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´╗┐Title: Vendetta: A Story of One Forgotten
Author: Corelli, Marie, 1855-1924
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Vendetta: A Story of One Forgotten" ***

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VENDETTA

A STORY OF ONE FORGOTTEN



By MARIE CORELLI

Author of "ARDATH," "THELMA," "A ROMANCE OF TWO WORLDS," "WORMWOOD,"
etc., etc.



PREFACE


Lest those who read the following pages should deem this story at all
improbable, it is perhaps necessary to say that its chief incidents are
founded on an actual occurrence which took place in Naples during the
last scathing visitation of the cholera in 1884. We know well enough,
by the chronicle of daily journalism, that the infidelity of wives is,
most unhappily, becoming common--far too common for the peace and good
repute of society. Not so common is an outraged husband's
vengeance--not often dare he take the law into his own hands--for in
England, at least, such boldness on his part would doubtless be deemed
a worse crime than that by which he personally is doomed to suffer. But
in Italy things are on a different footing--the verbosity and red-tape
of the law, and the hesitating verdict of special juries, are not there
considered sufficiently efficacious to sooths a man's damaged honor and
ruined name. And thus--whether right or wrong--it often happens that
strange and awful deeds are perpetrated--deeds of which the world in
general hears nothing, and which, when brought to light at last, are
received with surprise and incredulity. Yet the romances planned by the
brain of the novelist or dramatist are poor in comparison with the
romances of real life-life wrongly termed commonplace, but which, in
fact, teems with tragedies as great and dark and soul-torturing as any
devised by Sophocles or Shakespeare. Nothing is more strange than
truth--nothing, at times, more terrible!

MARIE CORELLI.

August, 1886.



VENDETTA!

CHAPTER I.


I, who write this, am a dead man. Dead legally--dead by absolute
proofs--dead and buried! Ask for me in my native city and they will
tell you I was one of the victims of the cholera that ravaged Naples in
1884, and that my mortal remains lie moldering in the funeral vault of
my ancestors. Yet--I live! I feel the warm blood coursing through my
veins--the blood of thirty summers--the prime of early manhood
invigorates me, and makes these eyes of mine keen and bright--these
muscles strong as iron--this hand powerful of grip--this well-knit form
erect and proud of bearing. Yes!--I am alive, though declared to be
dead; alive in the fullness of manly force--and even sorrow has left
few distinguishing marks upon me, save one. My hair, once ebony-black,
is white as a wreath of Alpine snow, though its clustering curls are
thick as ever.

"A constitutional inheritance?" asks one physician, observing my
frosted locks.

"A sudden shock?" suggests another.

"Exposure to intense heat?" hints a third.

I answer none of them. I did so once. I told my story to a man I met by
chance--one renowned for medical skill and kindliness. He heard me to
the end in evident incredulity and alarm, and hinted at the possibility
of madness. Since then I have never spoken.

But now I write. I am far from all persecution--I can set down the
truth fearlessly. I can dip the pen in my own blood if I choose, and
none shall gainsay me! For the green silence of a vast South American
forest encompasses me--the grand and stately silence of a virginal
nature, almost unbroken by the ruthless step of man's civilization--a
haven of perfect calm, delicately disturbed by the fluttering wings and
soft voices of birds, and the gentle or stormy murmur of the freeborn
winds of heaven. Within this charmed circle of rest I dwell--here I
lift up my overburdened heart like a brimming chalice, and empty it on
the ground, to the last drop of gall contained therein. The world shall
know my history.

Dead, and yet living! How can that be?--you ask. Ah, my friends! If you
seek to be rid of your dead relations for a certainty, you should have
their bodies cremated. Otherwise there is no knowing what may happen!
Cremation is the best way--the only way. It is clean, and SAFE. Why
should there be any prejudice against it? Surely it is better to give
the remains of what we loved (or pretended to love) to cleansing fire
and pure air than to lay them in a cold vault of stone, or down, down
in the wet and clinging earth. For loathly things are hidden deep in
the mold--things, foul and all unnameable--long worms--slimy creatures
with blind eyes and useless wings--abortions and deformities of the
insect tribe born of poisonous vapor--creatures the very sight of which
would drive you, oh, delicate woman, into a fit of hysteria, and would
provoke even you, oh, strong man, to a shudder of repulsion! But there
is a worse thing than these merely physical horrors which come of
so-called Christian burial--that is, the terrible UNCERTAINTY. What, if
after we have lowered the narrow strong box containing our dear
deceased relation into its vault or hollow in the ground--what, if
after we have worn a seemly garb of woe, and tortured our faces into
the fitting expression of gentle and patient melancholy--what, I say,
if after all the reasonable precautions taken to insure safety, they
should actually prove insufficient? What--if the prison to which we
have consigned the deeply regretted one should not have such close
doors as we fondly imagined? What, if the stout coffin should be
wrenched apart by fierce and frenzied fingers--what, if our late dear
friend should NOT be dead, but should, like Lazarus of old, come forth
to challenge our affection anew? Should we not grieve sorely that we
had failed to avail ourselves of the secure and classical method of
cremation? Especially if we had benefited by worldly goods or money
left to us by the so deservedly lamented! For we are self-deceiving
hypocrites--few of us are really sorry for the dead--few of us remember
them with any real tenderness or affection. And yet God knows! they may
need more pity than we dream of!

But let me to my task. I, Fabio Romani, lately deceased, am about to
chronicle the events of one short year--a year in which was compressed
the agony of a long and tortured life-time! One little year!--one sharp
thrust from the dagger of Time! It pierced my heart--the wound still
gapes and bleeds, and every drop of blood is tainted as it falls!

One suffering, common to many, I have never known--that is--poverty. I
was born rich. When my father, Count Filippo Romani, died, leaving me,
then a lad of seventeen, sole heir to his enormous possessions--sole
head of his powerful house--there were many candid friends who, with
their usual kindness, prophesied the worst things of my future. Nay,
there were even some who looked forward to my physical and mental
destruction with a certain degree of malignant expectation--and they
were estimable persons too. They were respectably connected--their
words carried weight--and for a time I was an object of their
maliciously pious fears. I was destined, according to their
calculations, to be a gambler, a spendthrift, a drunkard, an incurable
roue of the most abandoned character. Yet, strange to say, I became
none of these things. Though a Neapolitan, with all the fiery passions
and hot blood of my race, I had an innate scorn for the contemptible
vices and low desires of the unthinking vulgar. Gambling seemed to me a
delirious folly--drink, a destroyer of health and reason--and
licentious extravagance an outrage on the poor. I chose my own way of
life--a middle course between simplicity and luxury--a judicious
mingling of home-like peace with the gayety of sympathetic social
intercourse--an even tenor of intelligent existence which neither
exhausted the mind nor injured the body.

I dwelt in my father's villa--a miniature palace of white marble,
situated on a wooded height overlooking the Bay of Naples. My
pleasure-grounds were fringed with fragrant groves of orange and
myrtle, where hundreds of full-voiced nightingales warbled their
love-melodies to the golden moon. Sparkling fountains rose and fell in
huge stone basins carved with many a quaint design, and their cool
murmurous splash refreshed the burning silence of the hottest summer
air. In this retreat I lived at peace for some happy years, surrounded
by books and pictures, and visited frequently by friends--young men
whose tastes were more or less like my own, and who were capable of
equally appreciating the merits of an antique volume, or the flavor of
a rare vintage.

Of women I saw little or nothing. Truth to tell, I instinctively
avoided them. Parents with marriageable daughters invited me frequently
to their houses, but these invitations I generally refused. My best
books warned me against feminine society--and I believed and accepted
the warning. This tendency of mine exposed me to the ridicule of those
among my companions who were amorously inclined, but their gay jests at
what they termed my "weakness" never affected me. I trusted in
friendship rather than love, and I had a friend--one for whom at that
time I would gladly have laid down my life--one who inspired me with
the most profound attachment. He, Guido Ferrari, also joined
occasionally with others in the good-natured mockery I brought down
upon myself by my shrinking dislike of women.

"Fie on thee, Fabio!" he would cry. "Thou wilt not taste life till thou
hast sipped the nectar from a pair of rose-red lips--thou shalt not
guess the riddle of the stars till thou hast gazed deep down into the
fathomless glory of a maiden's eyes--thou canst not know delight till
thou hast clasped eager arms round a coy waist and heard the beating of
a passionate heart against thine own! A truce to thy musty volumes!
Believe it, those ancient and sorrowful philosophers had no manhood in
them--their blood was water--and their slanders against women were but
the pettish utterances of their own deserved disappointments. Those who
miss the chief prize of life would fain persuade others that it is not
worth having. What, man! Thou, with a ready wit, a glancing eye, a gay
smile, a supple form, thou wilt not enter the lists of love? What says
Voltaire of the blind god?

    "'Qui que tu sois voila ton maitre,
       Il fut--il est--ou il doit etre!'"

When my friend spoke thus I smiled, but answered nothing. His arguments
failed to convince me. Yet I loved to hear him talk--his voice was
mellow as the note of a thrush, and his eyes had an eloquence greater
than all speech. I loved him--God knows! unselfishly, sincerely--with
that rare tenderness sometimes felt by schoolboys for one another, but
seldom experienced by grown men. I was happy in his society, as he,
indeed, appeared to be in mine. We passed most of our time together,
he, like myself, having been bereaved of his parents in early youth,
and therefore left to shape out his own course of life as suited his
particular fancy. He chose art as a profession, and, though a fairly
successful painter, was as poor as I was rich. I remedied this neglect
of fortune for him in various ways with due forethought and
delicacy--and gave him as many commissions as I possibly could without
rousing his suspicion or wounding his pride. For he possessed a strong
attraction for me--we had much the same tastes, we shared the same
sympathies, in short, I desired nothing better than his confidence and
companionship.

In this world no one, however harmless, is allowed to continue happy.
Fate--or caprice--cannot endure to see us monotonously at rest.
Something perfectly trivial--a look, a word, a touch, and lo! a long
chain of old associations is broken asunder, and the peace we deemed so
deep and lasting in finally interrupted. This change came to me, as
surely as it comes to all. One day--how well I remember it!--one sultry
evening toward the end of May, 1881, I was in Naples. I had passed the
afternoon in my yacht, idly and slowly sailing over the bay, availing
myself of what little wind there was. Guido's absence (he had gone to
Rome on a visit of some weeks' duration) rendered me somewhat of a
solitary, and as my light craft ran into harbor, I found myself in a
pensive, half-uncertain mood, which brought with it its own depression.
The few sailors who manned my vessel dispersed right and left as soon
as they were landed--each to his own favorite haunts of pleasure or
dissipation--but I was in no humor to be easily amused. Though I had
plenty of acquaintance in the city, I cared little for such
entertainment as they could offer me. As I strolled along through one
of the principal streets, considering whether or not I should return on
foot to my own dwelling on the heights, I heard a sound of singing, and
perceived in the distance a glimmer of white robes. It was the Month of
Mary, and I at once concluded that this must be an approaching
Procession of the Virgin. Half in idleness, half in curiosity, I stood
still and waited. The singing voices came nearer and nearer--I saw the
priests, the acolytes, the swinging gold censers heavy with fragrance,
the flaring candles, the snowy veils of children and girls--and then
all suddenly the picturesque beauty of the scene danced before my eyes
in a whirling blur of brilliancy and color from which looked forth--one
face! One face beaming out like a star from a cloud of amber
tresses--one face of rose-tinted, childlike loveliness--a loveliness
absolutely perfect, lighted up by two luminous eyes, large and black as
night--one face in which the small, curved mouth smiled half
provokingly, half sweetly! I gazed and gazed again, dazzled and
excited, beauty makes such fools of us all! This was a woman--one of
the sex I mistrusted and avoided--a woman in the earliest spring of her
youth, a girl of fifteen or sixteen at the utmost. Her veil had been
thrown back by accident or design, and for one brief moment I drank in
that soul-tempting glance, that witch-like smile! The procession
passed--the vision faded--but in that breath of time one epoch of my
life had closed forever, and another had begun!

      *      *      *      *      *

Of course I married her. We Neapolitans lose no time in such matters.
We are not prudent. Unlike the calm blood of Englishmen, ours rushes
swiftly through our veins--it is warm as wine and sunlight, and needs
no fictitious stimulant. We love, we desire, we possess; and then? We
tire, you say? These southern races are so fickle! All wrong--we are
less tired than you deem. And do not Englishmen tire? Have they no
secret ennui at times when sitting in the chimney nook of "home, sweet
home," with their fat wives and ever-spreading families? Truly, yes!
But they are too cautious to say so.

I need not relate the story of my courtship--it was brief and sweet as
a song sung perfectly. There were no obstacles. The girl I sought was
the only daughter of a ruined Florentine noble of dissolute character,
who gained a bare subsistence by frequenting the gaming-tables. His
child had been brought up in a convent renowned for strict
discipline--she knew nothing of the world. She was, he assured me, with
maudlin tears in his eyes, "as innocent as a flower on the altar of the
Madonna." I believed him--for what could this lovely, youthful,
low-voiced maiden know of even the shadow of evil? I was eager to
gather so fair a lily for my own proud wearing--and her father gladly
gave her to me, no doubt inwardly congratulating himself on the wealthy
match that had fallen to the lot of his dowerless daughter.

We were married at the end of June, and Guido Ferrari graced our bridal
with his handsome and gallant presence.

"By the body of Bacchus!" he exclaimed to me when the nuptial ceremony
was over, "thou hast profited by my teaching, Fabio! A quiet rogue is
often most cunning! Thou hast rifled the casket of Venus, and stolen
her fairest jewel--thou hast secured the loveliest maiden in the two
Sicilies!"

I pressed his hand, and a touch of remorse stole over me, for he was no
longer first in my affection. Almost I regretted it--yes, on my very
wedding-morn I looked back to the old days--old now though so
recent--and sighed to think they were ended. I glanced at Nina, my
wife. It was enough! Her beauty dazzled and overcame me. The melting
languor of her large limpid eyes stole into my veins--I forgot all but
her. I was in that high delirium of passion in which love, and love
only, seems the keynote of creation. I touched the topmost peak of the
height of joy--the days were feasts of fairy-land, the nights dreams of
rapture! No; I never tired! My wife's beauty never palled upon me; she
grew fairer with each day of possession. I never saw her otherwise than
attractive, and within a few months she had probed all the depths of my
nature. She discovered how certain sweet looks of hers could draw me to
her side, a willing and devoted slave; she measured my weakness with
her own power; she knew--what did she not know? I torture myself with
these foolish memories. All men past the age of twenty have learned
somewhat of the tricks of women--the pretty playful nothings that
weaken the will and sap the force of the strongest hero. She loved me?
Oh, yes, I suppose so! Looking back on those days, I can frankly say I
believe she loved me--as nine hundred wives out of a thousand love
their husbands, namely--for what they can get. And I grudged her
nothing. If I chose to idolize her, and raise her to the stature of an
angel when she was but on the low level of mere womanhood, that was my
folly, not her fault.

We kept open house. Our villa was a place of rendezvous for the leading
members of the best society in and around Naples. My wife was
universally admired; her lovely face and graceful manners were themes
of conversation throughout the whole neighborhood. Guido Ferrari, my
friend, was one of those who were loudest in her praise, and the
chivalrous homage he displayed toward her doubly endeared him to me. I
trusted him as a brother; he came and went as pleased him; he brought
Nina gifts of flowers and fanciful trifles adapted to her taste, and
treated her with fraternal and delicate kindness. I deemed my happiness
perfect--with love, wealth, and friendship, what more could a man
desire?

Yet another drop of honey was added to my cup of sweetness. On the
first morning of May, 1882, our child was born--a girl-babe, fair as
one of the white anemones which at that season grew thickly in the
woods surrounding out home. They brought the little one to me in the
shaded veranda where I sat at breakfast with Guido--a tiny, almost
shapeless bundle, wrapped in soft cashmere and old lace. I took the
fragile thing in my arms with a tender reverence; it opened its eyes;
they were large and dark like Nina's, and the light of a recent heaven
seemed still to linger in their pure depths. I kissed the little face;
Guido did the same; and those clear, quiet eyes regarded us both with a
strange half-inquiring solemnity. A bird perched on a bough of jasmine
broke into a low, sweet song, the soft wind blew and scattered the
petals of a white rose at our feet. I gave the infant back to the
nurse, who waited to receive it, and said, with a smile, "Tell my wife
we have welcomed her May-blossom."

Guido laid his hand on my shoulder as the servant retired; his face was
unusually pale.

"Thou art a good fellow, Fabio!" he said, abruptly.

"Indeed! How so?" I asked, half laughingly; "I am no better than other
men."

"You are less suspicious than the majority," he returned, turning away
from me and playing idly with a spray of clematis that trailed on one
of the pillars of the veranda.

I glanced at him in surprise. "What do you mean, amico? Have I reason
to suspect any one?"

He laughed and resumed his seat at the breakfast-table.

"Why, no!" he answered, with a frank look. "But in Naples the air is
pregnant with suspicion--jealousy's dagger is ever ready to strike,
justly or unjustly--the very children are learned in the ways of vice.
Penitents confess to priests who are worse than penitents, and by
Heaven! in such a state of society, where conjugal fidelity is a
farce"--he paused a moment, and then went on--"is it not wonderful to
know a man like you, Fabio? A man happy in home affections, without a
cloud on the sky of his confidence?"

"I have no cause for distrust," I said. "Nina is as innocent as the
little child of whom she is to-day the mother."

"True!" exclaimed Ferrari. "Perfectly true!" and he looked me full in
the eyes, with a smile. "White as the virgin snow on the summit of Mont
Blanc--purer than the flawless diamond--and unapproachable as the
furthest star! Is it not so?"

I assented with a certain gravity; something in his manner puzzled me.
Our conversation soon turned on different topics, and I thought no more
of the matter. But a time came--and that speedily--when I had stern
reason to remember every word he had uttered.



CHAPTER II.


Every one knows what kind of summer we had in Naples in 1884. The
newspapers of all lands teemed with the story of its horrors. The
cholera walked abroad like a destroying demon; under its withering
touch scores of people, young and old, dropped down in the streets to
die. The fell disease, born of dirt and criminal neglect of sanitary
precautions, gained on the city with awful rapidity, and worse even
than the plague was the unreasoning but universal panic. The
never-to-be-forgotten heroism of King Humbert had its effect on the
more educated classes, but among the low Neapolitan populace, abject
fear, vulgar superstition, and utter selfishness reigned supreme. One
case may serve as an example of many others. A fisherman, well known in
the place, a handsome and popular young fellow, was seized, while
working in his boat, with the first symptoms of cholera. He was carried
to his mother's house. The old woman, a villainous-looking hag, watched
the little procession as it approached her dwelling, and taking in the
situation at once, she shut and barricaded her door.

"Santissima Madonna!" she yelled, shrilly, through a half-opened
window. "Leave him in the street, the abandoned, miserable one! The
ungrateful pig! He would bring the plague to his own hard-working,
honest mother! Holy Joseph! who would have children? Leave him in the
street, I tell you!"

It was useless to expostulate with this feminine scarecrow; her son
was, happily for himself, unconscious, and after some more wrangling he
was laid down on her doorstep, where he shortly afterward expired, his
body being afterward carted away like so much rubbish by the beccamorti.

The heat in the city was intense. The sky was a burning dome of
brilliancy, the bay was still as a glittering sheet of glass. A thin
column of smoke issuing from the crater of Vesuvius increased the
impression of an all-pervading, though imperceptible ring of fire, that
seemed to surround the place. No birds sung save in the late evening,
when the nightingales in my gardens broke out in a bubbling torrent of
melody, half joyous, half melancholy. Up on that wooded height where I
dwelt it was comparatively cool. I took all precautions necessary to
prevent the contagion from attacking our household; In fact, I would
have left the neighborhood altogether, had I not known that hasty
flight from an infected district often carries with it the possibility
of closer contact with the disease. My wife, besides, was not
nervous--I think very beautiful women seldom are. Their superb vanity
is an excellent shield to repel pestilence; it does away with the
principal element of danger--fear. As for our Stella, a toddling mite
of two years old, she was a healthy child, for whom neither her mother
nor myself entertained the least anxiety.

Guido Ferrari came and stayed with us, and while the cholera, like a
sharp scythe put into a field of ripe corn, mowed down the dirt-loving
Neapolitans by hundreds, we three, with a small retinue of servants,
none of whom were ever permitted to visit the city, lived on
farinaceous food and distilled water, bathed regularly, rose and
retired early, and enjoyed the most perfect health.

Among her many other attractions my wife was gifted with a beautiful
and well-trained voice. She sung with exquisite expression, and many an
evening when Guido and myself sat smoking in the garden, after little
Stella had gone to bed, Nina would ravish our ears with the music of
her nightingale notes, singing song after song, quaint stornelli and
ritornelli--songs of the people, full of wild and passionate beauty. In
these Guido would often join her, his full barytone chiming in with her
delicate and clear soprano as deliciously as the fall of a fountain
with the trill of a bird. I can hear those two voices now; their united
melody still rings mockingly in my ears; the heavy perfume of
orange-blossom, mingled with myrtle, floats toward me on the air; the
yellow moon burns round and full in the dense blue sky, like the King
of Thule's goblet of gold flung into a deep sea, and again I behold
those two heads leaning together, the one fair, the other dark; my
wife, my friend--those two whose lives were a million times dearer to
me than my own. Ah! they were happy days--days of self-delusion always
are. We are never grateful enough to the candid persons who wake us
from our dream--yet such are in truth our best friends, could we but
realize it.

August was the most terrible of all the summer months in Naples. The
cholera increased with frightful steadiness, and the people seemed to
be literally mad with terror. Some of them, seized with a wild spirit
of defiance, plunged into orgies of vice and intemperance with a
reckless disregard of consequences. One of these frantic revels took
place at a well-known cafe. Eight young men, accompanied by eight girls
of remarkable beauty, arrived, and ordered a private room, where they
were served with a sumptuous repast. At its close one of the party
raised his glass and proposed, "Success to the cholera!" The toast was
received with riotous shouts of applause, and all drank it with
delirious laughter. That very night every one of the revelers died in
horrible agony; their bodies, as usual, were thrust into flimsy coffins
and buried one on top of another in a hole hastily dug for the purpose.
Dismal stories like these reached us every day, but we were not
morbidly impressed by them. Stella was a living charm against
pestilence; her innocent playfulness and prattle kept us amused and
employed, and surrounded us with an atmosphere that was physically and
mentally wholesome.

One morning--one of the very hottest mornings of that scorching
month--I woke at an earlier hour than usual. A suggestion of possible
coolness in the air tempted me to rise and stroll through the garden.
My wife slept soundly at my side. I dressed softly, without disturbing
her. As I was about to leave the room some instinct made me turn back
to look at her once more. How lovely she was! she smiled in her sleep!
My heart beat as I gazed--she had been mine for three years--mine
only!--and my passionate admiration and love of her had increased in
proportion to that length of time. I raised one of the scattered golden
locks that lay shining like a sunbeam on the pillow, and kissed it
tenderly. Then--all unconscious of my fate--I left her.

A faint breeze greeted me as I sauntered slowly along the garden
walks--a breath of wind scarce strong enough to flutter the leaves, yet
it had a salt savor in it that was refreshing after the tropical heat
of the past night. I was at that time absorbed in the study of Plato,
and as I walked, my mind occupied itself with many high problems and
deep questions suggested by that great teacher. Lost in a train of
profound yet pleasant thought, I strayed on further than I intended,
and found myself at last in a by-path, long disused by our household--a
winding footway leading downward in the direction of the harbor. It was
shady and cool, and I followed the road almost unconsciously, till I
caught a glimpse of masts and white sails gleaming through the leafage
of the overarching trees. I was then about to retrace my steps, when I
was startled by a sudden sound. It was a low moan of intense pain--a
smothered cry that seemed to be wrung from some animal in torture. I
turned in the direction whence it came, and saw, lying face downward on
the grass, a boy--a little fruit-seller of eleven or twelve years of
age. His basket of wares stood beside him, a tempting pile of peaches,
grapes, pomegranates, and melons--lovely but dangerous eating in
cholera times. I touched the lad on the shoulder.

"What ails you?" I asked. He twisted himself convulsively and turned
his face toward me--a beautiful face, though livid with anguish.

"The plague, signor!" he moaned; "the plague! Keep away from me, for
the love of God! I am dying!"

I hesitated. For myself I had no fear. But my wife--my child--for their
sakes it was necessary to be prudent. Yet I could not leave this poor
boy unassisted. I resolved to go to the harbor in search of medical
aid. With this idea in my mind I spoke cheerfully.

"Courage, my boy," I said; "do not lose heart! All illness is not the
plague. Rest here till I return; I am going to fetch a doctor."

The little fellow looked at me with wondering, pathetic eyes, and tried
to smile. He pointed to his throat, and made an effort to speak, but
vainly. Then he crouched down in the grass and writhed in torture like
a hunted animal wounded to the death. I left him and walked on rapidly;
reaching the harbor, where the heat was sulphurous and intense, I found
a few scared-looking men standing aimlessly about, to whom I explained
the boy's case, and appealed for assistance. They all hung back--none
of them would accompany me, not even for the gold I offered. Cursing
their cowardice, I hurried on in search of a physician, and found one
at last, a sallow Frenchman, who listened with obvious reluctance to my
account of the condition in which I had left the little fruit-seller,
and at the end shook his head decisively, and refused to move.

"He is as good as dead," he observed, with cold brevity. "Better call
at the house of the Miserecordia; the brethren will fetch his body."

"What!" I cried; "you will nor try if you can save him?"

The Frenchman bowed with satirical suavity.

"Monsieur must pardon me! My own health would be seriously endangered
by touching a cholera corpse. Allow me to wish monsieur the good-day!"

And he disappeared, shutting his door in my face. I was thoroughly
exasperated, and though the heat and the fetid odor of the sun-baked
streets made me feel faint and sick, I forgot all danger for myself as
I stood in the plague-stricken city, wondering what I should do next to
obtain succor. A grave, kind voice saluted my ear.

"You seek aid, my son?"

I looked up. A tall monk, whose cowl partly concealed his pale, but
resolute features, stood at my side--one of those heroes who, for the
love of Christ, came forth at that terrible time and faced the
pestilence fearlessly, where the blatant boasters of no-religion
scurried away like frightened hares from the very scent of danger. I
greeted him with an obeisance, and explained my errand.

"I will go at once," he said, with an accent of pity in his voice. "But
I fear the worst. I have remedies with me; I may not be too late."

"I will accompany you," I said, eagerly. "One would not let a dog die
unaided; much less this poor lad, who seems friendless."

The monk looked at me attentively as we walked on together.

"You are not residing in Naples?" he asked.

I gave him my name, which he knew by repute, and described the position
of my villa.

"Up on that height we enjoy perfect health," I added. "I cannot
understand the panic that prevails in the city. The plague is fostered
by such cowardice."

"Of course!" he answered, calmly. "But what will you? The people here
love pleasure. Their hearts are set solely on this life. When death,
common to all, enters their midst, they are like babes scared by a dark
shadow. Religion itself"--here he sighed deeply--"has no hold upon
them."

"But you, my father," I began, and stopped abruptly, conscious of a
sharp throbbing pain in my temples.

"I," he answered, gravely, "am the servant of Christ. As such, the
plague has no terrors for me. Unworthy as I am, for my Master's sake I
am ready--nay, willing--to face all deaths."

He spoke firmly, yet without arrogance. I looked at him in a certain
admiration, and was about to speak, when a curious dizziness overcame
me, and I caught at his arm to save myself from falling. The street
rocked like a ship at sea, and the skies whirled round me in circles of
blue fire. The feeling slowly passed, and I heard the monk's voice, as
though it were a long way off, asking me anxiously what was the matter.
I forced a smile.

"It is the heat, I think," I said, in feeble tones like those of a very
aged man. "I am faint--giddy. You had best leave me here--see to the
boy. Oh, my God!"

This last exclamation was wrung out of me by sheer anguish. My limbs
refused to support me, and a pang, cold and bitter as though naked
steel had been thrust through my body, caused me to sink down upon the
pavement in a kind of convulsion. The tall and sinewy monk, without a
moment's hesitation, dragged me up and half carried, half led me into a
kind of auberge, or restaurant for the poorer classes. Here he placed
me in a recumbent position on one of the wooden benches, and called up
the proprietor of the place, a man to whom he seemed to be well known.
Though suffering acutely I was conscious, and could hear and see
everything that passed.

"Attend to him well, Pietro--it is the rich Count Fabio Romani. Thou
wilt not lose by thy pains. I will return within an hour."

"The Count Romani! Santissima Madonna! He has caught the plague!"

"Thou fool!" exclaimed the monk, fiercely. "How canst thou tell? A
stroke of the sun is not the plague, thou coward! See to him, or by St.
Peter and the keys there shall be no place for thee in heaven!"

The trembling innkeeper looked terrified at this menace, and
submissively approached me with pillows, which he placed under my head.
The monk, meanwhile, held a glass to my lips containing some medicinal
mixture, which I swallowed mechanically.

"Rest here, my son," he said, addressing me in soothing tones. "These
people are good-natured. I will but hasten to the boy for whom you
sought assistance--in less than an hour I will be with you again."

I laid a detaining hand on his arm.

"Stay," I murmured, feebly, "let me know the worst. Is this the plague?"

"I hope not!" he replied, compassionately. "But what if it be? You are
young and strong enough to fight against it without fear."

"I have no fear," I said. "But, father, promise me one thing--send no
word of my illness to my wife--swear it! Even if I am
unconscious--dead--swear that I shall not be taken to the villa. Swear
it! I cannot rest till I have your word."

"I swear it most willingly, my son," he answered, solemnly. "By all I
hold sacred, I will respect your wishes."

I was infinitely relieved--the safety of those I loved was assured--and
I thanked him by a mute gesture. I was too weak to say more. He
disappeared, and my brain wandered into a chaos of strange fancies. Let
me try to revolve these delusions. I plainly see the interior of the
common room where I lie. There is the timid innkeeper--he polishes his
glasses and bottles, casting ever and anon a scared glance in my
direction. Groups of men look in at the door, and, seeing me, hurry
away. I observe all this--I know where I am--yet I am also climbing the
steep passes of an Alpine gorge--the cold snow is at my feet--I hear
the rush and roar of a thousand torrents. A crimson cloud floats above
the summit of a white glacier--it parts asunder gradually, and in its
bright center a face smiles forth! "Nina! my love, my wife, my soul!" I
cry aloud. I stretch out my arms--I clasp her!--bah! it is this good
rogue of an innkeeper who holds me in his musty embrace! I struggle
with him fiercely--pantingly.

"Fool!" I shriek in his ear. "Let me go to her--her lips pout for
kisses--let me go!"

Another man advances and seizes me; he and the innkeeper force me back
on the pillows--they overcome me, and the utter incapacity of a
terrible exhaustion steals away my strength. I cease to struggle.
Pietro and his assistant look down upon me.

"E morto!" they whisper one to the other.

I hear them and smile. Dead? Not I! The scorching sunlight streams
through the open door of the inn--the thirsty flies buzz with
persistent loudness--some voices are singing "La Fata di Amalfi"--I can
distinguish the words--

   "Chiagnaro la mia sventura
    Si non tuorne chiu, Rosella!
    Tu d' Amalfi la chiu bella,
    Tu na Fata si pe me!
    Viene, vie, regina mie,
    Viene curre a chisto core,
    Ca non c'e non c'e sciore,
    Non c'e Stella comm'a te!"
    [Footnote: A popular song in the Neapolitan dialect.]

That is a true song, Nina mia! "Non c'e Stella comm' a te!" What did
Guido say? "Purer than the flawless diamond--unapproachable as the
furthest star!" That foolish Pietro still polishes his wine-bottles. I
see him--his meek round face is greasy with heat and dust; but I cannot
understand how he comes to be here at all, for I am on the banks of a
tropical river where huge palms grow wild, and drowsy alligators lie
asleep in the sun. Their large jaws are open--their small eyes glitter
greenly. A light boat glides over the silent water--in it I behold the
erect lithe figure of an Indian. His features are strangely similar to
those of Guido. He draws a long thin shining blade of steel as he
approaches. Brave fellow!--he means to attack single-handed the cruel
creatures who lie in wait for him on the sultry shore. He springs to
land--I watch him with a weird fascination. He passes the
alligators--he seems not to be aware of their presence--he comes with
swift, unhesitating step to ME--it is I whom he seeks--it is in MY
heart that he plunges the cold steel dagger, and draws it out again
dripping with blood! Once--twice--thrice!--and yet I cannot die! I
writhe--I moan in bitter anguish! Then something dark comes between me
and the glaring sun--something cool and shadowy, against which I fling
myself despairingly. Two dark eyes look steadily into mine, and a voice
speaks:

"Be calm, my son, be calm. Commend thyself to Christ!"

It is my friend the monk. I recognize him gladly. He has returned from
his errand of mercy. Though I can scarcely speak, I hear myself asking
for news of the boy. The holy man crosses himself devoutly.

"May his young soul rest in peace! I found him dead."

I am dreamily astonished at this. Dead--so soon! I cannot understand
it; and I drift off again into a state of confused imaginings. As I
look back now to that time, I find I have no specially distinct
recollection of what afterward happened to me. I know I suffered
intense, intolerable pain--that I was literally tortured on a rack of
excruciating anguish--and that through all the delirium of my senses I
heard a muffled, melancholy sound like a chant or prayer. I have an
idea that I also heard the tinkle of the bell that accompanies the
Host, but my brain reeled more wildly with each moment, and I cannot be
certain of this. I remember shrieking out after what seemed an eternity
of pain, "Not to the villa! no, no, not there! You shall not take
me--my curse on him who disobeys me!"

I remember then a fearful sensation, as of being dragged into a deep
whirlpool, from whence I stretched up appealing hands and eyes to the
monk who stood above me--I caught a drowning glimpse of a silver
crucifix glittering before my gaze, and at last, with one loud cry for
help, I sunk--down--down! into an abyss of black night and nothingness!



CHAPTER III.


There followed a long drowsy time of stillness and shadow. I seemed to
have fallen in some deep well of delicious oblivion and obscurity.
Dream-like images still flitted before my fancy--these were at first
undefinable, but after awhile they took more certain shapes. Strange
fluttering creatures hovered about me--lonely eyes stared at me from a
visible deep gloom; long white bony fingers grasping at nothing made
signs to me of warning or menace. Then--very gradually, there dawned
upon my sense of vision a cloudy red mist like a stormy sunset, and
from the middle of the blood-like haze a huge black hand descended
toward me. It pounced upon my chest--it grasped my throat in its
monstrous clutch, and held me down with a weight of iron. I struggled
violently--I strove to cry out, but that terrific pressure took from me
all power of utterance. I twisted myself to right and left in an
endeavor to escape--but my tyrant of the sable hand had bound me in on
all sides. Yet I continued to wrestle with the cruel opposing force
that strove to overwhelm me--little by little--inch by inch--so! At
last! One more struggle--victory! I woke! Merciful God! Where was I? In
what horrible atmosphere--in what dense darkness? Slowly, as my senses
returned to me, I remembered my recent illness. The monk--the man
Pietro--where were they? What had they done to me? By degrees, I
realized that I was lying straight down upon my back--the couch was
surely very hard? Why had they taken the pillows from under my head? A
pricking sensation darted through my veins--I felt my own hands
curiously--they were warm, and my pulse beat strongly, though fitfully.
But what was this that hindered my breathing? Air--air! I must have
air! I put up my hands--horror! They struck against a hard opposing
substance above me. Quick as lightning then the truth flashed upon my
mind! I had been buried--buried alive; this wooden prison that inclosed
me was a coffin! A frenzy surpassing that of an infuriated tiger took
swift possession of me--with hands and nails I tore and scratched at
the accursed boards--with all the force of my shoulders and arms I
toiled to wrench open the closed lid! My efforts were fruitless! I grew
more ferociously mad with rage and terror. How easy were all deaths
compared to one like this! I was suffocating--I felt my eyes start from
their sockets--blood sprung from my mouth and nostrils--and icy drops
of sweat trickled from my forehead. I paused, gasping for breath. Then,
suddenly nerving myself for one more wild effort, I hurled my limbs
with all the force of agony and desperation against one side of my
narrow prison. It cracked--it split asunder!--and then--a new and
horrid fear beset me, and I crouched back, panting heavily. If--if I
were buried in the ground--so ran my ghastly thoughts--of what use to
break open the coffin and let in the mold--the damp wormy mold, rich
with the bones of the dead--the penetrating mold that would choke up my
mouth and eyes, and seal me into silence forever! My mind quailed at
this idea--my brain tottered on the verge of madness! I laughed--think
of it!--and my laugh sounded in my ears like the last rattle in the
throat of a dying man. But I could breathe more easily--even in the
stupefaction of my fears--I was conscious of air. Yes!--the blessed air
had rushed in somehow. Revived and encouraged as I recognized this
fact, I felt with both hands till I found the crevice I had made, and
then with frantic haste and strength I pulled and dragged at the wood,
till suddenly the whole side of the coffin gave way, and I was able to
force up the lid. I stretched out my arms--no weight of earth impeded
their movements--I felt nothing but air--empty air. Yielding to my
first strong impulse, I leaped out of the hateful box, and fell--fell
some little distance, bruising my hands and knees on what seemed to be
a stone pavement. Something weighty fell also, with a dull crashing
thud close to me. The darkness was impenetrable. But there was
breathing room, and the atmosphere was cool and refreshing. With some
pain and difficulty I raised myself to a sitting position where I had
fallen. My limbs were stiff and cramped as well as wounded, and I
shivered as with strong ague. But my senses were clear--the tangled
chain of my disordered thoughts became even and connected--my previous
mad excitement gradually calmed, and I began to consider my condition.
I had certainly been buried alive--there was no doubt of that. Intense
pain had, I suppose, resolved itself into a long trance of
unconsciousness--the people of the inn where I had been taken ill had
at once believed me to be dead of cholera, and with the panic-stricken,
indecent haste common in all Italy, especially at a time of plague, had
thrust me into one of those flimsy coffins which were then being
manufactured by scores in Naples--mere shells of thin deal, nailed
together with clumsy hurry and fear. But how I blessed their wretched
construction! Had I been laid in a stronger casket, who knows if even
the most desperate frenzy of my strength might not have proved
unavailing! I shuddered at the thought. Yet the question
remained--Where was I? I reviewed my case from all points, and for some
time could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion. Stay, though! I
remembered that I had told the monk my name; he knew that I was the
only descendant of the rich Romani family. What followed? Why,
naturally, the good father had only done what his duty called upon him
to do. He had seen me laid in the vault of my ancestors--the great
Romani vault that had never been opened since my father's body was
carried to its last resting-place with all the solemn pomp and
magnificence of a wealthy nobleman's funeral obsequies. The more I
thought of this the more probable it seemed. The Romani vault! Its
forbidding gloom had terrified me as a lad when I followed my father's
coffin to the stone niche assigned to it, and I had turned my eyes away
in shuddering pain when I was told to look at the heavy oaken casket
hung with tattered velvet and ornamented with tarnished silver, which
contained all that was left of my mother, who died young. I had felt
sick and faint and cold, and had only recovered myself when I stood out
again in the free air with the blue dome of heaven high above me. And
now I was shut in the same vault--a prisoner--with what hope of escape?
I reflected. The entrance to the vault, I remembered, was barred by a
heavy door of closely twisted iron--from thence a flight of steep steps
led downward--downward to where in all probability I now was. Suppose I
could in the dense darkness feel my way to those steps and climb up to
that door--of what avail? It was locked--nay, barred--and as it was
situated in a remote part of the burial-ground, there was no likelihood
of even the keeper of the cemetery passing by it for days--perhaps not
for weeks. Then must I starve? Or die of thirst? Tortured by these
imaginings, I rose up from the pavement and stood erect. My feet were
bare, and the cold stone on which I stood chilled me to the marrow. It
was fortunate for me, I thought, that they had buried me as a cholera
corpse--they had left me half-clothed for fear of infection. That is, I
had my flannel shirt on and my usual walking trousers. Something there
was, too, round my neck; I felt it, and as I did so a flood of sweet
and sorrowful memories rushed over me. It was a slight gold chain, and
on it hung a locket containing the portraits of my wife and child. I
drew it out in the darkness; I covered it with passionate kisses and
tears--the first I had shed since my death--like trance-tears scalding
and bitter welled into my eyes. Life was worth living while Nina's
smile lightened the world! I resolved to fight for existence, no matter
what dire horrors should be yet in store for me. Nina--my love--my
beautiful one! Her face gleamed out upon me in the pestilent gloom of
the charnel-house; her eyes beckoned me--her young faithful eyes that
were now, I felt sure, drowned in weeping for my supposed death. I
seemed to see my tender-hearted darling sobbing alone in the empty
silence of the room that had witnessed a thousand embraces between
herself and me; her lovely hair disheveled; her sweet face pale and
haggard with the bitterness of grief! Baby Stella, too, no doubt she
would wonder, poor innocent! why I did not come to swing her as usual
under the orange boughs. And Guido--brave and true friend! I thought of
him with tenderness. I felt I knew how deep and lasting would be his
honest regret for my loss. Oh, I would leave no means of escape
untried; I would find some way out of this grim vault! How overjoyed
they would all be to see me again--to know that I was not dead after
all! What a welcome I should receive! How Nina would nestle into my
arms; how my little child would cling to me; how Guido would clasp me
by the hand! I smiled as I pictured the scene of rejoicing at the dear
old villa--the happy home sanctified by perfect friendship and faithful
love!

A deep hollow sound booming suddenly on my ears startled me--one! two!
three! I counted the strokes up to twelve. It was some church bell
tolling the hour. My pleasing fancies dispersed--I again faced the
drear reality of my position. Twelve o'clock! Midday or midnight? I
could not tell. I began to calculate. It was early morning when I had
been taken ill--not much past eight when I had met the monk and sought
his assistance for the poor little fruit-seller who had after all
perished alone in his sufferings. Now supposing my illness had lasted
some hours, I might have fallen into a trance--died--as those around me
had thought, somewhere about noon. In that case they would certainly
have buried me with as little delay as possible--before sunset at all
events. Thinking these points over one by one, I came to the conclusion
that the bell I had just heard must have struck midnight--the midnight
of the very day of my burial. I shivered; a kind of nervous dread stole
over me. I have always been physically courageous, but at the same
time, in spite of my education, I am somewhat superstitious--what
Neapolitan is not? it runs in the southern blood. And there was
something unutterably fearful in the sound of that midnight bell
clanging harshly on the ears of a man pent up alive in a funeral vault
with the decaying bodies of his ancestors close within reach of his
hand! I tried to conquer my feelings--to summon up my fortitude. I
endeavored to reason out the best method of escape. I resolved to feel
my way, if possible, to the steps of the vault, and with this idea in
my mind I put out my hands and began to move along slowly and with the
utmost care. What was that? I stopped; I listened; the blood curdled in
my veins! A shrill cry, piercing, prolonged, and melancholy, echoed
through the hollow arches of my tomb. A cold perspiration broke out all
over my body--my heart beat so loudly that I could hear it thumping
against my ribs. Again--again--that weird shriek, followed by a whir
and flap of wings. I breathed again.

"It is an owl," I said to myself, ashamed of my fears; "a poor innocent
bird--a companion and watcher of the dead, and therefore its voice is
full of sorrowful lamentation--but it is harmless," and I crept on with
increased caution. Suddenly out of the dense darkness there stared two
large yellow eyes, glittering with fiendish hunger and cruelty. For a
moment I was startled, and stepped back; the creature flew at me with
the ferocity of a tiger-cat! I fought with the horrible thing in all
directions; it wheeled round my head, it pounced toward my face, it
beat me with its large wings--wings that I could feel but not see; the
yellow eyes alone shone in the thick gloom like the eyes of some
vindictive demon! I struck at it right and left--the revolting combat
lasted some moments--I grew sick and dizzy, yet I battled on
recklessly. At last, thank Heaven! the huge owl was vanquished; it
fluttered backward and downward, apparently exhausted, giving one wild
screech of baffled fury, as its lamp-like eyes disappeared in the
darkness. Breathless, but not subdued--every nerve in my body quivering
with excitement--I pursued my way, as I thought, toward the stone
staircase feeling the air with my outstretched hands as I groped along.
In a little while I met with an obstruction--it was hard and cold--a
stone wall, surely? I felt it up and down and found a hollow in it--was
this the first step of the stair? I wondered; it seemed very high. I
touched it cautiously--suddenly I came in contact with something soft
and clammy to the touch like moss or wet velvet. Fingering this with a
kind of repulsion, I soon traced out the oblong shape of a coffin
Curiously enough, I was not affected much by the discovery. I found
myself monotonously counting the bits of raised metal which served, as
I judged, for its ornamentation. Eight bits lengthwise--and the soft
wet stuff between--four bits across; then a pang shot through me, and I
drew my hand away quickly, as I considered--WHOSE coffin was this? My
father's? Or was I thus plucking, like a man in delirium, at the
fragments of velvet on that cumbrous oaken casket wherein lay the
sacred ashes of my mother's perished beauty? I roused myself from the
apathy into which I had fallen. All the pains I had taken to find my
way through the vault were wasted; I was lost in the profound gloom,
and knew not where to turn. The horror of my situation presented itself
to me with redoubled force. I began to be tormented with thirst. I fell
on my knees and groaned aloud.

"God of infinite mercy!" I cried. "Saviour of the world! By the souls
of the sacred dead whom Thou hast in Thy holy keeping, have pity upon
me! Oh, my mother! if indeed thine earthly remains are near me--think
of me, sweet angel in that heaven where thy spirit dwells at
rest--plead for me and save me, or let me die now and be tortured no
more!"

I uttered these words aloud, and the sound of my wailing voice ringing
through the somber arches of the vault was strange and full of
fantastic terror to my own ears. I knew that were my agony much further
prolonged I should go mad. And I dared not picture to myself the
frightful things which a maniac might be capable of, shut up in such a
place of death and darkness, with moldering corpses for companions! I
remained on my knees, my face buried in my hands. I forced myself into
comparative calmness, and strove to preserve the equilibrium of my
distracted mind. Hush! What exquisite far-off floating voice of cheer
was that? I raised my head and listened, entranced!

"Jug, jug, Jug! lodola, lodola! trill-lil-lil! sweet, sweet, sweet!"

It was a nightingale. Familiar, delicious, angel-throated bird! How I
blessed thee in that dark hour of despair! How I praised God for thine
innocent existence! How I sprung up and laughed and wept for joy, as,
all unconscious of me, thou didst shake out a shower of pearly
warblings on the breast of the soothed air! Heavenly messenger of
consolation!--even now I think of thee with tenderness--for thy sweet
sake all birds possess me as their worshiper; humanity has grown
hideous in my sight, but the singing-life of the woods and hills--how
pure, how fresh!--the nearest thing to happiness on this side heaven!

A rush of strength and courage invigorated me. A new idea entered my
brain. I determined to follow the voice of the nightingale. It sung on
sweetly, encouragingly--and I began afresh my journeyings through the
darkness. I fancied that the bird was perched on one of the trees
outside the entrance of the vault, and that if I tried to get within
closer hearing of its voice, I should most likely be thus guided to the
very staircase I had been so painfully seeking. I stumbled along
slowly. I felt feeble, and my limbs shook under me. This time nothing
impeded my progress; the nightingale's liquid notes floated nearer and
nearer, and hope, almost exhausted, sprung up again in my heart. I was
scarcely conscious of my own movements. I seemed to be drawn along like
one in a dream by the golden thread of the bird's sweet singing. All at
once I caught my foot against a stone and fell forward with some force,
but I felt no pain--my limbs were too numb to be sensible of any fresh
suffering. I raised my heavy, aching eyes in the darkness; as I did so
I uttered an exclamation of thanksgiving. A slender stream of
moonlight, no thicker than the stem of an arrow, slanted downward
toward me, and showed me that I had at last reached the spot I
sought--in fact, I had fallen upon the lowest step of the stone
stairway. I could not distinguish the entrance door of the vault, but I
knew that it must be at the summit of the steep ascent. I was too weary
to move further just then. I lay still where I was, staring at the
solitary moon-ray, and listening to the nightingale, whose rapturous
melodies now rang out upon my ears with full distinctness. ONE! The
harsh-toned bell I had heard before clanged forth the hour. It would
soon be morning; I resolved to rest till then. Utterly worn out in body
and mind, I laid down my head upon the cold stones as readily as if
they had been the softest cushions, and in a few moments forgot all my
miseries in a profound sleep.

      *      *      *      *      *

I must have slumbered for some time, when I was suddenly awakened by a
suffocating sensation of faintness and nausea, accompanied by a sharp
pain on my neck as though some creatures were stinging me. I put my
hand up to the place--God! shall I ever forget the feel of the THING my
trembling fingers closed upon! It was fastened in my flesh--a winged,
clammy, breathing horror! It clung to me with a loathly persistency
that nearly drove me frantic, and wild with disgust and terror I
screamed aloud! I closed both hands convulsively upon its fat, soft
body--I literally tore it from my flesh and flung it as far back as I
could into the interior blackness of the vault. For a time I believe I
was indeed mad--the echoes rang with the piercing shrieks I could not
restrain! Silent at last through sneer exhaustion I glared about me.
The moonbeam had vanished, in its place lay a shaft of pale gray light,
by which I could easily distinguish the whole length of the staircase
and the closed gateway it its summit. I rushed up the ascent with the
feverish haste of a madman--I grasped the iron grating with both hands
and shook it fiercely It was firm as a rock, locked fast. I called for
help. Utter silence answered me. I peered through the closely twisted
bars. I saw the grass, the drooping boughs of trees, and straight
before my line of vision a little piece of the blessed sky, opal tinted
and faintly blushing with the consciousness of the approaching sunrise
I drank in the sweet fresh air, a long trailing branch of the wild
grape vine hung near me; its leaves were covered thickly with dew. I
squeezed one hand through the grating and gathered a few of these green
morsels of coolness--I ate them greedily. They seemed to me more
delicious than any thing I had ever tasted, they relieved the burning
fever of my parched throat and tongue. The glimpse of the trees and sky
soothed and calmed me. There was a gentle twittering of awaking birds,
my nightingale had ceased singing.

I began to recover slowly from my nervous terrors, and leaning against
the gloomy arch of my charnel house I took courage to glance backward
down the steep stairway up which I had sprung with such furious
precipitation. Something white lay in a corner on the seventh step from
the top. Curious to see what it was, I descended cautiously and with
some reluctance; it was the half of a thick waxen taper, such as are
used in the Catholic ritual at the burial of the dead. No doubt it had
been thrown down there by some careless acolyte, to save himself the
trouble of carrying it after the service had ended. I looked at it
meditatively. If I only had a light! I plunged my hands half
abstractedly into the pockets of my trousers--something jingled! Truly
they had buried me in haste. My purse, a small bunch of keys, my
card-case--one by one I drew them out and examined them
surprisedly--they looked so familiar, and withal so strange! I searched
again; and this time found something of real value to one in my
condition--a small box of wax vestas. Now, had they left me my
cigar-case? No, that was gone. It was a valuable silver one--no doubt
the monk, who attended my supposed last moments, had taken it, together
with my watch and chain, to my wife.

Well, I could not smoke, but I could strike a light. And there was the
funeral taper ready for use. The sun had not yet risen. I must
certainly wait till broad day before I could hope to attract by my
shouts any stray person who might pass through the cemetery. Meanwhile,
a fantastic idea suggested itself. I would go and look at my own
coffin! Why not? It would be a novel experience. The sense of fear had
entirely deserted me; the possession of that box of matches was
sufficient to endow me with absolute hardihood. I picked up the
church-candle and lighted it; it gave at first a feeble flicker, but
afterward burned with a clear and steady flame. Shading it with one
hand from the draught, I gave a parting glance at the fair daylight
that peeped smilingly in through my prison door, and then went
down--down again into the dismal place where I had passed the night in
such indescribable agony.



CHAPTER IV.


Numbers of lizards glided away from my feet as I descended the steps,
and when the flare of my torch penetrated the darkness I heard a
scurrying of wings mingled with various hissing sounds and wild cries.
I knew now--none better--what weird and abominable things had
habitation in this storehouse of the dead, but I felt I could defy them
all, armed with the light I carried. The way that had seemed so long in
the dense gloom was brief and easy, and I soon found myself at the
scene of my unexpected awakening from sleep. The actual body of the
vault was square-shaped, like a small room inclosed within high
walls--walls which were scooped out in various places so as to form
niches in which the narrow caskets containing the bones of all the
departed members of the Romani family were placed one above the other
like so many bales of goods arranged evenly on the shelves of an
ordinary warehouse. I held the candle high above my head and looked
about me with a morbid interest. I soon perceived what I sought--my own
coffin.

There it was in a niche some five feet from the ground, its splintered
portions bearing decided witness to the dreadful struggle I had made to
obtain my freedom. I advanced and examined it closely. It was a frail
shell enough--unlined, unornamented--a wretched sample of the
undertaker's art, though God knows _I_ had no fault to find with its
workmanship, nor with the haste of him who fashioned it. Something
shone at the bottom of it--it was a crucifix of ebony and silver. That
good monk again! His conscience had not allowed him to see me buried
without this sacred symbol; he had perhaps laid it on my breast as the
last service he could render me; it had fallen from thence, no doubt,
when I had wrenched my way through the boards that inclosed me. I took
it and kissed it reverently--I resolved that if ever I met the holy
father again, I would tell him my story, and, as a proof of its truth,
restore to him this cross, which he would be sure to recognize. Had
they put my name on the coffin-lid? I wondered. Yes, there it
was--painted on the wood in coarse, black letters, "FABIO ROMANI"--then
followed the date of my birth; then a short Latin inscription, stating
that I had died of cholera on August 15, 1884. That was yesterday--only
yesterday! I seemed to have lived a century since then.

I turned to look at my father's resting-place. The velvet on his coffin
hung from its sides in moldering remnants--but it was not so utterly
damp-destroyed and worm-eaten as the soaked and indistinguishable
material that still clung to the massive oaken chest in the next niche,
where SHE lay--she from whose tender arms I had received my first
embrace--she in whose loving eyes I had first beheld the world! I knew
by a sort of instinct that it must have been with the frayed fragments
on her coffin that my fingers had idly played in the darkness. I
counted as before the bits of metal--eight bits length-wise, and four
bits across--and on my father's close casket there were ten silver
plates lengthwise and five across. My poor little mother! I thought of
her picture--it hung in my library at home; the picture of a young,
smiling, dark-haired beauty, whose delicate tint was as that of a peach
ripening in the summer sun. All that loveliness had decayed into--what?
I shuddered involuntarily--then I knelt humbly before those two sad
hollows in the cold stone, and implored the blessing of the dead and
gone beloved ones to whom, while they lived, my welfare had been dear.
While I occupied this kneeling position the flame of my torch fell
directly on some small object that glittered with remarkable luster. I
went to examine it; it was a jeweled pendant composed of one large
pear-shaped pearl, set round with fine rose brilliants! Surprised at
this discovery, I looked about to see where such a valuable gem could
possible have come from I then noticed an unusually large coffin lying
sideways on the ground; it appeared as if it had fallen suddenly and
with force, for a number of loose stones and mortar were sprinkled near
it. Holding the light close to the ground, I observed that a niche
exactly below the one in which _I_ had been laid was empty, and that a
considerable portion of the wall there was broken away. I then
remembered that when I had sprung so desperately out of my narrow box I
had heard something fall with a crash beside me, This was the thing,
then--this long coffin, big enough to contain a man seven feet high and
broad in proportion. What gigantic ancestor had I irreverently
dislodged?--and was it from a skeleton throat that the rare jewel which
I held in my hand had been accidentally shaken?

My curiosity was excited, and I bent close to examine the lid of this
funeral chest. There was no name on it--no mark of any sort, save
one--a dagger roughly painted in red. Here was a mystery! I resolved to
penetrate it. I set up my candle in a little crevice of one of the
empty niches, and laid the pearl and diamond pendant beside it, thus
disembarrassing myself of all incumbrance. The huge coffin lay on its
side, as I have said; its uppermost corner was splintered; I applied
both hands to the work of breaking further asunder these already split
portions. As I did so a leathern pouch or bag rolled out and fell at my
feet. I picked it up and opened it--it was full of gold pieces! More
excited than ever, I seized a large pointed stone, and by the aid of
this extemporized instrument, together with the force of my own arms,
hands, and feet, I managed, after some ten minutes' hard labor, to
break open the mysterious casket.

When I had accomplished this deed I stared at the result like a man
stupefied. No moldering horror met my gaze--no blanched or decaying
bones; no grinning skull mocked me with its hollow eye-sockets. I
looked upon a treasure worthy of an emperor's envy! The big coffin was
literally lined and packed with incalculable wealth. Fifty large
leathern bags tied with coarse cord lay uppermost; more than half of
these were crammed with gold coins, the rest were full of priceless
gems--necklaces, tiaras, bracelets, watches, chains, and other articles
of feminine adornment were mingled with loose precious
stones--diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and opals, some of unusual size and
luster, some uncut, and some all ready for the jeweler's setting.
Beneath these bags were packed a number of pieces of silk, velvet, and
cloth of gold, each piece being wrapped by itself in a sort of
oil-skin, strongly perfumed with camphor and other spices. There were
also three lengths of old lace, fine as gossamer, of matchless artistic
design, in perfect condition. Among these materials lay two large trays
of solid gold workmanship, most exquisitely engraved and ornamented,
also four gold drinking-cups, of quaint and massive construction. Other
valuables and curious trifles there were, such as an ivory statuette of
Psyche on a silver pedestal, a waistband of coins linked together, a
painted fan with a handle set in amber and turquois, a fine steel
dagger in a jeweled sheath, and a mirror framed in old pearls. Last,
but not least, at the very bottom of the chest lay rolls upon rolls of
paper money amounting to some millions of francs--in all far surpassing
what I had myself formerly enjoyed from my own revenues. I plunged my
hands deep in the leathern bags; I fingered the rich materials; all
this treasure was mine! I had found it in my own burial vault! I had
surely the right to consider it as my property? I began to
consider--how could it have been placed there without my knowledge? The
answer to this question occurred to me at once. Brigands! Of
course!--what a fool I was not to have thought of them before; the
dagger painted on the lid of the chest should have guided me to the
solution of the mystery. A red dagger was the recognized sign-manual of
a bold and dangerous brigand named Carmelo Neri, who, with his reckless
gang, haunted the vicinity of Palermo.

"So!" I thought, "this is one of your bright ideas, my cut-throat
Carmelo! Cunning rogue! you calculated well--you thought that none
would disturb the dead, much less break open a coffin in search of
gold. Admirably planned, my Carmelo! But this time you must play a
losing game! A supposed dead man coming to life again deserves
something for his trouble, and I should be a fool not to accept the
goods the gods and the robbers provide. An ill-gotten hoard of wealth,
no doubt; but better in my hands than in yours friend Carmelo!"

And I meditated for some minutes on this strange affair If, indeed--and
I saw no reason to doubt it--I had chanced to find some of the spoils
of the redoubtable Neri, this great chest must have been brought over
by sea from Palermo. Probably four stout rascals had carried the
supposed coffin in a mock solemn procession, under the pretense of its
containing the body of a comrade. These thieves have a high sense of
humor. Yet the question remained to be solved--How had they gained
access to MY ancestral vault, unless by means of a false key? All at
once I was left in darkness, My candle went out as though blown upon by
a gust of air. I had my matches, and of course could easily light it
again, but I was puzzled to imagine the cause of its sudden extinction.
I looked about me in the temporary gloom and saw, to my surprise, a ray
of light proceeding from a corner of the very niche where I had fixed
the candle between two stones. I approached and put my hand to the
place; a strong draught blew through a hole large enough to admit the
passage of three fingers. I quickly relighted my torch, and examining
this hole and the back of the niche attentively, found that four blocks
of granite in the wall had been removed and their places supplied by
thick square logs cut from the trunks of trees. These logs were quite
loosely fitted. I took them out easily one by one, and then came upon a
close pile of brushwood. As I gradually cleared this away a large
aperture disclosed itself wide enough for any man to pass through
without trouble. My heart beat with the rapture of expected liberty; I
clambered up--I looked--thank God! I saw the landscape--the sky! In two
minutes I stood outside the vault on the soft grass, with the high arch
of heaven above me, and the broad Bay of Naples glittering deliciously
before my eyes! I clapped my hands and shouted for pure joy! I was
free! Free to return to life, to love, to the arms of my beautiful
Nina--free to resume the pleasant course of existence on the gladsome
earth--free to forget, if I could, the gloomy horrors of my premature
burial. If Carmelo Neri had heard the blessings I heaped upon his
head--he would for once have deemed himself a saint rather than a
brigand. What did I not owe to the glorious ruffian! Fortune and
freedom! for it was evident that this secret passage into the Romani
vault had been cunningly contrived by himself or his followers for
their own private purposes. Seldom has any man been more grateful to
his best benefactor than I was to the famous thief upon whose grim
head, as I knew, a price had been set for many months. The poor wretch
was in hiding. Well! the authorities should get no aid from me, I
resolved; even if I were to discover his whereabouts. Why should I
betray him? He had unconsciously done more for me than my best friend.
Nay, what friends will you find at all in the world when you need
substantial good? Few, or none. Touch the purse--test the heart!

What castles in the air I built as I stood rejoicing in the morning
light and my newly acquired liberty--what dreams of perfect happiness
flitted radiantly before my fancy! Nina and I would love each other
more fondly than before, I thought--our separation had been brief, but
terrible--and the idea of what it might have been would endear us to
one another with tenfold fervor. And little Stella! Why--this very
evening I would swing her again under the orange boughs and listen to
her sweet shrill laughter! This very evening I would clasp Guido's hand
in a gladness too great for words! This very night my wife's fair head
would lie pillowed on my breast in an ecstatic silence broken only by
the music of kisses. Ah! my brain grew dizzy with the joyful visions
that crowded thickly and dazzlingly upon me! The sun had risen--his
long straight beams, like golden spears, touched the tops of the green
trees, and roused little flashes as of red and blue fire on the shining
surface of the bay. I heard the rippling of water and the measured soft
dash of oars; and somewhere from a distant boat the mellifluous voice
of a sailor sung a verse of the popular ritornello--

  "Sciore d'amenta
   Sta parolella mia tieul' ammento
      Zompa llari llira!
   Sciore limone!
   Le voglio fa mori de passione
      Zompa llari llira!"
   [Footnote: Neapolitan dialect]

I smiled--"Mori de passione!" Nina and I would know the meaning of
those sweet words when the moon rose and the nightingales sung their
love-songs to the dreaming flowers! Full of these happy fancies, I
inhaled the pure morning air for some minutes, and then re-entered the
vault.



CHAPTER V.


The first thing I did was to repack all the treasures I had discovered.
This work was easily accomplished. For the present I contented myself
with taking two of the leathern bags for my own use, one full of gold
pieces, the other of jewels. The chest had been strongly made, and was
not much injured by being forced open. I closed its lid as tightly as
possible, and dragged it to a remote and dark corner of the vault,
where I placed three heavy stones upon it. I then took the two leathern
pouches I had selected, and stuffed one in each of the pockets of my
trousers. The action reminded me of the scantiness of attire in which I
stood arrayed. Could I be seen in the public roads in such a plight? I
examined my purse, which, as I before stated, had been left to me,
together with my keys and card-case, by the terrified persons who had
huddled me into my coffin with such scant ceremony. It contained two
twenty-franc pieces and some loose silver. Enough to buy a decent
costume of some sort. But where could I make the purchase, and how?
Must I wait till evening and slink out of this charnel-house like the
ghost of a wretched criminal? No! come what would, I made up my mind
not to linger a moment longer in the vault. The swarms of beggars that
infest Naples exhibit themselves in every condition of rags, dirt, and
misery; at the very worst I could only be taken for one of them. And
whatever difficulties I might encounter, no matter!--they would soon be
over.

Satisfied that I had placed the brigand coffin in a safe position, I
secured the pearl and diamond pendant I had first found, to the chain
round my neck. I intended this ornament as a gift for my wife. Then,
once more climbing through the aperture, I closed it completely with
the logs and brushwood as it was before, and examining it narrowly from
the outside, I saw that it was utterly impossible to discern the
smallest hint of any entrance to a subterranean passage, so well and
cunningly had it been contrived. Now, nothing more remained for me to
do but to make the best of my way to the city, there to declare my
identity, obtain food and clothes, and then to hasten with all possible
speed to my own residence.

Standing on a little hillock, I looked about me to see which direction
I should take. The cemetery was situated on the outskirts of
Naples--Naples itself lay on my left hand. I perceived a sloping road
winding in that direction, and judged that if I followed it it would
lead me to the city suburbs. Without further hesitation I commenced my
walk. It was now full day. My bare feet sunk deep in the dust that was
hot as desert sand--the blazing sun beat down fiercely on my uncovered
head, but I felt none of these discomforts; my heart was too full of
gladness. I could have sung aloud for delight as I stepped swiftly
along toward home--and Nina! I was aware of a great weakness in my
limbs--my eyes and head ached with the strong dazzling light;
occasionally, too, an icy shiver ran through me that made my teeth
chatter. But I recognized these symptoms as the after effects of my so
nearly fatal illness, and I paid no heed to them. A few weeks' rest
under my wife's loving care, and I knew I should be as well as ever. I
stepped on bravely. For some time I met no one, but at last I overtook
a small cart laden with freshly gathered grapes. The driver lay on his
seat asleep; his pony meanwhile cropped the green herbage by the
roadside, and every now and then shook the jingling bells on his
harness as though expressing the satisfaction he felt at being left to
his own devices. The piled-up grapes looked tempting, and I was both
hungry and thirsty, I laid a hand on the sleeping man's shoulder; he
awoke with a start. Seeing me, his face assumed an expression of the
wildest terror; he jumped from his cart and sunk down on his knees in
the dust, imploring me by the Madonna, St. Joseph, and all the saints
to spare his life. I laughed; his fears seemed to me ludicrous. Surely
there was nothing alarming about me beyond my paucity of clothing.

"Get up, man!" I said. "I want nothing of you but a few grapes, and for
them I will pay." And I held out to him a couple of francs. He rose
from the dust, still trembling and eying me askance with evident
suspicion, took several bunches of the purple fruit, and gave them to
me without saying a word. Then, pocketing the money I proffered, he
sprung into his cart, and lashing his pony till the unfortunate animal
plunged and reared with pain and fury, rattled off down the road at
such a break-neck speed that I saw nothing but a whirling blot of
wheels disappearing in the distance. I was amused at the absurdity of
this man's terror. What did he take me for, I wondered? A ghost or a
brigand? I ate my grapes leisurely as I walked along--they were
deliciously cool and refreshing--food and wine in one. I met several
other persons as I neared the city, market people and venders of
ices--but they took no note of me--in fact, I avoided them all as much
as possible. On reaching the suburbs I turned into the first street I
saw that seemed likely to contain a few shops. It was close and dark
and foul-smelling, but I had not gone far down it when I came upon the
sort of place I sought--a wretched tumble-down hovel, with a partly
broken window, through which a shabby array of second-hand garments
were to be dimly perceived, strung up for show on pieces of coarse
twine. It was one of those dirty dens where sailors, returning from
long voyages, frequently go to dispose of the various trifles they have
picked up in foreign countries, so that among the forlorn specimens of
second-hand wearing apparel many quaint and curious objects were to be
seen, such as shells, branches of rough coral, strings of beads, cups
and dishes carved out of cocoa-nut, dried gourds, horns of animals,
fans, stuffed parakeets, and old coins--while a grotesque wooden idol
peered hideously forth from between the stretched-out portions of a
pair of old nankeen trousers, as though surveying the miscellaneous
collection in idiotic amazement. An aged man sat smoking at the open
door of this promising habitation--a true specimen of a Neapolitan
grown old. The skin of his face was like a piece of brown parchment
scored all over with deep furrows and wrinkles, as though Time,
disapproving of the history he had himself penned upon it, had
scratched over and blotted out all records, so that no one should
henceforth be able to read what had once been clear writing. The only
animation left in him seemed to have concentrated itself in his eyes,
which were black and bead-like, and roved hither and thither with a
glance of ever-restless and ever-suspicious inquiry. He saw me coming
toward him, but he pretended to be absorbed in a profound study of the
patch of blue sky that gleamed between the closely leaning houses of
the narrow street. I accosted him--and he brought his gaze swiftly down
to my level, and stared at me with keen inquisitiveness.

"I have had a long tramp," I said, briefly, for he was not the kind of
man to whom I could explain my recent terrible adventure, "and I have
lost some of my clothes by an accident on the way. Can you sell me a
suit? Anything will do--I am not particular."

The old man took his pipe from his mouth.

"Do you fear the plague?" he asked.

"I have just recovered from an attack of it," I replied, coolly.

He looked at me attentively from head to foot, and then broke into a
low chuckling laugh.

"Ha! ha!" he muttered, half to himself, half to me. "Good--good! Here
is one like myself--not afraid--not afraid! We are not cowards. We do
not find fault with the blessed saints--they send the plague. The
beautiful plague!--I love it! I buy all the clothes I can get that are
taken from the corpses--they are nearly always excellent clothes. I
never clean them--I sell them again at once--yes--yes! Why not? The
people must die--the sooner the better! I help the good God as much as
I can." And the old blasphemer crossed himself devoutly.

I looked down upon him from where I stood drawn up to my full height,
with a glance of disgust. He filled me with something of the same
repulsion I had felt when I touched the unnameable Thing that fastened
on my neck while I slept in the vault.

"Come!" I said, somewhat roughly, "will you sell me a suit or no?"

"Yes, yes!" and he rose stiffly from his seat; he was very short of
stature, and so bent with age and infirmity that he looked more like
the crooked bough of a tree than a man, as he hobbled before me into
his dark shop. "Come inside, come inside! Take your choice; there is
enough here to suit all tastes. See now, what would you? Behold here
the dress of a gentleman, ah! what beautiful cloth, what strong wool!
English make? Yes, yes! He was English that wore it; a big, strong
milord, that drank beer and brandy like water--and rich--just
heaven!--how rich! But the plague took him; he died cursing God, and
calling bravely for more brandy. Ha, ha! a fine death--a splendid
death! His landlord sold me his clothes for three francs--one, two,
three--but you must give me six; that is fair profit, is it not? And I
am old and poor. I must make something to live upon."

I threw aside the tweed suit he displayed for my inspection. "Nay," I
said, "I care nothing for the plague, but find me something better than
the cast-off clothing of a brandy-soaked Englishman. I would rather
wear the motley garb of a fellow who played the fool in carnival."

The old dealer laughed with a crackling sound in his withered throat,
like the rattling of stones in a tin pot.

"Good, good!" he croaked. "I like that, I like that! Thou art old, but
thou art merry. That pleases me; one should laugh always. Why not?
Death laughs; you never see a solemn skull; it laughs always!"

And he plunged his long lean fingers into a deep drawer full of
miscellaneous garments, mumbling to himself all the while. I stood
beside him in silence, pondering on his words, "Thou art OLD, but
merry." What did he mean by calling ME old? He must be blind, I
thought, or in his dotage. Suddenly he looked up.

"Talking of the plague," he said, "it is not always wise. It did a
foolish thing yesterday--a very foolish thing. It took one of the
richest men in the neighborhood, young too, strong and brave; looked as
if he would never die. The plague touched him in the morning--before
sunset he was nailed up and put down in his big family vault--a cold
lodging, and less handsomely furnished than his grand marble villa on
the heights yonder. When I heard the news I told the Madonna she was
wicked. Oh, yes! I rated her soundly; she is a woman, and capricious; a
good scolding brings her to reason. Look you! I am a friend to God and
the plague, but they both did a stupid thing when they took Count Fabio
Romani."

I started, but quickly controlled myself into an appearance of
indifference.

"Indeed!" I said, carelessly. "And pray who was he that he should not
deserve to die as well as other people?"

The old man raised himself from his stooping attitude, and stared at me
with his keen black eyes.

"Who was he? who was he?" he cried, in a shrill tone. "Oh, he! One can
see you know nothing of Naples. You have not heard of the rich Romani?
See you, I wished him to live. He was clever and bold, but I did not
grudge him that--no, he was good to the poor; he gave away hundreds of
francs in charity. I have seen him often--I saw him married." And here
his parchment face screwed itself into an expression of the most
malignant cruelty. "Pah! I hate his wife--a fair, soft thing, like a
white snake! I used to watch them both from the corners of the streets
as they drove along in their fine carriage, and I wondered how it would
all end, whether he or she would gain the victory first. I wanted HIM
to win; I would have helped him to kill her, yes! But the saints have
made a mistake this time, for he is dead, and that she-devil has all.
Oh, yes! God and the plague have done a foolish thing for once."

I listened to the old wretch with deepening aversion, yet with some
curiosity too. Why should he hate my wife? I thought, unless, indeed,
he hated all youth and beauty, as was probably the case. And if he had
seen me as often as he averred he must know me by sight. How was it
then that he did not recognize me now? Following out this thought, I
said aloud:

"What sort of looking man was this Count Romani? You say he was
handsome--was he tall or short--dark or fair?"

Putting back his straggling gray locks from his forehead, the dealer
stretched out a yellow, claw-like hand, as though pointing to some
distant vision.

"A beautiful man!" he exclaimed; "a man good for the eyes to see! As
straight as you are!--as tall as you are!--as broad as you are! But
your eyes are sunken and dim--his were full and large and sparkling.
Your face is drawn and pale--his was of a clear olive tint, round and
flushed with health; and his hair was glossy black--ah! as jet-black,
my friend, as yours is snow-white!"

I recoiled from these last words in a sort of terror; they were like an
electric shock! Was I indeed so changed? Was it possible that the
horrors of a night in the vault had made such a dire impression upon
me? My hair white?--mine! I could hardly believe it. If so, perhaps
Nina would not recognize me--she might be terrified at my aspect--Guido
himself might have doubts of my identity. Though, for that matter, I
could easily prove myself to be indeed Fabio Romani--even if I had to
show the vault and my own sundered coffin. While I revolved all this in
my mind the old man, unconscious of my emotion, went on with his
mumbling chatter.

"Ah, yes, yes! He was a fine fellow--a strong fellow. I used to rejoice
that he was so strong. He could have taken the little throat of his
wife between finger and thumb and nipped it--so! and she would have
told no more lies. I wanted him to do it--I waited for it. He would
have done it surely, had he lived. That is why I am sorry he died."

Mastering my feelings by a violent effort, I forced myself to speak
calmly to this malignant old brute.

"Why do you hate the Countess Romani so much?" I asked him with
sternness. "Has she done you any harm?"

He straightened himself as much as he was able and looked me full in
the eyes.

"See you!" he answered, with a sort of leering laugh about the corners
of his wicked mouth. "I will tell you why I hate her--yes--I will tell
you, because you are a man and strong. I like strong men--they are
sometimes fooled by women, it is true--but then they can take revenge.
I was strong myself once. And you--you are old--but you love a
jest--you will understand. The Romani woman has done me no harm. She
laughed--once. That was when her horses knocked me down in the street.
I was hurt--but I saw her red lips widen and her white teeth
glitter--she has a baby smile--the people will tell you--so innocent! I
was picked up--her carriage drove on--her husband was not with her--he
would have acted differently. But it is no matter--I tell you she
laughed--and then I saw at once the likeness."

"The likeness!" I exclaimed impatiently, for his story annoyed me.
"What likeness?"

"Between her and my wife," the dealer replied, fixing his cruel eyes
upon me with increasing intensity of regard. "Oh, yes! I know what love
is. I know too that God had very little to do with the making of women.
It was a long time before even He could find the Madonna. Yes--yes, I
know! I tell you I married a thing as beautiful as a morning in
spring-time--with a little head that seemed to droop like a flower
under its weight of sunbeam hair--and eyes! ah--like those of a tiny
child when it looks up and asks you for kisses. I was absent once--I
returned and found her sleeping tranquilly--yes! on the breast of a
black-browed street-singer from Venice--a handsome lad enough and brave
as a young lion. He saw me and sprung at my throat--I held him down and
knelt upon his chest--she woke and gazed upon us, too terrified to
speak or scream--she only shivered and made a little moaning sound like
that of a spoiled baby. I looked down into her prostrate lover's eyes
and smiled. 'I will not hurt you,' I said. 'Had she not consented, you
could not have gained the victory. All I ask of you is to remain here
for a few moments longer.' He stared, but was mute. I bound him hand
and foot so that he could not stir. Then I took my knife and went to
her. Her blue eyes glared wide--imploringly she turned them upon
me--and ever she wrung her small hands and shivered and moaned. I
plunged the keen bright blade deep through her soft white flesh--her
lover cried out in agony--her heart's blood welled up in a crimson
tide, staining with a bright hue the white garments she wore; she flung
up her arms--she sank back on her pillows--dead. I drew the knife from
her body, and with it cut the bonds of the Venetian boy. I then gave it
to him.

"'Take it as a remembrance of her,' I said. 'In a month she would have
betrayed you as she betrayed me.'"

"He raged like a madman. He rushed out and called the gendarmes. Of
course I was tried for murder--but it was not murder--it was justice.
The judge found extenuating circumstances. Naturally! He had a wife of
his own. He understood my case. Now you know why I hate that dainty
jeweled woman up at the Villa Romani. She is just like that other
one--that creature I slew--she has just the same slow smile and the
same child-like eyes. I tell you again, I am sorry her husband is
dead--it vexes me sorely to think of it. For he would have killed her
in time--yes!--of that I am quite sure!"



CHAPTER VI.


I listened to his narrative with a pained feeling at my heart, and a
shuddering sensation as of icy cold ran through my veins. Why, I had
fancied that all who beheld Nina must, perforce, love and admire her.
True, when this old man was accidentally knocked down by her horses (a
circumstance she had never mentioned to me), it was careless of her not
to stop and make inquiry as to the extent of his injuries, but she was
young and thoughtless; she could not be intentionally heartless. I was
horrified to think that she should have made such an enemy as even this
aged and poverty-stricken wretch; but I said nothing. I had no wish to
betray myself. He waited for me to speak and grew impatient at my
silence.

"Say now, my friend!" he queried, with a sort of childish eagerness,
"did I not take a good vengeance? God himself could not have done
better!"

"I think your wife deserved her fate," I said, curtly, "but I cannot
say I admire you for being her murderer."

He turned upon me rapidly, throwing both hands above his head with a
frantic gesticulation. His voice rose to a kind of muffled shriek.

"Murderer you call me--ha! ha! that is good. No, no! She murdered me! I
tell you I died when I saw her asleep in her lover's arms--she killed
me at one blow. A devil rose up in my body and took swift revenge; that
devil is in me now, a brave devil, a strong devil! That is why I do not
fear the plague; the devil in me frightens away death. Some day it will
leave me"--here his smothered yell sunk gradually to a feeble, weary
tone; "yes, it will leave me and I shall find a dark place where I can
sleep; I do not sleep much now." He eyed me half wistfully.

"You see," he explained, almost gently, "my memory is very good, and
when one thinks of many things one cannot sleep. It is many years ago,
but every night I see HER; she comes to me wringing her little white
hands, her blue eyes stare, I hear short moans of terror. Every night,
every night!" He paused, and passed his hands in a bewildered way
across his forehead. Then, like a man suddenly waking from sleep, he
stared as though he saw me now for the first time, and broke into a low
chuckling laugh.

"What a thing, what a thing it is, the memory!" he muttered.
"Strange--strange! See, I remembered all that, and forgot you! But I
know what you want--a suit of clothes--yes, you need them badly, and I
also need the money for them. Ha, ha! And you will not have the fine
coat of Milord Inglese! No, no! I understand. I will find you
something--patience, patience!"

And he began to grope among a number of things that were thrown in a
confused heap at the back of the shop. While in this attitude he looked
so gaunt and grim that he reminded me of an aged vulture stooping over
carrion, and yet there was something pitiable about him too. In a way I
was sorry for him; a poor half-witted wretch, whose life had been full
of such gall and wormwood. What a different fate was his to mine, I
thought. _I_ had endured but one short night of agony; how trifling it
seemed compared to HIS hourly remorse and suffering! He hated Nina for
an act of thoughtlessness; well, no doubt she was not the only woman
whose existence annoyed him; it was most probably that he was at enmity
with all women. I watched him pityingly as he searched among the
worn-out garments which were his stock-in-trade, and wondered why
Death, so active in smiting down the strongest in the city, should have
thus cruelly passed by this forlorn wreck of human misery, for whom the
grave would have surely been a most welcome release and rest. He turned
round at last with an exulting gesture.

"I have found it!" he exclaimed. "The very thing to suit you. Your are
perhaps a coral-fisher? You will like a fisherman's dress. Here is one,
red sash, cap and all, in beautiful condition! He that wore it was
about your height it will fit you as well as it fitted him, and, look
you! the plague is not in it, the sea has soaked through and through
it; it smells of the sand and weed."

He spread out the rough garb before me. I glanced at it carelessly.

"Did the former wearer kill HIS wife'" I asked, with a slight smile.

The old rag-picker shook his head and made a sign with his outspread
fingers expressive of contempt.

"Not he!--He was a fool--He killed himself"

"How was that? By accident or design?"

"Che! Che! He knew very well what he was doing. It happened only two
months since. It was for the sake of a black-eyed jade, she lives and
laughs all day long up at Sorrento. He had been on a long voyage, he
brought her pearls for her throat and coral pins for her hair. She had
promised to marry him. He had just landed, he met her on the quay, he
offered her the pearl and coral trinkets. She threw them back and told
him she was tired of him. Just that--nothing more. He tried to soften
her; she raged at him like a tiger-cat. Yes, I was one of the little
crowd that stood round them on the quay, I saw it all. Her black eyes
flashed, she stamped and bit her lips at him, her full bosom heaved as
though it would burst her laced bodice. She was only a market-girl, but
she gave herself the airs of a queen. 'I am tired of you!' she said to
him. 'Go! I wish to see you no more.' He was tall and well-made, a
powerful fellow; but he staggered, his face grew pale, his lips
quivered. He bent his head a little--turned--and before any hand could
stop him he sprung from the edge of the quay into the waves, they
closed over his head, for he did not try to swim; he just sunk down,
down, like a stone. Next day his body came ashore, and I bought his
clothes for two francs; you shall have them for four."

"And what became of the girl?" I asked.

"Oh, SHE! She laughs all day long, as I told you. She has a new lover
every week. What should SHE care?"

I drew out my purse. "I will take this suit," I said. "You ask four
francs, here are six, but for the extra two you must show me some
private corner where I can dress."

"Yes, yes. But certainly!" and the old fellow trembled all over with
avaricious eagerness as I counted the silver pieces into his withered
palm. "Anything to oblige a generous stranger! There is the place I
sleep in; it is not much, but there is a mirror--HER mirror--the only
thing I keep of hers; come this way, come this way!"

And stumbling hastily along, almost falling over the disordered bundles
of clothing that lay about in all directions, he opened a little door
that seemed to be cut in the wall, and led me into a kind of close
cupboard, smelling most vilely, and furnished with a miserable pallet
bed and one broken chair. A small square pane of glass admitted light
enough to see all that there was to be seen, and close to this
extemporized window hung the mirror alluded to, a beautiful thing set
in silver of antique workmanship, the costliness of which I at once
recognized, though into the glass itself I dared not for the moment
look. The old man showed me with some pride that the door to this
narrow den of his locked from within.

"I made the lock and key, and fitted it all myself," he said. "Look how
neat and strong! Yes; I was clever once at all that work--it was my
trade--till that morning when I found her with the singer from Venice;
then I forgot all I used to know--it went away somehow, I could never
understand why. Here is the fisherman's suit; you can take your time to
put it on; fasten the door; the room is at your service."

And he nodded several times in a manner that was meant to be friendly,
and left me. I followed his advice at once and locked myself in. Then I
stepped steadily to the mirror hanging on the wall, and looked at my
own reflection. A bitter pang shot through me. The dealer's sight was
good, he had said truly. I was old! If twenty years of suffering had
passed over my head, they could hardly have changed me more terribly.
My illness had thinned my face and marked it with deep lines of pain;
my eyes had retreated far back into my head, while a certain wildness
of expression in them bore witness to the terrors I had suffered in the
vault, and to crown all, my hair was indeed perfectly white. I
understood now the alarm of the man who had sold me grapes on the
highway that morning; my appearance was strange enough to startle any
one. Indeed, I scarcely recognized myself. Would my wife, would Guido
recognize me? Almost I doubted it. This thought was so painful to me
that the tears sprung to my eyes. I brushed them away in haste.

"Fy on thee, Fabio! Be a man!" I said, addressing myself angrily. "Of
what matter after all whether hairs are black or white? What matter how
the face changes, so long as the heart is true? For a moment, perhaps,
thy love may grow pale at sight of thee; but when she knows of thy
sufferings, wilt thou not be dearer to her than ever? Will not one of
her soft embraces recompense thee for all thy past anguish, and suffice
to make thee young again?"

And thus encouraging my sinking spirits, I quickly arrayed myself in
the Neapolitan coral-fisher's garb. The trousers were very loose, and
were provided with two long deep pockets, convenient receptacles, which
easily contained the leathern bags of gold and jewels I had taken from
the brigand's coffin. When my hasty toilet was completed I took another
glance at the mirror, this time with a half smile. True, I was greatly
altered; but after all I did not look so bad. The fisherman's
picturesque costume became me well; the scarlet cap sat jauntily on the
snow-white curls that clustered so thickly over my forehead, and the
consciousness I had of approaching happiness sent a little of the old
fearless luster back into my sunken eyes. Besides, I knew I should not
always have this care-worn and wasted appearance; rest, and perhaps a
change of air, would infallibly restore the roundness to my face and
the freshness to my complexion; even my white locks might return to
their pristine color, such things had been; and supposing they remained
white? well!--there were many who would admire the peculiar contrast
between a young man's face and an old man's hair.

Having finished dressing, I unlocked the door of the stuffy little
cabin and called the old rag-picker. He came shuffling along with his
head bent, but raising his eyes as he approached me, he threw up his
hands in astonishment, exclaiming,

"Santissima Madonna! But you are a fine man--a fine man! Eh, eh! Holy
Joseph! What height and breadth! A pity--a pity you are old; you must
have been strong when you were young!"

Half in joke, and half to humor him in his fancy for mere muscular
force, I rolled up the sleeve of my jacket to the shoulder, saying,
lightly,

"Oh, as for being strong! There is plenty of strength in me still, you
see."

He stared; laid his yellow fingers on my bared arm with a kind of
ghoul-like interest and wonder, and felt the muscles of it with
childish, almost maudlin admiration.

"Beautiful, beautiful!" he mumbled. "Like iron--just think of it! Yes,
yes. You could kill anything easily. Ah! I used to be like that once. I
was clever at sword-play. I could, with well-tempered steel, cut
asunder a seven-times-folded piece of silk at one blow without fraying
out a thread. Yes, as neatly as one cuts butter! You could do that too
if you liked. It all lies in the arm--the brave arm that kills at a
single stroke."

And he gazed at me intently with his small blear eyes as though anxious
to know more of my character and temperament. I turned abruptly from
him, and called his attention to my own discarded garments.

"See," I said, carelessly; "you can have these, though they are not of
much value. And, stay, here are another three francs for some socks and
shoes, which I dare say you can find to suit me."

He clasped his hands ecstatically, and poured out a torrent of thanks
and praises for this additional and unexpected sum, and protesting by
all the saints that he and the entire contents of his shop were at the
service of so generous a stranger, he at once produced the articles I
asked for. I put them on--and then stood up thoroughly equipped and
ready to make my way back to my own home when I chose. But I had
resolved on one thing. Seeing that I was so greatly changed, I
determined not to go to the Villa Romani by daylight, lest I should
startle my wife too suddenly. Women are delicate; my unexpected
appearance might give her a nervous shock which perhaps would have
serious results. I would wait till the sun had set, and then go up to
the house by a back way I knew of, and try to get speech with one of
the servants. I might even meet my friend Guido Ferrari, and he would
break the joyful news of my return from death to Nina by degrees, and
also prepare her for my altered looks. While these thoughts flitted
rapidly through my brain, the old ragpicker stood near me with his head
on one side like a meditative raven, and regarded me intently.

"Are you going far?" he asked at last, with a kind of timidity.

"Yes," I answered him, abruptly; "very far."

He laid a detaining hand on my sleeve, and his eyes glittered--with a
malignant expression.

"Tell me," he muttered, eagerly, "tell me--I will keep the secret. Are
you going to a woman?"

I looked down upon him, half in disdain, half in amusement.

"Yes!" I said, quietly, "I am going to a woman."

He broke into silent laughter--hideous laughter that contorted his
visage and twisted his body in convulsive writhings.

I glanced at him in disgust, and shaking off his hand from my arm, I
made my way to the door of the shop He hobbled quickly after me, wiping
away the moisture that his inward merriment had brought into his eyes.

"Going to a woman!" he croaked "Ha, ha! You are not the first, nor will
you be the last, that has gone so! Going to a woman! that is well--that
is good! Go to her, go! You are strong, you have a brave arm! Go to
her, find her out, and--KILL HER! Yes, yes--you will be able to do it
easily--quite easily! Go and kill her.'"

He stood at his low door mouthing and pointing, his stunted figure and
evil face reminding me of one of Heinrich Heine's dwarf devils who are
depicted as piling fire on the heads of the saints. I bade him "Good
day" in an indifferent tone, but he made me no answer I walked slowly
away. Looking back once I saw him still standing on the threshold of
his wretched dwelling, his wicked mouth working itself into all manner
of grimaces, while with his crooked fingers he made signs in the air as
if he caught an invisible something and throttled it. I went on down
the street and out of it into the broader thoroughfares, with his last
words ringing in my ears, "go and kill her!"



CHAPTER VII.


That day seemed very long to me I wandered aimlessly about the city,
seeing few faces that I knew, for the wealthier inhabitants, afraid of
the cholera, had either left the place together or remained closely
shut within their own houses. Everywhere I went something bore witness
to the terrible ravages of the plague. At almost every corner I met a
funeral procession. Once I came upon a group of men who were standing
in an open door way packing a dead body into a coffin too small for it.
There was something truly revolting in the way they doubled up the arms
and legs and squeezed in the shoulders of the deceased man--one could
hear the bones crack. I watched the brutal proceedings for a minute or
so, and then I said aloud:

"You had better make sure he is quite dead,"

The beccamorti looked at me in surprise; one laughed grimly and swore.
"By the body of God, if I thought he were not I would twist his
accursed neck for him! But the cholera never fails, he is dead for
certain--see!" And he knocked the head of the corpse to and fro against
the sides of the coffin with no more compunction than if it had been a
block of wood. Sickened at the sight, I turned away and said no more.
On reaching one of the more important thoroughfares I perceived several
knots of people collected, who glanced at one another with eager yet
shamed faces, and spoke in low voices. A whisper reached my ears, "The
king! the king!" All heads were turned in one direction; I paused and
looked also. Walking at a leisurely pace, accompanied by a few
gentlemen of earnest mien and grave deportment, I saw the fearless
monarch, Humbert of Italy--he whom his subjects delight to honor. He
was making a round of visits to all the vilest holes and corners of the
city, where the plague raged most terribly--he had not so much as a
cigarette in his mouth to ward off infection. He walked with the easy
and assured step of a hero; his face was somewhat sad, as though the
sufferings of his people had pressed heavily upon his sympathetic
heart. I bared my head reverently as he passed, his keen kind eyes
lighted on me with a smile.

"A subject for a painting, yon white-haired fisherman!" I heard him say
to one of his attendants. Almost I betrayed myself. I was on the point
of springing forward and throwing myself at his feet to tell him my
story. It seemed to me both cruel and unnatural that he, my beloved
sovereign, should pass me without recognition--me, to whom he had
spoken so often and so cordially. For when I visited Rome, as I was
accustomed to do annually, there were few more welcome guests at the
balls of the Quirinal Palace than Count Fabio Romani. I began to wonder
stupidly who Fabio Romani was; the gay gallant known as such seemed no
longer to have any existence--a "white-haired fisherman" usurped his
place. But though I thought these things I refrained from addressing
the king. Some impulse, however, led me to follow him at a respectful
distance, as did also many others. His majesty strolled through the
most pestilential streets with as much unconcern as though he wore
taking his pleasure in a garden of roses; he stepped quietly into the
dirtiest hovels where lay both dead and dying; he spoke words of kindly
encouragement to the grief-stricken and terrified mourners, who stared
through their tears at the monarch with astonishment and gratitude;
silver and gold were gently dropped into the hands of the suffering
poor, and the very pressing cases received the royal benefactor's
personal attention and immediate relief. Mothers with infants in their
arms knelt to implore the king's blessing--which to pacify them he gave
with a modest hesitation, as though he thought himself unworthy, and
yet with a parental tenderness that was infinitely touching. One
wild-eyed, black-haired girl flung herself down on the ground right in
the king's path; she kissed his feet, and then sprung erect with a
gesture of triumph.

"I am saved!" she cried; "the plague cannot walk in the same road with
the king!"

Humbert smiled, and regarded her somewhat as an indulgent father might
regard a spoiled daughter; but he said nothing, and passed on. A
cluster of men and women standing at the open door of one of the
poorest-looking houses in the street next attracted the monarch's
attention. There was some noisy argument going on; two or three
beccamorti were loudly discussing together and swearing profusely--some
women were crying bitterly, and in the center of the excited group a
coffin stood on end as though waiting for an occupant. One of the
gentlemen in attendance on the king preceded him and announced his
approach, whereupon the loud clamor of tongues ceased, the men bared
their heads, and the women checked their sobs.

"What is wrong here, my friends?" the monarch asked with exceeding
gentleness.

There was silence for a moment; the beccamorti looked sullen and
ashamed. Then one of the women, with a fat good-natured face and eyes
rimmed redly round with weeping, elbowed her way through the little
throng to the front and spoke.

"May the Holy Virgin and saints bless your majesty!" she cried, in
shrill accents. "And as for what is wrong, it would soon be right if
those shameless pigs," pointing to the beccamorti, "would let us alone.
They would kill a man rather than wait an hour--one little hour! The
girl is dead, your majesty--and Giovanni, poor lad! will not leave her;
he has his two arms round her tight--Holy Virgin!--think of it! and she
a cholera corpse--and do what we can, he will not be parted from her,
and they seek her body for the burial. And if we force him away,
poverino, he will lose his head for certain. One little hour, your
majesty, just one, and the reverend father will come and persuade
Giovanni better than we can."

The king raised his hand with a slight gesture of command--the little
crowd parted before him--and he entered the miserable dwelling wherein
lay the corpse that was the cause of all the argument. His attendants
followed; I, too, availed myself of a corner in the doorway. The scene
disclosed was so terribly pathetic that few could look upon it without
emotion--Humbert of Italy himself uncovered his head and stood silent.
On a poor pallet bed lay the fair body of a girl in her first youth,
her tender loveliness as yet untouched even by the disfiguring marks of
the death that had overtaken her. One would have thought she slept, had
it not been for the rigidity of her stiffened limbs, and the wax-like
pallor of her face and hands. Right across her form, almost covering it
from view, a man lay prone, as though he had fallen there
lifeless--indeed he might have been dead also for any sign he showed to
the contrary. His arms were closed firmly round the girl's corpse--his
face was hidden from view on the cold breast that would no more respond
to the warmth of his caresses. A straight beam of sunlight shot like a
golden spear into the dark little room and lighted up the whole
scene--the prostrate figures on the bed--the erect form of the
compassionate king, and the grave and anxious faces of the little crowd
of people who stood around him.

"See! that is the way he has been ever since last night when she died,"
whispered the woman who had before spoken; "and his hands are clinched
round her like iron--one cannot move a finger!"

The king advanced. He touched the shoulder of the unhappy lover. His
voice, modulated to an exquisite softness, struck on the ears of the
listeners like a note of cheerful music.

"Figlio mio!"

There was no answer. The women, touched by the simple endearing words
of the monarch, began to sob though gently, and even the men brushed a
few drops from their eyes. Again the king spoke.

"Figlio mio! I am your king. Have you no greeting for me?"

The man raised his head from its pillow on the breast of the beloved
corpse and stared vacantly at the royal speaker. His haggard face,
tangled hair, and wild eyes gave him the appearance of one who had long
wandered in a labyrinth of frightful visions from which there was no
escape but self-murder.

"Your hand, my son!" resumed the king in a tone of soldier-like
authority.

Very slowly--very reluctantly--as though he were forced to the action
by some strange magnetic influence which he had no power to withstand,
he loosened his right arm from the dead form it clasped so
pertinaciously, and stretched forth the hand as commanded. Humbert
caught it firmly within his own and held it fast--then looking the poor
fellow full in the face, he said with grave steadiness and simplicity,

"There is no death in love, my friend!"

The young man's eyes met his--his set mouth softened--and wresting his
hand passionately from that of the king, he broke into a passion of
weeping. Humbert at once placed a protecting arm around him, and with
the assistance of one of his attendants raised him from the bed, and
led him unresistingly away, as passively obedient as a child, though
sobbing convulsively as he went. The rush of tears had saved his
reason, and most probably his life. A murmur of enthusiastic applause
greeted the good king as he passed through the little throng of persons
who had witnessed what had taken place. Acknowledging it with a quiet
unaffected bow, he left the house, and signed to the beccamorti, who
still waited outside, that they were now free to perform their
melancholy office. He then went on his way attended by more heart-felt
blessings and praises than ever fell to the lot of the proudest
conqueror returning with the spoils of a hundred battles. I looked
after his retreating figure till I could see it no more--I felt that I
had grown stronger for the mere presence of a hero--a man who indeed
was "every inch a king." I am a royalist--yes. Governed by such a
sovereign, few men of calm reason would be otherwise. But royalist
though I am, I would assist in bringing about the dethronement and
death of a mean tyrant, were he crowned king a hundred times over! Few
monarchs are like Humbert of Italy--even now my heart warms when I
think of him--in all the distraction of my sufferings, his figure
stands out like a supreme embodied Beneficent Force surrounded by the
clear light of unselfish goodness--a light in which Italia suns her
fair face and smiles again with the old sweet smile of her happiest
days of high achievement--days in which he children were great, simply
because they were EARNEST. The fault of all modern labor lies in the
fact that there is no heart in anything we do--we seldom love our work
for work's sake--we perform it solely for what we can get by it.
Therein lies the secret of failure. Friends will scarcely serve each
other unless they can also serve their own interests--true, there are
exceptions to this rule, but they are deemed fools for their pains.

As soon as the king disappeared I also left the scene of the foregoing
incident. I had a fancy to visit the little restaurant where I had been
taken ill, and after some trouble I found it. The door stood open. I
saw the fat landlord, Pietro, polishing his glasses as though he had
never left off; and there in the same corner was the very wooden bench
on which I had lain--where I had--as was generally supposed--died. I
stepped in. The landlord looked up and bade me good-day. I returned his
salutation, and ordered some coffee and rolls of bread. Seating myself
carelessly at one of the little tables I turned over the newspaper,
while he bustled about in haste to serve me. As he dusted and rubbed up
a cup and saucer for my use, he said, briskly,

"You have had a long voyage, amico? And successful fishing?"

For a moment I was confused and knew not what to answer, but gathering
my wits together I smiled and answered readily in the affirmative.

"And you?" I said, gayly. "How goes the cholera?"

The landlord shook his head dolefully.

"Holy Joseph! do not speak of it. The people die like flies in a
honey-pot. Only yesterday--body of Bacchus!--who would have thought it?"

And he sighed deeply as he poured out the steaming coffee, and shook
his head more sorrowfully than before.

"Why, what happened yesterday?" I asked, though I knew perfectly well
what he was going to say; "I am a stranger in Naples, and empty of
news."

The perspiring Pietro laid a fat thumb on the marble top of the table,
and with it traced a pattern meditatively.

"You never heard of the rich Count Romani?" he inquired.

I made a sign in the negative, and bent my face over my coffee-cup.

"Ah, well!" he went on with a half groan, "it does not matter--there is
no Count Romani any more. It is all gone--finished! But he was rich--as
rich as the king, they say--yet see how low the saints brought him! Fra
Cipriano of the Benedictines carried him in here yesterday morning--he
was struck by the plague--in five hours he was dead," here the landlord
caught a mosquito and killed it--"ah! as dead as that zinzara! Yes, he
lay dead on that very wooden bench opposite to you. They buried him
before sunset. It is like a bad dream!"

I affected to be deeply engrossed with the cutting and Spreading of my
roll and butter.

"I see nothing particular about it," I said, indifferently. "That he
was rich is nothing--rich and poor must die alike."

"And that is true, very true," assented Pietro, with another groan,
"for not all his property could save the blessed Cipriano."

I started, but quickly controlled myself.

"What do you mean?" I asked, as carelessly as I could. "Are you talking
of some saint?"

"Well, if he were not canonized he deserves to be," replied the
landlord; "I speak of the holy Benedictine father who brought hither
the Count Romani in a dying condition. Ah I little he knew how soon the
good God would call him himself!"

I felt a sickening sensation at my heart.

"Is he dead?" I exclaimed.

"Dead as the martyrs!" answered Pietro. "He caught the plague, I
suppose, from the count, for he was bending over him to the last. Ay,
and he sprinkled holy water over the corpse, and laid his own crucifix
upon it in the coffin. Then up he went to the Villa Romani, taking with
him the count's trinkets, his watch, ring, and cigar-case--and nothing
would satisfy him but that he should deliver them himself to the young
contessa, telling her how her husband died."

My poor Nina!--I thought. "Was she much grieved?" I inquired, with a
vague curiosity.

"How do I know?" said the landlord, shrugging his bulky shoulders. "The
reverend father said nothing, save that she swooned away. But what of
that? Women swoon at everything--from a mouse to a corpse. As I said,
the good Cipriano attended the count's burial--and he had scarce
returned from it when he was seized with the illness. And this morning
he died at the monastery--may his soul rest in peace! I heard the news
only an hour ago. Ah! he was a holy man! He has promised me a warm
corner in Paradise, and I know he will keep his word as truly as St.
Peter himself."

I pushed away the rest of my meal untasted. The food choked me. I could
have shed tears for the noble, patient life thus self-sacrificed. One
hero the less in this world of unheroic, uninspired persons! I sat
silent, lost in sorrowful thought. The landlord looked at me curiously.

"The coffee does not please you?" he said at last. "You have no
appetite?" I forced a smile.

"Nay--your words would take the edge off the keenest appetite ever born
of the breath of the sea. Truly Naples affords but sorry entertainment
to a stranger; is there naught to hear but stories of the dying and the
dead?"

Pietro put on an air that was almost apologetic.

"Well, truly!" he answered, resignedly--"very little else. But what
would you, amico? It is the plague and the will of God."

As he said the last words my gaze was caught and riveted by the figure
of a man strolling leisurely past the door of the cafe. It was Guido
Ferrari--my friend! I would have rushed out to speak to him--but
something in his look and manner checked the impulse as it rose in me.
He was walking very slowly, smoking a cigar as he went; there was a
smile on his face, and in his coat he wore a freshly-gathered rose La
Gloire de France, similar to those that grew in such profusion on the
upper terrace of my villa. I stared at him as he passed--my feelings
underwent a kind of shock. He looked perfectly happy and tranquil,
happier indeed than ever I remembered to have seen him, and yet--and
yet, according to HIS knowledge, I, his best friend, had died only
yesterday! With this sorrow fresh upon him, he could smile like a man
going to a festa, and wear a coral-pink rose, which surely was no sign
of mourning! For one moment I felt hurt, the next, I laughed at my own
sensitiveness. After all, what of the smile, what of the rose! A man
could not always be answerable for the expression of his countenance,
and as for the flower, he might have gathered it en passent, without
thinking, or what was still more likely, the child Stella might have
given it to him, in which case he would have worn it to please her. He
displayed no badge of mourning? True!--but then consider--I had only
died yesterday! There had been no time to procure all those outward
appurtenances of woe which social customs rendered necessary, but which
were no infallible sign of the heart's sincerity. Satisfied with my own
self-reasoning I made no attempt to follow Guido in his walk--I let him
go on his way unconscious of my existence. I would wait, I thought,
till the evening--then everything would be explained.

I turned to the landlord. "How much to pay?" I asked.

"What you will, amico" he replied--"I am never hard on the fisher
folk--but times are bad, or you would be welcome to a breakfast for
nothing. Many and many a day have I done as much for men of your craft,
and the blessed Cipriano who is gone used to say that St. Peter would
remember me for it. It is true the Madonna gives a special blessing if
one looks after the fishers, because all the holy apostles were of the
trade; and I would be loth to lose her protection--yet-"

I laughed and tossed him a franc. He pocketed it at once and his eyes
twinkled.

"Though you have not taken half a franc's worth," he admitted, with an
honesty very unusual in a Neapolitan--"but the saints will make it up
to you, never fear!"

"I am sure of that!" I said, gayly. "Addio, my friend! Prosperity to
you and our Lady's favor!"

This salutation, which I knew to be a common one with Sicilian
mariners, the good Pietro responded to with amiable heartiness, wishing
me luck on my next voyage. He then betook himself anew to the polishing
of his glasses--and I passed the rest of the day in strolling about the
least frequented streets of the city, and longing impatiently for the
crimson glory of the sunset, which, like a wide flag of triumph, was to
be the signal of my safe return to love and happiness.



CHAPTER VIII.


It came at last, the blessed, the longed-for evening. A soft breeze
sprung up, cooling the burning air after the heat of the day, and
bringing with it the odors of a thousand flowers. A regal glory of
shifting colors blazed on the breast of heaven--the bay, motionless as
a mirror, reflected all the splendid tints with a sheeny luster that
redoubled their magnificence. Pricked in every vein by the stinging of
my own desires, I yet restrained myself; I waited till the sun sunk
below the glassy waters--till the pomp and glow attending its departure
had paled into those dim, ethereal hues which are like delicate
draperies fallen from the flying forms of angels--till the yellow rim
of the round full moon rose languidly on the edge of the horizon--and
then keeping back my eagerness no longer, I took the well-known road
ascending to the Villa Romani, My heart beat high--my limbs trembled
with excitement--my steps were impatient and precipitate--never had the
way seemed so long. At last I reached the great gate-way--it was locked
fast--its sculptured lions looked upon me frowningly. I heard the
splash and tinkle of the fountains within, the scents of the roses and
myrtle were wafted toward me with every breath I drew. Home at last! I
smiled--my whole frame quivered with expectancy and delight. It was not
my intention to seek admission by the principal entrance--I contented
myself with one long, loving look, and turned to the left, where there
was a small private gate leading into an avenue of ilex and pine,
interspersed with orange-trees. This was a favorite walk of mine,
partly on account of its pleasant shade even in the hottest
noon--partly because it was seldom frequented by any member of the
household save myself. Guido occasionally took a turn with me there,
but I was more often alone, and I was fond of pacing up and down in the
shadow of the trees, reading some favorite book, or giving myself up to
the dolcefar niente of my own imaginings. The avenue led round to the
back of the villa, and as I now entered it, I thought I would approach
the house cautiously by this means and get private speech with Assunta,
the nurse who had charge of little Stella, and who was moreover an old
and tried family servant, in whose arms my mother had breathed her last.

The dark trees rustled solemnly as I stepped quickly yet softly along
the familiar moss-grown path. The place was very still--sometimes the
nightingales broke into a bubbling torrent of melody, and then were
suddenly silent, as though overawed by the shadows of the heavy
interlacing boughs, through which the moonlight flickered, casting
strange and fantastic patterns on the ground. A cloud of lucciole broke
from a thicket of laurel, and sparkled in the air like gems loosened
from a queen's crown. Faint odors floated about me, shaken from orange
boughs and trailing branches of white jasmine. I hastened on, my
spirits rising higher the nearer I approached my destination. I was
full of sweet anticipation and passionate longing--I yearned to clasp
my beloved Nina in my arms--to see her lovely lustrous eyes looking
fondly into mine--I was eager to shake Guido by the hand--and as for
Stella, I knew the child would be in bed at that hour, but still, I
thought, I must have her wakened to see me. I felt that my happiness
would not be complete till I had kissed her little cherub face, and
caressed those clustering curls of hers that were like spun gold.
Hush--hush! What was that? I stopped in my rapid progress as though
suddenly checked by an invisible hand. I listened with strained ears.
That sound--was it not a rippling peal of gay sweet laughter? A shiver
shook me from head to foot. It was my wife's laugh--I knew the silvery
chime of it well! My heart sunk coldly--I paused irresolute. She could
laugh then like that, while she thought me lying dead--dead and out of
her reach forever! All at once I perceived the glimmer of a white robe
through the trees; obeying my own impulse, I stepped softly aside--I
hid behind a dense screen of foliage through which I could see without
being seen. The clear laugh rang out once again on the stillness--its
brightness pierced my brain like a sharp sword! She was happy--she was
even merry--she wandered here in the moonlight joyous-hearted, while
I--I had expected to find her close shut within her room, or else
kneeling before the Mater Dolorosa in the little chapel, praying for my
soul's rest, and mingling her prayers with her tears! Yes--I had
expected this--we men are such fools when we love women! Suddenly a
terrible thought struck me. Had she gone mad? Had the shock and grief
of my so unexpected death turned her delicate brain? Was she roaming
about, poor child, like Ophelia, knowing not whither she went, and was
her apparent gayety the fantastic mirth of a disordered brain? I
shuddered at the idea--and bending slightly apart the boughs behind
which I was secreted, I looked out anxiously. Two figures were slowly
approaching--my wife and my friend, Guido Ferrari. Well--there was
nothing in that--it was as it should be--was not Guido as my brother?
It was almost his duty to console and cheer Nina as much as lay in his
power. But stay! stay! did I see aright--was she simply leaning on his
arm for support--or--a fierce oath, that was almost a cry of torture,
broke from my lips! Oh, would to God I had died! Would to God I had
never broken open the coffin in which I lay at peace! What was
death--what were the horrors of the vault--what was anything I had
suffered to the anguish that racked me now? The memory of it to this
day burns in my brain like inextinguishable fire, and my hand
involuntarily clinches itself in an effort to beat back the furious
bitterness of that moment! I know not how I restrained the murderous
ferocity that awoke within me--how I forced myself to remain motionless
and silent in my hiding-place. But I did. I watched the miserable
comedy out to its end. I looked dumbly on at my own betrayal! I saw my
honor stabbed to the death by those whom I most trusted, and yet I gave
no sign! They--Guido Ferrari and my wife--came so close to my
hiding-place that I could note every gesture and hear every word they
uttered. They paused within three steps of me--his arm encircled her
waist--hers was thrown carelessly around his neck--her head rested on
his shoulder. Even so had she walked with me a thousand times! She was
dressed in pure white save for one spot of deep color near her heart--a
red rose, as red as blood. It was pinned there with a diamond pin that
flashed in the moonlight. I thought wildly, that instead of that rose,
there should be blood indeed--instead of a diamond pin there should be
the good steel of a straight dagger! But I had no weapon--I stared at
her, dry-eyed and mute. She looked lovely--exquisitely lovely! No trace
of grief marred the fairness of her face--her eyes were as languidly
limpid and tender as ever--her lips were parted in the child-like smile
that was so sweet--so innocently trustful! She spoke--ah, Heaven! the
old bewitching music of her low voice made my heart leap and my brain
reel.

"You foolish Guido!" she said, in dreamily amused accents. "What would
have happened, I wonder, if Fabio had not died so opportunely."

I waited eagerly for the answer. Guido laughed lightly.

"He would never have discovered anything. You were too clever for him,
piccinina! Besides, his conceit saved him--he had so good an opinion of
himself that he would not have deemed it possible for you to care for
any other man."

My wife--flawless diamond-pearl of pure womanhood!--sighed half
restlessly.

"I am glad he is dead!" she murmured; "but, Guido mio, you are
imprudent. You cannot visit me now so often--the servants will talk!
Then I must go into mourning for at least six months--and there are
many other things to consider."

Guide's hand played with the jeweled necklace she wore--he bent and
kissed the place where its central pendant rested. Again--again, good
sir, I pray you! Let no faint scruples interfere with your rightful
enjoyment! Cover the white flesh with caresses--it is public property!
a dozen kisses more or less will not signify! So I madly thought as I
crouched among the trees--the tigerish wrath within me making the blood
beat in my head like a hundred hammer-strokes.

"Nay then, my love," he replied to her, "it is almost a pity Fabio is
dead! While he lived he played an excellent part as a screen--he was an
unconscious, but veritable duenna of propriety for both of us, as no
one else could be!"

The boughs that covered me creaked and rustled. My wife started, and
looked uneasily round her.

"Hush!" she said, nervously. "He was buried only yesterday--and they
say there are ghosts sometimes. This avenue, too--I wish we had not
come here--it was his favorite walk. Besides," she added, with a slight
accent of regret, "after all he was the father of my child--you must
think of that."

"By Heaven!" exclaimed Guido, fiercely, "do I not think of it? Ay--and
I curse him for every kiss he stole from your lips!"

I listened half stupefied. Here was a new phase of the marriage law!
Husbands were thieves then--they "stole" kisses; only lovers were
honest in their embraces! Oh, my dear friend--my more than brother--how
near you were to death at that moment! Had you but seen my face peering
pallidly through the dusky leaves--could you have known the force of
the fury pent up within me--you would not have valued your life at one
baiocco!

"Why did you marry him?" he asked, after a little pause, during which
he toyed with the fair curls that floated against his breast.

She looked up with a little mutinous pout, and shrugged her shoulders.

"Why? Because I was tired of the convent, and all the stupid, solemn
ways of the nuns; also because he was rich, and I was horribly poor. I
cannot bear to be poor! Then he loved me"--here her eyes glimmered with
malicious triumph--"yes--he was mad for me--and--"

"You loved him?" demanded Guido, almost fiercely.

"Ma che!" she answered, with an expressive gesture. "I suppose I
did--for a week or two. As much as one ever loves a husband! What does
one marry for at all? For convenience--money--position--he gave me
these things, as you know."

"You will gain nothing by marrying me, then," he said, jealously.

She laughed, and laid her little white hand, glittering with rings,
lightly against his lips.

"Of course not! Besides--have I said I will marry you? You are very
agreeable as a lover--but otherwise--I am not sure! And I am free
now--I can do as I like; I want to enjoy my liberty, and--"

She was not allowed to complete her sentence, for Ferrari snatched her
close to his breast and held her there as in a vise. His face was
aflame with passion.

"Look you, Nina," he said, hoarsely, "you shall not fool me, by Heaven!
you shall not! I have endured enough at your hands, God knows! When I
saw you for the first time on the day of your marriage with that poor
fool, Fabio--I loved you, madly--ay, wickedly as I then thought, but
not for the sin of it did I repent. I knew you were woman, not angel,
and I waited my time. It came--I sought you--I told you my story of
love ere three months of wedded life had passed ever your head. I found
you willing--ready--nay, eager to hear me! You led me on; you know you
did! You tempted me by touch, word and look; you gave me all I sought!
Why try to excuse it now? You are as much my wife as ever you were
Fabio's--nay--you are more so, for you love me--at least you say
so--and though you lied to your husband, you dare not lie to me. I tell
you, you DARE NOT! I never pitied Fabio, never--he was too easily
duped, and a married man has no right to be otherwise than suspicious
and ever on his guard; if he relaxes in his vigilance he has only
himself to blame when his honor is flung like a ball from hand to hand,
as one plays with a child's toy. I repeat to you, Nina, you are mine,
and I swear you shall never escape me!"

The impetuous words coursed rapidly from his lips, and his deep musical
voice had a defiant ring as it fell on the stillness of the evening
air. I smiled bitterly as I heard! She struggled in his arms half
angrily.

"Let me go," she said. "You are rough, you hurt me!"

He released her instantly. The violence of his embrace had crushed the
rose she wore, and its crimson leaves fluttered slowly down one by one
on the ground at her feet. Her eyes flashed resentfully, and an
impatient frown contracted her fair level brows. She looked away from
him in silence, the silence of a cold disdain. Something in her
attitude pained him, for he sprung forward and caught her hand,
covering it with kisses.

"Forgive me, carina mia" he cried, repentantly. "I did not mean to
reproach you. You cannot help being beautiful--it is the fault of God
or the devil that you are so, and that your beauty maddens me! You are
the heart of my heart, the soul of my soul! Oh, Nina mia, let us not
waste words in useless anger. Think of it, we are free--free! Free to
make life a long dream of delight--delight more perfect than angels can
know! The greatest blessing that could have befallen us is the death of
Fabio, and now that we are all in all to each other, do not harden
yourself against me! Nina, be gentle with me--of all things in the
world, surely love is best!"

She smiled, with the pretty superior smile of a young empress pardoning
a recreant subject, and suffered him to draw her again, but with more
gentleness, into his embrace. She put up her lips to meet his--I looked
on like a man in a dream! I saw them cling together--each kiss they
exchanged was a fresh stab to my tortured soul.

"You are so foolish, Guido mio" she pouted, passing her little jeweled
fingers through his clustering hair with a light caress--"so
impetuous--so jealous! I have told you over and over again that I love
you! Do you not remember that night when Fabio sat out on the balcony
reading his Plato, poor fellow!"--here she laughed musically--"and we
were trying over some songs in the drawing--room--did I not say then
that I loved you best of any one in the world? You know I did! You
ought to be satisfied!"

Guido smiled, and stroked her shining golden curls.

"I AM satisfied," he said, without any trace of his former heated
impatience--"perfectly satisfied. But do not expect to find love
without jealousy. Fabio was never jealous--I know--he trusted you too
implicitly--he was nothing of a lover, believe me! He thought more of
himself than of you. A man who will go away for days at a time on
solitary yachting and rambling excursions, leaving his wife to her own
devices--a man who reads Plato in preference to looking after HER,
decides his own fate, and deserves to be ranked with those so-called
wise but most ignorant philosophers to whom Woman has always remained
an unguessed riddle. As for me--I am jealous of the ground you tread
upon--of the air that touches you--I was jealous of Fabio while he
lived--and--by heaven!"--his eyes darkened with a somber wrath--"if any
other man dared now to dispute your love with me I would not rest till
his body had served my sword as a sheath!"

Nina raised her head from his breast with an air of petulant weariness.

"Again!" she murmured, reproachfully, "you are going to be angry AGAIN!"

He kissed her.

"Not I, sweet one! I will be as gentle as you wish, so long as you love
me and only me. Come--this avenue is damp and chilly for you--shall we
go in?"

My wife--nay, I should say OUR wife, as we had both shared her
impartial favors--assented. With arms interlaced and walking slowly,
they began to retrace their steps toward the house. Once they paused.

"Do you hear the nightingales?" asked Guido.

Hear them! Who could not hear them? A shower of melody rained from the
trees on every side--the pure, sweet, passionate tones pierced the ear
like the repeated chime of little golden bells--the beautiful, the
tender, the God-inspired birds sung their love-stories simply and with
perfect rapture--love-stories untainted by hypocrisy--unsullied by
crime--different, ah! so very different from the love-stones of selfish
humanity! The exquisite poetic idyl of a bird's life and love--is it
not a thing to put us inferior creatures to shame--for are we ever as
true to our vows as the lark to his mate?--are we as sincere in our
thanksgivings for the sunlight as the merry robin who sings as blithely
in the winter snow as in the flower-filled mornings of spring? Nay--not
we! Our existence is but one long impotent protest against God,
combined with an insatiate desire to get the better of one another in
the struggle for base coin!

Nina listened--and shivered, drawing her light scarf more closely about
her shoulders.

"I hate them," she said, pettishly; "their noise is enough to pierce
one's ears. And HE used to be so fond of them! he used to sing--what
was it?

  'Ti salute, Rosignuolo,
   Nel tuo duolo, il saluto!
   Sei l'amante delta rosa
   Che morendo si fa sposa!'"

Her rich voice rippled out on the air, rivaling the songs of the
nightingales themselves. She broke off with a little laugh--

"Poor Fabio! there was always a false note somewhere when he sung.
Come, Guido!"

And they paced on quietly, as though their consciences were clean--as
though no just retribution dogged their steps--as though no shadow of a
terrible vengeance loomed in the heaven of their pilfered happiness! I
watched them steadily as they disappeared in the distance--I stretched
my head eagerly out from between the dark boughs and gazed after their
retreating figures till the last glimmer of my wife's white robe had
vanished behind the thick foliage. They were gone--they would return no
more that night.

I sprung out from my hiding-place. I stood on the spot where they had
stood. I tried to bring home to myself the actual truth of what I had
witnessed. My brain whirled--circles of light swam giddily before me in
the air--the moon looked blood-red. The solid earth seemed unsteady
beneath my feet--almost I doubted whether I was indeed alive, or
whether I was not rather the wretched ghost of my past self, doomed to
return from the grave to look helplessly upon the loss and ruin of all
the fair, once precious things of by-gone days. The splendid universe
around me seemed no more upheld by the hand of God--no more a majestic
marvel; it was to me but an inflated bubble of emptiness--a mere ball
for devils to kick and spurn through space! Of what avail these
twinkling stars--these stately leaf-laden trees--these cups of
fragrance we know as flowers--this round wonder of the eyes called
Nature? of what avail was God Himself, I widely mused, since even He
could not keep one woman true? She whom I loved--she as delicate of
form, as angel-like in face as the child-bride of Christ, St.
Agnes--she, even she was--what? A thing lower than the beasts, a thing
as vile as the vilest wretch in female form that sells herself for a
gold piece--a thing--great Heaven!--for all men to despise and make
light of--for the finger of Scorn to point out--for the foul hissing
tongue of Scandal to mock at! This creature was my wife--the mother of
my child--she had cast mud on her soul by her own free will and
choice--she had selected evil as her good--she had crowned herself with
shame willingly, nay--joyfully; she had preferred it to honor. What
should be done? I tortured myself occasionally with this question. I
stared blankly on the ground--would some demon spring from it and give
me the answer I sought? What should be done with HER--with HIM, my
treacherous friend, my smiling betrayer? Suddenly my eyes lighted on
the fallen rose-leaves--those that had dropped when Guido's embrace had
crushed the flower she wore. There they lay on the path, curled softly
at the edges like little crimson shells. I stooped and picked them
up--I placed them all in the hollow of my hand and looked at them. They
had a sweet odor--almost I kissed them--nay, nay, I could not--they had
too recently lain on the breast of an embodied Lie! Yes; she was that,
a Lie, a living, lovely, but accursed Lie! "Go and kill her" Stay!
where had I heard that? Painfully I considered, and at last
remembered--and then I thought moodily that the starved and miserable
rag-picker was more of a man than I. He had taken his revenge at once;
while I, like a fool, had let occasion slip. Yes, but not forever!
There were different ways of vengeance; one must decide the best, the
keenest way--and, above all, the way that shall inflict the longest,
the cruelest agony upon those by whom honor is wronged. True--it would
be sweet to slay sin in the act of sinning, but then--must a Romani
brand himself as a murderer in the sight of men? Not so; there were
other means--other roads, leading to the same end if the tired brain
could only plan them out. Slowly I dragged my aching limbs to the
fallen trunk of a tree and sat down, still holding the dying
rose-leaves in my clinched palm. There was a surging noise in my
ears--my mouth tasted of blood, my lips were parched and burning as
with fever. "A white-haired fisherman." That was me! The king had said
so. Mechanically I looked down at the clothes I wore--the former
property of a suicide. "He was a fool," the vender of them had said,
"he killed himself."

Yes, there was no doubt of it--he was a fool. I would not follow his
example, or at least not yet. I had something to do first--something
that must be done if I could only see my way clear to it. Yes--if I
could only see my way and follow it straightly, resolutely,
remorselessly! My thoughts were confused, like the thoughts of a
fever-stricken man in delirium--the scent of the rose-leaves I held
sickened me strangely--yet I would not throw them from me; no, I would
keep them to remind me of the embraces I had witnessed! I felt for my
purse! I found and opened it, and placed the withering red petals
carefully within it. As I slipped it again in my pocket I remembered
the two leathern pouches I carried--the one filled with gold, the other
with the jewels I had intended for--HER. My adventures in the vault
recurred to me; I smiled as I recollected the dire struggle I had made
for life and liberty. Life and liberty!--of what use were they to me
now, save for one thing--revenge? I was not wanted; I was not expected
back to refill my former place on earth--the large fortune I had
possessed was now my wife's by the decree of my own last will and
testament, which she would have no difficulty in proving. But still,
wealth was mine--the hidden stores of the brigands were sufficient to
make any man more than rich for the term of his natural life. As I
considered this, a sort of dull pleasure throbbed in my veins. Money!
Anything could be done for money--gold would purchase even vengeance.
But what sort of vengeance? Such a one as I sought must be
unique--refined, relentless, and complete. I pondered deeply. The
evening wind blew freshly up from the sea; the leaves of the swaying
trees whispered mysteriously together; the nightingales warbled on with
untired sweetness; and the moon, like the round shield of an angel
warrior, shone brightly against the dense blue background of the sky.
Heedless of the passing of hours, I sat still, lost in a bewildered
reverie. "There was always a false note somewhere when he sung!" So she
had said, laughing that little laugh of hers as cold and sharp as the
clash of steel. True, true; by all the majesty of Heaven, most true!
There was indeed a false note--jarring, not so much the voice as the
music of life itself. There is stuff in all of us that will weave, as
we desire it, into a web of stately or simple harmony; but let the
meteor-like brilliancy of a woman's smile--a woman's touch--a woman's
LIE--intermingle itself with the strain, and lo! the false note is
struck, discord declares itself, and God Himself, the great Composer,
can do nothing in this life to restore the old calm tune of peaceful,
unspoiled days! So I have found; so all of you must find, long before
you and sorrow grow old together.

"A white-haired fisherman!"

The words of the king repeated themselves over and over again in my
tortured brain. Yes--I was greatly changed, I looked worn and old--no
one would recognize me for my former self. All at once, with this
thought, an idea occurred to me--a plan of vengeance, so bold, so new,
and withal so terrible, that I started from my seat as though stung by
an adder. I paced up and down restlessly, with this lurid light of
fearful revenge pouring in on every nook and cranny of my darkened
mind. From whence had come this daring scheme? What devil, or rather
what angel of retribution, had whispered it to my soul? Dimly I
wondered--but amid all my wonder I began practically to arrange the
details of my plot. I calculated every small circumstance that was
likely to occur in the process of carrying it out. My stupefied senses
became aroused from the lethargy of despair, and stood up like soldiers
on the alert armed to the teeth. Past love, pity, pardon,
patience--pooh! what were all these resources of the world's weakness
to ME? What was it to me that the bleeding Christ forgave His enemies
in death? He never loved a woman! Strength and resolution returned to
me. Let common sailors and rag-pickers resort to murder and suicide as
fit outlets for their unreasoning brute wrath when wronged; but as for
me, why should I blot my family scutcheon with a merely vulgar crime?
Nay, the vengeance of a Romani must be taken with assured calmness and
easy deliberation--no haste, no plebeian fury, no effeminate fuss, no
excitement. I walked up and down slowly, meditating on every point of
the bitter drama in which I had resolved to enact the chief part, from
the rise to the fall of the black curtain. The mists cleared from my
brain--I breathed more easily--my nerves steadied themselves by
degrees--the prospect of what I purposed doing satisfied me and calmed
the fever in my blood. I became perfectly cool and collected. I
indulged in no more futile regrets for the past--why should I mourn the
loss of a love I never possessed? It was not as if they had waited till
my supposed sudden death--no! within three months of my marriage they
had fooled me; for three whole years they had indulged in their
criminal amour, while I, blind dreamer, had suspected nothing. NOW I
knew the extent of my injury; I was a man bitterly wronged, vilely
duped. Justice, reason, and self-respect demanded that I should punish
to the utmost the miserable tricksters who had played me false. The
passionate tenderness I had felt for my wife was gone--I plucked it
from my heart as I would have torn a thorn from my flesh--I flung it
from me with disgust as I had flung away the unseen reptile that had
fastened on my neck in the vault. The deep warm friendship of years I
had felt for Guido Ferrari froze to its very foundations--and in its
place there rose up, not hate, but pitiless, immeasurable contempt. A
stern disdain of myself also awoke in me, as I remembered the
unreasoning joy with which, I had hastened--as I thought--home, full of
eager anticipation and Romeo-like ardor. An idiot leaping merrily to
his death over a mountain chasm was not more fool than I! But the dream
was over--the delusion of my life was passed. I was strong to avenge--I
would be swift to accomplish. So, darkly musing for an hour or more, I
decided on the course I had to pursue, and to make the decision final I
drew from my breast the crucifix that the dead monk Cipriano had laid
with me in my coffin, and kissing it, I raised it aloft, and swore by
that sacred symbol never to relent, never to relax, never to rest, till
I had brought my vow of just vengeance to its utmost fulfillment. The
stars, calm witnesses of my oath, eyed me earnestly from their judgment
thrones in the quiet sky--there was a brief pause in the singing of the
nightingales, as though they too listened--the wind sighed plaintively,
and scattered a shower of jasmine blossoms like snow at my feet. Even
so, I thought, fall the last leaves of my white days--days of pleasure,
days of sweet illusion, days of dear remembrance; even so let them
wither and perish utterly forever! For from henceforth my life must be
something other than a mere garland of flowers--it must be a chain of
finely tempered steel, hard, cold, and unbreakable--formed into links
strong enough to wind round and round two false lives and imprison them
so closely as to leave no means of escape. This was what must be
done--and I resolved to do it. With a firm, quiet step I turned to
leave the avenue. I opened the little private wicket, and passed into
the dusty road. A clanging noise caused me to look up as I went by the
principal entrance of the Villa Romani. A man servant--my own
man-servant by the by--was barring the great gates for the night. I
listened as he slid the bolts into their places, and turned the key. I
remembered that those gates had been thoroughly fastened before, when I
came up the road from Naples--why then had they been opened since? To
let out a visitor? Of course! I smiled grimly at my wife's cunning! She
evidently knew what she was about. Appearances must be kept up--the
Signor Ferrari must be decorously shown out by a servant at the chief
entrance of the house. Naturally!--all very unsuspicious--looking and
quite in keeping with the proprieties! Guido had just left her then? I
walked steadily, without hurrying my pace, down the hill toward the
city, and on the way I overtook him. He was strolling lazily along,
smoking as usual, and he held a spray of stephanotis in his hand--well
I knew who had given it to him! I passed him--he glanced up carelessly,
his handsome face clearly visible in the bright moonlight--but there
was nothing about a common fisherman to attract his attention--his look
only rested upon me for a second and was withdrawn immediately. An
insane desire possessed me to turn upon him--to spring at his
throat--to wrestle with him and throw him in the dust at my feet--to
spit at him and trample upon him--but I repressed those fierce and
dangerous emotions. I had a better game to play--I had an exquisite
torture in store for him, compared to which a hand-to-hand fight was
mere vulgar fooling. Vengeance ought to ripen slowly in the strong heat
of intense wrath, till of itself it falls--hastily snatched before its
time it is like unmellowed fruit, sour and ungrateful to the palate. So
I let my dear friend--my wife's consoler--saunter on his heedless way
without interference--I passed, leaving him to indulge in amorous
musings to his false heart's content. I entered Naples, and found a
night's lodging at one of the usual resorts for men of my supposed
craft, and, strange to say, I slept soundly and dreamlessly. Recent
illness, fatigue, fear, and sorrow, all aided to throw me like an
exhausted child upon the quiet bosom of slumber, but perhaps the most
powerfully soothing opiate to my brain was the consciousness I had of a
practical plan of retribution--more terrible perhaps than any human
creature had yet devised, so far as I knew. Unchristian you call me? I
tell you again, Christ never loved a woman! Had He done so, He would
have left us some special code of justice.



CHAPTER IX.


I rose very early the next morning--I was more than ever strengthened
in my resolutions of the past night--my projects were entirely formed,
and nothing remained now but for me to carry them out. Unobserved of
any one I took my way again to the vault. I carried with me a small
lantern, a hammer, and some strong nails. Arrived at the cemetery I
looked carefully everywhere about me, lest some stray mourner or
curious stranger might possibly be in the neighborhood. Not a soul was
in sight. Making use of the secret passage, I soon found myself on the
scene of my recent terrors and sufferings, all of which seemed now so
slight in comparison with, the mental torture of my present condition.
I went straight to the spot where I had left the coffined treasure--I
possessed myself of all the rolls of paper money, and disposed them in
various small packages about my person and in the lining of my clothes
till, as I stood, I was worth many thousand of francs. Then with the
help of the tools I had brought, I mended the huge chest in the split
places where I had forced it open, and nailed it up fast so that it
looked as if it had never been touched. I lost no time over my task,
for I was in haste. It was my intention to leave Naples for a fortnight
or more, and I purposed taking my departure that very day. Before
leaving the vault I glanced at the coffin I myself had occupied. Should
I mend that and nail it up as though my body were still inside?
No--better leave it as it was--roughly broken open--it would serve my
purpose better so. As soon as I had finished all I had to do, I
clambered through the private passage, closing it after me with extra
care and caution, and then I betook myself directly to the Molo. On
making inquiries among the sailors who were gathered there, I heard
that a small coasting brig was on the point of leaving for Palermo.
Palermo would suit me as well as any other place; I sought out the
captain of the vessel. He was a brown-faced, merry-eyed mariner--he
showed his glittering white teeth in the most amiable of smiles when I
expressed my desire to take passage with him, and consented to the
arrangement at once for a sum which I thought extremely moderate, but
which I afterward discovered to be about treble his rightful due. But
the handsome rogue cheated me with such grace and exquisite courtesy,
that I would scarcely have had him act otherwise than he did. I hear a
good deal of the "plain blunt honesty" of the English. I dare say there
is some truth in it, but for my own part I would rather be cheated by a
friendly fellow who gives you a cheery word and a bright look than
receive exact value for my money from the "plain blunt" boor who seldom
has the common politeness to wish you a good-day.

We got under way at about nine o'clock--the morning was bright, and the
air, for Naples, was almost cool. The water rippling against the sides
of our little vessel had a gurgling, chatty murmur, as though it were
talking vivaciously of all the pleasant things it experienced between
the rising and the setting of the sun; of the corals and trailing
sea-weed that grew in its blue depths, of the lithe glittering fish
that darted hither and thither between its little waves, of the
delicate shells in which dwelt still more delicate inhabitants,
fantastic small creatures as fine as filmy lace, that peeped from the
white and pink doors of their transparent habitations, and looked as
enjoyingly on the shimmering blue-green of their ever-moving element as
we look on the vast dome of our sky, bespangled thickly with stars. Of
all these things, and many more as strange and sweet, the gossiping
water babbled unceasingly; it had even something to say to me
concerning woman and woman's love. It told me gleefully how many fair
female bodies it had seen sunk in the cold embrace of the conquering
sea, bodies, dainty and soft as the sylphs of a poet's dream, yet
which, despite their exquisite beauty, had been flung to and fro in
cruel sport by the raging billows, and tossed among pebbles for the
monsters of the deep to feed upon.

As I sat idly on the vessel's edge and looked down, down into the clear
Mediterranean, brilliantly blue as a lake of melted sapphires, I
fancied I could see her the Delilah of my life, lying prone on the
golden sand, her rich hair floating straightly around her like yellow
weed, her hands clinched in the death agony, her laughing lips blue
with the piercing chilliness of the washing tide--powerless to move or
smile again. She would look well so, I thought--better to my mind than
she looked in the arms of her lover last night. I fell into a train of
profound meditation--a touch on my shoulder startled me. I looked up,
the captain of the brig stood beside me. He smiled and held out a
cigarette.

"The signor will smoke?" he said courteously.

I accepted the little roll of fragrant Havanna half mechanically.

"Why do you call me signor?" I inquired brusquely. "I am a
coral-fisher."

The little man shrugged his shoulders and bowed deferentially, yet with
the smile still dancing gayly in his eyes and dimpling his olive cheeks.

"Oh, certainly! As the signor pleases--ma--" And he ended with another
expressive shrug and bow.

I looked at him fixedly. "What do you mean?" I asked with some
sternness.

With that birdlike lightness and swiftness which were part of his
manner, the Sicilian skipper bent forward and laid a brown finger on my
wrist.

"Scusa, vi prego! But the hands are not those of a fisher of coral."

I glanced down at them. True enough, their smoothness and pliant shape
betrayed my disguise--the gay little captain was sharp-witted enough to
note the contrast between them and the rough garb I wore, though no one
else with whom I had come in contact had been as keen of observation as
he. At first I was slightly embarrassed by his remark--but after a
moment's pause I met his gaze frankly, and lighting my cigarette I
said, carelessly:

"Ebbene! And what then, my friend?"

He made a deprecatory gesture with his hands.

"Nay, nay, nothing--but only this. The signor must understand he is
perfectly safe with me. My tongue is discreet--I talk of things only
that concern myself. The signor has good reasons for what he does--of
that I am sure. He has suffered; it is enough to look in his face to
see that. Ah, Dio if there are so many sorrows in life; there is love,"
he enumerated rapidly on his fingers--"there is revenge--there are
quarrels--there is loss of money; any of these will drive a man from
place to place at all hours and in all weathers. Yes; it is so,
indeed--I know it! The signor has trusted himself in my boat--I desire
to assure him of my best services."

And he raised his red cap with so charming a candor that in my lonely
and morose condition I was touched to the heart. Silently I extended my
hand--he caught it with an air in which respect, sympathy, and entire
friendliness were mingled. And yet he overcharged me for my passage,
you exclaim! Ay--but he would not have made me the object of
impertinent curiosity for twenty times the money! You cannot understand
the existence of such conflicting elements in the Italian character?
No--I dare say not. The tendency of the calculating northerner under
the same circumstances would have been to make as much out of me as
possible by means of various small and contemptible items, and then to
go with broadly honest countenance to the nearest police-station and
describe my suspicious appearance and manner, thus exposing me to fresh
expense besides personal annoyance. With the rare tact that
distinguishes the southern races the captain changed the conversation
by a reference to the tobacco we were both enjoying.

"It is good, is it not?" he asked.

"Excellent!" I answered, as indeed it was.

His white teeth glittered in a smile of amusement.

"It should be of the finest quality--for it is a present from one who
will smoke nothing but the choice brands. Ah, Dio! what a fine
gentleman spoiled is Carmelo Neri!"

I could not repress a slight start of surprise. What caprice of Fate
associated me with this famous brigand? I was actually smoking his
tobacco, and I owed all my present wealth to his stolen treasures
secreted in my family vault!

"You know the man, then?" I inquired with some curiosity.

"Know him? As well as I know myself. Let me see, it is two
months--yes--two months to-day since he was with me on board this very
vessel. It happened in this way--I was at Gaeta--he came to me and told
me the gendarmes were after him. He offered me more gold than I ever
had in my life to take him to Termini, from whence he could get to one
of his hiding-places in the Montemaggiore. He brought Teresa with him;
he found me alone on the brig, my men had gone ashore. He said, 'Take
us to Termini and I will give you so much; refuse and I will slit your
throat.' Ha! ha! ha! That was good. I laughed at him. I put a chair for
Teresa on deck, and gave her some big peaches. I said, 'See, my
Carmelo! what use is there in threats? You will not kill me, and I
shall not betray you. You are a thief, and a bad thief--by all the
saints you are--but I dare say you would not be much worse than the
hotel-keepers, if you could only keep your hand off your knife.' (For
you know, signor, if you once enter a hotel you must pay almost a
ransom before you can get out again!) Yes--and I reasoned with Carmelo
in this manner: I told him, 'I do not want a large fortune for carrying
you and Teresa across to Termini--pay me the just passage and we shall
part friends, if only for Teresa's sake.' Well, he was surprised. He
smiled that dark smile of his, which may mean gratitude or murder. He
looked at Teresa. She sprung up from her seat, and let her peaches fall
from her lap on the deck. She put her little hands on mine--the tears
were in her pretty blue eyes. 'You are a good man,' she said. 'Some
woman must love you very much!' Yes--she said that. And she was right.
Our Lady be praised for it!"

And his dark eyes glanced upward with a devout gesture of thanksgiving.
I looked at him with a sort of jealous hunger gnawing at my heart. Here
was another self deluded fool--a fond wretch feasting on the
unsubstantial food of a pleasant dream--a poor dupe who believed in the
truth of woman!

"You are a happy man," I said with a forced smile; "you have a guiding
star for your life as well as for your boat--a woman that loves you and
is faithful? is it so?"

He answered me directly and simply, raising his cap slightly as he did
so.

"Yes, signor--my mother."

I was deeply touched by his naive and unexpected reply--more deeply
than I cared to show. A bitter regret stirred in my soul--why, oh, why
had my mother died so young! Why had I never known the sacred joy that
seemed to vibrate through the frame, and sparkle in the eyes of this
common sailor! Why must I be forever alone, with a curse of a woman's
lie on my life, weighing me down to the dust and ashes of a desolate
despair! Something in my face must have spoken my thoughts, for the
captain said, gently:

"The signor has no mother?"

"She died when I was but a child," I answered, briefly.

The Sicilian puffed lightly at his cigarette in silence--the silence of
an evident compassion. To relieve him of his friendly embarrassment, I
said:

"You spoke of Teresa? Who is Teresa?"

"Ah, you may well ask, signor! No one knows who she is; she loves
Carmelo Neri, and there all is said. Such a little thing she is--so
delicate! like a foam-bell on the waves; and Carmelo--You have seen
Carmelo, signor?"

I shook my head in the negative.

"Ebbene! Carmelo is big and rough and black like a wolf of the forests,
all hair and fangs; Teresa is, well! you have seen a little cloud in
the sky at night, wandering past the moon all flecked with pale
gold?--that is Teresa. She is, small and slight as a child; she has
rippling curls, and soft praying eyes, and tiny, weak, white hands, not
strong enough to snap a twig in two. Yet she can do anything with
Carmelo--she is the one soft spot in his life."

"I wonder if she is true to him," I muttered, half to myself and half
aloud.

The captain caught up my words with an accent of surprise.

"True to him? Ah, Dio! but the signor does not know her. There was one
of Carmelo's own band, as bold and handsome a cut-throat as ever
lived--he was mad for Teresa--he followed her everywhere like a beaten
cur. One day he found her alone; he tried to embrace her--she snatched
a knife from his own girdle and stabbed him with it, like a little
fury! She did not kill him then, but Carmelo did afterward. To think of
a little woman like that with such a devil in her! It is her boast that
no man, save Carmelo, has ever touched so much as a ringlet of her
hair. Ay; she is true to him--more's the pity."

"Why--you would not have her false?" I asked.

"Nay, nay--for a false woman deserves death--but still it is a pity
Teresa should have fixed her love on Carmelo. Such a man! One day the
gendarmes will have him, then he will be in the galleys for life, and
she will die. Yes--you may be sure of that! If grief does not kill her
quickly enough, then she will kill herself, that is certain! She is
slight and frail to look at as a flower, but her soul is strong as
iron. She, will have her own way in death as well as in love--some
women are made so, and it is generally the weakest-looking among them
who have the most courage."

Our conversation was here interrupted by one of the sailors who came
for his master's orders. The talkative skipper, with an apologetic
smile and bow, placed his box of cigarettes beside me where I sat, and
left me to my own reflections.

I was not sorry to be alone. I needed a little breathing time--a rest
in which to think, though my thoughts, like a new solar system,
revolved round the red planet of one central idea, VENGEANCE. "A false
woman deserves death." Even this simple Sicilian mariner said so. "Go
and kill her, go and kill her!" These words reiterated themselves over
and over again in my ears, till I found myself almost uttering them
aloud. My soul sickened at the contemplation of the woman Teresa--the
mistress of a wretched brigand whose name was fraught with
horror--whose looks were terrific--she, even SHE could keep herself
sacred from the profaning touch of other men's caresses--she was proud
of being faithful to her wolf of the mountains, whose temper was
uncertain and treacherous--she could make lawful boast of her fidelity
to her blood-stained lover--while Nina--the wedded wife of a noble
whose descent was lofty and unsullied, could tear off the fair crown of
honorable marriage and cast it in the dust--could take the dignity of
an ancient family and trample upon it--could make herself so low and
vile that even this common Teresa, knowing all, might and most probably
would, refuse to touch her hand, considering it polluted. Just God!
what had Carmelo Neri done to deserve the priceless jewel of a true
woman's heart? what had I done to merit such foul deception as that
which I was now called upon to avenge? Suddenly I thought of my child.
Her memory came upon me like a ray of light--I had almost forgotten
her. Poor little blossom!--the slow hot tears forced themselves between
my eyelids, as I called up before my fancy the picture of the soft baby
face--the young untroubled eyes--the little coaxing mouth always
budding into innocent kisses! What should I do with her? When the plan
of punishment I had matured in my brain was carried out to its utmost,
should I take her with me far, far away into some quiet corner of the
world, and devote my life to hers? Alas! alas! she, too, would be a
woman and beautiful--she was a flower born of a poisoned tree, who
could say that there might not be a canker-worm hidden even in her
heart, which waited but for the touch of maturity to commence its work
of destruction! Oh, men! you that have serpents coiled round your lives
in the shape of fair false women--if God has given you children by
them, the curse descends upon you doubly! Hide it as you will under the
society masks we are all forced to wear, you know there is nothing more
keenly torturing than to see innocent babes look trustingly in the
deceitful eyes of an unfaithful wife, and call her by the sacred name
of "Mother." Eat ashes and drink wormwood, you shall find them sweet in
comparison to that nauseating bitterness! For the rest of the day I was
very much alone. The captain of the brig spoke cheerily to me now and
then, but we were met by light contrary winds that necessitated his
giving most of his attention to the management of his vessel, so that
he could not permit himself to yield to the love of gossip that was
inherent in him. The weather was perfect, and notwithstanding our
constant shifting and tacking about to catch the erratic breeze, the
gay little brig made merry and rapid way over the sparkling
Mediterranean, at a rate that promised our arrival at Palermo by the
sunset of the following day. As the evening came on the wind freshened,
and by the time the moon soared like a large blight bird into the sky,
we were scudding along sideways, the edge of our vessel leaning over to
kiss the waves that gleamed like silver and gold, flecked here and
there with phosphorescent flame. We skimmed almost under the bows of a
magnificent yacht--the English flag floated from her mast--her sails
glittered purely white in the moonbeams, and she sprung over the water
like a sea-gull. A man, whose tall athletic figure was shown off to
advantage by the yachting costume he wore, stood on deck, his arm
thrown round the waist of a girl beside him. We were but a minute or
two passing the stately vessel, yet I saw plainly this loving group of
two, and--I pitied the man! Why? He was English undoubtedly--the son of
a country where the very soil is supposed to be odorous of
virtue--therefore the woman beside him must be a perfect pearl of
purity; an Englishman never makes a mistake in these things! Never? Are
you sure? Ah, believe me, there is not much difference nowadays between
women of opposite nations. Once there was--I am willing to admit that
possibility. Once, from all accounts received, the English rose was the
fitting emblem of the English woman, but now, since the world has grown
so wise and made such progress in the art of running rapidly downhill,
is even the aristocratic British peer quite easy in his mind regarding
his fair peeress? Can he leave her to her own devices with safety? Are
there not men, boastful too of their "blue blood," who are perhaps
ready to stoop to the thief's trick of entering his house during his
absence by means of private keys, and stealing away his wife's
affections?--and is not she, though a mother of three or four children,
ready to receive with favor the mean robber of her husband's rights and
honor? Read the London newspapers any day and you will find that once
"moral" England is running a neck and neck race with other less
hypocritical nations in pursuit of social vice. The barriers that once
existed are broken down; "professional beauties" are received in
circles where their presence formerly would have been the signal for
all respectable women instantly to retire; ladies of title are
satisfied to caper on the boards of the theatrical stage, in costumes
that display their shape as undisguisedly as possible to the eyes of
the grinning public, or they sing in concert halls for the pleasure of
showing themselves off, and actually accept the vulgar applause of
unwashed crowds with a smile and a bow of gratitude! Ye gods! what has
become of the superb pride of the old regime--the pride which disdained
all ostentation and clung to honor more closely than life! What a
striking sign of the times too, is this: let a woman taint her virtue
BEFORE marriage, she is never forgiven--her sin is never forgotten; but
let her do what she will when she has a husband's name to screen her,
and society winks its eyes at her crimes. Couple this fact with the
general spirit of mockery that prevails in fashionable circles--mockery
of religion, mockery of sentiment, mockery of all that is best and
noblest in the human heart--add to it the general spread of
"free-thought," and THEREFORE of conflicting and unstable opinions--let
all these things together go on for a few years longer and England will
stare at her sister nations like a bold woman in a domino--her features
partly concealed from a pretense at shame, but her eyes glittering
coldly through the mask, betraying to all who look at her how she
secretly revels in her new code of lawlessness coupled with greed. For
she will always be avaricious--and the worst of it is, that her nature
being prosaic, there will be no redeeming grace to cast a glamour about
her. France is unvirtuous enough, God knows, yet there is a sunshiny
smile on her lips that cheers the heart. Italy is also unvirtuous, yet
her voice is full of bird-like melody, and her face is a dream of
perfect poetry! But England unvirtuous will be like a cautiously
calculating, somewhat shrewish matron, possessed of unnatural and
unbecoming friskiness, without either laugh, or song, or smile--her one
god, Gold, and her one commandment, the suggested eleventh, "Thou shall
not be found out!"

I slept that night on deck. The captain offered me the use of his
little cabin, and was, in his kind-hearted manner, truly distressed at
my persistent refusal to occupy it.

"It is bad to sleep in the moonlight, signor," he said, anxiously. "It
makes men mad, they say."

I smiled. Had madness been my destiny, I should have gone mad last
night, I thought!

"Have no fear!" I answered him, gently. "The moonlight is a joy to
me--it has no impression on my mind save that of peace. I shall rest
well here, my friend--do not trouble yourself about me."

He hesitated and then abruptly left me, to return in the space of two
or three minutes with a thick rug of sheepskin. He insisted so
earnestly on my accepting this covering as a protection from the night
air, that, to please him, I yielded to his entreaties and lay down,
wrapped in its warm folds. The good-natured fellow then wished me a
"Buon riposo, signor!" and descended to his own resting-place, humming
a gay tune as he went. From my recumbent posture on the deck I stared
upward at the myriad stars that twinkled softly in the warm violet
skies--stared long and fixedly till it seemed to me that our ship had
also become a star, and was sailing through space with its glittering
companions. What inhabitants peopled those fair planets, I wondered?
Mere men and women who lived and loved and lied to one another as
bravely as we do? or superior beings to whom the least falsehood is
unknown? Was there one world among them where no women were born? Vague
fancies--odd theories--flitted through my brain, I lived over again the
agony of my imprisonment in the vaults--again I forced myself to
contemplate the scene I had witnessed between my wife and her
lover--again I meditated on every small detail requisite to the
fulfillment of the terrible vengeance I had designed. I have often
wondered how, in countries where divorce is allowed, a wronged husband
can satisfy himself with so meager a compensation for his injuries as
the mere getting rid of the woman who has deceived him. It is no
punishment to her--it is what she wishes. There is not even any very
special disgrace in it according to the present standard of social
observances. Were public whipping the recognized penalty for the crime
of a married woman's infidelity, there would be fewer of the like
scandals--the divorce might follow the scourging. A daintily brought-up
feminine creature would think twice, nay, fifty times, before she would
run the risk of allowing her delicate body to be lashed by whips
wielded by the merciless hands of a couple of her own sex--such a
prospect of degradation, pain, shame, and outraged vanity would be more
effectual to kill the brute in her than all the imposing ceremonials of
courts of law and special juries. Think of it, kings, lords, and
commons! Whipping at the cart's tail was once a legal punishment--if
you would stop the growing immorality and reckless vice of women you
had best revive it again--only apply it to rich as well as to poor, for
it is most probable that the gay duchesses and countesses of your lands
will need its sharp services more frequently than the work-worn wives
of your laboring men. Luxury, idleness, and love of dress are hot-beds
for sin--look for it, therefore, not so much in the hovels of the
starving and naked as in the rose-tinted, musk-scented boudoirs of the
aristocracy--look for it, as your brave physicians would search out the
seeds of a pestilence that threatens to depopulate a great city, and
trample it out if you CAN and WILL--if you desire to keep the name of
your countries glorious in the eyes of future history. Spare not the
rod because "my lady" forsooth! with her rich hair falling around her
in beauteous dishevelment and her eyes bathed in tears, implores your
mercy--for by very reason of her wealth and station she deserves less
pity than the painted outcast who knows not where to turn for bread. A
high post demands high duty! But I talk wildly. Whipping is done away
with, for women at least--we give a well-bred shudder of disgust at the
thought of it. When do we shudder with equal disgust at our own social
enormities? Seldom or never. Meanwhile, in cases of infidelity,
husbands and wives can separate and go on their different ways in
comparative peace. Yes--some can and some do; but I am not one of
these. No law in all the world can mend the torn flag of MY honor;
therefore I must be a law to myself--a counsel, a jury, a judge, all in
one and from my decision there can be no appeal! Then I must act as
executioner--and what torture was ever so perfectly unique as the one I
have devised? So I mused, lying broadly awake, with face upturned to
the heavens, watching the light of the moon pouring itself out on the
ocean like a shower of gold, while the water rushed gurgling softly
against the sides of the brig, and broke into the laughter of white
foam as we scudded along.



CHAPTER X.


All the next day the wind was in our favor, and we arrived at Palermo
an hour before sunset. We had scarcely run into harbor when a small
party of officers and gendarmes, heavily laden with pistols and
carbines, came on board and showed a document authorizing them to
search the brig for Carmelo Neri. I was somewhat anxious for the safety
of my good friend the captain--but he was in nowise dismayed; he smiled
and welcomed the armed emissaries of the government as though they were
his dearest friends.

"To give you my opinion frankly," he said to them, as he opened a flask
of line Chianti for their behoof, "I believe the villain Carmelo is
somewhere about Gaeta. I would not tell you a lie--why should I? Is
there not a reward offered, and am not I poor? Look you, I would do my
best to assist you!"

One of the men looked at him dubiously.

"We received information," he said, in precise, business-like tones,
"that Neri escaped from Gaeta two months since, and was aided and
abetted in his escape by one Andrea Luziani, owner of the coasting brig
'Laura,' journeying for purposes of trade between Naples and Palermo.
You are Andrea Luziani, and this is the brig 'Laura,'--we are right in
this; is it not so?"

"As if you could ever be wrong, caro!" cried the captain with
undiminished gayety, clapping him on the shoulder. "Nay, if St. Peter
should have the bad taste to shut you out of heaven, you would be
cunning enough to find another and better entrance! Ah, Dio! I believe
it! Yes, you are right about my name and the name of my brig, but in
the other things,"--here he shook his fingers with an expressive sign
of denial--"you are wrong--wrong--all wrong!" He broke into a gay
laugh. "Yes, wrong--but we will not quarrel about it! Have some more
Chianti! Searching for brigands is thirsty work. Fill your glasses,
amici--spare not the flask--there are twenty more below stairs!"

The officers smiled in spite of themselves, as they drank the proffered
wine, and the youngest-looking of the party, a brisk, handsome fellow,
entered into the spirit of the captain with ardor, though he evidently
thought he should trap him into a confession unawares, by the apparent
carelessness and bonhomie of his manner.

"Bravo, Andrea!" he cried, merrily. "So! let us all be friends
together! Besides, what harm is there in taking a brigand for a
passenger--no doubt he would pay you better than most cargoes!"

But Andrea was not to be so caught. On the contrary; he raised his
hands and eyes with an admirably feigned expression of shocked alarm.

"Our Lady and the saints forgive you!" he exclaimed, piously, "for
thinking that I, an honest marinaro, would accept one baiocco from an
accursed brigand! Ill-luck would follow me ever after! Nay, nay--there
has been a mistake; I know nothing of Carmelo Neri, and I hope the
saints will grant that I may never meet him!"

He spoke with so much apparent sincerity that the officers in command
were evidently puzzled, though the fact of their being so did not deter
them from searching the brig thoroughly. Disappointed in their
expectations, they questioned all on board, including myself, but were
of course unable to obtain any satisfactory replies. Fortunately they
accepted my costume as a sign of my trade, and though they glanced
curiously at my white hair, they seemed to think there was nothing
suspicious about me. After a few more effusive compliments and
civilities on the part of the captain, they took their departure,
completely baffled, and quite convinced that the information they had
received had been somehow incorrect. As soon as they were out of sight,
the merry Andrea capered on his deck like a child in a play-ground, and
snapped his fingers defiantly.

"Per Bacco!" he cried, ecstatically, "they should as soon make a priest
tell confessional secrets, as force me, honest Andrea Luziani, to
betray a man who has given me good cigars! Let them run back to Gaeta
and hunt in every hole and corner! Carmelo may rest comfortably in the
Montemaggiore without the shadow of a gendarme to disturb him! Ah,
signor!" for I had advanced to bid him farewell--"I am truly sorry to
part company with you! You do not blame me for helping away a poor
devil who trusts me?"

"Not I!" I answered him heartily. "On the contrary, I would there were
more like you. Addio I and with this," here I gave him the
passage-money we had agreed upon, "accept my thanks. I shall not forget
your kindness; if you ever need a friend, send to me."

"But," he said, with a naive mingling of curiosity and timidity, "how
can I do that if the signor does not tell me his name?"

I had thought of this during the past night. I knew it would be
necessary to take a different name, and I had resolved on adopting that
of a school-friend, a boy to whom I had been profoundly attached in my
earliest youth, and who had been drowned before my eyes while bathing
in the Venetian Lido. So I answered Andrea's question at once and
without effort.

"Ask for the Count Cesare Oliva," I said. "I shall return to Naples
shortly, and should you seek me, you will find me there."

The Sicilian doffed his cap and saluted me profoundly.

"I guessed well," he remarked, smilingly, "that the Signor Conte's
hands were not those of a coral-fisher. Oh, yes! I know a gentleman
when I see him--though we Sicilians say we are all gentlemen. It is a
good boast, but alas! not always true! A rivederci, signor! Command me
when you will--I am your servant!"

Pressing his hand, I sprung lightly from the brig on to the quay.

"A rivederci!" I called to him. "Again, and yet again, a thousand
thanks!"

"Oh! tropp' onore, signor--tropp' onore!" and thus I left him, standing
still bareheaded on the deck of his little vessel, with a kindly light
on his brown face like the reflection of a fadeless sunbeam.
Good-hearted, merry rogue! His ideas of right and wrong were oddly
mixed--yet his lies were better than many truths told us by our candid
friends--and you may be certain the great Recording Angel knows the
difference between a lie that saves and a truth that kills, and metes
out Heaven's reward or punishment accordingly.

My first care, when I found myself in the streets of Palermo, was to
purchase clothes of the best material and make adapted to a gentleman's
wear. I explained to the tailor whose shop I entered for this purpose
that I had joined a party of coral-fishers for mere amusement, and had
for the time adopted their costume. He believed my story the more
readily as I ordered him to make several more suits for me immediately,
giving him the name of Count Cesare Oliva, and the address of the best
hotel in the city. He served me with obsequious humility, and allowed
me the use of his private back-room, where I discarded my fisher garb
for the dress of a gentleman--a ready-made suit that happened to fit me
passably well. Thus arrayed as became my station, I engaged rooms at
the chief hotel of Palermo for some weeks--weeks that were for me full
of careful preparation for the task of vengeful retribution that lay
before me. One of my principal objects was to place the money I had
with me in safe hands. I sought out the leading banker in Palermo, and
introducing myself under my adopted name, I stated that I had newly
returned to Sicily after some years' absence. He received me well, and
though he appeared astonished at the large amount of wealth I had
brought, he was eager and willing enough to make satisfactory
arrangements with me for its safe keeping, including the bag of jewels,
some of which, from their unusual size and luster, excited his genuine
admiration. Seeing this, I pressed on his acceptance a fine emerald and
two large brilliants, all unset, and requested him to have a ring made
of them for his own wear. Surprised at my generosity, he at first
refused--but his natural wish to possess such rare gems finally
prevailed, and he took them, overpowering me with thanks--while I was
perfectly satisfied to see that I had secured his services so
thoroughly by my jeweled bribe, that he either forgot, or else saw no
necessity to ask me for personal references, which in my position would
have been exceeding difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. When this
business transaction was entirely completed, I devoted myself to my
next consideration--which was to disguise myself so utterly that no one
should possibly be able to recognize the smallest resemblance in me to
the late Fabio Romani, either by look, voice, or trick of manner. I had
always worn a mustache--it had turned white in company with my hair. I
now allowed my beard to grow--it came out white also. But in contrast
with these contemporary signs of age, my face began to fill up and look
young again; my eyes, always large and dark, resumed their old
flashing, half-defiant look--a look, which it seemed to me, would make
some familiar suggestion to those who had once known me as I was before
I died. Yes--they spoke of things that must be forgotten and unuttered;
what should I do with these tell-tale eyes of mine?

I thought, and soon decided. Nothing was easier than to feign weak
sight-sight that was dazzled by the heat and brilliancy of the southern
sunshine, I would wear smoke-colored glasses. I bought them as soon as
the idea occurred to me, and alone in my room before the mirror I tried
their effect. I was satisfied; they perfectly completed the disguise of
my face. With them and my white hair and beard, I looked like a
well-preserved man of fifty-five or so, whose only physical ailment was
a slight affection of the eyes.

The next thing to alter was my voice. I had, naturally, a peculiarly
soft voice and a rapid, yet clear, enunciation, and it was my habit, as
it is the habit of almost every Italian, to accompany my words with the
expressive pantomime of gesture. I took myself in training as an actor
studies for a particular part. I cultivated a harsh accent, and spoke
with deliberation and coldness--occasionally with a sort of sarcastic
brusquerie, carefully avoiding the least movement of hands or head
during converse. This was exceedingly difficult of attainment to me,
and took me an infinite deal of time and trouble; but I had for my
model a middle-aged Englishman who was staying in the same hotel as
myself, and whose starched stolidity never relaxed for a single
instant. He was a human iceberg--perfectly respectable, with that air
of decent gloom about him which is generally worn by all the sons of
Britain while sojourning in a foreign clime. I copied his manners as
closely as possible; I kept my mouth shut with the same precise air of
not-to-be-enlightened obstinacy--I walked with the same upright drill
demeanor--and I surveyed the scenery with the same superior contempt. I
knew I had succeeded at last, for I overheard a waiter speaking of me
to his companion as "the white bear!"

One other thing I did. I wrote a courteous note to the editor of the
principal newspaper published in Naples--a newspaper that I knew always
found its way to the Villa Romani--and inclosing fifty francs, I
requested him to insert a paragraph for me in his next issue, This
paragraph was worded somewhat as follows:

"The Signor Conte Cesare Oliva, a nobleman who has been for many years
absent from his native country, has, we understand, just returned,
possessed of almost fabulous wealth, and is about to arrive in Naples,
where he purposes making his home for the future. The leaders of
society here will no doubt welcome with enthusiasm so distinguished an
addition to the brilliant circles commanded by their influence."

The editor obeyed my wishes, and inserted what I sent him, word for
word as it was written. He sent me the paper containing it "with a
million compliments," but was discreetly silent concerning the fifty
francs, though I am certain he pocketed them with unaffected joy. Had I
sent him double the money, he might have been induced to announce me as
a king or emperor in disguise. Editors of newspapers lay claim to be
honorable men; they may be so in England, but in Italy most of them
would do anything for money. Poor devils! who can blame them,
considering how little they get by their limited dealings in pen and
ink! In fact, I am not at all certain but that a few English newspaper
editors might be found capable of accepting a bribe, if large enough,
and if offered with due delicacy. There are surely one or two
magazines, for instance, in London, that would not altogether refuse to
insert an indifferently, even badly written article, if paid a thousand
pounds down for doing it!

On the last day but one of my sojourn in Palermo I was reclining in an
easy-chair at the window of the hotel smoking-room, looking out on the
shimmering waters of the gulf. It was nearly eight o'clock, and though
the gorgeous colors of the sunset still lingered in the sky, the breeze
blew in from the sea somewhat coldly, giving warning of an approaching
chilly night. The character I had adopted, namely that of a somewhat
harsh and cynical man who had seen life and did not like it, had by
constant hourly practice become with me almost second nature--indeed, I
should have had some difficulty in returning to the easy and
thoughtless abandon of my former self. I had studied the art of being
churlish till I really WAS churlish; I had to act the chief character
in a drama, and I knew my part thoroughly well. I sat quietly puffing
at my cigar and thinking of nothing in particular--for, as far as my
plans went, I had done with thought, and all my energies were strung up
to action--when I was startled by a loud and increasing clamor, as of
the shouting of a large crowd coming onward like an overflowing tide. I
leaned out of the window, but could see nothing, and I was wondering
what the noise could mean, when an excited waiter threw open the door
of the smoking-room and cried, breathlessly:

"Carmelo Neri, signor! Carmelo Neri! They have him, poverino! they have
him at last!"

Though almost as strongly interested in this news as the waiter
himself, I did not permit my interest to become manifest. I never
forgot for a second the character I had assumed, and drawing the cigar
slowly from my lips I merely said:

"Then they have caught a great rascal. I congratulate the Government!
Where is the fellow?"

"In the great square," returned the garcon, eagerly. "If the signor
would walk round the corner he would see Carmelo, bound and fettered.
The saints have mercy upon him! The crowds there are thick as flies
round a honeycomb! I must go thither myself--I would not miss the sight
for a thousand francs!"

And he ran off, as full of the anticipated delight of looking at a
brigand as a child going to its first fair. I put on my hat and
strolled leisurely round to the scene of excitement. It was a
picturesque sight enough; the square was black with a sea of eager
heads, and restless, gesticulating figures, and the center of this
swaying, muttering crowd was occupied by a compact band of mounted
gendarmes with drawn swords flashing in the pale evening light--both
horses and men nearly as motionless as though cast in bronze. They were
stationed opposite the head-quarters of the Carabinieri, where the
chief officer of the party had dismounted to make his formal report
respecting the details of the capture before proceeding further.
Between these armed and watchful guards, with his legs strapped to a
sturdy mule, his arms tied fast behind him, and his hands heavily
manacled, was the notorious Neri, as dark and fierce as a mountain
thunder-storm. His head was uncovered--his thick hair, long and
unkempt, hung in matted locks upon his shoulders--his heavy mustachios
and beard were so black and bushy that they almost concealed his coarse
and forbidding features--though I could see the tiger-like glitter of
his sharp white teeth as he bit and gnawed his under lip in impotent
fury and despair--and his eyes, like leaping flames, blazed with a
wrathful ferocity from under his shaggy brows. He was a huge, heavy
man, broad and muscular; his two hands clinched, tied and manacled
behind him, looked like formidable hammers capable of striking a man
down dead at one blow; his whole aspect was repulsive and
terrible--there was no redeeming point about him--for even the apparent
fortitude he assumed was mere bravado--meretricious courage--which the
first week of the galleys would crush out of him as easily as one
crushes the juice out of a ripe grape. He wore a nondescript costume of
vari-colored linen, arranged in folds that would have been the
admiration of an artist. It was gathered about him by means of a
brilliant scarlet sash negligently tied. His brawny arms were bare to
the shoulder--his vest was open, and displayed his strong brown throat
and chest heaving with the pent-up anger and fear that raged within
him. His dark grim figure was set off by a curious effect of color in
the sky--a long wide band of crimson cloud, as though the sun-god had
thrown down a goblet of ruby wine and left it to trickle along the
smooth blue fairness of his palace floor--a deep after-glow, which
burned redly on the olive-tinted eager faces of the multitude that were
everywhere upturned in wonder and ill-judged admiration to the brutal
black face of the notorious murderer and thief, whose name had for
years been the terror of Sicily. I pressed through the crowd to obtain
a nearer view, and as I did so a sudden savage movement of Neri's bound
body caused the gendarmes to cross their swords in front of his eyes
with a warning clash. The brigand laughed hoarsely.

"Corpo di Cristo!" he muttered--"think you a man tied hand and foot can
run like a deer? I am trapped--I know it! But tell HIM," and he
indicated some person in the throng by a nod of his head "tell him to
come hither--I have a message for him."

The gendarmes looked at one another, and then at the swaying crowd
about them in perplexity--they did not understand.

Carmelo, without wasting more words upon them, raised himself as
uprightly as he could in his strained and bound position, and called
aloud:

"Luigi Biscardi! Capitano! Oh he--you thought I could not see you! Dio!
I should know you in hell! Come near, I have a parting word for you."

At the sound of his strong harsh voice, a silence half of terror, half
of awe, fell upon the chattering multitude. There was a sudden stir as
the people made way for a young man to pass through their ranks--a
slight, tall, rather handsome fellow, with a pale face and cold,
sneering eyes. He was dressed with fastidious care and neatness in the
uniform of the Bersagliere--and he elbowed his way along with the easy
audacity of a privileged dandy. He came close up to the brigand and
spoke carelessly, with a slightly mocking smile playing round the
corners of his mouth.

"Ebbene!" he said, "you are caught at last, Carmelo! You called
me--here I am. What do you want with me, rascal?"

Neri uttered a ferocious curse between his teeth, and looked for an
instant like a wild beast ready to spring.

"You betrayed me," he said in fierce yet smothered accents--"you
followed me--you hunted me down! Teresa told me all. Yes--she belongs
to you now--you have got your wish. Go and take her--she waits for
you--make her speak and tell you how she loves you--IF YOU CAN!"

Something jeering and withal threatening in the ruffian's look,
evidently startled the young officer, for he exclaimed hastily:

"What do you mean, wretch? You have not--my God! you have not KILLED
her?"

Carmelo broke into a loud savage laugh.

"She has killed herself!" he cried, exultingly. "Ha, ha, I thought you
would wince at that! She snatched my knife and stabbed herself with it!
Yes--rather than see your lying white face again--rather than feel your
accursed touch! Find her--she lies dead and smiling up there in the
mountains and her last kiss was for ME--for ME--you understand! Now go!
and may the devil curse you!"

Again the gendarmes clashed their swords suggestively--and the brigand
resumed his sullen attitude of suppressed wrath and feigned
indifference. But the man to whom he had spoken staggered and seemed
about to fall--his pale face grew paler--he moved away through the
curious open-eyed by-standers with the mechanical air of one who knows
not whether he be alive or dead. He had evidently received an
unexpected shock--a wound that pierced deeply and would be a long time
healing.

I approached the nearest gendarme and slipped a five-franc piece into
his hand.

"May one speak?" I asked, carelessly. The man hesitated.

"For one instant, signor. But be brief."

I addressed the brigand in a low clear-tone.

"Have you any message for one Andrea Luziani? I am a friend of his."

He looked at me and a dark smile crossed his features.

"Andrea is a good soul. Tell him if you will that Teresa is dead. I am
worse than dead. He will know that I did not kill Teresa. I could not!
She had the knife in her breast before I could prevent her. It is
better so."

"She did that rather than become the property of another man?" I
queried.

Carmelo Neri nodded in acquiescence. Either my sight deceived me, or
else this abandoned villain had tears glittering in the depth of his
wicked eyes.

The gendarme made me a sign, and I withdrew. Almost at the same moment
the officer in command of the little detachment appeared, his spurs
clinking with measured metallic music on the hard stones of the
pavement--he sprung into his saddle and gave the word--the crowd
dispersed to the right and left--the horses were put to a quick trot,
and in a few moments the whole party with the bulky frowning form of
the brigand in their midst had disappeared. The people broke up into
little groups talking excitedly of what had occurred, and scattered
here and there, returning to their homes and occupations--and more
swiftly than one could have imagined possible, the great square was
left almost empty. I paced up and down for awhile thinking deeply; I
had before my mind's eye the picture of the slight fair Teresa as
described by the Sicilian captain, lying dead in the solitudes of the
Montemaggiore with that self-inflicted wound in her breast which had
set her free of all men's love and persecution. There WERE some women
then who preferred death to infidelity? Strange! very strange! common
women of course they must be--such as this brigand's mistress; your
daintily fed, silk-robed duchess would find a dagger somewhat a vulgar
consoler--she would rather choose a lover, or better still a score of
lovers. It is only brute ignorance that selects a grave instead of
dishonor--modern education instructs us more wisely, and teaches us not
to be over-squeamish about such a trifle as breaking a given word or
promise. Blessed age of progress! Age of steady advancement when the
apple of vice is so cunningly disguised and so prettily painted that we
can actually set it on a porcelain dish and hand it about among our
friends as a valuable and choice fruit of virtue--and no one finds out
the fraud we are practicing, nay, we scarcely perceive it ourselves, it
is such an excellent counterfeit!

As I walked to and fro, I found myself continually passing the head
office of the Carabinieri, and, acting on a sudden impulse of
curiosity, I at last entered the building, determined to ask for a few
particulars concerning the brigand's capture. I was received by a
handsome and intelligent-looking man, who glanced at the card with
which I presented myself, and saluted me with courteous affability.

"Oh, yes!" he said, in answer to my inquiries, "Neri has given us a
great deal of trouble. But we had our suspicions that he had left
Gaeta, where he was for a time in hiding. A few stray bits of
information gleaned here and there put us on the right track."

"Was he caught easily, or did he show fight?"

"He gave himself up like a lamb, signor! It happened in this way. One
of our men followed the woman who lived with Neri, one Teresa, and
traced her up to a certain point, the corner of a narrow mountain
pass--where she disappeared. He reported this, and thereupon we sent
out an armed party. These crept at midnight two by two, till they were
formed in a close ring round the place where Neri was judged to be.
With the first beam of morning they rushed in upon him and took him
prisoner. It appears that he showed no surprise--he merely said, 'I
expected you!' He was found sitting by the dead body of his mistress;
she was stabbed and newly bleeding. No doubt he killed her, though he
swears the contrary--lies are as easy to him as breathing."

"But where were his comrades? I thought he commanded a large band?"

"So he did, signor; and we caught three of the principals only a
fortnight ago, but of the others no trace can be found. I suppose
Carmelo himself dismissed them and sent them far and wide through the
country. At any rate, they are disbanded, and with these sort of
fellows, where there is no union there is no danger."

"And Neri's sentence?" I asked.

"Oh, the galleys for life of course; there is no possible alternative."

I thanked my informant, and left the office. I was glad to have learned
these few particulars, for the treasure I had discovered in my own
family vault was now more mine than ever. There was not the remotest
chance of any one of the Neri band venturing so close to Naples in
search of it, and I thought with a grim smile that had the brigand
chief himself known the story of my wrongs, he would most probably have
rejoiced to think that his buried wealth was destined to aid me in
carrying out so elaborate a plan of vengeance. All difficulties
smoothed themselves before me--obstacles were taken out of my path--my
way was made perfectly clear--each trifling incident was a new
finger-post pointing out the direct road that led me to the one desired
end. God himself seemed on my side, as He is surely ever on the side of
justice! Let not the unfaithful think that because they say long
prayers or go regularly and devoutly to church with meek faces and
piously folded hands that the Eternal Wisdom is deceived thereby. My
wife could pray--she could kneel like a lovely saint in the dim
religious light of the sacred altars, her deep eyes upturned to the
blameless, infinitely reproachful Christ--and look you! each word she
uttered was a blasphemy, destined to come back upon herself as a curse.
Prayer is dangerous for liars--it is like falling willfully on an
upright naked sword. Used as an honorable weapon the sword
defends--snatched up as the last resource of a coward it kills.



CHAPTER XI.


The third week of September was drawing to its close when I returned to
Naples. The weather had grown cooler, and favorable reports of the
gradual decrease of the cholera began to gain ground with the suffering
and terrified population. Business was resumed as usual, pleasure had
again her votaries, and society whirled round once more in its giddy
waltz as though it had never left off dancing. I arrived in the city
somewhat early in the day, and had time to make some preliminary
arrangements for my plan of action. I secured the most splendid suite
of apartments in the best hotel, impressing the whole establishment
with a vast idea of my wealth and importance. I casually mentioned to
the landlord that I desired to purchase a carriage and horses--that I
needed a first-class valet, and a few other trifles of the like sort,
and added that I relied on his good advice and recommendation as to the
places where I should best obtain all that I sought. Needless to say,
he became my slave--never was monarch better served than I--the very
waiters hustled each other in a race to attend upon me, and reports of
my princely fortune, generosity, and lavish expenditure, began to flit
from mouth to month--which was the result I desired to obtain.

And now the evening of my first day in Naples came, and I, the supposed
Conte Cesare Oliva, the envied and flattered noble, took the first step
toward my vengeance. It was one of the loveliest evenings possible,
even in that lovely land--a soft breeze blew in from the sea--the sky
was pearl-like and pure as an opal, yet bright with delicate shifting
clouds of crimson and pale mauve--small, fleecy flecks of Radiance,
that looked like a shower of blossoms fallen from some far invisible
flower-land. The waters of the bay were slightly ruffled by the wind,
and curled into tender little dark-blue waves tipped with light forges
of foam. After my dinner I went out and took my way to a well-known and
popular cafe which used to be a favorite haunt of mine in the days when
I was known as Fabio Romani, Guido Ferrari was a constant habitue of
the place, and I felt that I should find him there. The brilliant
rose-white and gold saloons were crowded, and owing to the pleasant
coolness of the air there were hundreds of little tables pushed far out
into the street, at which groups of persons were seated, enjoying ices,
wine, or coffee, and congratulating each other on the agreeable news of
the steady decrease of the pestilence that had ravaged the city. I
glanced covertly yet quickly round. Yes! I was not mistaken--there was
my quondam friend, my traitorous foe, sitting at his ease, leaning
comfortably back in one chair, his feet put up on another. He was
smoking, and glancing now and then through the columns of the Paris
"Figaro." He was dressed entirely in black--a hypocritical livery, the
somber hue of which suited his fine complexion and perfectly handsome
features to admiration. On the little finger of the shapely hand that
every now and then was raised to adjust his cigar, sparkled a diamond
that gave out a myriad scintillations as it flashed in the evening
light--it was of exceptional size and brilliancy, and even at a
distance I recognized it as my own property!

So!--a love-gift, signor, or an in memoriam of the dear and valued
friend you have lost? I wondered--watching him in dark scorn the
while--then recollecting myself, I sauntered slowly toward him, and
perceiving a disengaged table next to his, I drew a chair to it and sat
down He looked at me in differently over the top of his newspaper--but
there was nothing specially attractive in the sight of a white-haired
man wearing smoke-colored spectacles, and he resumed his perusal of the
"Figaro" immediately. I rapped the end of my walking-cane on the table
and summoned a waiter from whom I ordered coffee. I then lighted a
cigar, and imitating Ferrari's easy posture, smoked also. Something in
my attitude then appeared to strike him, for he laid down his paper and
again looked at me, this time with more interest and something of
uneasiness. "Ca commence, mon ami!" I thought, but I turned my head
slightly aside and feigned to be absorbed in the view. My coffee was
brought--I paid for it and tossed the waiter an unusually large
gratuity--he naturally found it incumbent upon him to polish my table
with extra zeal, and to secure all the newspapers, pictorial or
otherwise, that were lying about, for the purpose of obsequiously
depositing them in a heap at my right hand. I addressed this amiable
garcon in the harsh and deliberate accents of my carefully disguised
voice.

"By the way, I suppose you know Naples well?"

"Oh, si, signor!"

"Ebbene, can you tell me the way to the house of one Count Fabio
Romani, a wealthy nobleman of this city?"

Ha! a good hit this time! Though apparently not looking at him I saw
Ferrari start as though he had been stung, and then compose himself in
his seat with an air of attention. The waiter meanwhile, in answer to
my question, raised his hands, eyes and shoulders all together with a
shrug expressive of resigned melancholy.

"Ah, gran Dio! e morto!"

"Dead!" I exclaimed, with a pretended start of shocked surprise. "So
young? Impossible!"

"Eh! what will you, signor? It was la pesta; there was no remedy. La
pesta cares nothing for youth or age, and spares neither rich nor poor."

For a moment I leaned my head on my hand, affecting to be overcome by
the suddenness of the news. Then looking up, I said, regretfully:

"Alas! I am too late! I was a friend of his father's. I have been away
for many years, and I had a great wish to meet the young Romani whom I
last saw as a child. Are there any relations of his living--was he
married?"

The waiter, whose countenance had assumed a fitting lugubriousness in
accordance with what he imagined were my feelings, brightened up
immediately as he replied eagerly:

"Oh, si, signor! The Contessa Romani lives up at the villa, though I
believe she receives no one since her husband's death. She is young and
beautiful as an angel. There is a little child too."

A hasty movement on the part of Ferrari caused me to turn my eyes, or
rather my spectacles, in his direction. He leaned forward, and raising
his hat with the old courteous grace I knew so well, said politely:

"Pardon me, signor, for interrupting you! I knew the late young Count
Romani well--perhaps better than any man in Naples. I shall be
delighted to afford you any information you may seek concerning him."

Oh, the old mellow music of his voice--how it struck on my heart and
pierced it like the refrain of a familiar song loved in the days of our
youth. For an instant I could not speak--wrath and sorrow choked my
utterance. Fortunately this feeling was but momentary--slowly I raised
my hat in response to his salutation, and answered stiffly:

"I am your servant, signor. You will oblige me indeed if you can place
me in communication with the relatives of this unfortunate young
nobleman. The elder Count Romani was dearer to me than a brother--men
have such attachments occasionally. Permit me to introduce myself," and
I handed him my visiting-card with a slight and formal bow. He accepted
it, and as he read the name it bore he gave me a quick glance of
respect mingled with pleased surprise.

"The Conte Cesare Oliva!" he exclaimed. "I esteem myself most fortunate
to have met you! Your arrival has already been notified to us by the
avant-courier of the fashionable intelligence, so that we are well
aware," here laughing lightly, "of the distinctive right you have to a
hearty welcome in Naples. I am only sorry that any distressing news
should have darkened the occasion of your return here after so long an
absence. Permit me to express the hope that it may at least be the only
cloud for you on our southern sunshine!"

And he extended his hand with that ready frankness and bonhomie which
are always a part of the Italian temperament, and were especially so of
his. A cold shudder ran through my veins. God! could I take his hand in
mine? I must--if I would act my part thoroughly--for should I refuse he
would think it strange--even rude--I should lose the game by one false
move. With a forced smile I hesitatingly held out my hand also--it was
gloved, yet as he clasped it heartily in his own the warm pressure
burned through the glove like fire. I could have cried out in agony, so
excruciating was the mental torture which I endured at that moment. But
it passed, the ordeal was over, and I knew that from henceforth I
should be able to shake hands with him as often and as indifferently as
with any other man. It was only this FIRST time that it galled me to
the quick. Ferrari noticed nothing of my emotion--he was in excellent
spirits, and turning to the waiter, who had lingered to watch us make
each other's acquaintance, he exclaimed:

"More coffee, garcon, and a couple of glorias." Then looking toward me,
"You do not object to a gloria, conte? No? That is well. And here is MY
card," taking one from his pocket and laying it on the table. "Guido
Ferrari, at your service, an artist and a very poor one. We shall
celebrate our meeting by drinking each other's health!"

I bowed. The waiter vanished to execute his orders and Ferrari drew his
chair closer to mine.

"I see you smoke," he said, gayly. "Can I offer you one of my cigars?
They are unusually choice. Permit me," and he proffered roe a richly
embossed and emblazoned silver cigar-case, with the Romani arms and
coronet and MY OWN INITIALS engraved thereon. It was mine, of course--I
took it with a sensation of grim amusement--I had not seen it since the
day I died!

"A fine antique," I remarked, carelessly, turning it over and over in
my hand, "curious and valuable. A gift or an heirloom?"

"It belonged to my late friend, Count Fabio," he answered, puffing a
light cloud of smoke in the air as he drew his cigar from his lips to
speak. "It was found in his pocket by the priest who saw him die. That
and other trifles which he wore on his person were delivered to his
wife, and--"

"She naturally gave YOU the cigar-case as a memento of your friend," I
said, interrupting him.

"Just so. You have guessed it exactly. Thanks," and he took the case
from me as I returned it to him with a frank smile.

"Is the Countess Romani young?" I forced myself to inquire.

"Young and beautiful as a midsummer morning!" replied Ferrari, with
enthusiasm. "I doubt if sunlight ever fell on a more enchanting woman!
If you were a young man, conte, I should be silent regarding her
charms--but your white hairs inspire one with confidence. I assure you
solemnly, though Fabio was my friend, and an excellent fellow in his
ways, he was never worthy of the woman he married!"

"Indeed!" I said, coldly, as this dagger-thrust struck home to my
heart. "I only knew him when he was quite a boy. He seemed to me then
of a warm and loving temperament, generous to a fault, perhaps
over-credulous, yet he promised well. His father thought so, I confess
I thought so too. Reports have reached me from time to time of the care
with which he managed the immense fortune left to him. He gave large
sums away in charity, did he not? and was he not a lover of books and
simple pleasures?"

"Oh, I grant you all that!" returned Ferrari, with some impatience. "He
was the most moral man in immoral Naples, if you care for that sort of
thing. Studious--philosophic--parfait gentilhomme--proud as the devil,
virtuous, unsuspecting, and--withal--a fool!"

My temper rose dangerously--but I controlled it, and remembering my
part in the drama I had constructed, I broke into violent, harsh
laughter.

"Bravo!" I exclaimed. "One can easily see what a first-rate young
fellow YOU are! You have no liking for moral men--ha, ha! excellent! I
agree with you. A virtuous man and a fool are synonyms nowadays. Yes--I
have lived long enough to know that! And here is our coffee--behold
also the glorias! I drink your health with pleasure, Signor
Ferrari--you and I must be friends!"

For one moment he seemed startled by my sudden outburst of mirth--the
next, he laughed heartily himself, and as the waiter appeared with the
coffee and cognac, inspired by the occasion, he made an equivocal,
slightly indelicate joke concerning the personal charms of a certain
Antoinetta whom the garcon was supposed to favor with an eye to
matrimony. The fellow grinned, in nowise offended--and pocketing fresh
gratuities from both Ferrari and myself, departed on new errands for
other customers, apparently in high good humor with himself,
Antoinetta, and the world in general. Resuming the interrupted
conversation I said:

"And this poor weak-minded Romani--was his death sudden?"

"Remarkably so," answered Ferrari, leaning back in his chair, and
turning his handsome flushed face up to the sky where the stars were
beginning to twinkle out one by ones "it appears from all accounts that
he rose early and went out for a walk on one of those insufferably hot
August mornings, and at the furthest limit of the villa grounds he came
upon a fruit-seller dying of cholera. Of course, with his quixotic
ideas, he must needs stay and talk to the boy, and then run like a
madman through the heat into Naples, to find a doctor for him. Instead
of a physician he met a priest, and he was taking this priest to the
assistance of the fruit-seller (who by the bye died in the meantime and
was past all caring for) when he himself was struck down by the plague.
He was carried then and there to a common inn, where in about five
hours he died--all the time shrieking curses on any one who should dare
to take him alive or dead inside his own house. He showed good sense in
that at least--naturally he was anxious not to bring the contagion to
his wife and child."

"Is the child a boy or a girl?" I asked, carelessly.

"A girl. A mere baby--an uninteresting old-fashioned little thing, very
like her father."

My poor little Stella.

Every pulse of my being thrilled with indignation at the indifferently
chill way in which he, the man who had fondled her and pretended to
love her, now spoke of the child. She was, as far as he knew,
fatherless; he, no doubt, had good reason to suspect that her mother
cared little for her, and, I saw plainly that she was, or soon would
be, a slighted and friendless thing in the household. But I made no
remark--I sipped my cognac with an abstracted air for a few
seconds--then I asked:

"How was the count buried? Your narrative interests me greatly."

"Oh, the priest who was with him saw to his burial, and I believe, was
able to administer the last sacraments. At any rate, he had him laid
with all proper respect in his family vault--I myself was present at
the funeral."

I started involuntarily, but quickly repressed myself.

"YOU were present--YOU--YOU--" and my voice almost failed me.

Ferrari raised his eyebrows with a look of surprised inquiry.

"Of course! You are astonished at that? But perhaps you do not
understand. I was the count's very closest friend, closer than a
brother, I may say. It was natural, even necessary, that I should
attend his body to its last resting place."

By this time I had recovered myself.

"I see--I see!" I muttered, hastily. "Pray excuse me--my age renders me
nervous of disease in any form, and I should have thought the fear of
contagion might have weighed with you."

"With ME!" and he laughed lightly. "I was never ill in my life, and I
have no dread whatever of cholera. I suppose I ran some risk, though I
never thought about it at the time--but the priest--one of the
Benedictine order--died the very next day."

"Shocking!" I murmured over my coffee-cup. "Very shocking. And you
actually entertained no alarm for yourself?"

"None in the least. To tell you the truth, I am armed against
contagious illnesses, by a conviction I have that I am not doomed to
die of any disease. A prophecy"--and here a cloud crossed his
features--"an odd prophecy was made about me when I was born, which,
whether it comes true or not, prevents me from panic in days of plague."

"Indeed!" I said, with interest, for this was news to me. "And may one
ask what this prophecy is?"

"Oh, certainly. It is to the effect that I shall die a violent death by
the hand of a once familiar friend. It was always an absurd
statement--an old nurse's tale--but it is now more absurd than ever,
considering that the only friend of the kind I ever had or am likely to
have is dead and buried--namely, Fabio Romani."

And he sighed slightly. I raised my head and looked at him steadily.



CHAPTER XII.


The sheltering darkness of the spectacles I wore prevented him from
noticing the searching scrutiny of my fixed gaze. His face was shadowed
by a faint tinge of melancholy; his eyes were thoughtful and almost sad.

"You loved him well then in spite of his foolishness?" I said.

He roused himself from the pensive mood into which he had fallen, and
smiled.

"Loved him? No! Certainly not--nothing so strong as that! I liked him
fairly--he bought several pictures of me--a poor artist has always some
sort of regard for the man who buys his work. Yes, I liked him well
enough--till he married."

"Ha! I suppose his wife came between you?" He flushed slightly, and
drank off the remainder of his cognac in haste.

"Yes," he replied, briefly, "she came between us. A man is never quite
the same after marriage. But we have been sitting a long time
here--shall we walk?"

He was evidently anxious to change the subject I rose slowly as though
my joints were stiff with age, and drew out my watch, a finely jeweled
one, to see the time. It was past nine o'clock.

"Perhaps," I said, addressing him, "you will accompany me as far as my
hotel. I am compelled to retire early as a rule--I suffer much from a
chronic complaint of the eyes as you perceive," here touching my
spectacles, "and I cannot endure much artificial light. We can talk
further on our way. Will you give me a chance of seeing your pictures?
I shall esteem myself happy to be one of your patrons."

"A thousand thanks!" he answered, gayly. "I will show you my poor
attempts with pleasure. Should you find anything among them to gratify
your taste, I shall of course be honored. But, thank Heaven! I am not
as greedy of patronage as I used to be--in fact I intended resigning
the profession altogether in about six months or so."

"Indeed! Are you coming into a fortune?" I asked, carelessly.

"Well--not exactly," he answered, lightly. "I am going to marry
one--that is almost the same thing, is it not?"

"Precisely! I congratulate you!" I said, in a studiously indifferent
and slightly bored tone, though my heart pulsed fiercely with the
torrent of wrath pent up within it. I understood his meaning well. In
six months he proposed marrying my wife. Six months was the shortest
possible interval that could be observed, according to social
etiquette, between the death of one husband and the wedding of another,
and even that was so short as to be barely decent. Six months--yet in
that space of time much might happen--things undreamed of and
undesired--slow tortures carefully measured out, punishment sudden and
heavy! Wrapped in these sombre musings I walked beside him in profound
silence. The moon shone brilliantly; groups of girls danced on the
shore with their lovers, to the sound of a flute and mandoline--far off
across the bay the sound of sweet and plaintive singing floated from
some boat in the distance, to our ears--the evening breathed of beauty,
peace and love. But I--my fingers quivered with restrained longing to
be at the throat of the graceful liar who sauntered so easily and
confidently beside me. Ah! Heaven, if he only knew! If he could have
realized the truth, would his face have worn quite so careless a
smile--would his manner have been quite so free and dauntless?
Stealthily I glanced at him; he was humming a tune softly under his
breath, but feeling instinctively, I suppose, that my eyes were upon
him, he interrupted the melody and turned to me with the question:

"You have traveled far and seen much, conte!"

"I have."

"And in what country have you found the most beautiful women!"

"Pardon me, young sir," I answered, coldly, "the business of life has
separated me almost entirely from feminine society. I have devoted
myself exclusively to the amassing of wealth, understanding thoroughly
that gold is the key to all things, even to woman's love; if I desired
that latter commodity, which I do not. I fear that I scarcely know a
fair face from a plain one--I never was attracted by women, and now at
my age, with my settled habits, I am not likely to alter my opinion
concerning them--and I frankly confess those opinions are the reverse
of favorable."

Ferrari laughed. "You remind me of Fabio!" he said. "He used to talk in
that strain before he was married--though he was young and had none of
the experiences which may have made you cynical, conte! But he altered
his ideas very rapidly--and no wonder!"

"Is his wife so very lovely then?" I asked.

"Very! Delicately, daintily beautiful. But no doubt you will see her
for yourself--as a friend of her late husband's father, you will call
upon her, will you not?"

"Why should I?" I said, gruffly--"I have no wish to meet her! Besides,
an inconsolable widow seldom cares to receive visitors--I shall not
intrude upon her sorrows!"

Never was there a better move than this show of utter indifference I
affected. The less I appeared to care about seeing the Countess Romani,
the more anxious Ferrari was to introduce me--(introduce me!--to my
wife!)--and he set to work preparing his own doom with assiduous ardor.

"Oh, but you must see her!" he exclaimed, eagerly. "She will receive
you, I am sure, as a special guest. Your age and your former
acquaintance with her late husband's family will win from her the
utmost courtesy, believe me! Besides, she is not really inconsolable--"
He paused suddenly. We had arrived at the entrance of my hotel. I
looked at him steadily.

"Not really inconsolable?" I repeated, in a tone of inquiry ferrari
broke into a forced laugh,

"Why no!" he said, "What would you? She is young and
light-hearted--perfectly lovely and in the fullness of youth and
health. One cannot expect her to weep long, especially for a man she
did not care for."

I ascended the hotel steps. "Pray come in!" I said, with an inviting
movement of my hand. "You must take a glass of wine before you leave.
And so--she did not care for him, you say?"

Encouraged by my friendly invitation and manner, Ferrari became more at
this ease than ever, and hooking his arm through mine as we crossed the
broad passage of the hotel together, he replied in a confidential tone:

"My dear conte, how CAN a woman love a man who is forced upon her by
her father for the sake of the money he gives her? As I told you
before, my late friend was utterly insensible to the beauty of his
wife--he was cold as a stone, and preferred his books. Then naturally
she had no love for him!"

By this time we had reached my apartments, and as I threw open the
door, I saw that Ferrari was taking in with a critical eye the costly
fittings and luxurious furniture. In answer to this last remark, I said
with a chilly smile:

"And as _I_ told YOU before, my dear Signor Ferarri, I know nothing
whatever about women, and care less than nothing for their loves or
hatreds! I have always thought of them more or less as playful kittens,
who purr when they are stroked the right way, and scream and scratch
when their tails are trodden on. Try this Montepulciano!"

He accepted the glass I proffered him, and tasted the wine with the air
of a connoisseur.

"Exquisite!" he murmured, sipping it lazily. "You are lodged en prince
here, conte! I envy you!"

"You need not," I answered. "You have youth and health, and--as you
have hinted to me--love; all these things are better than wealth, so
people say. At any rate, youth and health are good things--love I have
no belief in. As for me, I am a mere luxurious animal, loving comfort
and ease beyond anything. I have had many trials--I now take my rest in
my own fashion."

"A very excellent and sensible fashion!" smiled Ferrari, leaning his
head easily back on the satin cushions of the easy-chair into which he
had thrown himself.

"Do you know, conte, now I look at you well, I think you must have been
very handsome when you were young! You have a superb figure.'"

I bowed stiffly. "You flatter me, signor! I believe I never was
specially hideous--but looks in a man always rank second to strength,
and of strength I have plenty yet remaining."

"I do not doubt it," he returned, still regarding me attentively with
an expression in which there was the faintest shadow of uneasiness.

"It is an odd coincidence, you will say, but I find a most
extraordinary resemblance in the height and carriage of your figure to
that of my late friend Romani."

I poured some wine out for myself with a steady hand, and drank it.

"Really?" I answered. "I am glad that I remind you of him--if the
reminder is agreeable! But all tall men are much alike so far as figure
goes, providing they are well made."

Ferrari's brow was contracted in a musing frown and he answered not. He
still looked at me, and I returned his look without embarrassment.
Finally he roused himself, smiled, and finished drinking his glass of
Montepulciano. Then he rose to go.

"You will permit me to mention your name to the Countess Romani, I
hope?" he said, cordially. "I am certain she will receive you, should
you desire it."

I feigned a sort of vexation, and made an abrupt movement of impatience.

"The fact is," I said, at last, "I very much dislike talking to women.
They are always illogical, and their frivolity wearies me. But you have
been so friendly that I will give you a message for the countess--if
you have no objection to deliver it. I should be sorry to trouble you
unnecessarily--and you perhaps will not have an opportunity of seeing
her for some days?"

He colored slightly and moved uneasily. Then with a kind of effort, he
replied:

"On the contrary, I am going to see her this very evening. I assure you
it will be a pleasure to me to convey to her any greeting you may
desire to send."

"Oh, it is no greeting," I continued, calmly, noting the various signs
of embarrassment in his manner with a careful eye. "It is a mere
message, which, however, may enable you to understand why I was anxious
to see the young man who is dead. In my very early manhood the elder
Count Romani did me an inestimable service. I never forgot his
kindness--my memory is extraordinarily tenacious of both benefits and
injuries--and I have always desired to repay it in some suitable
manner. I have with me a few jewels of almost priceless value--I have
myself collected them, and I reserved them as a present to the son of
my old friend, simply as a trifling souvenir or expression of gratitude
for past favors received from his family. His sudden death has deprived
me of the pleasure of fulfilling this intention--but as the jewels are
quite useless to me, I am perfectly willing to hand them over to the
Countess Romani, should she care to have them. They would have been
hers had her husband lived--they should be hers now. If you, signor,
will report these facts to her and learn her wishes with respect to the
matter, I shall be much indebted to you."

"I shall be delighted to obey you," replied Ferrari, courteously,
rising at the same time to take his leave. "I am proud to be the bearer
of so pleasing an errand. Beautiful women love jewels, and who shall
blame them? Bright eyes and diamonds go well together! A rivederci,
Signer Conte! I trust we shall meet often."

"I have no doubt we shall," I answered, quietly.

He shook hands cordially--I responded to his farewell salutations with
the brief coldness which was now my habitual manner, and we parted.
From the window of my saloon I could see him sauntering easily down the
hotel steps and from thence along the street. How I cursed him as he
stepped jauntily on--how I hated his debonair grace and easy manner! I
watched the even poise of his handsome head and shoulders, I noted the
assured tread, the air of conscious vanity--the whole demeanor of the
man bespoke his perfect self-satisfaction and his absolute confidence
in the brightness of the future that awaited him when that stipulated
six months of pretended mourning for my untimely death should have
expired. Once, as he walked on his way, he turned and paused--looking
back--he raised his hat to enjoy the coolness of the breeze on his
forehead and hair. The light of the moon fell full on his features and
showed them in profile, like a finely-cut cameo against the dense
dark-blue background of the evening sky. I gazed at him with a sort of
grim fascination--the fascination of a hunter for the stag when it
stands at bay, just before he draws his knife across its throat. He was
in my power--he had deliberately thrown himself in the trap I had set
for him. He lay at the mercy of one in whom there was no mercy. He had
said and done nothing to deter me from my settled plans. Had he shown
the least tenderness of recollection for me as Fabio Romani, his friend
and benefactor--had he hallowed my memory by one generous word--had he
expressed one regret for my loss--I might have hesitated, I might have
somewhat changed my course of action so that punishment should have
fallen more lightly on him than on her. For I knew well enough that
she, my wife, was the worst sinner of the two. Had SHE chosen to
respect herself, not all the forbidden love in the world could have
touched her honor. Therefore, the least sign of compunction or
affection from Ferrari for me, his supposed dead friend, would have
turned the scale in his favor, and in spite of his treachery,
remembering how SHE must have encouraged him, I would at least have
spared him torture. But no sign had been given, no word had been
spoken, there was no need for hesitation or pity, and I was glad of it!
All this I thought as I watched him standing bareheaded in the
moonlight, on his way to--whom? To my wife, of course. I knew that well
enough. He was going to console her widow's tears--to soothe her aching
heart--a good Samaritan in very earnest! He moved, he passed slowly out
of my sight. I waited till I had seen the last glimpse of his
retreating figure, and then I left the window satisfied with my day's
work. Vengeance had begun.



CHAPTER XIII.


Quite early in the next day Ferrari called to see me. I was at
breakfast--he apologized for disturbing me at the meal.

"But," he explained, frankly, "the Countess Romani laid such urgent
commands upon me that I was compelled to obey. We men are the slaves of
women!"

"Not always," I said, dryly, as I motioned him to take a seat--"there
are exceptions--myself for instance. Will you have some coffee?"

"Thanks, I have already breakfasted. Pray do not let me be in your way,
my errand is soon done. The countess wishes me to say--"

"You saw her last night?" I interrupted him.

He flushed slightly. "Yes--that is--for a few minutes only. I gave her
your message. She thanks you, and desires me to tell you that she
cannot think of receiving the jewels unless you will first honor her by
a visit. She is not at home to ordinary callers in consequence of her
recent bereavement--but to you, so old a friend of her husband's
family, a hearty welcome will be accorded."

I bowed stiffly. "I am extremely flattered!" I said, in a somewhat
sarcastical tone, "it is seldom I receive so tempting an invitation! I
regret that I cannot accept it--at least, not at present. Make my
compliments to the lady, and tell her so in whatever sugared form of
words you may think best fitted to please her ears."

He looked surprised and puzzled.

"Do you really mean," he said, with a tinge of hauteur in his accents,
"that you will not visit her--that you refuse her request?"

I smiled. "I really mean, my dear Signor Ferrari, that, being always
accustomed to have my own way, I can make no exception in favor of
ladies, however fascinating they may be. I have business in Naples--it
claims my first and best attention. When it is transacted I may
possibly try a few frivolities for a change--at present I am unfit for
the society of the fair sex--an old battered traveler as you see,
brusque, and unaccustomed to polite lying. But I promise you I will
practice suave manners and a court bow for the countess when I can
spare time to call upon her. In the meanwhile I trust to you to make
her a suitable and graceful apology for my non-appearance."

Ferrari's puzzled and vexed expression gave way to a smile--finally he
laughed aloud. "Upon my word!" he exclaimed, gayly, "you are really a
remarkable man, conte! You are extremely cynical! I am almost inclined
to believe that you positively hate women."

"Oh, by no means! Nothing so strong as hatred," I said, coolly, as I
peeled and divided a fine peach as a finish to my morning's meal.
"Hatred is a strong passion--to hate well one must first have loved.
No, no--I do not find women worth hating--I am simply indifferent to
them. They seem to me merely one of the burdens imposed on man's
existence--graceful, neatly packed, light burdens in appearance, but in
truth, terribly heavy and soul-crushing."

"Yet many accept such burdens gayly!" interrupted Ferrari, with a
smile. I glanced at him keenly.

"Men seldom attain the mastery over their own passions," I replied;
"they are in haste to seize every apparent pleasure that comes in their
way, Led by a hot animal impulse which they call love, they snatch at a
woman's beauty as a greedy school-boy snatches ripe fruit--and when
possessed, what is it worth? Here is its emblem"--and I held up the
stone of the peach I had just eaten--"the fruit is devoured--what
remains? A stone with a bitter kernel."

Ferrari shrugged his shoulders.

"I cannot agree with you, count," he said; "but I will not argue with
you. From your point of view you may be right--but when one is young,
and life stretches before you like a fair pleasure-ground, love and the
smile of woman are like sunlight falling on flowers! You too must have
felt this--in spite of what you say, there must have been a time in
your life when you also loved!"

"Oh, I have had my fancies, of course!" I answered, with an indifferent
laugh. "The woman I fancied turned out to be a saint--I was not worthy
of her--at least, so I was told. At any rate, I was so convinced of her
virtue and my own unworthiness--that--I left her."

He looked surprised. "An odd reason, surely, for resigning her, was it
not?"

"Very odd--very unusual--but a sufficient one for me. Pray let us talk
of something more interesting--your pictures, for instance. When may I
see them?"

"When you please," he answered, readily--"though I fear they are
scarcely worth a visit. I have not worked much lately. I really doubt
whether I have any that will merit your notice."

"You underrate your powers, signor," I said with formal politeness.
"Allow me to call at your studio this afternoon. I have a few minutes
to spare between three and four o'clock, if that time will suit you."

"It will suit me admirably," he said, with a look of gratification;
"but I fear you will be disappointed. I assure you I am no artist."

I smiled. I knew that well enough. But I made no reply to his remark--I
said, "Regarding the matter of the jewels for the Countess
Romani--would you care to see them?"

"I should indeed," he answered; "they are unique specimens, I think?"

"I believe so," I answered, and going to an escritoire in the corner of
the room, I unlocked it and took out a massive carved oaken jewel-chest
of square shape, which I had had made in Palermo. It contained a
necklace of large rubies and diamonds, with bracelets to match, and
pins of their hair--also a sapphire ring--a cross of fine
rose-brilliants, and the pearl pendant I had first found in the vault.
All the gems, with the exception of this pendant, had been reset by a
skillful jeweler in Palermo, who had acted under my
superintendence--and Ferrari uttered an exclamation of astonishment and
admiration as he lifted the glittering toys out one by one and noted
the size and brilliancy of the precious stones.

"They are trifles," I said, carelessly--"but they may please a woman's
taste--and they amount to a certain fixed value. You would do me a
great service if you consented to take them to the Contessa Romani for
me--tell her to accept them as heralds of my forthcoming visit. I am
sure you will know how to persuade her to take what would
unquestionably have been hers had her husband lived. They are really
her property--she must not refuse to receive what is her own."

Ferrari hesitated and looked at me earnestly.

"You--WILL visit her--she may rely on your coming for a certainty, I
hope?"

I smiled. "You seem very anxious about it. May I ask why?"

"I think," he replied at once, "that it would embarrass the countess
very much if you gave her no opportunity to thank you for so munificent
and splendid a gift--and unless she knew she could do so, I am certain
she would not accept it."

"Make yourself quite easy," I answered. "She shall thank me to her
heart's content. I give you my word that within a few days I will call
upon the lady--in fact you said you would introduce me--I accept your
offer!"

He seemed delighted, and seizing my hand, shook it cordially.

"Then in that case I will gladly take the jewels to her," he exclaimed.
"And I may say, count, that had you searched the whole world over, you
could not have found one whose beauty was more fitted to show them off
to advantage. I assure you her loveliness is of a most exquisite
character!"

"No doubt!" I said, dryly. "I take your word for it. I am no judge of a
fair face or form. And now, my good friend, do not think me churlish if
I request you leave me in solitude for the present. Between three and
four o'clock I shall be at your studio."

He rose at once to take his leave. I placed the oaken box of jewels in
the leathern case which had been made to contain it, strapped and
locked it, and handed it to him together with its key. He was profuse
in his compliments and thanks--almost obsequious, in truth--and I
discovered another defect in his character--a defect which, as his
friend in former days, I had guessed nothing of. I saw that very little
encouragement would make him a toady--a fawning servitor on the
wealthy--and in our old time of friendship I had believed him to be far
above all such meanness, but rather of a manly, independent nature that
scorned hypocrisy. Thus we are deluded even by our nearest and
dearest--and is it well or ill for us, I wonder, when we are at last
undeceived? Is not the destruction of illusion worse than illusion
itself? I thought so, as my quondam friend clasped my hand in farewell
that morning. What would I not have given to believe in him as I once
did! I held open the door of my room as he passed out, carrying the box
of jewels for my wife, and as I bade him a brief adieu, the well-worn
story of Tristram and Kind Mark came to my mind. He, Guido, like
Tristram, would in a short space clasp the gemmed necklace round the
throat of one as fair and false as the fabled Iseulte, and I--should I
figure as the wronged king? How does the English laureate put it in his
idyl on the subject?

"'Mark's way,' said Mark, and clove him through the brain."

Too sudden and sweet a death by far for such a traitor! The Cornish
king should have known how to torture his betrayer! I knew--and I
meditated deeply on every point of my design, as I sat alone for an
hour after Ferrari had left me. I had many things to do--I had resolved
on making myself a personage of importance in Naples, and I wrote
several letters and sent out visiting-cards to certain well-established
families of distinction as necessary preliminaries to the result I had
in view. That day, too, I engaged a valet--a silent and discreet Tuscan
named Vincenzo Flamma. He was an admirably trained servant--he never
asked questions--was too dignified to gossip, and rendered me instant
and implicit obedience--in fact he was a gentleman in his way, with far
better manners than many who lay claim to that title. He entered upon
his duties at once, and never did I know him to neglect the most
trifling thing that could add to my satisfaction or comfort. In making
arrangements with him, and in attending to various little matters of
business, the hours slipped rapidly away, and in the afternoon, at the
time appointed, I made my way to Ferrari's studio. I knew it of old--I
had no need to consult the card he had left with me on which the
address was written. It was a queer, quaintly built little place,
situated at the top of an ascending road--its windows commanded an
extensive view of the bay and the surrounding scenery. Many and many a
happy hour had I passed there before my marriage reading some favorite
book or watching Ferrari as he painted his crude landscapes and
figures, most of which I good-naturedly purchased as soon as completed.
The little porch over-grown with star-jasmine looked strangely and
sorrowfully familiar to my eyes, and my heart experienced a sickening
pang of regret for the past, as I pulled the bell and heard the little
tinkling sound to which I was so well accustomed. Ferrari himself
opened the door to me with eager rapidity--he looked excited and
radiant.

"Come in, come in!" he cried with effusive cordiality. "You will find
everything in confusion, but pray excuse it. It is some time since I
had any visitors. Mind the steps, conte!--the place is rather dark just
here--every one stumbles at this particular corner."

So talking, and laughing as he talked, he escorted me up the short
narrow flight of stairs to the light airy room where he usually worked.
Glancing round it, I saw at once the evidences of neglect and
disorder--he had certainly not been there for many days, though he had
made an attempt to arrange it tastefully for my reception. On the table
stood a large vase of flowers grouped with artistic elegance--I felt
instinctively that my wife had put them there. I noticed that Ferrari
had begun nothing new--all the finished and unfinished studies I saw I
recognized directly. I seated myself in an easy-chair and looked at my
betrayer with a calmly critical eye. He was what the English would call
"got up for effect." Though in black, he had donned a velvet coat
instead of the cloth one he had worn in the morning--he had a single
white japonica in his buttonhole--his face was pale and his eyes
unusually brilliant. He looked his best--I admitted it, and could
readily understand how an idle, pleasure-seeking feminine animal might
be easily attracted by the purely physical beauty of his form and
features. I spoke a part of my thoughts aloud.

"You are not only an artist by profession, Signer Ferrari--you are one
also in appearance."

He flushed slightly and smiled.

"You are very amiable to say so," he replied, his pleased vanity
displaying itself at once in the expression of his face. "But I am well
aware that you flatter me. By the way, before I forget it, I must tell
you that I fulfilled your commission."

"To the Countess Romani?"

"Exactly. I cannot describe to you her astonishment and delight at the
splendor and brilliancy of those jewels you sent her. It was really
pretty to watch her innocent satisfaction."

I laughed.

"Marguerite and the jewel song in 'Faust,' I suppose, with new scenery
and effects?" I asked, with a slight sneer. He bit his lip and looked
annoyed. But he answered, quietly:

"I see you must have your joke, conte; but remember that if you place
the countess in the position of Marguerite, you, as the giver of the
jewels, naturally play the part of Mephistopheles."

"And you will be Faust, of course!" I said, gayly. "Why, we might mount
the opera with a few supernumeraries and astonish Naples by our
performance! What say you? But let us come to business. I like the
picture you have on the easel there--may I see it more closely?"

He drew it nearer; it was a showy landscape with the light of the
sunset upon it. It was badly done, but I praised it warmly, and
purchased it for five hundred francs. Four other sketches of a similar
nature were then produced. I bought these also. By the time we got
through these matters, Ferrari was in the best of humors. He offered me
some excellent wine and partook of it himself; he talked incessantly,
and diverted me extremely, though my inward amusement was not caused by
the witty brilliancy of his conversation. No, I was only excited to a
sense of savage humor by the novelty of the position in which we two
men stood. Therefore I listened to him attentively, applauded his
anecdotes--all of which I had heard before--admired his jokes, and
fooled his egotistical soul till he had no shred of self-respect
remaining. He laid his nature bare before me--and I knew what it was at
last--a mixture of selfishness, avarice, sensuality, and heartlessness,
tempered now and then by a flash of good-nature and sympathetic
attraction which were the mere outcomes of youth and physical
health--no more. This was the man I had loved--this fellow who told
coarse stories only worthy of a common pot-house, and who reveled in a
wit of a high and questionable flavor; this conceited, empty-headed,
muscular piece of humanity was the same being for whom I had cherished
so chivalrous and loyal a tenderness! Our conversation was broken in
upon at last by the sound of approaching wheels. A carriage was heard
ascending the road--it came nearer--it stopped at the door. I set down
the glass of wine I had just raised to my lips, and looked at Ferrari
steadily.

"You expect other visitors?" I inquired.

He seemed embarrassed, smiled, and hesitated.

"Well--I am not sure--but--" The bell rang. With a word of apology
Ferrari hurried away to answer it. I sprung from my chair--I knew--I
felt who was coming. I steadied my nerves by a strong effort. I
controlled the rapid beating of my heart; and fixing my dark glasses
more closely over my eyes, I drew myself up erect and waited calmly. I
heard Ferrari ascending the stairs--a light step accompanied his
heavier footfall--he spoke to his companion in whispers. Another
instant--and he flung the door of the studio wide open with the haste
and reverence due for the entrance of a queen. There was a soft rustle
of silk--a delicate breath of perfume on the air--and then--I stood
face to face with my wife!



CHAPTER XIV.


How dazzlingly lovely she was! I gazed at her with the same bewildered
fascination that had stupefied my reason and judgment when I beheld her
for the first time. The black robes she wore, the long crape veil
thrown back from her clustering hair and mignonne face, all the somber
shadows of her mourning garb only served to heighten and display her
beauty to greater advantage. A fair widow truly! I, her lately deceased
husband, freely admitted the magnetic power of her charms! She paused
for an instant on the threshold, a winning smile on her lips; she
looked at me, hesitated, and finally spoke in courteous accents:

"I think I cannot be mistaken! Do I address the noble Conte Cesare
Oliva?"

I tried to speak, but could not. My mouth was dry and parched with
excitement, my throat swelled and ached with the pent-up wrath and
despair of my emotions. I answered her question silently by a formal
bow. She at once advanced, extending both her hands with the coaxing
grace of manner I had so often admired.

"I am the Countess Romani," she said, still smiling. "I heard from
Signor Ferrari that you purposed visiting his studio this afternoon,
and I could not resist the temptation of coming to express my personal
acknowledgments for the almost regal gift you sent me. The jewels are
really magnificent. Permit me to offer you my sincere thanks!"

I caught her outstretched hands and wrung them hard--so hard that the
rings she wore must have dug into her flesh and hurt her, though she
was too well-bred to utter any exclamation. I had fully recovered
myself, and was prepared to act out my part.

"On the contrary, madame," I said in a strong harsh voice, "the thanks
must come entirely from me for the honor you have conferred upon me by
accepting trifles so insignificant--especially at a time when the cold
brilliancy of mere diamonds must jar upon the sensitive feelings of
your recent widowhood. Believe me, I sympathize deeply with your
bereavement. Had your husband lived, the jewels would have been his
gift to you, and how much more acceptable they would then have appeared
in your eyes! I am proud to think you have condescended so far as to
receive them from so unworthy a hand as mine."

As I spoke her face paled--she seemed startled, and regarded me
earnestly. Sheltered behind my smoked spectacles, I met the gaze of her
large dark eyes without embarrassment. Slowly she withdrew her slight
fingers from my clasp. I placed an easy chair for her, she sunk softly
into it with her old air of indolent ease, the ease of a spoiled
empress or sultan's favorite, while she still continued to look up at
me thoughtfully Ferrari, meanwhile, busied himself in bringing out more
wine, he also produced a dish of fruit and some sweet cakes, and while
occupied in these duties as our host he began to laugh.

"Ha, ha! you are caught!" he exclaimed to me gayly. "You must know we
planned this together, madame and I, just to take you by surprise.
There was no knowing when you would be persuaded to visit the contessa,
and she could not rest till she had thanked you, so we arranged this
meeting. Could anything be better? Come, conte, confess that you are
charmed!"

"Of course I am!" I answered with a slight touch of satire in my tone.
"Who would not be charmed in the presence of such youth and beauty! And
I am also flattered--for I know what exceptional favor the Contessa
Romani extends toward me in allowing me to make her acquaintance at a
time which must naturally be for her a secluded season of sorrow."

At these words my wife's face suddenly assumed an expression of wistful
sadness and appealing gentleness.

"Ah, poor unfortunate Fabio," she sighed. "How terrible it seems that
he is not here to greet you! How gladly he would have welcomed any
friend of his father's--he adored his father, poor fellow! I cannot
realize that he is dead. It was too sudden, too dreadful! I do not
think I shall ever recover the shock of his loss!"

And her eyes actually filled with tears; though the fact did not
surprise me in the least, for many women can weep at will. Very little
practice is necessary--and we men are such fools, we never know how it
is done; we take all the pretty feigned piteousness for real grief, and
torture ourselves to find methods of consolation for the feminine
sorrows which have no root save in vanity and selfishness. I glanced
quickly from my wife to Ferrari: he coughed, and appeared
embarrassed--he was not so good an actor as she was an actress.
Studying them both, I know not which feeling gained the mastery in my
mind--contempt or disgust.

"Console yourself, madame," I said, coldly. "Time should be quick to
heal the wounds of one so young and beautiful as you are! Personally
speaking, I much regret your husband's death, but I would entreat YOU
not to give way to grief, which, however sincere, must unhappily be
useless. Your life lies before you--and may happy days and as fair a
future await you as you deserve!"

She smiled, her tear-drops vanished like morning dew disappearing in
the heat.

"I thank you for your good wishes, conte," she said "but it rests with
you to commence my happy days by honoring me with a visit. You will
come, will you not? My house and all that it contains are at your
service!"

I hesitated. Ferrari looked amused.

"Madame is not aware of your dislike to the society of ladies, conte,"
he said, and there was a touch of mockery in his tone. I glanced at him
coldly, and addressed my answer to my wife.

"Signor Ferrari is perfectly right," I said, bending over her, and
speaking in a low tone; "I am often ungallant enough to avoid the
society of mere women, but, alas! I have no armor of defense against
the smile of an angel."

And I bowed with a deep and courtly reverence. Her face brightened--she
adored her own loveliness, and the desire of conquest awoke in her
immediately. She took a glass of wine from my hand with a languid
grace, and fixed her glorious eyes full on me with a smile.

"That is a very pretty speech," she said, sweetly, "and it means, of
course, that you will come to-morrow. Angels exact obedience! Gui--, I
mean Signor Ferrari, you will accompany the conte and show him the way
to the villa?"

Ferrari bent his head with some stiffness. He looked slightly sullen.

"I am glad to see," he observed, with some petulance, "that your
persuasions have carried more conviction to the Conte Oliva than mine.
To me he was apparently inflexible."

She laughed gayly. "Of course! It is only a woman who can always win
her own way--am I not right, conte?" And she glanced up at me with an
arch expression of mingled mirth and malice. What a love of mischief
she had! She saw that Guido was piqued, and she took intense delight in
teasing him still further.

"I cannot tell, madame," I answered her. "I know so little of your
charming sex that I need to be instructed. But I instinctively feel
that YOU must be right, whatever you say. Your eyes would convert an
infidel!"

Again she looked at me with one of those wonderfully brilliant,
seductive, arrowy glances--then she rose to take her leave.

"An angel's visit truly," I said, lightly, "sweet, but brief!"

"We shall meet to-morrow," she replied, smiling. "I consider I have
your promise; you must not fail me! Come as early as you like in the
afternoon, then you will see my little girl Stella. She is very like
poor Fabio. Till to-morrow, adieu!"

She extended her hand. I raised it to my lips. She smiled as she
withdrew it, and looking at me, or rather at the glasses I wore, she
inquired:

"You suffer with your eyes?"

"Ah, madame, a terrible infirmity! I cannot endure the light. But I
should not complain--it is a weakness common to age."

"You do not seem to be old," she said, thoughtfully. With a woman's
quick eye she had noted, I suppose, the unwrinkled smoothness of my
skin, which no disguise could alter. But I exclaimed with affected
surprise:

"Not old! With these white hairs!"

"Many young men have them," she said. "At any rate, they often
accompany middle age, or what is called the prime of life. And really,
in your case, they are very becoming!"

And with a courteous gesture of farewell she moved to leave the room.
Both Ferrari and myself hastened to escort her downstairs to her
carriage, which stood in waiting at the door--the very carriage and
pair of chestnut ponies which I myself had given her as a birthday
present. Ferrari offered to assist her in mounting the step of the
vehicle; she put his arm aside with a light jesting word and accepted
mine instead. I helped her in, and arranged her embroidered wraps about
her feet, and she nodded gayly to us both as we stood bareheaded in the
afternoon sunlight watching her departure. The horses started at a
brisk canter, and in a couple of minutes the dainty equipage was out of
sight. When nothing more of it could be seen than the cloud of dust
stirred up by its rolling wheels, I turned to look at my companion. His
face was stern, and his brows were drawn together in a frown. Stung
already! I thought. Already the little asp of jealousy commenced its
bitter work! The trifling favor HIS light-o'-love and MY wife had
extended to me in choosing MY arm instead of HIS as a momentary support
had evidently been sufficient to pique his pride. God! what blind bats
men are! With all their high capabilities and immortal destinies, with
all the world before them to conquer, they can sink unnerved and beaten
down to impotent weakness before the slighting word or insolent gesture
of a frivolous feminine creature, whose best devotions are paid to the
mirror that reflects her in the most becoming light! How easy would be
my vengeance, I mused, as I watched Ferrari. I touched him on the
shoulder; he started from his uncomfortable reverie and forced a smile.
I held out a cigar-case.

"What are you dreaming of?" I asked him, laughingly. "Hebe as she
waited on the gods, or Venus as she rose in bare beauty from the waves?
Either, neither, or both? I assure you a comfortable smoke is as
pleasant in its way as the smile of a woman."

He took a cigar and lighted it, but made no answer.

"You are dull, my friend," I continued, gayly, hooking my arm through
his and pacing him up and down on the turf in front of his studio.
"Wit, they say, should be sharpened by the glance of a bright eye; how
comes it that the edge of your converse seems blunted? Perhaps your
feelings are too deep for words? If so, I do not wonder at it, for the
lady is extremely lovely."

He glanced quickly at me.

"Did I not say so?" he exclaimed. "Of all creatures under heaven she is
surely the most perfect! Even you, conte, with your cynical ideas about
women, even you were quite subdued and influenced by her; I could see
it!"

I puffed slowly at my cigar and pretended to meditate.

"Was I?" I said at last, with an air of well-acted surprise. "Really
subdued and influenced? I do not think so. But I admit I have never
seen a woman so entirely beautiful."

He stopped in his walk, loosened his arm from mine, and regarded me
fixedly.

"I told you so," he said, deliberately. "You must remember that I told
you so. And now perhaps I ought to warn you."

"Warn me!" I exclaimed, in feigned alarm. "Of what? against whom?
Surely not the Contessa Romani, to whom you were so anxious to
introduce me? She has no illness, no infectious disorder? She is not
dangerous to life or limb, is she?"

Ferrari laughed at the anxiety I displayed for my own bodily safety--an
anxiety which I managed to render almost comic--but he looked somewhat
relieved too.

"Oh, no," he said, "I meant nothing of that kind. I only think it fair
to tell you that she has very seductive manners, and she may pay you
little attentions which would flatter any man who was not aware that
they are only a part of her childlike, pretty ways; in short, they
might lead him erroneously to suppose himself the object of her
particular preference, and--"

I broke into a violent fit of laughter, and clapped him roughly on the
shoulder.

"Your warning is quite unnecessary, my good young friend," I said.
"Come now, do I look a likely man to attract the attention of an adored
and capricious beauty? Besides, at my age the idea is monstrous! I
could figure as her father, as yours, if you like, but in the capacity
of a lover--impossible!"

He eyed me attentively

"She said you did not seem old," he murmured, half to himself and half
to me.

"Oh, I grant you she made me that little compliment, certainly," I
answered, amused at the suspicions that evidently tortured his mind;
"and I accepted it as it was meant--in kindness. I am well aware what a
battered and unsightly wreck of a man I must appear in her eyes when
contrasted with YOU, Sir Antinous!"

He flushed warmly. Then, with a half-apologetic air, he said:

"Well, you must forgive me if I have seemed overscrupulous. The
contessa is like a--a sister to me; in fact, my late friend Fabio
encouraged a fraternal affection between us, and now he is gone I feel
it more than ever my duty to protect her, as it were, from herself. She
is so young and light-hearted and thoughtless that--but you understand
me, do you not?"

I bowed. I understood him perfectly. He wanted no more poachers on the
land he himself had pilfered. Quite right, from his point of view! But
I was the rightful owner of the land after all, and I naturally had a
different opinion of the matter. However, I made no remark, and feigned
to be rather bored by the turn the conversation was taking. Seeing
this, Ferrari exerted himself to be agreeable; he became a gay and
entertaining companion once more, and after he had fixed the hour for
our visit to the Villa Romani the next afternoon, our talk turned upon
various matters connected with Naples and its inhabitants and their
mode of life. I hazarded a few remarks on the general immorality and
loose principles that prevailed among the people, just to draw my
companion out and sound his character more thoroughly--though I thought
I knew his opinions well.

"Pooh, my dear conte," he exclaimed, with a light laugh, as he threw
away the end of his cigar, and watched it as it burned dully like a
little red lamp among the green grass where it had fallen, "what is
immorality after all? Merely a matter of opinion. Take the hackneyed
virtue of conjugal fidelity. When followed out to the better end what
is the good of it--where does it lead? Why should a man be tied to one
woman when he has love enough for twenty? The pretty slender girl whom
he chose as a partner in his impulsive youth may become a fat, coarse,
red-faced female horror by the time he has attained to the full vigor
of manhood--and yet, as long as she lives, the law insists that the
full tide of passion shall flow always in one direction--always to the
same dull, level, unprofitable shore! The law is absurd, but it exists;
and the natural consequence is that we break it. Society pretends to be
horrified when we do--yes, I know; but it is all pretense. And the
thing is no worse in Naples than it is in London, the capital of the
moral British race, only here we are perfectly frank, and make no
effort to hide our little sins, while there, they cover them up
carefully and make believe to be virtuous. It is the veriest
humbug--the parable of Pharisee and Publican over again.

"Not quite," I observed, "for the Publican was repentant, and Naples is
not."

"Why should she be?" demanded Ferrari, gayly; "what, in the name of
Heaven, is the good of being penitent about anything? Will it mend
matters? Who is to be pacified or pleased by our contrition? God? My
dear conte, there are very few of us nowadays who believe in a Deity.
Creation is a mere caprice of the natural elements. The best thing we
can do is to enjoy ourselves while we live; we have a very short time
of it, and when we die there is an end of all things so far as we are
concerned."

"That is your creed?" I asked.

"That is my creed, certainly. It was Solomon's in his heart of hearts.
'Eat, drink and be merry, for to-morrow we die.' It is the creed of
Naples, and of nearly all Italy. Of course the vulgar still cling to
exploded theories of superstitious belief, but the educated classes are
far beyond the old-world notions."

"I believe you," I answered, composedly. I had no wish to argue with
him; I only sought to read his shallow soul through and through that I
might be convinced of his utter worthlessness. "According to modern
civilization there is really no special need to be virtuous unless it
suits us. The only thing necessary for pleasant living is to avoid
public scandal."

"Just so!" agreed Ferrari; "and that can always be easily managed. Take
a woman's reputation--nothing is so easily lost, we all know, before
she is actually married; but marry her well, and she is free. She can
have a dozen lovers if she likes, and if she is a good manager her
husband need never be the wiser. He has HIS amours, of course--why
should she not have hers also? Only some women are clumsy, they are
over-sensitive and betray themselves too easily; then the injured
husband (carefully concealing his little peccadilloes) finds everything
out and there is a devil of a row--a moral row, which is the worst kind
of row. But a really clever woman can always steer clear of slander if
she likes."

Contemptible ruffian! I thought, glancing at his handsome face and
figure with scarcely veiled contempt. With all his advantages of
education and his well-bred air he was yet ruffian to the core--as low
in nature, if not lower, than the half-savage tramp for whom no social
law has ever existed or ever will exist. But I merely observed:

"It is easy to see that you have a thorough knowledge of the world and
its ways. I admire your perception! From your remarks I judge that you
have no sympathy with marital wrongs?"

"Not the least," he replied, dryly; "they are too common and too
ludicrous. The 'wronged husband,' as he considers himself in such
cases, always cuts such an absurd figure."

"Always?" I inquired, with apparent curiosity.

"Well, generally speaking, he does. How can he remedy the matter? He
can only challenge his wife's lover. A duel is fought in which neither
of the opponents are killed, they wound each other slightly, embrace,
weep, have coffee together, and for the future consent to share the
lady's affections amicably."

"Veramente!" I exclaimed, with a forced laugh, inwardly cursing his
detestable flippancy; "that is the fashionable mode of taking
vengeance?"

"Absolutely the one respectable way of doing it," he replied; "it is
only the canaille who draw heart's blood in earnest."

Only the canaille! I looked at him fixedly. His smiling eyes met mine
with a frank and fearless candor. Evidently he was not ashamed of his
opinions, he rather gloried in them. As he stood there with the warm
sunlight playing upon his features he seemed the very type of youthful
and splendid manhood; an Apollo in exterior--in mind a Silenus. My soul
sickened at the sight of him. I felt that the sooner this strong
treacherous life was crushed the better; there would be one traitor
less in the world at any rate. The thought of my dread but just purpose
passed over me like the breath of a bitter wind--a tremor shook my
nerves. My face must have betrayed some sign of my inward emotion, for
Ferrari exclaimed:

"You are fatigued, conte? You are ill! Pray take my arm!"

He extended it as he spoke. I put it gently but firmly aside.

"It is nothing," I said, coldly; "a mere faintness which often
overcomes me, the remains of a recent illness." Here I glanced at my
watch; the afternoon was waning rapidly.

"If you will excuse me," I continued, "I will now take leave of you.
Regarding the pictures you have permitted me to select, my servant
shall call for them this evening to save you the trouble of sending
them."

"It is no trouble--" began Ferrari.

"Pardon me," I interrupted him; "you must allow me to arrange the
matter in my own way. I am somewhat self-willed, as you know."

He bowed and smiled--the smile of a courtier and sycophant--a smile I
hated. He eagerly proposed to accompany me back to my hotel, but I
declined this offer somewhat peremptorily, though at the same time
thanking him for his courtesy. The truth was I had had almost too much
of his society; the strain on my nerves began to tell; I craved to be
alone. I felt that if I were much longer with him I should be tempted
to spring at him and throttle the life out of him. As it was, I bade
him adieu with friendly though constrained politeness; he was profuse
in his acknowledgments of the favor I had done him by purchasing his
pictures. I waived all thanks aside, assuring him that my satisfaction
in the matter far exceeded his, and that I was proud to be the
possessor of such valuable proofs of his genius. He swallowed my
flattery as eagerly as a fish swallows bait, and we parted on excellent
terms. He watched me from his door as I walked down the hilly road with
the slow and careful step of an elderly man; once out of his sight,
however, I quickened my pace, for the tempest of conflicting sensations
within me made it difficult for me to maintain even the appearance of
composure. On entering my apartment at the hotel the first thing that
met my eyes was a large gilt osier basket, filled with fine fruit and
flowers, placed conspicuously on the center-table.

I summoned my valet. "Who sent this?" I demanded.

"Madame the Contessa Romani," replied Vincenzo with discreet gravity.
"There is a card attached, if the eccelenza will be pleased to look."

I did look. It was my wife's visiting-card, and on it was written in
her own delicate penmanship--

"To remind the conte of his promised visit to-morrow."

A sudden anger possessed me. I crumpled up the dainty glossy bit of
pasteboard and flung it aside. The mingled odors of the fruit and
flowers offended my senses.

"I care nothing for these trifles," I said, addressing Vincenzo almost
impatiently. "Take them to the little daughter of the hotel-keeper; she
is a child, she will appreciate them. Take them away at once."

Obediently Vincenzo lifted the basket and bore it out of the room. I
was relieved when its fragrance and color had vanished. I, to receive
as a gift, the product of my own garden! Half vexed, half sore at
heart, I threw myself into an easychair--anon I laughed aloud! So!
Madame commences the game early, I thought. Already paying these marked
attentions to a man she knows nothing of beyond that he is reported to
be fabulously wealthy. Gold, gold forever! What will it not do! It will
bring the proud to their knees, it will force the obstinate to servile
compliance, it will conquer aversion and prejudice. The world is a
slave to its yellow glitter, and the love of woman, that perishable
article of commerce, is ever at its command. Would you obtain a kiss
from a pair of ripe-red lips that seem the very abode of honeyed
sweetness? Pay for it then with a lustrous diamond; the larger the gem
the longer the kiss! The more diamonds you give, the more caresses you
will get. The jeunesse doree who ruin themselves and their ancestral
homes for the sake of the newest and prettiest female puppet on the
stage know this well enough. I smiled bitterly as I thought of the
languid witching look my wife had given me when she said, "You do not
seem to be old!" I knew the meaning of her eyes; I had not studied
their liquid lights and shadows so long for nothing. My road to revenge
was a straight and perfectly smooth line--almost too smooth. I could
have wished for some difficulty, some obstruction; but there was
none--absolutely none. The traitors walked deliberately into the trap
set for them. Over and over again I asked myself quietly and in cold
blood--was there any reason why I should have pity on them? Had they
shown one redeeming point in their characters? Was there any nobleness,
any honesty, any real sterling good quality in either of them to
justify my consideration? And always the answer came, NO! Hollow to the
heart's core, hypocrites both, liars both--even the guilty passion they
cherished for one another had no real earnestness in it save the
pursuit of present pleasure; for she, Nina, in that fatal interview in
the avenue where I had been a tortured listener, had hinted at the
possibility of tiring of her lover, and HE had frankly declared to me
that very day that it was absurd to suppose a man could be true to one
woman all his life. In brief, they deserved their approaching fate.
Such men as Guido and such women as my wife, are, I know, common enough
in all classes of society, but they are not the less pernicious
animals, meriting extermination as much, if not more, than the less
harmful beasts of prey. The poor beasts at any rate tell no lies, and
after death their skins are of some value; but who shall measure the
mischief done by a false tongue--and of what use is the corpse of a
liar save to infect the air with pestilence? I used to wonder at the
superiority of men over the rest of the animal creation, but I see now
that it is chiefly gained by excess of selfish cunning. The bulky,
good-natured, ignorant lion who has only one honest way of defending
himself, namely with tooth and claw, is no match for the jumping
two-legged little rascal who hides himself behind a bush and fires a
gun aimed direct at the bigger brute's heart. Yet the lion's mode of
battle is the braver of the two, and the cannons, torpedoes and other
implements of modern warfare are proofs of man's cowardice and cruelty
as much as they are of his diabolical ingenuity. Calmly comparing the
ordinary lives of men and beasts--judging them by their abstract
virtues merely--I am inclined to think the beasts the more respectable
of the two!



CHAPTER XV.


"Welcome to Villa Romani!"

The words fell strangely on my ears. Was I dreaming, or was I actually
standing on the smooth green lawn of my own garden, mechanically
saluting my own wife, who, smiling sweetly, uttered this cordial
greeting? For a moment or two my brain became confused; the familiar
veranda with its clustering roses and jasmine swayed unsteadily before
my eyes; the stately house, the home of my childhood, the scene of my
past happiness, rocked in the air as though it were about to fall. A
choking sensation affected my throat. Even the sternest men shed tears
sometimes. Such tears too! wrung like drops of blood from the heart.
And I--I could have wept thus. Oh, the dear old home! and how fair and
yet how sad it seemed to my anguished gaze! It should have been in
ruins surely--broken and cast down in the dust like its master's peace
and honor. Its master, did I say? Who was its master? Involuntarily I
glanced at Ferrari, who stood beside me. Not he--not he; by Heaven he
should never be master! But where was MY authority? I came to the place
as a stranger and an alien. The starving beggar who knows not where to
lay his head has no emptier or more desolate heart than I had as I
looked wistfully on the home which was mine before I died! I noticed
some slight changes here and there; for instance, my deep easy-chair
that had always occupied one particular corner of the veranda was gone;
a little tame bird that I had loved, whose cage used to hang up among
the white roses on the wall, was also gone. My old butler, the servant
who admitted Ferrari and myself within the gates, had an expression of
weariness and injury on his aged features which he had not worn in my
time, and which I was sorry to see. And my dog, the noble black Scotch
colly, what had become of him, I wondered? He had been presented to me
by a young Highlander who had passed one winter with me in Rome, and
who, on returning to his native mountains, had sent me the dog, a
perfect specimen of its kind, as a souvenir of our friendly
intercourse. Poor Wyvis! I thought. Had they made away with him?
Formerly he had always been visible about the house or garden; his
favorite place was on the lowest veranda step, where he loved to bask
in the heat of the sun. And now he was nowhere visible. I was mutely
indignant at his disappearance, but I kept strict watch over my
feelings, and remembered in time the part I had to play.

"Welcome to Villa Romani!" so said my wife. Then, remarking my silence
as I looked about me, she added with a pretty coaxing air,

"I am afraid after all you are sorry you have come to see me!"

I smiled. It served my purpose now to be as gallant and agreeable as I
could; therefore I answered:

"Sorry, madame! If I were, then should I be the most ungrateful of all
men! Was Dante sorry, think you, when he was permitted to behold
Paradise?"

She blushed; her eyes drooped softly under their long curling lashes.
Ferrari frowned impatiently--but was silent. She led the way into the
house--into the lofty cool drawing-room, whose wide windows opened out
to the garden. Here all was the same as ever with the exception of one
thing--a marble bust of myself as a boy had been removed. The grand
piano was open, the mandoline lay on a side-table, looking as though it
had been recently used; there were fresh flowers and ferns in all the
tall Venetian glass vases. I seated myself and remarked on the beauty
of the house and its surroundings.

"I remember it very well," I added, quietly.

"You remember it!" exclaimed Ferrari, quickly, as though surprised.

"Certainly. I omitted to tell you, my friend, that I used to visit this
spot often when a boy. The elder Conte Romani and myself played about
these grounds together. The scene is quite familiar to me."

Nina listened with an appearance of interest.

"Did you ever see my late husband?" she asked.

"Once," I answered her, gravely. "He was a mere child at the time, and,
as far as I could discern, a very promising one. His father seemed
greatly attached to him. I knew his mother also."

"Indeed," she exclaimed, settling herself on a low ottoman and fixing
her eyes upon me; "what was she like?"

I paused a moment before replying. Could I speak of that unstained
sacred life of wifehood and motherhood to this polluted though lovely
creature?

"She was a beautiful woman unconscious of her beauty," I answered at
last. "There, all is said. Her sole aim seemed to be to forget herself
in making others happy, and to surround her home with an atmosphere of
goodness and virtue. She died young."

Ferrari glanced at me with an evil sneer in his eyes.

"That was fortunate," he said. "She had no time to tire of her husband,
else--who knows?"

My blood rose rapidly to an astonishing heat, but I controlled myself.

"I do not understand you," I said, with marked frigidity. "The lady I
speak of lived and died under the old regime of noblesse oblige. I am
not so well versed in modern social forms of morality as yourself."

Nina hastily interposed. "Oh, my dear conte," she said, laughingly,
"pay no attention to Signor Ferrari! He is rash sometimes, and says
very foolish things, but he really does not mean them. It is only his
way! My poor dear husband used to be quite vexed with him sometimes,
though he WAS so fond of him. But, conte, as you know so much about the
family, I am sure you will like to see my little Stella. Shall I send
for her, or are you bored by children?"

"On the contrary, madame, I am fond of them," I answered, with forced
composure, though my heart throbbed with mingled delight and agony at
the thought of seeing my little one again. "And the child of my old
friend's son must needs have a double interest for me."

My wife rang the bell, and gave orders to the maid who answered it to
send her little girl to her at once. Ferrari meanwhile engaged me in
conversation, and strove, I could see, by entire deference to my
opinions, to make up for any offense his previous remark might have
given. A few moments passed--and then the handle of the drawing-room
door was timidly turned by an evidently faltering and unpracticed hand.
Nina called out impatiently--"Come in, baby! Do not be afraid--come
in!" With that the door slowly opened and my little daughter entered.
Though I had been so short a time absent from her it was easy to see
the child had changed very much. Her face looked pinched and
woe-begone, its expression was one of fear and distrust. The laughter
had faded out of her young eyes, and was replaced by a serious look of
pained resignation that was pitiful to see in one of her tender years.
Her mouth drooped plaintively at the corners--her whole demeanor had an
appealing anxiety in it that spoke plainly to my soul and enlightened
me as to the way she had evidently been forgotten and neglected. She
approached us hesitatingly, but stopped half-way and looked doubtfully
at Ferrari. He met her alarmed gaze with a mocking smile.

"Come along, Stella!" he said. "You need not be frightened! I will not
scold you unless you are naughty. Silly child! you look as if I were
the giant in the fairy tale, going to eat you up for dinner. Come and
speak to this gentleman--he knew your papa."

At this word her eyes brightened, her small steps grew more assured and
steady--she advanced and put her tiny hand in mine. The touch of the
soft, uncertain little fingers almost unmanned me. I drew her toward me
and lifted her on my knee. Under pretense of kissing her I hid my face
for a second or two in her clustering fair curls, while I forced back
the womanish tears that involuntarily filled my eyes. My poor little
darling! I wonder now how I maintained my set composure before the
innocent thoughtfulness of her gravely questioning gaze! I had fancied
she might possibly be scared by the black spectacles I wore--children
are frightened by such things sometimes--but she was not. No; she sat
on my knee with an air of perfect satisfaction, though she looked at me
so earnestly as almost to disturb my self-possession. Nina and Ferrari
watched her with some amusement, but she paid no heed to them--she
persisted in staring at me. Suddenly a slow sweet smile--the tranquil
smile of a contented baby, dawned all over her face; she extended her
little arms, and, of her own accord, put up her lips to kiss me! Half
startled at this manifestation of affection, I hurriedly caught her to
my heart and returned her caress, then I looked furtively at my wife
and Guido. Had they any suspicion? No! why should they have any? Had
not Ferrari himself seen me BURIED? Reassured by this thought I
addressed myself to Stella, making my voice as gratingly harsh as I
could, for I dreaded the child's quick instinct.

"You are a very charming little lady!" I said, playfully. "And so your
name is Stella? That is because you are a little star, I suppose?"

She became meditative. "Papa said I was," she answered, softly and
shyly.

"Papa spoiled you!" interposed Nina, pressing a filmy black-bordered
handkerchief to her eyes. "Poor papa! You were not so naughty to him as
you are to me."

The child's lip quivered, but she was silent.

"Oh, fy!" I murmured, half chidingly. "Are you ever naughty? Surely
not! All little stars are good--they never cry--they are always bright
and calm."

Still she remained mute--a sigh, deep enough for an older sufferer,
heaved her tiny breast. She leaned her head against my arm and raised
her eyes appealingly.

"Have you seen my papa?" she asked, timidly. "Will he come back soon?"

For a moment I did not answer her. Ferrari took it upon himself to
reply roughly. "Don't talk nonsense, baby! You know your papa has gone
away--you were too naughty for him, and he will never come back again.
He has gone to a place where there are no tiresome little girls to
tease him."

Thoughtless and cruel words! I at once understood the secret grief that
weighed on the child's mind. Whenever she was fretful or petulant, they
evidently impressed it upon her that her father had left her because of
her naughtiness. She had taken this deeply to heart; no doubt she had
brooded upon it in her own vague childish fashion, and had puzzled her
little brain as to what she could possibly have done to displease her
father so greatly that he had actually gone away never to return.
Whatever her thoughts were, she did not on this occasion give vent to
them by tears or words. She only turned her eyes on Ferrari with a look
of intense pride and scorn, strange to see in so little a creature--a
true Romani look, such as I had often noticed in my father's eyes, and
such as I knew must be frequently visible in my own. Ferrari saw it,
and burst out laughing loudly.

"There!" he exclaimed. "Like that she exactly resembles her father! It
is positively ludicrous! Fabio, all over! She only wants one thing to
make the portrait perfect." And approaching her, he snatched one of her
long curls and endeavored to twist it over her mouth in the form of a
mustache. The child struggled angrily, and hid her face against my
coat. The more she tried to defend herself the greater the malice with
which Ferrari tormented her. Her mother did not interfere--she only
laughed. I held the little thing closely sheltered in my embrace, and
steadying down the quiver of indignation in my voice, I said with quiet
firmness:

"Fair play, signor! Fair play! Strength becomes mere bullying when it
is employed against absolute weakness."

Ferrari laughed again, but this time uneasily, and ceasing his
monkeyish pranks, walked to the window. Smoothing Stella's tumbled
hair, I added with a sarcastic smile:

"This little donzella, will have her revenge when she grows up.
Recollecting how one man teased her in childhood, she, in return, will
consider herself justified in teasing all men. Do you not agree with
me, madame?" I said, turning to my wife, who gave me a sweetly
coquettish look as she answered:

"Well, really, conte, I do not know! For with the remembrance of one
man who teased her, must come also the thought of another who was kind
to her--yourself--she will find it difficult to decide the juste
milieu."

A subtle compliment was meant to be conveyed in these words. I
acknowledged it by a silent gesture of admiration, which she quickly
understood and accepted. Was ever a man in the position of being
delicately flattered by his own wife before? I think not! Generally
married persons are like candid friends--fond of telling each other
very unpleasant truths, and altogether avoiding the least soupcon of
flattery. Though I was not so much flattered as amused--considering the
position of affairs. Just then a servant threw open the door and
announced dinner. I set my child very gently down from my knee and
whisperingly told her that I would come and see her soon again. She
smiled trustfully, and then in obedience to her mother's imperative
gesture, slipped quietly out of the room. As soon as she had gone I
praised her beauty warmly, for she was really a lovely little
thing--but I could see my admiration of her was not very acceptable to
either my wife or her lover. We all went in to dinner--I, as guest,
having the privilege of escorting my fair and spotless spouse! On our
reaching the dining-room Nina said--

"You are such an old friend of the family, conte, that perhaps you will
not mind sitting at the head of the table?"

"Tropp' onore, signora!" I answered, bowing gallantly, as I at once
resumed my rightful place at my own table, Ferrari placing himself on
my right hand, Nina on my left. The butler, my father's servant and
mine, stood as of old behind my chair, and I noticed that each time he
supplied me with wine he eyed me with a certain timid curiosity--but I
knew I had a singular and conspicuous appearance, which easily
accounted for his inquisitiveness. Opposite to where I sat, hung my
father's portrait--the character I personated permitted me to look at
it fixedly and give full vent to the deep sigh which in very earnest
broke from my heart. The eyes of the picture seemed to gaze into mine
with a sorrowful compassion--almost I fancied the firm-set lips
trembled and moved to echo my sigh.

"Is that a good likeness?" Ferrari asked, suddenly.

I started, and recollecting myself, answered: "Excellent! So true a
resemblance that it arouses along train of memories in my
mind--memories both bitter and sweet. Ah! what a proud fellow he was!"

"Fabio was also very proud," chimed in my wife's sweet voice. "Very
cold and haughty."

Little liar! How dared she utter this libel on my memory! Haughty, I
might have been to others, but never to her--and coldness was no part
of my nature. Would that it were! Would that I had been a pillar of
ice, incapable of thawing in the sunlight of her witching smile! Had
she forgotten what a slave I was to her? what a poor, adoring,
passionate fool I became under the influence of her hypocritical
caresses! I thought this to myself, but I answered aloud:

"Indeed! I am surprised to hear that. The Romani hauteur had ever to my
mind something genial and yielding about it--I know my friend was
always most gentle to his dependents."

The butler here coughed apologetically behind his hand--an old trick of
his, and one which signified his intense desire to speak.

Ferrari laughed, as he held out his glass for more wine.

"Here is old Giacomo," he said, nodding to him lightly. "He remembers
both the Romanis--ask him HIS opinion of Fabio--he worshiped his
master."

I turned to my servant, and with a benignant air addressed him:

"Your face is not familiar to me, my friend," I said. "Perhaps you were
not here when I visited the elder Count Romani?"

"No, eccellenza," replied Giacomo, rubbing his withered hands nervously
together, and speaking with a sort of suppressed eagerness, "I came
into my lord's service only a year before the countess died--I mean the
mother of the young count."

"Ah! then I missed making your acquaintance," I said, kindly, pitying
the poor old fellow, as I noticed how his lips trembled, and how
altogether broken he looked. "You knew the last count from childhood,
then?"

"I did, eccellenza!" And his bleared eyes roved over me with a sort of
alarmed inquiry.

"You loved him well?" I said, composedly, observing him with
embarrassment.

"Eccellenza, I never wish to serve a better master. He was goodness
itself--a fine, handsome, generous lad--the saints have his soul in
their keeping! Though sometimes I cannot believe he is dead--my old
heart almost broke when I heard it. I have never been the same
since--my lady will tell you so--she is often displeased with me."

And he looked wistfully at her; there was a note of pleading in his
hesitating accents. My wife's delicate brows drew together in a frown,
a frown that I had once thought came from mere petulance, but which I
was now inclined to accept as a sign of temper. "Yes, indeed, Giacomo,"
she said, in hard tones, altogether unlike her usual musical voice.
"You are growing so forgetful that it is positively annoying. You know
I have often to tell you the same thing several times. One command
ought to be sufficient for you."

Giacomo passed his hand over his forehead in a troubled way, sighed,
and was silent. Then, as if suddenly recollecting his duty, he refilled
my glass, and shrinking aside, resumed his former position behind my
chair.

The conversation now turned on desultory and indifferent matters. I
knew my wife was an excellent talker, but on that particular evening I
think she surpassed herself. She had resolved to fascinate me, THAT I
saw at once, and she spared no pains to succeed in her ambition.
Graceful sallies, witty bon-mots tipped with the pungent sparkle of
satire, gay stories well and briskly told, all came easily from her
lips, so that though I knew her so well, she almost surprised me by her
variety and fluency. Yet this gift of good conversation in a woman is
apt to mislead the judgment of those who listen, for it is seldom the
result of thought, and still more seldom is it a proof of intellectual
capacity. A woman talks as a brook babbles; pleasantly, but without
depth. Her information is generally of the most surface kind--she skims
the cream off each item of news, and serves it up to you in her own
fashion, caring little whether it be correct or the reverse. And the
more vivaciously she talks, the more likely she is to be dangerously
insincere and cold-hearted, for the very sharpness of her wit is apt to
spoil the more delicate perceptions of her nature. Show me a brilliant
woman noted for turning an epigram or pointing a satire, and I will
show you a creature whose life is a masquerade, full of vanity,
sensuality and pride. The man who marries such a one must be content to
take the second place in his household, and play the character of the
henpecked husband with what meekness he best may. Answer me, ye long
suffering spouses of "society women" how much would you give to win
back your freedom and self-respect? to be able to hold your head up
unabashed before your own servants? to feel that you can actually give
an order without its being instantly countermanded? Ah, my poor
friends! millions will not purchase you such joy; as long as your
fascinating fair ones are like Caesar's wife, "above suspicion" (and
they are generally prudent managers), so long must you dance in their
chains like the good-natured clumsy bears that you are, only giving
vent to a growl now and then; a growl which at best only excites
ridicule. My wife was of the true world worldly; never had I seen her
real character so plainly as now, when she exerted herself to entertain
and charm me. I had thought her spirituelle, ethereal, angelic! never
was there less of an angel than she! While she talked, I was quick to
observe the changes on Ferrari's countenance. He became more silent and
sullen as her brightness and cordiality increased. I would not appear
aware of the growing stiffness in his demeanor; I continued to draw him
into the conversation, forcing him to give opinions on various subjects
connected with the art of which he was professedly a follower. He was
very reluctant to speak at all; and when compelled to do so, his
remarks were curt and almost snappish, so much so that my wife made a
laughing comment on his behavior.

"You are positively ill-tempered, Guido!" she exclaimed, then
remembering she had addressed him by his Christian name, she turned to
me and added--"I always call him Guido, en famille; you know he is just
like a brother to me."

He looked at her and his eyes flashed dangerously, but he was mute.
Nina was evidently pleased to see him in such a vexed mood; she
delighted to pique his pride, and as he steadily gazed at her in a sort
of reproachful wonder, she laughed joyously. Then rising from the
table, she made us a coquettish courtesy.

"I will leave you two gentlemen to finish your wine together," she
said, "I know all men love to talk a little scandal, and they must be
alone to enjoy it. Afterward, will you join me in the veranda? You will
find coffee ready."

I hastened to open the door for her as she passed out smiling; then,
returning to the table, I poured out more wine for myself and Ferrari,
who sat gloomily eying his own reflection in the broad polished rim of
a silver fruit-dish that stood near him. Giacomo, the butler, had long
ago left the room; we were entirely alone. I thought over my plans for
a moment or two; the game was as interesting as a problem in chess.
With the deliberation of a prudent player I made my next move.

"A lovely woman!" I murmured, meditatively, sipping my wine, "and
intelligent also. I admire your taste, signor!"

He started violently. "What--what do you mean?" he demanded, half
fiercely. I stroked my mustache and smiled at him benevolently.

"Ah, young blood! young blood!" I sighed, shaking my head, "it will
have its way! My good sir, why be ashamed of your feelings? I heartily
sympathize with you; if the lady does not appreciate the affection of
so ardent and gallant an admirer, then she is foolish indeed! It is not
every woman who has such a chance of happiness."

"You think--you imagine that--that--I--"

"That you are in love with her?" I said, composedly. "Ma--certamente!
And why not? It is as it should be. Even the late conte could wish no
fairer fate for his beautiful widow than that she should become the
wife of his chosen friend. Permit me to drink your health! Success to
your love!" And I drained my glass as I finished speaking, Unfortunate
fool! He was completely disarmed; his suspicions of me melted away like
mist before the morning light. His face cleared--he seized my hand and
pressed it warmly.

"Forgive me, conte," he said, with remorseful fervor; "I fear I have
been rude and unsociable. Your kind words have put me right again. You
will think me a jealous madman, but I really fancied that you were
beginning to feel an attraction for her yourself, and actually--(pardon
me, I entreat of you!) actually I was making up my mind to--to kill
you!"

I laughed quietly. "Veramente! How very amiable of you! It was a good
intention, but you know what place is paved with similar designs?"

"Ah, conte, it is like your generosity to take my confession so
lightly; but I assure you, for the last hour I have been absolutely
wretched!"

"After the fashion of all lovers, I suppose," I answered "torturing
yourself without necessity! Well, well, it is very amusing! My young
friend, when you come to my time of life, you will prefer the chink of
gold to the laughter and kisses of women. How often must I repeat to
you that I am a man absolutely indifferent to the tender passion?
Believe it or not, it is true."

He drank off his wine at one gulp and spoke with some excitement.

"Then I will frankly confide in you. I DO love the contessa. Love! it
is too weak a word to describe what I feel. The touch of her hand
thrills me, her very voice seems to shake my soul, her eyes burn
through me! Ah! YOU cannot know--YOU could not understand the joy, the
pain--"

"Calm yourself," I said, in a cold tone, watching my victim as his
pent-up emotion betrayed itself, "The great thing is to keep the head
cool when the blood burns. You think she loves you?"

"Think! Gran Dio! She has--" here he paused and his face flushed
deeply--"nay! I have no right to say anything on that score. I know she
never cared for her husband."

"I know that too!" I answered, steadily. "The most casual observer
cannot fail to notice it."

"Well, and no wonder!" he exclaimed, warmly. "He was such an
undemonstrative fool! What business had such a fellow as that to marry
so exquisite a creature!"

My heart leaped with a sudden impulse of fury, but I controlled my
voice and answered calmly:

"Requiescat in pace! He is dead--let him rest. Whatever his faults, his
wife of course was true to him while he lived; she considered him
worthy of fidelity--is it not so?"

He lowered his eyes as he replied in an indistinct tone:

"Oh, certainly!"

"And you--you were a most loyal and faithful friend to him, in spite of
the tempting bright eyes of his lady?"

Again he answered huskily, "Why, of course!" But the shapely hand that
rested on the table so near to mine trembled.

"Well, then," I continued, quietly, "the love you bear now to his fair
widow is, I imagine, precisely what he would approve. Being, as you
say, perfectly pure and blameless, what can I wish otherwise than
this--may it meet with the reward it deserves!"

While I spoke he moved uneasily in his chair, and his eyes roved to my
father's picture with restless annoyance. I suppose he saw in it the
likeness to his dead friend. After a moment or two of silence he turned
to me with a forced smile--

"And so you really entertain no admiration for the contessa?"

"Oh, pardon me, I DO entertain a very strong admiration for her, but
not of the kind you seem to suspect. If it will please you, I can
guarantee that I shall never make love to the lady unless--"

"Unless what?" he asked, eagerly.

"Unless she happens to make love to me, In which case it would be
ungallant not to reciprocate!"

And I laughed harshly. He stared at me in blank surprise. "SHE make
love to YOU!" he exclaimed, "You jest. She would never do such a thing."

"Of course not!" I answered, rising and clapping him heavily on the
shoulder. "Women never court men, it is quite unheard of; a reverse of
the order of nature! You are perfectly safe, my friend; you will
certainly win the recompense you so richly merit. Come, let us go and
drink coffee with the fair one."

And arm-in-arm we sauntered out to the veranda in the most friendly way
possible. Ferrari was completely restored to good humor, and Nina, I
thought, was rather relieved to see it. She was evidently afraid of
Ferrari--a good point for me to remember. She smiled a welcome to us as
we approached, and began to pour out the fragrant coffee. It was a
glorious evening; the moon was already high in the heavens, and the
nightingales' voices echoed softly from the distant woods. As I seated
myself in a low chair that was placed invitingly near that of my
hostess, my ears were startled by a long melancholy howl, which changed
every now and then to an impatient whine.

"What is that?" I asked, though the question was needless, for I knew
the sound.

"Oh, it is that tiresome dog Wyvis," answered Nina, in a vexed tone.
"He belonged to Fabio. He makes the evening quite miserable with his
moaning."

"Where is he?"

"Well, after my husband's death he became so troublesome, roaming all
over the house and wailing; and then he would insist on sleeping in
Stella's room close to her bedside. He really worried me both day and
night, so I was compelled to chain him up."

Poor Wyvis! He was sorely punished for his fidelity.

"I am very fond of dogs," I said, slowly, "and they generally take to
me with extraordinary devotion. May I see this one of yours?"

"Oh, certainly! Guido, will you go and unfasten him?"

Guido did not move; he leaned easily back in his chair sipping his
coffee.

"Many thanks," he answered, with a half laugh; "perhaps you forget that
last time I did so he nearly tore me to pieces. If you do not object, I
would rather Giacomo undertook the task."

"After such an account of the animal's conduct, perhaps the conte will
not care to see him. It is true enough," turning to me as she spoke,
"Wyvis has taken a great dislike to Signor Ferrari--and yet he is a
good-natured dog, and plays with my little girl all day if she goes to
him. Do you feel inclined to see him? Yes?" And, as I bowed in the
affirmative, she rang a little bell twice, and the butler appeared.

"Giacomo," she continued, "unloose Wyvis and send him here."

Giacomo gave me another of those timid questioning glances, and
departed to execute his order. In another five minutes, the howling had
suddenly ceased, a long, lithe, black, shadowy creature came leaping
wildly across the moonlighted lawn--Wyvis was racing at full speed. He
paid no heed to his mistress or Ferrari; he rushed straight to me with
a yelp of joy. His huge tail wagged incessantly, he panted thirstily
with excitement, he frisked round and round my chair, he abased himself
and kissed my feet and hands, he rubbed his stately head fondly against
my knee. His frantic demonstrations of delight were watched by my wife
and Ferrari with utter astonishment. I observed their surprise, and
said lightly:

"I told you how it would be! It is nothing remarkable, I assure you.
All dogs treat me in the same way."

And I laid my hand on the animal's neck with a commanding pressure; he
lay down at once, only now and then raising his large wistful brown
eyes to my face as though he wondered what had changed it so greatly.
But no disguise could deceive his intelligence--the faithful creature
knew his master. Meantime I thought Nina looked pale; certainly the
little jeweled white hand nearest to me shook slightly.

"Are you afraid of this noble animal, madame?" I asked, watching her
closely. She laughed, a little forcedly.

"Oh, no! But Wyvis is usually so shy with strangers, and I never saw
him greet any one so rapturously except my late husband. It is really
very odd!"

Ferrari, by his looks, agreed with her, and appeared to be uneasily
considering the circumstance.

"Strange to say," he remarked, "Wyvis has for once forgotten me. He
never fails to give me a passing snarl."

Hearing his voice, the dog did indeed commence growling discontentedly;
but a touch from me silenced him. The animal's declared enmity toward
Ferrari surprised me--it was quite a new thing, as before my burial his
behavior to him had been perfectly friendly.

"I have had a great deal to do with dogs in my time," I said, speaking
in a deliberately composed voice. "I have found their instinct
marvelous; they generally seem to recognize at once the persons who are
fond of their society. This Wyvis of yours, contessa, has no doubt
discovered that I have had many friends among his brethren, so that
there is nothing strange in his making so much of me."

The air of studied indifference with which I spoke, and the fact of my
taking the exuberant delight of Wyvis as a matter of course, gradually
reassured the plainly disturbed feelings of my two betrayers, for after
a little pause the incident was passed over, and our conversation went
on with pleasant and satisfactory smoothness. Before my departure that
evening, however, I offered to chain up the dog--"as, if I do this," I
added, "I guarantee he will not disturb your night's rest by his
howling."

This suggestion met with approval, and Ferrari walked with me to show
me where the kennel stood. I chained Wyvis, and stroked him tenderly;
he appeared to understand, and he accepted his fate with perfect
resignation, lying down upon his bed of straw without a sign of
opposition, save for one imploring look out of his intelligent eyes as
I turned away and left him.

On making my adieus to Nina, I firmly refused Ferrari's offered
companionship in the walk back to my hotel.

"I am fond of a solitary moonlight stroll," I said. "Permit me to have
my own way in the matter."

After some friendly argument they yielded to my wishes. I bade them
both a civil "good-night," bending low over my wife's hand and kissing
it, coldly enough, God knows, and yet the action was sufficient to make
her flush and sparkle with pleasure. Then I left them, Ferrari himself
escorting me to the villa gates, and watching me pass out on the open
road. As long as he stood there, I walked with a slow and meditative
pace toward the city, but the instant I heard the gate clang heavily as
it closed, I hurried back with a cautious and noiseless step. Avoiding
the great entrance, I slipped round to the western side of the grounds,
where there was a close thicket of laurel that extended almost up to
the veranda I had just left. Entering this and bending the boughs
softly aside as I pushed my way through, I gradually reached a position
from whence I could see the veranda plainly, and also hear anything
that passed. Guido was sitting on the low chair I had just vacated,
leaning his head back against my wife's breast; he had reached up one
arm so that it encircled her neck, and drew her head down toward his.
In this half embrace they rested absolutely silent for some moments.
Suddenly Ferrari spoke:

"You are very cruel, Nina! You actually made me think you admired that
rich old conte."

She laughed. "So I do! He would be really handsome if he did not wear
those ugly spectacles. And his jewels are lovely. I wish he would give
me some more!"

"And supposing he were to do so, would you care for him, Nina?" he
demanded, jealously. "Surely not. Besides, you have no idea how
conceited he is. He says he will never make love to a woman unless she
first makes love to him; what do you think of that?"

She laughed again, more merrily than before.

"Think! Why, that he is very original--charmingly so! Are you coming
in, Guido?"

He rose, and standing erect, almost lifted her from her chair and
folded her in his arms.

"Yes, I AM coming in," he answered; "and I will have a hundred kisses
for every look and smile you bestowed on the conte! You little
coquette! You would flirt with your grandfather!"

She rested against him with apparent tenderness, one hand playing with
the flower in his buttonhole, and then she said, with a slight accent
of fear in her voice--

"Tell me, Guido, do you not think he is a little like--like FABIO? Is
there not a something in his manner that seems familiar?"

"I confess I have fancied so once or twice," he returned, musingly;
"there is rather a disagreeable resemblance. But what of that? many men
are almost counterparts of each other. But I tell you what I think. I
am almost positive he is some long-lost relation of the family--Fabio's
uncle for all we know, who does not wish to declare his actual
relationship. He is a good old fellow enough, I believe, and is
certainly rich as Croesus; he will be a valuable friend to us both.
Come, sposina mia, it is time to go to rest."

And they disappeared within the house, and shut the windows after them.
I immediately left my hiding-place, and resumed my way toward Naples. I
was satisfied they had no suspicion of the truth. After all, it was
absurd of me to fancy they might have, for people in general do not
imagine it possible for a buried man to come back to life again. The
game was in my own hands, and I now resolved to play it out with as
little delay as possible.



CHAPTER XVI.


Time flew swiftly on--a month, six weeks, passed, and during that short
space I had established myself in Naples as a great personage--great,
because of my wealth and the style in which I lived. No one in all the
numerous families of distinction that eagerly sought my acquaintance
cared whether I had intellect or intrinsic personal worth; it sufficed
to them that I kept a carriage and pair, an elegant and costly
equipage, softly lined with satin and drawn by two Arabian mares as
black as polished ebony. The value of my friendship was measured by the
luxuriousness of my box at the opera, and by the dainty fittings of my
yacht, a swift trim vessel furnished with every luxury, and having on
board a band of stringed instruments which discoursed sweet music when
the moon emptied her horn of silver radiance on the rippling water. In
a little while I knew everybody who was worth knowing in Naples;
everywhere my name was talked of, my doings were chronicled in the
fashionable newspapers; stories of my lavish generosity were repeated
from mouth to mouth, and the most highly colored reports of my immense
revenues were whispered with a kind of breathless awe at every cafe and
street corner. Tradesmen waylaid my reticent valet, Vincenzo, and gave
him douceurs in the hope he would obtain my custom for them--"tips"
which he pocketed in his usual reserved and discreet manner, but which
he was always honest enough to tell me of afterward. He would most
faithfully give me the name and address of this or that particular
tempter of his fidelity, always adding--"As to whether the rascal sells
good things or bad our Lady only knows, but truly he gave me thirty
francs to secure your excellency's good-will. Though for all that I
would not recommend him if your excellency knows of an honester man!"

Among other distinctions which my wealth forced upon me, were the
lavish attentions of match-making mothers. The black spectacles which I
always wore, were not repulsive to these diplomatic dames--on the
contrary, some of them assured me they were most becoming, so anxious
were they to secure me as a son-in-law. Fair girls in their teens,
blushing and ingenuous, were artfully introduced to me--or, I SHOULD
say, thrust forward like slaves in a market for my inspection--though,
to do them justice, they were remarkably shrewd and sharp-witted for
their tender years. Young as they were, they were keenly alive to the
importance of making a good match--and no doubt the pretty innocents
laid many dainty schemes in their own minds for liberty and enjoyment
when one or the other of them should become the Countess Oliva and fool
the old black-spectacled husband to her heart's content. Needless to
say their plans were not destined to be fulfilled, though I rather
enjoyed studying the many devices they employed to fascinate me. What
pretty ogling glances I received!--what whispered admiration of my
"beautiful white hair! so distingue"--what tricks of manner,
alternating from grave to gay, from rippling mirth to witching languor!
Many an evening I sat at ease on board my yacht, watching with a
satirical inward amusement, one, perhaps two or three of these fair
schemers ransacking their youthful brains for new methods to entrap the
old millionaire, as they thought me, into the matrimonial net. I used
to see their eyes--sparkling with light in the sunshine--grow liquid
and dreamy in the mellow radiance of the October moon, and turn upon me
with a vague wistfulness most lovely to behold, and--most admirably
feigned! I could lay my hand on a bare round white arm and not be
repulsed--I could hold little clinging fingers in my own as long as I
liked without giving offense such are some of the privileges of wealth!

In all the parties of pleasure I formed, and these were many--my wife
and Ferrari were included as a matter of course. At first Nina
demurred, with some plaintive excuse concerning her "recent terrible
bereavement," but I easily persuaded her out of this. I even told some
ladies I knew to visit her and add their entreaties to mine, as I said,
with the benignant air of an elderly man, that it was not good for one
so young to waste her time and injure her health by useless grieving.
She saw the force of this, I must admit, with admirable readiness, and
speedily yielded to the united invitations she received, though always
with a well-acted reluctance, and saying that she did so merely
"because the Count Oliva was such an old friend of the family and knew
my poor dear husband as a child."

On Ferrari I heaped all manner of benefits. Certain debts of his
contracted at play I paid privately to surprise him--his gratitude was
extreme. I humored him in many of his small extravagances--I played
with his follies as an angler plays the fish at the end of his line,
and I succeeded in winning his confidence. Not that I ever could
surprise him into a confession of his guilty amour--but he kept me well
informed as to what he was pleased to call "the progress of his
attachment," and supplied me with many small details which, while they
fired my blood and brain to wrath, steadied me more surely in my plan
of vengeance. Little did he dream in whom he was trusting!--little did
he know into whose hands he was playing! Sometimes a kind of awful
astonishment would come over me as I listened to his trivial talk, and
heard him make plans for a future that was never to be. He seemed so
certain of his happiness--so absolutely sure that nothing could or
would intervene to mar it. Traitor as he was he was unable to foresee
punishment--materialist to the heart's core, he had no knowledge of the
divine law of compensation. Now and then a dangerous impulse stirred
me--a desire to say to him point-blank:

"You are a condemned criminal--a doomed man on the brink of the grave.
Leave this light converse and frivolous jesting--and, while there is
time, prepare for death!"

But I bit my lips and kept stern silence. Often, too, I felt disposed
to seize him by the throat, and, declaring my identity, accuse him of
his treachery to his face, but I always remembered and controlled
myself. One point in his character I knew well--I had known it of
old--this was his excessive love of good wine. I aided and abetted him
in this weakness, and whenever he visited me I took care that he should
have his choice of the finest vintages. Often after a convivial evening
spent in my apartments with a few other young men of his class and
caliber, he reeled out of my presence, his deeply flushed face and
thick voice bearing plain testimony as to his condition. On these
occasions I used to consider with a sort of fierce humor how Nina would
receive him--for though she saw no offense in the one kind of vice she
herself practiced, she had a particular horror of vulgarity in any
form, and drunkenness was one of those low failings she specially
abhorred.

"Go to your lady-love, mon beau Silenus!" I would think, as I watched
him leaving my hotel with a couple of his boon companions, staggering
and laughing loudly as he went, or singing the last questionable
street-song of the Neapolitan bas-peuple. "You are in a would-be
riotous and savage mood--her finer animal instincts will revolt from
you, as a lithe gazelle would fly from the hideous gambols of a
rhinoceros. She is already afraid of you--in a little while she will
look upon you with loathing and disgust--tant pis pour vous, tant mieux
pour moi!"

I had of course attained the position of ami intime at the Villa
Romani. I was welcome there at any hour--I could examine and read my
own books in my own library at leisure (what a privilege was mine); I
could saunter freely through the beautiful gardens accompanied by
Wyvis, who attended me as a matter of course; in short, the house was
almost at my disposal, though I never passed a night under its roof. I
carefully kept up my character as a prematurely elderly man, slightly
invalided by a long and ardous career in far-off foreign lands, and I
was particularly prudent in my behavior toward my wife before Ferrari.
Never did I permit the least word or action on my part that could
arouse his jealousy or suspicion. I treated her with a sort of parental
kindness and reserve, but she--trust a woman for intrigue!--she was
quick to perceive my reasons for so doing. Directly Ferrari's back was
turned she would look at me with a glance of coquettish intelligence,
and smile--a little mocking, half-petulant smile--or she would utter
some disparaging remark about him, combining with it a covert
compliment to me. It was not for me to betray her secrets--I saw no
occasion to tell Ferrari that nearly every morning she sent her maid to
my hotel with fruit and flowers and inquiries after my health--nor was
my valet Vincenzo the man to say that he carried gifts and similar
messages from me to her. But at the commencement of November things
were so far advanced that I was in the unusual position of being
secretly courted by my own wife!--I reciprocating her attentions with
equal secrecy! The fact of my being often in the company of other
ladies piqued her vanity--she knew that I was considered a desirable
parti--and--she resolved to win me. In this case I also resolved--to be
won! A grim courtship truly--between a dead man and his own widow!
Ferrari never suspected what was going on; he had spoken of me as "that
poor fool Fabio, he was too easily duped;" yet never was there one more
"easily duped" than himself, or to whom the epithet "poor fool" more
thoroughly applied. As I said before, he was SURE--too sure of his own
good fortune. I wished to excite his distrust and enmity sometimes, but
this I found I could not do. He trusted me--yes! as much as in the old
days I had trusted HIM. Therefore, the catastrophe for him must be
sudden as well as fatal--perhaps, after all, it was better so.

During my frequent visits to the villa I saw much of my child Stella.
She became passionately attached to me--poor little thing!--her love
was a mere natural instinct, had she but known it. Often, too, her
nurse, Assunta, would bring her to my hotel to pass an hour or so with
me. This was a great treat to her, and her delight reached its climax
when I took her on my knee and told her a fairy story--her favorite one
being that of a good little girl whose papa suddenly went away, and how
the little girl grieved for him till at last some kind fairies helped
her to find him again. I was at first somewhat afraid of old
Assunta--she had been MY nurse--was it possible that she would not
recognize me? The first time I met her in my new character I almost
held my breath in a sort of suspense--but the good old woman was nearly
blind, and I think she could scarce make out my lineaments. She was of
an entirely different nature to Giacomo the butler--she thoroughly
believed her master to be dead, as indeed she had every reason to do,
but strange to say, Giacomo did not. The old man had a fanatical notion
that his "young lord" could not have died so suddenly, and he grew so
obstinate on the point that my wife declared he must be going crazy.
Assunta, on the other hand, would talk volubly of my death and tell me
with assured earnestness:

"It was to be expected, eccellenza--he was too good for us, and the
saints took him. Of course our Lady wanted him--she always picks out
the best among us. The poor Giacomo will not listen to me, he grows
weak and childish, and he loved the master too well--better," and here
her voice would deepen into reproachful solemnity, "yes, better
actually than St. Joseph himself! And of course one is punished for
such a thing. I always knew my master would die young--he was too
gentle as a baby, and too kind-hearted as a man to stay here long."

And she would shake her gray head and feel for the beads of her rosary,
and mutter many an Ave for the repose of my soul. Much as I wished it,
I could never get her to talk about her mistress--it was the one
subject on which she was invariably silent. On one occasion when I
spoke with apparent enthusiasm of the beauty and accomplishments of the
young countess, she glanced at me with sudden and earnest
scrutiny--sighed--but said nothing. I was glad to see how thoroughly
devoted she was to Stella, and the child returned her affection with
interest--though as the November days came on apaces my little one
looked far from strong. She paled and grew thin, her eyes looked
preternaturally large and solemn, and she was very easily wearied. I
called Assunta's attention to these signs of ill-health; she replied
that she had spoken to the countess, but that "madam" had taken no
notice of the child's weakly condition. Afterward I mentioned the
matter myself to Nina, who merely smiled gratefully up in my face and
answered:

"Really, my dear conte, you are too good! There is nothing the matter
with Stella, her health is excellent; she eats too many bonbons,
perhaps, and is growing rather fast, that is all. How kind you are to
think of her! But, I assure you, she is quite well."

I did not feel so sure of this, yet I was obliged to conceal my
anxiety, as overmuch concern about the child would not have been in
keeping with my assumed character.

It was a little past the middle of November, when a circumstance
occurred that gave impetus to my plans, and hurried them to full
fruition. The days were growing chilly and sad even in Naples--yachting
excursions were over, and I was beginning to organize a few dinners and
balls for the approaching winter season, when one afternoon Ferrari
entered my room unannounced and threw himself into the nearest chair
with an impatient exclamation, and a vexed expression of countenance.

"What is the matter?" I asked, carelessly, as I caught a furtive glance
of his eyes. "Anything financial? Pray draw upon me! I will be a most
accommodating banker!"

He smiled uneasily though gratefully.

"Thanks, conte--but it is nothing of that sort--it is--gran Dio! what
an unlucky wretch I am!"

"I hope," and here I put on an expression of the deepest anxiety, "I
hope the pretty contessa has not played you false? she has refused to
marry you?"

He laughed with a disdainful triumph in his laughter.

"Oh, as far as that goes there is no danger! She dares not play me
false."

"DARES not! That is rather a strong expression, my friend!" And I
stroked my beard and looked at him steadily. He himself seemed to think
he had spoken too openly and hastily--for he reddened as he said with a
little embarrassment:

"Well, I did not mean that exactly--of course she is perfectly free to
do as she likes--but she cannot, I think, refuse me after showing me so
much encouragement."

I waved my hand with an airy gesture of amicable agreement.

"Certainly not," I said, "unless she be an arrant coquette and
therefore a worthless woman, and you, who know so well her intrinsic
goodness and purity, have no reason to fear. But, if not love or money,
what is it that troubles you? It must be serious, to judge from your
face."

He played absently with a ring I had given him, turning it round and
round upon his finger many times before replying.

"Well, the fact is," he said at last, "I am compelled to go away--to
leave Naples for a time."

My heart gave an expectant throb of satisfaction. Going away!--leaving
Naples!--turning away from the field of battle and allowing me to gain
the victory! Fortune surely favored me. But I answered with feigned
concern:

"Going away! Surely you cannot mean it. Why?--what for? and where?"

"An uncle of mine is dying in Rome," he answered, crossly. "He has made
me his heir, and I am bound for the sake of decency to attend his last
moments. Rather protracted last moments they threaten to be too, but
the lawyers say I had better be present, as the old man may take it
into his head to disinherit me at the final gasp. I suppose I shall not
be absent long--a fortnight at most--and in the meanwhile--"

Here he hesitated and looked at me anxiously.

"Continue, caro mio, continue!" I said with some impatience. "If I can
do anything in your absence, you have only to command me."

He rose from his chair, and approaching the window where I sat in a
half-reclining position, he drew a small chair opposite mine, and
sitting down, laid one hand confidingly on my wrist.

"You can do much!" he replied, earnestly, "and I feel that I can
thoroughly depend upon you. Watch over HER! She will have no other
protector, and she is so beautiful and careless! You can guard
her--your age, your rank and position, the fact of your being an old
friend of the family--all these things warrant your censorship and
vigilance over her, and you can prevent any other man from intruding
himself upon her notice--"

"If he does," I exclaimed, starting up from my seat with a mock tragic
air, "I will not rest till his body serves my sword as a sheath!"

And I laughed loudly, clapping him on the shoulder as I spoke. The
words were the very same he had himself uttered when I had witnessed
his interview with my wife in the avenue. He seemed to find something
familiar in the phrase, for he looked confused and puzzled. Seeing
this, I hastened to turn the current of his reflections. Stopping
abruptly in my mirth, I assumed a serious gravity of demeanor, and said:

"Nay, nay! I see the subject is too sacred to be jested with--pardon my
levity! I assure you, my good Ferrari, I will watch over the lady with
the jealous scrutiny of a BROTHER--an elderly brother too, and
therefore one more likely to be a model of propriety. Though I frankly
admit it is a task I am not specially fitted for, and one that is
rather distasteful to me, still, I would do much to please you, and
enable you to leave Naples with an easy mind I promise you"--here I
took his hand and shook it warmly--"that I will be worthy of your trust
and true to it, with exactly the same fine loyalty and fidelity you
yourself so nobly showed to your dead friend Fabio! History cannot
furnish me with a better example!"

He started as if he had been stung, and every drop of blood receded
from his face, leaving it almost livid. He turned his eyes in a kind of
wondering doubt upon me, but I counterfeited an air of such good faith
and frankness, that he checked some hasty utterance that rose to his
lips, and mastering himself by a strong effort, said, briefly:

"I thank you! I know I can rely upon your honor."

"You can!" I answered, decisively--"as positively as you rely upon your
own!" Again he winced, as though whipped smartly by an invisible lash.
Releasing his hand, I asked, in a tone of affected regret,

"And when must you leave us, carino?"

"Most unhappily, at once," he answered "I start by the early train
to-morrow morning."

"Well, I am glad I knew of this in time," I said, glancing at my
writing-table, which was strewn with unsent invitation cards, and
estimates from decorators and ball furnishers. "I shall not think of
starting any more gayeties till you return."

He looked gratefully at me "Really? It is very kind of you, but I
should be sorry to interfere with any of your plans--"

"Say no more about it, amico" I interrupted him lightly "Everything can
wait till you come back. Besides, I am sure you will prefer to think of
madama as living in some sort of seclusion during your enforced
absence--"

"I should not like her to be dull!" he eagerly exclaimed.

"Oh, no!" I said, with a slight smile at his folly, as if
she--Nina--would permit herself to be dull! "I will take care of that.
Little distractions, such as a drive now and then, or a very quiet,
select musical evening! I understand--leave it all to me! But the
dances, dinners, and other diversions shall wait till your return."

A delighted look flashed into his eyes. He was greatly flattered and
pleased.

"You are uncommonly good to me, conte!" he said, earnestly. "I can
never thank you sufficiently."

"I shall demand a proof of your gratitude some day," I answered. "And
now, had you not better be packing your portmanteau? To-morrow will
soon be here. I will come and see you off in the morning."

Receiving this assurance as another testimony of my friendship, he left
me. I saw him no more that day; it was easy to guess where he was! With
my wife, of course!--no doubt binding her, by all the most sacred vows
he could think of or invent, to be true to him--as true as she had been
false to me. In fancy I could see him clasping her in his arms, and
kissing her many times in his passionate fervor, imploring her to think
of him faithfully, night and day, till he should again return to the
joy of her caresses! I smiled coldly, as this glowing picture came
before my imagination. Ay, Guido! kiss her and fondle her now to your
heart's content--it is for the last time! Never again will that
witching glance be turned to you in either fear or favor--never again
will that fair body nestle in your jealous embrace--never again will
your kisses burn on that curved sweet mouth; never, never again! Your
day is done--the last brief moments of your sin's enjoyment have
come--make the most of them!--no one shall interfere! Drink the last
drop of sweet wine--MY hand shall not dash the cup from your lips on
this, the final night of your amour! Traitor, liar, and hypocrite! make
haste to be happy for the short time that yet remains to you--shut the
door close, lest the pure pale stars behold your love ecstasies! but
let the perfumed lamps shed their softest artificial luster on all that
radiant beauty which tempted your sensual soul to ruin, and of which
you are now permitted to take your last look! Let there be music
too--the music of her voice, which murmurs in your ear such entrancing
falsehoods! "She will be true," she says. You must believe her, Guido,
as I did--and, believing her thus, part from her as lingeringly and
tenderly as you will--part from her--FOREVER!



CHAPTER XVII.


Next morning I kept my appointment and met Ferrari at the railway
station. He looked pale and haggard, though he brightened a little on
seeing me. He was curiously irritable and fussy with the porters
concerning his luggage, and argued with them about some petty trifles
as obstinately and pertinaciously as a deaf old woman. His nerves were
evidently jarred and unstrung, and it was a relief when he at last got
into his coupe. He carried a yellow paper-covered volume in his hand. I
asked him if it contained any amusing reading.

"I really do not know," he answered, indifferently, "I have only just
bought it. It is by Victor Hugo."

And he held up the title-page for me to see.

"Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamne," I read aloud with careful slowness.
"Ah, indeed! You do well to read that. It is a very fine study!"

The train was on the point of starting, when he leaned out of the
carriage window and beckoned me to approach more closely.

"Remember!" he whispered, "I trust you to take care of her!"

"Never fear!" I answered, "I will do my best to replace YOU!"

He smiled a pale uneasy smile, and pressed my hand. These were our last
words, for with a warning shriek the train moved off, and in another
minute had rushed out of sight. I was alone--alone with perfect freedom
of action--I could do as I pleased with my wife now! I could even kill
her if I chose--no one would interfere. I could visit her that evening
and declare myself to her--could accuse her of her infidelity and stab
her to the heart! Any Italian jury would find "extenuating
circumstances" for me. But why? Why should I lay myself open to a
charge of murder, even for a just cause? No! my original design was
perfect, and I must keep to it and work it out with patience, though
patience was difficult. While I thus meditated, walking from the
station homeward, I was startled by the unexpected appearance of my
valet, who came upon me quite suddenly. He was out of breath with
running, and he carried a note for me marked "Immediate." It was from
my wife, and ran briefly thus:

"Please come at once. Stella is very ill, and asks for you."

"Who brought this?" I demanded, quickening my pace, and signing to
Vincenzo to keep beside me.

"The old man, eccellenza--Giacomo. He was weeping and in great
trouble--he said the little donzella had the fever in her throat--it is
the diphtheria he means, I think. She was taken ill in the middle of
the night, but the nurse thought it was nothing serious. This morning
she has been getting worse, and is in danger."

"A doctor has been sent for, of course?"

"Yes, eccellenza. So Giacomo said. But--"

"But WHAT?" I asked, quickly.

"Nothing, eccellenza! Only the old man said the doctor had come too
late."

My heart sunk heavily, and a sob rose in my throat. I stopped in my
rapid walk and bade Vincenzo call a carriage, one of the ordinary
vehicles that are everywhere standing about for hire in the principal
thoroughfares of Naples. I sprung into this and told the driver to take
me as quickly as possible to the Villa Romani, and adding to Vincenzo
that I should not return to the hotel all day, I was soon rattling
along the uphill road. On my arrival at the villa I found the gates
open, as though in expectation of my visit, and as I approached the
entrance door of the house, Giacomo himself met me.

"How is the child?" I asked him eagerly.

He made no reply, but shook his head gravely, and pointed to a kindly
looking man who was at that moment descending the stairs--a man whom I
instantly recognized as a celebrated English doctor resident in the
neighborhood. To him I repeated my inquiry--he beckoned me into a side
room and closed the door.

"The fact is," he said, simply, "it is a case of gross neglect. The
child has evidently been in a weakly condition for some time past, and
therefore is an easy prey to any disease that may be lurking about. She
was naturally strong--I can see that--and had I been called in when the
symptoms first developed themselves, I could have cured her. The nurse
tells me she dared not enter the mother's room to disturb her after
midnight, otherwise she would have called her to see the child--it is
unfortunate, for now I can do nothing."

I listened like one in a dream. Not even old Assunta dared to enter her
mistress's room after midnight--no! not though the child might be
seriously ill and suffering. I knew the reason well--too well! And so
while Ferrari had taken his fill of rapturous embraces and lingering
farewells, my little one had been allowed to struggle in pain and fever
without her mother's care or comfort. Not that such consolation would
have been much at its best, but I was fool enough to wish there had
been this one faint spark of womanhood left in her upon whom I had
wasted all the first and only love of my life. The doctor watched me as
I remained silent, and after a pause he spoke again.

"The child has earnestly asked to see you," he said, "and I persuaded
the countess to send for you, though she was very reluctant to do so,
as she said you might catch the disease. Of course there is always a
risk--"

"I am no coward, monsieur," I interrupted him, "though many of us
Italians prove but miserable panic-stricken wretches in time of
plague--the more especially when compared with the intrepidity and
pluck of Englishmen. Still there are exceptions--"

The doctor smiled courteously and bowed. "Then I have no more to say,
except that it would be well for you to see my little patient at once.
I am compelled to be absent for half an hour, but at the expiration of
that time I will return."

"Stay!" I said, laying a detaining hand on his arm. "Is there any hope?"

He eyed me gravely. "I fear not."

"Can nothing be done?"

"Nothing--except to keep her as quiet and warm as possible. I have left
some medicine with the nurse which will alleviate the pain. I shall be
able to judge of her better when I return; the illness will have then
reached its crisis." In a couple of minutes more he had left the house,
and a young maid-servant showed me to the nursery.

"Where is the contessa?" I asked in a whisper, as I trod softly up the
stairs.

"The contessa?" said the girl, opening her eyes in astonishment. "In
her own bedroom, eccellenza--madama would not think of leaving it;
because of the danger of infection." I smothered a rough oath that
roses involuntarily to my lips. Another proof of the woman's utter
heartlessness, I thought!

"Has she not seen her child?"

"Since the illness? Oh, no, eccellenza!"

Very gently and on tiptoe I entered the nursery. The blinds were
partially drawn as the strong light worried the child, and by the
little white bed sat Assunta, her brown face pale and almost rigid with
anxiety. At my approach she raised her eyes to mine, muttering softly:

"It is always so. Our Lady will have the best of all, first the father,
then the child; it is right and just--only the bad are left."

"Papa!" moaned a little voice feebly, and Stella sat up among her
tumbled pillows, with wide-opened wild eyes, feverish cheeks, and
parted lips through which the breath came in quick, uneasy gasps.
Shocked at the marks of intense suffering in her face, I put my arms
tenderly round her--she smiled faintly and tried to kiss me. I pressed
the poor parched little mouth and murmured, soothingly:

"Stella must be patient and quiet--Stella must lie down, the pain will
be better so; there! that is right!" as the child sunk back on her bed
obediently, still keeping her gaze fixed upon me. I knelt at the
bedside, and watched her yearningly--while Assunta moistened her lips,
and did all she could to ease the pain endured so meekly by the poor
little thing whose breathing grew quicker and fainter with every tick
of the clock. "You are my papa, are you not?" she asked, a deeper flush
crossing her forehead and cheeks. I made no answer--I only kissed the
small hot hand I held. Assunta shook her head.

"Ah, poverinetta! The time is near--she sees her father. And why not?
He loved her well--he would come to fetch her for certain if the saints
would let him."

And she fell on her knees and began to tell over her rosary with great
devotion. Meanwhile Stella threw one little arm round my neck--her eyes
were half shut--she spoke and breathed with increasing difficulty.

"My throat aches so, papa!" she said, pitifully. "Can you not make it
better?"

"I wish I could, my darling!" I murmured. "I would bear all the pain
for you if it were possible!"

She was silent a minute. Then she said:

"What a long time you have been away! And now I am too ill to play with
you!" Then a faint smile crossed her features. "See poor To-to!" she
exclaimed, feebly, as her eyes fell on a battered old doll in the
spangled dress of a carnival clown that lay at the foot of her bed.
"Poor dear old To-to! He will think I do not love him any more, because
my throat hurts me. Give him to me, papa!"

And as I obeyed her request she encircled the doll with one arm, while
she still clung to me with the other, and added:

"To-to remembers you, papa; you know you brought him from Rome, and he
is fond of you, too--but not as fond as I am!" And her dark eyes
glittered feverishly. Suddenly her glance fell on Assunta, whose gray
head was buried in her hands as she knelt.

"Assunta!"

The old woman looked up.

"Bambinetta!" she answered, and her aged voice trembled.

"Why are you crying?" inquired Stella with an air of plaintive
surprise. "Are you not glad to see papa?"

Her words were interrupted by a sharp spasm of pain which convulsed her
whole body--she gasped for breath--she was nearly suffocated. Assunta
and I raised her up gently and supported her against her pillows; the
agony passed slowly, but left her little face white and rigid, while
large drops of sweat gathered on her brow. I endeavored to soothe her.

"Darling, you must not talk," I whispered, imploringly; "try to be very
still--then the poor throat will not ache so much."

She looked at me wistfully. After a minute or two she said, gently:

"Kiss me, then, and I will be quite good."

I kissed her fondly, and she closed her eyes. Ten, twenty, thirty
minutes passed and she did not stir. At the end of that time the doctor
entered. He glanced at her, gave me a warning look, and remained
standing quietly at the foot of the bed. Suddenly the child woke, and
smiled divinely on all three of us.

"Are you in pain, my dear?" I softly asked.

"No!" she answered in a tiny voice, so faint and far away that we held
our breath to listen to it; "I am quite well now. Assunta must dress me
in my white frock again now papa is here. I knew he would come back!"

And she turned her eyes upon me with a look of bright intelligence.

"Her brain wanders," said the doctor, in a low, pitying voice; "it will
soon be over."

Stella did not hear him; she turned and nestled in my arms, asking in a
sort of babbling whisper:

"You did not go away because I was naughty, did you, papa?"

"No darling!" I answered, hiding my face in her curls.

"Why do you have those ugly black things on?" she asked, in the
feeblest and most plaintive tone imaginable, so weak that I myself
could scarcely hear it; "has somebody hurt your eyes? Let me see your
eyes!" I hesitated. Dare I humor her in her fancy? I glanced up. The
doctor's head again was turned away, Assunta was on her knees, her face
buried in the bed-clothes, praying to her saints; quick as thought I
slipped my spectacles slightly down, and looked over them full at my
little one. She uttered a soft cry of delight--"Papa! papa!" and
stretched out her arms, then a strong and terrible shudder shook her
little frame. The doctor came closer--I replaced my glasses without my
action being noticed, and we both bent anxiously over the suffering
child. Her face paled and grew livid--she made another effort to
speak--her beautiful eyes rolled upward and became fixed--she
sighed--and sunk back on my shoulder--dying--dead! My poor little one!
A hard sob stifled itself in my throat--I clasped the small lifeless
body close in my embrace, and my tears fell hot and fast. There was a
long silence in the room--a deep, an awe-struck, reverent silence,
while the Angel of Death, noiselessly entering and departing, gathered
my little white rose for his Immortal garden of flowers.



CHAPTER XVIII.


After some little time the doctor's genial voice, slightly tremulous
from kindly emotion, roused me from my grief-stricken attitude.

"Monsieur, permit me to persuade you to come away. Poor little child!
she is free from pain now. Her fancy that you were her father was a
fortunate delusion for her. It made her last moments happy. Pray come
with me--I can see this has been a shock to your feelings."

Reverently I laid the fragile corpse back on the yet warm pillows. With
a fond touch I stroked the flaxen head; I closed the dark, upturned,
and glazing eyes--I kissed the waxen cheeks and lips, and folded the
tiny hands in an attitude of prayer. There was a grave smile on the
young dead face--a smile of superior wisdom and sweetness, majestic in
its simplicity. Assunta rose from her knees and laid her crucifix on
the little breast--the tears were running down her worn and withered
countenance. As she strove to wipe them away with her apron, she said
tremblingly:--

"It must be told to madama." A frown came on the doctor's face. He was
evidently a true Britisher, decisive in his opinions, and frank enough
to declare them openly. "Yes," he said, curtly, "Madama, as you call
her, should have been here."

"The little angel did not once ask for her," murmured Assunta.

"True!" he answered. And again there was silence. We stood round the
small bed, looking at the empty casket that had held the lost
jewel--the flawless pearl of innocent childhood that had gone,
according to a graceful superstition, to ornament the festal robes of
the Madonna as she walked in all her majesty through heaven. A profound
grief was at my heart--mingled with a sense of mysterious and awful
satisfaction. I felt, not as though I had lost my child, but had rather
gained her to be more entirely mine than ever. She seemed nearer to me
dead than she had been when living. Who could say what her future might
have been? She would have grown to womanhood--what then? What is the
usual fate that falls to even the best woman? Sorrow, pain, and petty
worry, unsatisfied longings, incompleted aims, the disappointment of an
imperfect and fettered life--for say what you will to the contrary,
woman's inferiority to man, her physical weakness, her inability to
accomplish any great thing for the welfare of the world in which she
lives, will always make her more or less an object of pity. If good,
she needs all the tenderness, support, and chivalrous guidance of her
master, man--if bad, she merits what she receives, his pitiless disdain
and measureless contempt. From all dangers and griefs of the kind my
Stella had escaped--for her, sorrow no longer existed. I was glad of
it, I thought, as I watched Assunta shutting the blinds close, as a
signal to outsiders that death was in the house. At a sign from the
doctor I followed him out of the room--on the stairs he turned round
abruptly, and asked:

"Will YOU tell the countess?"

"I would rather be excused," I replied, decisively. "I am not at all in
the humor for a SCENE."

"You think she will make a scene?" he said with an astonished uplifting
of his eyebrows. "I dare say you are right though! She is an excellent
actress."

By this time we had reached the foot of the stairs.

"She is very beautiful," I answered evasively.

"Oh, very! No doubt of that!" And here a strange frown contracted the
doctor's brow. "For my own taste, I prefer an ugly woman to SUCH
beauty."

And with these words he left me, disappearing down the passage which
led to "madama's" boudoir. Left alone, I paced up and down the
drawing-room, gazing abstractedly on its costly fittings, its many
luxurious knickknacks and elegancies--most of which I had given to my
wife during the first few months of our marriage. By and by I heard the
sound of violent hysterical sobbing, accompanied by the noise of
hurrying footsteps and the rapid whisking about of female garments. In
a few moments the doctor entered with an expression of sardonic
amusement on his face. "Yes!" he said in reply to my look of inquiry,
"hysterics, lace handkerchiefs, eau-de-Cologne, and attempts at
fainting. All very well done! I have assured the lady there is no fear
of contagion, as under my orders everything will be thoroughly
disinfected. I shall go now. Oh, by the way, the countess requests that
you will wait here a few minutes--she has a message for you--she will
not detain you long. I should recommend you to get back to your hotel
as soon as you can, and take some good wine. A rivederci! Anything I
can do for you pray command me!"

And with a cordial shake of the hand he left me, and I heard the street
door close behind him. Again I paced wearily up and down, wrapped in
sorrowful musings. I did not hear a stealthy tread on the carpet behind
me, so that when I turned round abruptly, I was startled to find myself
face to face with old Giacomo, who held out a note to me on a silver
salver, and who meanwhile peered at me with his eager eyes in so
inquisitive a manner that I felt almost uneasy.

"And so the little angel is dead!" he murmured in a thin, quavering
voice. "Dead! Ay, that is a pity, a pity! But MY master is not
dead--no, no! I am not such an old fool as to believe that."

I paid no heed to his rambling talk, but read the message Nina had sent
to me through him.

"I am BROKEN-HEARTED!" so ran the delicately penciled lines. "Will you
kindly telegraph my DREADFUL loss to Signor Ferrari? I shall be much
obliged to you." I looked up from the perfumed missive and down at the
old butler's wrinkled visage; he was a short man and much bent, and
something in the downward glance I gave him evidently caught and
riveted his attention, for Tie clasped his hands together and muttered
something I could not hear.

"Tell your mistress," I said, speaking slowly and harshly, "that I will
do as she wishes. That I am entirely at her service. Do you understand?"

"Yes, yes! I understand!" faltered Giacomo, nervously, "My master never
thought me foolish--I could always understand him--"

"Do you know, my friend," I observed, in a purposely cold and cutting
tone, "that I have heard somewhat too much about your master? The
subject is tiresome to me! Were your master alive, he would say you
were in your dotage! Take my message to the countess at once."

The old man's face paled and his lips quivered--he made an attempt to
draw up his shrunken figure with a sort of dignity as he answered
"Eccellenza, my master would never speak to me so--never, never!" Then
his countenance fell, and he muttered, softly--"Though it is just--I am
a fool--I am mistaken--quite mistaken--there is no resemblance!" After
a little pause he added, humbly, "I will take your message,
eccellenza." And stooping more than ever, he shambled out of the room.
My heart smote me as he disappeared; I had spoken very harshly to the
poor old fellow--but I instinctively felt that it was necessary to do
so. His close and ceaseless examination of me--his timidity when he
approached me--the strange tremors he experienced when I addressed him,
were so many warnings to me to be on my guard with this devoted
domestic. Were he, by some unforeseen chance, to recognize me, my plans
would all be spoiled. I took my hat and left the house. As I crossed
the upper terrace, I saw a small round object lying in the grass--it
was Stella's ball that she used to throw for Wyvis to catch and bring
to her. I picked up the poor plaything tenderly and put it in my
pocket--and glancing up once more at the darkened nursery windows, I
waved a kiss of farewell to my little one lying there in her last
sleep. Then fiercely controlling all the weaker and softer emotions
that threatened to overwhelm me, I hurried away. On my road to the
hotel I stopped at the telegraph-office and dispatched the news of
Stella's death to Guido Ferrari in Rome. He would be surprised, I
thought, but certainly not grieved--the poor child had always been in
his way. Would he come back to Naples to console the now childless
widow? Not he!--he would know well that she stood in very small need of
consolation--and that she took Stella's death as she had taken mine--as
a blessing, and not a bereavement. On reaching my own rooms, I gave
orders to Vincenzo that I was not at home to any one who might
call--and I passed the rest of the day in absolute solitude. I had much
to think of. The last frail tie between my wife and myself had been
snapped asunder--the child, the one innocent link in the long chain of
falsehood and deception, no longer existed. Was I glad or sorry for
this? I asked myself the question a hundred times, and I admitted the
truth, though I trembled to realize it. I was GLAD--yes--GLAD! Glad
that my own child was dead! You call this inhuman perhaps? Why? She was
bound to have been miserable; she was now happy!

The tragedy of her parents' lives could be enacted without imbittering
and darkening her young days, she was out of it all, and I rejoiced to
know it. For I was absolutely relentless; had my little Stella lived,
not even for her sake would I have relaxed in one detail of my
vengeance--nothing seemed to me so paramount as the necessity for
restoring my own self-respect and damaged honor. In England I know
these things are managed by the Divorce Court. Lawyers are paid
exorbitant fees, and the names of the guilty and innocent are dragged
through the revolting slums of the low London press. It may be an
excellent method--but it does not tend to elevate a man in his own
eyes, and it certainly does not do much to restore his lost dignity. It
has one advantage--it enables the criminal parties to have their way
without further interference--the wronged husband is set free--left out
in the cold--and laughed at by those who wronged him. An admirable
arrangement no doubt--but one that would not suit me. Chacun a son
gout! It would be curious to know in matters of this kind whether
divorced persons are really satisfied when they have got their
divorce--whether the amount of red tape and parchment expended in their
interest has done them good and really relieved their feelings.
Whether, for instance, the betrayed husband is glad to have got rid of
his unfaithful wife by throwing her (with the full authority and
permission of the law) into his rival's arms? I almost doubt it! I
heard of a strange case in England once. A man, moving in good society,
having more than suspicions of his wife's fidelity, divorced her--the
law pronounced her guilty. Some years afterward, he being free, met her
again, fell in love with her for the second time and remarried her. She
was (naturally!) delighted at his making such a fool of himself--for
henceforth, whatever she chose to do, he could not reasonably complain
without running the risk of being laughed at. So now the number and
variety of her lovers is notorious in the particular social circle
where she moves--while he, poor wretch, is perforce tongue-tied, and
dare not consider himself wronged. There is no more pitiable object in
the world than such a man--secretly derided and jeered at by his
fellows, he occupies an almost worse position than that of a galley
slave, while in his own esteem he has sunk so low that he dare not,
even in secret, try to fathom the depth to which he has fallen. Some
may assert that to be divorced is a social stigma. It used to be so
perhaps, but society has grown very lenient nowadays. Divorced women
hold their own in the best and most brilliant circles, and what is
strange is that they are very generally petted and pitied.

"Poor thing!" says society, putting up its eyeglass to scan admiringly
the beautiful heroine of the latest aristocratic scandal--"she had such
a brute of a husband! No wonder she liked that DEAR Lord So-and-So!
Very wrong of her, of course, but she is so young! She was married at
sixteen--quite a child!--could not have known her own mind!"

The husband alluded to might have been the best and most chivalrous of
men--anything but a "brute"--yet he always figures as such somehow, and
gets no sympathy. And, by the way, it is rather a notable fact that all
the beautiful, famous, or notorious women were "married at sixteen."
How is this managed? I can account for it in southern climates, where
girls are full-grown at sixteen and old at thirty--but I cannot
understand its being the case in England, where a "miss" of sixteen is
a most objectionable and awkward ingenue, without any of the "charms
wherewith to charm," and whose conversation is always vapid and silly
to the point of absolute exhaustion on the part of those who are forced
to listen to it. These sixteen-year-old marriages are, however, the
only explanation frisky English matrons can give for having such
alarmingly prolific families of tall sons and daughters, and it is a
happy and convenient excuse--one that provides a satisfactory reason
for the excessive painting of their faces and dyeing of their hair.
Being young (as they so nobly assert), they wish to look even younger.
A la bonne heure! If men cannot see through the delicate fiction, they
have only themselves to blame. As for me, I believe in the old, old,
apparently foolish legend of Adam and Eve's sin and the curse which
followed it--the curse on man is inevitably carried out to this day.
God said:

"BECAUSE" (mark that BECAUSE!) "thou hast hearkened unto the voice of
thy wife" (or thy WOMAN, whoever she be), "and hast eaten of the tree
of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it" (the tree
or fruit being the evil suggested FIRST to man by woman), "cursed is
the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of
thy life!"

True enough! The curse is upon all who trust woman too far--the sorrow
upon all who are beguiled by her witching flatteries. Of what avail her
poor excuse in the ancient story--"The serpent beguiled me and I did
eat!" Had she never listened she could not have been beguiled. The
weakness, the treachery, was in herself, and is there still. Through
everything the bitterness of it runs. The woman tempts--the man
yields--and the gate of Eden--the Eden of a clear conscience and an
untrammeled soul, is shut upon them. Forever and ever the Divine
denunciation re-echoes like muttering thunder through the clouds of
passing generations; forever and ever we unconsciously carry it out in
our own lives to its full extent till the heart grows sick and the
brain weary, and we long for the end of it all, which is death--death,
that mysterious silence and darkness at which we sometimes shudder,
wondering vaguely--Can it be worse than life?



CHAPTER XIX.


More than ten days had passed since Stella's death. Her mother had
asked me to see to the arrangements for the child's funeral, declaring
herself too ill to attend to anything. I was glad enough to accede to
her request, for I was thus able to avoid the Romani vault as a place
of interment. I could not bear to think of the little cherished body
being laid to molder in that terrific place where I had endured such
frantic horrors. Therefore, informing all whom it concerned that I
acted under the countess's orders, I chose a pretty spot in the open
ground of the cemetery, close to the tree where I had heard the
nightingale singing in my hour of supreme misery and suffering. Here my
little one was laid tenderly to rest in warm mother-earth, and I had
sweet violets and primroses planted thickly all about the place, while
on the simple white marble cross that marked the spot I had the words
engraved--

  "Una Stella svanita,"  [Footnote: A vanished star]

adding the names of her parents and the date of her birth and death.
Since all this had been done I had visited my wife several times. She
was always at home to me, though of course, for decency's sake, in
consequence of the child's death, she denied herself to everybody else.
She looked lovelier than ever; the air of delicate languor she assumed
suited her as perfectly as its fragile whiteness suits a hot-house
lily. She knew the power of her own beauty most thoroughly, and
employed it in arduous efforts to fascinate me. But I had changed my
tactics; I paid very little heed to her, and never went to see her
unless she asked me very pressingly to do so. All compliments and
attentions from me to her had ceased. SHE courted me, and I accepted
her courtship in unresponsive silence. I played the part of a taciturn
and reserved man, who preferred reading some ancient and abstruse
treatise on metaphysics to even the charms of her society--and often,
when she urgently desired my company, I would sit in her drawing-room,
turning over the leaves of a book and feigning to be absorbed in it,
while she, from her velvet fauteuil, would look at me with a pretty
pensiveness made up half of respect, half of gentle admiration--a
capitally acted facial expression, by the bye, and one that would do
credit to Sarah Bernhardt. We had both heard from Guido Ferrari; his
letter to my wife I of course did not see; she had, however, told me he
was "much shocked and distressed to hear of Stella's death." The
epistle he addressed to me had a different tale to tell. In it he
wrote--"YOU can understand, my dear conte, that I am not much grieved
to hear of the death of Fabio's child. Had she lived, I confess her
presence would have been a perpetual reminder to me of things I prefer
to forget. She never liked me--she might have been a great source of
trouble and inconvenience; so, on the whole, I am glad she is out of
the way."

Further on in the letter he informed me:

"My uncle is at death's door, but though that door stands wide open for
him, he cannot make up his mind to go in. His hesitation will not be
allowed to last, so the doctors tell me--at any rate I fervently hope I
shall not be kept waiting too long, otherwise I shall return to Naples
and sacrifice my heritage, for I am restless and unhappy away from
Nina, though I know she is safely guarded by your protecting care."

I read this particular paragraph to my wife, watching her closely as I
slowly enunciated the words contained in it. She listened, and a vivid
blush crimsoned her cheeks--a blush of indignation--and her brows
contracted in the vexed frown I knew so well. Her lips parted in a
half-sweet, half-chilly smile as she said, quietly:

"I owe you my thanks, conte, for showing me to what extent Signor
Ferrari's impertinence may reach. I am surprised at his writing to you
in such a manner! The fact is, my late husband's attachment for him was
so extreme that he now presumes upon a supposed right that he has over
me--he fancies I am really his sister, and that he can tyrannize, as
brothers sometimes do! I really regret I have been so patient with
him--I have allowed him too much liberty."

True enough! I thought and smiled bitterly. I was now in the heat of
the game--the moves must be played quickly--there was no more time for
hesitation or reflection.

"I think, madam," I said, deliberately, as I folded Guido's letter and
replaced it in my pocket-book, "Signor Ferrari ardently aspires to be
something more than a brother to you at no very distant date."

Oh, the splendid hypocrisy of women! No wonder they make such excellent
puppets on the theatrical stage--acting is their natural existence,
sham their breath of life! This creature showed no sign of
embarrassment--she raised her eyes frankly to mine in apparent
surprise--then she gave a little low laugh of disdain.

"Indeed!" she said. "Then I fear Signor Ferrari is doomed to have his
aspirations disappointed! My dear conte," and here she rose and swept
softly across the room toward me with that graceful gliding step that
somehow always reminded me of the approach of a panther, "do you really
mean to tell me that his audacity has reached such a height
that--really it is TOO absurd!--that he hopes to marry me?" And sinking
into a chair near mine she looked at me in calm inquiry. Lost in
amazement at the duplicity of the Vroman, I answered, briefly:

"I believe so! He intimated as much to me." She smiled scornfully.

"I am too much honored! And did you, conte, think for a moment that
such an arrangement would meet with my approval?"

I was silent. My brain was confused--I found it difficult to meet with
and confront such treachery as this. What! Had she no conscience? Were
all the passionate embraces, the lingering kisses, the vows of
fidelity, and words of caressing endearment as naught? Were they all
blotted from her memory as the writing on a slate is wiped out by a
sponge! Almost I pitied Guido! His fate, in her hands, was evidently to
be the same as mine had been; yet after all, why should I be surprised?
why should I pity? Had I not calculated it all? and was it not part of
my vengeance?

"Tell me!" pursued my wife's dulcet voice, breaking in upon my
reflections, "did you really imagine Signer Ferrari's suit might meet
with favor at my hands?"

I must speak--the comedy had to be played out. So I answered, bluntly:

"Madam, I certainly did think so. It seemed a natural conclusion to
draw from the course of events. He is young, undeniably handsome, and
on his uncle's death will be fairly wealthy--what more could you
desire? besides, he was your husband's friend--"

"And for that reason I would never marry him!" she interrupted me with
a decided gesture. "Even if I liked him sufficiently, which I do not"
(oh, miserable traitress), "I would not run the risk of what the world
would say of such a marriage."

"How, madam? Pardon me if I fail to comprehend you."

"Do you not see, conte?" she went on in a coaxing voice, as of one that
begged to be believed, "if I were to marry one that was known to have
been my husband's most intimate friend, society is so wicked--people
would be sure to say that there had been something between us before my
husband's death--I KNOW they would, and I could not endure such
slander!"

"Murder will out" they say! Here was guilt partially declaring itself.
A perfectly innocent woman could not foresee so readily the
condemnation of society. Not having the knowledge of evil she would be
unable to calculate the consequences. The overprudish woman betrays
herself; the fine lady who virtuously shudders at the sight of a nude
statue or picture, announces at once to all whom it may concern that
there is something far coarser in the suggestions of her own mind than
the work of art she condemns. Absolute purity has no fear of social
slander; it knows its own value, and that it must conquer in the end.
My wife--alas! that I should call her so--was innately vicious and
false; yet how particular she was in her efforts to secure the blind
world's good opinion! Poor old world! how exquisitely it is fooled, and
how good-naturedly it accepts its fooling! But I had to answer the fair
liar, whose net of graceful deceptions was now spread to entrap me,
therefore I said with an effort of courtesy:

"No one would dare to slander you, contessa, in my presence." She bowed
and smiled prettily. "But," I went on, "if it is true that you have no
liking for Signer Ferrari--"

"It is true!" she exclaimed with sudden emphasis. "He is rough and
ill-mannered; I have seen him the worse for wine, sometimes he is
insufferable! I am afraid of him!"

I glanced at her quietly. Her face had paled, and her hands, which were
busied with some silken embroidery, trembled a little.

"In that case," I continued, slowly, "though I am sorry for Ferrari,
poor fellow! he will be immensely disappointed! I confess I am glad in
other respects, because--"

"Because what?" she demanded, eagerly. "Why," I answered, feigning a
little embarrassment, "because there will be more chance for other men
who may seek to possess the hand of the accomplished and beautiful
Contessa Romani."

She shook her fair head slightly. A transient expression of
disappointment passed over her features.

"The 'other men' you speak of, conte, are not likely to indulge in such
an ambition," she said, with a faint sigh; "more especially," and her
eyes flashed indignantly, "since Signor Ferrari thinks it his duty to
mount guard over me. I suppose he wishes to keep me for himself--a most
impertinent and foolish notion! There is only one thing to do--I shall
leave Naples before he returns."

"Why?" I asked.

She flushed deeply. "I wish to avoid him," she said, after a little
pause; "I tell you frankly, he has lately given me much cause for
annoyance. I will not be persecuted by his attentions; and as I before
said to you, I am often afraid of him. Under YOUR protection I know I
am quite safe, but I cannot always enjoy that--"

The moment had come. I advanced a step or two.

"Why not?" I said. "It rests entirely with yourself."

She started and half rose from her chair--her work dropped from her
hands.

"What do you mean, conte?" she faltered, half timidly, yet anxiously;
"I do not understand!"

"I mean what I say," I continued in cool hard tones, and stooping, I
picked up her work and restored it to her; "but pray do not excite
yourself! You say you cannot always enjoy my protection; it seems to me
that you can--by becoming my wife."

"Conte!" she stammered. I held up my hand as a sign to her to be silent.

"I am perfectly aware," I went on in business-like accents--"of the
disparity in years that exists between us. I have neither youth,
health, or good looks to recommend me to you. Trouble and bitter
disappointment have made me what I am. But I have wealth which is
almost inexhaustible--I have position and influence--and beside these
things"--and here I looked at her steadily, "I have an ardent desire to
do justice to your admirable qualities, and to give you all you
deserve. If you think you could be happy with me, speak frankly--I
cannot offer you the passionate adoration of a young man--my blood is
cold and my pulse is slow--but what I CAN do, I will!"

Having spoken thus, I was silent--gazing at her intently. She paled and
flushed alternately, and seemed for a moment lost in thought--then a
sudden smile of triumph curved her mouth--she raised her large lovely
eyes to mine, with a look of melting and wistful tenderness. She laid
her needle-work gently down, and came close up to me--her fragrant
breath fell warm on my cheek--her strange gaze fascinated me, and a
sort of tremor shook my nerves.

"You mean," she said, with a tender pathos in her voice--"that you are
willing to marry me, but that you do not really LOVE me?"

And almost appealingly she laid her white hand on my shoulder--her
musical accents were low and thrilling--she sighed faintly. I was
silent--battling violently with the foolish desire that had sprung up
within me, the desire to draw this witching fragile thing to my heart,
to cover her lips with kisses--to startle her with the passion of my
embraces! But I forced the mad impulse down and stood mute. She watched
me--slowly she lifted her hand from where it had rested, and passed it
with a caressing touch through my hair.

"No--you do not really LOVE me," she whispered--"but I will tell you
the truth--_I_ LOVE YOU!"

And she drew herself up to her full height and smiled again as she
uttered the lie. I knew it was a lie--but I seized the hand whose
caresses stung me, and held it hard, as I answered:

"YOU love ME? No, no--I cannot believe it--it is impossible!"

She laughed softly. "It is true though," she said, emphatically, "the
very first time I saw you I knew I should love you! I never even liked
my husband, and though in some things you resemble him, you are quite
different in others--and superior to him in every way. Believe it or
not as you like, you are the only man in all the world I have ever
loved!"

And she made the assertion unblushingly, with an air of conscious pride
and virtue. Half stupefied at her manner, I asked:

"Then you will be my wife?"

"I will!" she answered--"and tell me--your name is Cesare, is it not?"

"Yes," I said, mechanically.

"Then, CESARE" she murmured, tenderly, "I will MAKE you love me very
much!"

And with a quick lithe movement of her supple figure, she nestled
softly against me, and turned up her radiant glowing face.

"Kiss me!" she said, and waited. As one in a whirling dream, I stooped
and kissed those false sweet lips! I would have more readily placed my
mouth upon that of a poisonous serpent! Yet that kiss roused a sort of
fury in me. I slipped my arms round her half-reclining figure, drew her
gently backward to the couch she had left, and sat down beside her,
still embracing her. "You really love me?" I asked almost fiercely.

"Yes!"

"And I am the first man whom you have really cared for?

"You are!"

"You never liked Ferrari?"

"Never!"

"Did he ever kiss you as I have done?"

"Not once!"

God! how the lies poured forth! a very cascade of them! and they were
all told with such an air of truth! I marveled at the ease and rapidity
with which they glided off this fair woman's tongue, feeling somewhat
the same sense of stupid astonishment a rustic exhibits when he sees
for the first time a conjurer drawing yards and yards of many-colored
ribbon out of his mouth. I took up the little hand on which the
wedding-ring _I_ had placed there was still worn, and quietly slipped
upon the slim finger a circlet of magnificent rose-brilliants. I had
long carried this trinket about with me in expectation of the moment
that had now come. She started from my arms with an exclamation of
delight.

"Oh, Cesare! how lovely! How good you are to me!"

And leaning toward me, she kissed me, then resting against my shoulder,
she held up her hand to admire the flash of the diamonds in the light.
Suddenly she said, with some anxiety in her tone:

"You will not tell Guido? not yet?"

"No," I answered; "I certainly will not tell him till he returns.
Otherwise he would leave Rome at once, and we do not want him back just
immediately, do we?" And I toyed with her rippling gold tresses half
mechanically, while I wondered within myself at the rapid success of my
scheme. She, in the meantime grew pensive and abstracted, and for a few
moments we were both silent. If she had known! I thought, if she could
have imagined that she was encircled by the arm of HER OWN HUSBAND, the
man whom she had duped and wronged, the poor fool she had mocked at and
despised, whose life had been an obstruction in her path, whose death
she had been glad of! Would she have smiled so sweetly? Would she have
kissed me then?

      *      *      *      *      *

She remained leaning against me in a reposeful attitude for some
moments, ever and anon turning the ring I had given her round and round
upon her finger. By and by she looked up.

"Will you do me one favor?" she asked, coaxingly; "such a little
thing--a trifle! but it would give me such pleasure!"

"What is it?" I asked; "it is you to command and I to obey!"

"Well, to take off those dark glasses just for a minute! I want to see
your eyes."

I rose from the sofa quickly, and answered her with some coldness.

"Ask anything you like but that, mia bella. The least light on my eyes
gives me the most acute pain--pain that irritates my nerves for hours
afterward. Be satisfied with me as I am for the present, though I
promise you your wish shall be gratified--"

"When?" she interrupted me eagerly. I stooped and kissed her hand.

"On the evening of our marriage day," I answered.

She blushed and turned away her head coquettishly.

"Ah! that is so long to wait!" she said, half pettishly.

"Not very long, I HOPE," I observed, with meaning emphasis. "We are now
in November. May I ask you to make my suspense brief? to allow me to
fix our wedding for the second month of the new year?"

"But my recent widowhood!--Stella's death!"--she objected faintly,
pressing a perfumed handkerchief gently to her eyes.

"In February your husband will have been dead nearly six months," I
said, decisively; "it is quite a sufficient period of mourning for one
so young as yourself. And the loss of your child so increases the
loneliness of your situation, that it is natural, even necessary, that
you should secure a protector as soon as possible. Society will not
censure you, you may be sure--besides, _I_ shall know how to silence
any gossip that savors of impertinence."

A smile of conscious triumph parted her lips.

"It shall be as you wish," she said, demurely; "if you, who are known
in Naples as one who is perfectly indifferent to women like now to
figure as an impatient lover. I shall not object!"

And she gave me a quick glance of mischievous amusement from under the
languid lids of her dreamy dark eyes. I saw it, but answered, stiffly:

"YOU are aware, contessa, and I am also aware that I am not a 'lover'
according to the accepted type, but that I am impatient I readily
admit."

"And why?" she asked.

"Because," I replied, speaking slowly and emphatically; "I desire you
to be mine and mine only, to have you absolutely in my possession, and
to feel that no one can come between us, or interfere with my wishes
concerning you."

She laughed gayly. "A la bonne heure! You ARE a lover without knowing
it! Your dignity will not allow you to believe that you are actually in
love with me, but in spite of yourself you ARE--you know you are!"

I stood before her in almost somber silence. At last I said: "If YOU
say so, contessa, then it must be so. I have had no experience in
affairs of the heart, as they are called, and I find it difficult to
give a name to the feelings which possess me; I am only conscious of a
very strong wish to become the absolute master of your destiny." And
involuntarily I clinched my hand as I spoke. She did not observe the
action, but she answered the words with a graceful bend of the head and
a smile.

"I could not have a better fortune," she said, "for I am sure my
destiny will be all brightness and beauty with YOU to control and guide
it!"

"It will be what you desire," I half muttered; then with an abrupt
change of manner I said: "I will wish you goodnight, contessa. It grows
late, and my state of health compels me to retire to rest early."

She rose from her seat and gave me a compassionate look.

"You are really a great sufferer then?" she inquired tenderly. "I am
sorry! But perhaps careful nursing will quite restore you. I shall be
so proud if I can help you to secure better health."

"Rest and happiness will no doubt do much for me," I answered, "still I
warn you, cara mia, that in accepting me as your husband you take a
broken-down man, one whose whims are legion and whose chronic state of
invalidism may in time prove to be a burden on your young life. Are you
sure your decision is a wise one?"

"Quite sure!" she replied firmly. "Do I not LOVE you! And you will not
always be ailing--you look so strong."

"I am strong to a certain extent," I said, unconsciously straightening
myself as I stood. "I have plenty of muscle as far as that goes, but my
nervous system is completely disorganized. I--why, what is the matter?
Are you ill?"

For she had turned deathly pale, and her eyes look startled and
terrified. Thinking she would faint, I extended my arms to save her
from falling, but she put them aside with an alarmed yet appealing
gesture.

"It is nothing," she murmured feebly, "a sudden giddiness--I
thought--no matter what! Tell me, are you not related to the Romani
family? When you drew yourself up just now you were so like--like
FABIO! I fancied," and she shuddered, "that I saw his ghost!"

I supported her to a chair near the window, which I threw open for air,
though the evening was cold.

"You are fatigued and overexcited," I said calmly, "your nature is too
imaginative. No; I am not related to the Romanis, though possibly I may
have some of their mannerisms. Many men are alike in these things. But
you must not give way to such fancies. Rest perfectly quiet, you will
soon recover."

And pouring out a glass of water I handed it to her. She sipped it
slowly, leaning back in the fauteuil where I had placed her, and in
silence we both looked out on the November night. There was a moon, but
she was veiled by driving clouds, which ever and anon swept asunder to
show her gleaming pallidly white, like the restless spirit of a
deceived and murdered lady. A rising wind moaned dismally among the
fading creepers and rustled the heavy branches of a giant cypress that
stood on the lawn like a huge spectral mourner draped in black,
apparently waiting for a forest funeral. Now and then a few big drops
of rain fell-sudden tears wrung as though by force from the black heart
of the sky. My wife shivered.

"Shut the window!" she said, glancing back at me where I stood behind
her chair. "I am much better now. I was very silly. I do not know what
came over me, but for the moment I felt afraid--horribly afraid!--of
YOU!"

"That was not complimentary to your future husband," I remarked,
quietly, as I closed and fastened the window in obedience to her
request. "Should I not insist upon an apology?"

She laughed nervously, and played with her ring of rose-brilliants.

"It is not yet too late," I resumed, "if on second thoughts you would
rather not marry me, you have only to say so. I shall accept my fate
with equanimity, and shall not blame you."

At this she seemed quite alarmed, and rising, laid her hand pleadingly
on my arm.

"Surely you are not offended?" she said. "I was not really afraid of
you, you know--it was a stupid fancy--I cannot explain it. But I am
quite well now, and I am only TOO happy. Why, I would not lose your
love for all the world--you MUST believe me!"

And she touched my hand caressingly with her lips. I withdrew it
gently, and stroked her hair with an almost parental tenderness; then I
said quietly:

"If so, we are agreed, and all is well. Let me advise you to take a
long night's rest: your nerves are weak and somewhat shaken. You wish
me to keep our engagement secret?"

She thought for a moment, then answered musingly:

"For the present perhaps it would be best. Though," and she laughed,
"it would be delightful to see all the other women jealous and envious
of my good fortune! Still, if the news were told to any of our
friends--who knows?--it might accidentally reach Guido, and--"

"I understand! You may rely upon my discretion. Good-night, contessa!"

"You may call me Nina," she murmured, softly.

"NINA, then," I said, with some effort, as I lightly kissed her.
"Good-night!--may your dreams be of me!" She responded to this with a
gratified smile, and as I left the room she waved her hand in a parting
salute. My diamonds flashed on it like a small circlet of fire; the
light shed through the rose-colored lamps that hung from the painted
ceiling fell full on her exquisite loveliness, softening it into
ethereal radiance and delicacy, and when I strode forth from the house
into the night air heavy with the threatening gloom of coming tempest,
the picture of that fair face and form flitted before me like a
mirage--the glitter of her hair flashed on my vision like little snakes
of fire--her lithe hands seemed to beckon me--her lips had left a
scorching heat on mine. Distracted with the thoughts that tortured me,
I walked on and on for hours. The storm broke at last; the rain poured
in torrents, but heedless of wind and weather, I wandered on like a
forsaken fugitive. I seemed to be the only human being left alive in a
world of wrath and darkness. The rush and roar of the blast, the angry
noise of waves breaking hurriedly on the shore, the swirling showers
that fell on my defenseless head--all these things were unfelt, unheard
by me. There are times in a man's life when mere physical feeling grows
numb under the pressure of intense mental agony-when the indignant
soul, smarting with the experience of some vile injustice, forgets for
a little its narrow and poor house of clay. Some such mood was upon me
then, I suppose, for in the very act of walking I was almost
unconscious of movement. An awful solitude seemed to encompass me--a
silence of my own creating. I fancied that even the angry elements
avoided me as I passed; that there was nothing, nothing in all the wide
universe but myself and a dark brooding horror called Vengeance. All
suddenly, the mists of my mind cleared; I moved no longer in a deaf,
blind stupor. A flash of lightning danced vividly before my eyes,
followed by a crashing peal of thunder, I saw to what end of a wild
journey I had come! Those heavy gates--that undefined stretch of
land--those ghostly glimmers of motionless white like spectral
mile-stones emerging from the gloom--I knew it all too well--it was the
cemetery! I looked through the iron palisades with the feverish
interest of one who watches the stage curtain rise on the last scene of
a tragedy. The lightning sprung once more across the sky, and showed me
for a brief second the distant marble outline of the Romani vault.
There the drama began--where would it end? Slowly, slowly there flitted
into my thoughts the face of my lost child--the young, serious face as
it had looked when the calm, preternaturally wise smile of Death had
rested upon it; and then a curious feeling of pity possessed me--pity
that her little body should be lying stiffly out there, not in the
vault, but under the wet sod, in such a relentless storm of rain. I
wanted to take her up from that cold couch--to carry her to some home
where there should be light and heat and laughter--to warm her to life
again within my arms; and as my brain played with these foolish
fancies, slow hot tears forced themselves into my eyes and scalded my
cheeks as they fell. These tears relieved me--gradually the tightly
strung tension of my nerves relaxed, and I recovered my usual composure
by degrees. Turning deliberately away from the beckoning grave-stones,
I walked back to the city through the thick of the storm, this time
with an assured step and a knowledge of where I was going. I did not
reach my hotel till past midnight, but this was not late for Naples,
and the curiosity of the fat French hall-porter was not so much excited
by the lateness of my arrival as by the disorder of my apparel.

"Ah, Heaven!" he cried; "that monsieur the distinguished should have
been in such a storm all unprotected! Why did not monsieur send for his
carriage?" I cut short his exclamations by dropping five francs into
his ever-ready hand, assuring him that I had thoroughly enjoyed the
novelty of a walk in bad weather, whereat he smiled and congratulated
me as much as he had just commiserated me. On reaching my own rooms, my
valet Vincenzo stared at my dripping and disheveled condition, but was
discreetly mute. He quickly assisted me to change my wet clothes for a
warm dressing-gown, and then brought a glass of mulled port wine, but
performed these duties with such an air of unbroken gravity that I was
inwardly amused while I admired the fellow's reticence. When I was
about to retire for the night, I tossed him a napoleon. He eyed it
musingly and inquiringly; then he asked:

"Your excellency desires to purchase something?"

"Your silence, my friend, that is all!" I replied, with a laugh.
"Understand me, Vincenzo, you will serve yourself and me best by
obeying implicitly, and asking no questions. Fortunate is the servant
who, accustomed to see his master drunk every night, swears to all
outsiders that he has never served so sober and discreet a gentleman!
That is your character, Vincenzo--keep to it, and we shall not
quarrel." He smiled gravely, and pocketed my piece of gold without a
word--like a true Tuscan as he was. The sentimental servant, whose fine
feelings will not allow him to accept an extra "tip," is, you may be
sure, a humbug. I never believed in such a one. Labor can always
command its price, and what so laborious in this age as to be honest?
What so difficult as to keep silence on other people's affairs? Such
herculean tasks deserve payment! A valet who is generously bribed, in
addition to his wages, can be relied on; if underpaid, all heaven and
earth will not persuade him to hold his tongue. Left alone at last in
my sleeping chamber, I remained for some time before actually going to
bed. I took off the black spectacles which served me so well, and
looked at myself in the mirror with some curiosity. I never permitted
Vincenzo to enter my bedroom at night, or before I was dressed in the
morning, lest he should surprise me without these appendages which were
my chief disguise, for in such a case I fancy even his studied
composure would have given way. For, disburdened of my smoke-colored
glasses, I appeared what I was, young and vigorous in spite of my white
beard and hair. My face, which had been worn and haggard at first, had
filled up and was healthily colored; while my eyes, the spokesmen of my
thoughts, were bright with the clearness and fire of constitutional
strength and physical well-being. I wondered, as I stared moodily at my
own reflection, how it was that I did not look ill. The mental
suffering I continually underwent, mingled though it was with a certain
gloomy satisfaction, should surely have left more indelible traces on
my countenance. Yet it has been proved that it is not always the
hollow-eyed, sallow and despairing-looking persons who are really in
sharp trouble--these are more often bilious or dyspeptic, and know no
more serious grief than the incapacity to gratify their appetites for
the high-flavored delicacies of the table. A man may be endowed with
superb physique, and a constitution that is in perfect working
order--his face and outward appearance may denote the most harmonious
action of the life principle within him--and yet his nerves may be so
finely strung that he may be capable of suffering acuter agony in his
mind than if his body were to be hacked slowly to pieces by jagged
knives, and it will leave no mark on his features while YOUTH still has
hold on his flesh and blood.

So it was with me; and I wondered what SHE--Nina--would say, could she
behold me, unmasked as it were, in the solitude of my own room. This
thought roused another in my mind--another at which I smiled grimly. I
was an engaged man! Engaged to marry my own wife; betrothed for the
second time to the same woman! What a difference between this and my
first courtship of her! THEN, who so great a fool as I--who so adoring,
passionate and devoted! NOW, who so darkly instructed, who so cold, so
absolutely pitiless! The climax to my revenge was nearly reached. I
looked through the coming days as one looks through a telescope out to
sea, and I could watch the end approaching like a phantom ship--neither
slow nor fast, but steadily and silently. I was able to calculate each
event in its due order, and I knew there was no fear of failure in the
final result. Nature itself--the sun, moon and stars, the sweeping
circle of the seasons--all seem to aid in the cause of rightful
justice. Man's duplicity may succeed in withholding a truth for a time,
but in the end it must win its way. Once resolve, and then determine to
carry out that resolve, and it is astonishing to note with what
marvelous ease everything makes way for you, provided there be no
innate weakness in yourself which causes you to hesitate. I had
formerly been weak, I knew, very weak--else I had never been fooled by
wife and friend; but now, now my strength was as the strength of a
demon working within me. My hand had already closed with an iron grip
on two false unworthy lives, and had I not sworn "never to relax, never
to relent" till my vengeance was accomplished? I had! Heaven and earth
had borne witness to my vow, and now held me to its stern fulfillment.



CHAPTER XX.


Winter, or what the Neapolitans accept as winter, came on apace. For
some time past the air had been full of that mild chill and vaporous
murkiness, which, not cold enough to be bracing, sensibly lowered the
system and depressed the spirits. The careless and jovial temperament
of the people, however, was never much affected by the change of
seasons--they drank more hot coffee than usual, and kept their feet
warm by dancing from midnight up to the small hours of the morning. The
cholera was a thing of the past--the cleansing of the city, the
sanitary precautions, which had been so much talked about and
recommended in order to prevent another outbreak in the coming year,
were all forgotten and neglected, and the laughing populace tripped
lightly over the graves of its dead hundreds as though they were
odorous banks of flowers. "Oggi! Oggi!" is their cry--to-day, to-day!
Never mind what happened yesterday, or what will happen
to-morrow--leave that to i signori Santi and la Signora Madonna! And
after all there is a grain of reason in their folly, for many of the
bitterest miseries of man grow out of a fatal habit of looking back or
looking forward, and of never living actually in the full-faced
present. Then, too, Carnival was approaching; Carnival, which, though
denuded of many of its best and brightest features, still reels through
the streets of Naples with something of the picturesque madness that in
old times used to accompany its prototype, the Feast of Bacchus. I was
reminded of this coming festivity on the morning of the 21st of
December, when I noted some unusual attempts on the part of Vincenzo to
control his countenance, that often, in spite of his efforts, broadened
into a sunny smile as though some humorous thought had flitted across
his mind. He betrayed himself at last by asking me demurely whether I
purposed taking any part in the carnival? I smiled and shook my head.
Vincenzo looked dubious, but finally summoned up courage to say:

"Will the eccellenza permit--"

"You to make a fool of yourself?" I interrupted, "by all means! Take
your own time, enjoy the fun as much as you please; I promise you I
will ask no account of your actions."

He was much gratified, and attended to me with even more
punctiliousness than usual. As he prepared my breakfast I asked him:

"By the way, when does the carnival begin?"

"On the 26th," he answered, with a slight air of surprise. "Surely the
eccellenza knows."

"Yes, yes," I said, impatiently. "I know, but I had forgotten. I am not
young enough to keep the dates of these follies in my memory. What
letters have you there?"

He handed me a small tray full of different shaped missives, some from
fair ladies who "desired the honor of my company," others from
tradesmen, "praying the honor of my custom," all from male and female
toadies as usual, I thought contemptuously, as I turned them over, when
my glance was suddenly arrested by one special envelope, square in form
and heavily bordered with black, on which the postmark "Roma" stood out
distinctly. "At last!" I thought, and breathed heavily. I turned to my
valet, who was giving the final polish to my breakfast cup and saucer:

"You may leave the room, Vincenzo," I said, briefly. He bowed, the door
opened and shut noiselessly--he was gone.

Slowly I broke the seal of that fateful letter; a letter from Guido
Ferrari, a warrant self-signed, for his own execution!


"My best friend," so it ran, "you will guess by the 'black flag' on my
envelope the good news I have to give you. My uncle is dead AT LAST,
thank God! and I am left his sole heir unconditionally. I am free, and
shall of course return to Naples immediately, that is, as soon as some
trifling law business has been got through with the executors. I
believe I can arrange my return for the 23d or 24th instant, but will
telegraph to you the exact day, and, if possible, the exact hour. Will
you oblige me by NOT announcing this to the countess, as I wish to take
her by surprise. Poor girl! she will have often felt lonely, I am sure,
and I want to see the first beautiful look of rapture and astonishment
in her eyes! You can understand this, can you not, amico, or does it
seem to you a folly? At any rate, I should consider it very churlish
were I to keep YOU in ignorance of my coming home, and I know you will
humor me in my desire that the news should be withheld from Nina, How
delighted she will be, and what a joyous carnival we will have this
winter! I do not think I ever felt more light of heart; perhaps it is
because I am so much heavier in pocket. I am glad of the money, as it
places me on a more equal footing with HER, and though all her letters
to me have been full of the utmost tenderness, still I feel she will
think even better of me, now I am in a position somewhat nearer to her
own. As for you, my good conte, on my return I shall make it my first
duty to pay back with interest the rather large debt I owe to you--thus
my honor will be satisfied, and you, I am sure, will have a better
opinion of

"Yours to command,

"GUIDO FERRARI."


This was the letter, and I read it over and over again. Some of the
words burned themselves into my memory as though they were living
flame. "All her letters to me have been full of the utmost tenderness!"
Oh, miserable-dupe! fooled, fooled to the acme of folly even as I had
been! SHE, the arch-traitress, to prevent his entertaining the
slightest possible suspicion or jealousy of her actions during his
absence, had written him, no doubt, epistles sweet as honey brimming
over with endearing epithets and vows of constancy, even while she knew
she had accepted me as her husband--me--good God! What a devil's dance
of death it was!

"On my return I shall make it my first duty to pay back with interest
the rather large debt I owe you" (rather large indeed, Guido, so large
that you have no idea of its extent!), "thus my honor will be
satisfied" (and so will mine in part), "and you, I am sure, will have a
better opinion of yours to command." Perhaps I shall, Guido--mine to
command as you are--perhaps when all my commands are fulfilled to the
bitter end, I may think more kindly of you. But not till then! In the
meantime--I thought earnestly for a few minutes, and then sitting down,
I penned the following note.


"Caro amico! Delighted to hear of your good fortune, and still more
enchanted to know you will soon enliven us all with your presence! I
admire your little plan of surprising the countess, and will respect
your wishes in the matter. But you, on your part, must do me a trifling
favor: we have been very dull since you left, and I purpose to start
the gayeties afresh by giving a dinner on the 24th (Christmas Eve), in
honor of your return--an epicurean repast for gentlemen only.
Therefore, I ask you to oblige me by fixing your return for that day,
and on arrival at Naples, come straight to me at this hotel, that I may
have the satisfaction of being the first to welcome you as you deserve.
Telegraph your answer and the hour of your train; and my carriage shall
meet you at the station. The dinner-hour can be fixed to suit your
convenience of course; what say you to eight o'clock? After dinner you
can betake yourself to the Villa Romani when you please--your enjoyment
of the lady's surprise and rapture will be the more keen for having
been slightly delayed. Trusting you will not refuse to gratify an old
man's whim, I am,

"Yours for the time being,

"CESARE OLIVA."


This epistle finished and written in the crabbed disguised penmanship
it was part of my business to effect, I folded, sealed and addressed
it, and summoning Vincenzo, bade him post it immediately. As soon as he
had gone on this errand, I sat down to my as yet untasted breakfast and
made some effort to eat as usual. But my thoughts were too active for
appetite--I counted on my fingers the days--there were four, only four,
between me and--what? One thing was certain--I must see my wife, or
rather I should say my BETROTHED--I must see her that very day. I then
began to consider how my courtship had progressed since that evening
when she had declared she loved me. I had seen her frequently, though
not daily--her behavior had been by turns affectionate, adoring, timid,
gracious and once or twice passionately loving, though the latter
impulse in her I had always coldly checked. For though I could bear a
great deal, any outburst of sham sentiment on her part sickened and
filled me with such utter loathing that often when she was more than
usually tender I dreaded lest my pent-up wrath should break loose and
impel me to kill her swiftly and suddenly as one crushes the head of a
poisonous adder--an all-too-merciful death for such as she. I preferred
to woo her by gifts alone--and her hands were always ready to take
whatever I or others chose to offer her. From a rare jewel to a common
flower she never refused anything--her strongest passions were vanity
and avarice. Sparkling gems from the pilfered store of Carmelo
Neri-trinkets which I had especially designed for her--lace, rich
embroideries, bouquets of hot-house blossoms, gilded boxes of costly
sweets--nothing came amiss to her--she accepted all with a certain
covetous glee which she was at no pains to hide from me--nay, she made
it rather evident that she expected such things as her right.

And after all, what did it matter to me--I thought--of what value was
anything I possessed save to assist me in carrying out the punishment I
had destined for her? I studied her nature with critical coldness--I
saw its inbred vice artfully concealed beneath the affectation of
virtue--every day she sunk lower in my eyes, and I wondered vaguely how
I could ever have loved so coarse and common a thing! Lovely she
certainly was--lovely too are many of the wretched outcasts who sell
themselves in the streets for gold, and who in spite of their criminal
trade are less vile than such a woman as the one I had wedded. Mere
beauty of face and form can be bought as easily as one buys a
flower--but the loyal heart, the pure soul, the lofty intelligence
which can make of woman an angel--these are unpurchasable ware, and
seldom fall to the lot of man. For beauty, though so perishable, is a
snare to us all--it maddens our blood in spite of ourselves--we men are
made so. How was it that I--even I, who now loathed the creature I had
once loved--could not look upon her physical loveliness without a
foolish thrill of passion awaking within me--passion that had something
of the murderous in it--admiration that was almost brutal--feelings
which I could not control though I despised myself for them while they
lasted! There is a weak point in the strongest of us, and wicked women
know well where we are most vulnerable. One dainty pin-prick
well-aimed--and all the barriers of caution and reserve are broken
down--we are ready to fling away our souls for a smile or a kiss.
Surely at the last day when we are judged--and may be condemned--we can
make our last excuse to the Creator in the word? of the first misguided
man:

"The woman whom thou gavest to be with me--she tempted me, and I did
eat!"

I lost no time that day in going to the Villa Romani. I drove there in
my carriage, taking with me the usual love-offering in the shape of a
large gilded osier-basket full of white violets. Their delicious odor
reminded me of that May morning when Stella was born--and then quickly
there flashed into my mind the words spoken by Guido Ferrari at the
time. How mysterious they had seemed to me then--how clear their
meaning now! On arriving at the villa I found my fiance in her own
boudoir, attired in morning deshabille, if a trailing robe of white
cashmere trimmed with Mechlin lace and swan's-down can be considered
deshabille. Her rich hair hung loosely on her shoulders, and she was
seated in a velvet easy-chair before a small sparkling wood fire,
reading. Her attitude was one of luxurious ease and grace, but she
sprung up as soon as her maid announced me, and came forward with her
usual charming air of welcome, in which there was something imperial,
as of a sovereign who receives a subject. I presented the flowers I had
brought, with a few words of studied and formal compliment, uttered for
the benefit of the servant who lingered in the room--then I added in a
lower tone:

"I have news of importance--can I speak to you privately?"

She smiled assent, and motioning me by a graceful gesture of her hand
to take a seat, she at once dismissed her maid. As soon as the door had
closed behind the girl I spoke at once and to the point, scarcely
waiting till my wife resumed her easy-chair before the fire.

"I have had a letter from Signor Ferrari."

She started slightly, but said nothing, she merely bowed her head and
raised her delicately arched eyebrows with a look of inquiry as of one
who should say, "Indeed! in what way does this concern me?" I watched
her narrowly, and then continued, "He is coming back in two or three
days--he says he is sure," and here I smiled, "that you will be
delighted to see him."

This time she half rose from her seat, her lips moved as though she
would speak, but she remained silent, and sinking back again among her
violet velvet cushions, she grew very pale.

"If," I went on, "you have any reason to think that he may make himself
disagreeable to you when he knows of your engagement to me, out of
disappointed ambition, conceit, or self-interest (for of course YOU
never encouraged him), I should advise you to go on a visit to some
friends for a few days, till his irritation shall have somewhat passed.
What say you to such a plan?"

She appeared to meditate for a few moments--then raising her lovely
eyes with a wistful and submissive look, she replied:

"It shall be as you wish, Cesare! Signor Ferrari is certainly rash and
hot-tempered, he might be presumptuous enough to--But you do not think
of yourself in the matter! Surely YOU also are in danger of being
insulted by him when he knows all?"

"I shall be on my guard!" I said, quietly. "Besides, I can easily
pardon any outburst of temper on his part--it will be perfectly
natural, I think! To lose all hope of ever winning such a love as yours
must needs be a sore trial to one of his hot blood and fiery impulses.
Poor fellow!" and I sighed and shook my head with benevolent
gentleness. "By the way, he tells me he has had letters from you?"

I put this question carelessly, but it took her by surprise. She caught
her breath hard and looked at me sharply, with an alarmed expression.
Seeing that my face was perfectly impassive, she recovered her
composure instantly, and answered:

"Oh, yes! I have been compelled to write to him once or twice on
matters of business connected with my late husband's affairs. Most
unfortunately, Fabio made him one of the trustees of his fortune in
case of his death--it is exceedingly awkward for me that he should
occupy that position--it appears to give him some authority over my
actions. In reality he has none. He has no doubt exaggerated the number
of times I have written to him? it would be like his impertinence to do
so."

Though this last remark was addressed to me almost as a question, I let
it pass without response. I reverted to my original theme.

"What think you, then?" I said. "Will you remain here or will you
absent yourself for a few days?"

She rose from her chair and approaching me, knelt down at my side,
clasping her two little hands round my arm. "With your permission," she
returned, softly, "I will go to the convent where I was educated. It is
some eight or ten miles distant from here, and I think" (here she
counterfeited the most wonderful expression of ingenuous sweetness and
piety)--"I think I should like to make a 'RETREAT'--that is, devote
some time solely to the duties of religion before I enter upon a second
marriage. The dear nuns would be so glad to see me--and I am sure you
will not object? It will be a good preparation for my future."

I seized her caressing hands and held them hard, while I looked upon
her kneeling there like the white-robed figure of a praying saint.

"It will indeed!" I said in a harsh voice. "The best of all possible
preparations! We none of us know what may happen--we cannot tell
whether life or death awaits us--it is wise to prepare for either by
words of penitence and devotion! I admire this beautiful spirit in you,
carina! Go to the convent by all means! I shall find you there and will
visit you when the wrath and bitterness of our friend Ferrari have been
smoothed into silence and resignation. Yes--go to the convent, among
the good and pious nuns--and when you pray for yourself, pray for the
peace of your dead husband's soul--and--for me! Such prayers, unselfish
and earnest, uttered by pure lips like yours, fly swiftly to heaven!
And as for young Guido--have no fear--I promise you he shall offend you
no more!"

"Ah, you do not know him!" she murmured, lightly kissing my hands that
still held hers; "I fear he will give you a great deal of trouble."

"I shall at any rate know how to silence him," I said, releasing her as
I spoke, and watching her as she rose from her kneeling position and
stood before me, supple and delicate as a white iris swaying in the
wind. "You never gave him reason to hope--therefore he has no cause of
complaint."

"True!" she replied, readily, with an untroubled smile. "But I am such
a nervous creature! I am always imagining evils that never happen. And
now, Cesare, when do you wish me to go to the convent?"

I shrugged my shoulders with an air of indifference.

"Your submission to my will, mia bella" I said, coldly, "is altogether
charming, and flatters me much, but I am not your master--not yet! Pray
choose your own time, and suit your departure to your own pleasure."

"Then," she replied, with an air of decision, "I will go today. The
sooner the better--for some instinct tells me that Guido will play us a
trick and return before we expect him. Yes--I will go to-day."

I rose to take my leave. "Then you will require leisure to make your
preparations," I said, with ceremonious politeness. "I assure you I
approve your resolve. If you inform the superioress of the convent that
I am your betrothed husband, I suppose I shall be permitted to see you
when I call?"

"Oh, certainly!" she replied. "The dear nuns will do anything for me.
Their order is one of perpetual adoration, and their rules are very
strict, but they do not apply them to their old pupils, and I am one of
their great favorites."

"Naturally!" I observed. "And will you also join in the service of
perpetual adoration?"

"Oh, yes!"

"It needs an untainted soul like yours," I said, with a satirical
smile, which she did not see, "to pray before the unveiled Host without
being conscience-smitten! I envy you your privilege. _I_ could not do
it--but YOU are probably nearer to the angels than we know. And so you
will pray for me?"

She raised her eyes with devout gentleness. "I will indeed!"

"I thank you!"--and I choked back the bitter contempt and disgust I had
for her hypocrisy as I spoke--"I thank you heartily--most heartily!
Addio!"

She came or rather floated to my side, her white garments trailing
about her and the gold of her hair glittering in the mingled glow of
the firelight and the wintery sunbeams that shone through the window.
She looked up--a witch-like languor lay in her eyes--her red lips
pouted.

"Not one kiss before you go?" she said.



CHAPTER XXI.


FOR a moment I lost my self-possession. I scarcely remember now what I
did. I know I clasped her almost roughly in my arms--I know that I
kissed her passionately on lips, throat and brow--and that in the
fervor of my embraces, the thought of what manner of vile thing she was
came swiftly upon me, causing me to release her with such suddenness
that she caught at the back of a chair to save herself from falling.
Her breath came and went in little quick gasps of excitement, her face
was flushed--she looked astonished, yet certainly not displeased. No,
SHE was not angry, but I was--thoroughly annoyed--bitterly vexed with
myself, for being such a fool.

"Forgive me," I muttered. "I forgot--I--"

A little smile stole round the corners of her mouth.

"You are fully pardoned!" she said, in a low voice, "you need not
apologize."

Her smile deepened; suddenly she broke into a rippling laugh, sweet and
silvery as a bell--a laugh that went through me like a knife. Was it
not the self-same laughter that had pierced my brain the night I
witnessed her amorous interview with Guido in the avenue? Had not the
cruel mockery of it nearly driven me mad? I could not endure it--I
sprung to her side--she ceased laughing and looked at me in wide-eyed
wonderment.

"Listen!" I said, in an impatient, almost fierce tone. "Do not laugh
like that! It jars my nerves--it--hurts me! I will tell you why.
Once--long ago--in my youth--I loved a woman. She was NOT like
you--no--for she was false! False to the very heart's core--false in
every word she uttered. You understand me? she resembled you in
nothing--nothing! But she used to laugh at me--she trampled on my life
and spoiled it--she broke my heart! It is all past now, I never think
of her, only your laughter reminded me--there!" And I took her hands
and kissed them. "I have told you the story of my early folly--forget
it and forgive me! It is time you prepared for your journey, is it not?
If I can be of service to you, command me--you know where to send for
me. Good-bye! and the peace of a pure conscience be with you!"

And I laid my burning hand on her head weighted with its clustering
curls of gold. SHE thought this gesture was one of blessing. _I_
thought--God only knows what I thought--yet surely if curses can be so
bestowed, my curse crowned her at that moment! I dared not trust myself
longer in her presence, and without another word or look I left her and
hurried from the house. I knew she was startled and at the same time
gratified to think she could thus have moved me to any display of
emotion--but I would not even turn my head to catch her parting glance.
I could not--I was sick of myself and of her. I was literally torn
asunder between love and hatred--love born basely of material feeling
alone--hatred, the offspring of a deeply injured spirit for whose wrong
there could scarce be found sufficient remedy. Once out of the
influence of her bewildering beauty, my mind grew calmer--and the drive
back to the hotel in my carriage through the sweet dullness of the
December air quieted the feverish excitement of my blood and restored
me to myself. It was a most lovely day--bright and fresh, with the
savor of the sea in the wind. The waters of the bay were of a
steel-like blue shading into deep olive-green, and a soft haze lingered
about the shores of Amalfi like a veil of gray, shot through with
silver and gold. Down the streets went women in picturesque garb
carrying on their heads baskets full to the brim of purple violets that
scented the air as they passed--children ragged and dirty ran along,
pushing the luxuriant tangle of their dark locks away from their
beautiful wild antelope eyes, and, holding up bunches of roses and
narcissi with smiles as brilliant as the very sunshine, implored the
passengers to buy "for the sake of the little Gesu who was soon coming!"

Bells clashed and clanged from the churches in honor of San Tommaso,
whose festival it was, and the city had that aspect of gala gayety
about it, which is in truth common enough to all continental towns, but
which seems strange to the solemn Londoner who sees so much apparently
reasonless merriment for the first time. He, accustomed to have his
reluctant laughter pumped out of him by an occasional visit to the
theater where he can witness the "original," English translation of a
French farce, cannot understand WHY these foolish Neapolitans should
laugh and sing and shout in the manner they do, merely because they are
glad to be alive. And after much dubious consideration, he decides
within himself that they are all rascals--the scum of the earth--and
that he and he only is the true representative of man at his best--the
model of civilized respectability. And a mournful spectacle he thus
seems to the eyes of us "base" foreigners--in our hearts we are sorry
for him and believe that if he could manage to shake off the fetters of
his insular customs and prejudices, he might almost succeed in enjoying
life as much as we do!

As I drove along I saw a small crowd at one of the street corners--a
gesticulating, laughing crowd, listening to an "improvisatore" or
wandering poet--a plump-looking fellow who had all the rhymes of Italy
at his fingers' ends, and who could make a poem on any subject or an
acrostic on any name, with perfect facility. I stopped my carriage to
listen to his extemporized verses, many of which were really admirable,
and tossed him three francs. He threw them up in the air, one after the
other, and caught them, as they fell, in his mouth, appearing to have
swallowed them all--then with an inimitable grimace, he pulled off his
tattered cap and said:

"Ancora affamato, excellenza!" (I am still hungry!) amid the renewed
laughter of his easily amused audience. A merry poet he was and without
conceit--and his good humor merited the extra silver pieces I gave him,
which caused him, to wish me--"Buon appetito e un sorriso della
Madonna!"--(a good appetite to you and a smile of the Madonna!) Imagine
the Lord Laureate of England standing at the corner of Regent Street
swallowing half-pence for his rhymes! Yet some of the quaint conceits
strung together by such a fellow as this improvisatore might furnish
material for many of the so called "poets" whose names are mysteriously
honored in Britain.

Further on I came upon a group of red-capped coral fishers assembled
round a portable stove whereon roasting chestnuts cracked their glossy
sides and emitted savory odors. The men were singing gayly to the
thrumming of an old guitar, and the song they sung was familiar to me.
Stay! where had I heard it?--let me listen!

  "Sciore limone
   Le voglio far mori de passione
   Zompa llari llira!"
   [Footnote: Neapolitan dialect.]

Ha! I remembered now. When I had crawled out of the vault through the
brigand's hole of entrance--when my heart had bounded with glad
anticipations never to be realized--when I had believed in the worth of
love and friendship--when I had seen the morning sun glittering on the
sea, and had thought--poor fool!--that his long beams were like so many
golden flags of joy hung up in heaven to symbolize the happiness of my
release from death and my restoration to liberty--then--then I had
heard a sailor's voice in the distance singing that "ritornello," and I
had fondly imagined its impassioned lines were all for me! Hateful
music--most bitter sweetness! I could have put my hands up to my ears
to shut out the sound of it now that I thought of the time when I had
heard it last! For then I had possessed a heart--a throbbing,
passionate, sensitive thing--alive to every emotion of tenderness and
affection--now that heart was dead and cold as a stone. Only its corpse
went with me everywhere, weighing me down with itself to the strange
grave it occupied, a grave wherein were also buried so many dear
delusions--such plaintive regrets, such pleading memories, that surely
it was no wonder their small ghosts arose and haunted me, saying, "Wilt
thou not weep for this lost sweetness?" "Wilt thou not relent before
such a remembrance?" or "Hast thou no desire for that past delight?"
But to all such inward temptations my soul was deaf and inexorable;
justice--stern, immutable justice was what I sought and what I meant to
have.

May be you find it hard to understand the possibility of Scheming and
carrying out so prolonged a vengeance as mine? If you that read these
pages are English, I know it will seem to you well-nigh
incomprehensible. The temperate blood of the northerner, combined with
his open, unsuspicious nature, has, I admit, the advantage over us in
matters of personal injury. An Englishman, so I hear, is incapable of
nourishing a long and deadly resentment, even against an unfaithful
wife--he is too indifferent, he thinks it not worth his while. But we
Neapolitans, we can carry a "vendetta" through a life-time--ay, through
generation after generation! This is bad, you say--immoral,
unchristian. No doubt! We are more than half pagans at heart; we are as
our country and our traditions have made us. It will need another
visitation of Christ before we shall learn how to forgive those that
despitefully use us. Such a doctrine seems to us a mere play upon
words--a weak maxim only fit for children and priests. Besides, did
Christ himself forgive Judas? The gospel does not say so!

When I reached my own apartments at the hotel I felt worn out and
fagged. I resolved to rest and receive no visitors that day. While
giving my orders to Vincenzo a thought occurred to me. I went to a
cabinet in the room and unlocked a secret drawer. In it lay a strong
leather case. I lifted this, and bade Vincenzo unstrap and open it. He
did so, nor showed the least sign of surprise when a pair of richly
ornamented pistols was displayed to his view.

"Good weapons?" I remarked, in a casual manner.

My vallet took each one out of the case, and examined them both
critically.

"They need cleaning, eccellenza."

"Good!" I said, briefly. "Then clean them and put them in good order. I
may require to use them."

The imperturbable Vincenzo bowed, and taking the weapons, prepared to
leave the room.

"Stay!"

He turned. I looked at him steadily.

"I believe you are a faithful fellow, Vincenzo," I said.

He met my glance frankly.

"The day may come," I went on, quietly, "when I shall perhaps put your
fidelity to the proof."

The dark Tuscan eyes, keen and clear the moment before, flashed
brightly and then grew humid.

"Eccellenza, you have only to command! I was a soldier once--I know
what duty means. But there is a better service--gratitude. I am your
poor servant, but you have won my heart. I would give my life for you
should you desire it!"

He paused, half ashamed of the emotion that threatened to break through
his mask of impassibility, bowed again and would have left me, but that
I called him back and held out my hand.

"Shake hands, amico" I said, simply.

He caught it with an astonished yet pleased look--and stooping, kissed
it before I could prevent him, and this time literally scrambled out of
my presence with an entire oblivion of his usual dignity. Left alone, I
considered this behavior of his with half-pained surprise. This poor
fellow loved me it was evident--why, I knew not. I had done no more for
him than any other master might have done for a good servant. I had
often spoken to him with impatience, even harshness; and yet I had "won
his heart"--so he said. Why should he care for me? why should my poor
old butler Giacoma cherish me so devotedly in his memory; why should my
very dog still love and obey me, when my nearest and dearest, my wife
and my friend, had so gladly forsaken me, and were so eager to forget
me! Perhaps fidelity was not the fashion now among educated persons?
Perhaps it was a worn-out virtue, left to the bas-peuple--to the
vulgar--and to animals? Progress might have attained this result--no
doubt it had.

I sighed wearily, and threw myself clown in an arm-chair near the
window, and watched the white-sailed boats skimming like flecks of
silver across the blue-green water. The tinkling of a tambourine by and
by attracted my wandering attention, and looking into the street just
below my balcony I saw a young girl dancing. She was lovely to look at,
and she danced with exquisite grace as well as modesty, but the beauty
of her face was not so much caused by perfection of feature or outline
as by a certain wistful expression that had in it something of nobility
and pride. I watched her; at the conclusion of her dance she held up
her tambourine with a bright but appealing smile. Silver and copper
were freely flung to her, I contributing my quota to the amount; but
all she received she at once emptied into a leathern bag which was
carried by a young and handsome man who accompanied her, and who, alas!
was totally blind. I knew the couple well, and had often seen them;
their history was pathetic enough. The girl had been betrothed to the
young fellow when he had occupied a fairly good position as a worker in
silver filigree jewelry. His eyesight, long painfully strained over his
delicate labors, suddenly failed him--he lost his place, of course, and
was utterly without resources. He offered to release his fiance from
her engagement, but she would not take her freedom--she insisted on
marrying him at once. She had her way, and devoted herself to him soul
and body--danced in the streets and sung to gain a living for herself
and him; taught him to weave baskets so that he might not feel himself
entirely dependent on her, and she sold these baskets for him so
successfully that he was gradually making quite a little trade of them.
Poor child! for she was not much more than a child--what a bright face
she had!--glorified by the self-denial and courage of her everyday
life. No wonder she had won the sympathy of the warmhearted and
impulsive Neapolitans--they looked upon her as a heroine of romance;
and as she passed through the streets, leading her blind husband
tenderly by the hand, there was not a creature in the city, even among
the most abandoned and vile characters, who would have dared to offer
her the least insult, or who would have ventured to address her
otherwise than respectfully. She was good, innocent, and true; how was
it, I wondered dreamily, that I could not have won a woman's heart like
hers? Were the poor alone to possess all the old world virtues--honor
and faith, love and loyalty? Was there something in a life of luxury
that sapped virtue at its root? Evidently early training had little to
do with after results, for had not my wife been brought up among an
order of nuns renowned for simplicity and sanctity; had not her own
father declared her to be "as pure as a flower on the altar of the
Madonna;" and yet the evil had been in her, and nothing had eradicated
it; for even religion, with her, was a mere graceful sham, a kind of
theatrical effect used to tone down her natural hypocrisy. My own
thoughts began to harass and weary me. I took up a volume of
philosophic essays and began to read, in an endeavor to distract my
mind from dwelling on the one perpetual theme. The day wore on slowly
enough; and I was glad when the evening closed in, and when Vincenzo,
remarking that the night was chilly, kindled a pleasant wood-fire in my
room, and lighted the lamps. A little while before my dinner was served
he handed me a letter stating that it had just been brought by the
Countess Romani's coachman. It bore my own seal and motto. I opened it;
it was dated, "La Santissima Annunziata," and ran as follows:


"Beloved! I arrived here safely; the nuns are delighted to see me, and
you will be made heartily welcome when you come. I think of you
constantly--how happy I felt this morning! You seemed to love me so
much; why are you not always so fond of your faithful

"NINA?"


I crumpled this note fiercely in my hand and flung it into the leaping
flames of the newly lighted fire. There was a faint perfume about it
that sickened me--a subtle odor like that of a civet cat when it moves
stealthily after its prey through a tangle of tropical herbage. I
always detested scented note-paper--I am not the only man who does so.
One is led to fancy that the fingers of the woman who writes upon it
must have some poisonous or offensive taint about them, which she
endeavors to cover by the aid of a chemical concoction. I would not
permit myself to think of this so "faithful Nina," as she styled
herself. I resumed my reading, and continued it even at dinner, during
which meal Vincenzo waited upon me with his usual silent gravity and
decorum, though I could feel that he watched me with a certain
solicitude. I suppose I looked weary--I certainly felt so, and retired
to rest unusually early. The time seemed to me so long--would the end
NEVER come? The next day dawned and trailed its tiresome hours after
it, as a prisoner might trail his chain of iron fetters, until sunset,
and then--then, when the gray of the wintry sky flashed for a brief
space into glowing red--then, while the water looked like blood and the
clouds like flame--then a few words sped along the telegraph wires that
stilled my impatience, roused my soul, and braced every nerve and
muscle in my body to instant action. They were plain, clear, and
concise:


"From Guido Ferrari, Rome, to Il Conte Cesare Olfva, Naples.--Shall be
with you on the 24th inst. Train arrives at 6:30 P.M. Will come to you
as you desire without fail."



CHAPTER XXII.


Christmas Eve! The day had been extra chilly, with frequent showers of
stinging rain, but toward five o'clock in the afternoon the weather
cleared. The clouds, which had been of a dull uniform gray, began to
break asunder and disclose little shining rifts of pale blue and bright
gold; the sea looked like a wide satin ribbon shaken out and shimmering
with opaline tints. Flower girls trooped forth making the air musical
with their mellow cries of "Fiori! chi vuol fiori" and holding up their
tempting wares--not bunches of holly and mistletoe such as are known in
England, but roses, lilies, jonquils, and sweet daffodils. The shops
were brilliant with bouquets and baskets of fruits and flowers; a
glittering show of etrennes, or gifts to suit all ages and conditions,
were set forth in tempting array, from a box of bonbons costing one
franc to a jeweled tiara worth a million, while in many of the windows
were displayed models of the "Bethlehem," with babe Jesus lying in his
manger, for the benefit of the round-eyed children--who, after staring
fondly at His waxen image for some time, would run off hand in hand to
the nearest church where the usual Christmas creche was arranged, and
there kneeling down, would begin to implore their "dear little Jesus,"
their "own little brother," not to forget them, with a simplicity of
belief that was as touching as it was unaffected.

I am told that in England the principle sight on Christmas-eve are the
shops of the butchers and poulterers hung with the dead carcases of
animals newly slaughtered, in whose mouths are thrust bunches of
prickly holly, at which agreeable spectacle the passers-by gape with
gluttonous approval. Surely there is nothing graceful about such a
commemoration of the birth of Christ as this? nothing picturesque,
nothing poetic?--nothing even orthodox, for Christ was born in the
East, and the Orientals are very small eaters, and are particularly
sparing in the use of meat. One wonders what such an unusual display of
vulgar victuals has to do with the coming of the Saviour, who arrived
among us in such poor estate that even a decent roof was denied to Him.
Perhaps, though, the English people read their gospels in a way of
their own, and understood that the wise men of the East, who are
supposed to have brought the Divine Child symbolic gifts of gold,
frankincense, and myrrh, really brought joints of beef, turkeys, and
"plum-pudding," that vile and indigestible mixture at which an Italian
shrugs his shoulders in visible disgust. There is something barbaric, I
suppose, in the British customs still--something that reminds one of
their ancient condition when the Romans conquered them--when their
supreme idea of enjoyment was to have an ox roasted whole before them
while they drank "wassail" till they groveled under their own tables in
a worse condition than overfed swine. Coarse and vulgar plenty is still
the leading characteristic at the dinners of English or American
parvenus; they have scarcely any idea of the refinements that can be
imparted to the prosaic necessity of eating--of the many little graces
of the table that are understood in part by the French, but that
perhaps never reach such absolute perfection of taste and skill as at
the banquets of a cultured and clever Italian noble. Some of these are
veritable "feasts of the gods," and would do honor to the fabled
Olympus, and such a one I had prepared for Guido Ferrari as a greeting
to him on his return from Rome--a feast of welcome and--farewell!

All the resources of the hotel at which I stayed had been brought into
requisition. The chef, a famous cordon bleu, had transferred the work
of the usual table d'hote to his underlings, and had bent the powers of
his culinary intelligence solely on the production of the magnificent
dinner I had ordered. The landlord, in spite of himself, broke into
exclamations of wonder and awe as he listened to and wrote down my
commands for different wines of the rarest kinds and choicest vintages.
The servants rushed hither and thither to obey my various behests, with
looks of immense importance; the head waiter, a superb official who
prided himself on his artistic taste, took the laying-out of the table
under his entire superintendence, and nothing was talked of or thought
of for the time but the grandeur of my proposed entertainment.

About six o'clock I sent my carriage down to the railway station to
meet Ferrari as I had arranged; and then, at my landlord's invitation,
I went to survey the stage that was prepared for one important scene of
my drama--to see if the scenery, side-lights, and general effects were
all in working order. To avoid disarranging my own apartments, I had
chosen for my dinner-party a room on the ground-floor of the hotel,
which was often let out for marriage-breakfasts and other purposes of
the like kind; it was octagonal in shape, not too large, and I had had
it most exquisitely decorated for the occasion. The walls were hung
with draperies of gold-colored silk and crimson velvet, interspersed
here and therewith long mirrors, which were ornamented with crystal
candelabra, in which twinkled hundreds of lights under rose-tinted
glass shades. At the back of the room, a miniature conservatory was
displayed to view, full of rare ferns and subtly perfumed exotics, in
the center of which a fountain rose and fell with regular and melodious
murmur. Here, later on, a band of stringed instruments and a choir of
boys' voices were to be stationed, so that sweet music might be heard
and felt without the performers being visible. One, and one only, of
the long French windows of the room was left uncurtained, it was simply
draped with velvet as one drapes a choice picture, and through it the
eyes rested on a perfect view of the Bay of Naples, white with the
wintery moonlight.

The dinner-table, laid for fifteen persons, glittered with sumptuous
appointments of silver, Venetian glass, and the rarest flowers; the
floor was carpeted with velvet pile, in which some grains of ambergris
had been scattered, so that in walking the feet sunk, as it were, into
a bed of moss rich with the odors of a thousand spring blossoms. The
very chairs wherein my guests were to seat themselves were of a
luxurious shape and softly stuffed, so that one could lean back in them
or recline at ease--in short, everything was arranged with a lavish
splendor almost befitting the banquet of an eastern monarch, and yet
with such accurate taste that there was no detail one could have wished
omitted.

I was thoroughly satisfied, but as I know what an unwise plan it is to
praise servants too highly for doing well what they are expressly paid
to do, I intimated my satisfaction to my landlord by a mere careless
nod and smile of approval. He, who waited on my every gesture with
abject humility, received this sign of condescension with as much
delight as though it had come from the king himself, and I could easily
see that the very fact of my showing no enthusiasm at the result of his
labors, made him consider me a greater man than ever. I now went to my
own apartments to don my evening attire; I found Vincenzo brushing
every speck of dust from my dresscoat with careful nicety--he had
already arranged the other articles of costume neatly on my bed ready
for wear. I unlocked a dressing-case and took from thence three studs,
each one formed of a single brilliant of rare clearness and lusters and
handed them to him to fix in my shirt-front. While he was polishing
these admiringly on his coat-sleeve I watched him earnestly--then I
suddenly addressed him.

"Vincenzo!" He started.

"Eccellenza?"

"To-night you will stand behind my chair and assist in serving the
wine."

"Yes, eccellenza."

"You will," I continued, "attend particularly to Sigor Ferrari, who
will sit at my right hand. Take care that his glass is never empty."

"Yes, eccellenza."

"Whatever may be said or done," I went on, quietly, "you will show no
sign of alarm or surprise. From the commencement of dinner till I tell
you to move, remember your place is fixed by me."

The honest fellow looked a little puzzled, but replied as before:

"Yes, eccellenza."

I smiled, and advancing, laid my hand on his arm.

"How about the pistols, Vincenzo?"

"They are cleaned and ready for use, eccellenza," he replied. "I have
placed them in your cabinet."

"That is well!" I said with a satisfied gesture. "You can leave me and
arrange the salon for the reception of my friends."

He disappeared, and I busied myself with my toilet, about which I was
for once unusually particular. The conventional dress-suit is not very
becoming, yet there are a few men here and there who look well in it,
and who, in spite of similarity in attire, will never be mistaken for
waiters. Others there are who, passable in appearance when clad in
their ordinary garments, reach the very acme of plebeianism when they
clothe themselves in the unaccommodating evening-dress. Fortunately, I
happened to be one of the former class--the sober black, the broad
white display of starched shirt-front and neat tie became me, almost
too well I thought. It would have been better for my purposes if I
could have feigned an aspect of greater age and weightier gravity. I
had scarcely finished my toilet when the rumbling of wheels in the
court-yard outside made the hot blood rush to my face, and my heart
beat with feverish excitement. I left my dressing-room, however, with a
composed countenance and calm step, and entered my private salon just
as its doors were flung open and "Signor Ferrari" was announced. He
entered smiling--his face was alight with good humor and glad
anticipation--he looked handsomer than usual.

"Eccomi qua!" he cried, seizing my hands enthusiastically in his own.
"My dear conte, I am delighted to see you! What an excellent fellow you
are! A kind of amiable Arabian Nights genius, who occupies himself in
making mortals happy. And how are you? You look remarkably well!"

"I can return the compliment," I said, gayly. "You are more of an
Antinous than ever."

He laughed, well pleased, and sat down, drawing off his gloves and
loosening his traveling overcoat.

"Well, I suppose plenty of cash puts a man in good humor, and therefore
in good condition," he replied. "But my dear fellow, you are dressed
for dinner--quel preux chevalier! I am positively unfit to be in your
company! You insisted that I should come to you directly, on my
arrival, but I really must change my apparel. Your man took my valise;
in it are my dress-clothes--I shall not be ten minutes putting them on."

"Take a glass of wine first," I said, pouring out some of his favorite
Montepulciano. "There is plenty of time. It is barely seven, and we do
not dine till eight." He took the wine from my hand and smiled. I
returned the smile, adding, "It gives me great pleasure to receive you,
Ferrari! I have been impatient for your return--almost as impatient
as--" He paused in the act of drinking, and his eyes flashed
delightedly.

"As SHE has? Piccinina! How I long to see her again! I swear to you,
amico, I should have gone straight to the Villa Romani had I obeyed my
own impulse--but I had promised you to come here, and, on the whole,
the evening will do as well"--and he laughed with a covert meaning in
his laughter--"perhaps better!"

My hands clinched, but I said with forced gayety:

"Ma certamente! The evening will be much better! Is it not Byron who
says that women, like stars, look best at night? You will find her the
same as ever, perfectly well and perfectly charming. It must be her
pure and candid soul that makes her face so fair! It may be a relief to
your mind to know that I am the only man she has allowed to visit her
during your absence!"

"Thank God for that!" cried Ferrari, devoutly, as he tossed off his
wine. "And now tell me, my dear conte, what bacchanalians are coming
to-night? Per Dio, after all I am more in the humor for dinner than
love-making!"

I burst out laughing harshly. "Of course! Every sensible man prefers
good eating even to good women! Who are my guests you ask? I believe
you know them all. First, there is the Duca Filippo Marina."

"By Heaven!" interrupted Guido. "An absolute gentleman, who by his
manner seems to challenge the universe to disprove his dignity! Can he
unbend so far as to partake of food in public? My dear conte, you
should have asked him that question!"

"Then," I went on, not heeding this interruption, "Signor Fraschetti
and the Marchese Giulano."

"Giulano drinks deep'." laughed Ferrari, "and should he mix his wines,
you will find him ready to stab all the waiters before the dinner is
half over."

"In mixing wines," I returned, coolly, "he will but imitate your
example, caro mio."

"Ah, but I can stand it!" he said. "He cannot! Few Neapolitans are like
me!"

I watched him narrowly, and went on with the list of my invited guests.

"After these, comes the Capitano Luigi Freccia."

"What! the raging fire-eater?" exclaimed Guido. "He who at every second
word raps out a pagan or Christian oath, and cannot for his life tell
any difference between the two!"

"And the illustrious gentleman Crispiano Dulci and Antonio Biscardi,
artists like yourself," I continued.

He frowned slightly--then smiled.

"I wish them good appetites! Time was when I envied their skill--now I
can afford to be generous. They are welcome to the whole field of art
as far as I am concerned. I have said farewell to the brush and
palette--I shall never paint again."

True enough! I thought, eying the shapely white hand with which he just
then stroked his dark mustache; the same hand on which my family
diamond ring glittered like a star. He looked up suddenly.

"Go on, conte I am all impatience. Who comes next?"

"More fire-eaters, I suppose you will call them," I answered, "and
French fire-eaters, too. Monsieur le Marquis D'Avencourt, and le beau
Capitaine Eugene de Hamal."

Ferrari looked astonished. "Per Bacco!" he exclaimed. "Two noted Paris
duelists! Why--what need have you of such valorous associates? I
confess your choice surprises me."

"I understood them to be YOUR friends," I said, composedly. "If you
remember, YOU introduced me to them. I know nothing of the gentlemen
beyond that they appear to be pleasant fellows and good talkers. As for
their reputed skill I am inclined to set that down to a mere rumor, at
any rate, my dinner-table will scarcely provide a field for the display
of swordsmanship."

Guido laughed. "Well, no! but these fellows would like to make it
one--why, they will pick a quarrel for the mere lifting of an eyebrow.
And the rest of your company?"

"Are the inseparable brother sculptors Carlo and Francesco Respetti,
Chevalier Mancini, scientist and man of letters, Luziano Salustri, poet
and musician, and the fascinating Marchese Ippolito Gualdro, whose
conversation, as you know, is more entrancing than the voice of Adelina
Patti. I have only to add," and I smiled half mockingly, "the name of
Signor Guido Ferrari, true friend and loyal lover--and the party is
complete."

"Altro! Fifteen in all including yourself," said Ferrari, gayly,
enumerating them on his fingers. "Per la madre di Dio! With such a
goodly company and a host who entertains en roi we shall pass a merry
time of it. And did you, amico, actually organize this banquet, merely
to welcome back so unworthy a person as myself?"

"Solely and entirely for that reason," I replied.

He jumped up from his chair and clapped his two hands on my shoulders.

"A la bonne heure! But why, In the name of the saints or the devil,
have you taken such a fancy to me?"

"Why have I taken such a fancy to you?" I repeated, slowly. "My dear
Ferrari, I am surely not alone in my admiration for your high
qualities! Does not every one like you? Are you not a universal
favorite? Do you not tell me that your late friend the Count Romani
held you as the dearest to him in the world after his wife? Ebbene! Why
underrate yourself?"

He let his hands fall slowly from my shoulders and a look of pain
contracted his features. After a little silence he said:

"Fabio again! How his name and memory haunt me! I told you he was a
fool--it was part of his folly that he loved me too well--perhaps. Do
you know I have thought of him very much lately?"

"Indeed?" and I feigned to be absorbed in fixing a star-like japonica
in my button-hole. "How is that?"

A grave and meditative look softened the usually defiant brilliancy of
his eyes.

"I saw my uncle die," he continued, speaking in a low tone. "He was an
old man and had very little strength left,--yet his battle with death
was horrible--horrible! I see him yet--his yellow convulsed face--his
twisted limbs--his claw-like hands tearing at the empty air--then the
ghastly grim and dropped jaw--the wide-open glazed eyes--pshaw! it
sickened me!"

"Well, well!" I said in a soothing way, still busying myself with the
arrangement of my button-hole, and secretly wondering what new emotion
was at work in the volatile mind of my victim. "No doubt it was
distressing to witness--but you could not have been very sorry--he was
an old man, and, though it is a platitude not worth repeating--we must
all die."

"Sorry!" exclaimed Ferrari, talking almost more to himself than to me.
"I was glad! He was an old scoundrel, deeply dyed in every sort of
social villainy. No--I was not sorry, only as I watched him in his
frantic struggle, fighting furiously for each fresh gasp of breath--I
thought--I know not why--of Fabio."

Profoundly astonished, but concealing my astonishment under an air of
indifference, I began to laugh.

"Upon my word, Ferrari--pardon me for saying so, but the air of Rome
seems to have somewhat obscured your mind! I confess I cannot follow
your meaning."

He sighed uneasily. "I dare say not! I scarce can follow it myself. But
if it was so hard for an old man to writhe himself out of life, what
must it have been for Fabio! We were students together; we used to walk
with our arms round each other's necks like school-girls, and he was
young and full of vitality--physically stronger, too, than I am. He
must have battled for life with every nerve and sinew stretched to
almost breaking." He stopped and shuddered. "By Heaven! death should be
made easier for us! It is a frightful thing!"

A contemptuous pity arose in me. Was he coward as well as traitor? I
touched him lightly on the arm.

"Excuse me, my young friend, if I say frankly that your dismal
conversation is slightly fatiguing. I cannot accept it as a suitable
preparation for dinner! And permit me to remind you that you have still
to dress."

The gentle satire of my tone made him look up and smile. His face
cleared, and he passed his hand over his forehead, as though he swept
it free of some unpleasant thought.

"I believe I am nervous," he said with a half laugh. "For the last few
hours I have had all sorts of uncomfortable presentiments and
forebodings."

"No wonder!" I returned carelessly, "with such a spectacle as you have
described before the eyes of your memory. The Eternal City savors
somewhat disagreeably of graves. Shake the dust of the Caesars from
your feet, and enjoy your life, while it lasts!"

"Excellent advice!" he said, smiling, "and not difficult to follow. Now
to attire for the festival. Have I your permission?"

I touched the bell which summoned Vincenzo, and bade him wait on Signer
Ferrari's orders. Guido disappeared under his escort, giving me a
laughing nod of salutation as he left the room. I watched his retiring
figure with a strange pitifulness--the first emotion of the kind that
had awakened in me for him since I learned his treachery. His allusion
to that time when we had been students together--when we had walked
with arms round each other's necks "like school-girls," as he said, had
touched me more closely than I cared to realize. It was true, we had
been happy then--two careless youths with all the world like an
untrodden race-course before us. SHE had not then darkened the heaven
of our confidence; she had not come with her false fair face to make of
ME a blind, doting madman, and to transform him into a liar and
hypocrite. It was all her fault, all the misery and horror; she was the
blight on our lives; she merited the heaviest punishment, and she would
receive it. Yet, would to God we had neither of us ever seen her! Her
beauty, like a sword, had severed the bonds of friendship that after
all, when it DOES exist between two men, is better and braver than the
love of woman. However, all regrets were unavailing now; the evil was
done, and there was no undoing it. I had little time left me for
reflection; each moment that passed brought me nearer to the end I had
planned and foreseen.



CHAPTER XXIII.


At about a quarter to eight my guests began to arrive, and one by one
they all came in save two--the brothers Respetti. While we were
awaiting them, Ferrari entered in evening-dress, with the conscious air
of a handsome man who knows he is looking his best. I readily admitted
his charm of manner; had I not myself been subjugated and fascinated by
it in the old happy, foolish days? He was enthusiastically greeted and
welcomed back to Naples by all the gentlemen assembled, many of whom
were his own particular friends. They embraced him in the
impressionable style common to Italians, with the exception of the
stately Duca di Marina, who merely bowed courteously, and inquired if
certain families of distinction whom he named had yet arrived in Rome
for the winter season. Ferrari was engaged in replying to these
questions with his usual grace and ease and fluency, when a note was
brought to me marked "Immediate." It contained a profuse and elegantly
worded apology from Carlo Respetti, who regretted deeply that an
unforeseen matter of business would prevent himself and his brother
from having the inestimable honor and delight of dining with me that
evening. I thereupon rang my bell as a sign that the dinner need no
longer be delayed; and, turning to those assembled, I announced to them
the unavoidable absence of two of the party.

"A pity Francesco could not have come," said Captain Freccia, twirling
the ends of his long mustachios. "He loves good wine, and, better
still, good company."

"Caro Capitano!" broke in the musical voice of the Marchese Gualdro,
"you know that our Francesco goes nowhere without his beloved Carlo.
Carlo CANNOT come--altro! Francesco WILL NOT. Would that all men were
such brothers!"

"If they were," laughed Luziano Salustri, rising from the piano where
he had been playing softly to himself, "half the world would be thrown
out of employment. You, for instance," turning to the Marquis
D'Avencourt, "would scarce know what to do with your time."

The marquis smiled and waved his hand with a deprecatory gesture--that
hand, by the by, was remarkably small and delicately formed--it looked
almost fragile. Yet the strength and suppleness of D'Avencourt's wrist
was reputed to be prodigious by those who had seen him handle the
sword, whether in play or grim earnest.

"It is an impossible dream," he said, in reply to the remarks of
Gualdro and Salustri, "that idea of all men fraternizing together in
one common pig-sty of equality. Look at the differences of caste!
Birth, breeding and education make of man that high-mettled, sensitive
animal known as gentleman, and not all the socialistic theories in the
world can force him down on the same level with the rough boor, whose
flat nose and coarse features announce him as plebeian even before one
hears the tone of his voice. We cannot help these things. I do not
think we WOULD help them even if we could."

"You are quite right," said Ferrari. "You cannot put race-horses to
draw the plow. I have always imagined that the first quarrel--the Cain
and Abel affair--must have occurred through some difference of caste as
well as jealousy--for instance, perhaps Abel was a negro and Cain a
white man, or vice versa; which would account for the antipathy
existing between the races to this day."

The Duke di Marina coughed a stately cough, and shrugged his shoulders.

"That first quarrel," he said, "as related in the Bible, was
exceedingly vulgar. It must have been a kind of prize-fight. Ce n'etait
pas fin."

Gualdro laughed delightedly.

"So like you, Marina!" he exclaimed, "to say that! I sympathize with
your sentiments! Fancy the butcher Abel piling up his reeking carcasses
and setting them on fire, while on the other side stood Cain the
green-grocer frizzling his cabbages, turnips, carrots, and other
vegetable matter! What a spectacle! The gods of Olympus would have
sickened at it! However, the Jewish Deity, or rather, the well-fed
priest who represented him, showed his good taste in the matter; I
myself prefer the smell of roast meat to the rather disagreeable odor
of scorching vegetables!"

We laughed--and at that moment the door was thrown open, and the
head-waiter announced in solemn tones befitting his dignity--

"Le diner de Monsieur le Conte est servi!"

I at once led the way to the banqueting-room--my guests followed gayly,
talking and jesting among themselves. They were all in high good humor,
none of them had as yet noticed the fatal blank caused by the absence
of the brothers Respetti. I had--for the number of my guests was now
thirteen instead of fifteen. Thirteen at table! I wondered if any of
the company were superstitious? Ferrari was not, I knew--unless his
nerves had been latterly shaken by witnessing the death of his uncle.
At any rate, I resolved to say nothing that could attract the attention
of my guests to the ill-omened circumstance; if any one should notice
it, it would be easy to make light of it and of all similar
superstitions. I myself was the one most affected by it--it had for me
a curious and fatal significance. I was so occupied with the
consideration of it that I scarcely attended to the words addressed to
me by the Duke di Marina, who, walking beside me, seemed disposed to
converse with more familiarity than was his usual custom. We reached
the door of the dining-room; which at our approach was thrown wide
open, and delicious strains of music met our ears as we entered. Low
murmurs of astonishment and admiration broke from all the gentlemen as
they viewed the sumptuous scene before them. I pretended not to hear
their eulogies, as I took my seat at the head of the table, with Guido
Ferrari on my right and the Duke di Manna on my left. The music sounded
louder and more triumphant, and while all the company were seating
themselves in the places assigned to them, a choir of young fresh
voices broke forth into a Neapolitan "madrigale"--which as far as I can
translate it ran as follows:

    "Welcome the festal hour!
   Pour the red wine into cups of gold!
   Health to the men who are strong and bold!
     Welcome the festal hour!
   Waken the echoes with riotous mirth--
   Cease to remember the sorrows of earth
     In the joys of the festal hour!
   Wine is the monarch of laughter and light,
   Death himself shall be merry to-night!
     Hail to the festal hour!"

An enthusiastic clapping of hands rewarded this effort on the part of
the unseen vocalists, and the music having ceased, conversation became
general.

"By heaven!" exclaimed Ferrari, "if this Olympian carouse is meant as a
welcome to me, amico, all I can say is that I do not deserve it. Why,
it is more fit for the welcome of one king to his neighbor sovereign!"

"Ebbene!" I said. "Are there any better kings than honest men? Let us
hope we are thus far worthy of each other's esteem."

He flashed a bright look of gratitude upon me and was silent, listening
to the choice and complimentary phrases uttered by the Duke di Manna
concerning the exquisite taste displayed in the arrangement of the
table.

"You have no doubt traveled much in the East, conte," said this
nobleman. "Your banquet reminds me of an Oriental romance I once read,
called 'Vathek.'"

"Exactly '" exclaimed Guido "I think Oliva must be Vathek himself'"

"Scarcely!" I said, smiling coldly. "I lay no claim to supernatural
experiences. The realities of life are sufficiently wonderful for me."

Antonio Biscardi the painter, a refined, gentle-featured man, looked
toward us and said modestly:

"I think you are right, conte. The beauties of nature and of humanity
are so varied and profound that were it not for the inextinguishable
longing after immortality which has been placed in every one of us, I
think we should be perfectly satisfied with this world as it is."

"You speak like an artist and a man of even temperament," broke in the
Marchese Gualdro, who had finished his soup quickly in order to be able
to talk--talking being his chief delight. "For me, I am never
contented. I never have enough of anything! That is my nature. When I
see lovely flowers, I wish more of them--when I behold a fine sunset, I
desire many more such sunsets--when I look upon a lovely woman--"

"You would have lovely women ad infinitum!" laughed the French
Capitaine de Hamal. "En verite, Gualdro, you should have been a Turk!"

"And why not?" demanded Gualdro. "The Turks are very sensible
people--they know how to make coffee better than we do. And what more
fascinating than a harem? It must be like a fragrant hot-house, where
one is free to wander every day, sometimes gathering a gorgeous lily,
sometimes a simple violet--sometimes--" "A thorn?" suggested Salustri.

"Well, perhaps!" laughed the Marchese. "Yet one would run the risk of
that for the sake of a perfect rose."

Chevalier Mancini, who wore in his button-hole the decoration of the
Legion d'Honneur, looked up--he was a thin man with keen eyes and a
shrewd face which, though at a first glance appeared stern, could at
the least provocation break up into a thousand little wrinkles of
laughter.

"There is undoubtedly something entrainant about the idea," he
observed, in his methodical way. "I have always fancied that marriage
as we arrange it is a great mistake."

"And that is why you have never tried it?" queried Ferrari, looking
amused.

"Certissimamente!" and the chevalier's grim countenance began to work
with satirical humor. "I have resolved that I will never be bound over
by the law to kiss only one woman. As matters stand, I can kiss them
all if I like."

A shout of merriment and cries of "Oh! oh!" greeted this remark, which
Ferrari, however, did not seem inclined to take in good part.

"All?" he said, with a dubious air. "You mean all except the married
ones?"

The chevalier put on his spectacles, and surveyed him with a sort of
comic severity.

"When I said ALL, I meant all," he returned--"the married ones in
particular. They, poor things, need such attentions--and often invite
them--why not? Their husbands have most likely ceased to be amorous
after the first months of marriage."

I burst out laughing. "You are right, Mancini," I said; "and even if
the husbands are fools enough to continue their gallantries they
deserve to be duped--and they generally are! Come, amico.'" I added,
turning to Ferrari, "those are your own sentiments--you have often
declared them to me."

He smiled uncomfortably, and his brows contracted. I could easily
perceive that he was annoyed. To change the tone of the conversation I
gave a signal for the music to recommence, and instantly the melody of
a slow, voluptuous Hungarian waltz-measure floated through the room.
The dinner was now fairly on its way; the appetites of my guests were
stimulated and tempted by the choicest and most savory viands, prepared
with all the taste and intelligence a first rate chef can bestow on his
work, and good wine flowed freely.

Vincenzo obediently following my instructions, stood behind my chair,
and seldom moved except to refill Ferrari's glass, and occasionally to
proffer some fresh vintage to the Duke di Marina. He, however, was an
abstemious and careful man, and followed the good example shown by the
wisest Italians, who never mix their wines. He remained faithful to the
first beverage he had selected--a specially fine Chianti, of which he
partook freely without its causing the slightest flush to appear on his
pale aristocratic features. Its warm and mellow flavor did but brighten
his eyes and loosen his tongue, inasmuch that he became almost as
elegant a talker as the Marchese Gualdro. This latter, who scarce had a
scudo to call his own, and who dined sumptuously every day at other
people's expense for the sake of the pleasure his company afforded, was
by this time entertaining every one near him by the most sparkling
stories and witty pleasantries.

The merriment increased as the various courses were served; shouts of
laughter frequently interrupted the loud buzz of conversation, mingling
with the clinking of glasses and clattering of porcelain. Every now and
then might be heard the smooth voice of Captain Freccia rolling out his
favorite oaths with the sonority and expression of a primo tenore;
sometimes the elegant French of the Marquis D'Avencourt, with his high,
sing-song Parisian accent, rang out above the voices of the others; and
again, the choice Tuscan of the poet Luziano Salustri rolled forth in
melodious cadence as though he were chanting lines from Dante or
Ariosto, instead of talking lightly on indifferent matters. I accepted
my share in the universal hilarity, though I principally divided my
conversation between Ferrari and the duke, paying to both, but
specially to Ferrari, that absolute attention which is the greatest
compliment a host can bestow on those whom he undertakes to entertain.

We had reached that stage of the banquet when the game was about to be
served--the invisible choir of boys' voices had just completed an
enchanting stornello with an accompaniment of mandolines--when a
stillness, strange and unaccountable, fell upon the company--a
pause--an ominous hush, as though some person supreme in authority had
suddenly entered the room and commanded "Silence!" No one seemed
disposed to speak or to move, the very footsteps of the waiters were
muffled in the velvet pile of the carpets--no sound was heard but the
measured plash of the fountain that played among the ferns and flowers.
The moon, shining frostily white through the one uncurtained window,
cast a long pale green ray, like the extended arm of an appealing
ghost, against one side of the velvet hangings--a spectral effect which
was heightened by the contrast of the garish glitter of the waxen
tapers. Each man looked at the other with a sort of uncomfortable
embarrassment, and somehow, though I moved my lips in an endeavor to
speak and thus break the spell, I was at a loss, and could find no
language suitable to the moment. Ferrari toyed with his wine-glass
mechanically--the duke appeared absorbed in arranging the crumbs beside
his plate into little methodical patterns; the stillness seemed to last
so long that it was like a suffocating heaviness in the air. Suddenly
Vincenzo, in his office of chief butler, drew the cork of a
champagne-bottle with a loud-sounding pop! We all started as though a
pistol had been fired in our ears, and the Marchese Gualdro burst out
laughing.

"Corpo di Baceo!" he cried. "At last you have awakened from sleep! Were
you all struck dumb, amici, that you stared at the table-cloth so
persistently and with such admirable gravity? May Saint Anthony and his
pig preserve me, but for the time I fancied I was attending a banquet
on the wrong side of the Styx, and that you, my present companions,
were all dead men!"

"And that idea made YOU also hold your tongue, which is quite an
unaccountable miracle in its way," laughed Luziano Salustri. "Have you
never heard the pretty legend that attaches to such an occurrence as a
sudden silence in the midst of high festivity? An angel enters,
bestowing his benediction as he passes through."

"That story is more ancient than the church," said Chevalier Mancini.
"It is an exploded theory--for we have ceased to believe in angels--we
call them women instead."

"Bravo, mon vieux gaillard!" cried Captain de Hamal. "Your sentiments
are the same as mine, with a very trifling difference. You believe
women to be angels--I know them to be devils--mas il n'y agu'un pas
entre es deux? We will not quarrel over a word--a votre sante, mon
cher!"

And he drained his glass, nodding to Mancini, who followed his example.

"Perhaps," said the smooth, slow voice of Captain Freccia, "our silence
was caused by the instinctive consciousness of something wrong with our
party--a little inequality--which I dare say our noble host has not
thought it worth while to mention."

Every head was turned in his direction. "What do you mean?" "What
inequality?" "Explain yourself!" chorused several voices.

"Really it is a mere nothing," answered Freccia, lazily, as he surveyed
with the admiring air of a gourmet the dainty portion of pheasant just
placed before him. "I assure you, only the uneducated would care two
scudi about such a circumstance. The excellent brothers Respetti are to
blame--their absence to-night has caused--but why should I disturb your
equanimity? I am not superstitious--ma, chi sa?--some of you may be."

"I see what you mean!" interrupted Salustri, quickly. "We are thirteen
at table!"



CHAPTER XXIV.


At this announcement my guests looked furtively at each other, and I
could see they were counting up the fatal number for themselves. They
were undeniably clever, cultivated men of the world, but the
superstitious element was in their blood, and all, with the exception
perhaps of Freccia and the ever-cool Marquis D'Avencourt, were
evidently rendered uneasy by the fact now discovered. On Ferrari it had
a curious effect--he started violently and his face flushed. "Diabolo!"
he muttered, under his breath, and seizing his never-empty glass, he
swallowed its contents thirstily and quickly at one gulp as though
attacked by fever, and pushed away his plate with a hand that trembled
nervously. I, meanwhile, raised my voice and addressed my guests
cheerfully!

"Our distinguished friend Salustri is perfectly right, gentlemen. I
myself noticed the discrepancy in our number some time ago--but I knew
that you were all advanced thinkers, who had long since liberated
yourselves from the trammels of superstitious observances, which are
the result of priestcraft, and are now left solely to the vulgar.
Therefore I said nothing. The silly notion of any misfortune attending
the number thirteen arose, as you are aware, out of the story of the
Last Supper, and children and women may possibly still give credence to
the fancy that one out of thirteen at table must be a traitor and
doomed to die. But we men know better. None of us here to-night have
reason to put ourselves in the position of a Christ or a Judas--we are
all good friends and boon companions, and I cannot suppose for a moment
that this little cloud can possibly affect you seriously. Remember also
that this is Christmas-eve, and that according to the world's greatest
poet, Shakespeare,

                  "'Then no planet strikes,
   No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
   So hallowed and so gracious is the time.'"

A murmur of applause and a hearty clapping of hands rewarded this
little speech, and the Marchese Gualdro sprung to his feet--

"By Heaven!" he exclaimed, "we are not a party of terrified old women
to shiver on the edge of a worn-out omen! Fill your glasses, signori!
More wine, garcon! Per bacco! if Judas Iscariot himself had such a
feast as ours before he hanged himself, he was not much to be pitied!
Hola amici! To the health of our noble host, Conte Cesare Oliva!"

He waved his glass in the air three times--every one followed his
example and drank the toast with enthusiasm. I bowed my thanks and
acknowledgments--and the superstitious dread which at first bad
undoubtedly seized the company passed away quickly--the talking, the
merriment, and laughter were resumed, and soon it seemed as though the
untoward circumstance were entirely forgotten. Only Guido Ferrari
seemed still somewhat disturbed in his mind--but even his uneasiness
dissipated itself by degrees, and heated by the quantity of wine he had
taken, he began to talk with boastful braggartism of his many
successful gallantries, and related his most questionable anecdotes in
such a manner as to cause some haughty astonishment in the mind of the
Duke di Marina, who eyed him from time to time with ill-disguised
impatience that bordered on contempt. I, on the contrary, listened to
everything he said with urbane courtesy--I humored him and drew him out
as much as possible--I smiled complacently at his poor jokes and vulgar
witticisms--and when he said something that was more than usually
outrageous, I contented myself with a benevolent shake of my head, and
the mild remark:

"Ah! young blood! young blood!" uttered in a bland sotto-voce.

The dessert was now served, and with it came the costly wines which I
had ordered to be kept back till then. Priceless "Chateau Yquem," "Clos
Vougeot," of the rarest vintages, choice "Valpulcello" and an
exceedingly superb "Lacrima Cristi"--one after the other, these were
tasted, criticised, and heartily appreciated. There was also a very
unique brand of champagne costing nearly forty francs a bottle, which
was sparkling and mellow to the palate, but fiery in quality. This
particular beverage was so seductive in flavor that every one partook
of it freely, with the result that the most discreet among the party
now became the most uproarious. Antonio Biscardi, the quiet and
unobtrusive painter, together with his fellow-student, Crispiano Dulci,
usually the shyest of young men, suddenly grew excited, and uttered
blatant nothings concerning their art. Captain Freccia argued the
niceties of sword-play with the Marquis D'Avencourt, both speakers
illustrating their various points by thrusting their dessert-knives
skillfully into the pulpy bodies of the peaches they had on their
plates. Luziano Salustri lay back at ease in his chair, his classic
head reclining on the velvet cushions, and recited in low and measured
tones one of his own poems, caring little or nothing whether his
neighbors attended to him or not. The glib tongue of the Marchese
Gualdro ran on smoothly and incessantly, though he frequently lost the
thread of his anecdotes and became involved in a maze of contradictory
assertions. The rather large nose of the Chevalier Mancini reddened
visibly as he laughed joyously to himself at nothing in particular--in
short, the table had become a glittering whirlpool of excitement and
feverish folly, which at a mere touch, or word out of season, might
rise to a raging storm of frothy dissension. The Duke di Marina and
myself alone of all the company were composed as usual--he had resisted
the champagne, and as for me, I had let all the splendid wines go past
me, and had not taken more than two glasses of a mild Chianti.

I glanced keenly round the riotous board--I noted the flushed faces and
rapid gesticulations of my guests, and listened to the Babel of
conflicting tongues. I drew a long breath as I looked--I calculated
that in two or three minutes at the very least I might throw down the
trump card I had held so patiently in my hand all the evening.

I took a close observation of Ferrari. He had edged his chair a little
away from mine, and was talking confidentially to his neighbor, Captain
de Hamal--his utterance was low and thick, but yet I distinctly heard
him enumerating in somewhat coarse language the exterior charms of a
woman--what woman I did not stop to consider--the burning idea struck
me that he was describing the physical perfections of my wife to this
De Hamal, a mere spadaccino, for whom there was nothing sacred in
heaven or earth. My blood rapidly heated itself to boiling point--to
this day I remember how it throbbed in my temples, leaving my hands and
feet icy cold. I rose in my seat, and tapped on the table to call for
silence and attention--but for some time the noise of argument and the
clatter of tongues were so great that I could not make myself heard.
The duke endeavored to second my efforts, but in vain. At last
Ferrari's notice was attracted--he turned round, and seizing a dessert
knife beat with it on the table and on his own plate so noisily and
persistently that the loud laughter and conversation ceased suddenly.
The moment had come--I raised my head, fixed my spectacles more firmly
over my eyes, and spoke in distinct and steady tones, first of all
stealing a covert glance toward Ferrari. He had sunk back again lazily
in his chair and was lighting a cigarette.

"My friends," I said, meeting with a smile the inquiring looks that
were directed toward me, "I have presumed to interrupt your mirth for a
moment, not to restrain it, but rather to give it a fresh impetus. I
asked you all here to-night, as you know, to honor me by your presence
and to give a welcome to our mutual friend, Signor Guido Ferrari." Here
I was interrupted by a loud clapping of hands and ejaculations of
approval, while Ferrari himself murmured affably between two puffs of
his cigarette. "Tropp' onore, amico, tropp' onore!" I resumed, "This
young and accomplished gentleman, who is, I believe, a favorite with
you all, has been compelled through domestic affairs to absent himself
from our circle for the past few weeks, and I think he must himself be
aware how much we have missed his pleasant company. It will, however,
be agreeable to you, as it has been for me, to know that he has
returned to Naples a richer man than when he left it--that fortune has
done him justice, and that with the possession of abundant wealth he is
at last called upon to enjoy the reward due to his merits!"

Here there was more clapping of hands and exclamations of pleasure,
while those who were seated near Ferrari raised their glasses and drank
to his health with congratulations, all of which courtesies he
acknowledged by a nonchalant, self-satisfied bow. I glanced at him
again--how tranquil he looked!--reclining among the crimson cushions of
his chair, a brimming glass of champagne beside him, the cigarette
between his lips, and his handsome face slightly upturned, though his
eyes rested half drowsily on the uncurtained window through which the
Bay of Naples was seen glittering in the moonlight.

I continued: "It was, gentlemen, that you might welcome and
congratulate Signor Ferrari as you have done, that I assembled you here
to-night--or rather, let me say it was PARTLY the object of our present
festivity--but there is yet another reason which I shall now have the
pleasure of explaining to you--a reason which, as it concerns myself
and my immediate happiness, will, I feel confident, secure your
sympathy and good wishes."

This time every one was silent, intently following my words.

"What I am about to say," I went on, calmly, "may very possibly
surprise you. I have been known to you as a man of few words, and, I
fear, of abrupt and brusque manners"--cries of "No, no!" mingled with
various complimentary assurances reached my ears from all sides of the
table. I bowed with a gratified air, and when silence was restored--"At
any rate you would not think me precisely the sort of man to take a
lady's fancy." A look of wonder and curiosity was now exchanged among
my guests. Ferrari took his cigarette out of his mouth and stared at me
in blank astonishment.

"No," I went on, meditatively, "old as I am, and a half-blind invalid
besides, it seems incredible that any woman should care to look at me
more than twice en passant. But I have met--let me say with the
Chevalier Mancini--an angel--who has found me not displeasing to her,
and--in short--I am going to marry!"

There was a pause. Ferrari raised himself slightly from his reclining
position and seemed about to speak, but apparently changing his mind he
remained silent--his face had somewhat paled. The momentary hesitation
among my guests passed quickly. All present, except Guido, broke out
into a chorus of congratulations, mingled with good-humored jesting and
laughter.

"Say farewell to jollity, conte!" cried Chevalier Mancini; "once drawn
along by the rustling music of a woman's gown, no more such feasts as
we have had to-night!"

And he shook his head with tipsy melancholy.

"By all the gods!" exclaimed Gualdro, "your news has surprised me! I
should have thought you were the last man to give up liberty for the
sake of a woman. ONE woman, too! Why, man, freedom could give you
twenty!"

"Ah!" murmured Salustri, softly and sentimentally, "but the one perfect
pearl--the one flawless diamond--"

"Bah! Salustri, caro mio, you are half asleep!" returned Gualdro. "'Tis
the wine talks, not you. Thou art conquered by the bottle, amico. You,
the darling of all the women in Naples, to talk of one! Buona notte,
bambino!"

I still maintained my standing position, leaning my two hands on the
table before me.

"What our worthy Gualdro says," I went on, "is perfectly true. I have
been noted for my antipathy to the fair sex. I know it. But when one of
the loveliest among women comes out of her way to tempt me--when she
herself displays the matchless store of her countless fascinations for
my attraction--when she honors me by special favors and makes me
plainly aware that I am not too presumptuous in venturing to aspire to
her hand in marriage--what can I do but accept with a good grace the
fortune thrown to me by Providence? I should be the most ungrateful of
men were I to refuse so precious a gift from Heaven, and I confess I
feel no inclination to reject what I consider to be the certainty of
happiness. I therefore ask you all to fill your glasses, and do me the
favor to drink to the health and happiness of my future bride."

Gualdro sprung erect, his glass held high in the air; every man
followed his example, Ferrari rose to his feet with some unsteadiness,
while the hand that held his full champagne glass trembled.

The Duke di Marina, with a courteous gesture, addressed me: "You will,
of course, honor us by disclosing the name of the fair lady whom we are
prepared to toast with all befitting reverence?"

"I was about to ask the same question," said Ferrari, in hoarse
accents--his lips were dry, and he appeared to have some difficulty in
speaking. "Possibly we are not acquainted with her?"

"On the contrary," I returned, eying him steadily with a cool smile.
"You all know her name well! Illustrissimi Signori!" and my voice rang
out clearly--"to the health of my betrothed wife, the Contessa Romani!"

"Liar!" shouted Ferrari--and with all a madman's fury he dashed his
brimming glass of champagne full in my face! In a second the wildest
scene of confusion ensued. Every man left his place at table and
surrounded us. I stood erect and perfectly calm--wiping with my
handkerchief the little runlets of wine that dripped from my
clothing--the glass had fallen at my feet, striking the table as it
fell and splitting itself to atoms.

"Are you drunk or mad, Ferrari?" cried Captain de Hamal, seizing him by
the arm--"do you know what you have done?"

Ferrari glared about him like a tiger at bay--his face was flushed and
swollen like that of a man in apoplexy--the veins in his forehead stood
out like knotted cords--his breath came and went hard as though he had
been running. He turned his rolling eyes upon me. "Damn you!" he
muttered through his clinched teeth--then suddenly raising his voice to
a positive shriek, he cried, "I will have your blood if I have to tear
your heart for it!"--and he made an effort to spring upon me. The
Marquis D'Avencourt quietly caught his other arm and held it as in a
vise.

"Not so fast, not so fast, mon cher" he said, coolly. "We are not
murderers, we! What devil possesses you, that you offer such
unwarrantable insult to our host?"

"Ask HIM!" replied Ferrari, fiercely, struggling to release himself
from the grasp of the two Frenchmen--"he knows well enough! Ask HIM!"

All eyes were turned inquiringly upon me. I was silent.

"The noble conte is really not bound to give any explanation," remarked
Captain Freccia--"even admitting he were able to do so."

"I assure you, my friends," I said, "I am ignorant of the cause of this
fracas, except that this young gentleman had pretensions himself to the
hand of the lady whose name affects him so seriously!"

For a moment I thought Ferrari would have choked.

"Pretensions--pretensions!" he gasped. "Gran Dio! Hear him!--hear the
miserable scoundrel!"

"Ah, basta!" exclaimed Chevalier Mancini, scornfully--"Is that all? A
mere bagatelle! Ferrari, you were wont to be more sensible! What!
quarrel with an excellent friend for the sake of a woman who happens to
prefer him to you! Ma che! Women are plentiful--friends are few."

"If," I resumed, still methodically wiping the stains of wine from my
coat and vest--"if Signor Ferrari's extraordinary display of temper is
a mere outcome of natural disappointment, I am willing to excuse it. He
is young and hotblooded--let him apologize, and I shall freely pardon
him."

"By my faith!" said the Duke di Marina with indignation, "such
generosity is unheard of, conte! Permit me to remark that it is
altogether exceptional, after such ungentlemanly conduct."

Ferrari looked from one to the other in silent fury. His face had grown
pale as death. He wrenched himself from the grasp of D'Avencourt and De
Hamal.

"Fools! let me go!" he said, savagely. "None of you are on my side--I
see that!" He stepped to the table, poured out a glass of water and
drank it off. He then turned and faced me--his head thrown back, his
eyes blazing with wrath and pain.

"Liar!" he cried again, "double-faced accursed liar! You have stolen
HER--you have fooled ME--but, by G-d, you shall pay for it with your
life!"

"Willingly!" I said, with a mocking smile, restraining by a gesture the
hasty exclamations of those around me who resented this fresh
attack--"most willingly, caro signor! But excuse me if I fail to see
wherein you consider yourself wronged. The lady who is now my fiancee
has not the slightest affection for you--she told me so herself. Had
she entertained any such feelings I might have withdrawn my
proposals--but as matters stand, what harm have I done you?"

A chorus of indignant voices interrupted me. "Shame on you, Ferrari!"
cried Gualdro. "The count speaks like a gentleman and a man of honor.
Were I in his place you should have had no word of explanation
whatever. I would not have condescended to parley with you--by Heaven I
would not!"

"Nor I!" said the duke, stiffly.

"Nor I!" said Mancini.

"Surely," said Luziana Salustri, "Ferrari will make the amende
honorable."

There was a pause. Each man looked at Ferrari with some anxiety. The
suddenness of the quarrel had sobered the whole party more effectually
than a cold douche. Ferrari's face grew more and more livid till his
very lips turned a ghastly blue--he laughed aloud in bitter scorn.
Then, walking steadily up to me, with his eyes full of baffled
vindictiveness, he said, in a low clear tone:

"You say that--you say she never cared for me--YOU! and I am to
apologize to you! Thief, coward, traitor--take that for my apology!"
And he struck me across the mouth with his bare hand so fiercely that
the diamond ring he wore (my diamond ring) cut my flesh and slightly
drew blood. A shout of anger broke from all present! I turned to the
Marquis D'Avencourt.

"There can be but one answer to this," I said, with indifferent
coldness. "Signor Ferrari has brought it on himself. Marquis, will you
do me the honor to arrange the affair?"

The marquis bowed, "I shall be most happy!"

Ferrari glared about him for a moment and then said, "Freccia, you will
second me?"

Captain Freccia shrugged his shoulders. "You must positively excuse
me," he said. "My conscience will not permit me to take up such a
remarkably wrong cause as yours, cara mio! I shall be pleased to act
with D'Avencourt for the count, if he will permit me." The marquis
received him with cordiality, and the two engaged in earnest
conversation. Ferrari next proffered his request to his quondam friend
De Hamal, who also declined to second him, as did every one among the
company. He bit his lips in mortification and wounded vanity, and
seemed hesitating what to do next, when the marquis approached him with
frigid courtesy and appeared to offer him some suggestions in a low
tone of voice--for after a few minutes' converse, Ferrari suddenly
turned on his heel and abruptly left the room without another word or
look. At the same instant I touched Vincenzo, who, obedient to his
orders, had remained an impassive but evidently astonished spectator of
all that had passed, and whispered--"Follow that man and do not let him
see you." He obeyed so instantly that the door had scarcely closed upon
Ferrari when Vincenzo had also disappeared. The Marquis D'Avencourt now
came up to me.

"Your opponent has gone to find two seconds," he said. "As you
perceived, no one here would or could support him. It is a most
unfortunate affair."

"Most unfortunate," chorused De Hamal, who, though not in it, appeared
thoroughly to enjoy it.

"For my part," said the Duke di Marina, "I wonder how our noble friend
could be so lenient with such a young puppy. His conceit is
insufferable!"

Others around me made similar remarks, and were evidently anxious to
show how entirely they were on my side. I however remained silent, lest
they should see how gratified I was at the success of my scheme. The
marquis addressed me again:

"While awaiting the other seconds, who are to find us here," he said,
with a glance at his watch, "Freccia and I have arranged a few
preliminaries. It is now nearly midnight. We propose that the affair
should come off in the morning at six precisely. Will that suit you?"

I bowed.

"As the insulted party you have the choice of weapons. Shall we say--"

"Pistols," I replied briefly.

"A la bonne heure! Then, suppose we fix upon the plot of open ground
just behind the hill to the left of the Casa Ghirlande--between that
and the Villa Romani--it is quiet and secluded, and there will be no
fear of interruption."

I bowed again.

"Thus it stands," continued the marquis, affably--"the hour of six--the
weapons pistols--the paces to be decided hereafter when the other
seconds arrive."

I professed myself entirely satisfied with these arrangements, and
shook hands with my amiable coadjutor. I then looked round at the rest
of the assembled company with a smile at their troubled faces.

"Gentlemen," I said, "our feast has broken up in a rather disagreeable
manner--and I am sorry for it, the more especially as it compels me to
part from you. Receive my thanks for your company, and for the
friendship you have displayed toward me! I do not believe that this is
the last time I shall have the honor of entertaining you--but if it
should be so, I shall at any rate carry a pleasant remembrance of you
into the next world! If on the contrary I should survive the combat of
the morning, I hope to see you all again on my marriage-day, when
nothing shall occur to mar our merriment. In the meantime--good-night!"

They closed round me, pressing my hands warmly and assuring me of their
entire sympathy with me in the quarrel that had occurred. The duke was
especially cordial, giving me to understand that had the others failed
in their services, he himself, in spite of his dignity and peace-loving
disposition, would have volunteered as my second. I escaped from them
all at last and reached the quiet of my own apartments. There I sat
alone for more than an hour, waiting for the return of Vincenzo, whom I
had sent to track Ferrari. I heard the departing footsteps of my guests
as they left the hotel by twos and threes--I heard the equable voices
of the marquis and Captain Freccia ordering hot coffee to be served to
them in a private room where they were to await the other seconds--now
and then I caught a few words of the excited language of the waiters
who were volubly discussing the affair as they cleared away the remains
of the superb feast at which, though none knew it save myself, death
had been seated. Thirteen at table! One was a traitor and one must die.
I knew which one. No presentiment lurked in my mind as to the doubtful
result of the coming combat. It was not my lot to fall--my time had not
come yet--I felt certain of that! No! All the fateful forces of the
universe would help me to keep alive till my vengeance was fulfilled.
Oh, what bitter shafts of agony Ferrari carried in his heart at that
moment, I thought. HOW he had looked when I said she never cared for
him! Poor wretch! I pitied him even while I rejoiced at his torture. He
suffered now as I had suffered--he was duped as I had been duped--and
each quiver of his convulsed face and tormented frame had been fraught
with satisfaction to me! Each moment of his life was now a pang to him.
Well! it would soon be over--thus far at least I was merciful. I drew
out pens and paper and commenced to write a few last instructions, in
case the result of the fight should be fatal to me. I made them very
concise and brief--I knew, while writing, that they would not be
needed. Still--for the sake of form I wrote--and sealing the document,
I directed it to the Duke di Marina. I looked at my watch--it was past
one o'clock and Vincenzo had not yet returned. I went to the window,
and drawing back the curtains, surveyed the exquisitely peaceful scene
that lay before me. The moon was still high and bright--and her
reflection made the waters of the bay appear like a warrior's coat of
mail woven from a thousand glittering links of polished steel. Here and
there, from the masts of anchored brigs and fishing-boats gleamed a few
red and green lights burning dimly like fallen and expiring stars.
There was a heavy unnatural silence everywhere--it oppressed me, and I
threw the window wide open for air. Then came the sound of bells
chiming softly. People passed to and fro with quiet footsteps--some
paused to exchange friendly greetings. I remembered the day with a sort
of pang at my heart. The night was over, though as yet there was no
sign of dawn--and--it was Christmas morning!



CHAPTER XXV.


The opening of the room door aroused me from my meditations. I
turned--to find Vincenzo standing near me, hat in hand--he had just
entered.

"Ebbene!" I said, with a cheerful air--"what news?"

"Eccellenza, you have been obeyed. The young Signor Ferrari is now at
his studio."

"You left him there?"

"Yes, eccellenza"--and Vincenzo proceeded to give me a graphic account
of his adventures. On leaving the banqueting-room, Ferrari had taken a
carriage and driven straight to the Villa Romani--Vincenzo,
unperceived, had swung himself on to the back of the vehicle and had
gone also.

"Arriving there," continued my valet, "he dismissed the fiacre--and
rang the gate-bell furiously six or seven times. No one answered. I hid
myself among the trees and watched. There were no lights in the villa
windows--all was darkness. He rang it again--he even shook the gate as
though he would break it open. At last the poor Giacomo came, half
undressed and holding a lantern in his hand--he seemed terrified, and
trembled so much that the lantern jogged up and down like a
corpse-candle on a tomb.

"'I must see the contessa,' said the young signor, Giacomo blinked like
an owl, and coughed as though the devil scratched in his throat.

"'The contessa!' he said. 'She is gone!'

"The signor then threw himself upon Giacomo and shook him to and fro as
though he were a bag of loose wheat.

"'Gone!' and he screamed like a madman! 'WHERE? Tell me WHERE, dolt!
idiot! driveler! before I twist your neck for you!'

"Truly, eccellenza, I would have gone to the rescue of the poor
Giacomo, but respect for your commands kept me silent. 'A thousand
pardons, signor!' he whispered, out of breath with his shaking.' I will
tell you instantly--most instantly. She is at the Convento dell'
Annunziata--ten miles from here--the saints know I speak the truth--she
left two days since.'

"The Signor Ferrari then flung away the unfortunate Giacomo with so
much force that he fell in a heap on the pavement and broke his lantern
to pieces. The old man set up a most pitiful groaning, but the signor
cared nothing for that. He was mad, I think. 'Get to bed!' he cried,
'and sleep--sleep till you die! Tell your mistress when you see her
that I came to kill her! My curse upon this house and all who dwell in
it!' And with that he ran so quickly through the garden into the
high-road that I had some trouble to follow him. There after walking
unsteadily for a few paces, he suddenly fell down, senseless."

Vincenzo paused. "Well," I said, "what happened next?"

"Eccellenza, I could not leave him there without aid. I drew my cloak
well up to my mouth and pulled my hat down over my eyes so that he
could not recognize me. Then I took water from the fountain close by
and dashed it on his face. He soon came to himself, and, taking me for
a stranger, thanked me for my assistance, saying that he had a sudden
shock. He then drank greedily from the fountain and went on his way."

"You followed?"

"Yes, eccellenza--at a little distance. He next visited a common tavern
in one of the back streets of the city and came out with two men. They
were well dressed--they had the air of gentlemen spoiled by bad
fortune. The signor talked with them for some time--he seemed much
excited. I could not hear what they said except at the end, when these
two strangers consented to appear as seconds for Signor Ferrari, and
they at once left him, to come straight to this hotel. And they are
arrived, for I saw them through a half-opened door as I came in,
talking with the Marquis D'Avencourt."

"Well!" I said, "and what of Signor Ferrari when he was left alone by
his two friends?"

"There is not much more to tell, eccellenza. He went up the little hill
to his own studio, and I noticed that he walked like a very old man
with his head bent. Once he stopped and shook his fist in the air as
though threatening some one. He let himself in at his door with a
private key--and I saw him no more. I felt that he would not come out
again for some time. And as I moved away to return here, I heard a
sound as of terrible weeping."

"And that is all, Vincenzo?"

"That is all, eccellenza."

I was silent. There was something in the simple narration that touched
me, though I remained as determinately relentless as ever. After a few
moments I said:

"You have done well, Vincenzo. You are aware how grossly this young man
has insulted me--and that his injurious treatment can only be wiped out
in one way. That way is already arranged. You can set out those pistols
you cleaned."

Vincenzo obeyed--but as he lifted the heavy case of weapons and set
them on the table, he ventured to remark, timidly:

"The eccellenza knows it is now Christmas-day?"

"I am quite aware of the fact," I said somewhat frigidly.

In nowise daunted he went on, "Coming back just now I saw the big
Nicolo--the eccellenza has doubtless seen him often?--he is a
vine-grower, and they say he is the largest man in Naples--three months
since he nearly killed his brother--ebbene! To-night that same big
Nicolo is drinking Chianti with that same brother, and both shouted
after me as I passed, 'Hola! Vincenzo Flamma! all is well between us
because it is the blessed Christ's birthday.'" Vincenzo stopped and
regarded me wistfully.

"Well!" I said, calmly, "what has the big Nicolo or his brother to do
with me?"

My valet hesitated--looked up--then down--finally he said, simply, "May
the saints preserve the eccellenza from all harm!"

I smiled gravely. "Thank you, my friend! I understand what you mean.
Have no fear for me. I am now going to lie down and rest till five
o'clock or thereabouts--and I advise you to do the same. At that time
you can bring me some coffee."

And I nodded kindly to him as I left him and entered my sleeping
apartment, where I threw myself on the bed, dressed as I was. I had no
intention of sleeping--my mind was too deeply engrossed by all I had
gone through. I could enter into Guido's feelings--had I not suffered
as he was now suffering?--nay! more than he--for HE, at any rate, would
not be buried alive! I should take care of that! HE would not have to
endure the agony of breaking loose from the cold grasp of the grave to
come back to life and find his name slandered, and his vacant place
filled up by a usurper. Do what I would, I could not torture him as
much as I myself had been tortured. That was a pity--death, sudden and
almost painless, seemed too good for him. I held up my hand in the half
light and watched it closely to see if it trembled ever so slightly.
No! it was steady as a rock--I felt I was sure of my aim. I would not
fire at his heart, I thought but just above it--for I had to remember
one thing--he must live long enough to recognize me before he died.
THAT was the sting I reserved for his last moments! The sick dreams
that had bewildered my brain when I was taken ill at the auberge
recurred to me. I remembered the lithe figure, so like Guido, that had
glided in the Indian canoe toward me and had plunged a dagger three
times in my heart? Had it not been realized? Had not Guido stabbed me
thrice?--in his theft of my wife's affections--in his contempt for my
little dead child--in his slanders on my name? Then why such foolish
notions of pity--of forgiveness, that were beginning to steal into my
mind? It was too late now for forgiveness--the very idea of it only
rose out of a silly sentimentalism awakened by Ferrari's allusion to
our young days--days for which, after all, he really cared nothing.
Meditating on all these things, I suppose I must have fallen by
imperceptible degrees into a doze which gradually deepened till it
became a profound and refreshing sleep. From this I was awakened by a
knocking at the door. I arose and admitted Vincenzo, who entered
bearing a tray of steaming coffee.

"Is it already so late?" I asked him.

"It wants a quarter to five," replied Vincenzo--then looking at me in
some surprise, he added, "Will not the eccellenza change his
evening-dress?"

I nodded in the affirmative--and while I drank my coffee my valet set
out a suit of rough tweed, such as I was accustomed to wear every day.
He then left me, and I quickly changed my attire, and while I did so I
considered carefully the position of affairs. Neither the Marquis
D'Avencourt nor Captain Freccia had ever known me personally when I was
Fabio Romani--nor was it at all probable that the two tavern companions
of Ferrari had ever seen me. A surgeon would be on the field--most
probably a stranger. Thinking over these points, I resolved on a bold
stroke--it was this--that when I turned to face Ferrari in the combat,
I would do so with uncovered eyes--I would abjure my spectacles
altogether for the occasion. Vaguely I wondered what the effect would
be upon him. I was very much changed even without these disguising
glasses--my white beard and hair had seemingly altered my aspect--yet I
knew there was something familiar in the expression of my eyes that
could not fail to startle one who had known me well. My seconds would
consider it very natural that I should remove the smoke-colored
spectacles in order to see my aim unencumbered--the only person likely
to be disconcerted by my action was Ferrari himself. The more I thought
of it the more determined I was to do it. I had scarcely finished
dressing when Vincenzo entered with my overcoat, and informed me that
the marquis waited for me, and that a close carriage was in attendance
at the private door of the hotel.

"Permit me to accompany you, eccellenza!" pleaded the faithful fellow,
with anxiety in the tone of his voice.

"Come then, amico!" I said, cheerily. "If the marquis makes no
objection I shall not. But you must promise not to interrupt any of the
proceedings by so much as an exclamation."

He promised readily, and when I joined the marquis he followed,
carrying my case of pistols.

"He can be trusted, I suppose?" asked D'Avencourt, glancing keenly at
him while shaking hands cordially with me.

"To the death!" I replied, laughingly. "He will break his heart if he
is not allowed to bind up my wounds!"

"I see you are in good spirits, conte," remarked Captain Freccia, as we
took our seats in the carriage. "It is always the way with the man who
is in the right. Ferrari, I fear, is not quite so comfortable."

And he proffered me a cigar, which I accepted. Just as we were about to
start, the fat landlord of the hotel rushed toward us, and laying hold
of the carriage door--"Eccellenza," he observed in a confidential
whisper, "of course this is only a matter of coffee and glorias? They
will be ready for you all on your return. I know--I understand!" And he
smiled and nodded a great many times, and laid his finger knowingly on
the side of his nose. We laughed heartily, assuring him that his
perspicuity was wonderful, and he stood on the broad steps in high good
humor, watching us as our vehicle rumbled heavily away.

"Evidently," I remarked, "he does not consider a duel as a serious
affair."

"Not he!" replied Freccia. "He has known of too many sham fights to be
able to understand a real one. D'Avencourt knows something about that
too, though he always kills his man. But very often it is sufficient to
scratch one another with the sword-point so as to draw a quarter of a
drop of blood, and honor is satisfied! Then the coffee and glorias are
brought, as suggested by our friend the landlord."

"It is a ridiculous age," said the marquis, taking his cigar from his
mouth, and complacently surveying his small, supple white hand,
"thoroughly ridiculous, but I determined it should never make a fool of
ME. You see, my dear conte, nowadays a duel is very frequently decided
with swords rather than pistols, and why? Because cowards fancy it is
much more difficult to kill with the sword. But not at all. Long ago I
made up my mind that no man should continue to live who dared to insult
me. I therefore studied swordplay as an art. And I assure you it is a
simple matter to kill with the sword--remarkably simple. My opponents
are astonished at the ease with which I dispatch them!"

Freccia laughed. "De Hamal is a pupil of yours, marquis, is he not?"

"I regret to say yes! He is marvelously clumsy. I have often earnestly
requested him to eat his sword rather than handle it so boorishly. Yet
he kills his men, too, but in a butcher-like manner--totally without
grace or refinement. I should say he was about on a par with our two
associates, Ferrari's seconds."

I roused myself from a reverie into which I had fallen.

"What men are they?" I inquired.

"One calls himself the Capitano Ciabatti, the other Cavaliere Dursi, at
your service," answered Freccia, indifferently. "Good swearers both and
hard drinkers--filled with stock phrases, such as 'our distinguished
dear friend, Ferrari, 'wrongs which can only be wiped out by
blood'--all bombast and braggadocio! These fellows would as soon be on
one side as the other."

He resumed his smoking, and we all three lapsed into silence. The drive
seemed very long, though in reality the distance was not great. At last
we passed the Casa Ghirlande, a superb chateau belonging to a
distinguished nobleman who in former days had been a friendly neighbor
to me, and then our vehicle jolted down a gentle declivity which sloped
into a small valley, where there was a good-sized piece of smooth flat
greensward. From this spot could be faintly discerned the castellated
turrets of my own house, the Villa Romani. Here we came to a
standstill. Vincenzo jumped briskly down from his seat beside the
coachman, and assisted us to alight. The carriage then drove off to a
retired corner behind some trees. We surveyed the ground, and saw that
as yet only one person beside ourselves had arrived. This was the
surgeon, a dapper good-humored little German who spoke bad French and
worse Italian, and who shook hands cordially with us all. On learning
who I was he bowed low and smiled very amiably. "The best wish I can
offer to you, signor," he said, "is that you may have no occasion for
my services. You have reposed yourself? That is well--sleep steadies
the nerves. Ach! you shiver! True it is, the morning is cold."

I did indeed experience a passing shudder, but not because the air was
chilly. It was because I felt certain--so terribly certain, of killing
the man I had once loved well. Almost I wished I could also feel that
there was the slightest possibility of his killing me; but no!--all my
instincts told me there was no chance of this. I had a sort of sick
pain at my heart, and as I thought of HER, the jewel-eyed snake who had
wrought all the evil, my wrath against her increased tenfold. I
wondered scornfully what she was doing away in the quiet convent where
the sacred Host, unveiled, glittered on the altar like a star of the
morning. No doubt she slept; it was yet too early for her to practice
her sham sanctity. She slept, in all probability most peacefully, while
her husband and her lover called upon death to come and decide between
them. The slow clear strokes of a bell chiming from the city tolled
six, and as its last echo trembled mournfully on the wind there was a
slight stir among my companions. I looked and saw Ferrari approaching
with his two associates. He walked slowly, and was muffled in a thick
cloak; his hat was pulled over his brows, and I could not see the
expression of his face, as he did not turn his head once in my
direction, but stood apart leaning against the trunk of a leafless
tree. The seconds on both sides now commenced measuring the ground.

"We are agreed as to the distance, gentlemen," said the marquis.
"Twenty paces, I think?"

"Twenty paces," stiffly returned one of Ferrari's friends--a
battered-looking middle-aged roue with ferocious mustachios, whom I
presumed was Captain Ciabatti.

They went on measuring carefully and in silence. During the pause I
turned my back on the whole party, slipped off my spectacles and put
them in my pocket. Then I lowered the brim of my hat slightly so that
the change might not be observed too suddenly--and resuming my first
position, I waited. It was daylight though not full morning--the sun
had not yet risen, but there was an opaline luster in the sky, and one
pale pink streak in the east like the floating pennon from the lance of
a hero, which heralded his approach. There was a gentle twittering of
awakening birds--the grass sparkled with a million tiny drops of frosty
dew. A curious calmness possessed me. I felt for the time as though I
were a mechanical automaton moved by some other will than my own. I had
no passion left.

The weapons were now loaded--and the marquis, looking about him with a
cheerful business-like air, remarked:

"I think we may now place our men?"

This suggestion agreed to, Ferrari left his place near the tree against
which he had in part inclined as though fatigued, and advanced to the
spot his seconds pointed out to him. He threw off his hat and overcoat,
thereby showing that he was still in his evening-dress. His face was
haggard and of a sickly paleness--his eyes had dark rings of pain round
them, and were full of a keen and bitter anguish. He eagerly grasped
the pistol they handed to him, and examined it closely with vengeful
interest. I meanwhile also threw off my hat and coat--the marquis
glanced at me with careless approval.

"You look a much younger man without your spectacles, conte," he
remarked as he handed me my weapon. I smiled indifferently, and took up
my position at the distance indicated, exactly opposite Ferrari. He was
still occupied in the examination of his pistol, and did not at once
look up.

"Are we ready, gentlemen?" demanded Freccia, with courteous coldness.

"Quite ready," was the response. The Marquis D'Avencourt took out his
handkerchief. Then Ferrari raised his head and faced me fully for the
first time. Great Heaven! shall I ever forget the awful change that
came over his pallid countenance--the confused mad look of his
eyes--the startled horror of his expression! His lips moved as though
he were about to utter an exclamation--he staggered.

"One!" cried D'Avencourt.

We raised our weapons.

"Two!"

The scared and bewildered expression of Ferrari's face deepened visibly
as he eyed me steadily in taking aim. I smiled proudly--I gave him back
glance for glance--I saw him waver--his hand shook.

"Three!" and the white handkerchief fluttered to the ground. Instantly,
and together, we fired. Ferrari's bullet whizzed past me, merely
tearing my coat and grazing my shoulder. The smoke cleared--Ferrari
still stood erect, opposite to me, staring straight forward with the
same frantic faroff look--the pistol had dropped from his hand.
Suddenly he threw up his arms--shuddered--and with a smothered groan
fell, face forward, prone on the sward. The surgeon hurried to his side
and turned him so that he lay on his back. He was unconscious--though
his dark eyes were wide open, and turned blindly upward to the sky. The
front of his shirt was already soaked with blood. We all gathered round
him.

"A good shot?" inquired the marquis, with the indifference of a
practiced duelist.

"Ach! a good shot indeed!" replied the little German doctor, shaking
his head as he rose from his examination of the wound. "Excellent! He
will be dead in ten minutes. The bullet has passed through the lungs
close to the heart. Honor is satisfied certainly!"

At that moment a deep anguished sigh parted the lips of the dying man.
Sense and speculation returned to those glaring eyes so awfully
upturned. He looked upon us all doubtfully one after the other--till
finally his gaze rested upon me. Then he grew strangely excited--his
lips moved--he eagerly tried to speak. The doctor, watchful of his
movements, poured brandy between his teeth. The cordial gave him
momentary strength--he raised himself by a supreme effort.

"Let me speak," he gasped faintly, "to HIM!" And he pointed to me--then
he continued to mutter like a man in a dream--"to
him--alone--alone!--to him alone!"

The others, slightly awed by his manner, drew aside out of ear-shot,
and I advanced and knelt beside him, stooping my face between his and
the morning sky. His wild eyes met mine with a piteous beseeching
terror.

"In God's name," he whispered, thickly, "WHO ARE YOU?"

"You know me, Guido!" I answered, steadily. "I am Fabio Romani, whom
you once called friend! I am he whose wife you stole!--whose name you
slandered!--whose honor you despised! Ah! look at me well! your own
heart tells you who I am!"

He uttered a low moan and raised his hand with a feeble gesture.

"Fabio? Fabio?" he gasped. "He died--I saw him in his coffin--"

I leaned more closely over him. "I was BURIED ALIVE," I said with
thrilling distinctness. "Understand me, Guido--buried alive! I
escaped--no matter how. I came home--to learn your treachery and my own
dishonor! Shall I tell you more?"

A terrible shudder shook his frame--his head moved restlessly to and
fro, the sweat stood in large drops upon his forehead. With my own
handkerchief I wiped his lips and brow tenderly--my nerves were strung
up to an almost brittle tension--I smiled as a woman smiles when on the
verge of hysterical weeping.

"You know the avenue," I said, "the dear old avenue, where the
nightingales sing? I saw you there, Guido--with HER!--on the very night
of my return from death--SHE was in your arms--you kissed her--you
spoke of me--you toyed with the necklace on her white breast!"

He writhed under my gaze with a strong convulsive movement.

"Tell me--quick!" he gasped. "Does--SHE--know you?"

"Not yet!" I answered, slowly. "But soon she will--when I have married
her!"

A look of bitter anguish filled his straining eyes. "Oh, God, God!" he
exclaimed with a groan like that of a wild beast in pain. "This is
horrible, too horrible! Spare me--spare--" A rush of blood choked his
utterance. His breathing grew fainter and fainter; the livid hue of
approaching dissolution spread itself gradually over his countenance.
Staring wildly at me, he groped with his hands as though he searched
for some lost thing. I took one of those feebly wandering hands within
my own, and held it closely clasped.

"You know the rest," I said gently; "you understand my vengeance! But
it is all over, Guido--all over, now! She has played us both false. May
God forgive you as I do!"

He smiled--a soft look brightened his fast-glazing eyes--the old boyish
look that had won my love in former days.

"All over!" he repeated in a sort of plaintive babble. "All over now!
God--Fabio--forgive!--" A terrible convulsion wrenched and contorted
his limbs and features, his throat rattled, and stretching himself out
with a long shivering sigh--he died! The first beams of the rising sun,
piercing through the dark, moss-covered branches of the pine-trees,
fell on his clustering hair, and lent a mocking brilliancy to his
wide-open sightless eyes: there was a smile on the closed lips! A
burning, suffocating sensation rose in my throat, as of rebellious
tears trying to force a passage. I still held the hand of my friend and
enemy--it had grown cold in my clasp. Upon it sparkled my family
diamond--the ring SHE had given him. I drew the jewel off: then I
kissed that poor passive hand as I laid it gently down--kissed it
tenderly, reverently. Hearing footsteps approaching, I rose from my
kneeling posture and stood erect with folded arms, looking tearlessly
down on the stiffening clay before me. The rest of the party came up;
no one spoke for a minute, all surveyed the dead body in silence. At
last Captain Freccia said, softly in half-inquiring accents:

"He is gone, I suppose?"

I bowed. I could not trust myself to speak.

"He made you his apology?" asked the marquis.

I bowed again. There was another pause of heavy silence. The rigid
smiling face of the corpse seemed to mock all speech. The doctor
stooped and skillfully closed those glazed appealing eyes--and then it
seemed to me as though Guido merely slept and that a touch would waken
him. The Marquis D'Avencourt took me by the arm and whispered, "Get
back to the city, amico, and take some wine--you look positively ill!
Your evident regret does you credit, considering the circumstances--but
what would you?--it was a fair fight. Consider the provocation you had!
I should advise you to leave Naples for a couple of weeks--by that time
the affair will be forgotten. I know how these things are
managed--leave it all to me."

I thanked him and shook his hand cordially and turned to depart.
Vincenzo was in waiting with the carriage. Once I looked back, as with
slow steps I left the field; a golden radiance illumined the sky just
above the stark figure stretched so straightly on the sward; while
almost from the very side of that pulseless heart a little bird rose
from its nest among the grasses and soared into the heavens, singing
rapturously as it flew into the warmth and glory of the living,
breathing day.



CHAPTER XXVI.


Entering the fiacre, I drove in it a very little way toward the city. I
bade the driver stop at the corner of the winding road that led to the
Villa Romani, and there I alighted. I ordered Vincenzo to go on to the
hotel and send from thence my own carriage and horses up to the villa
gates, where I would wait for it. I also bade him pack my portmanteau
in readiness for my departure that evening, as I proposed going to
Avellino, among the mountains, for a few days. He heard my commands in
silence and evident embarrassment. Finally he said:

"Do I also travel with the eccellenza?"

"Why, no!" I answered with a forced sad smile. "Do you not see, amico,
that I am heavy-hearted, and melancholy men are best left to
themselves. Besides--remember the carnival--I told you you were free to
indulge in its merriment, and shall I not deprive you of your pleasure?
No, Vincenzo; stay and enjoy yourself, and take no concern for me."

Vincenzo saluted me with his usual respectful bow, but his features
wore an expression of obstinacy.

"The eccellenza must pardon me," he said, "but I have just looked at
death, and my taste is spoiled for carnival. Again--the eccellenza is
sad--it is necessary that I should accompany him to Avellino."

I saw that his mind was made up, and I was in no humor for argument.

"As you will," I answered, wearily, "only believe me, you make a
foolish decision. But do what you like; only arrange all so that we
leave to-night. And now get back quickly--give no explanation at the
hotel of what has occurred, and lose no time in sending on my carriage.
I will wait alone at the Villa Romani till it comes."

The vehicle rumbled off, bearing Vincenzo seated on the box beside the
driver. I watched it disappear, and then turned into the road that led
me to my own dishonored home. The place looked silent and deserted--not
a soul was stirring. The silken blinds of the reception-rooms were all
closely drawn, showing that the mistress of the house was absent; it
was as if some one lay dead within. A vague wonderment arose in my
mind. WHO was dead? Surely it must be I--I the master of the household,
who lay stiff and cold in one of those curtained rooms! This terrible
white-haired man who roamed feverishly up and down outside the walls
was not me--it was some angry demon risen from the grave to wreak
punishment on the guilty. _I_ was dead--_I_ could never have killed the
man who had once been my friend. And he also was dead--the same
murderess had slain us both--and SHE lived! Ha! that was wrong--she
must now die--but in such torture that her very soul shall shrink and
shrivel under it into a devil's flame for the furnace of hell!

With my brain full of hot whirling thoughts like these I looked through
the carved heraldic work of the villa gates. Here had Guido stood, poor
wretch, last night, shaking these twisted wreaths of iron in impotent
fury. There on the mosaic pavement he had flung the trembling old
servant who had told him of the absence of his traitress. On this very
spot he had launched his curse, which, though he knew it not, was the
curse of a dying man. I was glad he had uttered it--such maledictions
cling! There was nothing but compassion for him in my heart now that he
was dead. He had been duped and wronged even as I; and I felt that his
spirit, released from its grosser clay, would work with mine and aid in
her punishment.

I paced round the silent house till I came to the private wicket that
led into the avenue; I opened it and entered the familiar path. I had
not been there since the fatal night on which I had learned my own
betrayal. How intensely still were those solemn pines--how gaunt and
dark and grim! Not a branch quivered--not a leaf stirred. A cold dew
that was scarcely a frost glittered on the moss at my feet, No bird's
voice broke the impressive hush of the wood-lands morning dream. No
bright-hued flower unbuttoned its fairy cloak to the breeze; yet there
was a subtle perfume everywhere--the fragrance of unseen violets whose
purple eyes were still closed in slumber.

I gazed on the scene as a man may behold in a vision the spot where he
once was happy. I walked a few paces, then paused with a strange
beating at my heart. A shadow fell across my path--it flitted before
me, it stopped--it lay still. I saw it resolve itself into the figure
of a man stretched out in rigid silence, with the light beating full on
its smiling, dead face, and also on a deep wound just above his heart,
from which the blood oozed redly, staining the grass on which he lay.
Mastering the sick horror which seized me at this sight, I sprung
forward--the shadow vanished instantly--it was a mere optical delusion,
the result of my overwrought and excited condition. I shuddered
involuntarily at the image my own heated fancy had conjured up; should
I always see Guido thus, I thought, even in my dreams?

Suddenly a ringing, swaying rush of sound burst joyously on the
silence--the slumbering trees awoke, their leaves moved, their dark
branches quivered, and the grasses lifted up their green lilliputian
sword-blades. Bells!--and SUCH bells!--tongues of melody that stormed
the air with sweetest eloquence--round, rainbow bubbles of music that
burst upon the wind, and dispersed in delicate broken echoes.

"Peace on earth, good will to men!
Peace--on--earth--good--will--to--men!" they seemed to say over and
over again, till my ears ached with the repetition. Peace! What had I
to do with peace or good-will? The Christ Mass could teach me nothing.
I was as one apart from human life-an alien from its customs and
affections--for me no love, no brotherhood remained. The swinging song
of the chimes jarred my nerves. Why, I thought, should the wild erring
world, with all its wicked men and women, presume to rejoice at the
birth of the Saviour?--they, who were not worthy to be saved! I turned
swiftly away; I strode fiercely past the kingly pines that, now
thoroughly awakened, seemed to note me with a stern disdain as though
they said among themselves: "What manner of small creature is this that
torments himself with passions unknown to US in our calm converse with
the stars?"

I was glad when I stood again on the high-road, and infinitely relieved
when I heard the rapid trot of horses rumbling of wheels, and saw my
closed brougham, drawn by its prancing black Arabians, approaching. I
walked to meet it; the coachman seeing me drew up instantly, I bade him
take me to the Convento dell'Annunziata, and entering the carriage, I
was driven rapidly away.

The convent was situated, I knew, somewhere between Naples and
Sorrento. I guessed it to be near Castellamare, but it was fully three
miles beyond that, and was a somewhat long drive of more than two
hours. It lay a good distance out of the direct route, and was only
attained by a by-road, which from its rough and broken condition was
evidently not much frequented. The building stood apart from all other
habitations in a large open piece of ground, fenced in by a high stone
wall spiked at the top. Roses climbed thickly among the spikes, and
almost hid their sharp points from view, and from a perfect nest of
green foliage, the slender spire of the convent chapel rose into the
sky like a white finger pointing to heaven. My coachman drew up before
the heavily barred gates. I alighted, and bade him take the carriage to
the principal hostelry at Castellamare, and wait for me there. As soon
as he had driven off, I rang the convent bell. A little wicket fixed in
the gate opened immediately, and the wrinkled visage of a very old and
ugly nun looked out. She demanded in low tones what I sought. I handed
her my card, and stated my desire to see the Countess Romani, if
agreeable to the superioress. While I spoke she looked at me
curiously--my spectacles, I suppose, excited her wonder--for I had
replaced these disguising glasses immediately on leaving the scene of
the duel--I needed them yet a little while longer. After peering at me
a minute or two with her bleared and aged eyes, she shut the wicket in
my face with a smart click and disappeared. While I awaited her return
I heard the sound of children's laughter and light footsteps running
trippingly on the stone passage within.

"Fi donc, Rosie!" said the girl's voice in French; "la bonne Mere
Marguerite sera tres tres fachee avec toi."

"Tais-toi, petite sainte!" cried another voice more piercing and
silvery in tone. "Je veux voir qui est la! C'est un homme je sais
bien--parceque la vieille Mere Laura a rougi!" and both young voices
broke into a chorus of renewed laughter.

Then came the shuffling noise of the old nun's footsteps returning; she
evidently caught the two truants, whoever they were, for I heard her
expostulating, scolding and apostrophizing the saints all in a breath,
as she bade them go inside the house and ask the good little Jesus to
forgive their naughtiness. A silence ensued, then the bolts and bars of
the huge gate were undone slowly--it opened, and I was admitted. I
raised my hat as I entered, and walked bareheaded through a long, cold
corridor, guided by the venerable nun, who looked at me no more, but
told her beads as she walked, and never spoke till she had led me into
the building, through a lofty hall glorious with sacred paintings and
statues, and from thence into a large, elegantly furnished room, whose
windows commanded a fine view of the grounds. Here she motioned me to
take a seat, and without lifting her eyelids, said:

"Mother Marguerite will wait upon you instantly, signor."

I bowed, and she glided from the room so noiselessly that I did not
even hear the door close behind her. Left alone in what I rightly
concluded was the reception-room for visitors, I looked about me with
some faint interest and curiosity. I had never before seen the interior
of what is known as an educational convent. There were many photographs
on the walls and mantelpiece--portraits of girls, some plain of face
and form, others beautiful--no doubt they had all been sent to the nuns
as souvenirs of former pupils. Rising from my chair I examined a few of
them carelessly, and was about to inspect a fine copy of Murillo's
Virgin, when my attention was caught by an upright velvet frame
surmounted with my own crest and coronet. In it was the portrait of my
wife, taken in her bridal dress, as she looked when she married me. I
took it to the light and stared at the features dubiously. This was
she--this slim, fairy-like creature clad in gossamer white, with the
marriage veil thrown back from her clustering hair and child-like
face--this was the THING for which two men's lives had been sacrificed!
With a movement of disgust I replaced the frame in its former position;
I had scarcely done so when the door opened quietly and a tall woman,
clad in trailing robes of pale blue with a nun's band and veil of fine
white cashmere, stood before me. I saluted her with a deep reverence;
she responded by the slightest possible bend of her head. Her outward
manner was so very still and composed that when she spoke her colorless
lips scarcely moved, her very breathing never stirred the silver
crucifix that lay like a glittering sign-manual on her quiet breast.
Her voice, though low, was singularly clear and penetrating.

"I address the Count Oliva?" she inquired.

I bowed in the affirmative. She looked at me keenly: she had dark,
brilliant eyes, in which the smoldering fires of many a conquered
passion still gleamed.

"You would see the Countess Romani, who is in retreat here?"

"If not inconvenient or out of rule--" I began.

The shadow of a smile flitted across the nun's pale, intellectual face;
it was gone almost as soon as it appeared.

"Not at all," she replied, in the same even monotone. "The Countess
Nina is, by her own desire, following a strict regime, but to-day being
a universal feast-day all rules are somewhat relaxed. The reverend
mother desires me to inform you that it is now the hour for mass--she
has herself already entered the chapel. If you will share in our
devotions, the countess shall afterward be informed of your presence
here."

I could do no less than accede to this proposition, though in truth it
was unwelcome to me. I was in no humor for either prayers or praise; I
thought moodily how startled even this impassive nun might have been,
could she have known what manner of man it was that she thus invited to
kneel in the sanctuary. However, I said no word of objection, and she
bade me follow her. As we left the room I asked:

"Is the countess well?"

"She seems so," returned Mere Marguerite; "she follows her religious
duties with exactitude, and makes no complaint of fatigue."

We were now crossing the hall. I ventured on another inquiry.

"She was a favorite pupil of yours, I believe?"

The nun turned her passionless face toward me with an air of mild
surprise and reproof.

"I have no favorites," she answered, coldly. "All the children educated
here share my attention and regard equally."

I murmured an apology, and added with a forced smile:

"You must pardon my apparent inquisitiveness, but as the future husband
of the lady who was brought up under your care, I am naturally
interested in all that concerns her."

Again the searching eyes of the religieuse surveyed me; she sighed
slightly.

"I am aware of the connection between you," she said, in rather a
pained tone. "Nina Romani belongs to the world, and follows the ways of
the world. Of course, marriage is the natural fulfillment of most young
girls' destinies, there are comparatively few who are called out of the
ranks to serve Christ. Therefore, when Nina married the estimable Count
Romani, of whom report spoke ever favorably, we rejoiced greatly,
feeling that her future was safe in the hands of a gentle and wise
protector. May his soul rest in peace! But a second marriage for her is
what I did not expect, and what I cannot in my conscience approve. You
see I speak frankly."

"I am honored that you do so, madame!" I said, earnestly, feeling a
certain respect for this sternly composed yet patient-featured woman;
"yet, though in general you may find many reasonable objections to it,
a second marriage is I think, in the Countess Romani's case almost
necessary. She is utterly without a protector--she is very young and
how beautiful!"

The nun's eyes grew solemn and almost mournful.

"Such beauty is a curse," she answered, with emphasis; "a fatal--a
fearful curse! As a child it made her wayward. As a woman it keeps her
wayward still. Enough of this, signor!" and she bowed her head; "excuse
my plain speaking. Rest assured that I wish you both happiness."

We had by this time reached the door of the chapel, through which the
sound of the pealing organ poured forth in triumphal surges of melody.
Mere Marguerite dipped her fingers in the holy water, and signing
herself with the cross, pointed out a bench at the back of the church
as one that strangers were allowed to occupy. I seated myself, and
looked with a certain soothed admiration at the picturesque scene
before me. There was the sparkle of twinkling lights--the bloom and
fragrance of flowers. There were silent rows of nuns blue-robed and
white-veiled, kneeling and absorbed in prayer. Behind these a little
cluster of youthful figures in black, whose drooped heads were entirely
hidden in veils of flowing white muslin. Behind these again, one
woman's slight form arrayed in heavy mourning garments; her veil was
black, yet not so thick but that I could perceive the sheeny glitter of
golden hair--that was my wife, I knew. Pious angel! how devout she
looked! I smiled in dreary scorn as I watched her; I cursed her afresh
in the name of the man I had killed. And above all, surrounded with the
luster of golden rays and incrusted jewels, the uncovered Host shone
serenely like the gleam of the morning star. The stately service went
on--the organ music swept through and through the church as though it
were a strong wind striving to set itself free--but amid it all I sat
as one in a dark dream, scarcely seeing, scarcely hearing--inflexible
and cold as marble. The rich plaintive voice of one of the nuns in the
choir, singing the Agnus Dei, moved me to a chill sort of wonder. "Qui
tollis peccata mundi--Who takest away the sin of the world." No, no!
there are some sins that cannot be taken away--the sins of faithless
women, the "LITTLE" sins as they are called nowadays--for we have grown
very lenient in some things, and very severe in others. We will
imprison the miserable wretch who steals five francs from our pockets,
but the cunning feminine thief who robs us of our prestige, our name
and honorable standing among our fellow-men, escapes almost scot-free;
she cannot be put in prison, or sentenced to hard labor--not she! A
pity it is that Christ did not leave us some injunction as to what was
to be done with such women--not the penitent Magdalenes, but the
creatures whose mouths are full of lies even when they pretend to
pray--they who would be capable of trying to tempt the priest who comes
to receive their last confessions--they who would even act out a sham
repentance on their deathbeds in order to look well. What can be done
with devils such as these? Much has been said latterly of the wrongs
perpetrated on women by men; will no one take up the other side of the
question? We, the stronger sex, are weak in this--we are too
chivalrous. When a woman flings herself on our mercy we spare her and
are silent. Tortures will not wring her secrets out of us; something
holds us back from betraying her. I know not what it can be--perhaps it
is the memory of our mothers. Whatever it is, it is certain that many a
man allows himself to be disgraced rather than he will disgrace a
woman. But a time is at hand when this foolish chivalry of ours will
die out. On changera tout cela! When once our heavy masculine brains
shall have grasped the novel idea that woman has by her own wish and
choice resigned all claim on our respect or forbearance, we shall have
our revenge. We are slow to change the traditions of our forefathers,
but no doubt we shall soon manage to quench the last spark of knightly
reverence left in us for the female sex, as this is evidently the point
the women desire to bring us to. We shall meet them on that low
platform of the "equality" they seek for, and we shall treat them with
the unhesitating and regardless familiarity they so earnestly invite!

Absorbed in thought, I knew not when the service ended. A hand touched
me, and looking up I saw Mere Marguerite, who whispered:

"Follow me, if you please."

I rose and obeyed her mechanically. Outside the chapel door she said:

"Pray excuse me for hurrying you, but strangers are not permitted to
see the nuns and boarders passing out."

I bowed, and walked on beside her. Feeling forced to say something, I
asked:

"Have you many boarders at this holiday season?"

"Only fourteen," she replied, "and they are children whose parents live
far away. Poor little ones!" and the set lines of the nun's stern face
softened into tenderness as she spoke. "We do our best to make them
happy, but naturally they feel lonely. We have generally fifty or sixty
young girls here, besides the day scholars."

"A great responsibility," I remarked.

"Very great indeed!" and she sighed; "almost terrible. So much of a
woman's after life depends on the early training she receives. We do
all we can, and yet in some cases our utmost efforts are in vain; evil
creeps in, we know not how--some unsuspected fault spoils a character
that we judged to be admirable, and we are often disappointed in our
most promising pupils. Alas! there is nothing entirely without blemish
in this world."

Thus talking, she showed me into a small, comfortable-looking room,
lined with books and softly carpeted.

"This is one of our libraries," she explained. "The countess will
receive you here, as other visitors might disturb you in the
drawing-room. Pardon me," and her steady gaze had something of
compassion in it, "but you do not look well. Can I send you some wine?"

I declined this offer with many expressions of gratitude, and assured
her I was perfectly well. She hesitated, and at last said, anxiously:

"I trust you were not offended at my remark concerning Nina Romani's
marriage with you? I fear I was too hasty?"

"Not so, madame," I answered, with all the earnestness I felt. "Nothing
is more pleasant to me than a frank opinion frankly spoken. I have been
so accustomed to deception--" Here I broke off and added hastily, "Pray
do not think me capable of judging you wrongly."

She seemed relieved, and smiling that shadowy, flitting smile of hers,
she said:

"No doubt you are impatient, signor; Nina shall come to you directly,"
and with a slight salutation she left me.

Surely she was a good woman, I thought, and vaguely wondered about her
past history--that past which she had buried forever under a mountain
of prayers. What had she been like when young--before she had shut
herself within the convent walls--before she had set the crucifix like
a seal on her heart? Had she ever trapped a man's soul and strangled it
with lies? I fancied not--her look was too pure and candid; yet who
could tell? Were not Nina's eyes trained to appear as though they held
the very soul of truth? A few minutes passed. I heard the fresh voices
of children singing in the next room:

  "D'ou vient le petit Gesu?
    Ce joli bouton de rose
    Qui fleurit, enfant cheri
   Sur le coeur de notre mere Marie."

Then came a soft rustle of silken garments, the door opened, and my
wife entered.



CHAPTER XXVII.


She approached with her usual panther-like grace and supple movement,
her red lips parted in a charming smile.

"So good of you to come!" she began, holding out her two hands as
though she invited an embrace; "and on Christmas morning too!" She
paused, and seeing that I did not move or speak, she regarded me with
some alarm. "What is the matter?" she asked, in fainter tones; "has
anything happened?"

I looked at her. I saw that she was full of sudden fear, I made no
attempt to soothe her, I merely placed a chair.

"Sit down," I said, gravely. "I am the bearer of bad news."

She sunk into the chair as though unnerved, and gazed at me with
terrified eyes. She trembled. Watching her keenly, I observed all these
outward signs of trepidation with deep satisfaction. I saw plainly what
was passing in her mind. A great dread had seized her--the dread that I
had found out her treachery. So indeed I had, but the time had not yet
come for her to know it. Meanwhile she suffered--suffered acutely with
that gnawing terror and suspense eating into her soul. I said nothing,
I waited for her to speak. After a pause, during which her cheeks had
lost their delicate bloom, she said, forcing a smile as she spoke--

"Bad news? You surprise me! What can it be? Some unpleasantness with
Guido? Have you seen him?"

"I have seen him," I answered in the same formal and serious tone; "I
have just left him. He sends you THIS," and I held out my diamond ring
that I had drawn off the dead man's finger.

If she had been pale before, she grew paler now. All the brilliancy of
her complexion faded for the moment into an awful haggardness. She took
the ring with fingers that shook visibly and were icy cold. There was
no attempt at smiling now. She drew a sharp quick breath; she thought I
knew all. I was again silent. She looked at the diamond signet with a
bewildered air.

"I do not understand," she murmured, petulantly. "I gave him this as a
remembrance of his friend, my husband, why does he return it?"

Self-tortured criminal! I studied her with a dark amusement, but
answered nothing. Suddenly she looked up at me and her eyes filled with
tears.

"Why are you so cold and strange, Cesare?" she pleaded, in a sort of
plaintive whimper. "Do not stand there like a gloomy sentinel; kiss me
and tell me at once what has happened."

Kiss her! So soon after kissing the dead hand of her lover! No, I could
not and would not. I remained standing where I was, inflexibly silent.
She glanced at me again, very timidly, and whimpered afresh.

"Ah, you do not love me!" she murmured. "You could not be so stern and
silent if you loved me! If there is indeed any bad news, you ought to
break it to me gently and kindly. I thought you would always make
everything easy for me--"

"Such has been my endeavor, madame," I said interrupting her complaint.
"From your own statement, I judged that your adopted brother Guido
Ferrari had rendered himself obnoxious to you. I promised that I would
silence him--you remember! I have kept my word. He IS
silenced--forever!"

She started.

"Silenced? How? You mean--"

I moved away from my place behind her chair, and stood so that I faced
her as I spoke.

"I mean that he is dead."

She uttered a slight cry, not of sorrow but of wonderment.

"DEAD!" she exclaimed. "Not possible! Dead! You have killed him?"

I bent my head gravely. "I killed him--yes! But in open combat, openly
witnessed. Last night he insulted me grossly; we fought this morning.
We forgave each other before he died."

She listened attentively. A little color came back into her cheeks.

"In what way did he insult you?" she asked, in a low voice.

I told her all, briefly. She still looked anxious.

"Did he mention my name?" she said.

I glanced at her troubled features in profound contempt. She feared the
dying man might have made some confession to me! I answered:

"No; not after our quarrel. But I hear he went to your house to kill
you! Not finding you there, he only cursed you."

She heaved a sigh of relief. She was safe now, she thought!

Her red lips widened into a cruel smile.

"What bad taste!" she said, coldly. "Why he should curse me I cannot
imagine! I have always been kind to him--TOO kind."

Too kind indeed! kind enough to be glad when the object of all her
kindness was dead! For she WAS glad! I could see that in the murderous
glitter of her eyes.

"You are not sorry?" I inquired, with an air of pretended surprise.

"Sorry? Not at all! Why should I be? He was a very agreeable friend
while my husband was alive to keep him in order, but after my poor
Fabio's death, his treatment of me was quite unbearable."

Take care, beautiful hypocrite! take care! Take care lest your "poor
Fabio's" fingers should suddenly nip your slim throat with a convulsive
twitch that means death! Heaven only knows how I managed to keep my
hands off her at that moment! Why, any groveling beast of the field had
more feeling than this wretch whom I had made my wife! Even for Guido's
sake--such are the strange inconsistencies of the human heart--I could
have slain her then. But I restrained my fury; I steadied my voice and
said calmly: "Then I was mistaken? I thought you would be deeply
grieved, that my news would shock and annoy you greatly, hence my
gravity and apparent coldness. But it seems I have done well?"

She sprung up from her chair like a pleased child and flung her arms
round my neck.

"You are brave, you are brave!" she exclaimed, in a sort of exultation.
"You could not have done otherwise! He insulted you and you killed him.
That was right! I love you all the more for being such a man of honor!"

I looked down upon her in loathing and disgust. Honor! Its very name
was libeled coming from HER lips. She did not notice the expression of
my face--she was absorbed, excellent actress as she was, in the part
she had chosen to play.

"And so you were dull and sad because you feared to grieve me! Poor
Cesare!" she said, in child-like caressing accents, such as she could
assume when she chose. "But now that you see I am not unhappy, you will
be cheerful again? Yes? Think how much I love you, and how happy we
will be! And see, you have given me such lovely jewels, so many of them
too, that I scarcely dare offer you such a trifle as this; but as it
really belonged to Fabio, and to Fabio's father, whom you knew, I think
you ought to have it. Will you take it and wear it to please me?" and
she slipped on my finger the diamond signet--my own ring!

I could have laughed aloud! but I bent my head gravely as I accepted it.

"Only as a proof of your affection, cara mia," I said, "though it has a
terrible association for me. I took it from Ferrari's hand when--"

"Oh, yes, I know!" she interrupted me with a little shiver; "it must
have been trying for you to have seen him dead. I think dead people
look so horrid--the sight upsets the nerves! I remember when I was at
school here, they WOULD take me to see a nun who died; it sickened me
and made me ill for days. I can quite understand your feelings. But you
must try and forget the matter. Duels are very common occurrences,
after all!"

"Very common," I answered, mechanically, still regarding the fair
upturned face, the lustrous eyes, the rippling hair; "but they do not
often end so fatally. The result of this one compels me to leave Naples
for some days. I go to Avellino to-night."

"To Avellino?" she exclaimed, with interest. "Oh, I know it very well.
I went there once with Fabio when I was first married."

"And were you happy there?" I inquired, coldly.

I remembered the time she spoke of--a time of such unreasoning, foolish
joy!

"Happy? Oh, yes; everything was so new to me then. It was delightful to
be my own mistress, and I was so glad to be out of the convent."

"I thought you liked the nuns?" I said.

"Some of them--yes. The reverend mother is a dear old thing. But Mere
Marguerite, the Vicaire as she is called--the one that received
you--oh, I do detest her!"

"Indeed! and why?"

The red lips curled mutinously.

"Because she is so sly and silent. Some of the children here adore her;
but they MUST have something to love, you know," and she laughed
merrily.

"Must they?"

I asked the question automatically, merely for the sake of saying
something.

"Of course they must," she answered, gayly. "You foolish Cesare! The
girls often play at being one another's lovers, only they are careful
not to let the nuns know their game. It is very amusing. Since I have
been here they have what is called a 'CRAZE' for me. They give me
flowers, run after me in the garden, and sometimes kiss my dress, and
call me by all manner of loving names. I let them do it because it
vexes Madame la Vicaire; but of course it is very foolish."

I was silent. I thought what a curse it was--this necessity of loving.
Even the poison of it must find its way into the hearts of
children--young things shut within the walls of a secluded convent, and
guarded by the conscientious care of holy women.

"And the nuns?" I said, uttering half my thoughts aloud. "How do they
manage without love or romance?"

A wicked little smile, brilliant and disdainful, glittered in her eyes.

"DO they always manage without love or romance?" she asked, half
indolently. "What of Abelard and Heloise, or Fra Lippi?"

Roused by something in her tone, I caught her round the waist, and held
her firmly while I said, with some sternness:

"And you--is it possible that YOU have sympathy with, or find amusement
in, the contemplation of illicit and dishonorable passion--tell me?"

She recollected herself in time; her white eyelids drooped demurely.

"Not I!" she answered, with a grave and virtuous air; "how can you
think so? There is nothing to my mind so horrible as deceit; no good
ever comes of it."

I loosened her from my embrace.

"You are right," I said, calmly; "I am glad your instincts are so
correct! I have always hated lies."

"So have I!" she declared, earnestly, with a frank and open look; "I
have often wondered why people tell them. They are so sure to be found
out!"

I bit my lips hard to shut in the burning accusations that my tongue
longed to utter. Why should I damn the actress or the play before the
curtain was ready to fall on both? I changed the subject of converse.

"How long do you propose remaining here in retreat?" I asked. "There is
nothing now to prevent your returning to Naples."

She pondered for some minutes before replying, then she said:

"I told the superioress I came here for a week. I had better stay till
that time is expired. Not longer, because as Guido is really dead, my
presence is actually necessary in the city."

"Indeed! May I ask why?"

She laughed a little consciously.

"Simply to prove his last will and testament," she replied. "Before he
left for Rome, he gave it into my keeping."

A light flashed on my mind.

"And its contents?" I inquired.

"Its contents make ME the owner of everything he died possessed of!"
she said, with an air of quiet yet malicious triumph.

Unhappy Guido! What trust he had reposed in this vile, self-interested,
heartless woman! He had loved her, even as I had loved her--she who was
unworthy of any love! I controlled my rising emotion, and merely said
with gravity:

"I congratulate you! May I be permitted to see this document?"

"Certainly; I can show it to you now. I have it here," and she drew a
Russia-leather letter-case from her pocket, and opening it, handed me a
sealed envelope. "Break the seal!" she added, with childish eagerness.
"He closed it up like that after I had read it."

With reluctant hand, and a pained piteousness at my heart, I opened the
packet. It was as she had said, a will drawn up in perfectly legal
form, signed and witnessed, leaving everything UNCONDITIONALLY to
"Nina, Countess Romani, of the Villa Romani, Naples." I read it through
and returned it to her.

"He must have loved you!" I said.

She laughed.

"Of course," she said, airily. "But many people love me--that is
nothing new; I am accustomed to be loved. But you see," she went on,
reverting to the will again, "it specifies, 'EVERYTHING HE DIES
POSSESSED OF;' that means all the money left to him by his uncle in
Rome, does it not?"

I bowed. I could not trust myself to speak.

"I thought so," she murmured, gleefully, more to herself than to me;
"and I have a right to all his papers and letters." There she paused
abruptly and checked herself.

I understood her. She wanted to get back her own letters to the dead
man, lest her intimacy with him should leak out in some chance way for
which she was unprepared. Cunning devil! I was almost glad she showed
me to what a depth of vulgar vice she had fallen. There was no question
of pity or forbearance in HER case. If all the tortures invented by
savages or stern inquisitors could be heaped upon her at once, such
punishment would be light in comparison with her crimes--crimes for
which, mark you, the law gives you no remedy but divorce. Tired of the
wretched comedy, I looked at my watch.

"It is time for me to take my leave of you," I said, in the stiff,
courtly manner I affected. "Moments fly fast in your enchanting
company! But I have still to walk to Castellamare, there to rejoin my
carriage, and I have many things to attend to before my departure this
evening. On my return from Avellino shall I be welcome?"

"You know it," she returned, nestling her head against my shoulder,
while for mere form's sake I was forced to hold her in a partial
embrace. "I only wish you were not going at all. Dearest, do not stay
long away--I shall be so unhappy till you come back!"

"Absence strengthens love, they say," I observed, with a forced smile.
"May it do so in our case. Farewell, cara mia! Pray for me; I suppose
you DO pray a great deal here?"

"Oh, yes," she replied, naively; "there is nothing else to do."

I held her hands closely in my grasp. The engagement ring on her
finger, and the diamond signet on my own, flashed in the light like the
crossing of swords.

"Pray then," I said, "storm the gates of heaven with sweet-voiced
pleadings for the repose of poor Ferrari's soul! Remember he loved you,
though YOU never loved him. For YOUR sake he quarreled with me, his
best friend--for YOUR sake he died! Pray for him--who knows," and I
spoke in thrilling tones of earnestness--"who knows but that his
too-hastily departed spirit may not be near us now--hearing our voices,
watching our looks?"

She shivered slightly, and her hands in mine grew cold.

"Yes, yes," I continued, more calmly; "you must not forget to pray for
him--he was young and not prepared to die."

My words had some of the desired effect upon her--for once her ready
speech failed--she seemed as though she sought for some reply and found
none. I still held her hands.

"Promise me!" I continued; "and at the same time pray for your dead
husband! He and poor Ferrari were close friends, you know; it will be
pious and kind of you to join their names in one petition addressed to
Him 'from whom no secrets are hid,' and who reads with unerring eyes
the purity of your intentions. Will you do it?"

She smiled, a forced, faint smile.

"I certainly will," she replied, in a low voice; "I promise you."

I released her hands--I was satisfied. If she dared to pray thus I
felt--I KNEW that she would draw down upon her soul the redoubled wrath
of Heaven; for I looked beyond the grave! The mere death of her body
would be but a slight satisfaction to me; it was the utter destruction
of her wicked soul that I sought. She should never repent, I swore; she
should never have the chance of casting off her vileness as a serpent
casts its skin, and, reclothing herself in innocence, presume to ask
admittance into that Eternal Gloryland whither my little child had
gone--never, never! No church should save her, no priest should absolve
her--not while _I_ lived!

She watched me as I fastened my coat and began to draw on my gloves.

"Are you going now?" she asked, somewhat timidly.

"Yes, I am going now, cara mia," I said. "Why! what makes you look so
pale?"

For she had suddenly turned very white.

"Let me see your hand again," she demanded, with feverish eagerness,
"the hand on which I placed the ring!"

Smilingly and with readiness I took off the glove I had just put on.

"What odd fancy possesses you now, little one?" I asked, with an air of
playfulness.

She made no answer, but took my hand and examined it closely and
curiously. Then she looked up, her lips twitched nervously, and she
laughed a little hard mirthless laugh.

"Your hand," she murmured, incoherently, "with--that--signet--on it--is
exactly like--like Fabio's!"

And before I had time to say a word she went off into a violent fit of
hysterics--sobs, little cries, and laughter all intermingled in that
wild and reasonless distraction that generally unnerves the strongest
man who is not accustomed to it. I rang the bell to summon assistance;
a lay-sister answered it, and seeing Nina's condition, rushed for a
glass of water and summoned Madame la Vicaire. This latter, entering
with her quiet step and inflexible demeanor, took in the situation at a
glance, dismissed the lay-sister, and possessing herself of the tumbler
of water, sprinkled the forehead of the interesting patient, and forced
some drops between her clinched teeth. Then turning to me she inquired,
with some stateliness of manner, what had caused the attack?

"I really cannot tell you, madame," I said, with an air of affected
concern and vexation. "I certainly told the countess of the unexpected
death of a friend, but she bore the news with exemplary resignation.
The circumstance that appears to have so greatly distressed her is that
she finds, or says she finds, a resemblance between my hand and the
hand of her deceased husband. This seems to me absurd, but there is no
accounting for ladies' caprices."

And I shrugged my shoulders as though I were annoyed and impatient.

Over the pale, serious face of the nun there flitted a smile in which
there was certainly the ghost of sarcasm.

"All sensitiveness and tenderness of heart, you see!" she said, in her
chill, passionless tones, which, icy as they were, somehow conveyed to
my ear another meaning than that implied by the words she uttered. "We
cannot perhaps understand the extreme delicacy of her feelings, and we
fail to do justice to them."

Here Nina opened her eyes, and looked at us with piteous plaintiveness,
while her bosom heaved with those long, deep sighs which are the
finishing chords of the Sonata Hysteria.

"You are better, I trust?" continued the nun, without any sympathy in
her monotonous accents, and addressing her with some reserve. "You have
greatly alarmed the Count Oliva."

"I am sorry--" began Nina, feebly.

I hastened to her side.

"Pray do not speak of it!" I urged, forcing something like a lover's
ardor into my voice. "I regret beyond measure that it is my misfortune
to have hands like those of your late husband! I assure you I am quite
miserable about it. Can you forgive me?"

She was recovering quickly, and she was evidently conscious that she
had behaved somewhat foolishly. She smiled a weak pale smile; but she
looked very scared, worn and ill. She rose from her chair slowly and
languidly.

"I think I will go to my room," she said, not regarding Mere
Marguerite, who had withdrawn to a little distance, and who stood
rigidly erect, immovably featured, with her silver crucifix glittering
coldly on her still breast.

"Good-bye, Cesare! Please forget my stupidity, and write to me from
Avellino."

I took her outstretched hand, and bowing over it, touched it gently
with my lips. She turned toward the door, when suddenly a mischievous
idea seemed to enter her mind. She looked at Madame la Vicaire and then
came back to me.

"Addio, amor mio!" she said, with a sort of rapturous emphasis, and
throwing her arms round my neck she kissed me almost passionately.

Then she glanced maliciously at the nun, who had lowered her eyes till
they appeared fast shut, and breaking into a low peal of indolently
amused laughter, waved her hand to me, and left the room.

I was somewhat confused. The suddenness and warmth of her caress had
been, I knew, a mere monkeyish trick, designed to vex the religious
scruples of Mere Marguerite. I knew not what to say to the stately
woman who remained confronting me with downcast eyes and lips that
moved dumbly as though in prayer. As the door closed after my wife's
retreating figure, the nun looked up; there was a slight flush on her
pallid cheeks, and to my astonishment, tears glittered on her dark
lashes.

"Madame," I began, earnestly, "I assure you--"

"Say nothing, signor," she interrupted me with a slight deprecatory
gesture; "it is quite unnecessary. To mock a religieuse is a common
amusement with young girls and women of the world. I am accustomed to
it, though I feel its cruelty more than I ought to do. Ladies like the
Countess Romani think that we--we, the sepulchers of
womanhood--sepulchers that we have emptied and cleansed to the best of
our ability, so that they may more fittingly hold the body of the
crucified Christ; these grandes dames, I say, fancy that WE are
ignorant of all they know--that we cannot understand love, tenderness
or passion. They never reflect--how should they?--that we also have had
our histories--histories, perhaps, that would make angels weep for
pity! I, even I--" and she struck her breast fiercely, then suddenly
recollecting herself, she continued coldly: "The rule of our convent,
signer, permits no visitor to remain longer than one hour--that hour
has expired. I will summon a sister to show you the way out."

"Wait one instant, madame," I said, feeling that to enact my part
thoroughly I ought to attempt to make some defense of Nina's conduct;
"permit me to say a word! My fiancee is very young and thoughtless. I
really cannot think that her very innocent parting caress to me had
anything in it that was meant to purposely annoy you."

The nun glanced at me--her eyes flashed disdainfully.

"You think it was all affection for you, no doubt, signor?  very
natural supposition, and--I should be sorry to undeceive you."

She paused a moment and then resumed:

"You seem an earnest man--may be you are destined to be the means of
saving Nina; I could say much--yet it is wise to be silent. If you love
her do not flatter her; her overweening vanity is her ruin. A firm,
wise, ruling master-hand may perhaps--who knows?" She hesitated and
sighed, then added, gently, "Farewell, signor! Benedicite!" and making
the sign of the cross as I respectfully bent my head to receive her
blessing, she passed noiselessly from the room.

One moment later, and a lame and aged lay-sister came to escort me to
the gate. As I passed down the stone corridor a side door opened a very
little way, and two fair young faces peeped out at me. For an instant I
saw four laughing bright eyes; I heard a smothered voice say, "Oh!
c'est un vieux papa!" and then my guide, who though lame was not blind,
perceived the opened door and shut it with an angry bang, which,
however, did not drown the ringing merriment that echoed from within.
On reaching the outer gates I turned to my venerable companion, and
laying four twenty-franc pieces in her shriveled palm, I said:

"Take these to the reverend mother for me, and ask that mass may be
said in the chapel to-morrow for the repose of the soul of him whose
name is written here."

And I gave her Guido Ferrari's visiting-card, adding in lower and more
solemn tones:

"He met with a sudden and unprepared death. Of your charity, pray also
for the man who killed him!"

The old woman looked startled, and crossed herself devoutly; but she
promised that my wishes should be fulfilled, and I bade her farewell
and passed out, the convent gates closing with a dull clang behind me.
I walked on a few yards, and then paused, looking back. What a peaceful
home it seemed; how calm and sure a retreat, with the white Noisette
roses crowning its ancient gray walls! Yet what embodied curses were
pent up in there in the shape of girls growing to be women; women for
whom all the care, stern training and anxious solicitude of the nuns
would be unavailing; women who would come forth from even that abode of
sanctity with vile natures and animal impulses, and who would
hereafter, while leading a life of vice and hypocrisy, hold up this
very strictness of their early education as proof of their
unimpeachable innocence and virtue! To such, what lesson is learned by
the daily example of the nuns who mortify their flesh, fast, pray and
weep? No lesson at all--nothing save mockery and contempt. To a girl in
the heyday of youth and beauty the life of a religieuse seems
ridiculous. "The poor nuns!" she says, with a laugh; "they are so
ignorant. Their time is over--mine has not yet begun." Few, very few,
among the thousands of young women who leave the scene of their quiet
schooldays for the social whirligig of the world, ever learn to take
life in earnest, love in earnest, sorrow in earnest. To most of them
life is a large dressmaking and millinery establishment; love a
question of money and diamonds; sorrow a solemn calculation as to how
much or how little mourning is considered becoming or fashionable. And
for creatures such as these we men work--work till our hairs are gray
and our backs bent with toil--work till all the joy and zest of living
has gone from us, and our reward is--what? Happiness?--seldom.
Infidelity?--often. Ridicule? Truly we ought to be glad if we are only
ridiculed and thrust back to occupy the second place in our own houses;
our lady-wives call that "kind treatment." Is there a married woman
living who does not now and then throw a small stone of insolent satire
at her husband when his back is turned? What, madame? You, who read
these words--you say with indignation: "Certainly there is, and _I_ am
that woman!" Ah, truly? I salute you profoundly!--you are, no doubt,
the one exception!



CHAPTER XXVIII.


Avellino is one of those dreamy, quiet and picturesque towns which have
not as yet been desecrated by the Vandal tourist. Persons holding
"through tickets" from Messrs. Cook or Gaze do not stop there--there
are no "sights" save the old sanctuary called Monte Virgine standing
aloft on its rugged hill, with all the memories of its ancient days
clinging to it like a wizard's cloak, and wrapping it in a sort of
mysterious meditative silence. It can look back through a vista of
eventful years to the eleventh century, when it was erected, so the
people say, on the ruins of a temple of Cybele. But what do the sheep
and geese that are whipped abroad in herds by the drovers Cook and Gaze
know of Monte Virgine or Cybele? Nothing--and they care less; and quiet
Avellino escapes from their depredations, thankful that it is not
marked on the business map of the drovers' "RUNS." Shut in by the lofty
Apennines, built on the slope of the hill that winds gently down into a
green and fruitful valley through which the river Sabato rushes and
gleams white against cleft rocks that look like war-worn and deserted
castles, a drowsy peace encircles it, and a sort of stateliness, which,
compared with the riotous fun and folly of Naples only thirty miles
away, is as though the statue of a nude Egeria were placed in rivalry
with the painted waxen image of a half-dressed ballet-dancer. Few
lovelier sights are to be seen in nature than a sunset from one of the
smaller hills round Avellino--when the peaks of the Apennines seem to
catch fire from the flaming clouds, and below them, the valleys are
full of those tender purple and gray shadows that one sees on the
canvases of Salvator Rosa, while the town itself looks like a bronzed
carving on an old shield, outlined clearly against the dazzling luster
of the sky. To this retired spot I came--glad to rest for a time from
my work of vengeance--glad to lay down my burden of bitterness for a
brief space, and become, as it were, human again, in the sight of the
near mountains. For within their close proximity, things common, things
mean seem to slip from the soul--a sort of largeness pervades the
thoughts, the cramping prosiness of daily life has no room to assert
its sway--a grand hush falls on the stormy waters of passion, and like
a chidden babe the strong man stands, dwarfed to an infinite littleness
in his own sight, before those majestic monarchs of the landscape whose
large brows are crowned with the blue circlet of heaven.

I took up my abode in a quiet, almost humble lodging, living simply,
and attended only by Vincenzo. I was tired of the ostentation I had
been forced to practice in Naples in order to attain my ends--and it
was a relief to me to be for a time as though I were a poor man. The
house in which I found rooms that suited me was a ramblingly built,
picturesque little place, situated on the outskirts of the town, and
the woman who owned it, was, in her way, a character. She was a Roman,
she told me, with pride flashing in her black eyes--I could guess that
at once by her strongly marked features, her magnificently molded
figure, and her free, firm tread--that step which is swift without
being hasty, which is the manner born of Rome. She told me her history
in a few words, with such eloquent gestures that she seemed to live
through it again as she spoke: her husband had been a worker in a
marble quarry--one of his fellows had let a huge piece of the rock fall
on him, and he was crushed to death.

"And well do I know," she said, "that he killed my Toni purposely, for
he would have loved me had he dared. But I am a common woman, see
you--and it seems to me one cannot lie. And when my love's poor body
was scarce covered in the earth, that miserable one--the murderer--came
to me--he offered marriage. I accused him of his crime--he denied
it--he said the rock slipped from his hands, he knew not how. I struck
him on the mouth, and bade him leave my sight and take my curse with
him! He is dead now--and surely if the saints have heard me, his soul
is not in heaven!"

Thus she spoke with flashing eyes and purposeful energy, while with her
strong brown arms she threw open the wide casement of the sitting-room
I had taken, and bade me view her orchard. It was a fresh green strip
of verdure and foliage--about eight acres of good land, planted
entirely with apple-trees.

"Yes, truly!" she said, showing her white teeth in a pleased smile as I
made the admiring remark she expected. "Avellino has long had a name
for its apples--but, thanks to the Holy Mother, I think in the season
there is no fruit in all the neighborhood finer than mine. The produce
of it brings me almost enough to live upon--that and the house, when I
can find signori willing to dwell with me. But few strangers come
hither; sometimes an artist, sometimes a poet--such as these are soon
tired of gayety, and are glad to rest. To common persons I would not
open my door--not for pride, ah, no! but when one has a girl, one
cannot be too careful."

"You have a daughter, then?"

Her fierce eyes softened.

"One--my Lilla. I call her my blessing, and too good for me. Often I
fancy that it is because she tends them that the trees bear so well,
and the apples are so sound and sweet! And when she drives the load of
fruit to market, and sits so smilingly behind the team, it seems to me
that her very face brings luck to the sale."

I smiled at the mother's enthusiasm, and sighed. I had no fair faiths
left--I could not even believe in Lilla. My landlady, Signora Monti as
she was called, saw that I looked fatigued, and left me to myself--and
during my stay I saw very little of her, Vincenzo constituting himself
my majordomo, or rather becoming for my sake a sort of amiable slave,
always looking to the smallest details of my comfort, and studying my
wishes with an anxious solicitude that touched while it gratified me. I
had been fully three days in my retreat before he ventured to enter
upon any conversation with me, for he had observed that I always sought
to be alone, that I took long, solitary rambles through the woods and,
across the hills--and, not daring to break through my taciturnity, he
had contented himself by merely attending to my material comforts in
silence. One afternoon, however, after clearing away the remains of my
light luncheon, he lingered in the room.

"The eccellenza has not yet seen Lilla Monti?" he asked, hesitatingly.

I looked at him in some surprise. There was a blush on his olive-tinted
cheeks and an unusual sparkle in his eyes. For the first time I
realized that this valet of mine was a handsome young fellow.

"Seen Lilla Monti!" I repeated, half absently; "oh, you mean the child
of the landlady? No, I have not seen her. Why do you ask?"

Vincenzo smiled. "Pardon, eccellenza! but she is beautiful, and there
is a saying in my province: Be the heart heavy as stone, the sight of a
fair face will lighten it!"

I gave an impatient gesture. "All folly, Vincenzo! Beauty is the curse
of the world. Read history, and you shall find the greatest conquerors
and sages ruined and disgraced by its snares."

He nodded gravely. He probably thought of the announcement I had made
at the banquet of my own approaching marriage, and strove to reconcile
it with the apparent inconsistency of my present observation. But he
was too discreet to utter his mind aloud--he merely said:

"No doubt you are right, eccellenza. Still one is glad to see the roses
bloom, and the stars shine, and the foam-bells sparkle on the waves--so
one is glad to see Lilla Monti."

I turned round in my chair to observe him more closely--the flush
deepened on his cheek as I regarded him. I laughed with a bitter
sadness.

"In love, amico, art thou? So soon!--three days--and thou hast fallen a
prey to the smile of Lilla! I am sorry for thee!"

He interrupted me eagerly.

"The eccellenza is in error! I would not dare--she is too innocent--she
knows nothing! She is like a little bird in the nest, so soft and
tender--a word of love would frighten her; I should be a coward to
utter it."

Well, well! I thought, what was the use of sneering at the poor fellow!
Why, because my own love had turned to ashes in my grasp, should I mock
at those who fancied they had found the golden fruit of the Hesperides?
Vincenzo, once a soldier, now half courier, half valet, was something
of a poet at heart; he had the grave meditative turn of mind common to
Tuscans, together with that amorous fire that ever burns under their
lightly worn mask of seeming reserve.

I roused myself to appear interested.

"I see, Vincenzo," I said, with a kindly air of banter, "that the sight
of Lilla Monti more than compensates you for that portion of the
Neapolitan carnival which you lose by being here. But why you should
wish me to behold this paragon of maidens I know not, unless you would
have me regret my own lost youth."

A curious and perplexed expression flitted over his face, At last he
said firmly, as though his mind were made up:

"The eccellenza must pardon me for seeing what perhaps I ought not to
have seen, but--"

"But what?" I asked.

"Eccellenza, you have not lost your youth."

I turned my head toward him again--he was looking at me in some
alarm--he feared some outburst of anger.

"Well!" I said, calmly. "That is your idea, is it? and why?"

"Eccellenza, I saw you without your spectacles that day when you fought
with the unfortunate Signor Ferrari. I watched you when you fired. Your
eyes are beautiful and terrible--the eyes of a young man, though your
hair is white."

Quietly I took off my glasses and laid them on the table beside me.

"As you have seen me once without them, you can see me again," I
observed, gently. "I wear them for a special purpose. Here in Avellino
the purpose does not hold. Thus far I confide in you. But beware how
you betray my confidence."

"Eccellenza!" cried Vincenzo, in truly pained accents, and with a
grieved look.

I rose and laid my hand on his arm.

"There! I was wrong--forgive me. You are honest; you have served your
country well enough to know the value of fidelity and duty. But when
you say I have not lost my youth, you are wrong, Vincenzo! I HAVE lost
it--it has been killed within me by a great sorrow. The strength, the
suppleness of limb, the brightness of eye these are mere outward
things: but in the heart and soul are the chill and drear bitterness of
deserted age. Nay, do not smile; I am in truth very old--so old that I
tire of my length of days; yet again, not too old to appreciate your
affection, amico, and"--here I forced a faint smile--"when I see the
maiden Lilla, I will tell you frankly what I think of her."

Vincenzo stooped his head, caught my hand within his own, and kissed
it, then left the room abruptly, to hide the tears that my words had
brought to his eyes. He was sorry for me, I could see, and I judged him
rightly when I thought that the very mystery surrounding me increased
his attachment. On the whole, I was glad he had seen me undisguised, as
it was a relief to me to be without my smoked glasses for a time, and
during all the rest of my stay at Avellino I never wore them once.

One day I saw Lilla. I had strolled up to a quaint church situated on a
rugged hill and surrounded by fine old chestnut-trees, where there was
a picture of the Scourging of Christ, said to have been the work of Fra
Angelico. The little sanctuary was quite deserted when I entered it,
and I paused on the threshold, touched by the simplicity of the place
and soothed by the intense silence. I walked on my tiptoe up to the
corner where hung the picture I had come to see, and as I did so a girl
passed me with a light step, carrying a basket of fragrant winter
narcissi and maiden-hair fern. Something in her graceful, noiseless
movements caused me to look after her; but she had turned her back to
me and was kneeling at the shrine consecrated to the Virgin, having
placed her flowers on the lowest step of the altar. She was dressed in
peasant costume--a simple, short blue skirt and scarlet bodice,
relieved by the white kerchief that was knotted about her shoulders;
and round her small well-shaped head the rich chestnut hair was coiled
in thick shining braids.

I felt that I must see her face, and for that reason went back to the
church door and waited till she should pass out. Very soon she came
toward me, with the same light timid step that I had often before
noticed, and her fair young features were turned fully upon me. What
was there in those clear candid eyes that made me involuntarily bow my
head in a reverential salutation as she passed? I know not. It was not
beauty--for though the child was lovely I had seen lovelier; it was
something inexplicable and rare--something of a maidenly composure and
sweet dignity that I had never beheld on any woman's face before. Her
cheeks flushed softly as she modestly returned my salute, and when she
was once outside the church door she paused, her small white fingers
still clasping the carven brown beads of her rosary. She hesitated a
moment, and then spoke shyly yet brightly:

"If the eccellenza will walk yet a little further up the hill he will
see a finer view of the mountains."

Something familiar in her look--a sort of reflection of her mother's
likeness--made me sure of her identity. I smiled.

"Ah! you are Lilla Monti?"

She blushed again.

"Si, signor. I am Lilla."

I let my eyes dwell on her searchingly and almost sadly. Vincenzo was
right: the girl was beautiful, not with the forced hot-house beauty of
the social world and its artificial constraint, but with the loveliness
and fresh radiance which nature gives to those of her cherished ones
who dwell with her in peace. I had seen many exquisite women--women of
Juno-like form and face--women whose eyes were basilisks to draw and
compel the souls of men--but I had never seen any so spiritually fair
as this little peasant maiden, who stood fearlessly yet modestly
regarding me with the innocent inquiry of a child who suddenly sees
something new, to which it is unaccustomed. She was a little fluttered
by my earnest gaze, and with a pretty courtesy turned to descend the
hill. I said gently:

"You are going home, fauciulla mia?"

The kind protecting tone in which I spoke reassured her. She answered
readily:

"Si signor. My mother waits for me to help her with the eccellenza's
dinner."

I advanced and took the little hand that held the rosary.

"What!" I exclaimed, playfully, "do you still work hard, little Lilla,
even when the apple season is over?"

She laughed musically.

"Oh! I love work. It is good for the temper. People are so cross when
their hands are idle. And many are ill for the same reason. Yes,
truly!" and she nodded her head with grave importance, "it is often so.
Old Pietro, the cobbler, took to his bed when he had no shoes to
mend--yes; he sent for the priest and said he would die, not for want
of money--oh no! he has plenty, he is quite rich--but because he had
nothing to do. So my mother and I found some shoes with holes, and took
them to him; he sat up in bed to mend them, and now he is as well as
ever! And we are careful to give him something always."

She laughed again, and again looked grave.

"Yes, yes!" she said, with a wise shake of her little glossy head, "one
cannot live without work. My mother says that good women are never
tired, it is only wicked persons who are lazy. And that reminds me I
must make haste to return and prepare the eccellenza's coffee."

"Do you make my coffee, little one?" I asked, "and does not Vincenzo
help you?"

The faintest suspicion of a blush tinged her pretty cheeks.

"Oh, he is very good, Vincenzo," she said, demurely, with downcast
eyes; "he is what we call buon' amico, yes, indeed! But he is often
glad when I make coffee for him also; he likes it so much! He says I do
it so well! But perhaps the eccellenza will prefer Vincenzo?"

I laughed. She was so naive, so absorbed in her little duties--such a
child altogether.

"Nay, Lilla, I am proud to think you make anything for me. I shall
enjoy it more now that I know what kind hands have been at work. But
you must not spoil Vincenzo--you will turn his head if you make his
coffee too often."

She looked surprised. She did not understand. Evidently to her mind
Vincenzo was nothing but a good-natured young fellow, whose palate
could be pleased by her culinary skill; she treated him, I dare say,
exactly as she would have treated one of her own sex. She seemed to
think over my words, as one who considers a conundrum, then she
apparently gave it up as hopeless, and shook her head lightly as though
dismissing the subject.

"Will the eccellenza visit the Punto d'Angelo?" she said brightly, as
she turned to go.

I had never heard of this place, and asked her to what she alluded.

"It is not far from here," she explained, "it is the view I spoke of
before. Just a little further up the hill you will see a flat gray
rock, covered with blue gentians. No one knows how they grow--they are
always there, blooming in summer and winter. But it said that one of
God's own great angels comes once in every month at midnight to bless
the Monte Vergine, and that he stands on that rock. And of course
wherever the angels tread there are flowers, and no storm can destroy
them--not even an avalanche. That is why the people call it the Punto
d'Angelo. It will please you to see it, eccellenza--it is but a walk of
a little ten minutes."

And with a smile, and a courtesy as pretty and as light as a flower
might make to the wind, she left me, half running, half dancing down
the hill, and singing aloud for sheer happiness and innocence of heart.
Her pure lark-like notes floated upward toward me where I stood,
wistfully watching her as she disappeared. The warm afternoon sunshine
caught lovingly at her chestnut hair, turning it to a golden bronze,
and touched up the whiteness of her throat and arms, and brightened the
scarlet of her bodice, as she descended the grassy slope, and was at
last lost to my view amid the foliage of the surrounding trees.



CHAPTER XXIX.


I sighed heavily as I resumed my walk. I realized all that I had lost.
This lovely child with her simple fresh nature, why had I not met such
a one and wedded HER instead of the vile creature who had been my
soul's undoing? The answer came swiftly. Even if I HAD seen her when I
was free, I doubt if I should have known her value. We men of the world
who have social positions to support, we see little or nothing in the
peasant type of womanhood; we must marry "ladies," so-called--educated
girls who are as well versed in the world's ways as ourselves, if not
more so. And so we get the Cleopatras, the Du Barrys, the Pompadours,
while unspoiled maidens such as Lilla too often become the household
drudges of common mechanics or day-laborers, living and dying in the
one routine of hard work, and often knowing and caring for nothing
better than the mountain-hut, the farm-kitchen, or the covered stall in
the market-place. Surely it is an ill-balanced world--so many mistakes
are made; Fate plays us so many apparently unnecessary tricks, and we
are all of us such blind madmen, knowing not whither we are going from
one day to another! I am told that it is no longer fashionable to
believe in a devil--but I care nothing for fashion! A devil there is I
am sure, who for some inscrutable reason has a share in the ruling of
this planet--a devil who delights in mocking us from the cradle to the
grave. And perhaps we are never so hopelessly, utterly fooled as in our
marriages!

Occupied in various thoughts, I scarcely saw where I wandered, till a
flashing glimmer of blue blossoms recalled me to the object of my walk.
I had reached the Punto d'Angelo. It was, as Lilla had said, a flat
rock bare in every place save at the summit, where it was thickly
covered with the lovely gentians, flowers that are rare in this part of
Italy. Here then the fabled angel paused in his flight to bless the
venerable sanctuary of Monte Vergine. I stopped and looked around me.
The view was indeed superb--from the leafy bosom of the valley, the
green hills like smooth, undulating billows rolled upward, till their
emerald verdure was lost in the dense purple shadows and tall peaks of
the Apennines; the town of Avellino lay at my feet, small yet clearly
defined as a miniature painting on porcelain; and a little further
beyond and above me rose the gray tower of the Monte Vergine itself,
the one sad and solitary-looking object in all the luxuriant riante
landscape.

I sat down to rest, not as an intruder on the angel's
flower-embroidered throne, but on a grassy knoll close by. And then I
bethought me of a packet I had received from Naples that morning--a
packet that I desired yet hesitated to open. It had been sent by the
Marquis D'Avencourt, accompanied by a courteous letter, which informed
me that Ferrari's body had been privately buried with all the last
religious rites in the cemetery, "close to the funeral vault of the
Romani family," wrote D'Avencourt, "as, from all we can hear or
discover, such seems to have been his own desire. He was, it appears, a
sort of adopted brother of the lately deceased count, and on being
informed of this circumstance, we buried him in accordance with the
sentiments he would no doubt have expressed had he considered the
possible nearness of his own end at the time of the combat."

With regard to the packet inclosed, D'Avencourt continued--"The
accompanying letters were found in Ferrari's breast-pocket, and on
opening the first one, in the expectation of finding some clew as to
his last wishes, we came to the conclusion that you, as the future
husband of the lady whose signature and handwriting you will here
recognize, should be made aware of the contents, not only for your own
sake, but in justice to the deceased. If all the letters are of the
same tone as the one I unknowingly opened, I have no doubt Ferrari
considered himself a sufficiently injured man. But of that you will
judge for yourself, though, if I might venture so far in the way of
friendship, I should recommend you to give careful consideration to the
inclosed correspondence before tying the matrimonial knot to which you
alluded the other evening. It is not wise to walk on the edge of a
precipice with one's eyes shut! Captain Ciabatti was the first to
inform me of what I now know for a fact--namely, that Ferrari left a
will in which everything he possessed is made over unconditionally to
the Countess Romani. You will of course draw your own conclusions, and
pardon me if I am guilty of trop de zele in your service. I have now
only to tell you that all the unpleasantness of this affair is passing
over very smoothly and without scandal--I have taken care of that. You
need not prolong your absence further than you feel inclined, and I,
for one, shall be charmed to welcome you back to Naples. With every
sentiment of the highest consideration and regard, I am, my dear conte,

     "Your very true friend and servitor,
     "PHILIPPE D'AVENCOURT."


I folded this letter carefully and put it aside. The little package he
had sent me lay in my hand--a bundle of neatly folded letters tied
together with a narrow ribbon, and strongly perfumed with the faint
sickly perfume I knew and abhorred. I turned them over and over; the
edges of the note-paper were stained with blood--Guido's blood--as
though in its last sluggish flowing it had endeavored to obliterate all
traces of the daintily penned lines that now awaited my perusal. Slowly
I untied the ribbon. With methodical deliberation I read one letter
after the other. They were all from Nina--all written to Guido while he
was in Rome, some of them bearing the dates of the very days when she
had feigned to love ME--me, her newly accepted husband. One very
amorous epistle had been written on the self-same evening she had
plighted her troth to me! Letters burning and tender, full of the most
passionate protestations of fidelity, overflowing with the sweetest
terms of endearment; with such a ring of truth and love throughout them
that surely it was no wonder that Guido's suspicions were all
unawakened, and that he had reason to believe himself safe in his
fool's paradise. One passage in this poetical and romantic
correspondence fixed my attention: it ran thus:

"Why do you write so much of marriage to me, Guido mio? it seems to my
mind that all the joy of loving will be taken from us when once the
hard world knows of our passion. If you become my husband you will
assuredly cease to be my lover, and that would break my heart. Ah, my
best beloved! I desire you to be my lover always, as you were when
Fabio lived--why bring commonplace matrimony into the heaven of such a
passion as ours?"

I studied these words attentively. Of course I understood their drift.
She had tried to feel her way with the dead man. She had wanted to
marry me, and yet retain Guido for her lonely hours, as "her lover
always!" Such a pretty, ingenious plan it was! No thief, no murderer
ever laid more cunning schemes than she, but the law looks after
thieves and murderers. For such a woman as this, law says, "Divorce
her--that is your best remedy." Divorce her! Let the criminal go
scot-free! Others may do it that choose--I have different ideas of
justice!

Tying up the packet of letters again, with their sickening perfume and
their blood-stained edges, I drew out the last graciously worded
missive I had received from Nina. Of course I heard from her every
day--she was a most faithful correspondent! The same affectionate
expressions characterized her letters to me as those that had deluded
her dead lover--with this difference, that whereas she inveighed much
against the prosiness of marriage to Guido, to me she drew the much
touching pictures of her desolate condition: how lonely she had felt
since her "dear husband's" death, how rejoiced she was to think that
she was soon again to be a happy wife--the wife of one so noble, so
true, so devoted as I was! She had left the convent and was now at
home--when should she have the happiness of welcoming me, her best
beloved Cesare, back to Naples? She certainly deserved some credit for
artistic lying; I could not understand how she managed it so well.
Almost I admired her skill, as one sometimes admires a cool-headed
burglar, who has more skill, cunning, and pluck than his comrades. I
thought with triumph that though the wording of Ferrari's will enabled
her to secure all other letters she might have written to him, this one
little packet of documentary evidence was more than sufficient for MY
purposes. And I resolved to retain it in my own keeping till the time
came for me to use it against her.

And how about D'Avencourt's friendly advice concerning the matrimonial
knot? "A man should not walk on the edge of a precipice with his eyes
shut." Very true. But if his eyes are open, and he has his enemy by the
throat, the edge of a precipice is a convenient position for hurling
that enemy down to death in a quiet way, that the world need know
nothing of! So for the present I preferred the precipice to walking on
level ground.

I rose from my seat near the Punto d'Angelo. It was growing late in the
afternoon. From the little church below me soft bells rang out the
Angelus, and with them chimed in a solemn and harsher sound from the
turret of the Monte Vergine. I lifted my hat with the customary
reverence, and stood listening, with my feet deep in the grass and
scented thyme, and more than once glanced up at the height whereon the
venerable sanctuary held its post, like some lonely old god of memory
brooding over vanished years. There, according to tradition, was once
celebrated the worship of the many-breasted Cybele; down that very
slope of grass dotted with violets had rushed the howling, naked
priests beating their discordant drums and shrinking their laments for
the loss of Atys, the beautiful youth, their goddess's paramour.
Infidelity again!--even in this ancient legend, what did Cybele care
for old Saturn, whose wife she was? Nothing, less than nothing!--and
her adorers worshiped not her chastity, but her faithlessness; it is
the way of the world to this day!

The bells ceased ringing; I descended the hill and returned homeward
through a shady valley, full of the odor of pines and bog-myrtle. On
reaching the gate of the Signora Monti's humble yet picturesque
dwelling, I heard the sound of laughter and clapping of hands, and
looking in the direction of the orchard, I saw Vincenzo hard at work,
his shirt-sleeves rolled up to the shoulder, splitting some goodly logs
of wood, while Lilla stood beside him, merrily applauding and
encouraging his efforts. He seemed quite in his element, and wielded
his ax with a regularity and vigor I should scarcely have expected from
a man whom I was accustomed to see performing the somewhat effeminate
duties of a valet-de-chambre. I watched him and the fair girl beside
him for a few moments, myself unperceived.

If this little budding romance were left alone it would ripen into a
flower, and Vincenzo would be a happier man than his master. He was a
true Tuscan, from the very way he handled his wood-ax; I could see that
he loved the life of the hills and fields--the life of a simple farmer
and fruit-grower, full of innocent enjoyments, as sweet as the ripe
apples in his orchard. I could foresee his future with Lilla beside
him. He would have days of unwearying contentment, rendered beautiful
by the free fresh air and the fragrance of flowers--his evenings would
slip softly by to the tinkle of the mandolin, and the sound of his wife
and children's singing.

What fairer fate could a man desire?--what life more certain to keep
health in the body and peace in the mind? Could I not help him to his
happiness, I wondered? I, who had grown stern with long brooding upon
my vengeance--could I not aid in bringing joy to others! If I could, my
mind would be somewhat lightened of its burden--a burden grown heavier
since Guide's death, for from his blood had sprung forth a new group of
Furies, that lashed me on to my task with scorpion whips of redoubled
wrath and passionate ferocity. Yet if I could do one good action
now--would it not be as a star shining in the midst of my soul's storm
and darkness? Just then Lilla laughed--how sweetly!--the laugh of a
very young child. What amused her now? I looked, and saw that she had
taken the ax from Vincenzo, and lifting it in her little hands, was
endeavoring bravely to imitate his strong and telling stroke; he
meanwhile stood aside with an air of smiling superiority, mingled with
a good deal of admiration for the slight active figure arrayed in the
blue kirtle and scarlet bodice, on which the warm rays of the late sun
fell with so much amorous tenderness. Poor little Lilla! A penknife
would have made as much impression as her valorous blows produced on
the inflexible, gnarled, knotty old stump she essayed to split in
twain. Flushed and breathless with her efforts, she looked prettier
than ever, and at last, baffled, she resigned her ax to Vincenzo,
laughing gayly at her incapacity for wood-cutting, and daintily shaking
her apron free from the chips and dust, till a call from her mother
caused her to run swiftly into the house, leaving Vincenzo working away
as arduously as ever. I went up to him; he saw me approaching, and
paused in his labors with an air of slight embarrassment.

"You like this sort of work, amico?" I said, gently.

"An old habit, eccellenza--nothing more. It reminds me of the days of
my youth, when I worked for my mother. Ah! a pleasant place it was--the
old home just above Fiesole." His eyes grew pensive and sad. "It is all
gone now--finished. That was before I became a soldier. But one thinks
of it sometimes."

"I understand. And no doubt you would be glad to return to the life of
your boyhood?"

He looked a little startled.

"Not to leave YOU, eccellenza!"

I smiled rather sadly. "Not to leave ME? Not if you wedded Lilla Monti?"

His olive cheek flushed, but he shook his head.

"Impossible! She would not listen to me. She is a child."

"She will soon be a woman, believe me! A little more of your company
will make her so. But there is plenty of time. She is beautiful, as you
said: and something better than that, she is innocent--think of that,
Vincenzo! Do you know how rare a thing innocence is--in a woman?
Respect it as you respect God; let her young life be sacred to you."

He glanced upward reverently.

"Eccellenza, I would as soon tear the Madonna from her altars as vex or
frighten Lilla!"

I smiled and said no more, but turned into the house. From that moment
I resolved to let this little love-idye have a fair chance of success.
Therefore I remained at Avellino much longer than I had at first
intended, not for my own sake, but for Vincenzo's. He served me
faithfully; he should have his reward. I took a pleasure in noticing
that my efforts to promote his cause were not altogether wasted. I
spoke with Lilla often on indifferent matters that interested her, and
watched her constantly when she was all unaware of my observant gaze.
With me she was as frank and fearless as a tame robin; but after some
days I found that she grew shy of mentioning the name of Vincenzo, that
she blushed when he approached her, that she was timid of asking him to
do anything for her; and from all these little signs I knew her mind,
as one knows by the rosy streaks in the sky that the sunrise is near.

One afternoon I called the Signora Monti to my room. She came,
surprised, and a little anxious. Was anything wrong with the service? I
reassured her housewifely scruples, and came to the point at once.

"I would speak to you of your child, the little Lilla," I said, kindly.
"Have you ever thought that she may marry?"

Her dark bold eyes filled with tears and her lips quivered.

"Truly I have," she replied with a wistful sadness; "but I have prayed,
perhaps foolishly, that she would not leave me yet. I love her so well;
she is always a babe to me, so small and sweet! I put the thought of
her marriage from me as a sorrowful thing."

"I understand your feeling," I said. "Still, suppose your daughter
wedded a man who would be to you as a son, and who would not part her
from you?--for instance, let us say Vincenzo?"

Signora Monti smiled through her tears.

"Vincenzo! He is a good lad, a very good lad, and I love him; but he
does not think of Lilla--he is devoted to the eccellenza."

"I am aware of his devotion," I answered. "Still I believe you will
find out soon that he loves your Lilla. At present he says nothing--he
fears to offend you and alarm her; but his eyes speak--so do hers. You
are a good woman, a good mother; watch them both, you will soon tell
whether love is between them or no. And see," here I handed her a
sealed envelope, "in this you will find notes to the amount of four
thousand francs." She uttered a little cry of amazement. "It is Lilla's
dowry, whoever she marries, though I think she will marry Vincenzo.
Nay--no thanks, money is of no value to me; and this is the one
pleasure I have had for many weary months. Think well of Vincenzo--he
is an excellent fellow. And all I ask of you is, that you keep this
little dowry a secret till the day of your fair child's espousals."

Before I could prevent her the enthusiastic woman had seized my hand
and kissed it. Then she lifted her head with the proud free-born
dignity of a Roman matron; her broad bosom heaved, and her strong voice
quivered with suppressed emotion.

"I thank you, signor," she said, simply, "for Lilla's sake! Not that my
little one needs more than her mother's hands have toiled for, thanks
be to the blessed saints who have had us both in their keeping! But
this is a special blessing of God sent through your hands, and I should
be unworthy of all prosperity were I not grateful. Eccellenza, pardon
me, but my eyes are quick to see that you have suffered sorrow. Good
actions lighten grief! We will pray for your happiness, Lilla and I,
till the last breath leaves our lips. Believe it--the name of our
benefactor shall be lifted to the saints night and morning, and who
knows but good may come of it!"

I smiled faintly.

"Good will come of it, my excellent signora, though I am all unworthy
of your prayers. Rather pray," and I sighed heavily, "for the dead,
'that they may be loosed from their sins.'"

The good woman looked at me with a sort of kindly pity mingled with
awe, then murmuring once more her thanks and blessing, she left the
room. A few minutes afterward Vincenzo entered. I addressed him
cheerfully.

"Absence is the best test of love, Vincenzo; prepare all for our
departure! We shall leave Avellino the day after to-morrow."

And so we did. Lilla looked slightly downcast, but Vincenzo seemed
satisfied, and I augured from their faces, and from the mysterious
smile of Signor Monti, that all was going well. I left the beautiful
mountain town with regret, knowing I should see it no more. I touched
Lilla's fair cheek lightly at parting, and took what I knew was my last
look into the sweet candid young face. Yet the consciousness that I had
done some little good gave my tired heart a sense of satisfaction and
repose--a feeling I had not experienced since I died and rose again
from the dead.

On the last day of January I returned to Naples, after an absence of
more than a month, and was welcomed back by all my numerous
acquaintance with enthusiasm. The Marquis D'Avencourt had informed me
rightly--the affair of the duel was a thing of the past--an almost
forgotten circumstance. The carnival was in full riot, the streets were
scenes of fantastic mirth and revelry; there was music and song,
dancing and masquerading, and feasting. But I withdrew from the tumult
of merriment, and absorbed myself in the necessary preparations for--my
marriage.



CHAPTER XXX.


Looking back on the incidents of those strange feverish weeks that
preceded my wedding-day, they seemed to me like the dreams of a dying
man. Shifting colors, confused images, moments of clear light, hours of
long darkness--all things gross, refined, material, and spiritual were
shaken up in my life like the fragments in a kaleidoscope, ever
changing into new forms and bewildering patterns. My brain was clear;
yet I often questioned myself whether I was not going mad--whether all
the careful methodical plans I formed were but the hazy fancies of a
hopelessly disordered mind? Yet no; each detail of my scheme was too
complete, too consistent, too business-like for that. A madman may have
a method of action to a certain extent, but there is always some slight
slip, some omission, some mistake which helps to discover his
condition. Now, _I_ forgot nothing--I had the composed exactitude of a
careful banker who balances his accounts with the most elaborate
regularity. I can laugh to think of it all now; but THEN--then I moved,
spoke, and acted like a human machine impelled by stronger forces than
my own--in all things precise, in all things inflexible.

Within the week of my return from Avellino my coming marriage with the
Countess Romani was announced. Two days after it had been made public,
while sauntering across the Largo del Castello, I met the Marquis
D'Avencourt. I had not seen him since the morning of the duel, and his
presence gave me a sort of nervous shock. He was exceedingly cordial,
though I fancied he was also slightly embarrassed After a few
commonplace remarks he said, abruptly:

"So your marriage will positively take place?"

I forced a laugh.

"Ma! certamente! Do you doubt it?"

His handsome face clouded and his manner grew still more constrained.

"No; but I thought--I had hoped--"

"Mon cher," I said, airily, "I perfectly understand to what you allude.
But we men of the world are not fastidious--we know better than to pay
any heed to the foolish love-fancies of a woman before her marriage, so
long as she does not trick us afterward. The letters you sent me were
trifles, mere trifles! In wedding the Contessa Romani I assure you I
believe I secure the most virtuous as well as the most lovely woman in
Europe!" And I laughed again heartily.

D'Avencourt looked puzzled; but he was a punctilious man, and knew how
to steer clear of a delicate subject. He smiled.

"A la bonne heure," he said--"I wish you joy with all my heart! You are
the best judge of your own happiness; as for me--vive la liberte!"

And with a gay parting salute he left me. No one else in the city
appeared to share his foreboding scruples, if he had any, about my
forthcoming marriage. It was everywhere talked of with as much interest
and expectation as though it were some new amusement invented to
heighten the merriment of carnival. Among other things, I earned the
reputation of being a most impatient lover, for now I would consent to
no delays. I hurried all the preparations on with feverish
precipitation. I had very little difficulty in persuading Nina that the
sooner our wedding took place the better; she was to the full as eager
as myself, as ready to rush on her own destruction as Guido had been.
Her chief passion was avarice, and the repeated rumors of my supposed
fabulous wealth had aroused her greed from the very moment she had
first met me in my assumed character of the Count Oliva. As soon as her
engagement to me became known in Naples, she was an object of envy to
all those of her own sex who, during the previous autumn, had laid out
their store of fascinations to entrap me in vain--and this made her
perfectly happy. Perhaps the supremest satisfaction a woman of this
sort can attain to is the fact of making her less fortunate sisters
discontented and miserable! I loaded her, of course, with the costliest
gifts, and she, being the sole mistress of the fortune left her by her
"late husband," as well as of the unfortunate Guido's money, set no
limits to her extravagance. She ordered the most expensive and
elaborate costumes; she was engaged morning after morning with
dressmakers, tailors, and milliners, and she was surrounded by a
certain favored "set" of female friends, for whose benefit she
displayed the incoming treasures of her wardrobe till they were ready
to cry for spite and vexation, though they had to smile and hold in
their wrath and outraged vanity beneath the social mask of complacent
composure. And Nina loved nothing better than to torture the poor women
who were stinted of pocket-money with the sight of shimmering satins,
soft radiating plushes, rich velvets, embroidery studded with real
gems, pieces of costly old lace, priceless scents, and articles of
bijouterie; she loved also to dazzle the eyes and bewilder the brains
of young girls, whose finest toilet was a garb of simplest white stuff
unadorned save by a cluster of natural blossoms, and to send them away
sick at heart, pining for they knew not what, dissatisfied with
everything, and grumbling at fate for not permitting them to deck
themselves in such marvelous "arrangements" of costume as those
possessed by the happy, the fortunate future Countess Oliva.

Poor maidens! had they but known all they would not have envied her!
Women are too fond of measuring happiness by the amount of fine clothes
they obtain, and I truly believe dress is the one thing that never
fails to console them. How often a fit of hysterics can be cut short by
the opportune arrival of a new gown!

My wife, in consideration of her approaching second nuptial, had thrown
off her widow's crape, and now appeared clad in those soft subdued
half-tints of color that suited her fragile, fairy-like beauty to
perfection. All her old witcheries and her graceful tricks of manner
and speech were put forth again for my benefit. I knew them all so
well! I understood the value of her light caresses and languishing
looks so thoroughly! She was very anxious to attain the full dignity of
her position as the wife of so rich a nobleman as I was reputed to be,
therefore she raised no objection when I fixed the day of our marriage
for Giovedi Grasso. Then the fooling and mumming, the dancing,
shrieking, and screaming would be at its height; it pleased my whim to
have this other piece of excellent masquerading take place at the same
time.

The wedding was to be as private as possible, owing to my wife's
"recent sad bereavements," as she herself said with a pretty sigh and
tearful, pleading glance. It would take place in the chapel of San
Gennaro, adjoining the cathedral. We were married there before! During
the time that intervened, Nina's manner was somewhat singular. To me
she was often timid, and sometimes half conciliatory. Now and then I
caught her large dark eyes fixed on me with a startled, anxious look,
but this expression soon passed away. She was subject, too, to wild
fits of merriment, and anon to moods of absorbed and gloomy silence. I
could plainly see that she was strung up to an extreme pitch of nervous
excitement and irritability, but I asked her no questions. If--I
thought--if she tortured herself with memories, all the better--if she
saw, or fancied she saw, the resemblance between me and her "dear dead
Fabio," it suited me that she should be so racked and bewildered.

I came and went to and fro from the villa as I pleased. I wore my dark
glasses as usual, and not even Giacomo could follow me with his
peering, inquisitive gaze; for since the night he had been hurled so
fiercely to the ground by Guido's reckless and impatient hand, the poor
old man had been paralyzed, and had spoken no word. He lay in an upper
chamber, tended by Assunta, and my wife had already written to his
relatives in Lombardy, asking them to send for him home.

"Of what use to keep him?" she had asked me.

True! Of what use to give even roof-shelter to a poor old human
creature, maimed, broken, and useless for evermore? After long years of
faithful service, turn him out, cast him forth! If he die of neglect,
starvation, and ill-usage, what matter?--he is a worn-out tool, his day
is done--let him perish. I would not plead for him--why should I? I had
made my own plans for his comfort--plans shortly to be carried out; and
in the mean time Assunta nursed him tenderly as he lay speechless, with
no more strength than a year-old baby, and only a bewildered pain in
his upturned, lack-luster eyes. One incident occurred during these last
days of my vengeance that struck a sharp pain to my heart, together
with a sense of the bitterest anger. I had gone up to the villa
somewhat early in the morning, and on crossing the lawn I saw a dark
form stretched motionless on one of the paths that led directly up to
the house. I went to examine it, and started back in horror--it was my
dog Wyvis shot dead. His silky black head and forepaws were dabbled in
blood--his honest brown eyes were glazed with the film of his dying
agonies. Sickened and infuriated at the sight, I called to a gardener
who was trimming the shrubbery.

"Who has done this?" I demanded.

The man looked pityingly at the poor bleeding remains, and said, in a
low voice:

"It was madama's order, signor. The dog bit her yesterday; we shot him
at daybreak."

I stooped to caress the faithful animal's body, and as I stroked the
silky coat my eyes were dim with tears.

"How did it happen?" I asked in smothered accents. "Was your lady hurt?"

The gardener shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

"Ma!--no! But he tore the lace on her dress with his teeth and grazed
her hand. It was little, but enough. He will bite no more--povera
bestia!"

I gave the fellow five francs.

"I liked the dog," I said briefly, "he was a faithful creature. Bury
him decently under that tree," and I pointed to the giant cypress on
the lawn, "and take this money for your trouble."

He looked surprised but grateful, and promised to do my bidding. Once
more sorrowfully caressing the fallen head of perhaps the truest friend
I ever possessed, I strode hastily into the house, and met Nina coming
out of her morning-room, clad in one of her graceful trailing garments,
in which soft lavender hues were blended like the shaded colors of late
and early violets.

"So Wyvis has been shot?" I said, abruptly.

She gave a slight shudder.

"Oh, yes; is it not sad? But I was compelled to have it done. Yesterday
I went past his kennel within reach of his chain, and he sprung
furiously at me for no reason at all. See!" And holding up her small
hand she showed me three trifling marks in the delicate flesh. "I felt
that you would be so unhappy if you thought I kept a dog that was at
all dangerous, so I determined to get rid of him. It is always painful
to have a favorite animal killed; but really Wyvis belonged to my poor
husband, and I think he has never been quite safe since his master's
death, and now Giacomo is ill--"

"I see!" I said, curtly, cutting her explanations short.

Within myself I thought how much more sweet and valuable was the dog's
life than hers. Brave Wyvis--good Wyvis! He had done his best--he had
tried to tear her dainty flesh; his honest instincts had led him to
attempt rough vengeance on the woman he had felt was his master's foe.
And he had met his fate, and died in the performance of duty. But I
said no more on the subject. The dog's death was not alluded to again
by either Nina or myself. He lay in his mossy grave under the cypress
boughs--his memory untainted by any lie, and his fidelity enshrined in
my heart as a thing good and gracious, far exceeding the
self-interested friendship of so-called Christian humanity.

The days passed slowly on. To the revelers who chased the flying steps
of carnival with shouting and laughter, no doubt the hours were brief,
being so brimful of merriment; but to me, who heard nothing save the
measured ticking of my own timepiece of revenge, and who saw naught
save its hands, that every second drew nearer to the last and fatal
figure on the dial, the very moments seemed long and laden with
weariness. I roamed the streets of the city aimlessly, feeling more
like a deserted stranger than a well-known envied nobleman, whose
wealth made him the cynosure of all eyes. The riotous glee, the music,
the color that whirled and reeled through the great street of Toledo at
this season bewildered and pained me. Though I knew and was accustomed
to the wild vagaries of carnival, yet this year they seemed to be out
of place, distracting, senseless, and all unfamiliar.

Sometimes I escaped from the city tumult and wandered out to the
cemetery. There I would stand, dreamily looking at the freshly turned
sods above Guido Ferrari's grave. No stone marked the spot as yet, but
it was close to the Romani vault--not more than a couple of yards away
from the iron grating that barred the entrance to that dim and fatal
charnel-house. I had a drear fascination for the place, and more than
once I went to the opening of that secret passage made by the brigands
to ascertain if all was safe and undisturbed. Everything was as I had
left it, save that the tangle of brush-wood had become thicker, and
weeds and brambles had sprung up, making it less visible than before,
and probably rendering it more impassable. By a fortunate accident I
had secured the key of the vault. I knew that for family burial-places
of this kind there are always two keys--one left in charge of the
keeper of the cemetery, the other possessed by the person or persons to
whom the mausoleum belongs, and this other I managed to obtain.

On one occasion, being left for some time alone in my own library at
the villa, I remembered that in an upper drawer of an old oaken
escritoire that stood there, had always been a few keys belonging to
the doors of cellars and rooms in the house. I looked, and found them
lying there as usual; they all had labels attached to them, signifying
their use, and I turned them over impatiently, not finding what I
sought. I was about to give up the search, when I perceived a large
rusty iron key that had slipped to the back of the drawer; I pulled it
out, and to my satisfaction it was labeled "Mausoleum." I immediately
took possession of it, glad to have obtained so useful and necessary an
implement; I knew that I should soon need it. The cemetery was quite
deserted at this festive season--no one visited it to lay wreaths of
flowers or sacred mementoes on the last resting-places of their
friends. In the joys of the carnival who thinks of the dead? In my
frequent walks there I was always alone; I might have opened my own
vault and gone down into it without being observed, but I did not; I
contented myself with occasionally trying the key in the lock, and
assuring myself that it worked without difficulty.

Returning from one of these excursions late on a mild afternoon toward
the end of the week preceding my marriage, I bent my steps toward the
Molo, where I saw a picturesque group of sailors and girls dancing one
of those fantastic, graceful dances of the country, in which
impassioned movement and expressive gesticulation are everything. Their
steps were guided and accompanied by the sonorous twanging of a
full-toned guitar and the tinkling beat of a tambourine. Their
handsome, animated faces, their flashing eyes and laughing lips, their
gay, many-colored costumes, the glitter of beads on the brown necks of
the maidens, the red caps jauntily perched on the thick black curls of
the fishermen--all made up a picture full of light and life thrown up
into strong relief against the pale gray and amber tints of the
February sky and sea; while shadowing overhead frowned the stern dark
walls of the Castel Nuovo.

It was such a scene as the English painter Luke Fildes might love to
depict on his canvas--the one man of to-day who, though born of the
land of opaque mists and rain-burdened clouds, has, notwithstanding
these disadvantages, managed to partly endow his brush with the
exhaustless wealth and glow of the radiant Italian color. I watched the
dance with a faint sense of pleasure--it was full of so much harmony
and delicacy of rhythm. The lad who thrummed the guitar broke out now
and then into song--a song in dialect that fitted into the music of the
dance as accurately as a rosebud into its calyx. I could not
distinguish all the words he sung, but the refrain was always the same,
and he gave it in every possible inflection and variety of tone, from
grave to gay, from pleading to pathetic.

   "Che bella cosa e de morire acciso,
    Nnanze a la porta de la nnamorata!"
    [Footnote: Neapolitan dialect.]

meaning literally--"How beautiful a thing to die, suddenly slain at the
door of one's beloved!"

There was no sense in the thing, I thought half angrily--it was a
stupid sentiment altogether. Yet I could not help smiling at the
ragged, barefooted rascal who sung it: he seemed to feel such a
gratification in repeating it, and he rolled his black eyes with
lovelorn intensity, and breathed forth sighs that sounded through his
music with quite a touching earnestness. Of course he was only
following the manner of all Neapolitans, namely, acting his song; they
all do it, and cannot help themselves. But this boy had a peculiarly
roguish way of pausing and crying forth a plaintive "Ah!" before he
added "Che bella cosa," etc., which gave point and piquancy to his
absurd ditty. He was evidently brimful of mischief--his expression
betokened it; no doubt he was one of the most thorough little scamps
that ever played at "morra," but there was a charm about his handsome
dirty face and unkempt hair, and I watched him amusedly, glad to be
distracted for a few minutes from the tired inner workings of my own
unhappy thoughts. In time to come, so I mused, this very boy might
learn to set his song about the "beloved" to a sterner key, and might
find it meet, not to be slain himself, but to slay HER! Such a
thing--in Naples--was more than probable. By and by the dance ceased,
and I recognized in one of the breathless, laughing sailors my old
acquaintance Andrea Luziani, with whom I had sailed to Palermo. The
sight of him relieved me from a difficulty which had puzzled me for
some days, and as soon as the little groups of men and women had
partially dispersed, I walked up to him and touched him on the
shoulder. He started, looked round surprised, and did not appear to
recognize me. I remembered that when he had seen me I had not grown a
beard, neither had I worn dark spectacles. I recalled my name to him;
his face cleared and he smiled.

"Ah! buon giorno, eccellenza!" he cried. "A thousand pardons that I did
not at first know you! Often have I thought of you! often have I heard
your name--ah! what a name! Rich, great, generous!--ah! what a glad
life! And on the point of marrying--ah, Dio! love makes all the
troubles go--so!" and taking his cigar from his mouth, he puffed a ring
of pale smoke into the air and laughed gayly. Then suddenly lifting his
cap from his clustering black hair, he added, "All joy be with you,
eccellenza!"

I smiled and thanked him. I noticed he looked at me curiously.

"You think I have changed in appearance, my friend?" I said.

The Sicilian looked embarrassed.

"Ebbene! we must all change," he answered, lightly, evading my glance.
"The days pass on--each day takes a little bit of youth away with it.
One grows old without knowing it!"

I laughed.

"I see," I observed. "You think I have aged somewhat since you saw me?"

"A little, eccellenza," he frankly confessed.

"I have suffered severe illness," I said, quietly, "and my eyes are
still weak, as you perceive," and I touched my glasses. "But I shall
get stronger in time. Can you come with me for a few moments? I want
your help in a matter of importance."

He nodded a ready assent and followed me.



CHAPTER XXXI.


We left the Molo, and paused at a retired street corner leading from
the Chiaja.

"You remember Carmelo Neri?" I asked.

Andrea shrugged his shoulders with an air of infinite commiseration.

"Ah! povero diavolo! Well do I remember him! A bold fellow and brave,
with a heart in him, too, if one did but know where to find it. And now
he drags the chain! Well, well, no doubt it is what he deserves; but I
say, and always will maintain, there are many worse men than Carmelo."

I briefly related how I had seen the captured brigand in the square at
Palermo and had spoken with him. "I mentioned you," I added, "and he
bade me tell you Teresa had killed herself."

"Ah! that I well know," said the little captain, who had listened to me
intently, and over whose mobile face flitted a shadow of tender pity,
as he sighed. "Poverinetta! So fragile and small! To think she had the
force to plunge the knife in her breast! As well imagine a little bird
flying down to pierce itself on an uplifted bayonet. Ay, ay! women will
do strange things--and it is certain she loved Carmelo."

"You would help him to escape again if you could, no doubt?" I inquired
with a half smile.

The ready wit of the Sicilian instantly asserted itself.

"Not I, eccellenza," he replied, with an air of dignity and most
virtuous honesty. "No, no, not now. The law is the law, and I, Andrea
Luziani, am not one to break it. No, Carmelo must take his punishment;
it is for life they say--and hard as it seems, it is but just. When the
little Teresa was in the question, look you, what could I do? but
now--let the saints that choose help Carmelo, for I will not."

I laughed as I met the audacious flash of his eyes; I knew, despite his
protestations, that if Carmelo Neri ever did get clear of the galleys,
it would be an excellent thing for him if Luziani's vessel chanced to
be within reach.

"You have your brig the 'Laura' still?" I asked him.

"Yes, eccellenza, the Madonna be praised! And she has been newly rigged
and painted, and she is as trig and trim a craft as you can meet with
in all the wide blue waters of the Mediterranean."

"Now you see," I sad, impressively, "I have a friend, a relative, who
is in trouble: he wishes to get away from Naples quietly and in secret.
Will you help him? You shall be paid whatever you think proper to
demand."

The Sicilian looked puzzled. He puffed meditatively at his cigar and
remained silent.

"He is not pursued by the law," I continued, noting his hesitation. "He
is simply involved in a cruel difficulty brought upon him by his own
family--he seeks to escape from unjust persecution."

Andrea's brow cleared.

"Oh, if that is the case, eccellenza, I am at your service. But where
does your friend desire to go?"

I paused for a moment and considered.

"To Civita Vecchia," I said at last, "from that port he can obtain a
ship to take him to his further destination."

The captain's expressive face fell--he looked very dubious.

"To Civita Vecchia is a long way, a very long way," he said,
regretfully; "and it is the bad season, and there are cross currents
and contrary winds. With all the wish in the world to please you,
eccellenza, I dare not run the 'Laura' so far; but there is another
means--"

And interrupting himself he considered awhile in silence. I waited
patiently for him to speak.

"Whether it would suit your friend I know not," he said at last, laying
his hand confidentially on my arm, "but there is a stout brig leaving
here for Civita Vecchia on Friday morning next--"

"The day after Giovedi Grasso?" I queried, with a smile he did not
understand. He nodded.

"Exactly so. She carries a cargo of Lacrima Cristi, and she is a swift
sailer. I know her captain--he is a good soul; but," and Andrea laughed
lightly, "he is like the rest of us--he loves money. You do not count
the francs--no, they are nothing to you--but we look to the soldi. Now,
if it please you I will make him a certain offer of passage money, as
large as you shall choose, also I will tell him when to expect his one
passenger, and I can almost promise you that he will not say no!"

This proposal fitted in so excellently with my plans that I accepted
it, and at once named an exceptionally munificent sum for the passage
required. Andrea's eyes glistened as he heard.

"It is a little fortune!" he cried, enthusiastically. "Would that I
could earn as much in twenty voyages! But one should not be
churlish--such luck cannot fall in all men's way."

I smiled.

"And do you think, amico, I will suffer you to go unrewarded?" I said.
And placing two twenty-franc pieces in his brown palm I added, "As you
rightly said, francs are nothing to me. Arrange this little matter
without difficulty, and you shall not be forgotten. You can call at my
hotel to-morrow or the next day, when you have settled everything--here
is the address," and I penciled it on my card and gave it to him; "but
remember, this is a secret matter, and I rely upon you to explain it as
such to your friend who commands the brig going to Civita Vecchia. He
must ask no questions of his passenger--the more silence the more
discretion--and when once he has landed him at his destination he will
do well to straightway forget all about him. You understand?"

Andrea nodded briskly.

"Si, si, signer. He has a bad memory as it is--it shall grow worse at
your command! Believe it!"

I laughed, shook hands, and parted with the friendly little fellow, he
returning to the Molo, and I slowly walking homeward by way of the
Villa Reale. An open carriage coming swiftly toward me attracted my
attention; as it drew nearer I recognized the prancing steeds and the
familiar liveries. A fair woman clad in olive velvets and Russian
sables looked out smiling, and waved her hand.

It was my wife--my betrothed bride, and beside her sat the Duchess di
Marina, the most irreproachable of matrons, famous for her piety not
only in Naples but throughout Italy. So immaculate was she that it was
difficult to imagine her husband daring to caress that upright,
well-dressed form, or venturing to kiss those prim lips, colder than
the carven beads of her jeweled rosary. Yet there was a story about her
too--an old story that came from Padua--of how a young and handsome
nobleman had been found dead at her palace doors, stabbed to the heart.
Perhaps--who knows--he also might have thought--

   "Che bella cosa e de morire accisa,
    Nnanze a la porta de la nnamorata!"

Some said the duke had killed him; but nothing could be proved, nothing
was certain. The duke was silent, so was is duchess; and Scandal
herself sat meekly with closed lips in the presence of this stately and
august couple, whose bearing toward each other in society was a lesson
of complete etiquette to the world. What went on behind the scenes no
one could tell. I raised my hat with the profoundest deference as the
carriage containing the two ladies dashed by; I knew not which was the
cleverest hypocrite of the two, therefore I did equal honor to both. I
was in a meditative and retrospective mood, and when I reached the
Toledo the distracting noises, the cries of the flower-girls, and
venders of chestnuts and confetti, the nasal singing of the
street-rhymers, the yells of punchinello, and the answering laughter of
the populace, were all beyond my endurance. To gratify a sudden whim
that seized me, I made my way into the lowest and dirtiest quarters of
the city, and roamed through wretched courts and crowded alleys, trying
to discover that one miserable street which until now I had always
avoided even the thought of, where I had purchased the coral-fisher's
clothes on the day of my return from the grave. I went in many wrong
directions, but at last I found it, and saw at a glance that the old
rag-dealer's shop was still there, in its former condition of
heterogeneous filth and disorder. A man sat at the door smoking, but
not the crabbed and bent figure I had before seen--this was a younger
and stouter individual, with a Jewish cast of countenance, and dark,
ferocious eyes. I approached him, and seeing by my dress and manner
that I was some person of consequence, he rose, drew his pipe from his
mouth, and raised his greasy cap with a respectful yet suspicious air.

"Are you the owner of this place?" I asked.

"Si, signor!"

"What has become of the old man who used to live here?"

He laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and drew his pipe-stem across his
throat with a significant gesture.

"So, signor!--with a sharp knife! He had a good deal of blood, too, for
so withered a body. To kill himself in that fashion was stupid: he
spoiled an Indian shawl that was on his bed, worth more than a thousand
francs. One would not have thought he had so much blood."

And the fellow put back his pipe in his mouth and smoked complacently.
I heard in sickened silence.

"He was mad, I suppose?" I said at last.

The long pipe was again withdrawn.

"Mad? Well, the people say so. I for one think he was very
reasonable--all except that matter of the shawl--he should have taken
that off his bed first. But he was wise enough to know that he was of
no use to anybody--he did the best he could! Did you know him, signor?"

"I gave him money once," I replied, evasively; then taking out a few
francs I handed them to this evil-eyed, furtive-looking son of Israel,
who received the gift with effusive gratitude.

"Thank you for your information," I said coldly. "Good-day."

"Good-day to you, signor," he replied, resuming his seat and watching
me curiously as I turned away.

I passed out of the wretched street feeling faint and giddy. The end of
the miserable rag-dealer been told to me briefly and brutally
enough--yet somehow I was moved to a sense of regret and pity. Abjectly
poor, half crazy, and utterly friendless, he had been a brother of mine
in the same bitterness and irrevocable sorrow. I wondered with a half
shudder--would my end be like his? When my vengeance was completed
should I grow shrunken, and old, and mad, and one lurid day draw a
sharp knife across my throat as a finish to my life's history? I walked
more rapidly to shake off the morbid fancies that thus insidiously
crept in on my brain; and as before, the noise and glitter of the
Toledo had been unbearable, so now I found it a relief and a
distraction. Two maskers bedizened in violet and gold whizzed past me
like a flash, one of them yelling a stale jest concerning la
nnamorata--a jest I scarcely heard, and certainly had no heart or wit
to reply to. A fair woman I knew leaned out of a gayly draped balcony
and dropped a bunch of roses at my feet; out of courtesy I stooped to
pick them up, and then raising my hat I saluted the dark-eyed donor,
but a few paces on I gave them away to a ragged child. Of all flowers
that bloom, they were, and still are, the most insupportable to me.
What is it the English poet Swinburne says--

  "I shall never be friends again with roses!"

My wife wore them always: even on that night when I had seen her
clasped in Guido's arms, a red rose on her breast had been crushed in
that embrace--a rose whose withered leaves I still possess. In the
forest solitude where I now dwell there are no roses--and I am glad!
The trees are too high, the tangle of bramble and coarse brushwood too
dense--nothing grows here but a few herbs and field flowers--weeds
unfit for wearing by fine ladies, yet to my taste infinitely sweeter
than all the tenderly tinted cups of fragrance, whose colors and odors
are spoiled to me forever. I am unjust, say you? the roses are innocent
of evil? True enough, but their perfume awakens memory, and--I strive
always to forget!

I reached my hotel that evening to find that I was an hour late for
dinner, an unusual circumstance, which had caused Vincenzo some
disquietude, as was evident from the relieved expression of his face
when I entered. For some days the honest fellow had watched me with
anxiety; my abstracted moods, the long solitary walks I was in the
habit of taking, the evenings I passed in my room writing, with the
doors locked--all this behavior on my part exercised his patience, I
have no doubt, to the utmost limit, and I could see he had much ado to
observe his usual discretion and tact, and refrain from asking
questions. On this particular occasion I dined very hastily, for I had
promised to join my wife and two of her lady friends at the theater
that night.

When I arrived there, she was already seated in her box, looking
radiantly beautiful. She was attired in some soft, sheeny, clinging
primrose stuff, and the brigand's jewels I had given her through
Guido's hands, flashed brilliantly on her uncovered neck and arms. She
greeted me with her usual child-like enthusiasm as I entered, bearing
the customary offering--a costly bouquet, set in a holder of
mother-of-pearl studded with turquois, for her acceptance. I bowed to
her lady friends, both of whom I knew, and then stood beside her
watching the stage. The comedietta played there was the airiest
trifle--it turned on the old worn-out story--a young wife, an aged,
doting husband, and a lover whose principles were, of course, of the
"noblest" type. The husband was fooled (naturally), and the chief
amusement of the piece appeared to consist in his being shut out of his
own house in dressing-gown and slippers during a pelting storm of rain,
while his spouse (who was particularly specified as "pure") enjoyed a
luxurious supper with her highly moral and virtuous admirer. My wife
laughed delightedly at the poor jokes and the stale epigrams, and
specially applauded the actress who successfully supported the chief
role. This actress, by the way, was a saucy, brazen-faced jade, who had
a trick of flashing her black eyes, tossing her head, and heaving her
ample bosom tumultuously whenever she hissed out the words Vecchiaccio
maladetto [Footnote: Accursed, villainous old monster.] at her
discomfited husband, which had an immense effect on the audience--an
audience which entirely sympathized with her, though she was
indubitably in the wrong. I watched Nina in some derision as she nodded
her fair head and beat time to the music with her painted fan. I bent
over her.

"The play pleases you?" I asked, in a low tone.

"Yes, indeed!" she answered, with a laughing light in her eyes. "The
husband is so droll! It is all very amusing."

"The husband is always droll!" I remarked, smiling coldly. "It is not a
temptation to marry when one knows that as a husband one must always
look ridiculous."

She glanced up at me.

"Cesare! You surely are not vexed? Of course it is only in plays that
it happens so!"

"Plays, cara mia, are often nothing but the reflex of real life," I
said. "But let us hope there are exceptions, and that all husbands are
not fools."

She smiled expressively and sweetly, toyed with the flowers I had given
her, and turned her eyes again to the stage. I said no more, and was a
somewhat moody companion for the rest of the evening. As we all left
the theater one of the ladies who had accompanied Nina said lightly:

"You seem dull and out of spirits, conte?"

I forced a smile.

"Not I, signora! Surely you do not find me guilty of such ungallantry?
Were I dull in YOUR company I should prove myself the most ungrateful
of my sex."

She sighed somewhat impatiently. She was very young and very lovely,
and, as far as I knew, innocent, and of a more thoughtful and poetical
temperament than most women.

"That is the mere language of compliment," she said, looking straightly
at me with her clear, candid eyes. "You are a true courtier! Yet often
I think your courtesy is reluctant."

I looked at her in some surprise.

"Reluctant? Signora, pardon me if I do not understand!"

"I mean," she continued, still regarding me steadily, though a faint
blush warmed the clear pallor of her delicate complexion, "that you do
not really like us women; you say pretty things to us, and you try to
be amiable in our company, but you are in truth averse to our ways--you
are sceptical--you think we are all hypocrites."

I laughed a little coldly.

"Really, signora, your words place me in a very awkward position. Were
I to tell you my real sentiments--"

She interrupted me with a touch of her fan on my arm, and smiled
gravely.

"You would say, 'Yes, you are right, signora. I never see one of your
sex without suspecting treachery.' Ah, Signor Conte, we women are
indeed full of faults, but nothing can blind our instinct!" She paused,
and her brilliant eyes softened as she added gently, "I pray your
marriage may be a very happy one."

I was silent. I was not even courteous enough to thank her for the
wish. I was half angered that this girl should have been able to probe
my thoughts so quickly and unerringly. Was I so bad an actor after all?
I glanced down at her as she leaned lightly on my arm.

"Marriage is a mere comedietta," I said, abruptly and harshly. "We have
seen it acted to-night. In a few days I shall play the part of the
chief buffoon--in other words, the husband."

And I laughed. My young companion looked startled, almost frightened,
and over her fair face there flitted an expression of something like
aversion. I did not care--why should I?--and there was no time for more
words between us, for we had reached the outer vestibule of the theater.

My wife's carriage was drawn up at the entrance--my wife herself was
stepping into it. I assisted her, and also her two friends, and then
stood with uncovered head at the door wishing them all the "felicissima
notte." Nina put her tiny jeweled hand through the carriage window--I
stooped and kissed it lightly. Drawing it back quickly, she selected a
white gardenia from her bouquet and gave it to me with a bewitching
smile.

Then the glittering equipage dashed away with a whirl and clatter of
prancing hoofs and rapid wheels, and I stood alone under the wide
portico of the theater--alone, amid the pressing throngs of the people
who were still coming out of the house--holding the strongly scented
gardenia in my hand as vaguely as a fevered man who finds a strange
flower in one of his sick dreams.

After a minute or two I suddenly recollected myself, and throwing the
blossom on the ground, I crushed it savagely beneath my heel--the
penetrating odor rose from its slain petals as though a vessel of
incense had been emptied at my feet. There was a nauseating influence
in it; where had I inhaled that subtle perfume last? I
remembered--Guido Ferrari had worn one of those flowers in his coat at
my banquet--it had been still in his buttonhole when I killed him!

I strode onward and homeward; the streets were full of mirth and music,
but I heeded none of it. I felt, rather than saw, the quiet sky bending
above me dotted with its countless millions of luminous worlds; I was
faintly conscious of the soft plash of murmuring waves mingling with
the dulcet chords of deftly played mandolins echoing from somewhere
down by the shore; but my soul was, as it were, benumbed--my mind,
always on the alert, was for once utterly tired out--my very limbs
ached, and when I at last flung myself on my bed, exhausted, my eyes
closed instantly, and I slept the heavy, motionless sleep of a man
weary unto death.



CHAPTER XXXII.


"Tout le monde vient a celui qui sait attendre." So wrote the great
Napoleon. The virtue of the aphorism consists in the little words 'qui
sait'. All the world comes to him who KNOWS HOW to wait, _I_ knew this,
and I had waited, and my world--a world of vengeance--came to me at
last.

The slow-revolving wheel of Time brought me to the day before my
strange wedding--the eve of my remarriage with my own wife! All the
preparations were made--nothing was left undone that could add to the
splendor of the occasion. For though the nuptial ceremony was to be
somewhat quiet and private in character, and the marriage breakfast was
to include only a few of our more intimate acquaintances, the
proceedings were by no means to terminate tamely. The romance of these
remarkable espousals was not to find its conclusion in bathos. No; the
bloom and aroma of the interesting event were to be enjoyed in the
evening, when a grand supper and ball, given by me, the happy and
much-to-be-envied bridegroom, was to take place in the hotel which I
had made my residence for so long. No expense was spared for this, the
last entertainment offered by me in my brilliant career as a successful
Count Cesare Oliva. After it, the dark curtain would fall on the
played-out drama, never to rise again.

Everything that art, taste, and royal luxury could suggest was included
in the arrangements for this brilliant ball, to which a hundred and
fifty guests had been invited, not one of whom had refused to attend.

And now--now, in the afternoon of this, the last of my self-imposed
probation--I sat alone with my fair wife in the drawing-room of the
Villa Romani, conversing lightly on various subjects connected with the
festivities of the coming morrow. The long windows were open--the warm
spring sunlight lay like a filmy veil of woven gold on the tender green
of the young grass, birds sung for joy and flitted from branch to
branch, now poising hoveringly above their nests, now soaring with all
the luxury of perfect liberty into the high heaven of cloudless
blue--the great creamy buds of the magnolia looked ready to burst into
wide and splendid flower between their large, darkly shining leaves,
the odor of violets and primroses floated on every delicious breath of
air, and round the wide veranda the climbing white china roses had
already unfurled their little crumpled rosette-like blossoms to the
balmy wind. It was spring in Southern Italy--spring in the land where,
above all other lands, spring is lovely--sudden and brilliant in its
beauty as might be the smile of a happy angel. Gran Dio!--talk of
angels! Had I not a veritable angel for my companion at that moment?
What fair being, even in Mohammed's Paradise of Houris, could outshine
such charms as those which it was my proud privilege to gaze upon
without rebuke--dark eyes, rippling golden hair, a dazzling and perfect
face, a form to tempt the virtue of a Galahad, and lips that an emperor
might long to touch--in vain? Well, no!--not altogether in vain: if his
imperial majesty could offer a bribe large enough--let us say a diamond
the size of a pigeon's egg--he might possibly purchase one,
nay!--perhaps two kisses from that seductive red mouth, sweeter than
the ripest strawberry. I glanced at her furtively from time to time
when she was not aware of my gaze; and glad was I of the sheltering
protection of the dark glasses I wore, for I knew and felt that there
was a terrible look in my eyes--the look of a half-famished tiger ready
to spring on some long-desired piece of prey. She herself was
exceptionally bright and cheerful; with her riante features and agile
movements, she reminded me of some tropical bird of gorgeous plumage
swaying to and fro on a branch of equally gorgeous blossom.

"You are like a prince in a fairy tale, Cesare," she said, with a
little delighted laugh; "everything you do is superbly done! How
pleasant it is to be so rich--there is nothing better in all the world."

"Except love!" I returned, with a grim attempt to be sentimental.

Her large eyes softened like the pleading eyes of a tame fawn.

"Ay, yes!" and she smiled with expressive tenderness, "except love. But
when one has both love and wealth, what a paradise life can be!"

"So great a paradise," I assented, "that it is hardly worth while
trying to get into heaven at all! Will you make earth a heaven for me,
Nina mia, or will you only love me as much--or as little--as you loved
your late husband?"

She shrugged her shoulders and pouted like a spoilt child.

"Why are you so fond of talking about my late husband, Cesare?" she
asked, peevishly; "I am so tired of his name! Besides, one does not
always care to be reminded of dead people--and he died so horribly too!
I have often told you that I did not love him at all. I liked him a
little, and I was quite ill when that dreadful monk, who looked like a
ghost himself, came and told me he was dead. Fancy hearing such a piece
of news suddenly, while I was actually at luncheon with Gui--Signore
Ferrari! We were both shocked, of course, but I did not break my heart
over it. Now I really DO love YOU--"

I drew nearer to her on the couch where she sat, and put one arm round
her.

"You really DO?" I asked, in a half-incredulous tone; "you are quite
sure?"

She laughed and nestled her head on my shoulder.

"I am quite sure! How many times have you asked me that absurd
question? What can I say, what can I do--to make you believe me?"

"Nothing," I answered, and answered truly, for certainly nothing she
could say or do would make me believe her for a moment. "But HOW do you
love me--for myself or for my wealth?"

She raised her head with a proud, graceful gesture.

"For yourself, of course! Do you think mere wealth could ever win MY
affection? No, Cesare! I love you for your own sake--your own merits
have made you dear to me."

I smiled bitterly. She did not see the smile. I slowly caressed her
silky hair.

"For that sweet answer, carissima mia, you shall have your reward. You
called me a fairy prince just now--perhaps I merit that title more than
you know. You remember the jewels I sent you before we ever met?"

"Remember them!" she exclaimed. "They are my choicest ornaments. Such a
parure is fit for an empress."

"And an empress of beauty wears them!" I said, lightly. "But they are
mere trifles compared to other gems which I possess, and which I intend
to offer for your acceptance."

Her eyes glistened with avarice and expectancy.

"Oh, let me see them!" she cried. "If they are lovelier than those I
already have, they must be indeed magnificent! And are they all for me?"

"All for you!" I replied, drawing her closer, and playing with the
small white hand on which the engagement-ring I had placed there
sparkled so bravely. "All for my bride. A little hoard of bright
treasures; red rubies, ay--as red as blood-diamonds as brilliant as the
glittering of crossed daggers--sapphires as blue as the
lightning--pearls as pure as the little folded hands of a dead
child--opals as dazzlingly changeful as woman's love! Why do you
start?" for she had moved restlessly in my embrace. "Do I use bad
similes? Ah, cara mia, I am no poet! I can but speak of things as they
seem to my poor judgment. Yes, these precious things are for you,
bellissima; you have nothing to do but to take them, and may they bring
you much joy!"

A momentary pallor had stolen over her face while I was
speaking--speaking in my customary hard, harsh voice, which I strove to
render even harder and harsher than usual--but she soon recovered from
whatever passing emotion she may have felt, and gave herself up to the
joys of vanity and greed, the paramount passions of her nature.

"I shall have the finest jewels in all Naples!" she laughed,
delightedly. "How the women will envy me! But where are these
treasures? May I see them now--immediately?"

"No, not quite immediately," I replied, with a gentle derision that
escaped her observation. "To-morrow night--our marriage night--you
shall have them. And I must also fulfill a promise I made to you. You
wish to see me for once without these," and I touched my dark
glasses--"is it not so?"

She raised her eyes, conveying into their lustrous depths an expression
of melting tenderness.

"Yes," she murmured; "I want to see you as you ARE!"

"I fear you will be disappointed," I said, with some irony, "for my
eyes are not pleasant to look at."

"Never mind," she returned, gayly. "I shall be satisfied if I see them
just once, and we need not have much light in the room, as the light
gives you pain. I would not be the cause of suffering to you--no, not
for all the world!"

"You are very amiable," I answered, "more so than I deserve. I hope I
may prove worthy of your tenderness! But to return to the subject of
the jewels. I wish you to see them for yourself and choose the best
among them. Will you come with me to-morrow night? and I will show you
where they are."

She laughed sweetly.

"Are you a miser, Cesare?--and have you some secret hiding-place full
of treasure like Aladdin?"

I smiled.

"Perhaps I have," I said. "There are exceptional cases in which one
fears to trust even to a bank. Gems such as those I have to offer you
are almost priceless, and it would be unwise, almost cruel to place
such tempting toys within the reach of even an honest man. At any rate,
if I have been something of a miser, it is for your sake, for your sake
I have personally guarded the treasure that is to be your bridal gift.
You cannot blame me for this?"

In answer she threw her fair arms round my neck and kissed me. Strive
against it as I would, I always shuddered at the touch of her lips--a
mingled sensation of loathing and longing possessed me that sickened
while it stung my soul.

"Amor mio!" she murmured. "As if _I_ could blame you! You have no
faults in my estimation of you. You are good, brave and generous--the
best of men; there is only one thing I wish sometimes--" Here she
paused, and her brow knitted itself frowningly, while a puzzled, pained
expression came into her eyes.

"And that one thing is?" I inquired.

"That you did not remind me so often of Fabio," she said, abruptly and
half angrily. "Not when you speak of him, I do not mean that. What I
mean is, that you have ways like his. Of course I know there is no
actual resemblance, and yet--" She paused again, and again looked
troubled.

"Really, carina mia," I remarked, lightly and jestingly, "you embarrass
me profoundly! This fancy of yours is a most awkward one for me. At the
convent where I visited you, you became quite ill at the contemplation
of my hand, which you declared was like the hand of your deceased
husband; and now--this same foolish idea is returning, when I hoped it
had gone, with other morbid notions of an oversensitive brain, forever.
Perhaps you think I am your late husband?"

And I laughed aloud! She trembled a little, but soon laughed also.

"I know I am very absurd," she said, "perhaps I am a little nervous and
unstrung: I have had too much excitement lately. Tell me more about the
jewels. When will you take me to see them?"

"To-morrow night," I answered, "while the ball is going on, you and I
will slip away together--we shall return again before any of our
friends can miss us. You will come with me?"

"Of course I will," she replied, readily, "only we must not be long
absent, because my maid will have to pack my wedding-dress, and then
there will be the jewels also to put in my strong box. Let me see! We
stay the night at the hotel, and leave for Rome and Paris the first
thing in the morning, do we not?"

"That is the arrangement, certainly," I said, with a cold smile.

"The little place where you have hidden your jewels, you droll Cesare,
is quite near then?" she asked.

"Quite near," I assented, watching her closely.

She laughed and clapped her hands.

"Oh, I must have them," she exclaimed. "It would be ridiculous to go to
Paris without them. But why will you not get them yourself, Cesare, and
bring them here to me?"

"There are so many," I returned, quietly, "and I do not know which you
would prefer. Some are more valuable than others. And it will give me a
special satisfaction--one that I have long waited for--to see you
making your own choice."

She smiled half shyly, half cunningly.

"Perhaps I will make no choice," she whispered, "perhaps I will take
them ALL, Cesare. What will you say then?"

"That you are perfectly welcome to them," I replied.

She looked slightly surprised.

"You are really too good to me, caro mio," she said; "you spoil me."

"CAN you be spoiled?" I asked, half jestingly. "Good women are like
fine brilliants--the more richly they are set the more they shine."

She stroked my hand caressingly.

"No one ever made such pretty speeches to me as you do!" she murmured.

"Not even Guido Ferrari?" I suggested, ironically.

She drew herself up with an inimitably well-acted gesture of lofty
disdain.

"Guido Ferrari!" she exclaimed. "He dared not address me save with the
greatest respect! I was as a queen to him! It was only lately that he
began to presume on the trust left him by my husband, and then he
became too familiar--a mistake on his part, for which YOU punished
him--as he deserved!"

I rose from my seat beside her. I could not answer for my own composure
while sitting so close to the actual murderess of MY friend and HER
lover. Had she forgotten her own "familiar" treatment of the dead
man--the thousand nameless wiles and witcheries and tricks of her
trade, by which she had beguiled his soul and ruined his honor?

"I am glad you are satisfied with my action in that affair," I said,
coldly and steadily. "I myself regret the death of the unfortunate
young man, and shall continue to do so. My nature, unhappily, is an
oversensitive one, and is apt to be affected by trifles. But now, mia
bella, farewell until to-morrow--happy to-morrow!--when I shall call
you mine indeed!"

A warm flush tinted her cheeks; she came to me where I stood, and
leaned against me.

"Shall I not see you again till we meet in the church?" she inquired,
with a becoming bashfulness.

"No. I will leave you this last day of your brief widowhood alone. It
is not well that I should obtrude myself upon your thoughts or prayers.
Stay!" and I caught her hand which toyed with the flower in my
buttonhole. "I see you still wear your former wedding-ring. May I take
it off?"

"Certainly." And she smiled while I deftly drew off the plain gold
circlet I had placed there nearly four years since.

"Will you let me keep it?"

"If you like. _I_ would rather not see it again."

"You shall not," I answered, as I slipped it into my pocket. "It will
be replaced by a new one to-morrow--one that I hope may be the symbol
of more joy to you than this has been."

And as her eyes turned to my face in all their melting, perfidious
languor, I conquered my hatred of her by a strong effort, and stooped
and kissed her. Had I yielded to my real impulses, I would have crushed
her cruelly in my arms, and bruised her delicate flesh with the brutal
ferocity of caresses born of bitterest loathing, not love. But no sign
of my aversion escaped me--all she saw was her elderly looking admirer,
with his calmly courteous demeanor, chill smile, and almost parental
tenderness; and she judged him merely as an influential gentleman of
good position and unlimited income, who was about to make her one of
the most envied women in all Italy.

The fugitive resemblance she traced in me to her "dead" husband was
certainly attributed by her to a purely accidental likeness common to
many persons in this world, where every man, they say, has his double,
and for that matter every woman also. Who does not remember the
touching surprise of Heinrich Heine when, on visiting the
picture-gallery of the Palazzo Durazzo in Genoa, he was brought face to
face with the portrait, as he thought, of a dead woman he had
loved--"Maria la morte." It mattered not to him that the picture was
very old, that it had been painted by Giorgio Barbarelli centuries
before his "Maria" could have lived; he simply declares: "Il est
vraiment d une ressemblance admirable, ressemblant jusqu'au silence de
la mort!"

Such likenesses are common enough, and my wife, though my resemblance
to myself (!) troubled her a little, was very far from imagining the
real truth of the matter, as indeed how should she? What woman,
believing and knowing, as far as anything can be known, her husband to
be dead and fast buried, is likely to accept even the idea of his
possible escape from the tomb! Not one!--else the disconsolate widows
would indeed have reason to be more inconsolable than they appear!

When I left her that morning I found Andrea Luziani waiting for me at
my hotel. He was seated in the outer entrance hall; I bade him follow
me into my private salon. He did so. Abashed at the magnificence of the
apartment, he paused at the doorway, and stood, red cap in hand,
hesitating, though with an amiable smile on his sunburned merry
countenance.

"Come in, amico," I said, with an inviting gesture, "and sit down. All
this tawdry show of velvet and gilding must seem common to your eyes,
that have rested so long on the sparkling pomp of the foaming waves,
the glorious blue curtain of the sky, and the sheeny white of the sails
of the 'Laura' gleaming in the gold of the sun. Would I could live such
a life as yours, Andrea!--there is nothing better under the width of
heaven."

The poetical temperament of the Sicilian was caught and fired by my
words. He at once forgot the splendid appurtenances of wealth and the
costly luxuries that surrounded him; he advanced without embarrassment,
and seated himself on a velvet and gold chair with as much ease as
though it were a coil of rough rope on board the "Laura."

"You say truly, eccellenza," he said, with a gleam of his white teeth
through his jet-black mustache, while his warm southern eyes flashed
fire, "there is nothing sweeter than the life of the marinaro. And
truly there are many who say to me, 'Ah, ah! Andrea! buon amico, the
time comes when you will wed, and the home where the wife and children
sit will seem a better thing to you than the caprice of the wind and
waves.' But I--see you!--I know otherwise. The woman I wed must love
the sea; she must have the fearless eyes that can look God's storms in
the face--her tender words must ring out all the more clearly for the
sound of the bubbling waves leaping against the 'Laura' when the wind
is high! And as for our children," he paused and laughed, "per la
Santissima Madonna! if the salt and iron of the ocean be not in their
blood, they will be no children of mine!"

I smiled at his enthusiasm, and pouring out some choice Montepulciano,
bade him taste it. He did so with a keen appreciation of its flavor,
such as many a so-called connoisseur of wines does not possess.

"To your health, eccellenza!" he said, "and may you long enjoy your
life!"

I thanked him; but in my heart I was far from echoing the kindly wish.

"And are you going to fulfill the prophecy of your friends, Andrea?" I
asked. "Are you about to marry?"

He set down his glass only partly emptied, and smiled with an air of
mystery.

"Ebbene! chi sa!" he replied, with a gay little shrug of his shoulders,
yet with a sudden tenderness in his keen eyes that did not escape me.
"There is a maiden--my mother loves her well--she is little and fair as
Carmelo Neri's Teresa--so high," and he laid his brown hand lightly on
his breast, "her head touches just here," and he laughed. "She looks as
frail as a lily, but she is hardy as a sea-gull, and no one loves the
wild waves more than she. Perhaps, in the month of the Madonna, when
the white lilies bloom--perhaps!--one can never tell--the old song may
be sung for us--

  "Chi sa fervente amar
   Solo e felice!"

And humming the tune of the well-known love-ditty under his breath, he
raised his glass of wine to his lips and drained it off with a relish,
while his honest face beamed with gayety and pleasure. Always the same
story, I thought, moodily. Love, the tempter--Love, the
destroyer--Love, the curse! Was there NO escape possible from this
bewildering snare that thus caught and slew the souls of men?



CHAPTER XXXIII.


He soon roused himself from his pleasant reverie, and drawing his chair
closer to mine, assumed an air of mystery.

"And for your friend who is in trouble," he said, in a confidential
tone, then paused and looked at me as though waiting permission to
proceed.

I nodded.

"Go on, amico. What have you arranged?"

"Everything!" he announced, with an air of triumph. "All is smooth
sailing. At six o'clock on Friday morning the 'Rondinella,' that is the
brig I told you of, eccellenza, will weigh anchor for Civita Vecchia.
Her captain, old Antonio Bardi, will wait ten minutes or even a quarter
of an hour if necessary for the--the--"

"Passenger," I supplemented. "Very amiable of him, but he will not need
to delay his departure for a single instant beyond the appointed hour.
Is he satisfied with the passage money?"

"Satisfied!" and Andrea swore a good-natured oath and laughed aloud.
"By San Pietro! if he were not, he would deserve to drown like a dog on
the voyage! Though truly, it is always difficult to please him, he
being old and cross and crusty. Yes; he is one of those men who have
seen so much of life that they are tired of it. Believe it! even the
stormiest sea is a tame fish-pond to old Bardi. But he is satisfied
this time, eccellenza, and his tongue and eyes are so tied up that I
should not wonder if your friend found him to be both dumb and blind
when he steps on board."

"That is well," I said, smiling. "I owe you many thanks, Andrea. And
yet there is one more favor I would ask of you."

He saluted me with a light yet graceful gesture.

"Eccellenza, anything I can do--command me."

"It is a mere trifle," I returned. "It is merely to take a small valise
belonging to my friend, and to place it on board the 'Rondmella' under
the care of the captain. Will you do this?"

"Most willingly. I will take it now if it so please you."

"That is what I desire. Wait here and I will bring it to you."

And leaving him for a minute or two, I went into my bedroom and took
from a cupboard I always kept locked a common rough leather bag, which
I had secretly packed myself, unknown to Vincenzo, with such things as
I judged to be useful and necessary. Chief among them was a bulky roll
of bank-notes. These amounted to nearly the whole of the remainder of
the money I had placed in the bank at Palermo. I had withdrawn it by
gradual degrees, leaving behind only a couple of thousand francs, for
which I had no special need. I locked and strapped the valise; there
was no name on it and it was scarcely any weight to carry. I took it to
Andrea, who swung it easily in his right hand and said, smilingly:

"Your friend is not wealthy, eccellenza, if this is all his luggage!"

"You are right," I answered, with a slight sigh; "he is truly very
poor--beggared of everything that should be his through the treachery
of those whom he has benefited." I paused; Andrea was listening
sympathetically. "That is why I have paid his passage-money, and have
done my best to aid him."

"Ah! you have the good heart, eccellenza," murmured the Sicilian,
thoughtfully. "Would there were more like you! Often when fortune gives
a kick to a man, nothing will suit but that all who see him must kick
him also. And thus the povero diavolo dies of so many kicks, often!
This friend of yours is young, senza dubbio?"

"Yes, quite young, not yet thirty."

"It is as if you were a father to him!" exclaimed Andrea,
enthusiastically. "I hope he may be truly grateful to you, eccellenza."

"I hope so too," I said, unable to resist a smile. "And now, amico,
take this," and I pressed a small sealed packet into his hand. "It is
for yourself. Do not open it till you are at home with the mother you
love so well, and the little maiden you spoke of by your side. If its
contents please you, as I believe they will, think that _I_ am also
rendered happier by your happiness."

His dark eyes sparkled with gratitude as I spoke, and setting the
valise he held down on the ground, he stretched out his hand half
timidly, half frankly. I shook it warmly and bade him farewell.

"Per Bacco!" he said, with a sort of shamefaced eagerness, "the very
devil must have caught my tongue in his fingers! There is something I
ought to say to you, eccellenza, but for my life I cannot find the
right words. I must thank you better when I see you next."

"Yes," I answered, dreamily and somewhat wearily, "when you see me
next, Andrea, you shall thank me if you will; but believe me, I need no
thanks."

And thus we parted, never to meet again--he to the strong glad life
that is born of the wind and sea, and I to--. But let me not
anticipate. Step by step through the labyrinths of memory let me go
over the old ground watered with blood and tears, not missing one sharp
stone of detail on the drear pathway leading to the bitter end.

That same evening I had an interview with Vincenzo. He was melancholy
and taciturn--a mood which was the result of an announcement I had
previously made to him--namely, that his services would not be required
during my wedding-trip. He had hoped to accompany me and to occupy the
position of courier, valet, major-domo, and generally confidential
attendant--a hope which had partially soothed the vexation he had
evidently felt at the notion of my marrying at all.

His plans were now frustrated, and if ever the good-natured fellow
could be ill-tempered, he was assuredly so on this occasion. He stood
before me with his usual respectful air, but he avoided my glance, and
kept his eyes studiously fixed on the pattern of the carpet. I
addressed him with an air of gayety.

"Ebbene, Vincenzo! Joy comes at last, you see, even to me! To-morrow I
shall wed the Countess Romani--the loveliest and perhaps the richest
woman in Naples!"

"I know it, eccellenza."

This with the same obstinately fixed countenance and downward look.

"You are not very pleased, I think, at the prospect of my happiness?" I
asked, banteringly.

He glanced up for an instant, then as quickly down again.

"If one could be sure that the illustrissimo eccellenza was indeed
happy, that would be a good thing," he answered, dubiously.

"And are you not sure?"

He paused, then replied firmly:

"No; the eccellenza does not look happy. No, no, davvero! He has the
air of being sorrowful and ill, both together."

I shrugged my shoulders indifferently.

"You mistake me, Vincenzo. I am well--very well--and happy! Gran Dio!
who could be happier? But what of my health or happiness?--they are
nothing to me, and should be less to you. Listen; I have something I
wish you to do for me."

He gave me a sidelong and half-expectant glance. I went on:

"To-morrow evening I want you to go to Avellino."

He was utterly astonished.

"To Avellino!" he murmured under his breath, "to Avellino!"

"Yes, to Avellino," I repeated, somewhat impatiently. "Is there
anything so surprising in that? You will take a letter from me to the
Signora Monti. Look you, Vincenzo, you have been faithful and obedient
so far, I expect implicit fidelity and obedience still. You will not be
needed here to-morrow after the marriage ball has once begun; you can
take the nine o'clock train to Avellino, and--understand me--you will
remain there till you receive further news from me. You will not have
to wait long, and in the mean time," here I smiled, "you can make love
to Lilla."

Vincenzo did not return the smile.

"But--but," he stammered, sorely perplexed--"if I go to Avellino I
cannot wait upon the eccellenza. There is the portmanteau to pack--and
who will see to the luggage when you leave on Friday morning for Rome?
And--and--I had thought to see you to the station--" He stopped, his
vexation was too great to allow him to proceed.

I laughed gently.

"How many more trifles can you think of, my friend, in opposition to my
wishes? As for the portmanteau, you can pack it this very day if you so
please--then it will be in readiness. The rest of your duties can for
once be performed by others. It is not only important, but imperative
that you should go to Avellino on my errand. I want you to take this
with you," and I tapped a small square iron box, heavily made and
strongly padlocked, which stood an the table near me.

He glanced at the box, but still hesitated, and the gloom on his
countenance deepened. I grew a little annoyed.

"What is the matter with you?" I said at last with some sternness. "You
have something on your mind--speak out!"

The fear of my wrath startled him. He looked up with a bewildered pain
in his eyes, and spoke, his mellow Tuscan voice vibrating with his own
eloquent entreaty.

"Eccellenza!" he exclaimed, eagerly, "you must forgive me--yes, forgive
your poor servant who seems too bold, and who yet is true to you--yes,
indeed, so true!--and who would go with you to death if there were
need! I am not blind, I can see your sufferings, for you do suffer,
'lustrissimo, though you hide it well. Often have I watched you when
you have not known it. I feel that you have what we call a wound in the
heart, bleeding, bleeding always. Such a thing means death often, as
much as a straight shot in battle. Let me watch over you, eccellenza;
let me stay with you! I have learned to love you! Ah, mio signor," and
he drew nearer and caught my hand timidly, "you do not know--how should
you?--the look that is in your face sometimes, the look of one who is
stunned by a hard blow. I have said to myself 'That look will kill me
if I see it often.' And your love for this great lady, whom you will
wed to-morrow, has not lightened your soul as love should lighten it.
No! you are even sadder than before, and the look I speak of comes ever
again and again. Yes, I have watched you, and lately I have seen you
writing, writing far into the night, when you should have slept. Ah,
signor! you are angry, and I know I should not have spoken; but tell
me, how can I look at Lilla and be happy when I feel that you are alone
and sad?"

I stopped the flood of his eloquence by a mute gesture and withdrew my
hand from his clasp.

"I am not angry," I said, with quiet steadiness, and yet with something
of coldness, though my whole nature, always highly sensitive, was
deeply stirred by the rapid, unstudied expressions of affection that
melted so warmly from his lips in the liquid music of the mellow Tuscan
tongue. "No, I am not angry, but I am sorry to have been the object of
so much solicitude on your part. Your pity is misplaced, Vincenzo, it
is indeed! Pity an emperor clad in purples and seated on a throne of
pure gold, but do not pity ME! I tell you that, to-morrow, yes,
to-morrow, I shall obtain all that I have ever sought--my greatest
desire will be fulfilled. Believe it. No man has ever been so
thoroughly satiated with--satisfaction--as I shall be!"

Then seeing him look still sad and incredulous, I clapped my hand on
his shoulder and smiled.

"Come, come, amico, wear a merrier face for my bridal day, or you will
not deserve to wed Lilla. I thank you from my heart," and I spoke more
gravely, "for your well meant care and kindness, but I assure you there
is nothing wrong with me. I am well--perfectly well--and happy. It is
understood that you go to Avellino to-morrow evening?"

Vincenzo sighed, but was passive.

"It must be as the eccellenza pleases," he murmured, resignedly.

"That is well," I answered, good-humoredly; "and as you know my
pleasure, take care that nothing interferes with your departure.
And--one word more--you must cease to watch me. Plainly speaking, I do
not choose to be under your surveillance. Nay--I am not offended, far
from it, fidelity and devotion are excellent virtues, but in the
present case I prefer obedience--strict, implicit obedience. Whatever I
may do, whether I sleep or wake, walk or sit still--attend to YOUR
duties and pay no heed to MY actions. So will you best serve me--you
understand?"

"Si, signor!" and the poor fellow sighed again, and reddened with his
own inward confusion. "You will pardon me, eccellenza, for my freedom
of speech? I feel I have done wrong--"

"I pardon you for what in this world is never pardoned--excess of
love," I answered, gently. "Knowing you love me, I ask you to obey me
in my present wishes, and thus we shall always be friends."

His face brightened at these last words, and his thoughts turned in a
new direction. He glanced at the iron box I had before pointed out to
him.

"That is to go to Avellino, eccellenza?" he asked, with more alacrity
than he had yet shown.

"Yes," I answered. "You will place it in the hands of the good Signora
Monti, for whom I have a great respect. She will take care of it
till--I return."

"Your commands shall be obeyed, signor," he said, rapidly, as though
eager to atone for his past hesitation. "After all," and he smiled, "it
will be pleasant to see Lilla; she will be interested, too, to hear the
account of the eccellenza's marriage."

And somewhat consoled by the prospect of the entertainment his
unlooked-for visit would give to the charming little maiden of his
choice, he left me, and shortly afterward I heard him humming a popular
love-song softly under his breath, while he busied himself in packing
my portmanteau for the honeymoon trip--a portmanteau destined never to
be used or opened by its owner.

That night, contrary to my usual habit, I lingered long over my dinner;
at its close I poured out a full glass of fine Lacrima Cristi, and
secretly mixing with it a dose of a tasteless but powerful opiate, I
called my valet and bade him drink it and wish me joy. He did so
readily, draining the contents to the last drop. It was a tempestuous
night; there was a high wind, broken through by heavy sweeping gusts of
rain. Vincenzo cleared the dinner-table, yawning visibly as he did so,
then taking my out-door paletot on his arm, he went to his bedroom, a
small one adjoining mine, for the purpose of brushing it, according to
his customary method. I opened a book, and pretending to be absorbed in
its contents, I waited patiently for about half an hour.

At the expiration of that time I stole softly to his door and looked
in. It was as I had expected; overcome by the sudden and heavy action
of the opiate, he had thrown himself on his bed, and was slumbering
profoundly, the unbrushed overcoat by his side. Poor fellow! I smiled
as I watched him; the faithful dog was chained, and could not follow my
steps for that night at least.

I left him thus, and wrapping myself in a thick Almaviva that muffled
me almost to the eyes, I hurried out, fortunately meeting no one on my
way--out into the storm and darkness, toward the Campo Santo, the abode
of the all-wise though speechless dead. I had work to do there--work
that must be done. I knew that if I had not taken the precaution of
drugging my too devoted servitor, he might, despite his protestations,
have been tempted to track me whither I went. As it was, I felt myself
safe, for four hours must pass, I knew, before Vincenzo could awake
from his lethargy. And I was absent for some time.

Though I performed my task as quickly as might be, it took me longer
than I thought, and filled me with more loathing and reluctance than I
had deemed possible. It was a grewsome, ghastly piece of work--a work
of preparation--and when I had finished it entirely to my satisfaction,
I felt as though the bony fingers of death itself had been plunged into
my very marrow. I shivered with cold, my limbs would scarce bear me
upright, and my teeth chattered as though I were seized by strong ague.
But the fixity of my purpose strengthened me till all was done--till
the stage was set for the last scene of the tragedy. Or comedy? What
you will! I know that in the world nowadays you make a husband's
dishonor more of a whispered jest than anything else--you and your
heavy machinery of the law. But to me--I am so strangely
constituted--dishonor is a bitterer evil than death. If all those who
are deceived and betrayed felt thus, then justice would need to become
more just. It is fortunate--for the lawyers--that we are not all
honorable men!

When I returned from my dreary walk in the driving storm I found
Vincenzo still fast asleep. I was glad of this, for had he seen me in
the plight I was, he would have had good reason to be alarmed
concerning both my physical and mental condition. Perceiving myself in
the glass, I recoiled as from an image of horror. I saw a man with
haunted, hungry eyes gleaming out from under a mass of disordered white
hair, his pale, haggard face set and stern as the face of a merciless
inquisitor of old Spain, his dark cloak dripping with glittering
raindrops, his hands and nails stained as though he had dug them into
the black earth, his boots heavy with mire and clay, his whole aspect
that of one who had been engaged in some abhorrent deed, too repulsive
to be named. I stared at my own reflection thus and shuddered; then I
laughed softly with a sort of fierce enjoyment. Quickly I threw off all
my soiled habiliments, and locked them out of sight, and arraying
myself in dressing-gown and slippers, I glanced at the time. It was
half-past one--already the morning of my bridal. I had been absent
three hours and a half. I went into my salon and remained there
writing. A few minutes after two o'clock had struck the door opened
noiselessly, and Vincenzo, looking still very sleepy, appeared with an
expression of inquiring anxiety. He smiled drowsily, and seemed
relieved to see me sitting quietly in my accustomed place at the
writing-table. I surveyed him with an air of affected surprise.

"Ebbene, Vincenzo! What has become of you all this while?"

"Eccellenza," he stammered, "it was the Lacrima; I am not used to wine!
I have been asleep."

I laughed, pretended to stifle a yawn on my own account, and rose from
my easy-chair.

"Veramente," I said, lightly, "so have I, very nearly! And if I would
appear as a gay bridegroom, it is time I went to bed. Buona notte."

"Buona notte, signor."

And we severally retired to rest, he satisfied that I had been in my
own room all the evening, and I, thinking with a savage joy at my heart
of what I had prepared out there in the darkness, with no witnesses of
my work save the whirling wind and rain.



CHAPTER XXXIV.


My marriage morning dawned bright and clear, though the high wind of
the past night still prevailed and sent the white clouds scudding
rapidly, like ships running a race, across the blue fairness of the
sky. The air was strong, fresh, and exhilarating, and the crowds that
swarmed into the Piazza del Popolo, and the Toledo, eager to begin the
riot and fun of Giovedi Grasso, were one and all in the highest good
humor. As the hours advanced, many little knots of people hurried
toward the cathedral, anxious, if possible, to secure places in or near
the Chapel of San Gennaro, in order to see to advantage the brilliant
costumes of the few distinguished persons who had been invited to
witness my wedding. The ceremony was fixed to take place at eleven, and
at a little before half past ten I entered my carriage, in company with
the Duke di Marina as best man, and drove to the scene of action. Clad
in garments of admirable cut and fit, with well-brushed hair and beard,
and wearing a demeanor of skillfully mingled gravity and gayety, I bore
but little resemblance to the haggard, ferocious creature who had faced
me in the mirror a few hours previously.

A strange and secret mirth too possessed me, a sort of half-frenzied
merriment that threatened every now and then to break through the mask
of dignified composure it was necessary for me to wear. There were
moments when I could have laughed, shrieked, and sung with the fury of
a drunken madman. As it was, I talked incessantly; my conversation was
flavored with bitter wit and pungent sarcasm, and once or twice my
friend the duke surveyed me with an air of wondering inquiry, as though
he thought my manner forced or unnatural. My coachman was compelled to
drive rather slowly, owing to the pressing throngs that swarmed at
every corner and through every thoroughfare, while the yells of the
masqueraders, the gambols of street clowns, the firing of toy guns, and
the sharp explosion of colored bladders, that were swung to and fro and
tossed in the air by the merry populace, startled my spirited horses
frequently, and caused them to leap and prance to a somewhat dangerous
extent, thus attracting more than the customary attention to my
equipage. As it drew up at last at the door of the chapel, I was
surprised to see what a number of spectators had collected there. There
was a positive crowd of loungers, beggars, children, and middle-class
persons of all sorts, who beheld my arrival with the utmost interest
and excitement.

In accordance with my instructions a rich crimson carpet had been laid
down from the very edge of the pavement right into the church as far as
the altar; a silken awning had also been erected, under which bloomed a
miniature avenue of palms and tropical flowers. All eyes were turned
upon me curiously as I stepped from my carriage and entered the chapel,
side by side with the duke, and murmurs of my vast wealth and
generosity were audibly whispered as I passed along. One old crone,
hideously ugly, but with large, dark piercing eyes, the fading lamps of
a lost beauty, chuckled and mumbled as she craned her skinny throat
forward to observe me more closely. "Ay, ay! The saints know he need be
rich and generous--pover'uomo to fill HER mouth. A little red cruel
mouth always open, that swallows money like macaroni, and laughs at the
suffering poor! Ah! that is bad, bad! He need be rich to satisfy HER!"

The Duke di Marina caught these words and glanced quickly at me, but I
affected not to have heard. Inside the chapel there were a great number
of people, but my own invited guests, not numbering more than twenty or
thirty, were seated in the space apportioned to them near the altar,
which was divided from the mere sight-seers by means of a silken rope
that crossed the aisle. I exchanged greetings with most of these
persons, and in return received their congratulations; then I walked
with a firm deliberate step up to the high altar and there waited. The
magnificent paintings on the wall round me seemed endowed with
mysterious life--the grand heads of saints and martyrs were turned upon
me as though they demanded--"MUST thou do this thing? Hast thou no
forgiveness?"

And ever my stern answer, "Nay; if hereafter I am tortured in eternal
flame for all ages, yet now--now while I live, I will be avenged!"

A bleeding Christ suspended on His cross gazed at me reproachfully with
long-enduring eyes of dreadful anguish--eyes that seemed to say, "Oh,
erring man, that tormentest thyself with passing passions, shall not
thine own end approach speedily?--and what comfort wilt thou have in
thy last hour?"

And inwardly I answered, "None! No shred of consolation can ever again
be mine--no joy, save fulfilled revenge! And this I will possess though
the heavens should crack and the earth split asunder! For once a
woman's treachery shall meet with punishment--for once such strange
uncommon justice shall be done!"

And my spirit wrapped itself again in somber meditative silence. The
sunlight fell gloriously through the stained windows--blue, gold,
crimson, and violet shafts of dazzling radiance glittered in lustrous
flickering patterns on the snowy whiteness of the marble altar, and
slowly, softly, majestically, as though an angel stepped forward, the
sound of music stole on the incense-laden air. The unseen organist
played a sublime voluntary of Palestrina's, and the round harmonious
notes came falling gently on one another like drops from a fountain
trickling on flowers.

I thought of my last wedding-day, when I had stood in this very place,
full of hope, intoxicated with love and joy, when Guido Ferrari had
been by my side, and had drunk in for the first time the poisoned
draught of temptation from the loveliness of my wife's face and form;
when I, poor fool! would us soon have thought that God could lie, as
that either of these whom I adored could play me false. I drew the
wedding-ring from my pocket and looked at it--it was sparklingly bright
and appeared new. Yet it was old--it was the very same ring I had drawn
off my wife's finger the day before; it had only been burnished afresh
by a skilled jeweler, and showed no more marks of wear than if it had
been bought that morning.

The great bell of the cathedral boomed out eleven, and as the last
stroke swung from the tower, the chapel doors were flung more widely
open: then came the gentle rustle of trailing robes, and turning, I
beheld my wife. She approached, leaning lightly on the arm of the old
Chevalier Mancini, who, true to his creeds of gallantry, had accepted
with alacrity the post of paternal protector to the bride on this
occasion; and I could not well wonder at the universal admiration that
broke in suppressed murmurs from all assembled, as this most fair
masterpiece of the devil's creation paced slowly and gracefully up the
aisle. She wore a dress of clinging white velvet made with the greatest
simplicity--a lace veil, priceless in value and fine as gossamer,
draped her from head to foot--the jewels I had given her flashed about
her like scintillating points of light, in her hair, at her waist, on
her breast and uncovered arms.

Being as she deemed herself, a widow, she had no bride-maids; her train
was held up by a handsome boy clad in the purple and gold costume of a
sixteenth century page--he was the youngest son of the Duke di Marina.
Two tiny girls of five and six years of age went before, strewing white
roses and lilies, and stepping daintily backward as though in
attendance on a queen; they looked like two fairies who had slipped out
of a midnight dream, in their little loose gowns of gold-colored plush,
with wreaths of meadow daffodils on their tumbled curly hair. They had
been well trained by Nina herself, for on arrival at the altar they
stood demurely, one on each side of her, the pretty page occupying his
place behind, and still holding up the end of the velvet train with a
charming air of hauteur and self-complacency.

The whole cortege was a picture in its way, as Nina had meant it to be:
she was fond of artistic effects. She smiled languishingly upon me as
she reached the altar, and sunk on her knees beside me in prayer. The
music swelled forth with redoubled grandeur, the priests and acolytes
appeared, the marriage service commenced. As I placed the ring on the
book I glanced furtively at the bride; her fair head was bent
demurely--she seemed absorbed in holy meditations. The priest having
performed the ceremony of sprinkling it with holy water, I took it
back, and set it for the second time on my wife's soft white little
hand--set it in accordance with the Catholic ritual, first on the
thumb, then on the second finger, then on the third, and lastly on the
fourth, where I left it in its old place, wondering as I did so, and
murmured, "In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen!" whether
she recognized it as the one she had worn so long! But it was evident
she did not; her calm was unbroken by even so much as a start or
tremor; she had the self-possession of a perfectly satisfied,
beautiful, vain, and utterly heartless woman.

The actual ceremony of marriage was soon over; then followed the Mass,
in which we, the newly-wedded pair, were compelled, in submission to
the rule of the Church, to receive the Sacrament. I shuddered as the
venerable priest gave me the Sacred Host. What had I to do with the
inward purity and peace this memento of Christ is supposed to leave in
our souls? Methought the Crucified Image in the chapel regarded me
afresh with those pained eyes, and said, "Even so dost thou seal thine
own damnation!" Yet SHE, the true murderess, the arch liar, received
the Sacrament with the face of a rapt angel--the very priest himself
seemed touched by those upraised, candid, glorious eyes, the sweet lips
so reverently parted, the absolute, reliable peace that rested on that
white brow, like an aureole round the head of a saint!

"If _I_ am damned, then is SHE thrice damned!" I said to myself,
recklessly. "I dare say hell is wide enough for us to live apart when
we get there."

Thus I consoled my conscience, and turned resolutely away from the
painted appealing faces on the wall--the faces that in their various
expressions of sorrow, resignation, pain, and death seemed now to be
all pervaded by another look, that of astonishment--astonishment, so I
fancied, that such a man as I, and such a woman as she, should be found
in the width of the whole world, and should be permitted to kneel at
God's altar without being struck dead for their blasphemy!

Ah, good saints, well may you be astonished! Had you lived in our day
you must have endured worse martyrdoms than the boiling oil or the
wrenching rack! What you suffered was the mere physical pain of torn
muscles and scorching flesh, pain that at its utmost could not last
long; but your souls were clothed with majesty and power, and were
glorious in the light of love, faith, hope, and charity with all men.
WE have reversed the position YOU occupied! We have partly learned, and
are still learning, how to take care of our dearly beloved bodies, how
to nourish and clothe them and guard them from cold and disease; but
our souls, good saints, the souls that with you were everything--THESE
we smirch, burn, and rack, torture and destroy--these we stamp upon
till we crush out God's image therefrom--these we spit and jeer at,
crucify and drown! THERE is the difference between you, the strong and
wise of a fruitful olden time, and we, the miserable, puny weaklings of
a sterile modern age.

Had you, sweet St. Dorothy, or fair child-saint Agnes, lived in this
day, you would have felt something sharper than the executioner's
sword; for being pure, you would have been dubbed the worst of
women--being prayerful, you would have been called hypocrites--being
faithful, you would have been suspected of all vileness--being loving,
you would have been mocked at more bitterly than the soldiers of
Pontius Pilate mocked Christ; but you would have been FREE--free to
indulge your own opinions, for ours is the age of liberty. Yet how much
better for you to have died than have lived till now!

Absorbed in strange, half-morose, half-speculative fancies, I scarcely
heard the close of the solemn service. I was roused by a delicate touch
from my wife, and I woke, as it were, with a start, to hear the
sonorous, crashing chords of the wedding-march in "Lohengrin"
thundering through the air. All was over: my wife was MINE indeed--mine
most thoroughly--mine by the exceptionally close-tied knot of a double
marriage--mine to do as I would with "TILL DEATH SHOULD US PART." How
long, I gravely mused, how long before death could come to do us this
great service? And straightway I began counting, counting certain
spaces of time that must elapse before--I was still absorbed in this
mental arithmetic, even while I mechanically offered my arm to my wife
as we entered the vestry to sign our names in the marriage register. So
occupied was I in my calculations that I nearly caught myself murmuring
certain numbers aloud. I checked this, and recalling my thoughts by a
strong effort, I strove to appear interested and delighted, as I walked
down the aisle with my beautiful bride, through the ranks of admiring
and eager spectators.

On reaching the outer doors of the chapel several flower-girls emptied
their full and fragrant baskets at our feet; and in return, I bade one
of my servants distribute a bag of coins I had brought for the purpose,
knowing from former experience that it would be needed. To tread across
such a heap of flowers required some care, many of the blossoms
clinging to Nina's velvet train--we therefore moved forward slowly.

Just as we had almost reached the carriage, a young girl, with large
laughing eyes set like flashing jewels in her soft oval face, threw
down in my path a cluster of red roses. A sudden fury of impotent
passion possessed me, and I crushed my heel instantly and savagely upon
the crimson blossoms, stamping upon them again and again so violently
that my wife raised her delicate eyebrows in amazement, and the
pressing people who stood round us, shrugged their shoulders, and gazed
at one another with looks of utter bewilderment--while the girl who had
thrown them shrunk back in terror, her face paling as she murmured,
"Santissima Madonna! mi fa paura!" I bit my lip with vexation, inwardly
cursing the weakness of my own behavior. I laughed lightly in answer to
Nina's unspoken, half-alarmed inquiry.

"It is nothing--a mere fancy of mine. I hate red roses! They look to me
like human blood in flower!"

She shuddered slightly.

"What a horrible idea! How can you think of such a thing?"

I made no response, but assisted her into the carriage with elaborate
care and courtesy; then entering it myself, we drove together back to
the hotel, where the wedding breakfast awaited us.

This is always a feast of general uneasiness and embarrassment
everywhere, even in the sunny, pleasure-loving south; every one is glad
when it is over, and when the flowery, unmeaning speeches and
exaggerated compliments are brought to a fitting and happy conclusion.
Among my assembled guests, all of whom belonged to the best and most
distinguished families in Naples, there was a pervading atmosphere of
undoubted chilliness: the women were dull, being rendered jealous of
the bride's beauty and the richness of her white velvets and jewels;
the men were constrained, and could scarcely force themselves into even
the appearance of cordiality--they evidently thought that, with such
wealth as mine, I would have done much better to remain a bachelor. In
truth, Italians, and especially Neapolitans, are by no means
enthusiastic concerning the supposititious joys of marriage. They are
apt to shake their heads, and to look upon it as a misfortune rather
than a blessing. "L'altare e la tomba dell' amore," is a very common
saying with us, and very commonly believed.

It was a relief to us all when we rose from the splendidly appointed
table, and separated for a few hours. We were to meet again at the
ball, which was fixed to commence at nine o'clock in the evening. The
cream of the event was to be tasted THEN--the final toasting of the
bride was to take place THEN--THEN there would be music, mirth and
dancing, and all the splendor of almost royal revelry. I escorted my
wife with formal courtesy to a splendid apartment which had been
prepared for her, for she had, as she told me, many things to do--as,
for instance, to take off her bridal robes, to study every detail of
her wondrous ball costume for the night, and to superintend her maid in
the packing of her trunks for the next day's journey. THE NEXT DAY! I
smiled grimly--I wondered how she would enjoy her trip! Then I kissed
her hand with the most profound respect and left her to repose--to
refresh and prepare herself for the brilliant festivity of the evening.

Our marriage customs are not as coarse as those of some countries; a
bridegroom in Italy thinks it scarcely decent to persecute his bride
with either his presence or his caresses as soon as the Church has made
her his. On the contrary, if ardent, he restrains his ardor--he
forbears to intrude, he strives to keep up the illusion, the
rose-colored light, or rather mist, of love as long as possible, and he
has a wise, instinctive dread of becoming overfamiliar; well knowing
that nothing kills romance so swiftly and surely as the bare blunt
prose of close and constant proximity. And I, like other gentlemen of
my rank and class, gave my twice-wedded wife her liberty--the last
hours of liberty she would ever know. I left her to busy herself with
the trifles she best loved--trifles of dress and personal adornment,
for which many women barter away their soul's peace and honor, and
divest themselves of the last shred of right and honest principle
merely to outshine others of their own sex, and sow broadcast
heart-burnings, petty envies, mean hatreds and contemptible spites,
where, if they did but choose, there might be a widely different
harvest.

It is easy to understand the feelings of Marie Stuart when she arrayed
herself in her best garments for her execution: it was simply the
heroism of supreme vanity, the desire to fascinate if possible the very
headsman. One can understand any beautiful woman being as brave as she.
Harder than death itself would it have seemed to her had she been
compelled to appear on the scaffold looking hideous. She was resolved
to make the most of her charms so long as life lasted. I thought of
that sweet-lipped, luscious-smiling queen as I parted from my wife for
a few brief hours: royal and deeply injured lady though she was, she
merited her fate, for she was treacherous--there can be no doubt of
that. Yet most people reading her her story pity her--I know not why.
It is strange that so much of the world's sympathy is wasted on false
women!

I strolled into one of the broad loggie of the hotel, from whence I
could see a portion of the Piazza del Popolo, and lighting a cigar, I
leisurely watched the frolics of the crowd. The customary fooling
proper to the day was going on, and no detail of it seemed to pall on
the good-natured, easily amused folks who must have seen it all so
often before. Much laughter was being excited by the remarks of a
vender of quack medicines, who was talking with extreme volubility to a
number of gayly dressed girls and fishermen. I could not distinguish
his words, but I judged he was selling the "elixir of love," from his
absurd amatory gestures--an elixir compounded, no doubt, of a little
harmless eau sucre.

Flags tossed on the breeze, trumpets brayed, drums beat; improvisatores
twanged their guitars and mandolins loudly to attract attention, and
failing in their efforts, swore at each other with the utmost joviality
and heartiness; flower-girls and lemonade-sellers made the air ring
with their conflicting cries: now and then a shower of chalky confetti
flew out from adjacent windows, dusting with white powder the coats of
the passers-by; clusters of flowers tied with favors of gay-colored
ribbon were lavishly flung at the feet of bright-eyed peasant girls,
who rejected or accepted them at pleasure, with light words of badinage
or playful repartee; clowns danced and tumbled, dogs barked, church
bells clanged, and through all the waving width of color and movement
crept the miserable, shrinking forms of diseased and loathly beggars
whining for a soldo, and clad in rags that barely covered their
halting, withered limbs.

It was a scene to bewilder the brain and dazzle the eyes, and I was
just turning away from it out of sheer fatigue, when a sudden cessation
of movement in the swaying, whirling crowd, and a slight hush, caused
me to look out once more. I perceived the cause of the momentary
stillness--a funeral cortege appeared, moving at a slow and solemn
pace; as it passed across the square, heads were uncovered, and women
crossed themselves devoutly. Like a black shadowy snake it coiled
through the mass of shifting color and brilliance--another moment, and
it was gone. The depressing effect of its appearance was soon
effaced--the merry crowds resumed their thousand and one freaks of
folly, their shrieking, laughing and dancing, and all was as before.
Why not?

The dead are soon forgotten; none knew that better than I! Leaning my
arms lazily on the edge of the balcony, I finished smoking my cigar.
That glimpse of death in the midst of life had filled me with a certain
satisfaction. Strangely enough, my thoughts began to busy themselves
with the old modes of torture that used to be legal, and that, after
all, were not so unjust when practiced upon persons professedly vile.
For instance, the iron coffin of Lissa--that ingeniously contrived box
in which the criminal was bound fast hand and foot, and then was forced
to watch the huge lid descending slowly, slowly, slowly, half an inch
at a time, till at last its ponderous weight crushed into a flat and
mangled mass the writhing wretch within, who had for long agonized
hours watched death steadily approaching. Suppose that _I_ had such a
coffin now! I stopped my train of reflection with a slight shudder. No,
no; she whom I sought to punish was so lovely, such a softly colored,
witching, gracious body, though tenanted by a wicked soul--she should
keep her beauty! I would not destroy that--I would be satisfied with my
plan as already devised.

I threw away the end of my smoked-out cigar and entered my own rooms.
Calling Vincenzo, who was now resigned and even eager to go to
Avellino, I gave him his final instructions, and placed in his charge
the iron cash-box, which, unknown to him, contained 12,000 francs in
notes and gold. This was the last good action I could do: it was a
sufficient sum to set him up as a well-to-do farmer and fruit-grower in
Avellino with Lilla and her little dowry combined. He also carried a
sealed letter to Signora Monti, which I told him she was not to open
till a week had elapsed; this letter explained the contents of the box
and my wishes concerning it; it also asked the good woman to send to
the Villa Romani for Assunta and her helpless charge, poor old
paralyzed Giacomo, and to tend the latter as well as she could till his
death, which I knew could not be far off.

I had thought of everything as far as possible, and I could already
foresee what a happy, peaceful home there would be in the little
mountain town guarded by the Monte Vergine. Lilla and Vincenzo would
wed, I knew; Signora Monti and Assunta would console each other with
their past memories and in the tending of Lilla's children; for some
little time, perhaps, they would talk of me and wonder sorrowfully
where I had gone; then gradually they would forget me, even as I
desired to be forgotten.

Yes; I had done all I could for those who had never wronged me. I had
acquitted myself of my debt to Vincenzo for his affection and fidelity;
the rest of my way was clear. I had no more to do save the ONE THING,
the one deed which had clamored so long for accomplishment. Revenge,
like a beckoning ghost, had led me on step by step for many weary days
and months, which to me had seemed cycles of suffering; but now it
paused--it faced me--and turning its blood-red eyes upon my soul said,
"Strike!"



CHAPTER XXXV.


The ball opened brilliantly. The rooms were magnificently decorated,
and the soft luster of a thousand lamps shone on a scene of splendor
almost befitting the court of a king. Some of the stateliest nobles in
all Italy were present, their breasts glittering with jeweled orders
and ribbons of honor; some of the loveliest women to be seen anywhere
in the world flitted across the polished floors, like poets' dreams of
the gliding sylphs that haunt rivers and fountains by moonlight.

But fairest where all were fair, peerless in the exuberance of her
triumphant vanity, and in the absolute faultlessness of her delicate
charms, was my wife--the bride of the day, the heroine of the night.
Never had she looked so surpassingly beautiful, and I, even I, felt my
pulse beat quicker, and the blood course more hotly through my veins,
as I beheld her, radiant, victorious, and smiling--a veritable queen of
the fairies, as dainty as a drop of dew, as piercing to the eye as a
flash of light. Her dress was some wonderful mingling of misty lace,
with the sheen of satin and glimmering showers of pearl; diamonds
glittered on her bodice like sunlight on white foam; the brigand's
jewels flashed gloriously on her round white throat and in her tiny
shell-like ears, while the masses of her gold hair were coiled to the
top of her small head and there caught by a priceless circlet of
rose-brilliants--brilliants that I well remembered--they had belonged
to my mother. Yet more lustrous than the light of the gems she wore was
the deep, ardent glory of her eyes, dark as night and luminous as
stars; more delicate than the filmy robes that draped her was the pure,
pearl-like whiteness of her neck, which was just sufficiently displayed
to be graceful without suggesting immodesty.

For Italian women do not uncover their bosoms for the casual inspection
of strangers, as is the custom of their English and German sisters;
they know well enough that any lady venturing to wear a decollete dress
would find it impossible to obtain admittance to a court ball at the
Palazzo Quirinale. She would be looked upon as one of a questionable
class, and no matter how high her rank and station, would run the risk
of ejection from the doors, as on one occasion did unfortunately happen
to an English peeress, who, ignorant of Italian customs, went to an
evening reception in Rome arrayed in a very low bodice with straps
instead of sleeves. Her remonstrances were vain; she was politely but
firmly refused admittance, though told she might gain her point by
changing her costume, which I believe she wisely did.

Some of the grandes dames present at the ball that night wore dresses
the like of which are seldom or never seen out of Italy--robes sown
with jewels, and thick with wondrous embroidery, such as have been
handed down from generation to generation through hundreds of years. As
an example of this, the Duchess of Marina's cloth of gold train,
stitched with small rubies and seed-pearls, had formerly belonged to
the family of Lorenzo de Medici. Such garments as these, when they are
part of the property of a great house, are worn only on particular
occasions, perhaps once in a year; and then they are laid carefully by
and sedulously protected from dust and moths and damp, receiving as
much attention as the priceless pictures and books of a famous
historical mansion. Nothing ever designed by any great modern tailor or
milliner can hope to compete with the magnificent workmanship and
durable material of the festa dresses that are locked preciously away
in the old oaken coffers of the greatest Italian families--dresses that
are beyond valuation, because of the romances and tragedies attached to
them, and which, when worn, make all the costliest fripperies of to-day
look flimsy and paltry beside them, like the attempts of a servant to
dress as tastefully as her mistress.

Such glitter of gold and silver, such scintillations from the burning
eyes of jewels, such cloud-like wreaths of floating laces, such subtle
odors of rare and exquisite perfume, all things that most keenly prick
and stimulate the senses were round me in fullest force this
night--this one dazzling, supreme and terrible night, that was destined
to burn into my brain like a seal of scorching fire. Yes; till I die,
that night will remain with me as though it were a breathing, sentient
thing; and after death, who knows whether it may not uplift itself in
some tangible, awful shape, and confront me with its flashing
mock-luster, and the black heart of its true meaning in its menacing
eyes, to take its drear place by the side of my abandoned soul through
all eternity! I remember now how I shivered and started out of the
bitter reverie into which I had fallen at the sound of my wife's low,
laughing voice.

"You must dance, Cesare," she said, with a mischievous smile. "You are
forgetting your duties. You should open the ball with me!"

I rose at once mechanically.

"What dance is it?" I asked, forcing a smile. "I fear you will find me
but a clumsy partner."

She pouted.

"Oh, surely not! You are not going to disgrace me--you really must try
and dance properly just this once. It will look so stupid if you make
any mistake. The band was going to play a quadrille; I would not have
it, and told them to strike up the Hungarian waltz instead. But I
assure you I shall never forgive you if you waltz badly--nothing looks
so awkward and absurd."

I made no answer, but placed my arm round her waist and stood ready to
begin. I avoided looking at her as much as possible, for it was growing
more and more difficult with each moment that passed to hold the
mastery over myself. I was consumed between hate and love. Yes,
love!--of an evil kind, I own, and in which there was no shred of
reverence--filled me with a sort of foolish fury, which mingled itself
with another and manlier craving, namely, to proclaim her vileness then
and there before all her titled and admiring friends, and to leave her
shamed in the dust of scorn, despised and abandoned. Yet I knew well
that were I to speak out--to declare my history and hers before that
brilliant crowd--I should be accounted mad, and that for a woman such
as she there existed no shame.

The swinging measure of the slow Hungarian waltz, that most witching of
dances, danced perfectly only by those of the warm-blooded southern
temperament, now commenced. It was played pianissimo, and stole through
the room like the fluttering breath of a soft sea wind. I had always
been an excellent waltzer, and my step had fitted in with that of Nina
as harmoniously as the two notes of a perfect chord. She found it so on
this occasion, and glanced up with a look of gratified surprise as I
bore her lightly with languorous, dreamlike ease of movement through
the glittering ranks of our guests, who watched us admiringly as we
circled the room two or three times.

Then--all present followed our lead, and in a couple of minutes the
ball-room was like a moving flower-garden in full bloom, rich with
swaying colors and rainbow-like radiance; while the music, growing
stronger, and swelling out in marked and even time, echoed forth like
the sound of clear-toned bells broken through by the singing of birds.
My heart beat furiously, my brain reeled, my senses swam as I felt my
wife's warm breath on my cheek; I clasped her waist more closely, I
held her little gloved hand more firmly. She felt the double pressure,
and, lifting her white eyelids fringed with those long dark lashes that
gave such a sleepy witchery to her eyes, her lips parted in a little
smile.

"At last you love me!" she whispered.

"At last, at last," I muttered, scarce knowing what I said. "Had I not
loved you at first, bellissima, I should not have been to you what I am
to-night."

A low ripple of laughter was her response.

"I knew it," she murmured again, half breathlessly, as I drew her with
swifter and more voluptuous motion into the vortex of the dancers. "You
tried to be cold, but I knew I could make you love me--yes, love me
passionately--and I was right." Then with an outburst of triumphant
vanity she added, "I believe you would die for me!"

I bent over her more closely. My hot quick breath moved the feathery
gold of her hair.

"I HAVE died for you," I said; "I have killed my old self for your
sake."

Dancing still, encircled by my arms, and gliding along like a sea-nymph
on moonlighted foam, she sighed restlessly.

"Tell me what you mean, amor mio," she asked, in the tenderest tone in
the world.

Ah, God! that tender seductive cadence of her voice, how well I knew
it!--how often had it lured away my strength, as the fabled siren's
song had been wont to wreck the listening mariner.

"I mean that you have changed me, sweetest!" I whispered, in fierce,
hurried accents. "I have seemed old--for you to-night I will be young
again--for you my chilled slow blood shall again be hot and quick as
lava--for you my long-buried past shall rise in all its pristine vigor;
for you I will be a lover, such as perhaps no woman ever had or ever
will have again!"

She heard, and nestled closer to me in the dance. My words pleased her.
Next to her worship of wealth her delight was to arouse the passions of
men. She was very panther-like in her nature--her first tendency was to
devour, her next to gambol with any animal she met, though her sleek,
swift playfulness might mean death. She was by no means exceptional in
this; there are many women like her.

As the music of the waltz grew slower and slower, dropping down to a
sweet and persuasive conclusion, I led my wife to her fauteuil, and
resigned her to the care of a distinguished Roman prince who was her
next partner. Then, unobserved, I slipped out to make inquiries
concerning Vincenzo. He had gone; one of the waiters at the hotel, a
friend of his, had accompanied him and seen him into the train for
Avellino. He had looked in at the ball-room before leaving, and had
watched me stand up to dance with my wife, then "with tears in his
eyes"--so said the vivacious little waiter who had just returned from
the station--he had started without daring to wish me good-bye.

I heard this information of course with an apparent kindly
indifference, but in my heart I felt a sudden vacancy, a drear, strange
loneliness. With my faithful servant near me I had felt conscious of
the presence of a friend, for friend he was in his own humble,
unobtrusive fashion; but now I was alone--alone in a loneliness beyond
all conceivable comparison--alone to do my work, without prevention or
detection. I felt, as it were, isolated from humanity, set apart with
my victim on some dim point of time, from which the rest of the world
receded, where the searching eye of the Creator alone could behold me.
Only she and I and God--these three were all that existed for me in the
universe; between these three must justice be fulfilled.

Musingly, with downcast eyes, I returned to the ball-room. At the door
a young girl faced me--she was the only daughter of a great Neapolitan
house. Dressed in pure white, as all such maidens are, with a crown of
snow-drops on her dusky hair, and her dimpled face lighted with
laughter, she looked the very embodiment of early spring. She addressed
me somewhat timidly, yet with all a child's frankness.

"Is not this delightful? I feel as if I were in fairy-land! Do you know
this is my first ball?"

I smiled wearily.

"Ay, truly? And you are happy?"

"Oh, happiness is not the word--it is ecstasy! How I wish it could last
forever! And--is it not strange?--I did not know I was beautiful till
to-night."

She said this with perfect simplicity, and a pleased smile radiated her
fair features. I glanced at her with cold scrutiny.

"Ah! and some one has told you so."

She blushed and laughed a little consciously.

"Yes; the great Prince de Majano. And he is too noble to say what is
not true, so I MUST be 'la piu bella donzella,' as he said, must I not?"

I touched the snow-drops that she wore in a white cluster at her breast.

"Look at your flowers, child," I said, earnestly. "See how they begin
to droop in this heated air. The poor things! How glad they would feel
could they again grow in the cool wet moss of the woodlands, waving
their little bells to the wholesome, fresh wind! Would they revive now,
think you, for your great Prince de Majano if he told them they were
fair? So with your life and heart, little one--pass them through the
scorching fire of flattery, and their purity must wither even as these
fragile blossoms. And as for beauty--are you more beautiful than SHE?"

And I pointed slightly to my wife, who was at that moment courtesying
to her partner in the stately formality of the first quadrille.

My young companion looked, and her clear eyes darkened enviously.

"Ah, no, no! But if I wore such lace and satin and pearls, and had such
jewels, I might perhaps be more like her!"

I sighed bitterly. The poison had already entered this child's soul. I
spoke brusquely.

"Pray that you may never be like her," I said, with somber sternness,
and not heeding her look of astonishment. "You are young--you cannot
yet have thrown off religion. Well, when you go home to-night, and
kneel beside your little bed, made holy by the cross above it and your
mother's blessing--pray--pray with all your strength that you may never
resemble in the smallest degree that exquisite woman yonder! So may you
be spared her fate."

I paused, for the girl's eyes were dilated in extreme wonder and fear.
I looked at her, and laughed abruptly and harshly.

"I forgot," I said; "the lady is my wife--I should have thought of
that! I was speaking of--another whom you do not know. Pardon me! when
I am fatigued my memory wanders. Pay no attention to my foolish
remarks. Enjoy yourself, my child, but do not believe all the pretty
speeches of the Prince de Majano. A rivederci!"

And smiling a forced smile I left her, and mingled with the crowd of my
guests, greeting one here, another there, jesting lightly, paying
unmeaning compliments to the women who expected them, and striving to
distract my thoughts with the senseless laughter and foolish chatter of
the glittering cluster of society butterflies, all the while
desperately counting the tedious minutes, and wondering whether my
patience, so long on the rack, would last out its destined time. As I
made my way through the brilliant assemblage, Luziano Salustri, the
poet, greeted me with a grave smile.

"I have had little time to congratulate you, conte," he said, in those
mellifluous accents of his which were like his own improvised music,
"but I assure you I do so with all my heart. Even in my most fantastic
dreams I have never pictured a fairer heroine of a life's romance than
the lady who is now the Countess Oliva."

I silently bowed my thanks.

"I am of a strange temperament, I suppose," he resumed. "To-night this
ravishing scene of beauty and splendor makes me sad at heart, I know
not why. It seems too brilliant, too dazzling. I would as soon go home
and compose a dirge as anything."

I laughed satirically.

"Why not do it?" I said. "You are not the first person who, being
present at a marriage, has, with perverse incongruity, meditated on a
funeral!"

A wistful look came into his brilliant poetic eyes.

"I have thought once or twice," he remarked in a low tone, "of that
misguided young man Ferrari. A pity, was it not, that the quarrel
occurred between you?"

"A pity indeed!" I replied, brusquely. Then taking him by the arm I
turned him round so that he faced my wife, who was standing not far
off. "But look at the--the--ANGEL I have married! Is she not a fair
cause for a dispute even unto death? Fy on thee, Luziano!--why think of
Ferrari? He is not the first man who has been killed for the sake of a
woman, nor will he be the last!"

Salustri shrugged his shoulders, and was silent for a minute or two.
Then he added with his own bright smile:

"Still, amico, it would have been much better if it had ended in coffee
and cognac. Myself, I would rather shoot a man with an epigram than a
leaden bullet! By the do you remember our talking of Cain and Abel that
night?"

"Perfectly."

"I have wondered since," he continued half merrily, half seriously,
"whether the real cause of their quarrel has ever been rightly told. I
should not be at all surprised if one of these days some savant does
not discover a papyrus containing a missing page of Holy Writ, which
will ascribe the reason of the first bloodshed to a love affair.
Perhaps there were wood nymphs in those days, as we are assured there
were giants, and some dainty Dryad might have driven the first pair of
human brothers to desperation by her charms! What say you?"

"It is more than probable," I answered, lightly. "Make a poem of it,
Salustri; people will say you have improved on the Bible!"

And I left him with a gay gesture to join other groups, and to take my
part in the various dances which were now following quickly on one
another. The supper was fixed to take place at midnight. At the first
opportunity I had, I looked at the time. Quarter to eleven!--my heart
beat quickly, the blood rushed to my temples and surged noisily in my
ears. The hour I had waited for so long and so eagerly had come! At
last! at last!

      *      *      *      *      *

Slowly and with a hesitating step I approached my wife. She was resting
after her exertions in the dance, and reclined languidly in a low
velvet chair, chatting gayly with that very Prince de Majano whose
honeyed compliments had partly spoiled the budding sweet nature of the
youngest girl in the room. Apologizing for interrupting the
conversation, I lowered my voice to a persuasive tenderness as I
addressed her.

"Cara, sposina mia! permit me to remind you of your promise."

What a radiant look she gave me!

"I am all impatience to fulfill it! Tell me when--and how?"

"Almost immediately. You know the private passage through which we
entered the hotel this morning on our return from church?"

"Perfectly."

"Well, meet me there in twenty minutes. We must avoid being observed as
we pass out. But," and I touched her delicate dress, "you will wear
something warmer than this?"

"I have a long sable cloak that will do," she replied, brightly. "We
are not going far?"

"No, not far."

"We shall return in time for supper, of course?"

I bent my head.

"Naturally!"

Her eyes danced mirthfully.

"How romantic it seems! A moonlight stroll with you will be charming!
Who shall say you are not a sentimental bridegroom? Is there a bright
moon?"

"I believe so."

"Cosa bellissima!" and she laughed sweetly. "I look forward to the
trip! In twenty minutes then I shall be with you at the place you name,
Cesare; in the meanwhile the Marchese Gualdro claims me for this
mazurka."

And she turned with her bewitching grace of manner to the marchese, who
at that moment advanced with his courteous bow and fascinating smile,
and I watched them as they glided forward together in the first figure
of the elegant Polish dance, in which all lovely women look their
loveliest.

Then, checking the curse that rose to my lips, I hurried away. Up to my
own room I rushed with feverish haste, full of impatience to be rid of
the disguise I had worn so long.

Within a few minutes I stood before my mirror, transformed into my old
self as nearly as it was possible to be. I could not alter the snowy
whiteness of my hair, but a few deft quick strokes of the razor soon
divested me of the beard that had given me so elderly an aspect, and
nothing remained but the mustache curling slightly up at the corners of
the lip, as I had worn it in past days. I threw aside the dark glasses,
and my eyes, densely brilliant, and fringed with the long lashes that
had always been their distinguishing feature, shone with all the luster
of strong and vigorous youth. I straightened myself up to my full
height, I doubled my fist and felt it hard as iron; I laughed aloud in
the triumphant power of my strong manhood. I thought of the old
rag-dealing Jew--"You could kill anything easily." Ay, so I
could!--even without the aid of the straight swift steel of the
Milanese dagger which I now drew from its sheath and regarded
steadfastly, while I carefully felt the edge of the blade from hilt to
point. Should I take it with me? I hesitated. Yes! it might be needed.
I slipped it safely and secretly into my vest.

And now the proofs--the proofs! I had them all ready to my hand, and
gathered them quickly together; first the things that had been buried
with me--the gold chain on which hung the locket containing the
portraits of my wife and child, the purse and card-case which Nina
herself had given me, the crucifix the monk had laid on my breast in
the coffin. The thought of that coffin moved me to a stern smile--that
splintered, damp, and moldering wood must speak for itself by and by.
Lastly I look the letters sent me by the Marquis D'Avencourt--the
beautiful, passionate love epistles she had written to Guido Ferrari in
Rome.

Now, was that all? I thoroughly searched both my rooms, ransacking
every corner. I had destroyed everything that could give the smallest
clew to my actions; I left nothing save furniture and small valuables,
a respectable present enough in their way, to the landlord of the hotel.

I glanced again at myself in the mirror. Yes; I was once more Fabio
Romani, in spite of my white hair; no one that had ever known me
intimately could doubt my identity. I had changed my evening dress for
a rough, every-day suit, and now over this I threw my long Almaviva
cloak, which draped me from head to foot. I kept its folds well up
about my mouth and chin, and pulled on a soft slouched hat, with the
brim far down over my eyes. There was nothing unusual in such a
costume; it was common enough to many Neapolitans who have learned to
dread the chill night winds that blow down from the lofty Apennines in
early spring. Thus attired, too, I knew my features would be almost
invisible to HER more especially as the place of our rendezvous was a
long dim entresol lighted only by a single oil-lamp, a passage that led
into the garden, one that was only used for private purposes, having
nothing to do with the ordinary modes of exit and entrance to and from
the hotel.

Into this hall I now hurried with an eager step; it was deserted; she
was not there. Impatiently I waited--the minutes seemed hours! Sounds
of music floated toward me from the distant ball-room--the dreamy,
swinging measure of a Viennese waltz. I could almost hear the flying
feet of the dancers. I was safe from all observation where I stood--the
servants were busy preparing the grand marriage supper, and all the
inhabitants of the hotel were absorbed in watching the progress of the
brilliant and exceptional festivities of the night.

Would she never come? Suppose, after all, she should escape me! I
trembled at the idea, then put it from me with a smile at my own folly.
No, her punishment was just, and in her case the Fates were inflexible.
So I thought and felt. I paced up and down feverishly; I could count
the thick, heavy throbs of my own heart. How long the moments seemed!
Would she never come? Ah! at last! I caught the sound of a rustling
robe and a light step--a breath of delicate fragrance was wafted on the
air like the odor of falling orange-blossoms. I turned, and saw her
approaching. With swift grace she ran up to me as eagerly as a child,
her heavy cloak of rich Russian sable falling back from her shoulders
and displaying her glittering dress, the dark fur of the hood
heightening by contrast the fairness of her lovely flushed face, so
that it looked like the face of one of Correggio's angels framed in
ebony and velvet. She laughed, and her eyes flashed saucily.

"Did I keep you waiting, caro mio?" she whispered; and standing on
tiptoe she kissed the hand with which I held my cloak muffled about me.
"How tall you look in that Almaviva! I am so sorry I am a little late,
but that last waltz was so exquisite I could not resist it; only I wish
YOU had danced it with me."

"You honor me by the wish," I said, keeping one arm about her waist and
drawing her toward the door that opened into the garden. "Tell me, how
did you manage to leave the ball-room?"

"Oh, easily. I slipped away from my partner at the end of the waltz,
and told him I should return immediately. Then I ran upstairs to my
room, got my cloak--and here I am."

And she laughed again. She was evidently in the highest spirits.

"You are very good to come with me at all, mia bella," I murmured as
gently as I could; "it is kind of you to thus humor my fancy. Did you
see your maid? does she know where you are going?"

"She? Oh, no, she was not in my room at all. She is a great coquette,
you know; I dare say she is amusing herself with the waiters in the
kitchen. Poor thing! I hope she enjoys it."

I breathed freely; we were so far undiscovered. No one had as yet
noticed our departure--no one had the least clew to my intentions, I
opened the door of the passage noiselessly, and we passed out. Wrapping
my wife's cloak more closely about her with much apparent tenderness, I
led her quickly across the garden. There was no one in sight--we were
entirely unobserved. On reaching the exterior gate of the inclosure I
left her for a moment, while I summoned a carriage, a common fiacre.
She expressed some surprise on seeing the vehicle.

"I thought we were not going far?" she said.

I reassured her on this point, telling her that I only desired to spare
her all possible fatigue. Satisfied with this explanation, she suffered
me to assist her into the carriage. I followed her, and calling to the
driver, "A la Villa Guarda," we rattled away over the rough uneven
stones of the back streets of the city.

"La Villa Guarda!" exclaimed Nina. "Where is that?"

"It is an old house," I replied, "situated near the place I spoke to
you of, where the jewels are."

"Oh!"

And apparently contented, she nestled back in the carriage, permitting
her head to rest lightly on my shoulder. I drew her closer to me, my
heart beating with a fierce, terrible joy.

"Mine--mine at last!" I whispered in her ear. "Mine forever!"

She turned her face upward and smiled victoriously; her cool fragrant
lips met my burning, eager ones in a close, passionate kiss. Yes, I
kissed her now--why should I not? She was as much mine as any purchased
slave, and merited less respect than a sultan's occasional female toy.
And as she chose to caress me, I let her do so: I allowed her to think
me utterly vanquished by the battery of her charms. Yet whenever I
caught an occasional glimpse of her face as we drove along in the
semi-darkness, I could not help wondering at the supreme vanity of the
woman! Her self-satisfaction was so complete, and, considering her
approaching fate, so tragically absurd!

She was entirely delighted with herself, her dress, and her
conquest--as she thought--of me. Who could measure the height of the
dazzling visions she indulged in; who could fathom the depths of her
utter selfishness!

Seeing one like her, beautiful, wealthy, and above all--society knows I
speak the truth--WELL DRESSED, for by the latter virtue alone is a
woman allowed any precedence nowadays--would not all the less fortunate
and lovely of her sex feel somewhat envious? Ah, yes; they would and
they do; but believe me, the selfish feminine thing, whose only sincere
worship is offered at the shrines of Fashion and Folly, is of all
creatures the one whose life is to be despised and never desired, and
whose death makes no blank even in the circles of her so-called best
friends.

I knew well enough that there was not a soul in Naples who was really
attached to my wife--not one who would miss her, no, not even a
servant--though she, in her superb self-conceit, imagined herself to be
the adored beauty of the city. Those who had indeed loved her she had
despised, neglected, and betrayed. Musingly I looked down upon her as
she rested back in the carriage, encircled by my arm, while now and
then a little sigh of absolute delight in herself broke from her
lips--but we spoke scarcely at all. Hate has almost as little to say as
love!

The night was persistently stormy, though no rain fell--the gale had
increased in strength, and the white moon only occasionally glared out
from the masses of white and gray cloud that rushed like flying armies
across the sky, and her fitful light shone dimly, as though she were a
spectral torch glimmering through a forest of shadow. Now and again
bursts of music, or the blare of discordant trumpets, reached our ears
from the more distant thoroughfares where the people were still
celebrating the feast of Giovedi Grasso, or the tinkle of passing
mandolins chimed in with the rolling wheels of our carriage; but in a
few moments we were out of reach of even such sounds as these.

We passed the outer suburbs of the city and were soon on the open road.
The man I had hired drove fast; he knew nothing of us, he was probably
anxious to get back quickly to the crowded squares and illuminated
quarters where the principal merriment of the evening was going on, and
no doubt thought I showed but a poor taste in requiring to be driven
away, even for a short distance, out of Naples on such a night of
feasting and folly. He stopped at last; the castellated turrets of the
villa I had named were faintly visible among the trees; he jumped down
from his box and came to us.

"Shall I drive up to the house?" he asked, looking as though he would
rather be spared this trouble.

"No," I answered, indifferently, "you need not. The distance is short,
we will walk."

And I stepped out into the road and paid him his money.

"You seem anxious to get back to the city, my friend," I said, half
jocosely.

"Si, davvero!" he replied, with decision, "I hope to get many a good
fare from the Count Oliva's marriage-ball to-night."

"Ah! he is a rich fellow, that count," I said, as I assisted my wife to
alight, keeping her cloak well muffled round her so that this common
fellow should not perceive the glitter of her costly costume; "I wish I
were he!"

The man grinned and nodded emphatically. He had no suspicion of my
identity. He took me, in all probability, for one of those "gay
gallants" so common in Naples, who, on finding at some public
entertainment a "dama" to their taste, hurry her off, carefully cloaked
and hooded, to a mysterious nook known only to themselves, where they
can complete the romance of the evening entirely to their own
satisfaction. Bidding me a lively buona notte, he sprung on his box
again, jerked his horse's head violently round with a volley of oaths,
and drove away at a rattling pace. Nina, standing on the road beside
me, looked after him with a bewildered air.

"Could he not have waited to take us back?" she asked.

"No," I answered, brusquely; "we shall return by a different route.
Come."

And passing my arm round her, I led her onward. She shivered slightly,
and there was a sound of querulous complaint in her voice as she said:

"Have we to go much further, Cesare?"

"Three minutes, walk will bring us to our destination," I replied,
briefly, adding in a softer tone, "Are you cold?"

"A little," and she gathered her sables more closely about her and
pressed nearer to my side. The capricious moon here suddenly leaped
forth like the pale ghost of a frenzied dancer, standing tiptoe on the
edge of a precipitous chasm of black clouds. Her rays, pallidly green
and cold, fell full on the dreary stretch of land before us, touching
up with luminous distinctness those white mysterious milestones of the
Campo Santo which mark where the journeys of men, women, and children
began and where they left off, but never explain in what new direction
they are now traveling. My wife saw and stopped, trembling violently.

"What place is this?" she asked, nervously.

In all her life she had never visited a cemetery--she had too great a
horror of death.

"It is where I keep all my treasures," I answered, and my voice sounded
strange and harsh in my own ears, while I tightened my grasp of her
full, warm waist. "Come with me, my beloved!" and in spite of my
efforts, my tone was one of bitter mockery. "With me you need have no
fear! Come."

And I led her on, too powerless to resist my force, too startled to
speak--on, on, on, over the rank dewy grass and unmarked ancient
graves--on, till the low frowning gate of the house of my dead
ancestors faced me--on, on, on, with the strength of ten devils in my
arm as I held her--on, on, on, to her just doom!



CHAPTER XXXVI.


The moon had retreated behind a dense wall of cloud, and the landscape
was enveloped in semi-darkness. Reaching the door of the vault, I
unlocked it; it opened instantly, and fell back with a sudden clang.
She whom I held fast with my iron grip shrunk back, and strove to
release herself from my grasp.

"Where are you going?" she demanded, in a faint tone. "I--I am afraid!"

"Of what?"--I asked, endeavoring to control the passionate vibrations
of my voice and to speak unconcernedly. "Because it is dark? We shall
have a light directly--you will see--you--you," and to my own surprise
I broke into a loud and violent laugh. "You have no cause to be
frightened! Come!"

And I lifted her swiftly and easily over the stone step of the entrance
and set her safely inside. INSIDE at last, thank Heaven! I shut the
great gate upon us both and locked it! Again that strange undesired
laugh broke from my lips involuntarily, and the echoes of the charnel
house responded to it with unearthly and ghastly distinctness. Nina
clung to me in the dense gloom.

"Why do you laugh like that?" she cried, loudly and impatiently. "It
sounds horrible."

I checked myself by a strong effort.

"Does it? I am sorry--very sorry! I laugh because--because, cara mia,
our moonlight ramble is so pleasant--and amusing--is it not?"

And I caught her to my heart and kissed her roughly. "Now," I
whispered, "I will carry you--the steps are too rough for your little
feet--dear, dainty, white little feet! I will carry you, you armful of
sweetness!--yes, carry you safely down into the fairy grotto where the
jewels are--SUCH jewels, and all for you--my love, my wife!"

And I raised her from the ground as though she were a young, frail
child. Whether she tried to resist me or not I cannot now remember. I
bore her down the moldering stairway, setting my foot on each crooked
step with the firmness of one long familiar with the place. But my
brain reeled--rings of red fire circled in the darkness before my eyes;
every artery in my body seemed strained to bursting; the pent-up agony
and fury of my soul were such that I thought I should go mad or drop
down dead ere I gained the end of my long desire. As I descended I felt
her clinging to me; her hands were cold and clammy on my neck, as
though she were chilled to the blood with terror. At last I reached the
lowest step--I touched the floor of the vault. I set my precious burden
down. Releasing my clasp of her, I remained for a moment inactive,
breathing heavily. She caught my arm--she spoke in a hoarse whisper.

"What place is this? Where is the light you spoke of?"

I made no answer. I moved from her side, and taking matches from my
pocket, I lighted up six large candles which I had fixed in various
corners of the vault the night previously. Dazzled by the glare after
the intense darkness, she did not at once perceive the nature of the
place in which she stood. I watched her, myself still wrapped in the
heavy cloak and hat that so effectually disguised my features. What a
sight she was in that abode of corruption! Lovely, delicate, and full
of life, with the shine of her diamonds gleaming from under the folds
of rich fur that shrouded her, and the dark hood falling back as though
to display the sparkling wonder of her gold hair.

Suddenly, and with a violent shock, she realized the gloom of her
surroundings--the yellow flare of the waxen torches showed her the
stone niches, the tattered palls, the decaying trophies of armor, the
drear shapes of worm-eaten coffins, and with a shriek of horror she
rushed to me where I stood, as immovable as a statue clad in coat of
mail, and throwing her arms about me clung to me in a frenzy of fear.

"Take me away, take me away!" she moaned, hiding her face against my
breast. "'Tis a vault--oh, Santissima Madonna!--a place for the dead!
Quick--quick! take me out to the air--let us go home--home--"

She broke off abruptly, her alarm increasing at my utter silence. She
gazed up at me with wild wet eyes.

"Cesare! Cesare! speak! What ails you? Why have you brought me here?
Touch me--kiss me! say something--anything--only speak!"

And her bosom heaved convulsively; she sobbed with terror.

I put her from me with a firm hand. I spoke in measured accents, tinged
with some contempt.

"Hush, I pray you! This is no place for an hysterical scena. Consider
where you are! You have guessed aright--this is a vault--your own
mausoleum, fair lady!--if I mistake not--the burial-place of the Romani
family."

At these words her sobs ceased, as though they had been frozen in her
throat; she stared at me in speechless fear and wonder.

"Here," I went on with methodical deliberation, "here lie all the great
ancestors of your husband's family, heroes and martyrs in their day.
Here will your own fair flesh molder. Here," and my voice grew deeper
and more resolute, "here, six months ago, your husband himself, Fabio
Romani, was buried."

She uttered no sound, but gazed at me like some beautiful pagan goddess
turned to stone by the Furies. Having spoken thus far I was silent,
watching the effect of what I had said, for I sought to torture the
very nerves of her base soul. At last her dry lips parted--her voice
was hoarse and indistinct.

"You must be mad!" she said, with smothered anger and horror in her
tone.

Then seeing me still immovable, she advanced and caught my hand half
commandingly, half coaxingly. I did not resist her.

"Come," she implored, "come away at once!" and she glanced about her
with a shudder. "Let us leave this horrible place; as for the jewels,
if you keep them here, they may stay here; I would not wear them for
the world! Come."

I interrupted her, holding her hand in a fierce grasp; I turned her
abruptly toward a dark object lying on the ground near us--my own
coffin broken asunder. I drew her close to it.

"Look!" I said in a thrilling whisper, "what is this? Examine it well:
it is a coffin of flimsiest wood, a cholera coffin! What says this
painted inscription? Nay, do not start! It bears your husband's name;
he was buried in it. Then how comes it to be open? WHERE IS HE?"

I felt her sway under me; a new and overwhelming terror had taken
instant possession of her, her limbs refused to support her, she sunk
on her knees. Mechanically and feebly she repeated the words after me--

"WHERE IS HE? WHERE IS HE?"

"Ay!" and my voice rang out through the hollow vault, its passion
restrained no more. "WHERE IS HE?--the poor fool, the miserable,
credulous dupe, whose treacherous wife played the courtesan under his
very roof, while he loved and blindly trusted her? WHERE IS HE? Here,
here!" and I seized her hands and forced her up from her kneeling
posture. "I promised you should see me as I am! I swore to grow young
to-night for your sake!--Now I keep my word! Look at me, Nina!--look at
me, my twice-wedded wife!--Look at me!--do you not know your HUSBAND?"

And throwing my dark habiliments from me, I stood before her
undisguised! As though some defacing disease had swept over her at my
words and look, so her beauty suddenly vanished. Her face became drawn
and pinched and almost old--her lips turned blue, her eyes grew glazed,
and strained themselves from their sockets to stare at me; her very
hands looked thin and ghost-like as she raised them upward with a
frantic appealing gesture; there was a sort of gasping rattle in her
throat as she drew herself away from me with a convulsive gesture of
aversion, and crouched on the floor as though she sought to sink
through it and thus avoid my gaze.

"Oh, no, no, no!" she moaned, wildly, "not Fabio!--no, it cannot
be=-Fabio is dead--dead! And you!--you are mad!--this is some cruel
jest of yours--some trick to frighten me!"

She broke off breathlessly, and her large, terrified eyes wandered to
mine again with a reluctant and awful wonder. She attempted to arise
from her crouching position; I approached, and assisted her to do so
with ceremonious politeness. She trembled violently at my touch, and
slowly staggering to her feet, she pushed back her hair from her
forehead and regarded me fixedly with a searching, anguished look,
first of doubt, then of dread, and lastly of convinced and hopeless
certainty, for she suddenly covered her eyes with her hands as though
to shut out some repulsive object and broke into a low wailing sound
like that of one in bitter physical pain. I laughed scornfully.

"Well, do you know me at last?" I cried. "'Tis true I have somewhat
altered. This hair of mine was black, if you remember--it is white
enough now, blanched by the horrors of a living death such as you
cannot imagine, but which," and I spoke more slowly and impressively,
"you may possibly experience ere long. Yet in spite of this change I
think you know me! That is well. I am glad your memory serves you thus
far!"

A low sound that was half a sob and half a cry broke from her.

"Oh, no, no!" she muttered, again, incoherently--"it cannot be! It must
be false--it is some vile plot--it cannot be true! True! Oh, Heaven! it
would be too cruel, too horrible!"

I strode up to her. I drew her hands away from her eyes and grasped
them tightly in my own.

"Hear me!" I said, in clear, decisive tones. "I have kept silence, God
knows, with a long patience, but now--now I can speak. Yes! you thought
me dead--you had every reason to think so, you had every proof to
believe so. How happy my supposed death made you! What a relief it was
to you!--what an obstruction removed from your path! But--I was buried
alive!" She uttered a faint shriek of terror, and looking wildly about
her, strove to wrench her hands from my clasp. I held them more
closely. "Ay, think of it, wife of mine!--you to whom luxury has been
second nature, think of this poor body straightened in a helpless
swoon, packed and pressed into yonder coffin and nailed up fast, shut
out from the blessed light and air, as one would have thought, forever!
Who could have dreamed that life still lingered in me--life still
strong enough to split asunder the boards that inclosed me, and leave
them shattered, as you see them now!"

She shuddered and glanced with aversion toward the broken coffin, and
again tried to loosen her hands from mine. She looked at me with a
burning anger in her face.

"Let me go!" she panted. "Madman! liar!--let me go!"

I released her instantly and stood erect, regarding her fixedly.

"I am no madman," I said, composedly; "and you know as well as I do
that I speak the truth. When I escaped from that coffin I found myself
a prisoner in this very vault--this house of my perished ancestry,
where, if old legends could be believed, the very bones that are stored
up here would start and recoil from YOUR presence as pollution to the
dead, whose creed was HONOR."

The sound of her sobbing breath ceased suddenly; she fixed her eyes on
mine; they glittered defiantly.

"For one long awful night," I resumed, "I suffered here. I might have
starved--or perished of thirst. I thought no agony could surpass what I
endured! But I was mistaken: there was a sharper torment in store for
me. I discovered a way of escape; with grateful tears I thanked God for
my rescue, for liberty, for life! Oh, what a fool was I! How could I
dream that my death was so desired!--how could I know that I had better
far have died than have returned to SUCH a home!"

Her lips moved, but she uttered no word; she shivered as though with
intense cold. I drew nearer to her.

"Perhaps you doubt my story?"

She made no answer. A rapid impulse of fury possessed me.

"Speak!" I cried, fiercely, "or by the God above us I will MAKE you!
Speak!" and I drew the dagger I carried from my vest. "Speak the truth
for once--'twill be difficult to you who love lies--but this time I
must be answered! Tell me, do you know me? DO you or do you NOT believe
that I am indeed your husband--your living husband, Fabio Romani?"

She gasped for breath. The sight of my infuriated figure--the glitter
of the naked steel before her eyes--the suddenness of my action, the
horror of her position, all terrified her into speech. She flung
herself down before me in an attitude of abject entreaty. She found her
voice at last.

"Mercy! mercy!" she cried. "Oh, God! you will not kill me?
Anything--anything but death; I am too young to die! Yes, yes; I know
you are Fabio--Fabio, my husband, Fabio, whom I thought
dead--Fabio--oh!" and she sobbed convulsively. "You said you loved me
to-day--when you married me! Why did you marry me? I was your wife
already--why--why? Oh, horrible, horrible! I see--I understand it all
now! But do not, do not kill me, Fabio--I am afraid to die!"

And she hid her face at my feet and groveled there. As quickly calmed
as I had been suddenly furious, I put back the dagger. I smoothed my
voice and spoke with mocking courtesy.

"Pray do not alarm yourself," I said, coolly. "I have not the slightest
intention of killing you! I am no vulgar murderer, yielding to mere
brute instincts. You forget: a Neapolitan has hot passions, but he also
has finesse, especially in matters of vengeance. I brought you here to
tell you of my existence, and to confront you with the proofs of it.
Rise, I beg of you, we have plenty of time to talk; with a little
patience I shall make things clear to you--rise!"

She obeyed me, lifting herself up reluctantly with a long, shuddering
sigh. As she stood upright I laughed contemptuously.

"What! no love words for me?" I cried, "not one kiss, not one smile,
not one word of welcome? You say you know me--well!--are you not glad
to see your husband?--you, who were such an inconsolable widow?"

A strange quiver passed over her face--she wrung her hands together
hard, but she said no word.

"Listen!" I said, "there is more to tell. When I broke loose from the
grasp of death, when I came HOME--I found my vacant post already
occupied. I arrived in time to witness a very pretty pastoral play. The
scene was the ilex avenue--the actors, you, my wife, and Guido, my
friend!"

She raised her head and uttered a low exclamation of fear. I advanced a
step or two and spoke more rapidly.

"You hear? There was moonlight, and the song of nightingales--yes; the
stage effects were perfect! _I_ watched the progress of the
comedy--with what emotions you may imagine. I learned much that was
news to me. I became aware that for a lady of your large heart and
sensitive feelings ONE husband was not sufficient"--here I laid my hand
on her shoulder and gazed into her face, while her eyes, dilated with
terror, stared hopelessly up to mine--"and that within three little
months of your marriage to me you provided yourself with another. Nay,
no denial can serve you! Guido Ferrari was husband to you in all things
but the name. I mastered the situation--I rose to the emergency. Trick
for trick, comedy for comedy! You know the rest. As the Count Oliva you
can not deny that I acted well! For the second time I courted you, but
not half so eagerly as YOU courted ME! For the second time I have
married you! Who shall deny that you are most thoroughly mine--mine,
body and soul, till death do us part!"

And I loosened my grasp of her: she writhed from me like some
glittering wounded serpent. The tears had dried on her cheeks, her
features were rigid and wax-like as the features of a corpse; only her
dark eyes shone, and these seemed preternaturally large, and gleamed
with an evil luster. I moved a little away, and turning my own coffin
on its side, I sat down upon it as indifferently as though it were an
easy-chair in a drawing-room. Glancing at her then, I saw a wavering
light upon her face. Some idea had entered into her mind. She moved
gradually from the wall where she leaned, watching me fearfully as she
did so. I made no attempt to stir from the seat I occupied.

Slowly, slowly, still keeping her eyes on me, she glided step by step
onward and passed me--then with a sudden rush she reached the stairway
and bounded up it with the startled haste of a hunted deer. I smiled to
myself. I heard her shaking the iron gateway to and fro with all her
feeble strength; she called aloud for help several times. Only the
sullen echoes of the vault answered her, and the wild whistle of the
wind as it surged through the trees of the cemetery. At last she
screamed furiously, as a savage cat might scream--the rustle of her
silken robes came swiftly sweeping down the steps, and with a spring
like that of a young tigress she confronted me, the blood now burning
wrathfully in her face, and transforming it back to something of its
old beauty.

"Unlock that door!" she cried, with a furious stamp of her foot.
"Assassin! traitor! I hate you! I always hated you! Unlock the door, I
tell you! You dare not disobey me; you have no right to murder me!"

I looked at her coldly; the torrent of her words was suddenly checked,
something in my expression daunted her; she trembled and shrunk back.

"No right!" I said, mockingly. "I differ from you! A man ONCE married
has SOME right over his wife, but a man TWICE married to the same woman
has surely gained a double authority! And as for 'DARE NOT!' there is
nothing I 'dare not' do to-night."

And with that I rose and approached her. A torrent of passionate
indignation boiled in my veins; I seized her two white arms and held
her fast.

"You talk of murder!" I muttered, fiercely. "YOU--you who have
remorselessly murdered two men! Their blood be on your head! For though
I live, I am but the moving corpse of the man I was--hope, faith,
happiness, peace--all things good and great in me have been slain by
YOU. And as for Guido--"

She interrupted me with a wild sobbing cry.

"He loved me! Guido loved me!"

"Ay, he loved you, oh, devil in the shape of a woman! he loved you!
Come here, here!" and in a fury I could not restrain I dragged her,
almost lifted her along to one corner of the vault, where the light of
the torches scarcely illumined the darkness, and there I pointed
upward. "Above our very heads--to the left of where we stand--the brave
strong body of your lover lies, festering slowly in the wet mould,
thanks to you!--the fair, gallant beauty of it all marred by the
red-mouthed worms--the thick curls of hair combed through by the
crawling feet of vile insects--the poor frail heart pierced by a gaping
wound--"

"You killed him; you--you are to blame," she moaned, restlessly,
striving to turn her face away from me.

"_I_ killed him? No, no, not I, but YOU! He died when he learned your
treachery--when he knew you were false to him for the sake of wedding a
supposed wealthy stranger--my pistol-shot but put him out of torment.
You! you were glad of his death--as glad as when you thought of mine!
YOU talk of murder! Oh, vilest among women! if I could murder you
twenty times over, what then? Your sins outweigh all punishment!"

And I flung her from me with a gesture of contempt and loathing. This
time my words had struck home. She cowered before me in horror--her
sables were loosened and scarcely protected her, the richness of her
ball costume was fully displayed, and the diamonds on her bosom heaved
restlessly up and down as she panted with excitement, rage and fear.

"I do not see," she muttered, sullenly, "why you should blame ME! I am
no worse than other women!"

"No worse! no worse!" I cried. "Shame, shame upon you that thus outrage
your sex! Learn for once what MEN think of unfaithful wives--for may be
you are ignorant. The novels you have read in your luxurious, idle
hours have perhaps told you that infidelity is no sin--merely a little
social error easily condoned, or set right by the divorce court. Yes!
modern books and modern plays teach you so: in them the world swerves
upside down, and vice looks like virtue. But _I_ will tell you what may
seem to you a strange and wonderful thing! There is no mean animal, no
loathsome object, no horrible deformity of nature so utterly repulsive
to a true man as a faithless wife! The cowardly murderer who lies in
wait for his victim behind some dark door, and stabs him in the back as
he passes by unarmed--he, I say, is more to be pardoned than the woman
who takes a husband's name, honor, position, and reputation among his
fellows, and sheltering herself with these, passes her beauty
promiscuously about like some coarse article of commerce, that goes to
the highest bidder! Ay, let your French novels and books of their type
say what they will--infidelity is a crime, a low, brutal crime, as bad
if not worse than murder, and deserves as stern a sentence!"

A sudden spirit of defiant insolence possessed her. She drew herself
erect, and her level brows knitted in a dark frown.

"Sentence!" she exclaimed, imperiously. "How dare you judge me! What
harm have I done? If I am beautiful, is that my fault? If men are
fools, can _I_ help it? You loved me--Guido loved me--could _I_ prevent
it? I cared nothing for him, and less for you!"

"I know it," I said, bitterly. "Love was never part of YOUR nature! Our
lives were but cups of wine for your false lips to drain; once the
flavor pleased you, but now--now, think you not the dregs taste
somewhat cold?"

She shrunk at my glance--her head drooped, and drawing near a
projecting stone in the wall, she sat down upon it, pressing one hand
to her heart.

"No heart, no conscience, no memory!" I cried. "Great Heaven! that such
a thing should live and call itself woman! The lowest beast of the
field has more compassion for its kind! Listen: before Guido died he
knew me, even as my child, neglected by you, in her last agony knew her
father. She being innocent, passed in peace; but he!--imagine if you
can, the wrenching torture in which he perished, knowing all! How his
parted spirit must curse you!"

She raised her hands to her head and pushed away the light curls from
her brow. There was a starving, hunted, almost furious look in her
eyes, but she fixed them steadily on me.

"See," I went on--"here are more proofs of the truth of my story. These
things were buried with me," and I threw into her lap as she sat before
me the locket and chain, the card-case and purse she herself had given
me. "You will no doubt recognize them. This--" and I showed her the
monk's crucifix--"this was laid on my breast in the coffin. It may be
useful to you--you can pray to it presently!"

She interrupted me with a gesture of her hand; she spoke as though in a
dream.

"You escaped from this vault?" she said, in a low tone, looking from
right to left with searching eagerness. "Tell me how--and--where?"

I laughed scornfully, guessing her thoughts.

"It matters little," I replied. "The passage I discovered is now closed
and fast cemented. I have seen to that myself! No other living creature
left here can escape as I did. Escape is impossible."

A stifled cry broke from her; she threw herself at my feet, letting the
things I had given her as proofs of my existence fall heedlessly on the
floor.

"Fabio! Fabio!" she cried, "save me, pity me! Take me out to the
light--the air--let me live! Drag me through Naples--let all the crowd
see me dishonored, brand me with the worst of names, make of me a
common outcast--only let me feel the warm life throbbing in my veins! I
will do anything, say anything, be anything--only let me live! I loath
the cold and darkness--the horrible--horrible ways of death!" She
shuddered violently and clung to me afresh. "I am so young! and after
all, am I so vile? There are women who count their lovers by the score,
and yet they are not blamed; why should I suffer more than they?"

"Why, why?" I echoed, fiercely. "Because for once a husband takes the
law into his own hands--for once a wronged man insists on justice--for
once he dares to punish the treachery that blackens his honor! Were
there more like me there would be fewer like you! A score of lovers!
'Tis not your fault that you had but one! I have something else to say
which concerns you. Not content with fooling two men, you tried the
same amusement on a supposed third. Ay, you wince at that! While you
thought me to be the Count Oliva--while you were betrothed to me in
that character, you wrote to Guido Ferrari in Rome. Very charming
letters! here they are," and I flung them down to her. "I have no
further use for them--I have read them all!"

She let them lie where they fell; she still crouched at my feet, and
her restless movements loosened her cloak so far that it hung back from
her shoulders, showing the jewels that flashed on her white neck and
arms like points of living light. I touched the circlet of diamonds in
her hair--I snatched it from her.

"These are mine!" I cried, "as much as this signet I wear, which was
your love-gift to Guido Ferrari, and which you afterward returned to
me, its rightful owner. These are my mother's gems--how dared you wear
them? The stones _I_ gave you are your only fitting ornaments--they are
stolen goods, filched by the blood-stained hands of the blackest
brigand in Sicily! I promised you more like them; behold them!"--and I
threw open the coffin-shaped chest containing the remainder of Carmelo
Neri's spoils. It occupied a conspicuous position near where I stood,
and I had myself arranged its interior so that the gold ornaments and
precious stones should be the first things to meet her eyes. "You see
now," I went on, "where the wealth of the supposed Count Oliva came
from. I found this treasure hidden here on the night of my
burial--little did I think then what dire need I should have for its
usage! It has served me well; it is not yet exhausted; the remainder is
at your service!"



CHAPTER XXXVII.


At these words she rose from her knees and stood upright. Making an
effort to fasten her cloak with her trembling hands, she moved
hesitatingly toward the brigand's coffin and leaned over it, looking in
with a faint light of hope as well as curiosity in her haggard face. I
watched her in vague wonderment--she had grown old so suddenly. The
peach-like bloom and delicacy of her flesh had altogether
disappeared--her skin appeared drawn and dry as though parched in
tropical heat. Her hair was disordered, and fell about her in
clustering showers of gold--that, and her eyes, were the only signs of
youth about her. A sudden wave of compassion swept over my soul.

"Oh wife!" I exclaimed--"wife that I so ardently loved--wife that I
would have died for indeed, had you bade me!--why did you betray me? I
thought you truth itself--ay! and if you had but waited for one day
after you thought me dead, and THEN chosen Guido for your lover, I tell
you, so large was my tenderness, I would have pardoned you! Though
risen from the grave, I would have gone away and made no sign--yes if
you had waited--if you had wept for me ever so little! But when your
own lips confessed your crime--when I knew that within three months of
our marriage-day you had fooled me--when I learned that my love, my
name, my position, my honor, were used as mere screens to shelter your
intrigue with the man I called friend!--God! what creature of mortal
flesh and blood could forgive such treachery? I am no more than
others--but I loved you--and in proportion to my love, so is the
greatness of my wrongs!"

She listened--she advanced a little toward me--a faint smile dawned on
her pallid lips--she whispered:

"Fabio! Fabio!"

I looked at her--unconsciously my voice dropped into a cadence of
intense melancholy softened by tenderness.

"Ay--Fabio! What wouldst thou with a ghost of him? Does it not seem
strange to thee--that hated name?--thou, Nina, whom I loved as few men
love women--thou who gavest me no love at all--thou, who hast broken my
heart and made me what I am!"

A hard, heavy sob rose in my throat and choked my utterance. I was
young; and the cruel waste and destruction of my life seemed at that
moment more than I could bear. She heard me, and the smile brightened
more warmly on her countenance. She came close to me--half timidly yet
coaxingly she threw one arm about my neck--her bosom heaved quickly.

"Fabio," she murmured--"Fabio, forgive me! I spoke in haste--I do not
hate thee! Come! I will make amends for all thy suffering--I will love
thee--I will be true to thee, I will be all thine! See! thou knowest I
have not lost my beauty!"

And she clung to me with passion, raising her lips to mine, while with
her large inquiring eyes she searched my face for the reply to her
words. I gazed down upon her with sorrowful sternness.

"Beauty? Mere food for worms--I care not for it! Of what avail is a
fair body tenanted by a fiendish soul? Forgiveness?--you ask too late!
A wrong like mine can never be forgiven."

There ensued a silence. She still embraced me, but her eyes roved over
me as though she searched for some lost thing. The wind tore furiously
among the branches of the cypresses outside, and screamed through the
small holes and crannies of the stone-work, rattling the iron gate at
the summit of the stairway with a clanking sound, as though the famous
brigand chief had escaped with all his chains upon him, and were
clamoring for admittance to recover his buried property. Suddenly her
face lightened with an expression of cunning intensity--and before I
could perceive her intent--with swift agility she snatched from my vest
the dagger I carried!

"Too late!" she cried, with a wild laugh. "No; not too late!
Die--wretch!"

For one second the bright steel flashed in the wavering light as she
poised it in act to strike--the next, I had caught her murderous hand
and forced it down, and was struggling with her for the mastery of the
weapon. She held it with a desperate grip--she fought with me
breathlessly, clinging to me with all her force--she reminded me of
that ravenous unclean bird with which I had had so fierce a combat on
the night of my living burial. For some brief moments she was possessed
of supernatural strength--she sprung and tore at my clothes, keeping
the poniard fast in her clutch. At last I thrust her down, panting and
exhausted, with fury flashing in her eyes--I wrenched the steel from
her hand and brandished it above her.

"Who talks of murder NOW?" I cried, in bitter derision. "Oh, what a joy
you have lost! What triumph for you, could you have stabbed me to the
heart and left me here dead indeed! What a new career of lies would
have been yours! How sweetly you would have said your prayers with the
stain of my blood upon your soul! Ay! you would have fooled the world
to the end, and died in the odor of sanctity. And you dared to ask my
forgiveness--"

I stopped short--a strange, bewildered expression suddenly passed over
her face--she looked about her in a dazed, vague way--then her gaze
became suddenly fixed, and she pointed toward a dark corner and
shuddered.

"Hush--hush!" she said, in a low, terrified whisper. "Look! how still
he stands! how pale he seems! Do not speak--do not move--hush! he must
not hear your voice--I will go to him and tell him all--all--" She rose
and stretched out her arms with a gesture of entreaty:

"Guido! Guido!"

With a sudden chilled awe at my heart I looked toward the spot that
thus riveted her attention--all was shrouded in deep gloom. She caught
my arm.

"Kill him!" she whispered, fiercely--"kill him, and then I will love
you! Ah!" and with an exclamation of fear she began to retire swiftly
backward as though confronted by some threatening figure. "He is
coming--nearer! No, no, Guido! You shall not touch me--you dare
not--Fabio is dead and I am free--free!" She paused--her wild eyes
gazed upward--did she see some horror there? She put up both hands as
though to shield herself from some impending blow, and uttering a loud
cry she fell prone on the stone floor insensible. Or dead? I balanced
this question indifferently, as I looked down upon her inanimate form.
The flavor of vengeance was hot in my mouth, and filled me with
delirious satisfaction. True, I had been glad, when my bullet whizzing
sharply through the air had carried death to Guido, but my gladness had
been mingled with ruthfulness and regret. NOW, not one throb of pity
stirred me--not the faintest emotion of tenderness, Ferrari's sin was
great, but SHE tempted him--her crime outweighed his. And now--there
she lay white and silent--in a swoon that was like death--that might be
death for aught I knew--or cared! Had her lover's ghost indeed appeared
before the eyes of her guilty conscience? I did not doubt it--I should
scarcely have been startled had I seen the poor pale shadow of him by
my side, as I musingly gazed upon the fair fallen body of the traitress
who had wantonly wrecked both our lives.

"Ay, Guido," I muttered, half aloud--"dost see the work? Thou art
avenged, frail spirit--avenged as well as I--part thou in peace from
earth and its inhabitants!--haply thou shalt cleanse in pure fire the
sins of thy lower nature, and win a final pardon; but for her--is hell
itself black enough to match HER soul?"

And I slowly moved toward the stairway; it was time, I thought, with a
grim resolve--TO LEAVE HER! Possibly she was dead--if not--why then she
soon would be! I paused irresolute--the wild wind battered ceaselessly
at the iron gateway, and wailed as though with a hundred voices of
aerial creatures, lamenting. The torches were burning low, the darkness
of the vault deepened. Its gloom concerned me little--I had grown
familiar with its unsightly things, its crawling spiders, its strange
uncouth beetles, the clusters of blue fungi on its damp walls. The
scurrying noises made by bats and owls, who, scared by the lighted
candles, were hiding themselves in holes and corners of refuge,
startled me not at all--I was well accustomed to such sounds. In my
then state of mind, an emperor's palace were less fair to me than this
brave charnel house--this stone-mouthed witness of my struggle back to
life and all life's misery. The deep-toned bell outside the cemetery
struck ONE! We had been absent nearly two hours from the brilliant
assemblage left at the hotel. No doubt we were being searched for
everywhere--it mattered not! they would not come to seek us HERE. I
went on resolutely toward the stair--as I placed my foot on the firm
step of the ascent, my wife stirred from her recumbent position--her
swoon had passed. She did not perceive me where I stood, ready to
depart--she murmured something to herself in a low voice, and taking in
her hand the falling tresses of her own hair she seemed to admire its
color and texture, for she stroked it and restroked it and finally
broke into a gay laugh--a laugh so out of all keeping with her
surroundings, that it startled me more than her attempt to murder me.

She presently stood up with all her own lily-like grace and fairy
majesty; and smiling as though she were a pleased child, she began to
arrange her disordered dress with elaborate care. I paused wonderingly
and watched her. She went to the brigand's chest of treasure and
proceeded to examine its contents--laces, silver and gold embroideries,
antique ornaments, she took carefully in her hands, seeming mentally to
calculate their cost and value. Jewels that were set as necklaces,
bracelets and other trinkets of feminine wear she put on, one after the
other, till her neck and arms were loaded--and literally blazed with
the myriad scintillations of different-colored gems. I marveled at her
strange conduct, but did not as yet guess its meaning. I moved away
from the staircase and drew imperceptibly nearer to her--Hark! what was
that? A strange, low rumbling like a distant earthquake, followed by a
sharp cracking sound; I stopped to listen attentively. A furious gust
of wind rushed round the mausoleum shrieking wildly like some devil in
anger, and the strong draught flying through the gateway extinguished
two of the flaring candles. My wife, entirely absorbed in counting over
Carmelo Neri's treasures, apparently saw and heard nothing. Suddenly
she broke into another laugh--a chuckling, mirthless laugh such as
might come from the lips of the aged and senile. The sound curdled the
blood in my veins--it was the laugh of a mad-woman! With an earnest,
distinct voice I called to her:

"Nina! Nina!"

She turned toward me still smiling--her eyes were bright, her face had
regained its habitual color, and as she stood in the dim light, with
her rich tresses falling about her, and the clustering gems massed
together in a glittering fire against her white skin, she looked
unnaturally, wildly beautiful. She nodded to me, half graciously, half
haughtily, but gave me no answer. Moved with quick pity I called again:

"Nina!"

She laughed again--the same terrible laugh.

"Si, si! Son' bella, son' bellissima!" she murmured. "E tu, Guido mio?
Tu m'ami?"

Then raising one hand as though commanding attention she cried:

"Ascolta!" and began to sing clearly though feebly:

   "Ti saluto, Rosignuolo!
    Nel tuo duolo--ti saluto!
    Sei l'amante della rosa
    Che morendo si fa sposa!"

As the old familiar melody echoed through the dreary vault, my bitter
wrath against her partially lessened; with the swiftness of my southern
temperament a certain compassion stirred my soul. She was no longer
quite the same woman who had wronged and betrayed me--she had the
helplessness and fearful innocence of madness--in that condition I
could not have hurt a hair of her head. I stepped hastily forward--I
resolved to take her out of the vault--after all I would not leave her
thus--but as I approached, she withdrew from me, and with an angry
stamp of her foot motioned me backward, while a dark frown knitted her
fair brows.

"Who are you?" she cried, imperiously. "You are dead, quite dead! How
dare you come out of your grave!"

And she stared at me defiantly--then suddenly clasping her hands as
though in ecstasy, and seeming to address some invisible being at her
side, she said, in low, delighted tones:

"He is dead, Guido! Are you not glad?" She paused, apparently expecting
some reply, for she looked about her wonderingly, and continued--"You
did not answer me--are you afraid? Why are you so pale and stern? Have
you just come back from Rome? What have you heard? That I am
false?--oh, no! I will love you still--Ah! I forgot! you also are dead,
Guido! I remember now--you cannot hurt me any more--I am free--and
quite happy!"

Smiling, she continued her song:

   "Ti saluto, Sol di Maggio
    Col two raggio ti saluto!
    Sei l'Apollo del passato
    Sei l'amore incoronato!"

Again--again!--that hollow rumbling and crackling sound overhead. What
could it be?

"L'amore incoronato!" hummed Nina fitfully, as she plunged her round,
jeweled arm down again into the chest of treasure. "Si, si! Che morendo
si fa sposa--che morendo si fa sposa--ah!"

This last was an exclamation of pleasure; she had found some toy that
charmed her--it was the old mirror set in its frame of pearls. The
possession of this object seemed to fill her with extraordinary joy,
and she evidently retained no consciousness of where she was, for she
sat down on the upturned coffin, which had held my living body, with
absolute indifference. Still singing softly to herself, she gazed
lovingly at her own reflection, and fingered the jewels she wore,
arranging and rearranging them in various patterns with one hand, while
in the other she raised the looking-glass in the flare of the candles
which lighted up its quaint setting. A strange and awful picture she
made there--gazing with such lingering tenderness on the portrait of
her own beauty--while surrounded by the moldering coffins that silently
announced how little such beauty was worth--playing with jewels, the
foolish trinkets of life, in the abode of skeletons, where the password
is death! Thinking thus, I gazed at her, as one might gaze at a dead
body--not loathingly any more, but only mournfully. My vengeance was
satiated. I could not wage war against this vacantly smiling mad
creature, out of whom the spirit of a devilish intelligence and cunning
had been torn, and who therefore was no longer the same woman. Her loss
of wit should compensate for my loss of love. I determined to try and
attract her attention again. I opened my lips to speak--but before the
words could form themselves, that odd rumbling noise again broke on my
ears--this time with a loud reverberation that rolled overhead like the
thunder of artillery. Before I could imagine the reason of it--before I
could advance one step toward my wife, who still sat on the upturned
coffin, smiling at herself in the mirror--before I could utter a word
or move an inch, a tremendous crash resounded through the vault,
followed by a stinging shower of stones, dust, and pulverized mortar! I
stepped backward amazed, bewildered--speechless--instinctively shutting
my eyes--when I opened them again all was darkness--all was silence!
Only the wind howled outside more frantically than ever--a sweeping
gust whirled through the vault, blowing some dead leaves against my
face, and I heard the boughs of trees creaking noisily in the fury of
the storm. Hush!--was that a faint moan? Quivering in every limb, and
sick with a nameless dread, I sought in my pocket for matches--I found
them. Then with an effort, mastering the shuddering revulsion of my
nerves, I struck a light. The flame was so dim that for an instant I
could see nothing. I called loudly:

"Nina!" There was no answer.

One of the extinguished candles was near me; I lighted it with
trembling hands and held it aloft--then I uttered a wild shriek of
horror! Oh, God of inexorable justice, surely Thy vengeance was greater
than mine! An enormous block of stone, dislodged by the violence of the
storm, had fallen from the roof of the vault; fallen sheer down over
the very place where SHE had sat a minute or two before, fantastically
smiling! Crushed under the huge mass--crushed into the very splinters
of my own empty coffin, she lay--and yet--and yet--I could see nothing,
save one white hand protruding--the hand on which the marriage-ring
glittered mockingly! Even as I looked, that hand quivered
violently--beat the ground--and then--was still! It was horrible. In
dreams I see that quivering white hand now, the jewels on it sparkling
with derisive luster. It appeals, it calls, it threatens, it prays! and
when my time comes to die, it will beckon me to my grave! A portion of
her costly dress was visible--my eyes lighted on this--and I saw a slow
stream of blood oozing thickly from beneath the stone--the ponderous
stone that no man could have moved an inch--the stone that sealed her
awful sepulcher! Great Heaven! how fast the crimson stream of life
trickled!--staining the snowy lace of her garment with a dark and
dreadful hue! Staggering feebly like a drunken man--half delirious with
anguish--I approached and touched that small white hand that lay
stiffly on the ground--I bent my head--I almost kissed it, but some
strange revulsion rose in my soul and forbade the act!

In a stupor of dull agony I sought and found the crucifix of the monk
Cipriano that had fallen to the floor--I closed the yet warm
finger-tips around it and left it thus; an unnatural, terrible calmness
froze the excitement of my strained nerves.

"'Tis all I can do for thee!" I muttered, incoherently. "May Christ
forgive thee, though I cannot!"

And covering my eyes to shut out the sight before me I turned away. I
hurried in a sort of frenzy toward the stairway--on reaching the lowest
step I extinguished the torch I carried. Some impulse made me glance
back--and I saw what I see now--what I shall always see till I die! An
aperture had been made through the roof of the vault by the fall of the
great stone, and through this the fitful moon poured down a long
ghostly ray. The green glimmer, like a spectral lamp, deepened the
surrounding darkness, only showing up with fell distinctness one
object--that slender protruding wrist and hand, whiter than Alpine
snow! I gazed at it wildly--the gleam of the jewels down there hurt my
eyes--the shine of the silver crucifix clasped in those little waxen
fingers dazzled my brain-and with a frantic cry of unreasoning terror,
I rushed up the steps with a maniac speed--opened the iron gate through
which SHE would pass no more, and stood at liberty in the free air,
face to face with a wind as tempestuous as my own passions. With what
furious haste I shut the entrance to the vault! with what fierce
precaution I locked and doubled-locked it! Nay, so little did I realize
that she was actually dead, that I caught myself saying
aloud--"Safe--safe at last! She cannot escape--I have closed the secret
passage--no one will hear her cries--she will struggle a little, but it
will soon be over--she will never laugh any more--never kiss--never
love--never tell lies for the fooling of men!--she is buried as I
was--buried alive!"

Muttering thus to myself with a sort of sobbing incoherence, I turned
to meet the snarl of the savage blast of the night, with my brain
reeling, my limbs weak and trembling--with the heavens and earth
rocking before me like a wild sea--with the flying moon staring aghast
through the driving clouds--with all the universe, as it were, in a
broken and shapeless chaos about me; even so I went forth to meet my
fate--and left her!

      *      *      *      *      *

Unrecognized, untracked, I departed from Naples. Wrapped in my cloak,
and stretched in a sort of heavy stupor on the deck of the
"Rondinella," my appearance apparently excited no suspicion in the mind
of the skipper, old Antonio Bardi, with whom my friend Andrea had made
terms for my voyage, little aware of the real identity of the passenger
he recommended.

The morning was radiantly beautiful--the sparkling waves rose high on
tiptoe to kiss the still boisterous wind--the sunlight broke in a wide
smile of springtide glory over the world! With the burden of my agony
upon me--with the utter exhaustion of my overwrought nerves, I beheld
all things as in a feverish dream--the laughing light, the azure ripple
of waters--the receding line of my native shores--everything was
blurred, indistinct, and unreal to me, though my soul, Argus-eyed,
incessantly peered down, down into those darksome depths where SHE lay,
silent forever. For now I knew she was dead. Fate had killed her--not
I. All unrepentant as she was, triumphing in her treachery to the last,
even in her madness, still I would have saved her, though she strove to
murder me.

Yet it was well the stone had fallen--who knows!--if she had lived--I
strove not to think of her, and drawing the key of the vault from my
pocket, I let it drop with a sudden splash into the waves. All was
over--no one pursued me--no one inquired whither I went. I arrived at
Civita Vecchia unquestioned; from thence I travelled to Leghorn, where
I embarked on board a merchant trading vessel bound for South America.
Thus I lost myself to the world; thus I became, as it were, buried
alive for the second time. I am safely sepulchered in these wild woods,
and I seek no escape.

Wearing the guise of a rough settler, one who works in common with
others, hewing down tough parasites and poisonous undergrowths in order
to effect a clearing through these pathless solitudes, none can trace
in the strong stern man, with the care-worn face and white hair, any
resemblance to the once popular and wealthy Count Oliva, whose
disappearance, so strange and sudden, was for a time the talk of all
Italy. For, on one occasion when visiting the nearest town, I saw an
article in a newspaper, headed "Mysterious Occurrence in Naples," and I
read every word of it with a sensation of dull amusement.

From it I learned that the Count Oliva was advertised for. His abrupt
departure, together with that of his newly married wife, formerly
Contessa Romani, on the very night of their wedding, had created the
utmost excitement in the city. The landlord of the hotel where he
stayed was prosecuting inquiries--so was the count's former valet, one
Vincenzo Flamma. Any information would be gratefully received by the
police authorities. If within twelve months no news were obtained, the
immense properties of the Romani family, in default of existing
kindred, would be handed over to the crown.

There was much more to the same effect, and I read it with the utmost
indifference. Why do they not search the Romani vault?--I thought
gloomily--they would find some authentic information there! But I know
the Neapolitans well; they are timorous and superstitious; they would
as soon hug a pestilence as explore a charnel house. One thing
gladdened me; it was the projected disposal of my fortune. The crown,
the Kingdom of Italy, was surely as noble an heir as a man could have!
I returned to my woodland hut with a strange peace on my soul.

As I told you at first, I am a dead man--the world, with its busy life
and aims, has naught to do with me. The tall trees, the birds, the
whispering grasses are my friends and my companions--they, and they
only, are sometimes the silent witnesses of the torturing fits of agony
that every now and then overwhelm me with bitterness. For I suffer
always. That is natural. Revenge is sweet!--but who shall paint the
horrors of memory? My vengeance now recoils upon my own head. I do not
complain of this--it is the law of compensation--it is just. I blame no
one--save Her, the woman who wrought my wrong. Dead as she is I do not
forgive her; I have tried to, but I cannot! Do men ever truly forgive
the women who ruin their lives? I doubt it. As for me, I feel that the
end is not yet--that when my soul is released from its earthly prison,
I shall still be doomed in some drear dim way to pursue her treacherous
flitting spirit over the black chasms of a hell darker than
Dante's--she in the likeness of a wandering flame--I as her haunting
shadow; she, flying before me in coward fear--I, hasting after her in
relentless wrath--and this forever and ever!

But I ask no pity--I need none. I punished the guilty, and in doing so
suffered more than they--that is as it must always be. I have no regret
and no remorse; only one thing troubles me--one little thing--a mere
foolish fancy! It conies upon me in the night, when the large-faced
moon looks at me from heaven. For the moon is grand in this climate;
she is like a golden-robed empress of all the worlds as she sweeps in
lustrous magnificence through the dense violet skies. I shut out her
radiance as much as I can; I close the blind at the narrow window of my
solitary forest cabin; and yet do what I will, one wide ray creeps in
always--one ray that eludes all my efforts to expel it. Under the door
it comes, or through some unguessed cranny in the wood-work. I have in
vain tried to find the place of its entrance.

The color of the moonlight in this climate is of a mellow amber--so I
cannot understand why that pallid ray that visits me so often, should
be green--a livid, cold, watery green; and in it, like a lily in an
emerald pool, I see a little white hand on which the jewels cluster
thick like drops of dew! The hand moves--it lifts itself--the small
fingers point at me threateningly--they quiver--and then--they beckon
me slowly, solemnly, commandingly onward!--onward!--to some infinite
land of awful mysteries where Light and Love shall dawn for me no more.



The End





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