Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

A Roman Singer by F. Marion Crawford

Part 4 out of 6

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.6 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

summer there, at least.

Being anxious to see who the tall gentleman might be, of whom my
landlady had spoken, I posted myself in the street, at the foot of the
inclined bridle-path, leading to the castle gate. I walked up and down
for two hours, about the time I supposed they would all ride, hoping
to catch a glimpse of the party. Neither the count nor his daughter
knew me by sight, I was sure, and I felt quite safe. It was a long
time to wait, but at last they appeared, and I confess that I nearly
fell down against the wall when I saw them.

There they were on their horses, moving cautiously down the narrow
way above me. First came the count, sitting in his saddle as though
he were at the head of his old regiment, his great gray moustaches
standing out fiercely from his severe wooden face. Then came Hedwig,
whom I had not seen for a long time, looking as white and sorrowful
as the angel of death, in a close black dress, or habit, so that her
golden hair was all the colour there was to be seen about her.

But the third rider,--there was no mistaking that thin, erect figure,
dressed in the affectation of youth; those fresh pink cheeks, with the
snowy moustache, and the thick white hair showing beneath the jaunty
hat; the eagle nose and the bright eyes. Baron Benoni, and no other.

My first instinct was to hide myself; but before I could retreat
Benoni recognised me, even with my old clothes. Perhaps they are not
so much older than the others, compared with his fashionable garments.
He made no sign as the three rode by; only I could see by his eyes,
that were fixed angrily upon me, that he knew me, and did not wish to
show it. As for myself I stood stock still in amazement.

I had supposed that Benoni had really gone to Austria, as he had told
me he was about to do. I had thought him ignorant of the count's
retreat, save for the hint which had so luckily led me straight to the
mark. I had imagined him to be but a chance acquaintance of the Lira
family, having little or no personal interest in their doings.
Nevertheless, I had suspected him, as I have told you. Everything
pointed to a deception on his part. He had evidently gone immediately
from Rome to Fillettino. He must be intimate with the count, or the
latter would not have invited him to share a retreat seemingly
intended to be kept a secret. He also, I thought, must have some very
strong reason for consenting to bury himself in the mountains in
company with a father and daughter who could hardly be supposed to be
on good terms with each other.

But again, why had he seemed so ready to help me and to forward
Nino's suit? Why had he given me the smallest clue to the count's
whereabouts? Now I am not a strong man in action, but I am a very
cunning reasoner. I remembered the man, and the outrageous opinions
he had expressed, both to Nino and to me. Then I understood my
suspicions. It would be folly to expect such a man to have any real
sympathy or sense of friendship for anyone. He had amused himself by
promising to come back and go with me on my search, perhaps to make a
laughing-stock of me, or even of my boy, by telling the story to the
Liras afterwards. He had entertained no idea that I would go alone, or
that, if I went, I could be successful. He had made a mistake, and was
very angry; his eyes told me that. Then I made a bold resolution. I
would see him and ask him what he intended to do; in short, why he had
deceived me.

There would probably be no difficulty in the way of obtaining an
interview, I was not known to the others of the party, and Benoni
would scarcely refuse to receive me. I thought he would excuse
himself, with ready cynicism, and pretend to continue his offers of
friendship and assistance. I confess I regretted that I was so humbly
clad, in all my old clothes; but after all, I was travelling, you
know.

It was a bold resolution, I think, and I revolved the situation in my
mind during two days, thinking over what I should say. But with all my
thought I only found that everything must depend on Benoni's answer to
my own question--"Why?"

On the third day, I made myself look as fine as I could, and though my
heart beat loudly as I mounted the bridle-path, I put on a bold look
and rang the bell. It was a clanging thing, that seemed to creak on a
hinge, as I pulled the stout string from outside. A man appeared, and
on my inquiry said I might wait in the porch behind the great wooden
gate, while he delivered my message to his excellency the baron. It
seemed to take a long time, and I sat on a stone bench, eying the
courtyard curiously from beneath the archway. It was sunny and clean,
with an old well in the middle, but I could see nothing save a few
windows opening upon it. At last the man returned and said that I
might come with him.

I found Benoni, clad in a gorgeous dressing-gown, stalking up and down
a large vaulted apartment, in which there were a few new arm-chairs, a
table covered with books, and a quantity of ancient furniture that
looked unsteady and fragile, although it had been carefully dusted. A
plain green baize carpet covered about half the floor, and the
remainder was of red brick. The morning sun streamed in through tall
windows, and played in a rainbow-like effulgence on the baron's
many-coloured dressing-gown, as he paused in his walk to greet me.

"Well, my friend," said Benoni, gaily, "how in the name of the devil
did you get here?" I thought I had been right; he was going to play at
being my friend again.

"Very easily, by the help of your little hint," I replied, and I
seated myself, for I felt that I was master of the situation.

"Ah, if I had suspected you of being so intelligent, I would not have
given you any hint at all. You see I have not been to Austria on
business, but am here in this good old flesh of mine, such as it is."

"Consequently--" I began, and then stopped. I suddenly felt that
Benoni had turned the tables upon me, I could not tell how.

"Consequently," said he, continuing my sentence, "when I told you that
I was going to Austria I was lying."

"The frankness of the statement obliges me to believe that you are now
telling the truth," I answered, angrily. I felt uneasy. Benoni laughed
in his peculiar way.

"Precisely," he continued again, "I was lying. I generally do, for so
long as I am believed I deceive people; and when they find me out,
they are confused between truth and lying, so that they do not know
what to believe at all. By the by, I am wandering, I am sorry to see
you here. I hope you understand that." He looked at me with the most
cheerful expression. I believe I was beginning to be angry at his
insulting calmness. I did not answer him.

"Signor Grandi," he said in a moment, seeing I was silent, "I am
enchanted to see you, if you prefer that I should be. But may I
imagine if I can do anything more for you, now that you have heard
from my own lips that I am a liar? I say it again,--I like the
word,--I am a liar, and I wish I were a better one. What can I do for
you?"

"Tell me why you have acted this comedy," said I, recollecting at the
right moment the gist of my reflections during the past two days.

"Why? To please myself, good sir; for the sovereign; pleasure of
myself."

"I would surmise," I retorted tartly, "that it could not have been for
the pleasure of anyone else."

"Perhaps you mean, because no one else could be base enough to take
pleasure in what amuses me?" I nodded savagely at his question. "Very
good. Knowing this of me, do you further surmise that I should be so
simple as to tell you how I propose to amuse myself in the future?"
I recognised the truth of this, and I saw myself checkmated at the
outset. I therefore smiled, and endeavoured to seem completely
satisfied, hoping that his vanity would betray him into some hint of
the future. He seemed to have before taken pleasure in misleading me
with a fragment of truth, supposing that I could not make use of it.
I would endeavour to lead him into such a trap again.

"It is a beautiful country, is it not?" I remarked, going to the
window before which he stood, and looking out. "You must enjoy it
greatly, after the turmoil of society." You see, I was once as gay as
any of them, in the old days; and so I made the reflection that seemed
natural to his case, wondering how he would answer.

"It is indeed a very passable landscape," he said, indifferently.
"With horses and a charming companion one may kill a little time here,
and find a satisfaction in killing it." I noticed the slip, by which
he spoke of a single companion instead of two.

"Yes," I replied, "the count is said to be a most agreeable man."

He paused a moment, and the hesitation seemed to show that the count
was not the companion he had in his mind.

"Oh, certainly," he said at length, "the count is very agreeable, and
his daughter is the paragon of all the virtues and accomplishments."
There was something a little disparaging in his tone as he made the
last remark, which seemed to me a clumsy device to throw me off the
scent, if scent there were. Considering his surpassing personal
vanity, of which I had received an ocular demonstration when he
visited me in Rome, I fancied that if there were nothing more serious
in his thoughts he would have given me to understand that Hedwig found
him entirely irresistible. Since he was able to control his vanity,
there must be a reason for it.

"I should think that the contessina must be charmed at having so
brilliant a companion as yourself in her solitude," I said, feeling my
way to the point.

"With me? I am an old man. Children of that age detest old men." I
thought his manner constrained, and it was unlike him not to laugh as
he made the speech. The conviction grew upon me that Hedwig was the
object of his visit. Moreover, I became persuaded that he was but a
poor sort of villain, for he was impulsive, as villains should never
be. We leaned over the stone sill of the window, which he had opened
during the conversation. There was a little trail of ants climbing up
and down the wall at the side, and he watched them. One of the small
creatures, heavily laden with a seed of some sort, and toiling
painfully under the burden, had been separated from the rest, and
clambered over the edge of the window-sill. On reaching the level
surface it paused, as though very weary, and looked about, moving its
tiny horns. Benoni looked at it a moment, and then with one finger he
suddenly whisked the poor little thing into space. It hurt me to see
it, and I knew he must be cruel, for he laughed aloud. Somehow it
would have seemed less cruel to have brushed away the whole trail of
insects, rather than to pitch upon this one small tired workman,
overladen and forgotten by the rest.

"Why did you do that?" I asked involuntarily.

"Why? Why do I do anything? Because I please, the best of all
reasons."

"Of course; it was foolish of me to ask you. That is probably the
cause of your presence here. You would like to hurl my boy Nino from
the height he has reached in his love, and to satisfy your cruel
instincts you have come here to attack the heart of an innocent girl."
I watched him narrowly, and I have often wondered how I had the
courage to insult him. It was a bold shot at the truth, and his look
satisfied me that I was not very wide of the mark. To accuse a
gray-haired old man of attempting to win the affections of a young
girl would seem absurd enough. But if you had ever seen Benoni, you
would understand that he was anything but old, save for his snowy
locks. Many a boy might envy the strange activity of his thin limbs,
the bloom and freshness of his eager face, and the fire of his eyes.
He was impulsive, too; for instead of laughing at the absurdity of
the thing, or at what should have been its absurdity, as a more
accomplished villain would have done, he was palpably angry. He looked
quickly at me and moved savagely, so that I drew back, and it was not
till some moments later that it occurred to him that he ought to seem
amused.

"How ridiculous!" he cried at last, mastering his anger. "You are
joking."

"Oh, of course I am joking," I answered, leaving the window. "And now
I must wish you good-morning, with many apologies for my intrusion."
He must have been glad to be rid of me, but he politely insisted on
showing me to the gate. Perhaps he wanted to be sure that I should not
ask questions of the servants. As we passed through an outer hall we
came suddenly upon Hedwig entering from the opposite direction,
dressed in black, and looking like a beautiful shadow of pain. As I
have told you, she did not know me. Benoni bowed to the ground as she
went by, making some flattering speech about her appearance. She had
started slightly on first seeing us, and then she went on without
speaking; but there was on her face a look of such sovereign scorn and
loathing as I never saw on the features of any living being. And more
than scorn, for there was fear and hatred with it: so that if a glance
could tell a whole history, there would have been no detail of her
feeling for Benoni left to guess.

This meeting produced a profound impression on me, and I saw her face
in my dreams that night. Had anything been wanting to complete, in my
judgment, the plan of the situation in the castle, that something was
now supplied. The Jew had come there to get her for himself. She hated
him for his own sake; she hated him because she was faithful to Nino;
she hated him because he perhaps knew of her secret love for my boy.
Poor maiden, shut up for days and weeks to come with a man she dreaded
and scorned at once! The sight of her recalled to me that I had in my
pocket the letter Nino had sent me for her, weeks before, and which I
had found no means of delivering since I had been in Fillettino.
Suddenly I was seized with a mad determination to deliver it at any
cost. The baron bowed me out of the gate, and I paused outside when
the ponderous door had swung on its hinges and his footsteps were
echoing back through the court.

I sat down on the parapet of the bridle-path, and with my knife cut
some of the stitches that sewed my money between my two waistcoats. I
took out one of the bills of a hundred francs that were concealed
within, I found the letter Nino had sent me for Hedwig, and I once
more rang the bell. The man who had admitted me came again, and looked
at me in some astonishment. But I gave him no time to question me.

"Here is a note for a hundred francs," I said. "Take it, and give this
letter to the Signora Contessina. If you bring me a written answer
here to-morrow at this hour I will give you as much more." The man was
dumfounded for a moment, after which he clutched the money and the
letter greedily, and hid them in his coat.

"Your excellency shall be punctually obeyed," he said, with a deep
bow, and I went away.

It was recklessly extravagant of me to do this, but there was no other
course. A small bribe would have been worse than none at all. If you
can afford to pay largely it is better to bribe a servant than to
trust a friend. Your friend has nothing to gain by keeping your
secret, whereas the servant hopes for more money in the future, and
the prospect of profit makes him as silent as the grave.

I would certainly not have acted as I did had I not met Hedwig in the
hall. But the sight of her pale face and heavy eyes went to my heart,
and I would have given the whole of my little fortune to bring some
gladness to her, even though I might not see it. The situation, too,
was so novel and alarming that I felt obliged to act quickly, not
knowing what evils delay might produce.

On the following morning I went up to the gateway again and rang the
bell. The same man appeared. He slipped a note into my hand, and I
slipped a bill into his. But, to my surprise, he did not shut the door
and retire.

"The signorina said your excellency should read the note, and I
should accompany you," he said; and I saw he had his hat in his hand
as if ready to go. I tore open the note. It merely said that the
servant was trustworthy, and would "instruct the Signor Grandi" how to
act.

"You told the contessina my name, then?" I said to the man. He had
announced me to the baron, and consequently knew who I was. He nodded,
closed the door behind him, and came with me. When we were in the
street he explained that Hedwig desired to speak with me. He expounded
the fact that there was a staircase in the rock, leading to the level
of the town. Furthermore, he said that the old count and the baron
occasionally drank deeply, as soldiers and adventurers will do, to
pass the evening. The next time it occurred he, the faithful servant,
would come to my lodging and conduct me into the castle by the
aforesaid passage, of which he had the key.

I confess I was unpleasantly alarmed at the prospect of making a
burglarious entrance in such romantic fashion. It savoured more of the
last century than of the quiet and eminently respectable age in which
we live. But then, the castle of Fillettino was built hundreds of
years ago, and it is not my fault if it has not gone to ruin, like so
many others of its kind. The man recommended me to be always at home
after eight o'clock in the evening in case I were wanted, and to avoid
seeing the baron when he was abroad. He came and saw where I lived,
and with many bows he left me.

You may imagine in what anxiety I passed my time. A whole week
elapsed, and yet I was never summoned. Every evening at seven, an hour
before the time named, I was in my room waiting for someone who never
came. I was so much disturbed in mind that I lost my appetite and
thought of being bled again. But I thought it too soon, and contented
myself with getting a little tamarind from the apothecary.

One morning the apothecary, who is also the postmaster, gave me a
letter from Nino, dated in Rome. His engagement was over, he had
reached Rome, and he would join me immediately.

CHAPTER XV

As it often happens that, in affairs of importance, the minor events
which lead to the ultimate result seem to occur rapidly, and almost to
stumble over each other in their haste, it came to pass that on the
very evening after I had got Nino's letter I was sent for by the
contessina.

When the man came to call me I was sitting in my room, from force of
habit, though the long delay had made the possibility of the meeting
seem shadowy. I was hoping that Nino might arrive in time to go in my
place, for I knew that he would not be many hours behind his letter.
He would assuredly travel as fast as he could, and if he had
understood my directions he was not likely to go astray. But in spite
of my hopes the summons came too soon, and I was obliged to go myself.

Picture to yourselves how I looked and how I felt: a sober old
professor, as I am, stealing out in the night, all wrapped in a cloak
as dark and shabby as any conspirator's; armed with a good knife in
case of accidents; with beating heart, and doubting whether I could
use my weapon if needful; and guided to the place of tryst by the
confidential servant of a beautiful and unhappy maiden. I have often
laughed since then at the figure I must have cut, but I did not laugh
at the time. It was a very serious affair.

We skirted the base of the huge rock on which the castle is built, and
reached the small, low door without meeting anyone. It was a moonlit
night,--the Paschal moon was nearly at the full,--and the whiteness
made each separate iron rivet in the door stand out distinct, thrown
into relief by its own small shadow on the seamed oak. My guide
produced a ponderous key, which screamed hoarsely in the lock under
the pressure of his two hands, as he made it turn in the rusty wards.
The noise frightened me, but the man laughed, and said they could not
hear where they sat, far up in the vaulted chamber, telling long
stories over their wine. We entered, and I had to mount a little way
up the dark steps to give him room to close the door behind us, by
which we were left in total darkness. I confess I was very nervous and
frightened until he lighted a taper which he had brought and made
enough light to show the way. The stairs were winding and steep, but
perfectly dry, and when he had passed me I followed him, feeling that
at all events the door behind was closed, and there was someone
between me and any danger ahead.

The man paused in front of me, and when I had rounded the corner of
the winding steps I saw that a brighter light than ours shone from a
small doorway opening directly upon the stair. In another moment I was
in the presence of Hedwig von Lira. The man retired and left us.

She stood, dressed in black, against the rough stone; the strong light
of a gorgeous gilt lamp that was placed on the floor streamed upward
on her white face. Her eyes caught the brightness, and seemed to burn
like deep, dark gems, though they appeared so blue in the day. She
looked like a person tortured past endurance, so that the pain of
the soul has taken shape, and the agony of the heart has assumed
substance. Tears shed had hollowed the marble cheeks, and the stronger
suffering that cannot weep had chiselled out great shadows beneath her
brows. Her thin clasped hands seemed wringing each other into strange
shapes of woe; and though she stood erect as a slender pillar against
the black rock, it was rather from the courage of despair than because
she was straight and tall by her own nature.

I bent low before her, awed by the extremity of suffering I saw.

"Are you Signor Grandi?" she asked, in a low and trembling voice.

"Most humbly at your service, Signora Contessina," I answered. She put
out her hand to me, and then drew it back quickly, with a timid
nervous look as I moved to take it.

"I never saw you," she said, "but I feel as though you _must_ be a
friend--" She paused.

"Indeed, signorina, I am here for that reason," said I, trying to
speak stoutly, and so to inspire her with some courage. "Tell me how I
can best serve you; and though I am not young and strong like Nino
Cardegna, my boy, I am not so old but that I can do whatsoever you
command."

"Then in God's name, save me from this--" But again the sentence died
upon her lips, and she glanced anxiously at the door. I reflected that
if anyone came we should be caught like mice in a trap, and I made as
though I would look out upon the stairs. But she stopped me.

"I am foolishly frightened," she said. "That man is faithful, and
will keep watch." I thought it time to discover her wishes.

"Signorina," said I, "you ask me to save you. You do not say from
what. I can at least tell you that Nino Cardegna will be here in a day
or two--" At this sudden news she gave a little cry, and the blood
rushed to her cheeks, in strange contrast with their deathly
whiteness. She seemed on the point of speaking, but checked herself,
and her eyes, that had looked me through and through a moment before,
drooped modestly under my glance.

"Is it possible?" she said at last, in a changed voice. "Yes, if he
comes, I think the Signor Cardegna will help me."

"Madam," I said, very courteously, for I guessed her embarrassment,
"I can assure you that my boy is ready to give you his life in return
for the kindness he received at your hands in Rome." She looked up,
smiling through her tears, for the sudden happiness had moistened the
drooping lids.

"You are very kind, Signor Grandi. Signor Cardegna is, I believe, a
good friend of mine. You say he will be here?"

"I received a letter from him to-day, dated in Rome, in which he tells
me that he will start immediately. He may be here to-morrow morning,"
I answered. Hedwig had regained her composure, perhaps because she
was reassured by my manner of speaking about Nino. I, however, was
anxious to hear from her own lips some confirmation of my suspicions
concerning the baron. "I have no doubt," I continued presently, "that,
with your consent, my boy will be able to deliver you from this
prison--" I used the word at a venture. Had Hedwig suffered less, and
been less cruelly tormented, she would have rebuked me for the
expression. But I recalled her to her position, and her self-control
gave way at once.

"Oh, you are right to call it a prison!" she cried. "It is as much a
prison as this chamber hewed out of the rock, where so many a wretch
has languished hopelessly; a prison from which I am daily taken out
into the sweet sun, to breathe and be kept alive, and to taste how
joyful a thing liberty must be! And every day I am brought back, and
told that I may be free if I will consent. Consent! God of mercy!" she
moaned, in a sudden tempest of passionate despair. "Consent ever to
belong, body--and soul--to be touched, polluted, desecrated, by that
inhuman monster; sold to him, to a creature without pity, whose heart
is a toad, a venomous creeping thing--sold to him for this life, and
to the vengeance of God hereafter; bartered, traded, and told that I
am so vile and lost that the very price I am offered is an honour to
me, being so much more than my value." She came toward me as she
spoke, and the passionate, unshed tears that were in her seemed to
choke her, so that her voice was hoarse.

"And for what--for what?" she cried, wildly, seizing my arm and
looking fiercely into my eyes. "For what, I say? Because I gave him a
poor rose; because I let him see me once; because I loved his sweet
voice; because--because--I love him, and will love him, and do love
him, though I die!"

The girl was in a frenzy of passion and love and hate all together,
and did not count her words. The white heat of her tormented soul
blazed from her pale face and illuminated every feature, though she
was turned from the light, and she shook my arm in her grasp so that
it pained me. The marble was burnt in the fire, and must consume
itself to ashes. The white and calm statue was become a pillar of
flame in the life-and-death struggle for love. I strove to speak, but
could not, for fear and wonder tied my tongue. And indeed she gave me
short time to think.

"I tell you I love him, as he loves me," she continued, her voice
trembling upon the rising cadence, "with all my whole being. Tell him
so. Tell him he must save me, and that only he can: that for his sake
I am tortured, and scorned, and disgraced, and sold; my body thrown to
dogs, and worse than dogs; my soul given over to devils that tempt me
to kill and be free,--by my own father, for his sake. Tell him that
these hands he kissed are wasted with wringing small pains from each
other, but the greater pain drives them to do worse. Tell him, good
sir,--you are kind and love him, but not as I do,--tell him that this
golden hair of mine has streaks of white in these terrible two months;
that these eyes he loved are worn with weeping. Tell him--"

But her voice failed her, and she staggered against the wall, hiding
her face in her hands. A trembling breath, a struggle, a great wild
sob: the long-sealed tears were free, and flowed fast over her hands.

"Oh, no, no," she moaned, "you must not tell him that." Then choking
down her agony she turned to me: "You will not--you cannot tell him of
this? I am weak, ill, but I will bear everything for--for him." The
great effort exhausted her, and I think that if I had not caught her
she would have fallen, and she would have hurt herself very much on
the stone floor. But she is young, and I am not very strong, and could
not have held her up. So I knelt, letting her weight come on my
shoulder.

The fair head rested pathetically against my old coat, and I tried to
wipe away her tears with her long golden hair; for I had not any
handkerchief. But very soon I could not see to do it. I was crying
myself, for the pity of it all, and my tears trickled down and fell on
her thin hands. And so I kneeled, and she half lay and half sat upon
the floor, with her head resting on my shoulder; I was glad then to be
old, for I felt that I had a right to comfort her.

Presently she looked up into my face, and saw that I was weeping. She
did not speak, but found her little lace handkerchief, and pressed it
to my eyes,--first to one, and then to the other; and the action
brought a faint maidenly flush to her cheeks through all her own
sorrow. A daughter could not have done it more kindly.

"My child," I said at last, "be sure that your secret is safe in me.
But there is one coming with whom it will be safer."

"You are so good," she said, and her head sank once more, and nestled
against my breast, so that I could just see the bright tresses through
my gray beard. But in a moment she looked up again, and made as though
she would rise; and then I helped her, and we both stood on our feet.

Poor, beautiful, tormented Hedwig! I can remember it, and call up the
whole picture to my mind. She still leaned on my arm, and looked up to
me, her loosened hair all falling back upon her shoulders; and the
wonderful lines of her delicate face seemed made ethereal and angelic
by her sufferings.

"My dear," I said at last, smoothing her golden hair with my hand, as
I thought her mother would do, if she had a mother,--"my dear, your
interview with my boy may be a short one, and you may not have an
opportunity to meet at all for days. If it does not pain you too
much, will you tell me just what your troubles are here? I can then
tell him, so that you can save time when you are together." She gazed
into my eyes for some seconds, as though to prove me, whether I were a
true man.

"I think you are right," she answered, taking courage. "I will tell
you in two words. My father treats me as though I had committed some
unpardonable crime, which I do not at all understand. He says my
reputation is ruined. Surely that is not true?" She asked the question
so innocently and simply that I smiled.

"No, my dear, it is not true," I replied.

"I am sure I cannot understand it," she continued; "but he says so,
and insists that my only course is to accept what he calls the
advantageous offer which has suddenly presented itself. He insists
very roughly." She shuddered slightly. "He gives me no peace. It
appears that this creature wrote to ask my father for my hand when we
left Rome two months ago. The letter was forwarded, and my father
began at once to tell me that I must make up my mind to the marriage.
At first I used to be very angry; but seeing we were alone, I finally
determined to seem indifferent, and not to answer him when he talked
about it. Then he thought my spirit was broken, and he sent for Baron
Benoni, who arrived a fortnight ago. Do you know him, Signor Grandi?
You came to see him, so I suppose you do?" The same look of hatred and
loathing came to her face that I had noticed when Benoni and I met her
in the hall.

"Yes, I know him. He is a traitor, a villain," I said earnestly.

"Yes, and more than that. But he is a great banker in Russia--"

"A banker?" I asked, in some astonishment.

"Did you not know it? Yes; he is very rich, and has a great firm, if
that is the name for it. But he wanders incessantly, and his partners
take care of his affairs. My father says that I shall marry him or end
my days here."

"Unless you end his for him!" I cried, indignantly.

"Hush!" said she, and trembled violently. "He is my father, you know,"
she added, with sudden earnestness.

"But you cannot consent--" I began.

"Consent!" she interrupted with a bitter laugh. "I will die rather
than consent."

"I mean, you cannot consent to be shut up in this valley for ever."

"If need be, I will," she said, in a low voice.

"There is no need," I whispered.

"You do not know my father. He is a man of iron," she answered,
sorrowfully.

"You do not know my boy. He is a man of his word," I replied.

We were both silent, for we both knew very well what our words meant.
From such a situation there could be but one escape.

"I think you ought to go now," she said, at last. "If I were missed it
would all be over. But I am sorry to let you go, you are so kind. How
can you let me know--" She stopped, with a blush, and stooped to raise
the lamp from the floor.

"Can you not meet here to-morrow night, when they are asleep?" I
suggested, knowing what her question would have been.

"I will send the same man to you to-morrow evening, and let you know
what is possible," she said. "And now I will show you the way out of
my house," she added, with the first faint shadow of a smile. With the
slight gilt lamp in her hand she went out of the little rock chamber,
listened a moment, and began to descend the steps.

"But the key?" I asked, following her light footsteps with my heavier
tread.

"It is in the door," she answered, and went on.

When we reached the bottom we found it as she had said. The servant
had left the key on the inside, and with some difficulty I turned the
bolts. We stood for one moment in the narrow space, where the lowest
step was set close against the door. Her eyes flashed strangely in the
lamplight.

"How easy it would be!" I said, understanding her glance. She nodded,
and pushed me gently out into the street; and I closed the door, and
leaned against it as she locked it.

"Good-night," she said from the other side, and I put my mouth to the
key-hole. "Good-night. Courage!" I answered. I could hear her lightly
mounting the stone steps. It seemed wonderful to me that she should
not be afraid to go back alone. But love makes people brave.

The moon had risen higher during the time I had been within, and I
strolled round the base of the rock, lighting a cigar as I went. The
terrible adventure I had dreaded was now over, and I felt myself
again. In truth, it was a curious thing to happen to a man of my years
and my habits; but the things I had heard had so much absorbed my
attention that, while the interview lasted, I had forgotten the
strange manner of the meeting. I was horrified at the extent of the
girl's misery, more felt than understood from her brief description
and passionate outbreaks. There is no mistaking the strength of a
suffering that wastes and consumes the mortal part of us as wax melts
at the fire.

And Benoni--the villain! He had written to ask Hedwig in marriage
before he came to see me in Rome. There was something fiendish in his
almost inviting me to see his triumph, and I cursed him as I kicked
the loose stones in the road with my heavy shoes. So he was a banker,
as well as a musician and a wanderer. Who would have thought it?

"One thing is clear," I said to myself, as I went to bed: "unless
something is done immediately, that poor girl will consume herself and
die." And all that night her poor thin face and staring eyes were in
my dreams; so that I woke up several times, thinking I was trying to
comfort her, and could not. But toward dawn I felt sure that Nino was
coming, and that all would be well.

I was chatting with my old landlady the next morning, and smoking to
pass the time, when there was suddenly a commotion in the street. That
is to say, someone was arriving, and all the little children turned
out in a body to run after the stranger, while the old women came to
their doors with their knitting, and squinted under the bright
sunlight to see what was the matter.

It was Nino, of course--my own boy, riding on a stout mule, with a
countryman by his side upon another. He was dressed in plain gray
clothes, and wore high boots. His great felt hat drooped half across
his face, and hid his eyes from me; but there was no mistaking the
stern square jaw and the close even lips. I ran toward him and called
him by name. In a moment he was off his beast, and we embraced
tenderly.

"Have you seen her?" were the first words he spoke. I nodded, and
hurried him into the house where I lived, fearful lest some mischance
should bring the party from the castle riding by. He sent his man with
the mules to the inn, and when we were at last alone together he threw
himself into a chair, and took off his hat.

Nino too was changed in the two months that had passed. He had
travelled far, had sung lustily, and had been applauded to the skies;
and he had seen the great world. But there was more than all that in
his face. There were lines of care and of thought that well became his
masculine features. There was a something in his look that told of a
set purpose, and there was a light in his dark eyes that spoke a world
of warning to anyone who might dare to thwart him. But he seemed
thinner, and his cheeks were as white as the paper I write on.

Some men are born masters, and never once relax the authority they
exercise on those around them. Nino has always commanded me, as he
seems to command everybody else, in the fewest words possible. But he
is so true and honest and brave that all who know him love him; and
that is more than can be said for most artists. As he sat in his
chair, hesitating what question to ask first, or waiting for me to
speak, I thought that if Hedwig von Lira had searched the whole world
for a man able to deliver her from her cruel father and from her hated
lover she could have chosen no better champion than Nino Cardegna, the
singer. Of course you all say that I am infatuated with the boy, and
that I helped him to do a reckless thing, simply because I was blinded
by my fondness. But I maintain, and shall ever hold, that Nino did
right in this matter, and I am telling my story merely in order that
honest men may judge.

He sat by the window, and the sun poured through the panes upon his
curling hair, his travelling dress, and his dusty boots. The woman of
the house brought in some wine and water; but he only sipped the
water, and would not touch the wine.

"You are a dear, kind father to me," he said, putting out his hand
from where he sat, "and before we talk I must tell you how much I
thank you." Simple words, as they look on paper; but another man could
not have said so much in an hour as his voice and look told me.

CHAPTER XVI

"Nino mio," I began, "I saw the contessina last night. She is in a
very dramatic and desperate situation. But she greets you, and looks
to you to save her from her troubles." Nino's face was calm, but his
voice trembled a little as he answered:

"Tell me quickly, please, what the troubles are."

"Softly--I will tell you all about it. You must know that your friend
Benoni is a traitor to you, and is here. Do not look astonished. He
has made up his mind to marry the contessina, and she says she will
die rather than take him, which is quite right of her." At the latter
piece of news Nino sprang from his chair.

"You do not seriously mean that her father is trying to make her marry
Benoni?" he cried.

"It is infamous, my dear boy; but it is true."

"Infamous! I should think you could find a stronger word. How did you
learn this?" I detailed the circumstances of our meeting on the
previous night. While I talked Nino listened with intense interest,
and his face changed its look from anger to pity, and from pity to
horror. When I had finished, he was silent.

"You can see for yourself," I said, "that the case is urgent."

"I will take her away," said Nino, at last. "It will be very
unpleasant for the count. He would have been wiser to allow her to
have her own way."

"Do nothing rash, Nino mio. Consider a little what the consequences
would be if you were caught in the act of violently carrying off the
daughter of a man as powerful as Von Lira."

"Bah! You talk of his power as though we lived under the Colonnesi and
the Orsini, instead of under a free monarchy. If I am once married to
her, what have I to fear? Do you think the count would go to law about
his daughter's reputation? Or do you suppose he would try to murder
me?"

"I would do both, in his place," I answered. "But perhaps you are
right, and he will yield when he sees that he is outwitted. Think
again, and suppose that the contessina herself objects to such a
step."

"That is a different matter. She shall do nothing save by her own free
will. You do not imagine I would try to take her away unless she were
willing?" He sat down again beside me, and affectionately laid one
hand on my shoulder.

"Women, Nino, are women," I remarked.

"Unless they are angels," he assented.

"Keep the angels for Paradise, and beware of taking them into
consideration in this working-day world. I have often told you, my
boy, that I am older than you."

"As if I doubted that!" he laughed.

"Very well. I know something about women. A hundred women will tell
you that they are ready to flee with you; but not more than one in the
hundred will really leave everything and follow you to the end of the
world when the moment comes for running away. They always make a fuss
at the last and say it is too dangerous, and you may be caught. That
is the way of them. You will be quite ready with a ladder of ropes,
like one of Boccaccio's men, and a roll of banknotes for the journey,
and smelling-salts, and a cushion for the puppy dog, and a separate
conveyance for the maid, just according to the directions she has
given you; then, at the very last, she will perhaps say that she is
afraid of hurting her father's feelings by leaving him without any
warning. Be careful, Nino!"

"As for that," he answered, sullenly enough, "if she will not, she
will not; and I would not attempt to persuade her against her
inclination. But unless you have very much exaggerated what you saw in
her face, she will be ready at five minutes' notice. It must be very
like hell up there in that castle, I should think."

"Messer Diavolo, who rules over the house, will not let his prey
escape him so easily as you think."

"Her father?" he asked.

"No; Benoni. There is no creature so relentless as an old man in
pursuit of a young woman."

"I am not afraid of Benoni."

"You need not be afraid of her father," said I, laughing. "He is lame,
and cannot run after you." I do not know why it is that we Romans
laugh at lame people; we are sorry for them, of course, as we are for
other cripples.

"There is something more than fear in the matter," said Nino,
seriously. "It is a great thing to have upon one's soul."

"What?" I asked.

"To take a daughter away from her father without his consent,--or at
least without consulting him. I would not like to do it."

"Do you mean to ask the old gentleman's consent before eloping with
his daughter? You are a little donkey, Nino, upon my word."

"Donkey, or anything else you like, but I will act like a galantuomo.
I will see the count, and ask him once more whether he is willing to
let his daughter marry me. If not, so much the worse; he will be
warned."

"Look here, Nino," I said, astonished at the idea. "I have taught you
a little logic. Suppose you meant to steal a horse instead of a woman.
Would you go to the owner of the horse, with your hat in your hand,
and say, 'I trust your worship will not be offended if I steal this
horse, which seems to be a good animal and pleases me'; and then would
you expect him to allow you to steal his horse?"

"Sor Cornelio, the case is not the same. Women have a right to be
free, and to marry whom they please; but horses are slaves. However,
as I am not a thief, I would certainly ask the man for the horse; and
if he refused it, and I conceived that I had a right to have it, I
would take it by force and not by stealth."

"It appears to me that if you meant to get possession of what was not
yours, you might as well get it in the easiest possible way," I
objected. "But we need not argue the case. There is a much better
reason why you should not consult the count."

"I do not believe it," said Nino, stubbornly.

"Nevertheless, it is so. The Contessina di Lira is desperately
unhappy, and if nothing is done she may die. Young women have died of
broken hearts before now. You have no right to endanger her life by
risking failure. Answer me that, if you can, and I will grant you are
a cunning sophist, but not a good lover."

"There is reason in what you say now," he answered. "I had not thought
of that desperateness of the case which you speak of. You have seen
her." He buried his face in his hand, and seemed to be thinking.

"Yes, I have seen her, and I wish you had been in my place. You would
think differently about asking her father's leave to rescue her." From
having been anxious to prevent anything rash, it seemed that I was now
urging him into the very jaws of danger. I think that Hedwig's face
was before me, as it had been in reality on the previous evening. "As
Curione said to Caesar, delay is injurious to anyone who is fully
prepared for action. I remember also to have read somewhere that such
waste of time in diplomacy and palavering is the favourite resource of
feeble and timid minds, who regard the use of dilatory and ambiguous
measures as an evidence of the most admirable and consummate
prudence."

"Oh, you need not use so much learning with me," said Nino. "I assure
you that I will be neither dilatory nor ambiguous. In fact, I will go
at once, without even dusting my boots, and I will say, Give me your
daughter, if you can; and if you cannot, I will still hope to marry
her. He will probably say 'No,' and then I will carry her off. It
appears to me that is simple enough."

"Take my advice, Nino. Carry her off first, and ask permission
afterwards. It is much better. The real master up there is Benoni, I
fancy, and not the count. Benoni is a gentleman who will give you much
trouble. If you go now to see Hedwig's father, Benoni will be present
at the interview." Nino was silent, and sat stretching his legs before
him, his head on his breast. "Benoni," I continued, "has made up his
mind to succeed. He has probably taken this fancy into his head out of
pure wickedness. Perhaps he is bored, and really wants a wife. But I
believe he is a man who delights in cruelty, and would as lief break
the contessina's heart by getting rid of you as by marrying her." I
saw that he was not listening.

"I have an idea," he said at last. "You are not very wise, Messer
Cornelio, and you counsel me to be prudent and to be rash in the same
breath."

"You make very pretty compliments, Sor Nino," I answered, tartly. He
put out his hand deprecatingly.

"You are as wise as any man can be who is not in love," he said,
looking at me with his great eyes. "But love is the best counsellor."

"What is your idea?" I asked, somewhat pacified.

"You say they ride together every day. Yes--very good. The contessina
will not ride to-day, partly because she will be worn out with fatigue
from last night's interview, and partly because she will make an
effort to discover whether I have arrived to-day or not. You can count
on that."

"I imagine so."

"Very well," he continued; "in that case, one or two things will
happen: either the count will go out alone, or they will all stay at
home."

"Why will Benoni not go out with the count?"

"Because Benoni will hope to see Hedwig alone if he stays at home, and
the count will be very glad to give him the opportunity."

"I think you are right, Nino. You are not so stupid as I thought."

"In war," continued the boy, "a general gains a great advantage by
separating his adversary's forces. If the count goes out alone, I will
present myself to him in the road, and tell him what I want."

"Now you are foolish again. You should, on the contrary, enter the
house when the count is away, and take the signorina with you then and
there. Before he could return you would be miles on the road to Rome."

"In the first place, I tell you once and for all, Sor Cornelio," he
said, slowly, "that such an action would be dishonourable, and I will
not do anything of the kind. Moreover, you forget that, if I followed
your advice, I should find Benoni at home,--the very man from whom you
think I have everything to fear. No; I must give the count one fair
chance." I was silent, for I saw he was determined, and yet I would
not let him think I was satisfied.

The idea of losing an advantage by giving an enemy any sort of warning
before the attack seemed to me novel in the extreme; but I comprehended
that Nino saw in his scheme a satisfaction to his conscience, and
smelled in it a musty odour of forgotten knight-errantry that he had
probably learned to love in his theatrical experiences. I had certainly
not expected that Nino Cardegna, the peasant child, would turn out to
be the pink of chivalry and the mirror of honour. But I could not help
admiring his courage, and wondering if it would not play him false at
the perilous moment. I did not half know him then, though he had been
with me for so many years. But I was very anxious to ascertain from
him what he meant to do, for I feared that his bold action would make
trouble, and I had visions of the count and Benoni together taking
sudden and summary vengeance on myself.

"Nino," I said, "I have made great sacrifices to help you in finding
these people,"--I would not tell him I had sold my vineyard to make
preparations for a longer journey, though he has since found it
out,--"but if you are going to do anything rash I will get on my
little ass and ride a few miles from the village until it is over."
Nino laughed aloud.

"My dear professor," he said, "do not be afraid. I will give you
plenty of time to get out of the way. Meanwhile, the contessina is
certain to send the confidential servant of whom you speak to give me
instructions. If I am not here, you ought to be, in order to receive
the message. Now listen to me."

I prepared to be attentive and to hear his scheme. I was by no means
expecting the plan he proposed.

"The count may take it into his head to ride at a different hour, if
he rides alone," he began. "I will therefore have my mule saddled now,
and will station my man--a countryman from Subiaco and good for any
devilry--in some place where he can watch the entrance to the house,
or the castle, or whatever you call this place. So soon as he sees the
count come out he will call me. As a man can ride in only one of two
directions in this valley, I shall have no trouble whatever in meeting
the old gentleman, even if I cannot overtake him with my mule."

"Have you any arms, Nino?"

"No. I do not want weapons to face an old man in broad daylight; and
he is too much of a soldier to attack me if I am defenceless. If the
servant comes after I am gone, you must remember every detail of what
he says, and you must also arrange a little matter with him. Here is
money, as much as will keep any Roman servant quiet. The man will be
rich before we have done with him. I will write a letter which he must
deliver; but he must also know what he has to do.

"At twelve o'clock to-night the contessina must positively be at the
door of the staircase by which you entered yesterday. _Positively_--do
you understand? She will then choose for herself between what she is
suffering now and flight with me. If she chooses to fly, my mules and
my countryman will be ready. The servant who admits me had better make
the best of his way to Rome, with the money he has got. There will be
difficulties in the way of getting the contessina to the staircase,
especially as the count will be in a towering passion with me, and
will not sleep much. But he will not have the smallest idea that I
shall act so suddenly, and he will fancy that when once his daughter
is safe within the walls for the night she will not think of escaping.
I do not believe he even knows of the existence of this staircase. At
all events, it appears, from your success in bribing the first man you
met, that the servants are devoted to her interests and their own and
not at all to those of her father."

"I cannot conceive, Nino," said I, "why you do not put this bold plan
into execution without seeing the count first, and making the whole
thing so dangerous. If he takes alarm in the night he will catch you
fast enough on his good horses before you are at Trevi."

"I am determined to act as I propose," said Nino, "because it is a
thousand times more honourable, and because I am certain that the
contessina would not have me act otherwise. She will also see for
herself that flight is best; for I am sure the count will make a scene
of some kind when he comes home from meeting me. If she knows she can
escape to-night she will not suffer from what he has to say; but she
will understand that without the prospect of freedom she would suffer
very much."

"Where did you learn to understand women, my boy?" I asked.

"I do not understand women in general," he answered, "but I
understand very well the only woman who exists for me personally. I
know that she is the soul of honour, and that at the same time she has
enough common sense to perceive the circumstances of the situation."

"But how will you make sure of not being overtaken?" I objected,
making a last feeble stand against his plan.

"That is simple enough. My countryman from Subiaco knows every inch of
these hills. He says that the pass above Fillettino is impracticable
for any animals save men, mules, and donkeys. A horse would roll down
at every turn. My mules are the best of their kind, and there are none
like them here. By sunrise I shall be over the Serra and well on the
way to Ceprano, or whatever place I may choose for joining the
railroad."

"And I? Will you leave me here to be murdered by that Prussian devil?"
I asked, in some alarm.

"Why, no, padre mio. If you like, you can start for Rome at sunset, or
as soon as I return from meeting the count; or you can get on your
donkey and go up the pass, where we shall overtake you. Nobody will
harm you, in your disguise, and your donkey is even more surefooted
than my mules. It will be a bright night, too, for the moon is full."

"Well, well, Nino," said I at last, "I suppose you will have your own
way, as you always do in the world. And if it must be so, I will go up
the pass alone, for I am not afraid at all. It would be against all
the proprieties that you should be riding through a wild country alone
at night with the young lady you intend to marry; and if I go with you
there will be nothing to be said, for I am a very proper person, and
hold a responsible position in Rome. But for charity's sake, do not
undertake anything of this kind again--"

"Again?" exclaimed Nino, in surprise. "Do you expect me to spend my
life in getting married,--not to say in eloping?"

"Well, I trust that you will have enough of it this time."

"I cannot conceive that when a man has once married the woman he loves
he should ever look at another," said Nino, gravely.

"You are a most blessed fellow," I exclaimed.

Nino found my writing materials, which consisted of a bad steel pen,
some coarse ruled paper, and a wretched little saucer of ink, and
began writing an epistle to the contessina. I watched him as he wrote,
and I smoked a little to pass the time. As I looked at him I came to
the conclusion that to-day, at least, he was handsome. His thick hair
curled about his head, and his white skin was as pale and clear as
milk. I thought that his complexion had grown less dark than it used
to be, perhaps from being so much in the theatre at night. That takes
the dark blood out of the cheeks. But any woman would have looked
twice at him. Besides, there was, as there is now, a certain
marvellous neatness and spotlessness about his dress; but for his
dusty boots you would not have guessed he had been travelling. Poor
Nino. When he had not a penny in the world but what he earned by
copying music, he used to spend it all with the washerwoman, so that
Mariuccia was often horrified, and I reproved him for the
extravagance.

At last he finished writing, and put his letter into the only envelope
there was left. He gave it to me, and said he would go out and order
his mules to be ready.

"I may be gone all day," he said, "and I may return in a few hours. I
cannot tell. In any case, wait for me, and give the letter and all
instructions to the man, if he comes." Then he thanked me once more
very affectionately, and having embraced me he went out.

I watched him from the window, and he looked up and waved his hand. I
remember it very distinctly--just how he looked. His face was paler
than ever, his lips were close set, though they smiled, and his eyes
were sad. He is an incomprehensible boy--he always was.

I was left alone, with plenty of time for meditation, and I assure you
my reflections were not pleasant. O love, love, what madness you drive
us into, by day and night! Surely it is better to be a sober professor
of philosophy than to be in love, ever so wildly, or sorrowfully, or
happily. I do not wonder that a parcel of idiots have tried to prove
that Dante loved philosophy and called it Beatrice. He would have been
a sober professor, if that were true, and a happier man. But I am sure
it is not true, for I was once in love myself.

CHAPTER XVII

It fell out as Nino had anticipated, and when he told me all the
details, some time afterwards, it struck me that he had shown an
uncommon degree of intelligence in predicting that the old count would
ride alone that day. He had, indeed, so made his arrangements that
even if the whole party had come out together nothing worse would have
occurred than a postponement of the interview he sought. But he was
destined to get what he wanted that very day, namely, an opportunity
of speaking with Von Lira alone.

It was twelve o'clock when he left me, and the mid-day bell was
ringing from the church, while the people bustled about getting their
food. Every old woman had a piece of corn cake, and the ragged
children got what they could, gathering the crumbs in their mothers'
aprons. A few rough fellows who were not away at work in the valley
munched the maize bread with a leek and a bit of salt fish, and some
of them had oil on it. Our mountain people eat scarcely anything else,
unless it be a little meat on holidays, or an egg when the hens are
laying. But they laugh and chatter over the coarse fare, and drink a
little wine when they can get it. Just now, however, was the season
for fasting, being the end of Holy Week, and the people made a virtue
of necessity, and kept their eggs and their wine for Easter.

When Nino went out he found his countryman, and explained to him what
he was to do. The man saddled one of the mules and put himself on the
watch, while Nino sat by the fire in the quaint old inn and ate some
bread. It was the end of March when these things happened, and a
little fire was grateful, though one could do very well without it. He
spread his hands to the flame of the sticks, as he sat on the wooden
settle by the old hearth, and he slowly gnawed his corn cake, as
though a week before he had not been a great man in Paris, dining
sumptuously with famous people. He was not thinking of that. He was
looking in the flame for a fair face that he saw continually before
him, day and night. He expected to wait a long time,--some hours,
perhaps.

Twenty minutes had not elapsed, however, before his man came
breathless through the door, calling to him to come at once; for the
solitary rider had gone out, as was expected, and at a pace that would
soon take him out of sight. Nino threw his corn bread to a hungry dog
that yelped as it hit him, and then fastened on it like a beast of
prey.

In the twinkling of an eye he and his man were out of the inn. As
they ran to the place where the mule was tied to an old ring in the
crumbling wall of a half-ruined house near to the ascent to the
castle, the man told Nino that the fine gentleman had ridden toward
Trevi, down the valley, Nino mounted, and hastened in the same
direction.

As he rode he reflected that it would be wiser to meet the count on
his return, and pass him after the interview, as though going away
from Fillettino. It would be a little harder for the mule; but such
an animal, used to bearing enormous burdens for twelve hours at a
stretch, could well carry Nino only a few miles of good road before
sunset, and yet be fresh again by midnight. One of those great sleek
mules, if good-tempered, will tire three horses, and never feel the
worse for it. He therefore let the beast go her own pace along the
road to Trevi, winding by the brink of the rushing torrent: sometimes
beneath great overhanging cliffs, sometimes through bits of cultivated
land, where the valley widens; and now and then passing under some
beech-trees, still naked and skeleton-like in the bright March air.

But Nino rode many miles, as he thought, without meeting the count,
dangling his feet out of the stirrups, and humming snatches of song to
himself to pass the time. He looked at his watch,--a beautiful gold
one, given him by a very great personage in Paris,--and it was
half-past two o'clock. Then, to avoid tiring his mule, he got off and
sat by a tree, at a place where he could see far along the road. But
three o'clock came, and a quarter past, and he began to fear that the
count had gone all the way to Trevi. Indeed, Trevi could not be very
far off, he thought. So he mounted again, and paced down the valley.
He says that in all that time he never thought once of what he should
say to the count when he met him, having determined in his mind once
and for all what was to be asked; to which the only answer must be
"yes" or "no."

At last, before he reached the turn in the valley, and just as the sun
was passing down behind the high mountains on the left, beyond the
stream, he saw the man he had come out to meet, not a hundred yards
away, riding toward him on his great horse, at a foot pace. It was the
count, and he seemed lost in thought, for his head was bent on his
breast, and the reins hung carelessly loose from his hand. He did not
raise his eyes until he was close to Nino, who took off his hat and
pulled up short.

The old count was evidently very much surprised, for he suddenly
straightened himself in his saddle, with a sort of jerk, and glared
savagely at Nino; his wooden features appearing to lose colour, and
his long moustache standing out and bristling. He also reined in his
horse, and the pair sat on their beasts, not five yards apart, eying
each other like a pair of duelists. Nino was the first to speak, for
he was prepared.

"Good day, Signor Conte," he said, as calmly as he could. "You have
not forgotten me, I am sure." Lira looked more and more amazed as he
observed the cool courtesy with which he was accosted. But his polite
manner did not desert him even then, for he raised his hat.

"Good-day," he said, briefly, and made his horse move on. He was too
proud to put the animal to a brisker pace than a walk, lest he should
seem to avoid an enemy. But Nino turned his mule at the same time.

"Pardon the liberty, sir," he said, "but I would take advantage of
this opportunity to have a few words with you."

"It is a liberty, as you say, sir," replied Lira, stiffly, and looking
straight before him. "But since you have met me, say what you have to
say quickly." He talked in the same curious constructions as formerly,
but I will spare you the grammatical vagaries.

"Some time has elapsed," continued Nino, "since our unfortunate
encounter. I have been in Paris, where I have had more than common
success in my profession. From being a very poor teacher of Italian to
the signorina, your daughter, I am become an exceedingly prosperous
artist. My character is blameless and free from all stain, in spite
of the sad business in which we were both concerned, and of which you
knew the truth from the dead lady's own lips."

"What then?" growled Lira, who had listened grimly, and was fast
losing his temper. "What then? Do you suppose, Signor Cardegna, that
I am still interested in your comings and goings?"

"The sequel to what I have told you, sir," answered Nino, bowing
again, and looking very grave, "is that I once more most respectfully
and honestly ask you to give me the hand of your daughter, the
Signorina Hedwig von Lira."

The hot blood flushed the old soldier's hard features to the roots of
his gray hair, and his voice trembled as he answered:

"Do you intend to insult me, sir? If so, this quiet road is a
favourable spot for settling the question. It shall never be said that
an officer in the service of his majesty the King and Emperor refused
to fight with anyone,--with his tailor, if need be." He reined his
horse from Nino's side, and eyed him fiercely.

"Signor Conte," answered Nino, calmly, "nothing could be further from
my thoughts than to insult you, or to treat you in any way with
disrespect. And I will not acknowledge that anything you can say can
convey an insult to myself." Lira smiled in a sardonic fashion. "But,"
added Nino, "if it would give you any pleasure to fight, and if you
have weapons, I shall be happy to oblige you. It is a quiet spot, as
you say, and it shall never be said that an Italian artist refused to
fight a German soldier."

"I have two pistols in my holsters," said Lira, with a smile. "The
roads are not safe, and I always carry them."

"Then, sir, be good enough to select one and to give me the other,
and we will at once proceed to business."

The count's manner changed. He looked grave.

"I have the pistols, Signor Cardegna, but I do not desire to use them.
Your readiness satisfies me that you are in earnest, and we will
therefore not fight for amusement. I need not defend myself from any
charge of unwillingness, I believe," he added, proudly.

"In that case, sir," said Nino, "and since we have convinced each
other that we are serious and desire to be courteous, let us converse
calmly."

"Have you anything more to say?" asked the count, once more allowing
his horse to pace along the dusty road, while Nino's mule walked by
his side.

"I have this to say, Signor Conte," answered Nino: "that I shall not
desist from desiring the honour of marrying your daughter, if you
refuse me a hundred times. I wish to put it to you whether with youth,
some talent,--I speak modestly,--and the prospect of a plentiful
income, I am not as well qualified to aspire to the alliance as Baron
Benoni, who has old age, much talent, an enormous fortune, and the
benefit of the Jewish faith into the bargain."

The count winced palpably at the mention of Benoni's religion. No
people are more insanely prejudiced against the Hebrew race than the
Germans. They indeed maintain that they have greater cause than
others, but it always appears to me that they are unreasonable about
it. Benoni chanced to be a Jew, but his peculiarities would have been
the same had he been a Christian or an American. There is only one
Ahasuerus Benoni in the world.

"There is no question of Baron Benoni here," said the count severely,
but hurriedly. "Your observations are beside the mark. The objections
to the alliance, as you call it, are that you are a man of the
people,--I do not desire to offend you,--a plebeian, in fact; you are
also a man of uncertain fortune, like all singers: and lastly, you are
an artist. I trust you will consider these points as a sufficient
reason for my declining the honour you propose."

"I will only say," returned Nino, "that I venture to consider your
reasons insufficient, though I do not question your decision. Baron
Benoni was ennobled for a loan made to a Government in difficulties;
he was, by his own account, a shoemaker by early occupation, and a
strolling musician--a great artist if you like--by the profession he
adopted."

"I never heard these facts," said Lira, "and I suspect that you have
been misinformed. But I do not wish to continue the discussion of the
subject."

Nino says that after the incident of the pistols the interview passed
without the slightest approach to ill-temper on either side. They both
felt that if they disagreed they were prepared to settle their
difficulties then and there, without any further ado.

"Then, sir, before we part, permit me to call your attention to a
matter which must be of importance to you," said Nino. "I refer to the
happiness of the Signorina di Lira. In spite of your refusal of my
offer, you will understand that the welfare of that lady must always
be to me of the greatest importance."

Lira bowed his head stiffly, and seemed inclined to speak, but changed
his mind, and held his tongue, to see what Nino would say.

"You will comprehend, I am sure," continued the latter, "that in the
course of those months, during which I was so far honoured as to be
of service to the contessina, I had opportunities of observing her
remarkably gifted intelligence. I am now credibly informed that she is
suffering from ill health. I have not seen her, nor made any attempt
to see her, as you might have supposed, but I have an acquaintance in
Fillettino who has seen her pass his door daily. Allow me to remark
that a mind of such rare qualities must grow sick if driven to feed
upon itself in solitude. I would respectfully suggest that some gayer
residence than Fillettino would be a sovereign remedy for her
illness."

"Your tone and manner," replied the count, "forbid my resenting your
interference. I have no reason to doubt your affection for my
daughter, but I must request you to abandon all idea of changing my
designs. If I choose to bring my daughter to a true sense of her
position by somewhat rigorous methods, it is because I am aware that
the frailty of reputation surpasses the frailty of woman. I will say
this to your credit, sir, that if she has not disgraced herself, it
has been in some measure because you wisely forbore from pressing your
suit while you were received as an instructor beneath my roof. I am
only doing my duty in trying to make her understand that her good name
has been seriously exposed, and that the best reparation she can make
lies in following my wishes, and accepting the honourable and
advantageous marriage I have provided for her. I trust that this
explanation, which I am happy to say has been conducted with the
strictest propriety, will be final, and that you will at once desist
from any further attempts toward persuading me to consent to a union
that I disapprove."

Lira once more stopped his horse in the road, and taking off his hat
bowed to Nino.

"And I, sir," said Nino, no less courteously, "am obliged to you for
your clearly-expressed answer. I shall never cease to regret your
decision, and so long as I live I shall hope that you may change your
mind. Good-day, Signor Conte," and he bowed to his saddle.

"Good-day, Signor Cardegna." So they parted: the count heading
homeward toward Fillettino, and Nino turning back toward Trevi.

By this manoeuvre he conveyed to the count's mind the impression that
he had been to Fillettino for the day, and was returning to Trevi for
the evening; and in reality the success of his enterprise, since
his representations had failed, must depend upon Hedwig being
comparatively free during the ensuing night. He determined to wait by
the roadside until it should be dark, allowing his mule to crop
whatever poor grass she could find at this season, and thus giving the
count time to reach Fillettino, even at the most leisurely pace.

He sat down upon the root of a tree, and allowed his mule to graze at
liberty. It was already growing dark in the valley; for between the
long speeches of civility the two had employed and the frequent pauses
in the interview, the meeting had lasted the greater part of an hour.

Nino says that while he waited he reviewed his past life and his
present situation.

Indeed, since he had made his first appearance in the theatre, three
months before, events had crowded thick and fast in his life. The
first sensation of a great public success is strange to one who has
long been accustomed to live unnoticed and unhonoured by the world. It
is at first incomprehensible that one should have suddenly grown to be
an object of interest and curiosity to one's fellow-creatures, after
having been so long a looker-on. At first a man does not realise that
the thing he has laboured over, and studied, and worked on, can be
actually anything remarkable. The production of the every-day task has
long grown a habit, and the details which the artist grows to admire
and love so earnestly have each brought with them their own reward.
Every difficulty vanquished, every image of beauty embodied, every new
facility of skill acquired, has been in itself a real and enduring
satisfaction for its own sake, and for the sake of its fitness to the
whole,--the beautiful perfect whole he has conceived.

But he must necessarily forget, if he loves his work, that those who
come after, and are to see the expression of his thought, or hear the
mastery of his song, see or hear it all at once; so that the
assemblage of the lesser beauties, over each of which the artist has
had great joy, must produce a suddenly multiplied impression upon the
understanding of the outside world, which sees first the embodiment of
the thought, and has then the after-pleasure of appreciating the
details. The hearer is thrilled with a sense of impassioned beauty,
which the singer may perhaps feel when he first conceives the
interpretation of the printed notes, but which goes over farther from
him as he strives to approach it and realise it; and so his admiration
for his own song is lost in dissatisfaction with the failings which
others have not time to see.

Before he is aware of the change, a singer has become famous, and all
men are striving for a sight of him, or a hearing. There are few like
Nino, whose head was not turned at all by the flattery and the praise,
being occupied with other things. As he sat by the roadside, he
thought of the many nights when the house rang with cheers and cries
and all manner of applause; and he remembered how, each time he looked
his audience in the face, he had searched for the one face of all
faces that he cared to see, and had searched in vain.

He seemed now to understand that it was his honest-hearted love for
the fair northern girl that had protected him from caring for the
outer world, and he now realised what the outer world was. He fancied
to himself what his first three months of brilliant success might have
been, in Rome and Paris, if he had not been bound by some strong tie
of the heart to keep him serious and thoughtful. He thought of the
women who had smiled upon him, and of the invitations that had
besieged him, and of the consternation that had manifested itself when
he declared his intention of retiring to Rome, after his brilliant
engagement in Paris, without signing any further contract.

Then came the rapid journey, the excitement, the day in Rome, the
difficulties of finding Fillettino; and at last he was here, sitting
by the roadside, and waiting for it to be time to carry into execution
the bold scheme he had set before him. His conscience was at rest, for
he now felt that he had done all that the most scrupulous honour could
exact of him. He had returned in the midst of his success to make an
honourable offer of marriage, and he had been refused,--because he was
a plebeian, forsooth! And he knew also that the woman he loved was
breaking her heart for him.

What wonder that he set his teeth, and said to himself that she should
be his, at any price! Nino has no absurd ideas about the ridicule that
attaches to loving a woman, and taking her if necessary. He has not
been trained up in the heart of the wretched thing they call society,
which ruined me long ago. What he wants he asks for, like a child, and
if it is refused, and his good heart tells him that he has a right to
it, he takes it like a man, or like what a man was in the old time
before the Englishman discovered that he is an ape. Ah, my learned
colleagues, we are not so far removed from the ancestral monkey but
that there is serious danger of our shortly returning to that
primitive and caudal state! And I think that my boy and the Prussian
officer, as they sat on their beasts and bowed, and smiled, and
offered to fight each other, or to shake hands, each desiring to
oblige the other, like a couple of knights of the old ages, were a
trifle farther removed from our common gorilla parentage than some of
us.

But it grew dark, and Nino caught his mule and rode slowly back to the
town, wondering what would happen before the sun rose on the other
side of the world. Now, lest you fail to understand wholly how the
matter passed, I must tell you a little of what took place during the
time that Nino was waiting for the count, and Hedwig was alone in the
castle with Baron Benoni. The way I came to know is this: Hedwig told
the whole story to Nino, and Nino told it to me,--but many months
after that eventful day, which I shall always consider as one of the
most remarkable in my life. It was Good Friday, last year, and you may
find out the day of the month for yourselves.

CHAPTER XVIII

As Nino had guessed, the count was glad of a chance to leave his
daughter alone with Benoni, and it was for this reason that he had
ridden out so early. The baron's originality and extraordinary musical
talent seemed to Lira gifts which a woman needed only to see in order
to appreciate, and which might well make her forget his snowy locks.
During the time of Benoni's visit the count had not yet been
successful in throwing the pair together, for Hedwig's dislike for the
baron made her exert her tact to the utmost in avoiding his society.

It so happened that Hedwig, rising early, and breathing the sweet,
cool air from the window of her chamber, had seen Nino ride by on his
mule, when he arrived in the morning. He did not see her, for the
street merely passed the corner of the great pile, and it was only by
stretching her head far out that Hedwig could get a glimpse of it. But
it amused her to watch the country people going by, with their mules
and donkeys and hampers, or loads of firewood; and she would often
lean over the window-sill for half an hour at a time gazing at the
little stream of mountain life, and sometimes weaving small romances
of the sturdy brown women and their active, dark-browed shepherd
lovers. Moreover, she fully expected that Nino would arrive that day,
and had some faint hope of seeing him go along the road. So she was
rewarded, and the sight of the man she loved was the first breath of
freedom.

In a great house like the strange abode Lira had selected for the
seclusion of his daughter, it constantly occurs that one person is in
ignorance of the doings of the others; and so it was natural that when
Hedwig heard the clatter of hoofs in the courtyard, and the echoing
crash of the great doors as they opened and closed, she should think
both her father and Benoni had ridden away, and would be gone for the
morning. She would not look out, lest she should see them and be seen.

I cannot tell you exactly what she felt when she saw Nino from her
lofty window, but she was certainly glad with her whole heart. If she
had not known of his coming from my visit the previous evening, she
would perhaps have given way to some passionate outburst of happiness;
but as it was, the feeling of anticipation, the sweet, false dawn of
freedom, together with the fact that she was prepared, took from this
first pleasure all that was overwhelming. She only felt that he had
come, and that she would soon be saved from Benoni; she could not tell
how, but she knew it, and smiled to herself for the first time in
months, as she held a bit of jewelry to her slender throat before the
glass, wondering whether she had not grown too thin and pale to please
her lover, who had been courted by the beauties of the world since he
had left her.

She was ill, perhaps, and tired. That was why she looked pale; but she
knew that the first day of freedom would make her as beautiful as
ever. She spent the morning hours in her rooms; but when she heard the
gates close she fancied herself alone in the great house, and went
down into the sunny courtyard to breathe the air, and to give certain
instructions to her faithful man She sent him to my house to speak
with me; and that was all the message he had for the present. However,
he knew well enough what he was to do. There was a strong smell of
banknotes in the air, and the man kept his nose up.

Having despatched this important business, Hedwig set herself to walk
up and down the paved quadrangle on the sunny side. There was a stone
bench in a warm corner that looked inviting. She entered the house and
brought out a book, with which she established herself to read. She
had often longed to sit there in the afternoon and watch the sun
creeping across the flags, pursued by the shadow, till each small bit
of moss and blade of grass had received its daily portion of warmth.
For though the place had been cleared and weeded, the tiny green
things still grew in the chinks of the pavement. In the middle of the
court was a well with a cover and yoke of old-fashioned twisted iron
and a pulley to draw the water. The air was bright and fresh outside
the castle, but the reverberating rays of the sun made the quiet
courtyard warm and still.

Sick with her daily torture of mind the fair, pale girl rested her, at
last, and dreaming of liberty drew strength from the soft stillness.
The book fell on her lap, her head leaned back against the rough
stones of the wall, and gradually, as she watched from beneath her
half-closed lids the play of the stealing sunlight, she fell into a
sweet sleep.

She was soon disturbed by that indescribable ununeasiness that creeps
through our dreams when we are asleep in the presence of danger. A
weird horror possesses us, and makes the objects in the dream appear
unnatural. Gradually the terror grows on us and thrills us, and we
wake, with bristling hair and staring eyes, to the hideous
consciousness of unexpected peril.

Hedwig started and raised her lids, following the direction of her
dream. She was not mistaken. Opposite her stood her arch-horror,
Benoni. He leaned carelessly against the stone well, and his bright
brown eyes were riveted upon her. His tall, thin figure was clad, as
usual, in all the extreme of fashion, and one of his long, bony hands
toyed with his watch-chain. His animated face seemed aglow with the
pleasure of contemplation, and the sunshine lent a yellow tinge to his
snowy hair.

"An exquisite picture, indeed, countess," he said, without moving. "I
trust your dreams were as sweet as they looked?"

"They were sweet, sir," she answered coldly, after a moment's pause,
during which she looked steadily toward him.

"I regret that I should have disturbed them," he said, with a
deferential bow; and he came and sat by her side, treading as lightly
as a boy across the flags. Hedwig shuddered and drew her dark skirts
about her as he sat down.

"You cannot regret it more than I do," she said, in tones of ice. She
would not take refuge in the house, for it would have seemed like an
ignominious flight. Benoni crossed one leg over the other, and asked
permission to smoke, which she granted by an indifferent motion of her
fair head.

"So we are left all alone to-day, countess," remarked Benoni, blowing
rings of smoke in the quiet air.

Hedwig vouchsafed no answer.

"We are left alone," he repeated, seeing that she was silent, "and I
make it hereby my business and my pleasure to amuse you."

"You are good, sir. But I thank you. I need no entertainment of your
devising."

"That is eminently unfortunate," returned the baron, with his
imperturbable smile, "for I am universally considered to be the most
amusing of mortals,--if, indeed, I am mortal at all, which I sometimes
doubt."

"Do you reckon yourself with the gods, then?" asked Hedwig scornfully.
"Which of them are you? Jove? Dionysus? Apollo?"

"Nay, rather Phaethon, who soared too high--"

"Your mythology is at fault, sir,--he drove too low; and besides, he
was not immortal."

"It is the same. He was wide of the mark, as I am. Tell me, countess,
are your wits always so ready?"

"You, at least, will always find them so," she answered, bitterly.

"You are unkind. You stab my vanity, as you have pierced my heart."

At this speech Hedwig raised her eyebrows and stared at him in
silence. Any other man would have taken the chilling rebuke and left
her. Benoni put on a sad expression.

"You used not to hate me as you do now," he said.

"That is true. I hated you formerly because I hated you."

"And now?" asked Benoni, with a short laugh.

"I hate you now because I loathe you." She uttered this singular
saying indifferently, as being part of her daily thoughts.

"You have the courage of your opinions, countess," he replied, with a
very bitter smile.

"Yes? It is only the courage a woman need have." There was a pause,
during which Benoni puffed much smoke and stroked his white
moustache. Hedwig turned over the leaves of her book, as though
hinting to him to go. But he had no idea of that. A man who will not
go because a woman loathes him will certainly not leave her for a
hint.

"Countess," he began again, at last, "will you listen to me?"

"I suppose I must. I presume my father has left you here to insult me
at your noble leisure."

"Ah, countess, dear countess,"--she shrank away from him,--"you should
know me better than to believe me capable of anything so monstrous. I
insult you? Gracious heaven! I, who adore you; who worship the holy
ground whereon you tread; who would preserve the precious air you have
breathed in vessels of virgin crystal; who would give a drop of my
blood for every word you vouchsafe me, kind or cruel,--I, who look on
you as the only divinity in this desolate heathen world, who reverence
you and do you daily homage, who adore you--"

"You manifest your adoration in a singular manner, sir," said Hedwig,
interrupting him with something of her father's severity.

"I show it as best I can," the old scoundrel pleaded, working himself
into a passion of words. "My life, my fortune, my name, my honour,--I
cast them at your feet. For you I will be a hermit, a saint, dwelling
in solitary places and doing good works; or I will brave every danger
the narrow earth holds, by sea and land, for you. What? Am I decrepit,
or bent, or misshapen, that my white hair should cry out against me?
Am I hideous, or doting, or half-witted, as old men are? I am young; I
am strong, active, enduring. I have all the gifts, for you."

The baron was speaking French, and perhaps these wild praises of
himself might pass current in a foreign language. But when Nino
detailed the conversation to me in our good, simple Italian speech, it
sounded so amazingly ridiculous that I nearly broke my sides with
laughing.

Hedwig laughed also, and so loudly that the foolish old man was
disconcerted. He had succeeded in amusing her sooner than he had
expected. As I have told you, the baron is a most impulsive person,
though he is poisoned with evil from his head to his heart.

"All women are alike," he said, and his manner suddenly changed.

"I fancy," said Hedwig, recovering from her merriment, "that if you
address them as you have addressed me you will find them very much
alike indeed."

"What good can women do in the world?" sighed Benoni, as though
speaking with himself. "You do nothing but harm with your cold
calculations and your bitter jests." Hedwig was silent. "Tell me," he
continued presently, "if I speak soberly, by the card as it were, will
you listen to me?"

"Oh, I have said that I will listen to you!" cried Hedwig, losing
patience.

"Hedwig von Lira, I hereby offer you my fortune, my name, and myself.
I ask you to marry me of your own good will and pleasure." Hedwig once
more raised her brows.

"Baron Benoni, I will not marry you, either for your fortune, your
name, or yourself,--nor for any other consideration under heaven. And
I will ask you not to address me by my Christian name." There was a
long silence after this speech, and Benoni carefully lighted a second
cigarette. Hedwig would have risen and entered the house, but she
felt safer in the free air of the sunny court. As for Benoni, he had
no intention of going.

"I suppose you are aware, countess," he said at last, coldly eying
her, "that your father has set his heart upon our union?"

"I am aware of it."

"But you are not aware of the consequences of your refusal. I am your
only chance of freedom. Take me, and you have the world at your feet.
Refuse me, and you will languish in this hideous place so long as your
affectionate father pleases."

"Do you know my father so little, sir," asked Hedwig very proudly, "as
to suppose that his daughter will ever yield to force?"

"It is one thing to talk of not yielding, and it is quite another to
bear prolonged suffering with constancy," returned Benoni coolly, as
though he were discussing a general principle instead of expounding to
a woman the fate she had to expect if she refused to marry him. "I
never knew anyone who did not talk bravely of resisting torture until
it was applied. Oh, you will be weak at the end, countess, believe me.
You are weak now; and changed, though perhaps you would be better
pleased if I did not notice it. Yes, I smile now,--I laugh. I can
afford to. You can be merry over me because I love you, but I can be
merry at what you must suffer if you will not love me. Do not look so
proud, countess. You know what follows pride, if the proverb lies
not."

During this insulting speech Hedwig had risen to her feet, and in the
act to go she turned and looked at him in utter scorn. She could not
comprehend the nature of a man who could so coldly threaten her. If
ever anyone of us can fathom Benoni's strange character we may hope to
understand that phase of it along with the rest.

He seemed as indifferent to his own mistakes and follies as to the
sufferings of others.

"Sir," she said, "whatever may be the will of my father, I will not
permit you to discuss it, still less to hold up his anger as a threat
to scare me. You need not follow me," she added, as he rose.

"I will follow you, whether you wish it or not, countess," he said,
fiercely; and, as she flew across the court to the door he strode
swiftly by her side, hissing his words into her ear. "I will follow
you to tell you that I know more of you than you think, and I know how
little right you have to be so proud. I know your lover. I know of
your meetings, your comings and your goings--" They reached the door,
but Benoni barred the way with his long arm, and seemed about to lay a
hand upon her wrist, so that she shrank back against the heavy
doorpost in an agony of horror and loathing and wounded pride. "I know
Cardegna, and I knew the poor baroness who killed herself because he
basely abandoned her. Ah, you never heard the truth before? I trust it
is pleasant to you. As he left her he has left you. He will never come
back. I saw him in Paris three weeks ago. I could tell tales not fit
for your ears. And for him you will die in this horrible place unless
you consent. For him you have thrown away everything,--name, fame, and
happiness,--unless you will take all these from me. Oh, I know you
will cry out that it is untrue; but my eyes are good, though you call
me old! For this treacherous boy, with his curly hair, you have lost
the only thing that makes woman human,--your reputation!" And Benoni
laughed that horrid laugh of his, till the court rang again, as though
there were devils in every corner, and beneath every eave and
everywhere.

People who are loud in their anger are sometimes dangerous, for it is
genuine while it lasts. People whose anger is silent are generally
either incapable of honest wrath or cowards. But there are some in the
world whose passion shows itself in few words but strong ones, and
proceeds instantly to action.

Hedwig had stood back against the stone casing of the entrance, at
first, overcome with the intensity of what she suffered. But as Benoni
laughed she moved slowly forward till she was close to him, and only
his outstretched arm barred the doorway.

"Every word you have spoken is a lie, and you know it. Let me pass, or
I will kill you with my hands!"

The words came low and distinct to his excited ear, like the tolling
of a passing bell. Her face must have been dreadful to see, and Benoni
was suddenly fascinated and terrified at the concentrated anger that
blazed in her blue eyes. His arm dropped to his side, and Hedwig
passed proudly through the door, in all the majesty of innocence
gathering her skirts, lest they should touch his feet or any part of
him. She never hastened her step as she ascended the broad stairs
within and went to her own little sitting-room, made gay with books
and flowers and photographs from Rome. Nor was her anger followed by
any passionate outburst of tears. She sat herself down by the window
and looked out, letting the cool breeze from the open casement fan her
face.

Hedwig, too, had passed through a violent scene that day, and, having
conquered, she sat down to think over it. She reflected that Benoni
had but used the same words to her that she had daily heard from her
father's lips. False as was their accusation, she submitted to hearing
her father speak them, for she had no knowledge of their import, and
only thought him cruelly hard with her. But that a stranger--above
all, a man who aspired, or pretended to aspire, to her hand--should
attempt to usurp the same authority of speech was beyond all human
endurance. She felt sure that her father's anger would all be turned
against Benoni when he heard her story.

As for what her tormentor had said of Nino, she could have killed him
for saying it, but she knew that it was a lie; for she loved Nino with
all her heart, and no one can love wholly without trusting wholly.
Therefore she put away the evil suggestion from herself, and loaded
all its burden of treachery upon Benoni.

How long she sat by the window, compelling her strained thoughts into
order, no one can tell. It might have been an hour, or more, for she
had lost the account of the hours. She was roused by a knock at the
door of her sitting-room, and at her bidding the man entered who, for
the trifling consideration of about a thousand francs, first and last
made communication possible between Hedwig and myself.

This man's name is Temistocle,--Themistocles, no less. All servants
are Themistocles, or Orestes, or Joseph, just as all gardeners are
called Antonio. Perhaps he deserves some description. He is a type,
short, wiry, and broad-shouldered, with a cunning eye, a long hooked
nose, and very plentiful black whiskers, surmounted by a perfectly
bald crown. His motions are servile to the last degree, and he
addresses everyone in authority as "excellency," on the principle that
it is better to give too much titular homage than too little. He is as
wily as a fox, and so long as you have money in your pocket, as
faithful as a hound and as silent as the grave. I perceive that these
are precisely the epithets at which the baron scoffed, saying that a
man can be praised only by comparing him with the higher animals, or
insulted by comparison with himself and his kind. We call a man a
fool, an idiot, a coward, a liar, a traitor, and many other things
applicable only to man himself. However, I will let my description
stand, for it is a very good one; and Temistocle could be induced, for
money, to adapt himself to almost any description, and he certainly
had earned, at one time or another, most of the titles I have
enumerated.

He told me, months afterwards, that when he passed through the
courtyard, on his way to Hedwig's apartment, he found Benoni seated on
the stone bench, smoking a cigarette and gazing into space, so that he
passed close before him without being noticed.

CHAPTER XIX

Temistocle closed the door, then opened it again, and looked out,
after which he finally shut it, and seemed satisfied. He advanced with
cautious tread to where Hedwig sat by the window.

"Well? What have you done?" she inquired, without looking at him. It
is a hard thing for a proud and noble girl to be in the power of a
servant. The man took Nino's letter from his pocket, and handed it to
her upon his open palm. Hedwig tried hard to take it with
indifference, but she acknowledges that her fingers trembled and her
heart beat fast.

"I was to deliver a message to your excellency from the old
gentleman," said Temistocle, coming close to her and bending down.

"Ah!" said Hedwig, beginning to break the envelope.

"Yes, excellency. He desired me to say that it was absolutely and most
indubitably necessary that your excellency should be at the little
door to-night at twelve o'clock. Do not fear, Signora Contessina; we
can manage it very well."

"I do not wish to know what you advise me to fear, or not to fear,"
answered Hedwig, haughtily; for she could not bear to feel that the
man should counsel her or encourage her.

"Pardon, excellency; I thought--" began Temistocle humbly; but Hedwig
interrupted him.

"Temistocle," she said, "I have no money to give you, as I told you
yesterday. But here is another stone, like the other. Take it, and
arrange this matter as best you can."

Temistocle took the jewel and bowed to the ground, eying curiously the
little case from which she had taken it.

"I have thought and combined everything," he said. "Your excellency
will see that it is best you should go alone to the staircase; for, as
we say, a mouse makes less noise than a rat. When you have descended,
lock the door at the top behind you; and when you reach the foot of
the staircase, keep that door open. I will have brought the old
gentleman by that time, and you will let me in. I shall go out by the
great gate."

"Why not go with me?" inquired Hedwig.

"Because, your excellency, one person is less likely to be seen than
two. Your excellency will let me pass you. I will mount the staircase,
unlock the upper door, and change the key to the other side. Then I
will keep watch, and if anyone comes I will lock the door and slip
away till he is gone."

"I do not like the plan," said Hedwig. "I would rather let myself in
from the staircase."

"But suppose anyone were waiting on the inside, and saw you come
back?"

"That is true. Give me the keys, Temistocle, and a taper and some
matches."

"Your excellency is a paragon of courage," replied the servant,
obsequiously. "Since yesterday I have carried the keys in my pocket. I
will bring you the taper this evening."

"Bring it now. I wish to be ready."

Temistocle departed on the errand. When he returned Hedwig ordered him
to give a message to her father.

"When the count comes home, ask him to see me," she said. Temistocle
bowed once more, and was gone.

Yes, she would see her father, and tell him plainly what she had
suffered from Benoni. She felt that no father, however cruel, would
allow his daughter to be so treated, and she would detail the
conversation to him.

She had not been able to read Nino's letter, for she feared the
servant, knowing the writing to be Italian and legible to him. Now she
hastened to drink in its message of love. You cannot suppose that I
know exactly what he said, but he certainly set forth at some length
his proposal that she should leave her father, and escape with her
lover from the bondage in which she was now held. He told her modestly
of his success, in so far as it was necessary that she should
understand his position. It must have been a very eloquent letter, for
it nearly persuaded her to a step of which she had wildly dreamed,
indeed, but which in her calmer moments she regarded as impossible.

The interminable afternoon was drawing to a close, and once more she
sat by the open window, regardless of the increasing cold. Suddenly it
all came over her,--the tremendous importance of the step she was
about to take, if she should take Nino at his word, and really break
from one life into another. The long restrained tears, that had been
bound from flowing through all Benoni's insults and her own anger,
trickled silently down her cheek, no longer pale, but bright and
flushed at the daring thought of freedom.

At first it seemed far off, as seen in the magician's glass. She
looked and saw herself as another person, acting a part only half
known and half understood. But gradually her own individual soul
entered into the figure of her imagination; her eager heart beat fast;
she breathed and moved and acted in the future. She was descending the
dark steps alone, listening with supernatural sense of sound for her
lover's tread without. It came; the door opened, and she was in his
arms,--in those strong arms that could protect her from insult and
tyranny and cruel wooing; out in the night, on the road, in Rome,
married, free, and made blessed for ever. On a sudden the artificial
imagery of her labouring brain fell away, and the thought crossed her
mind that henceforth she must be an orphan. Her father would never
speak to her again, or ever own for his a daughter that had done such
a deed. Like icy water poured upon a fevered body, the idea chilled
her and woke her to reality.

Did she love her father? She had loved him--yes, until she crossed his
will. She loved him still, when she could be so horror-struck at the
thought of incurring his lasting anger. Could she bear it? Could she
find in her lover all that she must renounce of a father's care and a
father's affection,--stern affection, that savoured of the
despot,--but could she hurt him so?

The image of her father seemed to take another shape, and gradually to
assume the form and features of the one man of the world whom she
hated, converting itself little by little into Benoni. She hid her
face in her hands and terror staunched the tears that had flown afresh
at the thought of orphanhood.

A knock at the door. She hastily concealed the crumpled letter.

"Come in!" she answered, boldly; and her father, moving mechanically,
with his stick in his hand, entered the room. He came as he had
dismounted from his horse, in his riding boots, and his broad felt hat
caught by the same fingers that held the stick.

"You wished to see me, Hedwig," he said, coldly, depositing his hat
upon the table. Then, when he had slowly sat himself down in an
arm-chair, he added, "Here I am." Hedwig had risen respectfully, and
stood before him in the twilight. "What do you wish to say?" he asked
in German. "You do not often honour your father by requesting his
society."

Hedwig stood one moment in silence. Her first impulse was to throw
herself at his feet and implore him to let her marry Nino. The thought
swept away for the time the remembrance of Benoni and of what she had
to tell. But a second sufficed to give her the mastery of her tongue
and memory, which women seldom lose completely, even at the most
desperate moments.

Book of the day: