Part 2 out of 8
"I do not know," said the young girl. "Are all men bad, as a rule?"
"Perhaps," answered the Sicilian, shortly. "At all events, Gianluca was
not. One saw that all the little that was bad in his life was only a
jest, while all the much that was good was real and true."
"You are indeed his friend," said Veronica, softly.
She was struck by the beauty of what the man had said so plainly and
"Yes, I am his friend," replied Taquisara. "One of his friends,
say,--for he has many. I am his friend as you are the friend of Donna
Bianca. You understand that, do you not? And you understand that there
is nothing you would not do for a friend? Not out of mere obligation,
because your friend has done much for you, but just for
friendship--love, if you choose to call it so. I have heard people speak
eloquently of friendship--so have you perhaps. And we both understand
what it means, though many do not. That is why I speak as I do, and if I
do not speak well, you must forgive me, and feel the meaning I cannot
express to your ears. Gianluca loves you, Donna Veronica, as men very
rarely love women, so immensely, so strongly, that his love is burning
up his life in him--and it has all been kept from you for some reason or
other, while your relations are doing their best to make you marry Bosio
Macomer, who can no more be compared with Gianluca della Spina than--"
He checked himself, for he felt that his tone was contemptuous, and
remembered that Veronica might perhaps like Bosio. She was listening,
her eyes fixed on the distance, her mind wide open to the new experience
of life which had come so unexpectedly.
"He cannot be compared with Gianluca," continued Taquisara, modifying
his sentence and omitting whatever simile had presented itself in his
thoughts. "If you knew Gianluca, you would understand. It is because I
know him well that I speak for him, that I implore you, pray you,
beseech you, to see him before you consent to marry Count Bosio--"
"To see him!" exclaimed Veronica, startled at the sudden proposition,
which was a blow to every tradition she had ever learned.
But the Sicilian was not a man to hesitate at trifles where women were
concerned, nor men either.
"Yes--to see him!" he answered with a certain vehemence. "Is it a sin?
Is it a crime? Is it dishonourable? Why should you cry out? What is
society that it should take you young girls by the throat, like martyrs,
and chain you with proprieties to the stake of its rigid law--to be
burnt to death afterwards by slow fire, like your best friend there,
Donna Bianca? Ah--you understand that. You know her life, and I know it
too. It is the life--or the death--to which you may look forward if you
will neither open your eyes to see, nor raise your hand to guard
yourself. And you cry out in outraged horror at the idea of seeing
Gianluca della Spina here, in this garden, by these steps, under God's
sunlight, as you see me here to-day by accident. It seems to you--what
shall I say?--unladylike!" Taquisara laughed scornfully. "What does it
matter whether you are unladylike or not, so long as you are womanly,
and kind, and brave? I am telling you truths you have never heard, but
you have a woman's right to hear them, whatever you may think of me. And
I speak for another. I have the holy right to say for him, for his life,
for his happiness, all that I would not say for myself, perhaps. And I
do say, what is to prevent Gianluca from being here to-morrow, or this
very afternoon, as I am here now, and why should it be such a dreadful
thing for you to come here, knowing that you will meet him? Do you think
that he would not give the last drop of his blood, at one word from your
lips, to save you from trouble, or danger, or insult? Do you think, if
he knew how I am speaking to you--speaking roughly, perhaps, because I
am rough--he would not turn upon me, his friend, who am fighting for his
life, and quarrel with me, and disown me, because my roughness comes
near you and may offend you? You do not know him. How should you? But
because you do not know him and cannot guess how he loves you, do not
throw his life away without seeing it, without understanding what you
despise, and learning that it is far above your contempt--a noble life,
an honest life, a true-hearted young life, which may be lived out for
you only--and, for you, I think it would be worth living."
Taquisara was a man who could be in earnest for his friend, and there
was a strong vibration in his low voice which few could have heard with
indifference. While he was speaking and forcing the appeal of his honest
black eyes upon Veronica's face, she could not help slowly turning to
meet them, and her lips parted a little as though in wonder, while she
drank in eagerly the words he spoke. It was the first time in her life
that she had ever heard a man speak to her of love, and, in his rough
eloquence, he spoke well and strongly, though it was not for himself. In
his own cause, the words might not have come so readily, but they were
not now the less evidently sincere, because they were many. She was glad
that she had boldly risen, and left Bianca's side, in order to hear him.
But when he paused, she scarcely knew what to answer. She wanted to hear
more. It was as though a dawn were rising, high and clear, in the dim
country through which childhood had led her, and she longed suddenly for
the full light of broad day.
"Indeed, you speak as though you loved him," she said.
"Yes, but I am trying to tell you how he loves you, and I cannot, though
I know it all. You must hear it for yourself, you must see him, you must
"But it is impossible--" Veronica's protest broke off rather weakly in
"It is impossible that you should be here to-morrow at this hour?
Perhaps--I do not know. But to-morrow at this hour Gianluca will be
here, though he has not been able to leave the house for a week; and if
you come, all the impossibility is gone. It is as simple as that--"
"That is an appointment--with a man--"
Again the blood rushed to the young girl's face but this time it was
genuine shame of doing a thing which she had been taught to think the
most dreadful in the whole world.
"An appointment!" Taquisara laughed contemptuously. "Do you not come
often to see the Princess Corleone? You will come again. And Gianluca
will come often, too--and if you chance to meet to-morrow, it will be an
accident of fate, that is all, as you chanced to see me here to-day. You
cannot forbid him to come here. You cannot, without a reason, ask Donna
Bianca to refuse to receive him--"
"Oh!--if she ever guessed--" Veronica checked herself, still blushing,
but Taquisara was too sincerely in earnest to smile at the slip she had
"That is all," he said. "There is neither appointment, nor engagement,
nor anything but the possibility of a meeting which you cannot be sure
of avoiding, unless you never come to see your friend, or unless you
give her some unjust reason for not letting him come, in case he calls.
There is nothing but chance. How can I tell whether you will come
to-morrow, or not? I shall perhaps never know, for I shall not come with
him. I have been here to-day--what excuse could I give for calling again
to-morrow? Donna Bianca would think it strange. I can hope, for his
sake. I can tell you that no woman has the right to throw away such love
as his, to ruin such a life as his, to break such a heart without a
thought and without so much as hearing the man speak--whatever this
wretched society in which we live may say about proprieties and rights
and wrongs, and the difference between the proper behaviour for young
girls and married women. This is God's earth, Donna Veronica--not
Veronica said nothing; but there was perplexity in her face, and she
looked down, and pulled at one finger of her glove. She was wondering
whether, if she came on the next day, and stood with Gianluca della
Spina on that very spot, he would speak for himself as strongly and well
as his friend had been speaking for him.
Somehow, she doubted it, and somehow, too, she knew that if by magic
Taquisara should all at once turn out to be the real Gianluca,--not the
Gianluca she knew,--she should be better satisfied with the world. For
as things seemed just then, she was not satisfied at all, and the future
was more dim and uncertain than ever. Still she looked down, thinking,
and Taquisara glanced at her occasionally, and respected her silence.
"You do not know Bosio Macomer," she said, at last. "Or you know him
little. If you chanced to be his friend, instead of Don Gianluca's, you
could speak as eloquently for him."
"I think not," answered Taquisara. And his lip curled a little, though
she did not see the expression.
"Why not? You do not know him. How can you tell? A little while ago, you
said that he was not to be compared to your friend. How can you be so
sure? Everything is not written in men's faces."
"I judge as I can, from what I see and know."
"So do I."
"From seeing and knowing the one and not the other. That is it. All I
ask is that you will wait until you know both, before you make up your
mind--a week--no more, if you can spare no more. It is not for me to
tell you what your rights are, that you are not in the position of the
average young girl, just from the convent, who accepts the choice her
father and mother make for her--because, perhaps, she may never have
another; and, at all events, because she cannot choose. You have the
world to choose from, and--forgive me for saying it--you have no one to
choose for you but those who are interested in the choice. May I speak?"
She hesitated, and their eyes met for a moment.
"Yes," she said suddenly.
"Count Bosio may be the best of men. I do not know. But he is the
middle-aged, younger brother of Count Macomer, with a very slender
fortune of his own and a position no better than the rest of us. If he
marries you, he becomes Prince of Acireale, a Prince of the Holy Roman
Empire, a Grandee of Spain of the First Class--and many times a
millionnaire. For you have all that to give the man you marry. Grant
that he is the best of men. Is his brother wholly disinterested? I speak
plainly. It is rumoured that Count Macomer has lost most of his fortune
in speculations. I do not know whether that is true. Even if it is not,
what was all his fortune compared to what it would mean to him if his
brother held yours?"
"My uncle never speculated in his life!" answered Veronica, rather
"Grant that. The other side remains. And the countess? Is she wholly
disinterested? Has she been disappointed by the marriage she made, or
not? She was born a Serra, like yourself, and she married Macomer in the
days of the old court, when he was a favourite with the old king and had
a brilliant position, and people said that he might be one of the first
men in the kingdom. But Garibaldi swept all that away, and Macomer's
chances with it, and the countess is a disappointed woman, for her
husband has remained just what he always was--plain Count Macomer, with
his name and his palace, neither of them extraordinary. Truly, Donna
Veronica, though you may refuse to speak to me again for what I say, I
will dare to tell you that you must be very unsuspicious! They conceal
from you the honourable offer of such a man as Gianluca della Spina, the
eldest son of a great old house, and they announce your betrothal with
Count Bosio before either you or he know of it. One need not be very
distrustful to think all that strange--even granting that Count Bosio is
the best of men, a matter of which you are a judge."
"I would rather that you should not say those things to me," said
Veronica, a little pale, and turning half round as though she would go
back to Bianca and Ghisleri.
"Forgive me--for I have risked such opinion of me as you may have, to
say them. There may be reasonable doubt about them. But of the
rest--there is no doubt. There is a man's life in it, and death is
beyond doubts, and a love that can take a man and tear him and hurt him
until he dies has a right to a woman's hearing--and to her
charity--before she throws it away. I ask no forgiveness of you for
saying that. Gianluca will come to-morrow at this time, and he will come
again until he sees you. I have kept you too long, Donna Veronica, and
you have been kind in listening to me. If you need service in your life,
She said nothing, but gravely inclined her head a little when she had
once more looked into his eyes, before she turned towards Bianca and
walked slowly up the short, broad path by his side.
Bosio felt that if he remained in his room alone with the horror of his
position, he should go mad before night. He was weakly resolved not to
marry Veronica, but he knew and for the first time dreaded the power
Matilde had over his thoughts as well as his actions. He felt that if he
could avoid her, he could still cling to the remnant of honour, but that
she would tear it from him if she could and cast it to the winds. The
whole card-house of his ill-founded life was trembling under the breath
of fate, and its near fall seemed to threaten its existence.
He went out and walked slowly through sunny, unfrequented places, high
up in the city, trying to shake off the chill of his fear as a man hopes
to rid himself of an ague by sitting in the sun. But the chill was in
his heart, and it was his soul that shivered. He weakly wished that he
were wholly bad, that he might feel less.
Then, in true Italian humour, he tried to think of something which might
divert his thoughts from the duty of facing their own terrible
perplexity. If it had been evening, he would have strolled into the
theatre; had it been already afternoon, he would have had himself driven
out along the public garden towards Posilippo, to see the faces of his
friends go by. But it was morning. There was nothing but the club, and
he cared little for the men he might meet there. There was nothing to
do, and his eyes did not help him to forget his troubles. He wandered on
through ways broad and narrow, climbing up one steep lane and descending
again by the next, hardly aware of direction and not noticing whether he
went east or west, north or south, up or down.
At last, at a corner, he chanced to read the name of a street. It was
familiar enough to him, as a Neapolitan, but just now it reminded him of
something which might possibly help to distract his attention. He
stopped and got out his pocket-book, and found in it a card, glanced at
the address on it, and then once more at the name of the street. Then he
went on till he came to the right number, entered a gloomy doorway,
black with dampness and foul air, ascended four flights of dark stone
steps, and stopped before a small brown door. The card nailed upon it
was like the one he had in his pocket-book. The name was 'Giuditta
Astarita,' and under it, in another character, was printed the word
There was nothing at all unnatural in the name or the profession, in
Naples, where somnambulists are plentiful enough. And the name itself
was a Neapolitan one, and by no means uncommon. The card, however, was
white and clean, which argued either that Giuditta Astarita had not long
been a professional clairvoyante, or else that she had recently changed
her lodgings. Bosio knew nothing about her, except that she had suddenly
acquired an extraordinary reputation as a seer, and that many people in
society had lately visited her, and had come away full of extraordinary
stories about her power. He rang the little tinkling bell, which was
answered by a very respectably dressed woman servant with only one
eye,--a fact which Bosio noticed because it was the blind side of her
face which first appeared as the door opened.
The Signora Giuditta Astarita was at home, and there was no other
visitor. Bosio, without giving his name, was ushered into a small
sitting-room, of which the only window opened upon a narrow court
opposite a blank wall. The furniture was scant and stiff, and such of it
as was upholstered was covered with a cheap cotton corded material of a
spurious wine colour. There were small square antimacassars on the
chairs, and two of them, side by side, on the back of the sofa. The
single window had heavy curtains, now drawn aside, but evidently capable
of shutting out all light. A solid, square, walnut table stood before
the sofa, without any table-cloth, and upon it were arranged half a
dozen large books, bound with a good deal of gilding, and which looked
as though they had never been opened.
Bosio was standing before the window, looking out at the blank wall,
when he heard some one enter the room and softly close the door.
Giuditta Astarita came forward as he turned round.
He saw a heavy, phlegmatic woman, still very young, though abnormally
stout, with an unhealthy face, thin black hair and large weak eyes of a
light china blue. Her lips were parted in a sort of chronic sad smile,
which showed uneven and discoloured teeth. She wore a long trailing
garment of heavy black silk, not gathered to the figure at the waist,
but loose from the shoulders down, and buttoned from throat to feet in
front, with small buttons, like a cassock. From one of the upper
buttonholes dangled a thin gold chain, supporting a bunch of small
charms against the evil eye, a little coral horn, a tiny silver
hunchback, a miniature gilt bell, and two or three coins of gold and
silver, besides an Egyptian scarabee in a gold setting. The woman
remained standing before Bosio.
"You wish to consult me, Signore?" she inquired, in a professional tone,
through the chronic smile, as it were. Her voice was very hoarse.
Bosio bowed gravely, whereupon she pointed to a chair for him, drew
another into position for herself, opposite his, and at some distance
from it, and then fumbled in the curtains for the cord that pulled
"If you will sit down," she said, "I will darken the room."
Bosio seated himself, and in a moment the light was shut out as the
heavy curtains ran together. Then he heard the rustle of the woman's
silk dress as she sat down opposite to him in the dark. He felt
unaccountably nervous, and her china blue eyes had made a disagreeable
impression upon him. He expected something to happen.
"I see a name over your head," said a clear, bell-like voice, certainly
not Giuditta Astarita's. "It is Veronica."
Bosio started uneasily, though like most Neapolitans, he had visited
somnambulists more than once.
"Who is speaking?" he asked quickly.
"It is the spirit," said the woman's hoarse tones. "That is his voice.
Is there such a person as Veronica in your life? Is it about her that
you wish to consult the spirits?"
"Yes," said the spirit voice, before Bosio could answer. "You are afraid
that they will murder her, if you do not marry her--or if she will not
Bosio uttered a loud exclamation of alarm and astonishment, for this was
altogether beyond anything in his experience.
"Is it so?" asked Giuditta Astarita.
"Yes. It is true," said Bosio, in uncertain tones. "And I wish to
know--whether--" he stopped.
"Whether the grey-faced man and the handsome woman whose eyes are near
together will really kill her?" asked the spirit voice.
Bosio felt his soft hair rising on his head. "Do you know who I am?" he
"No," replied the voice of Giuditta. "The spirits know everything, but I
do not. They only speak through me with another voice. I do not know
what they are going to say. You need have no apprehension. This is more
sacred than the confessional, Signore, more secret than the tomb."
The phrase sounded as though it had been carefully studied and often
repeated, but the dramatic tone in which it was uttered produced a
certain reassuring effect upon Bosio, in his half-frightened state.
"Do you wish to tell whether they will really kill Veronica?" inquired
Giuditta. "If you have any question to ask, you must put it quickly. I
cannot keep the spirits waiting. They exhaust me when they are
"What shall I do to avoid marrying her?" asked Bosio, suddenly springing
to the main point of his doubts.
"The handsome woman whose eyes are near together will make you marry
Veronica," said the spirit voice.
"But if I refuse? If I say that I will not? What then? Is her life
really in danger?"
"Yes. They wish to kill her to get her money. The handsome woman has her
will leaving her everything if she dies."
"But will they really kill her?" insisted Bosio, half breathless in his
fear and nervous excitement.
The spirit voice did not answer. In the silence Bosio heard Giuditta
Astarita's breathing opposite to him.
"Will they really kill her?" he asked again.
Still there was silence, and Bosio held his breath. Then Giuditta spoke
"The spirit is gone," she said. "He will not answer any more questions
"Can you not call it back?" asked Bosio, anxiously, and peering into the
blackness before him, as though hoping to see something.
"No. When he is gone he never comes back for the same person. He
answered you many things, Signore. You must have patience."
He heard her rise, and a moment later the light dazzled him as he looked
up and met her china blue eyes. He was dazed as well as dazzled, for
there had been an extraordinary directness and accuracy about the few
questions and answers he had heard in the clear voice which was so
utterly unlike Giuditta's, though quite human and natural. He was
certain that he had not heard the door open after she had drawn the
curtains. He looked about the scantily furnished room, in search of
some corner in which some third person might have been hidden. Giuditta
Astarita's chronic smile was momentarily intensified.
"There was no one else here," she said, answering his unspoken question.
"You heard the spirit's voice through my ears."
"How can that be?"
"I do not know. But what the spirit says is true. You may rely upon it.
I do not know what it said, for when I return from the trance state I
remember nothing I have heard or seen while I have been in it. If you
wish to ask more, you must have the kindness to come again. It is very
fatiguing to me. You can see that I am not in good health. The hours are
from ten till three."
The smile had subsided within its usual limits, and the china blue eyes
stared coldly. She was evidently waiting to be paid.
"What do I owe you?" asked Bosio, with a certain considerateness of
tone, so to say.
"It is twenty-five lire," answered Giuditta Astarita. "I have but one
price. Thank you," she added, as he laid the notes upon the polished
walnut table. "Do you wish a few of my cards? For your friends, perhaps.
I shall be grateful for your patronage."
"Thank you," said Bosio, taking his hat and going towards the door. "I
have one of your cards. It is enough. Good morning."
As he opened the door, he found the one-eyed serving-woman in the
passage, ready to show him out. Instinctively he looked at the single
eye as he glanced at her face, and he was surprised to notice that it
was of the same uncommon china blue colour as Giuditta's own. The woman
who did duty as a servant to admit visitors was undoubtedly Giuditta's
mother or elder sister, or some very near relative. It would be natural
enough, amongst such people, as Bosio knew, but he wondered how many
more of the same family lived in the rooms beyond the one in which he
had received spirit-communications, and whether Giuditta Astarita
supported them all by her extraordinary talents.
He descended the damp stone stairs and passed out into the street again,
dazed and disturbed in mind. He had been to such people before, as has
been said, and he had generally seen or heard something which had either
interested or amused him. He had never had such an experience as this.
He had never heard a voice of which he had been so certain that it did
not come from any one in the room, and he had never found any
somnambulist who had so instantly grasped his most secret thoughts,
without the slightest assistance or leading word from himself. Yet at
the crucial test--the question of a certainty in the future, this one
had stopped short as all stopped, or failed in their predictions of what
was to come. He had been startled and almost frightened. Like many
Southern Italians, he was at once credulous and sceptical--a
superstitious unbeliever, if one may couple the two words into one
expression. His intelligence bade him deny what his temperament inclined
him to accept. Besides, on the present occasion, no theory which he
could form could account for the woman's knowledge of his life. She had
never seen him. He had no extraordinary peculiarity by which she might
have recognized him at first sight from hearsay, nor was he in any way
connected with public affairs. He had come quite unexpectedly and had
not given his name, and the spirit, or whatever it might be, had
instantly told him of Veronica, of her danger, of his brother and
sister-in-law and of the will. Moreover, the friends who had spoken to
him of Giuditta Astarita had told him similar tales within a few days.
The spirit had said that the handsome woman would make him marry
Veronica. But what had the silence meant, when he had asked more? That
was the question. Did it mean that the spirit was unwilling to affirm
that Veronica must die if he refused to marry her? He passed his hand
over his eyes as he walked. This was the end of the nineteenth century;
he was in Naples, in the largest city of an enlightened country. And
yet, the situation might have been taken from the times of the Medici,
of Paolo Giordano Orsini, of Beatrice Cenci, of the Borgia. There was a
frightful incongruity between civilization and his life--between broad,
flat, comfortable, every-day, police-regulated civilization, and the
hideous drama in which he was suddenly a principal actor.
More than once he told himself that he was mistaken and that such things
could not possibly be; that it was all a feverish dream and that he
should soon wake to see that there was a perfectly simple, natural and
undramatic solution before him. But turn the facts as he would, he could
not find that easy way. If he refused to marry Veronica and attempted to
get legal protection for her, the inevitable result would be the
prosecution, conviction, and utter ruin of his brother and of the woman
he loved. If he refused to marry Veronica and did nothing to protect
her, Matilde's eyes had told him what Matilde would do to escape public
shame and open infamy. If he married Veronica and saved his brother--he
was still man enough to feel that he could not do that. He could die.
That was a possibility of which he had thought. But would his death,
which would save him from committing the last and greatest baseness,
save Veronica? She would have one friend less in the world, and she had
With a half-childish smile on his pale face, he wondered what such a man
as Taquisara would do, if he were so placed, and the Sicilian's manly
face and bold eyes rose up contemptuously before him. To such a depth
as Bosio had already reached, Taquisara could never have fallen. Bosio's
instinct told him that.
If he had been able to find one friend in all his acquaintance to whom
he might turn and ask advice, it would have been an infinite relief. But
such friends were rare, he knew, and he had never made one. Pleasant
acquaintances he had, by the score and the hundred, in society, and
amongst artists and men of letters. But the life he had led had shut out
friendship. To have a friend would have been to let some one into his
life, and that would have meant, sooner or later, the betrayal of the
woman he loved.
Yet, though he felt that Taquisara was his enemy and not his friend, he
had such sudden confidence in the man's honour and truth that he was
insanely impelled to go to him and tell him all, and implore him to save
Veronica at any cost, no matter what, or to whom. Then of course, a
moment later, the thought seemed madness, and he only felt that he was
losing hold more quickly upon his saner sense. His visit to the
somnambulist, too, had helped to unnerve him, and as he wandered through
the streets he forgot that it was time to eat, so that physical
faintness came upon him unawares and suddenly.
He did not wish to go home; for if he did, the final decision would be
thrust upon him by Matilde, and he did not feel that he could face
another scene with her yet. When he found himself near the Palazzo
Macomer, he turned back, walking slowly, and went towards the sea, till
he came to the vast Piazza San Ferdinando, beyond San Carlo. He went
into a cafe and sat down in a corner to drink a cup of chocolate by way
of luncheon. The seat he had chosen was at the end of one of the long
red velvet divans close to a big window looking upon the square. There
were little marble tables in a row, and at the one before that which
Bosio chose, a priest was seated, reading, with an empty cup before him.
He was evidently near-sighted, for he held his newspaper so near his
eyes that Bosio could not have seen his face even had he thought of
looking at it. The priest had thrown back his heavy black cloak after he
had sat down, so that it fell in wide folds upon the seat, on each side
of him. His hands, which held up the paper, while he seemed to be
searching for something in the columns, were thin to emaciation, almost
transparent, and very carefully kept,--a fact which might have argued
that he was not an ordinary, hard-working parish priest of the people,
even if his presence in a fashionable cafe had not of itself made that
seem improbable. On the other hand, he wore heavy, coarse shoes; his
clothes, though well brushed, were visibly threadbare, and his clean
white stock was frayed at the edge and almost worn out. He had taken off
his three-cornered hat, and his high peaked head was barely covered with
scanty silver-grey hair. When he dropped his paper and looked about him
for the waiter, evidently wishing to pay for his coffee, he showed a
face sufficiently remarkable to deserve description. The prominent
feature was the enormous, beak-like nose--the nose of the fanatic which
is not to be mistaken amongst thousands, with its high, arching bridge,
its wide, sensitive nostrils, and its preternaturally sharp,
down-turning point. But the rest of the priest's face was not in keeping
with what was most striking in it. The forehead was not powerful,
narrow, prominent--but rather, broad and imaginative. The chin was round
and not enough developed; the clean-shaven lips had a singularly gentle
expression, and the very near-sighted blue eyes were not set deeply
enough to give strength to the look. The priest carried his head
somewhat bent and forward, in a sort of deprecating way, which made his
long nose seem longer, and his short chin more retreating. The skull was
unusually high and peaked at the point where phrenologists place the
organ of veneration. The man himself was tall and exceedingly thin, and
looked as though he fasted too often and too long. He was certainly a
very ugly man, judged according to the standards of human beauty; and
yet there was about him an air of kindness and sincerity which had in it
something almost saintly, together with a very unmistakable individual
identity. He was one of those men whom one can neither forget nor
mistake when one has met them once. Bosio did not notice him, being much
absorbed by his own thoughts. The waiter came to ask what he wished, and
was stopped on his way back by the priest, who desired to pay for what
he had taken. But Bosio had turned to the window again, and sat looking
out and watching the people in the broad semicircular Piazza.
The priest, having paid his little score, carefully folded his newspaper
and put it into the wide pocket of his cassock. Then he gathered up the
collar of his big cloak behind him, as he sat, and began to edge his way
out from behind the little marble table. But the long folds had fallen
far on each side--so far that Bosio had unawares sat down upon the
cloth, and as the priest tried to get out, he felt the cloak being
dragged from under him. The priest stopped and turned, just as Bosio
rose with an apology on his lips, which became an exclamation of
surprise, as he began to speak.
"Don Teodoro!" he cried. "You were next to me, and I did not see you!"
The priest's eyelids contracted to help his imperfect sight, and he
smiled as he moved nearer to Bosio.
"Bosio!" he exclaimed, when he had recognized him. "I am almost blind,
but I was sure I knew your voice."
"You are in Naples, and you have not let me know it?" said Bosio,
reproachfully and interrogatively.
"I have not been in Naples two hours, and have just left my bag at my
usual quarters with Don Matteo. Then I came here to get a cup of coffee,
and now I was going to you. Besides, it is the tenth of December. You
know that I always come on the tenth every year, and stay until the
twentieth, in order to be back in Muro four days before Christmas. But I
am glad I have met you here, for I should have missed you at the
"Yes," said Bosio, "I am glad that we have met. Sit with me, now, while
I drink a cup of chocolate. Then we will do whatever you wish." He sat
down again. "I am glad you have come, Don Teodoro," he added
thoughtfully. "I am very glad you have come."
Don Teodoro produced a pair of silver spectacles as he reseated himself,
and proceeded to settle them very carefully on his enormous nose. Then
he turned to Bosio, and looked at him.
"Have you been ill?" he asked, after a careful scrutiny of the pallid,
"No." Bosio looked out of the window, avoiding the other's gaze. "I am
nervous to-day. I slept badly; and I have been walking, and have not
breakfasted. Oh! no--I am not ill. I am never ill. I have excellent
health. And you?" He turned to his companion again. "How are you? Always
"Always the same," answered the priest. "I grow old, that is the only
change. After all, it is not a bad one, since we must change in some
way. It is better than growing young--better than growing young again,"
he repeated, shaking his head sadly. "Since the payment must be made, it
is better that the day of reckoning should come nearer, year by year."
"For me it has come," said Bosio, in a low voice, and his chin sank upon
his breast, as he leaned back, clasping his hands before him on the edge
of the marble table. The priest looked at him anxiously and in silence.
The two would certainly have met later in the day, or on the morrow, and
the accident of their meeting at the cafe had only brought them together
a few hours earlier. For the hard-working country parish priest came
yearly to Naples for a few days before Christmas, as he had said, and
the first visit he made, after depositing his slender luggage at the
house of the ecclesiastic with whom he always stopped, was to Bosio
Macomer, his old pupil.
In his loneliness, that morning, Bosio had thought of Don Teodoro and
had wished to see him. It had occurred vaguely to him that the priest
generally made a visit to the city about that time of the year, but he
had never realized that Don Teodoro always arrived on the same day, the
tenth of December, and had done so unfailingly for many years past.
Before he had been curate of the distant village of Muro, which belonged
to the Serra family, Don Teodoro had been tutor to Bosio Macomer. He had
lived in Naples as a priest at large, a student, and in those days, to
some extent, a man of the world. When Bosio was grown up, his tutor had
remained his friend--the only really intimate friend he had in the
world, and a true and devoted one. It was perhaps because he was too
much attached to Bosio that Matilde Macomer had induced him at last to
accept the parish in the mountains with the chaplaincy of the ancestral
castle of the Serra,--an office which was a total sinecure, as the
family had rarely gone thither to spend a few weeks, even in the days of
the late prince. Matilde hated the place for its appalling gloominess
and wild scenery, and Veronica, to whom it now belonged, had never seen
it at all. It had the reputation of being haunted by all manner of
ghosts and goblins, and during the first ten years following the Italian
annexation of Naples, the surrounding mountains had been infested by
outlaws and brigands. But Don Teodoro, as curate and chaplain, received
a considerable stipend which enabled him to procure for himself books at
his pleasure, when he could bring himself to curtail the daily and
yearly charities in which he spent almost all he received.
He was, indeed, a man torn between two inclinations which almost
amounted to passions,--charity and the love of learning,--and their
action was so evenly balanced that it was a real pain to him either to
deny himself the book he coveted, or to forfeit the pleasure of giving
the money it would cost to the poor. He had sometimes kept the last note
he had left at the end of the month for many days, quite unable to
decide whether he should send it to Naples for a new volume, or buy
clothes with it for some half-clad child. So sincere was he in both
longings, that after he had disposed of the money in one way or the
other, he almost invariably had an acute fit of self-reproach. His
common sense alone told him that when he had given away nine-tenths of
all he received, he had the right to spend the other tenth upon such
food for his mind as was almost more indispensable to him than bread.
But, besides this, he had been engaged for twenty years upon a history
of the Church, in compiling which he believed he was doing a work of the
highest importance to mankind; so that it appeared to him a duty to
expend, from time to time, a certain amount of money in order to procure
such books, old and new, as were necessary for his studies. As a matter
of fact, the seasons themselves decided his conduct in these
difficulties; for in cold weather, or times of scarcity, his charity
outran his desire for books; whereas, in the warm weather, and when
there was plenty, and no pitiful starved faces gathered about his door,
he bought books, instead of searching for the few who were still in
In his youth, Don Teodoro had travelled much. He had accompanied a
mission to Africa at the beginning of his life, and had afterwards
wandered about Europe, being at that time, as yet, more studious than
charitable, and possessed of a small independence left him by his
father, who had been an officer in the Neapolitan army in the old days.
He had seen many things and known many men of many nations, before he
had at last settled in Muro, in the little priest's house, under the
shadow of the dismal castle, and close to the church. There he lived
now, all the year round, excepting the ten days which he annually spent
in Naples. The little house was full of books, and there was a big, old
shaky press, containing his manuscripts, the work of his whole life. He
had neither friends nor companions of his own class, but he was beloved
by all the people. Playing on his name, Teodoro, in their dialect, they
called him, O prevete d'oro'--'the priest of gold.' And many said that
he had performed miracles, when he had fasted in Lent.
This was practically Bosio Macomer's only intimate friend. For although
the intimacy had been interrupted for years, by circumstances, it had
never been checked by any action or word of either. It is true that
neither was, as a rule, in need of friendship, nor desirous of
cultivating it. Learning and charity absorbed the priest's whole life.
Bosio's existence, of which Don Teodoro knew in reality nothing, had
moved in the vicious circle of a single passion, which he could never
acknowledge, and which excluded, for common caution's sake, anything
like intimacy with other men. But Bosio had not ceased to look upon the
priest as the best man he had ever known, and in spite of his own
errings, he was still quite able to appreciate goodness in others; and
Don Teodoro had always remembered his pupil as one of the few men to
whom he had been accustomed to speak freely of his hopes, and
sympathies, and aspirations, feeling sure of appreciation from a nature
at once refined and reticent, though itself hard to understand. For Don
Teodoro was, strange to say, painfully sensitive to ridicule, though in
all other respects a singularly brave man, morally and physically. As a
child or as a boy, he had been laughed at by his companions for his
extraordinary nose and his short sight; and he had never recovered from
the childish suffering thus inflicted upon him by thoughtless children.
The fear of being ridiculous had largely influenced him through life,
and had really contributed much towards deciding him to accept the cure
of the wild mountain town.
Bosio's almost solemn words, as his chin fell upon his breast, and he
clasped his hands before him, suddenly recalled to the priest the years
they had spent together, the confidence there had been between them, the
interest he had once felt in Bosio's fortune,--as an object once daily
familiar, and fresh once and not without beauty, then long hidden for
years, and coming suddenly to sight again, moth-eaten, dusty, and all
but destroyed, is oddly painful to him who used it long ago, and then
sees it when it is fit only to be thrown away.
"You are suffering," said Don Teodoro, leaning forward upon the marble
table and peering through his silver-rimmed spectacles into Bosio's pale
face, and gentle, exhausted eyes.
The priest's nervous, emaciated hand softly pressed the sleeve of the
younger man's coat, and the fantastic features grew wonderfully gentle
and kind. It was the transformation that came over them whenever any one
was visibly poor, or starving, or sorrowing, or hurt,--the change which
a beautiful passion brings to the ugliest face in the world.
Bosio smiled faintly as he saw it, and a little hope was breathed into
his heart, as though somewhere, at some immeasurable distance, there
might be a possibility of salvation from the ruin and wreck of his
"Yes," he said. "I am suffering. It is a great suffering. I do not think
that I can live much longer."
"Can I do nothing?" asked Don Teodoro.
Bosio still smiled, as a man smiles in torture when one speaks to him of
"If I believed that anything could be done," he said, "I should not
suffer as I do. I have lived a bad life, and the time has come when I
must pay the score. But it is not my fault if things are as they are--it
is not all my fault."
The priest sighed, and looked away after a moment.
"We have all done some one great wrong thing in our lives," he said
gently. "The price may perhaps be paid to God in good, as well as to man
Bosio shook his head, and a long silence followed. Once or twice he
roused himself, stirred the cup of chocolate which the waiter had set
before him, and sipped a teaspoonful of it absently. The corner where
the two men sat together was quiet, but from the front of the cafe came
the continual clatter of plates and glasses, the echo of feet, and the
ring of voices; for it was just midday, and the place was full of its
"If we were in church," said Bosio at last, "and if you were in a
He stopped, and glanced at his companion without completing the
"You would make a confession? There are churches near," said Don
Teodoro. "I am ready. Will you come?"
"No," he said at last. "I could tell you nothing without betraying
"Betraying! Is it a crime that you have on your conscience?" The
priest's voice was low and troubled.
"Many crimes," answered Bosio. "The crimes that must come, and that I
cannot prevent by living, nor hinder by dying."
Again there was silence during several minutes.
"You may trust me as a friend, even if, as a priest, you could not
confess all the circumstances to me," said Don Teodoro, after the long
pause. "I do not wish you to make confidences to me, unless you are
impelled to do so. But you are in that frame of mind, my dear Bosio, in
which a man will sooner or later unburden himself to some one. You might
do worse than choose me. I am your friend, I am old, and I know that I
am discreet. I am extraordinarily discreet. It may seem strange that I
should say so myself, but my own life has taught me that I am to be
trusted with secrets."
"Yes," replied Bosio. "You must have heard strange things sometimes
under the seal of confession."
"I have known of strange things." Don Teodoro's face grew sad and
thoughtful, and Bosio, seeing it, suddenly made up his mind.
He leaned far back against the painted wall for a moment, with
half-closed eyes. Then he drew nearer to his friend, so that he spoke
close to the latter's ear, though he looked down at the table before
him. His nervous fingers played with the teaspoon in the saucer of his
It was a strange confession, there in the corner of the crowded cafe at
midday, and those who glanced idly at the two men from a distance would
hardly have guessed that an act in a mysterious life was before their
eyes--an act which was itself but a verbal recapitulation of many
actions past, but which to the speaker had an enormous importance of its
own, and an influence on the future of all concerned.
Not much had been needed to break through the barrier of Bosio's
reticence. Walking through the streets that morning he had for a moment
even thought of telling some of his story to Taquisara. It was far
easier to tell it to the only true friend he had in the world, to one in
whom he had confided as a boy and had trusted as a young man. He told
almost all. He confessed that his love of many years had been his
brother's wife, and though he spoke no word of her love for him, the old
priest knew the evil truth from the man's tone and look. For the rest he
spared neither Matilde nor any one else, but told Don Teodoro all the
truth, and all his anxious fears for Veronica's safety, if he should not
marry her, with all his horror of his own shame if he should yield to
the pressure brought upon him.
Don Teodoro's expression changed more than once while he listened, but
he never turned his head nor moved in his seat.
"You see what I am," said Bosio, at last. "You see what my people are.
Indeed, I need a confessor, if one could save my soul; but I need a
friend even more, for through me that poor girl is in danger of her
life. That is her choice--to die or to be my wife. Mine is, to see her
murdered or to do an unutterably shameful thing--or to see the woman I
love driven out of the world with infamy for the crimes she has not
committed, and the fear of that disgrace is making her mad. It is for
her, and for Veronica! What do I care about myself? What have I left to
care for? What I have done, I have done. I am not good, I am not
religious, I am perhaps a worse sinner than most men, and a poorer
believer than many. But I will not be the instrument of these deeds--and
yet, if I refuse--there is death, or shame, or both, to those I love! At
least I have spoken, and you will not betray me. It has been a relief, a
moment's respite from torture. I thank you for it, my friend, and I wish
I could repay you. You cannot give me advice, for I have twisted and
turned it all in fifty ways, and there is no escape. You cannot help me,
for no one can. But you have done me some little momentary good, just by
sitting there and hearing my story. Beyond that there is nothing to be
The wretched man closed his eyes, and again leaned back against the
bright red wall, which threw his white face and dark-ringed eyes into
strong and painful relief. Don Teodoro was silent, bending his mind upon
the hideous problem. Bosio misunderstood him and spoke again without
"I know," he said. "You need not speak. I know by heart all the
reproaches I deserve, and I know that no human being, much less a holy
man like yourself, could possibly feel anything but horror at all
"I am very far from being a holy man," interrupted the priest. "If I
feel horror, it is for what has been, and may be, but not for you.
Bosio--" he hesitated a moment. "Will you come with me to Muro, and
leave all this?" he asked suddenly. "Will you come out of the world for
a while? No--I am not proposing to you to make a religious retreat. I
wish I could. I know the world, and you, and your people, for I lived
long among you, and I know that one cannot change one's soul, as one
changes one's coat--nor enter upon a retreat as one springs into the sea
for a bath in hot weather. What you have made yourself, you are. Heaven
itself would need time to unmake you. I speak just as one man to
another. Come with me to the mountains for a week, a month--as long as
you will. It is dreary and cold, and you will have to eat what you can
get; but you will have peace, for nobody will come up there to disturb
you. Meanwhile, something may happen. You are overwrought by all you
have seen and heard and felt. Whatever the countess may have said,
Donna Veronica is quite safe. My dear Bosio, people in your rank of
life do not murder one another for money nowadays. It is laughable, the
mere idea of it--"
"Laughable!" Bosio turned and looked at him. "If you had seen her eyes,
you would find it hard to laugh, I think. Such things happen rarely,
perhaps, but they happen sometimes."
Don Teodoro was not persuaded. He thought that Bosio, in his excited
state, very much overestimated the danger.
"At all events," he said, "nothing will happen, so long as there is the
possibility that you may marry her. If you come with me, you will at
least have time to think before acting. But here, you may be forced to
act before you have been able to think."
But Bosio shook his head slowly.
"There are difficulties which can be helped by putting them off," he
answered. "This is not one. You forget that in just three weeks my
brother will be ruined--absolutely ruined--if he cannot pay. If I stayed
that time with you, I should come back to find him a beggar--or obliged
to throw himself upon Veronica's mercy and charity for his daily bread
and for a roof to cover him."
"There is one other way," said the priest, thoughtfully. "There is one
thing left for you to do, if you have courage to do it. And you know
better than I what chance there would be of success. It is what I
should do myself. It is a heroic remedy, but it may save everything
Bosio's eyes turned anxiously to his friend, by way of question.
"Find Veronica alone," said Don Teodoro. "Take all rights into your own
hands and tell her everything, just as you have told me. You know her
well. If she is kind-hearted, as I think she is, she will pay your
brother's debts, take over the estates herself, since it is time, and
manage that Cardinal Campodonico shall never suspect that there has been
anything wrong with the administration. If she is not so charitable as
to do that of her own free will, why then, since you believe it, tell
her that she must do it to save her life. It is most unlikely that she
will refuse and take refuge with the cardinal in order to bring public
disgrace upon her father's sister. And even that, horrible as it seems
to you--if it must be, it will be, and it will not be your fault--"
"But Matilde--" Bosio began in troubled tones. "And yet, perhaps, it is
possible. Veronica would not be so cruel as to ruin them--the money is
nothing to her. And, after all, she will hardly feel the loss out of her
immense fortune. Yes--" his face brightened slowly with the rays of
hope. "Yes--it may be possible, after all. I had thought of going to
her, but not of telling her the whole truth. It did not seem as though
I could, until I had heard myself tell it to you. It will be hard, but
it seems possible, and it will save her--and then--"
His face changed again, as he broke off in the sentence, and his
melancholy eyes turned slowly to his friend.
"And then," said Don Teodoro, "perhaps you will go back with me to Muro,
and rest and forget it all."
"Yes," answered Bosio, sadly and dreamily, "perhaps I shall go to Muro
with you. I wonder," he continued, after a short pause, "that you should
want such a man as I am in your priest's house there."
"Oh! I am glad of a little society when I can get it, and I have much to
show you which might interest you. I have worked perpetually for many
years, since we used to talk about my history of the Church."
He checked himself. In spite of all he had just heard, and the real
distress and sympathy he had felt for Bosio, the one of his dominant
passions which was uppermost just then had almost made him forget
everything, and launch into an account of his work and studies. Men who,
intellectually, are deeply engrossed in one matter, and who, socially,
have long lived very lonely lives, are not generally able to lose
themselves in sympathy for others. As Bosio was not exactly an object
for Don Teodoro's charity, he was in some danger of being made a
listener for the outpouring of the priest's tremendous intellectual
enthusiasm. But the latter checked himself. The things he had heard were
indeed of a nature not so easily forgotten. He went back to them at
"My dear Bosio," he began again, "do not put yourself down as the worst
of men. It is just as bad to go too far in one direction as in the
other. There is undoubtedly, in theory, the man in the world, at any
given moment, who must be a little worse than any other living man; but
though he might be our next-door neighbour, we have no means whatever of
knowing that he is the greatest sinner alive, because we do not know all
about all existing sinners. Consequently, and for the same reason, no
man has any right to assume that he is worst of men. And as far as that
goes, many men have done worse things, even in the religious view, than
you have done, and very much worse things, in the opinion of society.
You are not responsible for all that the others have done. You are only
responsible in the immediate future for your share of duty, in doing the
wisest and best thing which may present itself. And if you can induce
Donna Veronica to forgive your brother and your brother's wife, by
telling her the truth without prevarication, you will have done
something to atone for the past evil which, you cannot undo. I am not
preaching to you, my dear friend. Pray look upon me as a man and not as
a priest. Indeed, I would rather that you should never think of me as a
priest at all. If you need spiritual help, there are many better men
than I, who can give it to you. But as a man and a friend, come to me if
you will. You are to me also a man and a friend, and not a penitent."
He finished speaking, took off his spectacles, and rested his head
against the wall behind him, as Bosio had done, and the younger man
glanced sideways at his friend's extraordinary profile. Its fantastic
outline had a moral effect upon him; for it recalled, as nothing else
could, the early days of his life before he had been what he now was,
when he had known what hope meant, and had understood aspirations in
others which had no meaning for him now. He was very grateful, too, for
Don Teodoro's words, which certainly comforted him in a way he had not
"Thank you," he said, "I will think of it. I think I shall take your
advice and speak to Veronica. She can save us all, if she will."
"Yes," said Don Teodoro. "She can save you all--and she will."
Then they sat a long time in silence in their corner, and the priest's
mind wandered occasionally to the thought of his manuscript, and of the
many points he intended to discuss with his friend Don Matteo, a man as
learned as himself, but indolent instead of active, one of those
passive, living treasuries of thought upon which the active worker
fastens greedily when he has a chance, to extract all the riches he can
in the shortest possible time, in any shape, to carry the gold away with
him to his workshop and fashion it to his wish.
And Bosio, whose intelligence was essentially dramatic and given to
throwing future interviews into an imaginary dramatic shape, thought
over and over what he would say to Veronica and what she might be
expected to say to him. But he was terribly exhausted and harassed, and
by degrees as the stimulant of recent comfort lost its cheering warmth
within him, he silently grew despondent again within himself, and his
dramatic fancies of fear became near and tragic realities. He thought he
could hear the clear, bell-like voice of the somnambulist telling him
that he should be forced to marry Veronica.
At last, realizing that he was probably detaining Don Teodoro, he roused
himself, and the two went out together into the broad light of the
Piazza San Ferdinando.
"I will go home," Bosio said. "I will think of it all. At this time I
can easily be alone with Veronica."
His voice sounded as though he were speaking to himself, and his head
was bent, so that he stooped from the neck as Don Teodoro did. But the
latter, as he walked, his silver-rimmed spectacles balanced on his great
nose, thrust his bent head more forward. Or rather, it was as though his
head moved first in the direction he meant to follow, while his thin
legs had difficulty in keeping up with it.
Bosio was willing to put off the moment of going home as long as
possible, and he accompanied his friend to the door of Don Matteo's
lodging, which was in a clean, quiet, sunlit street, behind the
Piazza--in one of those oases of light and cleanliness upon which one
sometimes comes in the heart of Naples. The little green door was
reached by a couple of steps up from the level of the street. Don
Teodoro had a key and stood on the upper step, holding it in his hand
and blinking in the warm sunshine.
"You know this house," he said. "You have been to see me here once or
twice. If you want me, you can always send for me in the afternoon, for
I only go out in the morning. But I will come and see you. When?
To-morrow, before noon?"
"Yes," Bosio answered. "By to-morrow at midday something will be
They shook hands and parted, Bosio turning eastward in the direction of
his home. The priest absently tried to insert the key in the lock of the
door, while his eyes followed his friend to the corner of the street.
Then, as Bosio's still graceful figure disappeared, he turned from the
keyhole with a sigh, and let himself in.
Bosio walked rapidly at first, and then more slowly as he came nearer to
the old quarter in which the Palazzo Macomer was situated. As with all
men of such character, his irresolution increased just when he fancied
that he was about to do something decisive. He would not have hesitated
in the same way, if he had been called upon to face a physical danger;
for though he was certainly no hero, he was by no means a physical
coward, and in a quarrel he would have stood up bravely enough to face
his antagonist. But this was very different. He had been ruled by
Matilde Macomer through many years, and when he thought of meeting her
he had a deadly presentiment of assured defeat. She would extract from
him something more than the silent assent which he had been forced into
giving on the previous evening, and she could not let him go till he
promised to marry Veronica. He walked more slowly, as he felt the fear
and uncertainty twisting his scant courage from his heart.
Then he was ashamed of himself, and in a sudden attempt to be brave he
hailed a passing cab and drove rapidly to the Palazzo Macomer. He asked
for Veronica and was told that she was in her room. He did not wish to
send her a message. Gregorio had gone out immediately after the midday
breakfast. Bosio was glad of that. He had not seen his brother since the
previous evening, and he did not wish to see him alone. There were
monstrous wrongs on both sides, and it was better to pretend mutual
ignorance, and keep up the ghastly farce, pretending that nothing was
the matter. The very smallest incautious word would crack the swaying
bubble that was blown to bursting with hell's breath.
Bosio had entered the main apartments in order to inquire for Veronica,
had passed through the long outer hall with its red walls, its matted
floor and its great table covered with green baize, to the antechamber
within, where, with some ostentation, as Bosio had always thought,
Gregorio had hung up the escutcheon with the quartered arms of Macomer
and Serra, flanked by half a dozen big old family portraits on either
side, opposite the three windows. He had waited there until the footman
returned after looking for Veronica in the drawing-room, and when he
heard that she was not there, he turned to reach the staircase again and
go up to his own bachelor's quarters, for he feared to meet Matilde and
hoped to put off seeing her until dinner-time, when he might so
manoeuvre as not to be left alone with her.
But the footman had hardly delivered his answer, and Bosio was in the
act of turning, when one of the two masked doors under the pictures
opened suddenly, and Matilde spoke into the room, calling him by name.
He turned pale and stopped short, as though a cold hand had taken him by
the throat. The footman went out to the hall, as Bosio met Matilde's
"Come," she said briefly, "I want to speak to you."
He obeyed silently, and followed her through the narrow door and through
a passage beyond, to her own morning-room. Matilde shut the door. The
afternoon sun streamed in through two high windows, filling every corner
with light and turning the crimson carpet blood red, where Matilde
stood, all round her feet and the folds of her loose dark gown, so that
she seemed to rise out of a pool of vivid colour, a dark, strong figure
with the brightness all behind her and the gleam of her eyes just
lightening in the shadow of her face.
"Why did you go out without seeing me this morning?" she asked in a hard
tone. "And why did Taquisara come to see you early? You scarcely know
"I certainly did not send for him," said Bosio, uneasily.
"He did not come for nothing," retorted Matilde. "He is no friend of
yours. He must have come for some particular reason."
Bosio said nothing, but turned from her and moved towards a table
covered with books. In an objectless way he opened a volume and looked
at the title page. Matilde followed him with her eyes.
"Well?" she said presently, "I am waiting. What did Taquisara have to
say? He is Gianluca's friend--he came with a message. That is clear.
What did he say? I am waiting to hear."
"He came because he chose to come," answered Bosio, still looking at the
title page of the book. "Gianluca did not send him. He wished to know
whether it were true that I was to marry Veronica."
"I thought so. And what did you answer? Of course you told him that it
was quite settled."
"We had a long conversation--I do not remember all that we said--"
"You do not remember whether you told him that you were to marry
Veronica or not?" Matilde laughed angrily and came forward.
"Let that book alone!" she said imperiously. "Look at me--so--now tell
me the truth!"
She laid her hand upon his arm, and not gently, and she made him turn to
her. Bosio felt that shock of shame which smites a man in the back, as
it were, when a woman is too strong for him and orders him brutally to
do her will.
"I told him the truth," he answered, and his pale cheeks reddened with
"The truth!" Matilde's face darkened. "What? What did you tell him?"
Bosio was weakly glad to have frightened her a little.
"The truth," he said, trying to assume a certain indifference. "Just
that. I let him understand that nothing is definitely settled yet, and
that there is no contract--"
Matilde was silent, and her eyes seemed to draw nearer together, while
the smooth red lips curled scornfully.
"Oh, what a coward you are!" she cried in a low voice, in deep disgust,
and as she spoke she dropped his arm in contempt, though she still held
his face with her angry gaze.
"You have no right to call me a coward," answered Bosio, defending his
manhood. "I told you that I could not do it. The man put it in such a
way that I had to give him a definite answer. For your sake I would not
deny the engagement altogether--"
"For my sake!" exclaimed Matilde. "Do not use such phrases to me. They
mean nothing. For some wretched quibble of your miserable conscience--as
you still have the assumption to call it--you will ruin us in another
"Yes, I still have some conscience," replied Bosio, trying to be bold
under her scornful eyes. "I would not let Taquisara think that you and
Gregorio had lied, and I would not lie myself--"
"You are reforming, then? You choose the moment well!"
"I have told you what passed between Taquisara and me," said Bosio.
"That was what you wished to know. I will judge of myself whether I did
right or not."
He turned from her and walked away, towards the door.
"Well?" she said, not moving, for she knew that her voice would stop
"Is there anything else?" he asked, turning again and standing still.
"There is much more. Come back! Sit down and talk to me like a sensible
being. There is much to be said. The matter is all but settled in spite
of the account which Taquisara frightened you into giving him. I like
that man, he is so brave! He is not at all like you."
"If you wish me to stay longer, you must not insult me again," said
Bosio, not yet seating himself, but resting his hands on the back of a
chair as he stood. "You know very well that I am no more a coward, if it
comes to fighting men, than others are. One need not be cowardly to
dread doing such a thing as you are trying to force me to."
"It does not seem such a very terrible thing," said Matilde, her tone
suddenly changing and growing thoughtful. "It really does not seem to me
such a dreadful thing that you should be Veronica's husband. Of course
I do not speak of the material advantages. You were always an idealist,
Bosio--you do not care for those things, and I daresay that when you are
married you will not even care to take her titles, nor to spend much of
her money. I know well enough what passes in your mind. Sit down. Let us
talk about it. We cannot afford to quarrel, you and I, can we? I am
sorry I spoke as I did--and I never meant that you were cowardly in the
ordinary sense. I was angry about Taquisara. What right had he to come
here, to pry into our affairs? I should think you would have resented
"I did," said Bosio, somewhat sullenly. "But I could not turn him out,
nor get into a quarrel with him. It would have made a useless scandal
and would have set every one talking."
"Certainly," assented Matilde. "Perhaps you did right, after all--at
least, you thought you did. I am sure of that. I do not know why I was
so angry at you. I am unstrung, and nervous, I suppose. Did I say very
dreadful things to you, dear? I do not know what I said--"
"You called me a coward several times," replied Bosio, thinking to show
a little strength by relenting slowly.
"Oh! but I did not mean it!" cried the countess. "Bosio, forgive me. I
did not mean to say such things--indeed, I did not. But do you wonder
that I am nervous? Say that you forgive me--"
"Of course I forgive you," answered Bosio, raising his eyebrows rather
wearily. "I know that you are under a terrible strain--but you say
things sometimes which are unjust and hard. I know what all this means
to us both--but there must be some other way."
Matilde shook her head mournfully, as Bosio sat down beside her, already
sinking back to his long-learned docility.
"There is no other way," she said. "There is certainly none, that is
sure. I have thought it all over, as one thinks of everything when
everything is in danger. The only other course is to throw ourselves
upon Veronica's mercy--"
"Well? Why not?" asked Bosio, eagerly, as Don Teodoro's advice gained
instant plausibility again. "She is kind, she is charitable, she will
forgive everything and save you--"
"The shame of it, Bosio! Of confessing it all--and she may refuse.
Veronica is not all kindness and charity. She is a Serra, as I am, and
though she is a mere girl, if she takes it into her head to be hard and
unforgiving, there would be no power on earth that could move her. She
is not so unlike me, Bosio. You may think so because she is so unlike me
in looks. She has the type of her father, poor Tommaso. But we Serra
are all Serra--there is not much difference. No--do not interrupt me,
dear. And as for your marriage, there is much to be said for it. It is
time that you were married, you know. You and I have lived our lives,
and we are not what we were. I shall always be fond of you--we shall
always be more than friends--but always less than what we have been. It
must have come sooner or later, Bosio, and it may as well come now. You
know--we cannot be always young. And as for me, if I am not already old,
I soon shall be."
The woman who had held him so long knew how to tempt him, sacrificing
everything in the desperate straits to which she was reduced. Though he
had loved her well, and sinfully, but truly, for so many years, his love
had sometimes seemed an unbearable thraldom, to escape from which he
would have given his heart piecemeal, though he should lose all the
happiness life held for him, for the sake of a momentary freedom.
Possibly, too, she knew that he never longed for that freedom so much as
when she had just been most violent and despotic. She was prepared for
the feeble dissent with which he answered her suggestion of separation.
He would be the more easily persuaded to yield and marry Veronica.
"As for your being old," he said, "it is absurd. It is I who have grown
old of late. But our being friends--" he paused thoughtfully.
"A man is never too old to marry," answered Matilde. "It is only women
who grow too old to be loved. You will begin your life all over again
with Veronica. You and she will go away together--you can live in Rome,
when you are tired of Paris. It will be better. You and I will see each
other seldom at first. By and by it will be so easy for us to be good
friends after we have been separated some time."
"Friends?" Bosio spoke the one word again, with a sad and dreamy
"I asked Veronica this morning," continued Matilde, not heeding him, and
beginning to speak more rapidly. "You have no idea how very fond she is
of you. When I spoke of the marriage, she seemed to think it the most
natural thing in the world. She found arguments for it herself."
"Yes. She said--what I have said to you--that there was no man whom she
knew so well and liked so much as you, that of course she had never
thought of marrying you, nor, indeed, of being married at all, but that,
at the same time, she should think that you would make a very good
husband. She wished to think of it--that is as much as to say that she
will not even make any serious objections. You have no idea how young
girls feel about marriage, Bosio. How should you? You cannot comprehend
the horror a girl like Veronica feels of a stranger, of a man like
Gianluca, even, whom she has met half a dozen times and talked with. It
seems so dreadful to think of spending a lifetime with a man about whom
she knows nothing, or next to nothing. And yet it is the custom, and
most of them accept it and are happy. But the idea of marrying some one
with whom she is really intimate, whom she really likes, who really
understands her, places marriage in a new light for a young girl.
Without knowing it, Veronica is half in love with you. It is no wonder
that she likes the thought of being your wife--apart from the fact that
you are a very desirable husband."
"I cannot believe that," said Bosio.
"That you are desirable as a husband? My dear Bosio, do not pretend to
be so absurdly modest! Any woman would be glad to marry you. But for me,
you could have made the best match in Naples years ago--"
"Not even years ago. Much less now. But that was not what I meant. I
cannot believe that Veronica is really inclined to marry me. It seems to
me that she might be my daughter--"
"If you had been married at fifteen," suggested Matilde, laughing
softly. "Because you feel tired and harassed to-day, you feel a hundred
years old. It is no compliment to me to say so, for I am even a little
older than you, I think. And you--you are young, you are handsome, you
are talented, you have the manners that women love--"
"It is not many minutes since you were saying that we were both growing
"No, no! I said that we could not always be young. That is very
different. And that we have lived our lives--our lives so long as they
can be lived together--that is what I meant. You are young! How many men
marry at fifty! And you are not forty yet. You have ten years of youth
before you. That is not the question. So far as that is concerned, say
that you are old to-night, at dinner, and you shall see how Veronica
will laugh at you! But that you and I should part, Bosio--and yet, it is
far better, if you have the courage."
"Have you?" he asked sadly.
"Yes--I have, for your sake, since I see how you look at this. And you
are right. I know you are, though I am only a woman, and cannot have a
man's ideas about honour. For my own part--well, I am a woman, and I
have loved you long. But you are the one to be thought of. You shall be
free, as though I had never lived. You shall be able to say to yourself
that in marrying Veronica you are not doing anything in the least
dishonourable. I shall not exist for you. I shall not feel that I have
the right to think of you and for you as I always have. I shall never
ask you to do anything for me, lest you should feel that I were
asserting some claim to you, as though you were still mine. It will be
hard at first. But I can do it, and I will do it, in order that your
conscience may be free. You shall marry her, as though you had never
known me, and hereafter I will always be the same. Only--" She fixed her
eyes upon him with a look which, whether genuine or assumed, was fierce
"Only--if you are not true to her, Bosio--if you leave her and go after
some other woman--then I will turn upon you!"
Bosio met her glance with a look of something like astonishment,
wondering how in a few sentences she had got herself into a position to
threaten him with vengeance if he were unfaithful to Veronica.
"We will not speak of that," she exclaimed before he said anything in
answer or protest. "We have harder things to do than to imagine evil in
the future. Since we are decided--since it is to be the end--let it be
now, quickly! You shall not have it on your mind that you belong to me
in any way, from now. No--you are right--you must feel free. You must
feel free, besides really being free. You must feel, when you speak to
Veronica to-night or to-morrow, as she expects you to speak, that all
our life together is utterly past and swept away, and that I only exist
henceforth as a relative--as--as your wife's aunt, Bosio!"
She laughed, half-bitterly, half-nervously, at the idea, and turning
away her face she held out her hand to him.
He took it, and held it, pressing it between both his own.
"Do you mean this, Matilde?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yes, I mean it," she answered, speaking away from him with averted
He could not see, but she was biting her lip till it almost bled. In her
own strange way she loved him with all her evil nature, and if she were
breaking with him now, it was to save herself from something worse than
death. It was the hardest thing she had ever done. He hesitated: there
was the mean prompting of the spirit, to take her at her word and to set
himself free, since she offered him freedom, caring not whether she
might repent to-morrow; and there was the instinct of fidelity which in
so much dishonour had remained with him through so many years.
"Besides," she said hoarsely, "I do not love you any more. I would not
keep you longer, if I could. Oh--we shall be friends! But the other--no!
Good bye, Bosio--good bye."
Something moved him, as she had not meant that anything should.
"I do not believe you," he said. "You love me still--I will not leave
"No, no! I do not--but if you still care at all, save me. Say good bye,
but do the rest also. You are free now. You are an honourable man again.
Bosio, look at my hair. You used to love it. Would you have it cut off
and cropped by the convict's shears? My hands that you are
holding--dear--would you love them galled by the irons, riveted upon
them for years? Save me, Bosio! You are free now--save me, for the dear
sake of all that has been!"
Still she turned her face away, and as Bosio saw the waving richness of
her brown hair and heard her words, he felt a desperate thrust of pain
in his heart. It was all so fearfully true and possible.
"But do not say that you do not love me," he pleaded, in low tones,
bending to her ear.
There was a moment's silence, and he thought he saw a convulsive
movement of her throat--he guessed it rather than saw it.
"It is true!" she cried, with an effort, drawing her hands from him and
turning her pale face fiercely. "If I loved you still, do you think I
would give you to Veronica Serra, or to any living woman? Was that the
way I loved you? Was that how you loved me?"
"Ah no! But now--"
She would not let him speak.
"Do you think that if I loved you, as I have loved you--as I did once--I
should be so ready to give you up? Do you know me so little? Do you
think that I have no pride?" asked Matilde Macomer, holding him at arm's
length from her with her strong hands and throwing back her head, while
the lids half veiled her eyes, and her face grew paler still.
The words that were so strange, spoken by such a woman, fell from her
lips with force and earnest conviction, whether she truly believed that
they had meaning for her, or not. Then her voice changed and softened
"But your friend--yes, always, as you must be mine--that and nothing
more. We have said good bye to all the rest--now go, for I would rather
be alone for a little while. Go, Bosio--please go!"
"As you will," he answered.
Then he kissed her hand and looked into her face for a moment, as though
expecting that she should speak again. But she only shook her head, and
her hand gave his no pressure. He kissed it again. There were tears in
his eyes when he left the room.
Love is not the privilege of the virtuous, nor the exclusive right of
the weak man and woman. The earth brings forth the good thing and the
bad thing with equal strength to grow great and multiply side by side,
and it is not the privilege of the good thing to live forever because it
is good, nor is it the condemnation of the bad to die before its time,
perishing in its own evil.
A moment after Bosio had left the room, Matilde rose to her feet, very
pale and unsteady, and locked the door. Then, as though she were groping
her way in darkness, she got back to the sofa, and falling upon it,
buried her face in the cushions, and bit them, lest she should cry out.
She felt that it would have been easier, after all, to have killed
Veronica Serra, than it had been to part with the one thing she had
loved in her life.
She had not loved him better than herself, perhaps, since it was to save
herself that she had driven him away. But it had not been to save
herself from so small and insignificant a thing as death, though she was
vital and loved life for its own sake. She had not realized, either,
until it had been almost done, how necessary it was. Yesterday she had
been more cynical. Her own wickedness was teaching her the necessity of
some good, and she saw now clearly that Bosio was one degree less base
than herself. She believed that he would now be willing to marry
Veronica, but she understood that until now he would not have done
it--unless she had freed him from the galling remnant of his own
conscience, and had formally given him his liberty. To give him that, in
order that he might save her, she had torn out her heart by the roots.
The bitterest of all was this, that he had scarcely struggled against
her will, when she had left him to himself. He had said a few words,
indeed, but he could hardly have said less, if he had meant nothing. She
knew well enough that at almost any point she could have brought him
back, playing upon the fidelity of habit. At her voice, at her glance,
for one word of her pleading, he would have come back to her feet,
willing to remain. But there was no vital strength of passion in him to
keep him to her against her mere spoken will. Once or twice, in spite of
herself, her voice had softened; she had felt that her face betrayed
her, and had turned it away; she had known that her hands were icy cold
in his, and had hoped that he would not notice it and understand, and
feel, perhaps, that his accursed habit of fidelity would not let him
take the freedom she thrust upon him. He had not seen, he had not felt,
he had noticed nothing; and he was gone, glad to be free from her at
last, willing to marry another woman, ready to forget what had held him
by a thread which he respected, but not by a bond which he could not
break. She had long guessed how it was; she knew it now--she had known
the truth last night, when she had smoothed his soft hair with her hand
and had spoken softly to him, but had not got from him the promise that
meant salvation to her and her husband. Then she had known what she must
do. Once more she had tried to impose her strength upon his weakness,
and had failed. Then, almost without an outward sign, she had made up
her mind. And now--he was gone. That was all she knew, or remembered,
for an hour, as she lay there on the sofa, biting the cushions. It would
have been far easier to kill Veronica, than to let him go. It was not
her conscience that suffered, but her heart, and it could suffer still.
It would have been worse, had that been possible, if she had known what
Bosio felt at that moment. Happily for her, she never knew. For in the
midst of the life-and-death terror of the situation, he was conscious
that he rejoiced at being unexpectedly free at last from the slavery of
her power. It was perhaps the satisfaction of an aspiration, good in
itself, of a long-smouldering revolt against the life of deception she
had imposed upon him; but in respect of his manhood, it was mean. For
good is what men are, when they are doing good. It cannot be the good
itself, which, though it profit many, may be so done as to stab and
wound the secret enemy of the man's own heart. The good such a man does
the whole world is but the knife in his hand wherewith to hurt the one.
But Bosio hurt only himself, and little, at that, for he was almost past
hurting; and Matilde never knew what he felt. And though he suffered
most of all, perhaps, between the beginning and the end, there was no
one moment of all his suffering which was like the agony of the strong
and evil woman when she had driven him away, and was quite alone. She
knew, now, what it meant to be alone.
When she rose at last, her face was changed; there was a keen, famished
look in her eyes, and her movements were steady and direct. Her nature
was very unlike Bosio's, for she was able to drive her will into action,
as it were, and she could be sure that it would not turn and bend, and
disappoint her. But, for the present, she could do little more, and she
knew it. She could only hope that all things might go well, standing
ready at hand to throw her weight upon the scale-beam if fate alone
would not bear down the side that bore her safety. She had said all
that she could say to Veronica and to Bosio. Gregorio Macomer, her
husband, whom she hated and despised, but whom she was saving, or trying
to save, with herself, carried the effrontery of his sham-honest face
and cold manner through it all, unmoved, so far as she could see. Only
once or twice in the course of the day he had laughed suddenly and
nervously, with a contraction of the face and a raising of the flat
upper lip that showed his sharp yellow teeth. No one noticed it but
Matilde, and it frightened her. But hitherto he had said nothing more
since he had first confided to her, as to his only possible helper, the
nature of his danger.
She had not reproached him with what he had done. The danger itself was
too great for that, and perhaps she had suspected its approach too long
to be surprised at his confession. She had paid very little attention to
the words he used; for, considering his nature, it was natural that he
should, even in such extremity, attempt to throw a side-light of dignity
upon his misfortunes, and should call crimes by names which suggested
honest dealing to the ordinary hearer, such as 'transference of title,'
'reinvestment,' 'realization,' and the like; all of which, in plain
language, meant that he had taken what was not his, without the shadow
of authorization from any one, in the quite indefensible way which the
law calls 'stealing.'
Matilde had been amazed, however, at the impunity he had hitherto
enjoyed. The mere fact that the estate had never been handed over by the
guardians, of whom she was one and Cardinal Campodonico the third, was
probably in itself actionable, had Veronica chosen to protest; and it
was an indubitable fact that Gregorio Macomer had taken large sums after
the guardianship had legally expired. There had been none to hinder him
and Lamberto Squarci from doing as they pleased. The cardinal was deeply
engaged in other matters, and was, moreover, not at all a man of
business. He believed Gregorio to be honest, and now and then, when he
talked with Veronica, he applauded her wisdom in leaving the management
of her affairs in such experienced hands.
Matilde unlocked her door when she felt that she was once more mistress
of herself and able to face the world. A woman does not lead the life
she had led for years without at least knowing herself well and
understanding exactly how far she can rely upon her face and voice. She
knew when she rose from the sofa that she could go through the remainder
of the day well enough; and though her eyes gleamed hungrily, there was
a cynical smile on her lips as she turned over the red cushion, on which
there were marks where she had bitten it, and softly unlocked the door.
She went into her dressing-room, beyond, for a moment, to smooth her
hair. That was all, for there had been no tears in her eyes.
When she returned, she was surprised to see her husband standing before
the window, with his back to the broad sunshine, peacefully smoking a
cigarette. The smoke curled lazily about his grey head, in the quiet
air, as he allowed it to issue from his parted lips almost without the
help of his breath. His face was like stone, but as he opened his mouth
to let out the wreathing smoke, his lips smiled in an unnatural way.
Matilde half unconsciously compared him to one of those grimacing
Chinese monsters of grey porcelain, made for burning incense and
perfumes, from whose stony jaws the thick smoke comes out on the right
and left in slowly curling strings. His expression did not change when
he saw her, and as he stood with his back to the light, his small eyes
were quite invisible in his face.
"What news?" he asked calmly, as he closed the door and came forward
into the room. "Is all going well?"
His breath, as he spoke, blew the clouds of smoke from his face in thin
"If you wish things to go well," answered Matilde, "leave everything to
me. Do not interfere. You have an unlucky hand."
She sat down in the corner of the sofa, taking a book from the table,
but not yet opening it. He smoked in silence for a moment.
"Yes," he said, presently. "I have been unfortunate. But I have great
confidence in you, Matilde--great confidence."
"That is fortunate," replied his wife, coldly. "It would be hard, if
there were no confidence on either side."
"Yes. Of course, you have none in me?"
He laughed suddenly, and the sound was jarring and startling, like the
unexpected breaking of plates in a quiet room. Matilde's lips quivered
and her brow contracted spasmodically. She hated his voice at all times,
as she hated him and all that belonged to him and his being; but during
the past twenty-four hours he had developed this strange laugh which set
her teeth on edge every time she heard it.
"What is the matter with you?" she asked impatiently. "Why do you laugh
in that way?"
"Did I laugh?" he inquired, by way of answer. "It was unconscious. But
my voice was never musical. However, in the present state of our family
affairs, a little laughter might divert our thoughts. Have you seen
Bosio to-day? Why did he not come to luncheon? I hope he is not ill,
just at this moment."
Matilda 'placed' her voice carefully, as a singer would do, before she
"He is not ill," she said. "He was here an hour ago. I did not ask him
why he did not come to luncheon, because it did not concern me."
"Well? And the rest?"
"The rest? How anxious you are!" she exclaimed scornfully. "The rest is
as well as ill can be. I think he will marry Veronica."
"I should suppose so, if she will marry him," observed Macomer. "It
would be as sensible to doubt that a starving man would take bread, as
to question whether a poor man will accept a fortune, especially in such
an agreeable shape. It is quite another matter, whether the fortune will
give itself to the poor man. What does Veronica say? Is she pleased with
"Moderately. She has not refused. She wishes to think about it."
"I hope that she will not think too long. To-day is the tenth of
December. There are just three weeks. By the bye, Matilde, I hope you
have put the will in a safe place. Where is it?"
Matilde paused two seconds before she answered. Though she could not
imagine in what way Gregorio could improve his desperate position by
getting the will out of her hands, nor by tampering with it, of which
she knew him to be quite capable, yet, on general principles, she
distrusted him so wholly and profoundly that she determined to deceive
him as to the place in which she kept it. Being clever at concealing
things, she began by showing it to him. She rose, took a key from behind
a photograph on the mantelpiece, and unlocked the drawer of her
writing-table. The will lay there, folded in a big envelope.
"Here it is," she said. "Do you wish to look over it again?"
She drew it half out of the cover and held it up before him. He
recognized the document and seemed satisfied.
"Oh! no," he answered. "I know it by heart. I only wished to know where
"Very well; it is here," said Matilde, putting it back and locking the
drawer again. "I generally carry the key about with me," she added
carelessly, "but I have no pocket in this gown, so I laid it behind that
photograph. It is not a very good place for it, is it?"
She hesitated, holding the key in her hand, and looking about the room
while he watched her. The woman's enormous power of deception showed
itself in the spontaneous facility with which she went through a
complicated little scene, quite improvised, in order to mislead her
husband. She knew that he himself would suggest some place for the key
to lie in.
"Put it under the edge of the carpet in the corner near the door," he
suggested. "You can easily turn the carpet up a little between the
"That is a good idea," she said. "It is as well that you should know
where it is, in case anything were to happen to me."
She was already in the corner, and she thrust the key under the doubled
edge of the crimson carpet.
"You are ingenious," she observed drily, as she rose to her feet. "I
should not have thought of that. It is a pity that you have not been
able to apply your ingenuity better in other ways, too. It has been
"I am not sure," answered Macomer, thoughtfully. "If Bosio marries
Veronica, our position will be a very good one, considering the
misfortunes through which we have passed. If he should not, and if
Veronica should die, it will be much better. I am not sure but that, if
I had no affection for the girl, I might prefer that she should die."
Matilde glanced at him sideways, uneasily.
"We will not speak of that," she said, as though it were a disagreeable
Then, without warning, his jarring, crashing laughter filled the room
again for a moment, and she started as she heard it, and looked round
"I really wish you would not laugh in that way," she said, with a frown.
"There is nothing to laugh at, I assure you."
"I did not know that I laughed," said Macomer, indifferently. "That is
the second time in a quarter of an hour. How odd it would be if I were
to laugh unconsciously in that way when--" He seemed to check the words
that were coming.
"When, for instance?" asked Matilde, not guessing what was passing in
"At the funeral," he answered shortly. Matilde started again, and looked
at him anxiously. She had resumed her seat after she had hidden the key,
but she now rose and went to him. He was still standing before the
window, though he had finished his cigarette and had thrown away the end
of it. She stood before him a moment before she spoke, fixing her eyes
severely on his face.
"Control yourself!" she said sternly. "I understand that you are nervous
and over-strained. That is no reason for behaving like a fool."
He also paused an instant before speaking. Then, all at once, his
features assumed an expression of docility, not at all natural to him.
"Yes," he answered, "I will try. I think you are quite right. I really
am very much over-strained in these days."
Matilde was surprised by his change of manner, but was glad to find that
she could control him so easily.
"It will pass," she said more gently. "You will be better in a day or
two, when everything is settled."
"Yes--when everything is settled. But meanwhile, my dear, perhaps it
would be better, if you should notice anything strange in my behaviour,
like my laughing in this absurd way, for instance, just to look at me
without saying anything--you understand--it will recall me to myself. I
am convinced that it is only absence of mind, brought on by great
anxiety. But people are spiteful, you know, and somebody might think
that I was losing my mind."
"Yes," she answered gravely. "If you laugh in that way, without any
reason, somebody might think so. I will try and call your attention to
it, if I can."
"Thank you," said Macomer, with his unpleasant smile. "I think I will go
and lie down now, for I feel tired."
He turned from her, and made a few steps towards the door. He did not
walk like a man tired, for he held himself as erect as ever, with his
head thrown back, and his narrow shoulders high and square.
Nevertheless, Matilde was anxious.
"You do not feel ill, do you?" she asked, before he had reached the
He stopped, half turning back.
"No--oh, no! I do not feel ill. Pray do not be anxious, my dear. I will
take a little aconite for my heart, and then I will lie down for an hour
"I did not know that you had been converted to homoeopathy," said
Matilde, indifferently. "But, of course, if it does you good, take the
aconite, by all means."
"I do not take it in homoeopathic doses," answered Gregorio. "It is the
tincture, and I sometimes take as much as thirty or forty drops of it in
water. Of course, that would be too much for a person not used to taking
it. But it is a very good medicine. Indeed, I should advise you to take
it, too, if you ever have any trouble with your heart."
"How does it affect one?" asked Matilde, turning her face from him, and
"It lowers the action of the heart. Of course, one has to be careful. I
suppose that one or two hundred drops would stop the heart altogether,
but a little of it is excellent for palpitations. Do you suffer from
them? Should you like some? I have a large supply, for I always use it.
I can give you a small bottle, if you like."
"No," answered Matilde, still looking away from him, towards the
photographs on the mantelpiece. "I am afraid of those things. They get
into the system, as arsenic does, and mercury, and such things."
"Not at all," said Macomer. "You are quite mistaken. That is the
peculiarity of those vegetable--those strong vegetable medicines. They
are quite untraceable in the system, and altogether defy chemistry."
Matilde was silent a moment.
"Well," she answered, with an air of indifference, "I have a tendency to
a little palpitation of the heart, and if you will give me a bottle of
your medicine, I will try it once. It can do no harm, I suppose."
"Not in small quantities. I will bring it to you by and by."
He went out, and a moment later she heard his dreadful laugh outside. In
an instant she reached the door, opened it, and called after him:--
"Gregorio! Do not laugh!"
But he was gone, and there was no one in the passage.
Veronica did not appear at dinner that evening, but remained in her
room, sending word to the countess that she had a headache and wished to
be alone. Matilde thought it not unnatural that the girl should wish to
reflect in solitude upon the grave problem which had been given her for
consideration. It would be wiser, too, not to disturb her, but to leave
her to herself to reach her own conclusions. Matilde knew that Veronica
had considerable gifts of contrariety, and that it would be a mistake to
press her too closely for a definite answer. Besides, it was always a
tradition in such cases that a young girl should have, in name at least,
perfect independence of action, and the ultimate right to refuse an
offer or accept it.
It was hard to sit still at the dinner table and behave with an
appearance of being reasonable, while knowing that the fate of the
household depended upon the answer of the young girl--from the personal
liberty of two out of the three persons who sat at the meal, to the
disposal of the forks and spoons with which they were eating, and the
roof over their heads. It was very hard even to make a pretence of
swallowing a little food, when all three knew the truth, and none dared
to refer to it in any way lest the servants should guess at what was
taking place. They spent a terribly uncomfortable hour in one another's
society. The two men exchanged indifferent remarks. Matilde occasionally
said something, but her mind ran constantly on absurd details, such as
the incident of the hiding of the will. As soon as her husband had left
her, she had taken it from the drawer, relocking the latter, and again
placing the key under the carpet. Then she had taken the will into her
dressing-room and had hidden it temporarily in another drawer. To
distract her mind during dinner, she tried to think of a better place
for it, and at last determined to unscrew the wooden back of a large old
silver mirror which stood on her dressing-table, and to lay the two open
sheets of the document upon the back of the looking-glass. When it was
all screwed up again, it would not be easy to find Veronica's will.
Matilde also thought of the aconite which Gregorio had recommended her
to keep, and of where she could put it, out of the way of the servants.
Once, towards the end of dinner, Gregorio's terrifying laugh broke out
suddenly, as the butler was offering him something. The man started back
a little and stared, and the spoon and fork clattered to the ground over
the edge of the silver dish. Bosio started, too, but Matilde fixed her
eyes sternly on Gregorio's face. He saw that she looked at him, and he
nodded, suddenly assuming the expression of docility she had noticed for
the first time in the afternoon.
Before they left the table they were all three in that excruciating
state of rawness of the nerves, in which a man has the sensation that
his brain is a violent explosive which a single jarring sound or word
must ignite and blow to atoms, like a bomb-shell.
And all the while Veronica sat peacefully in her room, before her fire,
wrapped in a loose soft dressing-gown, her little feet upon the fender
before her and a book in her hand. A lamp in an upright sliding stand
was on one side of her, and on the other stood a small table. From time
to time her maid brought her something from dinner, of which she ate a
mouthful or two between two paragraphs of her novel.
It was a great pleasure to her to dine in this way, alone, but it was
one she rarely had an opportunity of indulging. Even when her aunt and
uncle dined out she generally had her dinner in the dining-room with
Bosio, who scarcely ever went into society at all. On such occasions
they generally sat together half an hour after the meal was over, before
separating, and it was then that they really enjoyed each other's
conversation. It was very rarely that Veronica yielded to her wish to
be alone and pleaded a more or less imaginary indisposition in order to
stay in her room. Even then, she was not quite sure of being alone for
the whole evening, for Matilde sometimes came in after dinner and
remained with her for half an hour. It had always been the countess's
habit to show the greatest concern and consideration for her niece. But
to-night Veronica knew that she should not be disturbed; for she
understood that this was to be an important epoch in her life, upon
which all the future must depend, and that, since she had asked time for
consideration, Matilde would not intrude upon her solitude. Knowing that
she had as many hours before her as she pleased to take, she began the
arduous task of self-examination by greedily reading a novel which Bosio
had given her two days earlier, and which she had not opened. Somehow,
she fancied that while she was reading her mind would decide itself. The
immediate question was not really whether she should accept Bosio or
not, but whether she should go again on the morrow to her friend Bianca
Corleone, between eleven and, twelve o'clock. That Gianluca della Spina
would be there, she had not a doubt, and the idea of going there to meet
him presented itself to her mind as a dangerous and mad adventure. If
she hesitated, however, it was not on account of meeting the man who was
dying of love for her, but rather for fear of what Taquisara might
think of her if she thus answered his summons to the interview. He had
promised that he would not be present, and this gave her courage; but
Bianca would see and understand, for Bianca had first spoken to her of
Gianluca, that very morning, and as for Taquisara, he would, of course,
soon know all about it from his friend.
The arguments in favour of going were very strong, since she was asked
to say, at short notice, whether she would marry Bosio Macomer or not.
In all that Matilde had told Bosio the elder woman had been quite right.
Veronica was strongly prejudiced in his favour, and what Taquisara had
managed to say in a few words about the interested nature of the
proposal, not only had little weight with Veronica, but was the only
point which had not pleased her in her interview with the Sicilian.
After all, he had attacked her only near relatives in hinting, and more
than hinting, that they wished to gain possession of her wealth. She was
really ignorant of the fact that Cardinal Campodonico had so rarely even
made a pretence of inquiring about the state of her fortune. She met him
occasionally, and he never failed to say something pleasant to her,
which she afterwards remembered. Whenever Gregorio Macomer spoke to her
of business, he used the cardinal's name to give weight to his
statements, and Veronica naturally supposed that the princely prelate
was informed of all that took place, and approved of everything which
Macomer did. It was no wonder that she turned a deaf ear to Taquisara's
warning, which, as coming from Gianluca's friend, seemed calculated
purposely to influence her against marrying Bosio.
In reality, and apart from the little superficial argumentation with
which Veronica had diverted her own mind during the late hours of the
afternoon, she had made up her mind that before seriously considering
the question of marrying Bosio, she would see Gianluca and give him just
such an opportunity of speaking with her alone, as she had given his
friend Taquisara. There was really much directness of understanding and
purpose in her young character, together with a fair share of tenacity;
for, as Matilde had told Bosio, Veronica was a Serra, which was at least
equivalent to saying that she was not an insignificant person of weak
will and feeble intelligence. She was indeed the last of her name, but
the race had not decayed. It was by accident and by force of
circumstances that it had come to be represented by the solitary young
girl who sat reading a novel over her fire on that evening, caring very
little for the fact that she was a very great personage, related to many
royal families, a Grandee of Spain and a Princess of the Holy Roman
Empire, all in her own right alone, as Veronica Serra--all of which
advantages Taquisara had hastily recapitulated to her that morning. So
long as she should live, the race was certainly not extinct, nor worn
out; for she had as much vitality as all the tribe of the Spina family
taken together. She was not, indeed, conscious of her untried strength,
for she had never yet had any opportunity of using it; and in the matter
of the will, which was the only one that had yet arisen in which she
might have tried herself, she had yielded in the simple desire to get
rid of a perpetual importunity. Beyond that she had attached very little
importance to it. Her aunt might be miserly, but Veronica, in her youth
and health, could not think it even faintly probable that she should die
before the elder woman and leave the latter her fortune. Taquisara's
hasty counsel had therefore fallen in barren ground. She scouted the