, with all her luggage, dismissed in disgrace, was more than she could bear. They too might think her wicked and shameful — they might already have been told; and who, as Suzy had said, would believe her word, the governess’s, the stranger’s, against that of a relation — married, popular, secure? Ah, there was one person who would believe her, and only one: Roffredo! He would believe, because he knew — he would help her. He had money, would help her to get home. She would rather not have had to ask him, of course — but in her helplessness and despair he, with his love, stood out as her one savior. She must go to him, somehow.

The carriage pulled up. It was the diligence stop. Fat old Tommaso climbed down, unstrapped the luggage, and set it among the dusty weeds by the side of the road; he did all this extremely slowly, arranging and rearranging it, coiling his straps afterwards with meticulous care. Tommaso had orders he did not like — to put down the young inglesa and her luggage at the crossroads at six-thirty, and then to return. The diligence would not come till ten minutes to seven, and a pretty signorina like that ought not to be left alone by the roadside, just now at the vintage time in particular, when so many of those rascals of peasants were tipsy. So he dawdled over the luggage, and then turned his horses round very slowly, leading them; and after that he said the flies were a curse of perdition, and spent more time choosing some boughs of acacia, and biting off the thorns, and fixing them under the absurd straw hats which the animals wore on their heads. At last he had to go, but if the diligence were punctual there would be only five more minutes to wait; he wished Almina good luck, flourished his whip, and trotted off.

The diligence was, however, not punctual — it was ten minutes late. Almina, seated on her luggage by the roadside, watched for it anxiously. A teamster came by, perched on his loaded wain — he saw her, smacked his lips, and made a vulgar gesture. She turned her head away, and suddenly felt a sharp pain across her neck; the teamster laughed loudly — he had flicked her with his whip. Trembling with shame, anger, and helplessness, she sat perfectly still — mercifully he drove on. Oh, would the diligence never come?

It did come, at last, rattling and swaying round the bend, and drew up at sight of a passenger. The conductor took up her luggage, and asked ‘A Gardone?’ Almina nerved herself to ask her question — could they leave the direct road to Gardono and make a short detour along the Pisignacco road, to set her down at the Villa Gemignana? The driver and conductor looked curiously at her — the young Conte di Castellone’s house? ‘Yes,’ Almina said, nervously aware of their scrutiny. The two men consulted together, while she waited in painful anxiety. Well, it might, be possible, but it was off the proper route, do you see, and it would cost extra, with that copious quantity of luggage. How much? Well, it would be seven lire. This was outrageous, — frankly blackmail, — but Almina agreed, sighing with relief. Fifteen minutes later the diligence deposited her and her luggage at the door of Count Roffredo’s villa.

XVII

Since the completion of his work on the new invention, and the dispatch of the blueprints to Milan, some days before, Roffredo had been rather at a loose end. The news of the Marchesa Nadia’s death had reached him in the course of the previous day; this prevented him from going to Vill’ Alta, which in any case he felt small inclination to do at the moment, after his unsatisfactory drive home with the Marchesa Suzy from the Meden picnic. That drive had been more than unsatisfactory — it had been rather unpleasant. Suzy had — well, she had practically shown her hand, and it was not a hand that he was prepared to play. And he had been forced to do something like showing his — a thing Roffredo never cared to do unnecessarily, where women were concerned. But Almina he was anxious to see — for his own sake, and to find out whether there had been any ‘repercussions’ on her as a result of the drive. He rather feared it — Holy Virgin, what these women were when they were roused! However, this business of Nadia would presumably keep Suzy quiet for the time being.

But when Antonio came into the room where he was sitting waiting for dinner, idly turning over the pages of an American engineering magazine, and said that a signorina was at the door and wished to speak to the Signor Conte, he sprang up with a prophetic pang of suspicion and strode to the door.

One glance at the girl standing there, with her white face, and her luggage on the path beside her, told him the whole tale, or most of it.

‘Come in, cara,’ he said gently — ‘come and sit down. Antonio! Bring some brandy and soda — quickly!’ He led her in, and set her down in the big armchair; took off her hat, the straw sailor which had so impressed Giulio with its youthfulness the day she arrived at Vill’ Alta, and threw it on the divan, He stooped and gave her a quick kiss before the servant returned. ‘Don’t talk now, little love,’ he murmured. ‘Wait till you have drunk something — you look half-dead.’

‘It is the money — I have no money,’ the girl said in a low breathless tone, turning her gray eyes, which looked immense in the dead whiteness of her face, up to his. ‘But you will lend me enough to get home with, won’t you, Roffredo?’

The servant just then bringing in the tray, he poured out a good stiff brandy and soda, and gave it to Almina. ‘Drink that, sweetheart — it will do you good. Yes, of course I will give you money — whatever you need! ’

‘Now,’ he said, when she had taken most of it, ‘tell me. Has Suzy turned you out?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Because of me?’

The girl blushed deeply. ‘She said so.’

’How did she know ? ’ ‘She said we were seen at Meden. She said that I absented myself from my duties to be with you,’ the girl said, her lip beginning to tremble. ‘And you know that is n’t true!’

‘Don’t worry, cara,’ he said, taking her hand and fondling it. ‘Did she say who had seen us?’

‘No — but I think it must have been she, from her words.’

‘And what is this about money? Has she not paid you?’

‘No.’

‘But this is monstrous!’ the young man said, his indignation rising. ‘She should have given you your salary and your fare! What excuse did she give for not paying you?’

‘She said,’ the girl began — and stopped. ‘ She said one did not pay people who are dismissed for impropriety,’ she whispered, and hid her face in her hands.

‘Oh, Holy Virgin and all the Saints! This is too much!’ he exploded. ‘She, with her amours in all directions, mistress to her own husband’s cousin! She must be insane!’ He fumed up and down the room. Then he noticed Almina again; the sight of her crushed figure brought him back to the question of her immediate needs. He rang the bell.

‘Tell Alba that we shall be two for dinner,’ he said, when Antonio came. ‘Let her make something extra — an omelette or something.’

When the man had gone he went back to Almina’s chair, knelt down beside it, and put his arms round her. ‘Dearest little one!’ he murmured, kissing her. She turned and clung to him, as she had never done before — that trembling eager clasp told more plainly than any words of her feeling of shipwreck and despair. Angry as he was with Suzy, the practical issues were clear to his mind. Roffredo was extremely practical about any matter while he gave his mind to it — the trouble was that he seldom gave his mind to a thing for any length of time. Now, however, while he stroked Almina’s hair, he thought hard about what she had better do. Really, for her own sake, it would be best if she were to go. She had not quite good enough a case to take on Suzy, especially as he, Roffredo, was her main witness. He was not such a good one! He would get her money for her, though, if he had to go to the Marchese Francesco to do it. But any return to Vill’ Alta was impossible, and there would be no hope of her finding a place anywhere else in the province. Suzy would see to that! — had seen to it, really, with this shameful dismissal.

‘Cara, what do you want to do?’ he asked, raising her face so that he could see it.

‘Oh, I must go!’ she said, letting go of him and sitting bolt upright. ‘I must go! If only I can get the ticket. Have you enough money? I shall send it you at once when I get home.’

‘I have ’plenty,’ he soothed her. He pulled out his case and showed her a thick pad of notes, and drew a handful of gold pieces from his pocket. ‘But senta, cara, when do you want to go?’

‘Oh, to-night! I must go to-night! The express goes at eleven,’ she said, again with that sort of wildness of energy which betrayed her shaken nerves.

‘Very well — I will drive you in to the train,’ he said. ‘But there is plenty of time — it’s barely eight yet. We will have dinner together quietly, and you shall rest a little, and get up your strength. Come — do you want to wash ? See to your hair? Dinner will be ready in a moment.’

They dined, after some delay, and Roffredo, feeling that Almina needed all the support she could get, opened a bottle of champagne, as well as the red wine which stood on the table; he made her drink both, and constantly refilled her glass.

While Antonio was in the room he spoke on indifferent topics. ‘I sent off my plans last week to the N.S.A.,’ he said, ‘the very day you were here.’

‘Have you heard from them?’ Almina asked.

‘Only the acknowledgment. But I may hear any day now. It will be a great thing for me,’ he said earnestly, ‘if they take this idea. I shall be assured then of a future in the industry — a real stake in it.’

But towards the end of the meal, when Antonio had retired, leaving the dessert and coffee on the table, all the young man’s tenderness and concern returned. He stretched a hand across the table and took hers, looking at her suddenly with deeper eyes — perdition, how lovely she was!

‘Come into the sitting room, cara,’ he said abruptly. ‘We shall be more comfortable there.’ She rose and went into the other room, moving with great dignity, very slowly and carefully; he followed, bringing the glasses and the last of the champagne.

A curious lassitude, which she did not in the least understand, had come over her — her limbs were strangely heavy, as if she had lead, not blood, in her veins; on the other hand her head had an odd lightness about it — she seemed to be somehow remote from her surroundings — even her own words seemed to distill themselves, of their own accord, from her mouth. She had in fact drunk a great deal, and she was in no case to resist it. She had had nothing to eat since colazione at twelve-thirty (for she had been far too hurried and distracted to think of tea) and in the interval she had passed through the fiercest emotional upheaval of her whole life. The brandy and soda, administered with the best intentions by Roffredo, had revived her, but it had also gone directly to her head — it left her without appetite, but very thirsty. So she ate very little, and drank a great deal. ‘I must be very tired, tireder than I knew,’ she thought, finding how hard it was to walk into the sitting room.

But when Roffredo came and took her in his arms, she found that in this prevailing remoteness one part of her being was still awake. He was being good to her, taking care of her — in this strange revelation of cruelty and despair, which had turned her universe upside down, he stood firm, her one anchor, her single link with the old safe world of affection and kindness. She clung to him, for that. And he loved her. That was of enormous importance, now that the shadow of disgrace had for the first time impinged on her own life, her own person — his love stood, a bulwark, between her and the loss of her self-respect. And she so loved him! So, with even more fervor than in those moments which had startled him before dinner, she turned to him now, returning his kisses with a sort of involuntary and helpless simplicity and ardor.

That innocent abandonment robbed Roffredo of the last remnants of his wits and his self-control. She was too exquisite, like this — too unbelievably marvelous; at once yielded and passionate. ‘Come to the divan, cara,‘ he murmured. ‘Come!’ He led her across the room, and then lifted her bodily and laid her down on the heaped cushions. Prolonging the perfection of her mood, in spite of her protests he gave her yet more champagne, took more himself. But at last he set the glasses down, and returned to her. Lying there, enveloped in his caresses, that strange anæsthesia which had sometimes frightened her before returned. But now it was at once more powerful and less frightening. And she was leaving him — soon, in an hour! She might never see him again. That, almost her last conscious thought, gave poignancy to her love: she could not, in these last moments together, love him enough — her darling, her Roffredo.

XVIII

There was a slat missing in one of the green sun shutters outside the window on the east side of the sitting room at the Villa Gemignana. Through the gap thus formed the early sunlight streamed in, making an oblong bar of light which reached to the opposite wall. This bright shape struck the wall rather high up when it first entered the room, but as the time passed it crept steadily downwards and sideways, till at last it reached the divan itself. When it touched Almina’s face it disturbed her, and she woke up.

She did not at first realize where she was, and looked about her in a sort of dulled confusion, peering through the dim light, while her senses slowly awoke. Surely this was Roffredo’s room! But why did she feel so sick? It was more than feeling sick — she felt ill, deathly ill. Then she saw the champagne bottle on the table — the bar of sunlight was touching it now, lighting up the gilt foil on its shoulders. That brought back, instantly, the memory of last night. But what was she doing here still, with the sun shining, in daylight? She was to have caught the train last night! Startled, beginning now to be frightened, she sat bolt upright — and then saw her clothes over a chair.

Nothing in Almina’s life or training had prepared her to meet such a moment. A sound outside roused her to the necessity of getting dressed before anyone should come, and, hurriedly, she began to do this. But when she tried to stand giddiness and nausea overtook her, and her shaking and uncertain hands made the process a slow and difficult one. Her mind began to work a little, but slowly, and only on immediate things. She must go, somehow. But where was Roffredo, and how was she to get to the station?

Then the difficulty of putting up her masses of hair without mirror, brush, or comb suddenly absorbed her. Her luggage must be somewhere about, but she dared not try to find anyone to ask for it. She could not bear to see anyone, anyone! Except Roffredo. She found her hairpins in a little jade cup on the table, but her hand was shaking so that she spilt them, and had to pick them up—stooping made the pain in her head almost unendurable. If only she had some water to wash her face, it might stop this appalling headache! But though she knew her way to Roffredo’s room, where she had washed the previous evening, she could not bring herself to venture outside the door. And where was Roffredo? And she was still without money, she thought desperately, and it must be getting late — the sun was high and strong.

There was a sound of slippered feet shuffling along the passage. Almina stood and listened, trembling. Then there came a tap at the door, and old Alba pattered in, carrying a tray with coffee and rolls, which she set down on the writing table, saying, ‘Buon giorno, signorina,’ very cheerfully. She went and threw open the shutters, letting the sunshine stream broadly into the room, and set a chair before the tray, glancing at Almina with a sort of cheerful inquisitiveness the while.

Almina never moved — she stood, in her little blue coat and skirt, with her badly arranged hair, staring at the old woman. At last: —

‘Where is the Signor Conte?’ she asked, nervously.

‘Gone, signorina — gone to Milan! He had a telegram this morning, early, early — they brought it out from Pisignacco. This compagnia has taken his invention, Antonio tells me, and it shall be very important, it seems. So he went with Antonio in the car; he was dressed and out of the house in a small quarter of an hour, and just caught the express at Gardone.’

‘Did he leave a note for me? A letter?’ Almina asked, rather wildly.

‘No, signorina.‘

The girl’s face, white already, turned whiter. Her mouth worked. At last — ‘Did he leave some money?’ she asked, very low.

‘Veda, signorina, he was in such a hurry,’ the old woman said. ‘He thought of nothing, sicuro, but of the good news about the invention, and catching the train. The signorina knows what the Signor Conte is, when he is excited— everything, everything is forgotten!’

So he had gone, and left her here in his house, like this!—and had not even thought to leave some of all that mass of money he had shown her last night. Now, how could she leave? What could she do?

‘Let the signorina drink her coffee,’ Alba said, with practical concern. She poured out a cup, and then took the girl by the arm and led her to the table. Almina took one mouthful, and then pushed back her chair.

‘I should like to wash,’ she said. ‘Where is the luggage?’ Alba fetched her dressing case, took her into Roffredo’s cabinet dc toilette, and brought a can of hot water; there the girl washed her face and hands, and put up her hair properly. Then she went back into the sitting room and drank her coffee, cup after cup, till she had drunk it all. That revived her slightly; and, pushing the tray away across the writing table, she put her elbows down on the cleared space, and took her head in her hands. She was aware of the need to think quickly and clearly as to what to do next, but it was extremely hard to concentrate, and moreover every attempt at thought was obscured by an obsessing sense of shame and hopelessness at the idea of what must have happened the night before. The night had made true those accusations of the Marchesa’s which she had so bitterly resented for their injustice yesterday.

Her one impulse was to escape from the scene of this double disaster; but Roffredo’s cruel carelessness in rushing off without remembering to leave her any money made that impossible. And now, she could hardly take his money! That would be like — she pressed her hands desperately to her eyes, as if to shut out the intolerable thought of what that would be like. She must get away from here, out of this house! But where? But how? ‘Oh, if only I could see Gela!’ she said, just above her breath. She sat down again to consider this possibility. If she walked to Odredo, which was simplicity itself, surely she could gel hold of Anna or Annina, without facing Umberto at the front door, and ask her to bring Gela down to her, without risk of seeing Elena or Marietta.

But the thought of Marietta also brought back an overwhelming sense of her own disgrace. As she now was, she could not go to Gela, even, for help. If she had found it too difficult yesterday, when it was only the disgrace of being dismissed, how could she do it now, when—when — when she was ruined? ‘Oh, if only I had gone to her yesterday, and not come here!’ the poor little creature sobbed out. ‘Oh! Oh!‘ Why had she not? Why had she not had the courage? Why had she let such small things distract her from it, or even large ones, like the general distress over the Marchesa Nadia, which had somehow made it seem so much more difficult?

At the recollection of the Marchesa Nadia a new idea struck her. She lifted her head, and sat staring in front of her for a long time. She had suddenly remembered what Elena said, when they were sitting on the stone-pine ridge, the three of them, and discussing it — ‘There are some situations that cannot be supported.’ Oh, it was true! And now she too was in such a one. And the Marchesa Nadia’s way out was the only way. Slowly, she stooped down and pulled open the drawer of the writing table. Would he have left it there?

Yes, he had. She took the revolver out, opened the magazine, found the box of cartridges in the drawer, loaded it, and clicked the magazine to. Then she put it on the table beside her and sat looking at it. Her wretchedness had been so absolute that this decision, and the prepared means to carry it out, brought her real relief. There was one thing, though, that she must do first. Tears blinded her as she opened another drawer and pulled out some paper on which to write to her mother.

That letter to Mrs. Prestwich took her a long time. She was interrupted at every sentence by memories which shook her, by unbidden pictures which sprang out in her mind of her mother’s face, of little past kindnesses — and then of her incredulousness at this news, her disappointment, her worry, her bitter sorrow. Now conflict and argument did enter— but mostly under this curious guise of pictures. And she found it impossible to envisage her return, as she now was; she could see her mother’s distress at her death, but she could not see any picture of herself living again at home, after what had happened.

It was done at last. She sealed up the envelope, addressed it, found a stamp in her purse, and put it on. She took another sheet of paper and wrote on it in Italian, ‘Please put in the post,’ and placed it and the letter together on the table in front of her. That was everything. Now it had come. There was nothing else to wait for. She picked up the revolver, and examined the catch and the trigger, still with that same curious calm clarity of mind in which she had, as it were, floated ever since she took her decision. The only thing now was to remember the Marchesa Nadia, and how well and swiftly she had done it. —to choose exactly which way, and then to keep her hand perfectly steady, and make no mistake.

There was a sound of voices outside. Alba was speaking to someone — Antonio, or one of the tradespeople, no doubt. Well, she would wait a moment till they had gone— there was no violent hurry. Alba had been shuffling about all the time doing things in Roffredo’s room next door, so the girl paid no particular attention to steps in the passage. She sat at the table, the letter and the revolver in front of her, still in that state of almost dreamy calmness, when without warning the door opened, and the Countesses Aspasia and Roma di Castellone walked into the room.

XIX

The Countess Aspasia had her coffee and rolls brought to her room every morning at ten minutes to nine precisely by Maria, the fat, cheerful, inconsequent personal maid of the two sisters; this hour was dictated by the fact that it was the earliest moment at which the Castellone baker could be induced to deliver the fresh hot rolls which Aspasia regarded as indispensable to her breakfast. On this particular morning Maria was five minutes late, however, and Countess Aspasia, rather irritated, had begun to polish her nails, a task usually carried out after breakfast. When the servant appeared, she upbraided her brusquely, but entirely without heat. Maria apologized — yes, she was late, but the baker had been so long telling her, and then the postman had come! The diligence driver was the baker’s wife’s cousin, and lodged with them in Castellone, and last night when he came home he told them that he had picked up the little signorina inglesa from Vill’ Alta, with all her luggage, at the crossroads. And she had asked him to take her round by the young Count’s villa. Which he had done— yes, and set her down there, baggage and all. At seven in the evening. And at this moment the postman came, so they spoke all three together. The postman had already called at the villa, and had spoken with ‘quella veccitia‘—so Maria described the ancient Alba—because of the telegram; and the vecchia told him that the young signorina was still there, asleep!

’What telegram, fool?’ the Countess inquired.

‘The telegram from Milano. And the young Conte went off at once to Gardone to catch the express to Venice. He took it. He is gone to Milano. But the signorina remains.’

Left alone, the Countess Aspasia took a turn down the room, which, like most Italian rooms, was large and rather bare; at the further end she paused and spoke aloud — one sentence: ‘This is some of Suzy’s work!’ Then, leaving her coffee untasted, she strode into Countess Roma’s room.

‘Up! Up!’ she cried to her sister, who still lay in bed, reading a French novel.

‘Cosaè?’ she asked, rather resentfully, closing her book and slipping an ivory paper knife between the pages.

‘I shall tell you as we go — we must start in fifteen minutes for Roffredo’s house,’ Aspasia said. And regardless of Roma’s babbling protests and plaintive demands for enlightenment, she urged, and harried her into her clothes and through her toilet, saying constantly, ‘Leave that! You can do that later!’ about all but the most vital operations. Cross, uncomfortable (because Aspasia in her hurry had laced her stays too tight), ‘practically starving,’ as she bitterly protested, Roma was at last got into the pony carriage, a low-hung affair, and the sisters drove off, their flowered hats nodding incongruously above their gray heads in the bright morning sunshine, as the little vehicle bumped over the cobbles of the Castellone street. Once en route, Aspasia briefly retold Maria’s tale. ‘Suzy has been up to some of her tricks, for a certainty,’ was her comment. ‘ Quella piccola is not the sort to go staying at young men’s houses for nothing.’

’But what are we to do?’ Roma asked.

‘Ma, at least see what the position is,’ Aspasia replied, ‘and find out what has happened. I heard that Suzy had sent Marietta to Odredo without the little Postiche, and I wondered why. She is deep! There may be plenty to do!‘ she added significantly. ‘Anyhow, at least, we shall know.‘

Knowing was one of Countess Aspasia’s deepest passions, and this hurried drive had been undertaken partly out of the mere desire to be first on the spot in such a major scandal. But there was more to it than that. No serious amount of love was lost between the poor, forceful, highly intelligent spinster, with her plain face and her awkward figure, and her much richer, beautiful, and successful kinswoman, whom, as half American, she inevitably regarded as something of a parvenue. She felt that Suzy had it in her to ‘play anyone a bad turn,’ as she expressed it to herself. But she said nothing of this to Roma; Roma was too untrustworthy — she gabbled. To her she merely speculated, very agreeably, on Suzy’s possible actions and motives. ‘You remember the other day at Meden, when they were late for tea, how she dragged that wretched fool of a Carlo off to look for them! That’s pretty —to drag the old amante off to help her to find the new one!’ She gave a harsh cackling laugh.

But there was no laughter in her face when she walked, twenty minutes later, into Roffredo’s sitting room at the Villa Gemignana, followed by Countess Roma. With one sweeping glance she took in the whole scene—the champagne bottle, the tumbled divan, the girl sitting with a white, rather dazed face at the writing table, the stamped letter and the revolver before her. It was such a diagram of tragedy that she really needed to ask no questions at all. With a swift pounce she snatched up the revolver and put it out of reach. Then she turned to Almina.

‘Have you had some coffee?’ she asked, indicating the tray.

‘Some — enough.’

She drew forward a chair and sat down beside Almina.

’Now, tell me what has happened,’ she said firmly. ‘Why are you here?’

’I had no money — and I thought Count Roffredo might lend me enough to get home with,’ Almina answered.

‘Tchk!’ Countess Aspasia clicked her tongue. ‘You were dismissed, then? For what?’

‘ Because I — because I had received the attentions of Count Roffredo,’ the girl answered.

The Countess Aspasia sniffed. ‘And why had you no money? Was no salary owing to you?’

‘Only a month.’

‘The Marchesa did not pay this?’

‘No.’

‘And her reason for paying you nothing?’

The girl struggled before she spoke. ‘She said it was not customary—in the circumstances.’

‘What circumstances? Speak up— I can’t hear you. Dismissed for impropriety? Così! And was that true?’

‘No!’ the girl said, bursting into tears. ‘It was n’t! And she said that I neglected my duties to Marietta to be with him, and that was also untrue. I did not — I would not. I loved her.’

‘When did you see him, then?’

‘ Before breakfast — we walked.’

The older woman burst into a loud laugh. ‘Dio mio! Venus is not in the ascendant at such an hour! Was that all?’

‘Yes. I — I did conceal it,’ Almina said. ‘Since I was in the position of governess, I should have told the Marchesa. I know it. I thought of it. But at first I was not sure, and by the time I was — I thought I was, I mean, —’ her lip quivered,—‘it— it had become very difficult to do that.’

Roma was irrepressible. ‘ Because you suspected that she too was interested in him?’ she asked, her round eyes goggling with interest in her fat face.

‘I saw them,’ the girl said simply.

The sisters exchanged glances which contained whole salvos of comment.

‘Where?’ Aspasia snapped.

‘On a seat in the garden’ — the girl turned her head aside, as if in distaste.

‘Hm! Well, that did not make it precisely easy for her,’ Aspasia observed to Roma. ‘But you still went on meeting him, after that?’ she asked, turning again to Almina.

‘No!’ the girl said, almost violently. ‘I did not! I would not see him again — I kept away from him. I was angry. But one day I met him, by accident, when I was walking alone, looking for flowers, and he stopped me, and he would know why — why I had changed to him; and at last I told him. And then he said — ’ she paused for a phrase — ‘that — the other — was only civility; that it was necessary; but that it meant nothing. And I — I thought it was true.’

‘Without doubt it was true!’ Countess Aspasia said, as much to her sister as to the girl. ‘Dunque, after this explanation you continued to go for these early walks? And how did the Marchesa in the end find out?‘

‘She said we were seen at Meden. I think she saw us herself. Marietta was with Elena and the little Cnserta girl, so I went for a walk with — him,’ Almina said.

‘It is exactly as we thought — she saw you there when she went with Carlo. And then she got rid of Marietta, to have the coast clear — and now this!’ Then she started on a fresh tack. ‘So you came here to borrow money? And would Roffredo not lend it you?’

‘Yes — he said he would,’ Almina said, tears gathering again in her eyes. ‘He had plenty, he showed it to me; and he said he would drive me in to the express at Gardone at eleven. But we had dinner first, as there was plenty of time.’ She stopped.

‘Well, and then what happened?’ Countess Aspasia pursued, remorselessly.

But Almina had used up practically all the strength and self-control she had left. She struggled with rising sobs, tried to speak clearly, but without much success. ‘I don’t know — we drank a great deal of wine, and then we came in here — and I really don’t remember — don’t remember —’ The sobs became convulsive, strangled her voice, shook her whole body; she put her head down on the table, holding it with her hands as if to hold in the sounds by force; but they gained on her, grew louder and louder, till they broke on the screaming note of violent hysteria.

Countess Aspasia dealt with this collapse with perfect competence. She pushed the girl’s head down between her knees, sent for water, did whatever was necessary, keeping up meanwhile a steady commentary to her sister. ’Ma, it is perfectly clear, what has happened last night! And then this telegram came, this morning, and he rushed off, forgetting her, the money, everything! Alba said she asked if he had left any money. That is Roffredo all over! But this is rather too much, to leave her so! And indeed to seduce her! She is not of that type.’

‘What is to become of her?’ Roma asked.

’I shall take her home with us, to Castellone,’ Aspasia pronounced magisterially. ‘For a month at least — until we see! We cannot send her back to her mother like this — she is an old friend of the Princess Asquini’s! It would make an appalling scandal.’

Roma looked slightly aghast. ‘Suzy will not like that, at all,’ she observed. ‘Is it wise, Aspasia?’

‘My dear Roma, if you believe that after this performance Suzy will sing at all loudly, I think you deceive yourself,’ Aspasia said. ‘When her own behavior has been such an inconvenienza, she can hardly criticize the actions of others. Besides, it. is a work of mercy,’ she added righteously, as an afterthought.

She presented the same bold front, later in the day, to the Countess Livia, Roffredo’s mother. The return to the red wing at Castellone of the pony carriage, with Miss Prestwick as an extra occupant, did not pass unnoticed either in the central portion, occupied by Ernest’s wife, or in the farther end, where Countess Livia lived; nor did the subsequent arrival of all Miss Prestwick’s luggage in Roffredo’s dogcart, driven by Antonio. The baker and the postman had of course not confined their absorbing communications to Maria, and both the other establishments were seething with excited but uninformed comment by the time the two flowered hats, accompanied by Almina’s straw sailor, were seen nodding up the steep approach to the red front door behind the pony. And even while Countess Aspasia, with her usual strong common sense, was getting Almina put straight to bed in a pleasant room at the northeast corner, looking out on to the mountains (nearer here than at Odredo or Vill’ Alta), Countess Livia was putting on her widow’s bonnet and a flowing crape-trimmed silk mantle to walk the ninety yards along the terrace in front of the long building, from her own front door to that of her cousins by marriage.

Countess Livia had disapproved violently of Miss Prestwick ever since the day when Suzy took her to call at Castellone and had lost no opportunity of saying so ever since. And now, armed with the flying rumors, with her characteristic brand of rather sour piety she endeavored to remonstrate with Countess Aspasia on her incredible action in bringing ‘that young person’ to Castellone, ‘practically under my roof.’

Countess Aspasia was quite unconcerned. ‘Yes, I have brought her here,’ she said; ‘I considered it right to do so. For the present, she remains with me.’

Remains with you ? My dear Aspasia, this is very extraordinary. Do you wish to give your countenance to such behavior? May one ask for how long she remains?’

‘She remains for at least a month,’ Aspasia replied. ‘And if you wish to know, my dear Livia, the sort of behavior I do not countenance, it is that of a young man who, when a girl in desperation (as a result of gross injustice and ill-treatment) goes to him to borrow money to return decently to her home, uses her distress as an opportunity, first to make her drunk, and then to seduce her. That I do not countenance. Do you?’

Routed on this front, Countess Livia tried a flank attack. ‘In any case, I hardly feel that you ought to have her here, among us all. Suzy would not have dismissed her without cause.’

‘No, she did not. She had an admirable cause—jealousy of her own governess! Did you know that Suzy constantly visited our dear Roffredo at night? Late — leaving him towards midnight? Bella cosa, no? Very creditable to Suzy! As to Roffredo, there I say nothing; when a young man flirts with a woman ten years his senior, one knows which to blame! But do not seek to shuffle off their misdeeds on to that unfortunate child. I warn you that I shall not lend myself to it!’

This onslaught completely undermined the remaining shreds of the Countess Livia’s morale. To cover her retreat, she sighed, and said that it was all most distressing. ‘But the important thing is to prevent La Vecchia Marchesa from hearing of it. It would be a serious shock for her — anything might result! Remember, the birthday is in three weeks, now. We should be careful not to let the story get about, cara Aspasia.’

Countess Aspasia had already thought of La Vecchia Marchesa. The old lady was one of the very few human beings to whom she accorded her whole-hearted respect and liking.

‘Lo so,‘ she said briefly. ‘I shall not tell her unless I must. But I do not guarantee that she will not find it out for herself. There is not much that escapes her.‘

XX

Countess Aspasia was quite right about La Vecchia Marchesa. Very little did escape her, at any time. And though she sometimes conveniently failed to hear what she did not wish to hear, her ears were preternaturally sharp for all those things which others desired to keep from her — it was as if their very wish for secrecy sharpened their voices and carried them direct to her brain. On the morning after Almina’s dismissal, the old lady, against Suzy’s wishes, suddenly decided after all to go downstairs that day. But because she had taken this decision rather late, she had her eggnog in her sitting room, after she was dressed. The door into the little lobby beyond, which more or less shut off her apartments from the rest of the house, was ajar; in this lobby Giacinta and Roberto were getting her rugs and cushions together, in preparation for the transit downstairs, and discussing in lowered voices the absorbing news of Miss Prestwich’s flight to the Villa Gemignana and her annexation by the Countesses Aspasia and Roma, which by various channels had reached Vill’ Alta a short time before.

’Giacinta!‘ the old lady called sharply.

The maid hurried in. ‘The Marchesa wishes?’

‘Shut the door!’ the old woman said. When the maid had done so — ‘What were you and Roberto tattling about outside?’ she demanded imperiously.

Giacinta smoothed her black silk apron and looked blank. ‘Nothing of importance, La Marchesa.’

‘Where is the Signorina Prestwich?’ the old lady asked.

‘Non so,’ Giacinta replied.

‘Giacinta, you might know by now that it is no good lying to me,’ her mistress said calmly. ‘Why has the signorina gone to Castellone with the two Countesses? When did she leave here?’

This evidence of knowledge defeated Giacinta. She saw that further refusal to speak was hopeless, in spite of the Marchesa Suzy’s injunctions to keep the departure of the signorina from the old Marchesa for the present, so as not to cause her any fresh disturbance so soon after the ill news of the Marchesa Nadia’s death.

‘Last night, about six,’ she said.

‘How did she leave?’

‘ In the carriage.’

‘And went where?’

‘To the diligence, credo’

‘E poi? Speak up, woman —what is all this about the Conte Roffredo’s villa? You had plenty to say to Roberto about it!’

By such means the old lady prized out of Giacinta all that the servants knew; and when she had heard it all, without comment, she sent for Tommaso. While she awaited him she thought over the maid’s story with a certain discomfort. It looked as if Suzy had been most unwise, and her recent conversation with Fräulein Gelsicher gave her a clue to one reason for this lack of wisdom. Aspasia was shrewd — she would not have taken the girl in unless she were satisfied that there was a good deal to be said on her side. There was something behind all this — something which had not come out. Why had the girl gone to the villa and stayed the night? It was not like her — she was a perfectly rangée little thing.

Her meditations had carried her so far when Tommaso was announced. The old Marchesa dealt with him shortly. He had taken the signorina to the diligence the previous evening? Yes. Not to Gardone? No. By the Marchesa’s orders? Yes. He went nowhere else? No. In all good faith, merely to establish one aspect of the servants’ story, which she did not yet wholly trust, the old Marchesa then asked, ‘You saw her get into the diligence, yourself?’

Tommaso shifted from one fat foot to the other. ‘Marchesa, no,’ he brought out at length.

‘Ma come? You did not leave her alone by the road to wait? Dio mio, you know your business better than that!’ the impatient old woman broke out, in genuine surprise and irritation.

Tommaso’s embarrassment was pitiful to see. ‘Si, la Marchesa. È vero, la Marchesa. But we were rather early, the Marchesa sees — and the young Marchesa had wished the carriage to return in good time. And the Marchesa will understand that the diligence was rather late —’ His voice trailed away into a wretched silence. Tommaso knew as well as anyone else the disreputable nature of the instructions he had received; it was unheard of for a coachman to leave a lady waiting by the roadside if, as seldom happened, she were using the diligence at all.

The old Marchesa took it all in. Her mouth drew together in an almost bitter line. ‘Vg bene — that will do,’ she said quietly. When he had gone she rang her bell.

Giacinta reappeared. ‘Comanda la Marchesa?‘

‘Inform the young Marchesa, that I wish to speak with her.’

Tommaso’s evidence of Suzy’s venomous folly had made her really angry. But when her daughter-in-law came sweeping in, graceful, finished, beautiful, an expression of concern on her charming face, the old woman felt a pang of real pain for the suffering that could have made her so mistranslate her proper rôle and purpose in life, could have betrayed her into behaving in this crude and cruel way. That it was a betrayal of the willed personality she never doubted. But no pain or pity could ever turn La Vecchia Marchesa from a course which she felt to be necessary.

’Figlia mia, is it true that you have dismissed Miss Prestwich?’ she began, without any preamble.

Suzy blanched a little. Obviously Bonne-Mama had found out somehow.

‘Yes, Bonne-Mama, I have. It was necessary,’ she said in her charming, caressing voice.

’Why?‘

‘She was carrying on an intrigue with Roffredo; it was needful to put a stop to it. Livia would have expected this of me — and in any case she could not be a good influence on Marietta, in the circumstances. She admitted that it. had been going on for some time, and that she had concealed it from me,’ the young Marchesa said smoothly. ’I feel sure you will agree with this, Bonne-Mama.’

‘It is possible,’ said the old lady dryly.

‘Though I myself should have considered Marietta’s feelings rather than Livia’s. The child loves Miss Prestwich. But one may agree with a course of action without agreeing as to the means of carrying it out. Was it not rather sudden? And if it had to be done so hastily, could not the carriage have taken Miss Prestwich to Gardone, at the proper time?’

‘Vedi, Bonne-Mama, that is so late for Tommaso! And the horses had already been to Odredo in the afternoon. Besides, in the circumstances I really did not feel called upon to show her quite the attention that would be shown to a guest.’

’Hm. That might still have been preferable to her going to dine at Roffredo’s, and spending the night there,’ the old lady said.

No word of this had of course reached Suzy’s ears; she was the one person to whom nothing would be said on the subject. She drew in a sharp breath, and stood looking down incredulously at her mother-in-law. At last, with an effort, ‘Well, that speaks for itself!’ she said, very slightly shrugging her shoulders.

’I am not sure what it speaks for,’ the old woman said. ‘It puzzles me — it is very unlike her. Why do you suppose she went there?’

Ma, to see him, of course. Surely it is evident?’ the younger woman said, a note of scornful bitterness creeping into her voice at last.

The old woman looked keenly at her. ‘Did you part with mutual courtesy, or in anger?’

‘To some extent in irritation. She was insolent,’ Suzy said, a little color coming into her face at the recollection, of that scene. ‘Does it matter?’ she asked, a little wearily.

They had quarreled, then, face to face! ‘You remembered, in your irritation, to pay her her fare,’ she said —‘to see that she had plenty of money for the journey?’ There was actually a note of anxiety in her voice.

Suzy moved to the window and adjusted the fastening of the sun blind. Seated in her chair, the old woman watched her, again feeling that pain — only now the pain was almost physical; unconsciously, she put her hand to her left breast, to what seemed to be the seat of it.

Slowly Suzy turned round, a bitter blank defiance in her face. But when she saw the position of that small frail hand on the little black figure, the consternation in the old woman’s eyes, her expression altered. With a swift impulsive movement she went over and stood close to the old Marchesa’s chair.

‘No, Bonne-Mama, I did not,’she said. ‘I—‘ her face worked for a moment. ‘I lost my temper completely, and I — I never went into it properly with her. I regret it very much. I was in fault/

‘My child, you were/ the old Marchesa said very gravely. ‘I do not know what evidence you had against Miss Prestwick, but nothing short of flagrante delitto could justify such behavior! The girl is of good family, remember, and recommended by personal friends. And to send her away like this, at no notice, and without money— it is insanity!’ She paused—she was not aware of fatigue, but somehow she felt the need to wait for a moment before continuing. ‘You will have to pay her a quarter’s salary, and her fare,’she said then, firmly.

‘Si, Bonne-Mama—I recognize that. I will,’Suzy said. She paused for a moment and then said, ‘But where is she? Is she still there?’

‘No. By some means which I do not understand, it seems that Aspasia heard of it, and went this morning and fetched her. At the moment she is at Castellone/

Again her daughter-in-law roused her admiration by her self-control. With a light movement of face and shoulders, as if somehow burying her concern, she said quietly, ‘Then we had better send the money there.‘

La Vecchia Marchesa considered in silence for a moment. ’I think,’she then said, ’that I will ask Aspasia to come and receive it on her behalf. That seems to me the most suitable course. Will you hand me my writing board, my dear?’ She did not say, what was very much in her t houghts, that by this means it might be possible to set some sort of limit to the sisters’ tongues. But Suzy — it was the one flaw in her self-control during tinwhole of that difficult scene—made it clear that this contingency was present to her mind also. Handing the blotting board, with paper and envelopes stuck under its dark green morocco corners, to the old lady, she asked, ‘Did Roma go also to the villa?’

‘I believe so. Now 1 shall write this. And after all, Suzy, I think that I shall not come down to colazione. It is late, and I am a little tired.’

The old Marchesa received Countess Aspasia in her own sitting room. Suzy was not visible. A fat envelope lay on the little table beside the old lady, an earnest of what was to come. But neither was sure quite how much the other knew. Aspasia, for instance, though she had made a guess, was not certain whether Miss Prestwick had been dismissed with the old Marchesa’s sanction or without it — nor what line she was likely to take. Accordingly, their opening moves were made with a certain circumspection.

‘So Miss Prestwich is with you, Contessa?’ the old lady began.

‘Yes, Marchesa. She is not very well,’Aspasia replied, blandly.

‘Suzy has had occasion to dismiss her,’the old lady said, gravely, ‘but in all this confusion about Nadia it was done in some haste, and mistakes were made.’ She took up the envelope. ‘Here is a quarter’s salary in lieu of notice, and the month that was owing, and a full fartback to England, with all expenses. I think that that meets all obligations.’ Countess Aspasia took the envelope, and signified assent. ‘And now, my dear Contess,’she went on, ‘I do not know if you agree with me, but I am inclined to feel, much as I personally like and respect the gir,‘—she leaned a little on the word ‘respect/—’that the sooner she leaves the province, the pleasanter for her, and indeed for everyone.’ She spoke with perfect friendliness, but with a certain decision.

‘In other circumstances, dear Marchesa, I should be entirely of your opinion,’Countess Aspasia answered; ’but, owing to this unfortunate mistake,’ — and she too leaned a little on the word,

— ‘a state of affairs has arisen which makes me regard it as desirable that Miss Prestwich should remain with us for a certain length of time.’ She looked squarely at the old Marchesa, and the old Marchesa looked back at her. Better make sure, the old woman thought; and she said aloud: ‘Might I ask what those circumstances are, Contessa? I have great confidence in your judgment, as you know, but at present I am a little in t he dark.‘

‘But certainly,Marchesa. Being without money, except for a few lire, and unable therefore to travel, Miss Prestwich

—unwisely perhaps, but she was in a situation of great distress and difficulty

— went to Roffredo with the intention of borrowing some. He had declared an attachment for her, and she relied on him — beyond his deserts, as it. proves. He did agree to lend her the money, and to drive her to the station, but as she left this house five hours’ — again she leaned on the words — ‘before the express was due, there was unfortunately a considerable interval of time to wait for it, during which he gave her dinner, and so much wine as to render her practically unconscious, I gather. In any event, she spent the night at the villa with him.’ She paused.

’I see,’ the old lady said. It was black enough. ‘And how did you hear of it?’ she asked. There was no doubt more to come.

‘My chattering servant told me when she came with my coffee, thanks be

to heaven,’Countess Aspasia said, ’that she was there, and that Roffredo had gone galloping off to Milan on the morning train. It seemed to me distinctly out of the ordinary, to say the least, and I decided to look into it. Mercifully I did not delay! I took Roma, and we drove over at once. We found that unfortunate young woman sitting in Hoffredo’s room, with his revolver loaded, and a sealed letter to her mother in front of her. That letter saved her life — without it, we could not have been in time.‘

The old Marchesa heard her in silence. Only her small wrinkled hand traveled up to her left side—that curious pain again! Suzy’s betrayal of her better self had been deep indeed, had almost plunged them in disaster. And that unhappy little creature, with her pretty face, her graceful good manners, and her devotion to Marietta — to have brought her to this!

‘That,’ Countess Aspasia pursued firmly, ‘is why I think it desirable that Miss Prestwich should remain with us for the present. Indeed at the moment she is quite unfit to travel; the shock — both shocks,’she said with emphasis, ‘have affected her severely. I have had the doctor; he has given her sedatives; he thinks she will do.’ She paused, and then said, ’Do you agree that this is the right course to pursue, Marchesa?’

’But certainly!’ the old lady said, with energy. ’We have reason to be extremely grateful to you, my dear Aspasia. You have averted a tragedy. One tragedy, anyhow,’she amended. ‘As to her remaining, you are perfectly right; she cannot go home.’ She considered, tapping the fingers of her left hand on her knee, so that the diamonds winked briskly, even in the shaded room. Then she raised her white head and looked straight at the Countess Aspasia, her black eyes full of intelligence, and spoke briskly. ‘Contessa, this is an unhappy business,’ she said frankly. ‘Something must be allowed to Suzy for the distress of Nadia’s death and for the shock of finding this — entanglement—going on in her house. For I gather Miss Prestwich admitted that it had been going on for some time. But it was not well handled — not well handled!’ She paused. ‘We are all very much in your debt. You have saved us from one disaster. As to the other, we must hope for the best. But for her sake — the less said the better. I feel this strongly!’ she said, with great energy.

‘Marchesa, I agree,’Aspasia said. She meant it — she was, as always, disarmed by the old Marchesa’s courage and frankness. But for all her intelligence and clear sight, she never recognized the ungovernable quality of her own longue; it. never occurred to her that her concurrence now meant exactly nothing, and that in her heart she fully intended to spread this superlative story far and wide.

‘As to Roffredo,’ the old lady went on, ’I have no patience with him — though he is no worse than all the rest. What did he need to rush off for, like that?‘

‘This invention! It seems it has been accepted. Roffredo has no stability, in any case,’ Aspasia said, dismissing him. She rose.

The old lady rose too. Then another idea occurred to her. ‘That letter,’ she said. ‘What became of it?’

‘I have burnt it,5 Aspasia said.

‘You are perfectly right. Do not let her write to her mother about all this — there is no necessity, for the present,’the old lady said. She held out her hand, and for the first time that afternoon she gave her little, old, detached, wise smile. ‘Good-bye, my dear Aspasia. I think we understand each other.‘

XXI

On that same Tuesday afternoon, Elena and Marietta, after the siesta, were sitting out by the round marble table under the stone pine at Odredo, Elena sewing, Marietta faithfully and laboriously ploughing her way through Pride and Prejudice, a dictionary by her side. Once or twice Marietta laughed. ‘What is it?‘ Elena asked at length.

’Questa Elisabetta! She is so sensible, it comes out as comic,’ Marietta said. ‘Oh, I wish Postiche were here!’ She pushed the book away, and sat looking in front of her.

‘You’ve only been away from her twenty-four hours, and you will soon have her again,’ Elena said sensibly.

‘You are like Elisabetta!‘ Marietta replied. ‘Oh, there’s Gela!’

Fräulein Gelsicher’s spare figure was indeed visible, sheltered by a green-lined tussore sunshade, crossing the hot space of gravel between the shade of the tree and the house, fler face was serious and rather drawn. ‘Elena, I should like to speak to you,’ she said, with unusual gravity in her voice, as she came up to them.

I will go! I will go! I am sick of sitting still!’ Marietta cried, and made towards the house.

‘What is the matter?’ Elena asked.

‘A very — a most distressing thing has happened,’ the governess said. ‘ We have all been too late. I ought to have spoken yesterday, or even the day before; but, with the Marchesa’s death, it seemed so difficult ’ — she spoke as much to herself as to Elena. ‘And La Vecchia Marchesa too, it seems, did not —‘

‘Do stop blaming yourself, Gela, and tell me what has happened,’ Elena broke in.

‘in the ordinary way it is not a thing I should wish to tell you,’ Friiulein Gelsicher went on; ‘but with Marietta here I think I must, for I shall need your help.’

‘Is it about Suzy?‘ Elena asked calmly, taking up her sewing again.

‘Not exactly. Partly. She has dismissed Miss Prestwich,’ Friiulein Gelsichcr said.

‘How monstrous!‘ Elena exclaimed. ‘What on earth for?‘

’I do not know. I have heard nothing from there. I have only heard through the servants. But it seems that she was sent away last night, and without much money; in any case, she persuaded the diligence driver to take her to Roffredo’s house.’

‘The diligence? Where was the carriage?’

‘It appears that the carriage look her only to the diligence stop,’ Fräulein Gelsicher said, unhappily.

‘That woman! All right, Gela — I will be quiet. Go on.’

‘Roffredo certainly meant to take her on to the night, train, because Antonio was told to get out the automobile,’ Fräulein Gelsicher pursued, ‘but naturally he gave her dinner first, and —’ She stopped, her face full of wretchedness.

‘He kept her there and seduced her, I suppose?‘ Elena said, in the calm tones of cold fury.

‘Elena, Elena, do not speak so loud! Try to control yourself!’ the governess said, firmly. ‘You will be of no help unless you can behave reasonably.’

‘Where is she now, the poor little thing.”Is she gone, or does he keep her there still?’ the girl asked abruptly.

‘They are both gone. He had a telegram from Milan, about his invention, and went off very early; and she, it appears, is gone to Castellone.’

‘To Castellone? Why on earth there?’

’The two Countesses drove over and fetched her, soon after ten, in the pony cart. How they came to do so, I can’t say,’ Fräulein Gelsicher said, in a tone of weary bewilderment. ‘But. they did — and there she is.’

Elena first stared, then broke into a laugh.

‘ The Sorellone to the rescue!’ she said. ‘That is perfect! They would! They know everything, always. And Aspidistra would adore such a chance of putting a spoke in Suzy’s wheel. I don’t blame her!’ Her face grew sombre again.

‘The important thing — and that you can help me in — is to keep it from Marietta,’ Fräulein Gelsicher said.

’That’s impossible! It will resound all over the province, especially since the Sorellone have taken a hand in it.’

Fräulein Gelsicher sighed. ‘True. But we must try, at least for the present. She is in mourning, and we can remain very quiet. Consider the effect on her!’

‘Zia Suzy might have thought of all that before! Oh, the poor little worm! I can’t imagine what she will feel,’ Elena said. ‘And that wretched harmless little Postiche!’

‘Remember, Elena, as to Miss Prestwich, it is all guesswork—about last night; we know nothing.’

‘Oh no! And we don’t know Roffredo! And it is only occasionally that two and two make four!’ the girl broke out impatiently.

The governess sighed again. ‘I thought that perhaps I would ask Countess Aspasia if she could come over and see me,’ she said. ‘Then I should learn the facts, and it might be easier.’

‘I doubt if you get any facts to make it more bearable for Marietta,’ said Elena. ‘Still, try.’

‘Very well. I will go and write the note,’ Fräulein Gelsicher said; and rose, and walked back to the house.

Marietta, restless and listless, had roamed off to the back yard, where she first watched the wine pressing going on for some time. Then she amused herself by feeding a pair of the bullocks with carrots, and stroking their soft creamy noses. She felt slightly puzzled and uncomfortable. Postiche had promised to write every day, and she had not written yet. She could easily have sent a note over this morning!

It occurred to her presently that she had not been in the house for over an hour; the post was due, and there might be a letter or a note from Postiche. Her feet winged by the thought, she flew across the yard, up on to the terrace, swung over the balustrade, and ran in by the back door. But there was no letter. Marietta turned away and went upstairs, tears of disappointment welling up in her eyes.

To reach her room she had to go through Elena’s. The door was open, and she walked in. Annina, Elena’s and Fräulein Gelsicher’s maid, was in close conference with the laundress, who had brought up some clean linen; they did not hear her light feel on the carpet, and she caught some words — ‘Yes, at the villa; and then they took her to Castellone, and —‘ When the women saw her they started, and broke off in mid-sentence, with an obvious air of confusion.

’Who has gone to Castellone, Annina?’ Marietta asked, half idly, half irritated by this air of mystery.

‘Oh, no one of importance, Marehesina. I was talking to Marta,’ the maid replied, laughing foolishly.

‘That I saw,’ Marietta said, rather haughtily, and went on into her room. There she went over to the delicate marquetry escritoire and, sitting down, wrote to Miss Prestwich. It was a dull little letter, describing every one of her actions since they parted; none of her vague disquiets, and hardly any of her secret longing got into it — just three sentences at the end: —

I wish you were with me. Nothing is very nice without you. I do not think Mama can really want you so badly as I do!
I embrace you tenderly,
MARIETTA

Next day a number of things happened. The Sorellone duly came over, in response to Fräulein Gelsicher’s note, but so late that they had to be asked 1o remain to lunch. Countess Aspasia was annexed by Fräulein Gelsicher and carried off to a small sitting room downstairs, where the latter heard, for the first time, the full story of Suzy’s reckless cruelty and its consequences. She sat with a face of misery, thinking, once or twice, how appallingly right Elena had been in her bald surmises of the day before. Both her mercifulness and her good sense were forced to approve Countess Aspasia’s action; but, like the old Marchesa, she felt that it added to the general difficulty and complications. How, for instance, was she to keep Marietta away from Castellone, if the child once learned that her beloved Postiche was there? And some further news which the Countess brought added to ibis feeling. After giving a full and dramatic account of the affair, — Aspasia was a born raconteuse, — she proceeded : —

‘And imagine, Roffredo is now back! Yes, it occurred to him suddenly at Milan—the featherhead!—how he had left lier, plantée, at his house; and for all that, his invention has been accepted, he turned straight round and came tearing home, by the night express. The moment he heard from Alba whore the little one was, he got into his automobile and rushed over to Castellone! Ma si! That is why we are so late. The pony was at the door, we were about to start, when we heard quella macchina! And in he came, quite distraught. He must see her—and here was her money! He had left it after all, on (ho mantelpiece — yes, yes, the notes were under a. vase, but of course no one saw them. I told him that he was a little late with this thoughtful kindness! Indeed, I told him a number of things! And then, just as he was leaving, looking like a whipped puppy,’— again she gave a little laugh, — ‘who should come in but Livia! I thought we should never get off. She too had heard the automobile, and came trailing across. I suggested that they should perhaps repair to her house for their conversation! And she took the hint. Livia is furious—I heard her beginning as they went. Our young Roffredo has not had a very pleasant morning!’ she concluded, and laughed again.

Meanwhile Elena had been left to entertain Countess Roma. Now Roma had received strict injunctions from her sister not to touch on the affaire Prestwich with either of the young girls, and it is just possible (though far from certain) that if Elena had been ignorant of it she might have done as she was told and held her peace. But Elena, naturally, began instantly to ask questions, and well-informed questions at that; and finding that she already knew so much, Roma was delighted wilh the liberty which this gave her to tell all she knew.

This ill-considered loquacity of Countess Roma’s had far-reaching results, as ill-considered speech is apt to have. The petty details of Suzy’s cruelty, and the depths to which it had borne the English girl, carried Elena’s indignation, already vehement, beyond all bounds of reason, prudence, or justice. Her lively mind at once flew ahead to schemes of vengeance; in the meantime she was so angry that she quite lost sight of her duty to her neighbor, in the persons of Marietta and Fräulein Gelsicher. So that after lunch, when the Sorellone had driven off in their little pony carriage, and Fräulein Gelsicher had retired for her afternoon rest, Elena was in no state to resist the onslaught made on her by Marietta.

The young girl’s morning had been rather wretched. There had been no letter, no note from Postiche in reply to her outpouring of the previous afternoon, and a suggestion to Fräulein Gelsicher that she and Elena might walk over to Vill’ Alta to see her had been vetoed with a brusqueness which surprised her; moreover the two separate confabulations before lunch, between Countess Aspasia and Gela, and Elena and Countess Roma, had not escaped her observation. Accordingly, as soon as the two girls were alone, she turned firmly on her cousin.

Senti, Elena, I think you must tell me now what the matter is. I know there is something, with all these conversations; besides, if there were not, I should be allowed to go across to Vill’ Alta, and also Postiche’ — her voice fell away a little — ‘would write to me. So now — what is it? I must know.’

This demand put the match to Elena’s superfluous store of gunpowder. She had all along believed that it would be impossible to keep the thing from her little cousin, and now that her suspicions were aroused, the game, she considered, was up. And her anger at Roma’s tidings obscured any lingering compunction she might have fell. Briefly, baldly, she poured the whole thing out.

Marietta listened to the tale in complete silence, her face once more that of a small Medusa. Her silence continued for some time after Elena had finished: she sat looking, not at her cousin, nor exactly away from her, but over her shoulder, as if what she had heard were set out in the distance beyond Elena’s head, and she was reviewing it there. At last, speaking with a great effort, she said, ‘You have not told me why Mama dismissed her.’

Again Elena’s anger got the better of her judgment.

‘Ma, because she found out that Roffredo was in love with her. She saw them at Meden. And she wanted him for herself, you see,’ Elena explained with airy crudeness. She paused then; the extreme whiteness of her little cousin’s face made her, belatedly, regret her words. ‘Marietta, I am sorry to say this,’ she said more gently. ‘But it is true, and you may as well hear it from me, for you would be bound to learn it sooner or later,’ she added, with an unwonted movement of self-justification.

Marietta sat staring at Elena’s face, as though she had seen a monster issue from her mouth. Then, quite suddenly, she dropped her head between her arms on the marble table, and broke into low but violent sobbing. ’Oh, Miss Prestwich!’ she murmured between her sobs. ‘Oh, my dear, dear Postiche! That is why you did not write! Oh, oh!‘

Elena was seriously disturbed by this result of her reckless handiwork. She rose, and put her hand on the child’s shoulder. ‘Marietta, caret, do not cry so,’ she said, for once uncertain what to say.

After a moment or two the girl raised her head, checking her sobs with a violent effort:, and looked at her cousin.

‘That was not really Mama,’ she said, speaking very fast. ‘Not to do that! That is not like her — it is not her! Either there is some mistake, or she was under some obsession. That is not Mama, Elena.’

‘No, cara,‘ Elena said soothingly — though in fact she fell that it had been precisely Suzy. But Alarietta’s reactions to the whole business had frightened her. ‘No,’ she said, and stroked her shoulder again.

Suddenly Marietta sat very upright. ‘Elena, Giulio must not know! Not that,‘ she said, with immense emphasis.

‘Not what?’ For once Elena was entirely at a loss.

‘Not about — Postiche. And Roffredo. He must not! He must not!‘ she said, her voice rising to a high strained note.

‘Very well. But why not?’

‘Because —he loves her. So much —• not like Roffredo! It is with his soul. Elena, promise me that he shall not know this!’

“Cara, from me he shall not. And I will tell Gela, and she will tell Papa. It ought to be all right — Giulio talks to so few people, and he does not listen,’ Elena said consolingly.

‘You promise?’

‘Ma si, I promise! But how did you know this?’ Elena asked, her invincible curiosity even now emerging, with the true Italian detachment, from the misfortunes of others. She was quite unaccustomed not to be first in the field of local love affairs with her sharp guesses.

Marietta did not trouble to answer. Having got Elena’s promise, which she knew Elena would keep, she got up, and went slowly indoors, leaving her cousin staring after her.

XXII

Elena was quite right about Giulio’s normal inattentiveness to what went on around him. He had been completely oblivious, for instance, of the general atmosphere of mystery and gossip in the household during the previous twenty-four hours. But he did occasionally pay attention to matters which concerned people whom he cared about, and during lunch he had registered, with real pleasure, the fact that Roffredo had been to Milan, had had his cherished invention accepted, and was now returned. It occurred to him that he had not seen Roffredo since the picnic at Meden, and that it would be extraordinarily pleasant to see him again. Accordingly, in the middle of the afternoon, he set off’ to walk to the villa.

Roffredo’s morning had been fully as unpleasant as Countess Aspasia had delightedly deduced—verbally trounced by her, angrily upbraided by his mother; and realizing that this would be the general attitude for some time to come, he had retired, half hurt, half sulky, to the villa. He felt a strong need for sympathy from someone, so he was charmed to see Giulio. He took him into his sitting room, and showed him, on the tracing cloth, the salient features of the new invention. And then he threw himself back in the armchair in which Almina had sat to drink her brandy, and embarked upon his own troubles.

‘My mother,’he began, ‘is a most difficult woman, sai. It is impossible to make her understand the most obvious things; she has her own parti pris, always, and she will not even listen to what one has to say.’

‘What will she not listen to this time?’ Giulio asked, sympathetically.

‘Oh, this business about the little Miss Prestwich. You know that Suzy has dismissed her?’

‘What? No, I did not know it. No,’ Giulio said in some agitation, which he at once strove to conceal. With everyone but Marietta, he was as shy as a girl about his feeling for Almina.

‘Yes, she did. A couple of days ago. And without much money. So the poor little tiling came here to borrow some.’

’Why did she come to you?‘ Giulio asked, with nervous abruptness.

’Well, because — in somma, we were on very good terms,’Roffredo said, with great naturalness. ‘And of course I was delighted to let her have whatever she wanted, and I promised to drive her in to the train, because that miserable Suzy would only let the carriage take her as far as the diligence.’

‘She is gone, then? Gone back to England?‘ Giulio interrupted.

’No — in a way I wish she were! That is the devil of it. As you know, the night express does not leave till eleven, so I had to give her dinner first; and she was so upset at being sacked that to cheer her up I gave her champagne.’ Roffredo began to feel rather expansive; this reconstruction of his actions, this establishment of the purity of his intentions to someone who would listen sympathetically, was giving him the peculiar satisfaction that it gives to us all. ‘One way and another, we both drank rather a lot,’ he pursued, ‘only she was so quiet with it that I did not realize how much effect it was taking on her. And when we came in here afterwards, she was so adorable that I lost my head altogether, and we never went to the train at all. — What is it, Giulio?’ he asked in slight surprise, for his cousin had risen from where lie sat on the divan and was standing in front of him.

‘She spent the night here, with you?’ Giulio asked, in a voice perfectly quiet, but with a curious vibration in it.

’Yes— here, on the divan. I had not in the least meant to have her, but you see I am very much in love with her, and I think I was probably rather drunk myself. Anyhow — Giulio, per I’amor di Dio, what is wrong with you?’ he ejaculated, as the young man caught him a swinging blow on the side of the head.

Stand up! Giulio said. ‘Stand up, stand up!’ Roffredo was in any case rising to his feet, too utterly astonished even to be angry. As he got up his cousin came at him again, his face now quite distorted; Roffredo parried the blow, and then caught his wrists and held them firmly — he was by far the more powerful of the two. ’I won’t fight with you, Giulio,’ he said. ’What is all this? What the devil is wrong?’

’Let me go — don’t touch me,’ Giulio said, his voice rising almost to a scream. ‘Take your hands away! Don’t touch me! I hate your hands — I hate to see you! Let me go! ’

’Giulio, caro, how could I know? I am terribly sorry — unspeakably sorry, but do be reasonable,’ Roffredo said. He still held his distracted cousin by the wrists, as gently as he could. ’I had no idea of this,’ Roffredo went on, endeavoring to say something soothing. ’I thought you never cared for girls.’

’Girls! I do not. She is not as others! But to you she is; just a girl, one more instrument of your foul enjoyment. Oh, how I hate you! Will you let me go?’ Giulio cried, almost beside himself.

‘Yes, if you will go quietly,’ Roffredo said. ‘Here, you can come out this way.’ At the garden door Roffredo turned. ‘Giulio, I am sorry,‘ he said simply; ‘I wish you could believe it.’

His cousin ignored the appeal. ’Where is — she — now?’ he asked, gulping a little over the pronoun.

‘At Castellone. They came, the old Sorellone, yesterday morning (hearing — God and they alone know how! — that she was here) and fetched her away. She stays there, for the present.’

There were other things that Giulio could have asked — why Miss Prestwich should be staying at Castellone, why Suzy had dismissed her. But the very sight and presence of Roffredo were so horrible to him that his one wish was to be gone.

Roffredo walked slowly back into his sitting room. Perdition! — that was a scene! Who could have guessed such a thing? Giulio in love with her! Poor lad — and now he was gone off like a bear with a sore head. He put up his hand to his own head, and felt the bump rising just in front of the temple, where his cousin had struck him.

Giulio, meanwhile, strode away, walking as fast as his legs would carry him. Anything, anywhere, to get out of sight of that house, the scene of her degradation!

The whole layout of Giulio’s character, his type of interior life, made this particular blow fall on him with especial weight. The pain and shock of it would have been great to any sensitive young man for the first time in love; to Giulio they were crushing. He was accustomed to live by his mind, and his mind was quite unable to deal with this thing. Every thought of Aimina — her past, her future, her love of Marietta, her help to him, his own work, his love — led back, as it were, to the divan at the villa. And his mind found no means to counteract or allay or banish the torture of that thought; it seemed to run all through him, awakening sensations which filled him with disgust and shame.

His tormented mind drove his hurrying body homewards, but as he approached Odredo his pace slackened. He felt that he could not endure to see anyone, and yet he also felt that he could not bear this misery alone much longer. Climbing the track through the larch plantation from the park towards the house, the thought of Marietta beckoned to him — to her it would be possible to pour out his wretchedness; she had a trick of understanding, little and young as she was. And if he did not speak to someone he felt as if some tangible part of him within woidd crack or break. As he came up on to the terrace he saw her like a visitation from Heaven, sitting, already changed for dinner and alone, by the marble table under the stone pine, in her high-necked white dress, with her black shoes and stockings and her heavy black sash. He went over to her.

She looked up and saw him. She realized at once that, somehow, he had heard. She rose very quietly, walked round the table to him, and slid her little thin arm, in its ridiculous puffed sleeve, through his. Tome and walk, dear Giulio,’she said. ’Come along the ridge.’

They walked for some time in silence’. It was Marietta who spoke first. As they approached one of the seats — ‘Giulio, I know,’ she said.

He stopped and turned to her, then.

‘I feel that I can’t bear it,’ he said, with a curious simplicity. ‘I do not see how I am going to bear it. I told you — you know what I feel about her. And now she — he — ‘ a sort of spasm contracted bis features. ’I loved him, too, you see,’ he said irrelevantly.

’Who told you?‘ Marietta asked.

’He did. I went, over to see him, to congratulate him.’

She had loosed his arm when he turned to her, and stood now in front of him, her eyes on his face. ‘Darling Giulio, I know,’ she said again. ‘Oh, I am sorry.

It is no use trying to tell you how sorry I am. I too, you know, love her. But I feel — oh, that somehow it is not real, all this; that it has nothing to do with her.‘

‘What do you mean?’ be asked.

‘A person who is tipped out of a boat and drowned has not committed suicide. It is like that.’

’But they are drowned just the same,’ he said, wearily. He moved over to the seat as be spoke, and sat down on it.; he felt suddenly very tired.

She followed him, and sat down too.

‘Yes, but their soul is not the same,’ she pursued. ‘In Purgatory, to that degree it stands upright—it was not cowardly — it did not surrender to despair. There is that difference. And in this — she may have loved him, indeed I think she did; but that, without being married — she would not have done it.’

‘Why do you think that she loved — him?‘ he asked — he could not easily speak Roffredo’s name.

‘I just think it —it was my impression,’the child said; ‘I do not know it. That she went there that night to him was — Mama’s fault,’ she said, with a quivering mouth. ‘She had no money. That I can’t really understand! But it seems it. was so. And Giulio,’ she said earnestly, the tears standing in her eyes, ‘of whatever sort Postiche’s love may be, remember that she is good. You know that. Hold on to that.’

For the moment he seemed to listen to this, and to be quieted by it. ‘Come back, now,’ she said, rising and tugging gently at his arm — ‘come on, Giulio.’ He came with her, obediently, but suddenly he broke out again. ‘She is good, yes, as you say — but she has been dishonored, deflowered, as if she were of the lowest! Nothing can alter that, nothing, nothing! That is done; that is so.’ He spoke like a person in a violent passion — his hands were shaking, his mouth worked, his face was very white. Marietta was frightened by his state. She made no further at tempt at argument or consolation; murmuring all the time, ‘Come, dear Giulio; come; come on,’ she led him into the house by one of the garden doors, and upstairs, and into his room. As they reached it, the great, gong in the hall below boomed out its deep musical notes, announcing dinner.

‘Stay here,’ the child said. ‘You can have something upstairs. I will find Gela. Stay where you are.’ And she flew off in search of Fräulein Gelsicher.

She met her just leaving her room.

‘Gela, can you come back to your room for a minute? Yes, I know we shall be late, but I must speak to you,’ the child said, pulling imperiously at her arm. After one glance at her face, the governess agreed. In her room she turned to Marietta. Elena, with her customary impulsive frankness, had already made a clean breast of her revelations to Marietta, so Fräulein Gelsicher was quite prepared for severe distress on the little girl’s part, and this sudden application did not surprise her. Marietta’s first words did surprise her. however.

’It is Giulio,’she said. ‘He has heard. He went over to Roffredo, just to congratulate him, this afternoon, knowing nothing! — and Roffredo told him. And Gela, for him it is fearful. He loves her so, you see. He is almost ill with it — he is quite wild. When he told me, I said what I could, but really he hardly hears! So I have taken him to his room and told him to stay there. He cannot come down — he is not fit. I think you should go to him.‘

‘Yes, I will go,’ the governess said. ‘And you, my child — you will go down to dinner? This is all very distressing for you, too.’

Marietta turned away. ‘Oh yes, I will go. I am all right,’ she said, in a rather unsteady voice. Then she turned towards the Swiss again. ‘Only, Gela, please do not send me back to Vill’ Alta just yet,’ she said, speaking now with great intensity. ‘I feel I cannot go there just now. Mama — this is all through her, this misery for so many! I do not understand it, really’ — she put up her two hands to her small, closely brushed dark head and held it. ‘Giulio — and Postiche herself! And Gela, Postiche is good! I have been with her so much, I know her better than anyone. Roffredo may have flirted with her and made her love him to some extent, but she would never have been immoral. About that I am certain. Mama did not know her as I did. Oh, I do not understand it!’ she said again. ‘But you will let me stay?’

‘Yes, you shall certainly stay for the present,’ Fräulein Gelsicher assured her. That distracted gesture of the child’s hands, coupled with the self-restraint, the pitiful effort at loyalty of her words, gave the governess the measure of her distress and conflict. ‘You shall stay — indeed we shall be very glad to have you, my child,’ she said, and hurried along the passage to Giulio.

XXIII

One might really compare those three houses, Castellone, Odredo, and Vill’ Alta, during the days that followed Miss Prestwich’s dismissal, to three anthills, flung into a feverish intensity of activity and busy stirring movement, as by the careless poking of a child’s stick, by the Marchesa Suzy’s action. To Suzy herself all this fuss was really rather a severe shock. To begin with, she felt that it was out of all proportion to the small and simple fact; but it was the attitude to herself which surprised and pained her most.

In the whole course of her pleasant and successful life she had never encountered open disapproval, let alone reprobation — now she did, and she did not like it at all. The Marchese Francesco, on his return from Nadia’s funeral, instantly noticed Miss Prestwich’s absence, inquired as to the cause, and asked a tiresome number of painfully precise questions about the reasons for her dismissal; he liked the pretty, sensible, botanically-minded little governess, and made it perfectly clear, in the upshot, that he thought the reasons inadequate and the dismissal a mistake. He, like Bonne-Mama, was quite besotted about Marietta, and set what seemed to Suzy an absurd and exaggerated importance on the fact of her devotion to the little English girl. Bonne-Mama herself, though she said very little, had made her disapprobation of the whole thing quite clear; that tiresome old woman Aspasia, by championing the girl’s cause and taking her to Castellone for this prolonged stay, was making a fool of her, Suzy, before the entire province— though really if. could hardly be regarded as her fault if the silly little creature had no more sense than to go and get herself seduced. And then had come the news, yesterday, that Giulio was now ill, or as good as ill, owing to his infatuation for Miss Prestwich. It really seemed as if the wretched girl had turned everyone’s head!

She was sitting in her boudoir, on the Saturday morning after that disastrous Wednesday of encounters, thinking of all this, when Valentino the butler brought in a note on a salver. She took it with a little tremor of the pulses, a slight, change of breath; she knew the writing — it was from Roffredo. When Valentino had gone she opened it, half eagerly, half in fear for what it might contain. Not knowing what view Roffredo took of her part in all these events, what, she feared was a curt expression of vexation and reproach on his part.

But her fears were unfounded. The letter was not like that.

CARA SUZY [it began]. How annoying all this is! I am afraid that you must have been having all sorts of embêtements, and chiefly through my folly. I admit that I lost my head completely the other night, and behaved like an idiot. I am a good deal ashamed of myself, and I beg you to forgive me. Do you? And to prove it, will you let me see you? Do — I need to so much; and if I saw you I could explain everything. It would not, I think, be very wise for me to come to Vill’ Alta just now, nor for you to come here; but will you meet me on Sunday evening in that little ruin by what they call the Holy Well, in the little wood? You know the place I mean

— it is close to where the smugglers’ path crosses the road. The ruin is not far in — the bushes are rather thick, but perhaps t hat is all the better! About a quarter to nine. Do not keep your carriage —I will have the dogcart. to drive you home in. And I will have a rug and cushions there, so that you need not spoil your pretty clothes!

Ah, cara, I want to see you so badly!

Ti bacio le mani e —!

ROFFREDO

P.S. Do not on any account send an answer — it is far more prudent not to. I shall be there, waiting for you, in any case.

R.

The female heart is a strange thing. Suzy di Vill’ Alta, with eighteen years as a reigning beauty behind her, breaker of scores of hearts, known to a whole province as the Enchantress, read this precious epistle with tremulous happiness and quivering soft hope. So perhaps he found that he did care for her, after all, more than he knew; that he could not do without her. Anyhow this meeting would give her another chance to make all come right, to secure his love and fasten him to her; and she was too accustomed to success to feel very doubtful. ‘Ah, caro,‘ she murmured — and because his words, his very writing, were so absurdly precious to her, she put the letter to her lips before she hid it away in her escritoire between neat bundles of receipts. Her thirsty curiosity about Roffredo moved her later to ask Valentino who had brought the note. He could not say — there was some slight mystery about its arrival. It had not come to the front door; it had apparently been left by some peasant children who came to collect the daily milk allowed to their mother by the Marchesa. When the servant had gone Suzy smiled again — Roffredo was not a very neat intriguer! She sent no answer.

On the same day, when lunch was over, Elena pounced on Fräulein Gelsicher. ‘Senta, Gela, that poor little Marietta is still very mopish. I think we ought to do something to amuse her.’

‘We cannot do much, while she is in mourning,’Fräulein Gelsicher replied.

‘Not socially — but get her out more. I have thought of something.‘

‘What is that?’

‘Why, you know this flower that Postiche found in the spinney? Zio Francesco has never painted it yet. But I know the place, and I thought we might get him to come over to-morrow, and do it on the spot, and then have a little picnic there. If he comes, you need not bother to; you can be with Giulio. But il would make a little change for her.’

Fräulein Gelsicher thought this an excellent idea. The note was dispatched, the Marchese Francesco sent a delighted acceptance, and on Sunday, after colazione, he arrived in the brougham with his paint box, sketch book, camp stool, and all the rest of his plant. The two girls, with the picnic basket, joined him, and drove off along the Pisignacco road to the spinney; there they unloaded their effects, and sent the carriage back to Odredo to rest the horses.

Elena, poking and hunting with swift efficiency, soon found a plant of the enchanter’s nightshade growing in a spot sufficiently open to permit of the use of the camp stool; there she installed the Marchese Francesco, and in a short, time he was completely absorbed, sitting in perfect contentment, now leaning his while head forward to peer through his thick-lensed spectacles at the modest little object, now straightening up again to transfer his observations to the sheet of rough whitish paper. Marietta, who had wisely provided herself with a rug and a cushion, settled down a little way off with Pride and Prejudice.

‘Why on earth,’she said to her cousin, ‘have you brought a mackintosh to-day, Elena? It is so hot and fine.‘

‘I thought it would do to sit on; it is very old,’Elena replied, airily waving the object, which was in fact antique enough. She did not, however, sit on it — still waving it, she wandered off round the end of the copse, in the direction of the smugglers’ path, and disappeared.

The hot half-hours passed. The Marchese painted,Marietta read a little, but spent most of her time lying on her stomach, her chin propped on her hands, gazing at the sunlit insects which moved in a mazy spinning pattern among the bushes, or watching the ants, the long thin-legged spiders, and the small beetles which ran about between the grass stems. She was still very unhappy, and on this particular afternoon she was unusually aware of her unhappiness. Her mother’s action was a pain which she hated to contemplate; it had outraged her sense of justice, and forced her, for the first time, to make a moral judgment on the Marchesa — and this judgment inevitably roused strong feelings of resentment and indignation on Miss Prestwich’s behalf. The child’s loyal spirit suffered from this. About Miss Prestwich, too, her feelings were all pain and uncertainty. She missed her terribly, and longed to see her, to express her love and sorrow, and comfort her; but a fine instinct, born of her traditions, told her that for the moment this somehow would not do, for either of them; it would cause more pain than it would give relief. But her mind worked distressfully at the subject of Almina’s disaster. She realized that most of the people about her, while laying the blame for what had happened primarily on her mother and Roffredo, nevertheless tacitly assumed that by that night at the villa Miss Prestwich had been, in some very outstanding way, depreciated — that both her virtue and her social value were greatly diminished by it.

Giulio’s attitude in particular distressed her. He was still very unwell — overwrought, sleepless, and acutely miserable. This in itself would have troubled her, but she felt very definitely that it was caused, and aggravated, by his morbid physical horror at what had taken place. All that business about being dishonored and deflowered she simply could not see the sense of. It was the spirit that counted, and if the spirit was upright and unconsenting, the body’s misfortunes seemed almost irrelevant. Anyhow they could not have the crude importance which Giulio attached to them. Until he stopped feeling like that, he would go on being ill. And she could not see how to stop him.

She lay on the rug all afternoon, thinking round and round the whole thing, chewing a blade of grass now and then, waving her legs when a horsefly settled on her calf, and coming back, always, to the despairing thought that, under whatever obsession, her mother, her own mother, had been both wrong and cruel.

She was interrupted by the Marchese Francesco. Having finished his painting of the enchanter’s nightshade, he came over to her; he was thirsty, he said, and what about their picnic? Marietta, glad of any distraction, sprang up, and asked where Elena was. The Marchese had not seen Elena. Marietta called — called again and again — there was no answer. ‘Where can she have got to?’ the child said, in surprise. ‘Well, never mind, Papa — let us at least eat and drink’; and she unpacked the picnic basket, and set out the padded wicker teapots of coffee and milk, and all the rest of the simple meal. At this point Elena appeared. She looked hot and rather disheveled; her hands were stained with earth and there were earthy marks round the bottom of her white dress. ‘Oh, I am thirsty!’ she exclaimed, plumping herself down on the rug. ‘Zio Francesco, am I late?’

‘Very late,’ Marietta replied for him. ‘What on earth have you been doing?’

‘Excavating!’ Elena replied promptly. She had, she explained, been making an examination of the little ruin in the wood.

‘I wonder you did not hear me call, then,’ Marietta said. ’I shrieked and shrieked.’

Elena supposed, pouring out coffee and drinking it, that she had been too busy to notice. She spoke again of her thirst, and said how hot it was. She was right — although clouds were now coming up and obscuring the sun, under the overcast sky the air was closer and more oppressive than earlier in the day. ‘It might thunder,’ she said.

The brougham drove up, and they bundled in their effects and took their places. Just as they were starting — ‘Your mackintosh! You have forgotten your mackintosh!’ Marietta exclaimed, looking round.

Elena looked vaguely about. ‘It must be somewhere,’ she said, and they drove off. But when the two girls were put out at Odredo there was in fact no sign of it. Elena was quite undisturbed. ‘I must have left it in the wood,’ she said. ‘It does n’t matter — I can fetch it another day. It was so old and dirty, the rain will do it good.’ And she laughed.

(To be concluded)