Part 4 out of 8
fervent religious thoughts thereby re-enlivened, she was ready to bear
such burdens and make such sacrifices as might come into her way, with
the assured belief that they were especially sent from heaven for the
improvement of her soul, by the restraint and mortification of her very
innocent worldly desires.
It could hardly have been otherwise. She had not yet loved Bosio, but
her affection had been sincere and of long growth. On the last day of
his life he had become her betrothed husband, and for one hour all her
future living, as woman, wife, and mother, had been bound up with his,
to have being only with him--to disappear in black darkness with his
tragic death, as though he had taken all motherhood and wifehood and
womanhood of hers to the grave forever. As for what Don Teodoro had said
of his having loved Matilde, she believed that less than all the rest,
if possible; and the fact that the priest had said it proved beyond all
doubt to her that he was out of his mind. Beyond that, it had not
prejudiced her against him, for there was a certain noble loftiness in
her character which could largely forgive an unmeant wrong.
In her great loneliness, in that dismal household, the reality of faith,
hope, and charity as the body, mind, and spirit of the truest life, took
hold upon her thoughts, as the mere words and emblems of religion had
not done in her first girlhood. She read for the first time the
Imitation of Christ and some of the meditations of Saint Bernard. The
true young soul, suddenly and tragically severed from the anticipation
of womanly happiness, turned gladly to visions of saintly joy--simply
and without affectation of form or show--purely and without earthly
regret--humbly and without touch of taint from spiritual pride. She had
no burden to cast from her conscience, and she sought neither confessor
nor director for the guidance of her thinking or doing. Straight and
undoubting, her thoughts went heavenwards, to lay before God's feet the
sad, sweet offering of her own sorrow.
Without, in those dark winter days, storm drove storm over the ancient,
evil city, rain followed rain, and gloom changed watches with darkness
by day and night for one whole week, while the moon waned from the last
quarter to the new. And within, Matilde Macomer went about the house,
when she left her room at all, like a great, pale-faced, black shadow of
something terrible, passing words. And in the library, Gregorio's stony
features were bent all day over papers and documents and books of
accounts, seeking refuge from sure ruin, while now and then his face
was twisted into a curiously vacant grimace, and his maniac laugh
cracked and reverberated through the lonely, vaulted chamber. He often
sat there by himself until late into the night, for the end of the year
was at hand, with all the destruction that a date can mean when a man is
It was a big, long room, with old bookcases ranged by the walls, not
more than five feet high, and closed by doors of brass wire netting
lined with dark green cotton. A polished table took up most of the
length between the door which led to the hall at the one end, and the
single high window at the other. There was no fireplace, and the count
had the place warmed by means of a big brass brazier filled with wood
coals. At night, he had two large lamps with green glass shades.
Matilde sometimes came in and sat with him during the evening. She
looked at him, and wished he were dead. But she was drawn there by the
power which brings together two persons menaced by a common danger, in
the hope that something may suddenly change, and turn peril into safety.
He sat at one end of the table with his papers, and she took the place
opposite to him, the lamp being a little on one side, so that they could
see each other. They were a gloomy couple, in their black clothes, under
the green light, with harassed, mask-like faces.
One night, Matilde came in very late. She trod softly on the polished
floor, wearing felt slippers.
"Elettra sleeps in her dressing-room," she said in a low voice.
Macomer looked up, and the twitching of his face began instantly, as
though he were going to laugh. Matilde brought the palm of her hand down
sharply upon the bare table, fixing her eyes upon him.
"Stop that!" she cried in a tone of command. "It is very well for the
servants. You are learning to do it very well. It is of no use with me."
He looked at her steadily for a moment. Then he laughed, but naturally
"I might have known that you would find me out," he said. "But it is
becoming a habit. It may serve us in the end. How do you know that the
woman sleeps in Veronica's dressing-room?"
"I was wandering about, just now," answered Matilde, looking away from
him. "I saw the door of Elettra's room ajar. I pushed it open and looked
in, and I saw that her bed was not disturbed. Then I stood outside the
door of Veronica's dressing-room, and listened. Something moved once,
and I was sure that I heard breathing."
Gregorio watched her gravely while she was speaking, but in the silence
that followed, his small eyes wandered uneasily.
"The girl is lonely," he said at last. "She makes Elettra sleep in the
room next to hers, because she is nervous."
Matilde seemed to be thinking over what she had said. Some time passed
before she answered, and then it was by a vague question.
Again they looked at each other.
"That is certainly bad," said Macomer, thoughtfully. "What are we to do?
Speak to her about it? You can say that you found Elettra's door open,
at this hour."
"It would do no good," answered Matilde. "We could not prevent her from
having her maid there, if she wishes it."
"After all," observed Macomer, absently, "it is only a woman."
"Only a woman?" Matilde's lip curled. "I am only a woman."
Macomer nodded slowly, as though realizing what that meant, but he said
nothing in answer. With his hands under the table he slipped low down in
his chair, his head bent forward upon his breast, in deep thought.
"Can you not suggest anything?" asked Matilde, at last, gazing at him
somewhat scornfully. "After all, this is your fault. You have dragged me
into this ruin with you."
"I know, I know," he repeated in a low voice. "But we cannot do it
now--with that woman there."
"No. It is impossible now." Matilde's tones sank to a whisper.
She looked down at her strong hands that had grown thinner during the
past days, but were strong still. Gregorio waited a few moments and then
roused himself and bent over his papers again.
"You cannot see any way out of it, can you?" asked his wife at last. "Is
there no possibility of keeping afloat until things go better?"
"No," answered Macomer, not looking up. "There is nothing to go better.
You know it all. There is only that one way. Failing that, I must go
mad. One can recover from madness, you know."
"Yes," said Matilde, thoughtfully. "But it is a very difficult thing to
do well. They have expert doctors, who know the real thing from the
Gregorio looked up suddenly.
"She could not go mad, could she?" he asked, a quiver of cunning
intelligence making his stony mask quiver. "Are there not things--is
there not something--you know--something that produces that? What is all
this talk, nowadays, about hypnotic suggestion?"
"Fairy tales!" exclaimed Matilde, incredulously. "The other is sure.
This is no time for experiments. There are thirteen days left in this
year. If we are to do it at all, we must do it quickly."
"I do not like the idea of the pillow," said Macomer, speaking very low
Matilde's shoulders moved uneasily, as though she were chilly, but her
face did not change.
"It is of no use to talk of such things," she answered. "Besides," she
added, "you are dull. Only remember that you have just thirteen days
more, after to-day."
"Remember!" his voice told all his terror of the limit.
Then Matilde did not speak again. She rested her elbows on the table,
and her chin upon her hands, staring at him as though she did not see
him, evidently in deep thought. He bent over his papers, but was aware
that her eyes were on him. He glanced up nervously.
"Please do not look at me in that way. You make me nervous," he said.
With a scornful half-laugh she rose from her seat.
"Good night," she said indifferently, and in her soft felt slippers she
noiselessly went away.
She had not come in the expectation of help from her husband in
anything that was to be done. But besides the bond of fear by which they
were drawn together, there was the feeling that his presence, especially
in that room, brought before her vividly the necessity for action.
Under such pressure, an idea might come to her which would be worth
having. It had come to-night, but it was of a nature which made it wiser
not to tell Gregorio about it. Such things, being complicated and
delicate, and difficult of execution, were best kept to herself, at
least until her plans were matured and ready. But this time, she
believed that she had at last what she wanted. The scheme flashed upon
her all at once, complete and feasible, and perfectly safe, but she
resolved to think it over for twenty-four hours before finally deciding
to adopt it.
And while such things were being said and done in the lonely night, and
deeply pondered through the long, silent days, Veronica came and went
peacefully, with sad but not unhappy eyes, her thoughts fixed upon the
new path by which her single sorrow was to lead her up to the eternity
of all celestial joys.
In those days she determined to lead a holy life, in the memory of the
dead betrothed, and perhaps in the thought that by the outpouring of
much good around her, she might yet obtain mercy for the soul of one
self-slain. She meant not to cut herself off from all mankind, devoting
her maidenhood to heaven and her body to the servitude of slow
suffering, whereby some say that the spirit may be saved most
certainly--in the hard rule of daily dying, and daily rising again one
day nearer to death. That was not what she meant to do; that depth of
godly dreaming was too cold and still a depth for her. There must be
motion and life in her means of grace, since she had the power to make
others move and live. Marriage, wifehood, motherhood, should not be for
her, she said; but there was all the rest. There were the many
hundreds--the thousands, indeed, had she known it--of men and women and
poor children, toiling against the impossible with hands that had long
learned to labour in vain, save for the bare bread of life. To them all,
in many quarters of the land, she would be a mother, to help them, to
feed them, and to heal them; to work for them and their welfare, as they
had worked and toiled for the greatness of her dim, great ancestors,
repaying to humanity, in one lifetime, what humanity had been forced to
give them through many generations.
She would lead a holy life, for she would pray continually, when there
was nothing else that she could do. When she could not be thinking out
some good thing for her people, she would meditate upon higher things
for the good of her own soul. But first and foremost should be the
doing, the helping, the giving of life to the far spent, and of hope to
There in that room, where she dwelt continually in those days, she made
no vow, she registered no resolution, she imposed no one self upon
another self within her to thrust out evil and implant good. She had no
need of that. It was all as simply natural as the growth of a flower,
effortless, rising heavenward by its own instinct life.
In one thing only she made a determination of her will. She decided that
with the new year she would at last take over her fortune and estates
into her own management. Until she did that, she could not know what she
had, nor where she should begin her good work. That was absolutely
necessary, and of course, thought she, it presented no difficulty at
all. Possibly her own indolence about it, and her distaste for going
into the question of money and accounts, was a fault with which she
should have reproached herself, because she might have begun to do good
sooner, had she chosen. But she did not think of that. She would begin
with the new year.
As though a good destiny had anticipated her desire, the first call for
her help came suddenly, on the day after the last recorded conversation
between Gregorio and Matilde.
It was still early in the morning when Elettra brought her a letter,
bearing the postmark of the city, and addressed in one of those small,
clear handwritings which seem naturally to belong to scholars and
students. It was from Don Teodoro, and Veronica read it while she drank
her tea and Elettra was making a fire in the next room.
The old priest did not refer to the strange story he had told her ten
days earlier. But he recalled her question concerning the people at Muro
and their condition. They were indeed desperately poor, he said, and the
winter was a hard one in the mountains. There were many sick, and there
was no hospital,--not so much as a room in which a dying beggar might
lie out of the cold. It was a very pitiful tale, told carefully and
accurately. And at the end the good man humbly begged that the most
Excellent Princess would deign to allow his stipend to be paid in
advance, in order that he might do something to help his poor.
Veronica read the letter twice, and judged it. Then she determined to do
something at once, for she knew that the man had written the truth. She
should have liked to send for him, and talk with him of what should be
done; but she could not forget the things he had said about Bosio, and
for that reason she did not wish to see him again--at least, not yet.
His mind was unbalanced about that matter; but charity was a different
His address in Naples was in the letter. She wrote a note in answer,
begging him to tell her how much money he should need to hire a vacant
house, since there was no time to build one, and to fit it decently with
what he thought necessary, in order that it might serve as a refuge and
hospital for the very poor. She sent Elettra with the letter.
It was raining again, and by good fortune Don Teodoro was at home,
though it was still before noon. While the maid waited, he wrote his
answer. His thanks were heartfelt on behalf of his parish, but shortly
expressed. He said that in order to do what Veronica proposed so
generously, at least two thousand francs would be necessary. He briefly
explained why the charity would need what he looked upon as a large sum,
and he begged pardon for being so frank.
Again Veronica read the letter carefully over, and she put it into the
desk. Half an hour later she went to luncheon. The meal was as silent
and gloomy as usual, and scarcely half a dozen words were said.
Afterwards the three came back to the yellow drawing-room for their
coffee. When the servant was gone, Veronica, stirring the sugar in her
cup, turned to her uncle.
"Will you please give me three thousand francs, Uncle Gregorio?" she
asked quietly. "I want it this afternoon, if you please."
Gregorio Macomer grew slowly white to the tips of his ears. Matilde
sipped her coffee, and turned her back to the light.
"Three thousand francs!" repeated Macomer, slowly recovering a little
self-control. "My dear child! What can you want of so much money?".
"Is it so very much?" asked Veronica, innocently surprised. "You have
told me that I have more than eight hundred thousand a year. It is for
charity. The people at Muro have no hospital. I shall be glad if you
will give it to me before four o'clock; I wish to send it at once."
Macomer had barely a thousand francs in the house, and he knew that
there was not a man of business in Naples who would have lent him half
the little sum for which Veronica was asking.
"I shall certainly not give you money for any such absurd purpose," said
Gregorio, with sudden, assumed sternness.
Veronica raised her eyes in quiet astonishment, offended, but not
"Really, Uncle Gregorio," she said, "as I am of age and mistress of
whatever is mine, I think I have a right to my little charities.
Besides, you know, it is not giving, since you are no longer my guardian
in reality. It is merely a case of sending to the bank for the money, if
you have not got it in the house. I should like it before four o'clock,
if you please, Uncle Gregorio."
In his terror the man lost his temper.
"I shall certainly not let you have it," he answered, with cold
irritation. "It is absurd!"
If Veronica had wanted the money to spend it on herself, she might have
waited until he was cool again, in the evening, before insisting. But
her blood rose, for she felt that it was for her poor people, starving,
sick, frozen, shelterless, in distant Muro. She knew perfectly well
what her rights were, and she asserted them then and there with a calm
young dignity of purpose which terrified Gregorio more and more.
"This is very strange," she said. "I do not wish to say disagreeable
things, Uncle Gregorio; we should both regret them. But you know that I
am entitled to spend all my income as I please, and I must really beg
you to get me this money at once. It is for a good purpose. The case is
urgent. I am the proper judge of whether it is needed or not, and I have
decided that I will give it. There is nothing more to be said."
"Except that I entirely refuse to listen to such words from my ward!"
answered Gregorio, angrily.
"I appeal to you, Aunt Matilde," said Veronica, setting down her coffee
cup upon the table and turning to the countess.
But Matilde knew well enough that her husband could not get the money.
She shook her head gravely and said nothing.
By this time Veronica was thoroughly determined to have her way.
"Very well," she answered calmly. "I shall telegraph to the cardinal. I
understand that he is in Rome."
Gregorio turned away, and he felt that his knees were shaking under him.
He knew well enough what the result would be if the cardinal's
suspicions were aroused. Matilde saw the danger and interfered.
"I think you are pushing such a small matter to the verge of a quarrel,
Gregorio," she said sweetly. "Since Veronica insists, you must give her
the money. After all, it is hers, as she says."
Macomer turned and stared at his wife in amazement.
"I am going out at once," she continued. "If you like, I will go to the
bank and get the money for you. Yes, dear," she added, turning to
Veronica, "I shall be back before four o'clock, and you shall have it in
plenty of time. Did you say four thousand or five thousand?"
"Only three," answered the young girl, rapidly pacified. "Three
thousand, if you please. Thank you very much, Aunt Matilde! A woman
always understands a woman in questions of charity. One wishes to act at
once. Thank you."
And in order to end an unpleasant situation, she nodded and left the
room. Husband and wife waited a moment after the door was closed. Then
Matilde, before Gregorio could speak, went and opened it suddenly and
looked out, but there was no one there.
"She would not listen at the door!" exclaimed Gregorio, with some
contempt for his wife's caution.
"She? No! But I distrust that woman she has."
"And how do you propose to get this money?" asked the count.
"Have I no diamonds?" inquired Matilde. "She would have ruined us. Order
the carriage, and I will go to a jeweller at once."
"Yes," said Macomer. "You are very wise. I thought there was going to be
trouble. It was clever of you to restore her confidence by offering her
more. But--" he lowered his voice--"something must be done at once."
"Yes," answered Matilde, looking behind her. "It shall be done at once."
He went out half an hour later, and before four o'clock Veronica
despatched Elettra to Don Teodoro with three thousand francs in bank
notes. But the diamonds which Matilde had left at the jeweller's were
worth far more than that, and she had got more than that for them.
Veronica was well satisfied, and slept peacefully, dreaming of the
pleasure she had given the old priest, and of the good which he could do
with her money. And then in her dream, the scene of his first visit was
acted over, and suddenly Veronica started up awake in the dark. She must
have uttered an unconscious exclamation, just as she awoke, for in a
moment the door opened and she heard Elettra's voice asking her if she
needed anything, but in a tone so anxious and changed that it seemed to
Veronica to belong to her dream rather than to any reality.
"Are you there?" she asked, in the darkness, surprised that the woman
should have come in so unexpectedly.
"Yes," answered Elettra, briefly, and she groped for the matches on the
little table beside the bed.
She struck a light and lit a candle. Veronica saw that her face was very
pale, and that she was half dressed, wearing a black skirt and a white
cotton jacket. As the young girl looked at her she realized how strange
it was that she should have appeared at the slightest sound.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, with a little smile. "What time is
it?" She looked at the watch, holding it up to the flame of the candle.
"Three o'clock! What is the matter, Elettra? Why have you come?"
Elettra looked down, in real or pretended confusion.
"Excellency," she said in a humble tone, "my room is very cold and damp
in this rainy weather. For some nights I have slept on the sofa in the
dressing-room. I hope your Excellency will pardon me. And I heard you
cry out, just now. Then, forgetting that I ought not to have been
sleeping there, I got up and came."
"Oh! Did I cry out? Yes--I woke up suddenly. I was dreaming of Don
Teodoro and of--" She checked herself. "Why did you not tell me that
your room is damp? You shall have another."
"Excellency, if you will forgive me, it would give trouble at this time.
If you will allow me to sleep on the sofa until the weather is fine
again. I will make no noise. You have seen--in the morning no one would
know it, and I am very well there."
Veronica looked at her and hesitated a moment. In the stillness she
heard a soft sound.
"What is that?" she asked quickly.
"It is the cat," answered the maid, peering down below the level of the
"It did not sound like the cat," said Veronica, pushing her dark, brown
hair back with her slim hand, and looking down over the edge of the bed.
"It was more like a footstep," she added, with a little laugh.
But at that moment she caught sight of the Maltese cat's green eyes in
shadow. The creature came forward from the door, sprang instantly upon
the foot of the bed and lay down, purring, its forepaws doubled under
it, and its eyes shut.
"It is a heavy cat," said Elettra, thoughtfully. "It is so fat. One can
hear it when it walks across the room."
She scratched its head gently, and it purred more loudly under her hand.
"Excellency, you will allow me to sleep in the dressing-room, just for
these days," she said presently.
"Oh yes--if you like," answered Veronica, laying her head down upon the
pillow, sleepy again.
The maid bent over her and drew the things up about her neck in a
half-tender, motherly way, looking at the girl's face. Then she
hesitated before putting out the light.
"Excellency," she said, "let us go to Muro. The air of this house is not
good for you. It is damp, and you are pale in these days. In the
mountains the colour will come back. The people will make a feast when
you come. It will amuse you. Excellency, let us go."
Veronica laughed sleepily.
"You are dreaming, Elettra. Go away. I want to go to sleep."
The woman sighed softly, extinguished the light, and groped her way to
the door in the dark. Veronica was very sleepy, as she said, but somehow
after her maid had gone away, she became wakeful again for a time. The
cat had remained on the foot of the bed, and its soft purring disturbed
her a little, because she was accustomed to absolute silence. There had
been a curious cross-fitting of her dream and of the little realities of
Elettra's entrance. She had dreamt over again the priest's earnest
warning that her life was in danger, and she had imagined that she heard
a footstep of a person coming up quickly behind her. Then, somehow, in
the same instant, recalling what Don Teodoro had told her about her
uncle's frauds, she had seemed to know that he had refused the money in
the afternoon because there was no more to take, nor to be given to her.
Waking suddenly, she had heard Elettra's anxious voice, giving the
strong impression that she was really in present peril. Then she had
really thought that she heard another footstep, somewhere, while Elettra
was standing still beside her. It had only been the cat, of course. It
was such a very fat cat, as Elettra said, and the floors were of the
old-fashioned sort, laid on wooden beams, and trembled very easily, as
they do in old Italian houses. But each detail had fitted with another,
into a sort of whole which was a reflexion of the priest's story. Some
of it all at once looked true, and instead of going to sleep at once,
Veronica's eyes were wide open, and she turned uneasily on her pillow.
Of course, it was absurd, for she had received the money when she had
insisted upon having it, and if Elettra's room was damp, that quite
explained her presence. Besides, Elettra could not be supposed to know
what Don Teodoro had said to Veronica. And then, there was the rest of
the story, all that connected Bosio and Matilde. She absolutely refused
to think of believing that. She would not even admit that there might
have been some little foundation for it in the past.
Instinctively driving away the thought, she began to say certain prayers
for the poor man, and little by little, repeating the words often, her
mind grew calm, and she fell asleep once more. Yet in her sleep the
needle of doubt ran through the little bits of memories, one by one,
threading them in one continuous string. There was Bianca Corleone's
look of blank surprise when Veronica had first spoken of a possible
marriage with Bosio, and there was Taquisara's bold assertion, tallying
with the priest's, that the Macomer wanted her fortune, and there was
very vividly before her the gnawing anxiety she had seen in Matilde's
face until the latter had caught sight of the artificial flower on that
memorable evening. And the string on which the beads of memory were
threaded was her long-repressed but profound distrust of Gregorio
Macomer. It had seemed a wicked prejudice, a gratuitously false
judgment, based upon something in his face, and she had always fought
against it as unworthy, besides being irrational. Then, too, there was
the will she had signed a fortnight since, for the sake of peace. If
there was nothing in what the priest had said, why had they been so
terribly anxious to get the document executed without delay? It was
scarcely natural. And there were fifty other details, turns of phrases,
changes of expression, little words of Gregorio's spoken in an enigmatic
tone to his wife, which Veronica had not understood, but which she had
therefore remembered, and which could mean that he was on the verge of
ruin, and in great trouble of mind about his affairs. Amidst the wildly
shifting scenery of dreams, the little doll figures of abiding facts out
of memory joined hands in procession, showing their faces one by one and
their likeness to one another more and more clearly. Even in her dream,
it flashed upon her that it might all be true except that one part of it
which said that Bosio had loved Matilde and not herself. That was not
true. He had loved her, Veronica; they had known it, and had taken
advantage of it. She did not blame them for that. She had been so fond
of him,--she knew that she should soon have loved him,--and the dream
swung back upon itself, and she was again standing beside the fire in
the yellow room, with him so near to her. And after she awoke, she shed
On that morning, after eleven o'clock, Matilde came to Veronica's room,
bringing a piece of needlework with her, and she sat down to stay a
while. They talked idly about dull subjects, and from time to time
Matilde looked up and smiled sadly. She sat so that she could not see
Bosio's photograph on the mantelpiece. After she had been there half an
hour, she started, suddenly remembering something.
"I have done such a stupid thing!" she exclaimed, with an expression of
annoyance. "I believe I am losing my memory!"
"What is it?" asked Veronica, naturally.
"I sent my maid out, just before I came to you, with a number of errands
to do, and I forgot two things that I wanted very much. There was some
medicine which I was to take before luncheon, and some jet beads that I
needed. I do not care so much about the beads, but I need the medicine.
I feel so horribly tired and weak, all the time."
"Send one of the men," suggested Veronica.
"A man could not buy jet things," objected Matilde. "You could not let
Elettra go out for me, could you? It is a fine morning, for a wonder,
and she need not be gone more than half an hour."
"Certainly," answered Veronica, promptly. "She has nothing to do, and
the walk will be good for her."
She rose and rang for her maid.
"I will go and get the recipe," said Matilde, rising, too. "It is an old
one, given me by our poor doctor who died last year, and I kept it
because it did me so much good. They will make it up in ten minutes. She
can go and buy the jet, and stop for it on the way back. Will you tell
her that she may go?"
Elettra had entered the room, and Veronica explained to her what she was
"Put on your hat, Elettra," said Matilde, "and then please come to my
room, and I will give you the recipe. I must find it among my things. I
will be back presently, dear," she said to Veronica.
She went out, followed by the maid, who did as she was bidden and then
went to Matilde's room. The countess explained exactly what sort of jet
she wanted, and then gave her the recipe.
"Tell the chemist that this is only for two doses," she said, "but that
I wish him to make up twenty doses, because I am going to take it
regularly. Say that it is for me, and go to Casadio for it, where we get
everything. Have it put down on the bill. Do you understand? Here are
twenty francs for the jet, but you will not need so much. You
understand, do you?"
Elettra stuck the little slip of paper, on which the recipe was written,
into her shabby pocket-book without looking at it. She could read and
write fairly well, and had been used to helping her husband the
under-steward with his accounts at Muro, but even if she had looked at
the recipe she would have understood nothing of the doctor's
hieroglyphics and abbreviated Latin words. The prescription was for a
preparation of arsenic, which Matilde had formerly taken for some time.
The chemist would not make any difficulty about preparing twenty doses
of it for the Countess Macomer, though the whole quantity of arsenic
contained in so many would probably be sufficient to kill one not
accustomed to the medicine, if taken all at once.
But though Matilde was so anxious to have the stuff before luncheon, she
had a number of doses of it put away in a drawer, which she took out and
counted, after Elettra had gone. She opened one of the little folded
papers and looked at the fine white powder it contained, took a little
on the end of her finger and tasted it. Then, from the same drawer, she
took a package done up in coarser paper, and opened it likewise, looked
at it, smelt it, and touched it with the tip of her tongue very
cautiously indeed. It was white, too, but coarser than the medicine.
She was very careful in tasting it, and she immediately rinsed her mouth
with water, before she tied up the package again, shut the drawer, and
put the key into her pocket.
By and by Elettra came back and brought her the jet and the medicine,
returning her the change without any remark. Matilde thanked her, and
laid the package of twenty doses upon her dressing-table, before the
At luncheon, she persuaded Veronica to go out with her for a drive in
the afternoon. She said that she felt ill and tired, and did not like to
go alone. Gregorio said that he was too busy to accompany her, and it
would not have been easy for Veronica to refuse. While it was still
early, they drove out, past Bianca Corleone's house, over the hill, and
down to Posilippo, on the other side. They talked very little, but
Veronica enjoyed the bright afternoon air, after the long spell of bad
weather. There was no dust, for the road was not yet dry, and a gentle
land breeze just roughed the surface of the calm sea to a deeper blue.
When they turned to drive home, there was already a purple mist about
Vesuvius, and the great Sant' Angelo's crest was black against the sky,
for these were the shortest days, and the sun set far to southward. It
was almost dark when they got back to the city.
"Shall we have tea in your room?" asked Matilde as they went up the
stairs together. "It is so dreary in the drawing-room."
"Certainly," answered Veronica, readily. "Yes--the rest of the house is
horribly gloomy, now." Matilde was behind her on the stairs, evidently
fatigued, but as the young girl spoke, a look of detestation flashed
across her worn face. She hated Veronica, now that Bosio was dead. But
for Veronica, Bosio would still have been alive. There was more than the
mere desperate determination to save herself, and her husband with her,
in what Matilde did after that. But when they entered the hall, the look
was quite gone from her face. She had been very gentle, all that morning
and afternoon. They had talked a little of the incident that had
occurred on the previous day, of Gregorio's feeling about not letting
Veronica spend money uselessly. He was so conscientious, Matilde had
said. Though the guardianship had expired, he still felt it his duty to
watch his former ward's expenditure. And he was not charitable--no, it
had always been a cause of regret to Matilde that Gregorio, with all his
good qualities, was hard to poor people. Bosio had been different.
She spoke gently, and sometimes there was a true ring in her voice which
Veronica heard and understood, for it was quite genuine. And now, she
seemed tired and weak--she who was so strong.
So they went to Veronica's room, and Elettra brought the tea things, and
Matilde made tea, and they both drank it, and talked a little more, and
gave the Maltese cat milk in a saucer, on the lower shelf of the little
Afterwards, Matilde went away to her room, and Veronica remained alone
after Elettra had taken away the things.
Before dinner, Elettra came and told her mistress that the countess was
suddenly taken very ill, and was crying aloud with the pain she
suffered. Veronica hastily went to her aunt, and found that a doctor had
already come and was making her swallow olive oil out of a full tumbler.
A servant followed her into the room with a plate full of raw eggs, and
the doctor was asking for magnesia. Gregorio Macomer was standing by,
shaking his head, and occasionally supporting his wife with one hand,
when her strength seemed to be failing. Veronica took the other side,
and the doctor stood before the sick woman.
"What is it, Doctor?" asked Veronica, after a moment. "What is the
matter with her?"
The physician looked over his shoulder and saw that there was no servant
in the room. "It is arsenic," he answered in a low voice. "She has been
poisoned. But there was not enough to kill her--she will be quite well
"Poisoned!" exclaimed Veronica, in horrified surprise. "By whom?" She
looked at Gregorio, addressing the question to him.
He gravely raised his high shoulders and shook his head. Veronica
expected to hear his awful laugh; but though his face twitched
nervously, it did not come. He knew that the doctor might afterwards be
an excellent witness to his peculiarities, in case he wished to prove
himself insane; but on the other hand, had he shown any signs of
insanity now, the doctor might have suspected him of having poisoned his
wife. That would have been very unfortunate.
As the physician had foreseen, Matilde was soon better, and by bed-time
she felt no ill effects from what had happened to her, beyond great
weakness and lassitude. The doctor had asked many questions and had
elicited the fact that Matilde had a preparation of arsenic in powders,
which she took according to prescription, and which she showed him after
the first spasms were passed. She assured him, however, that she had
only taken one on that day, and had taken it just before luncheon. The
rest of the powders were intact and still lay upon her toilet table. She
showed them also. He took the next one, on the top of the pile, and said
that he would examine it and ascertain whether the chemist had made any
mistake. Then he went away, promising to come in the morning.
At last Matilde was alone with her husband. Veronica had gone to bed,
and Gregorio waited for an opportunity of questioning his wife.
"Whom do you suspect?" he asked, sitting down by her bedside.
"No one," she answered. "I took it on purpose. You need not be anxious.
I pretended to suffer more than I did, and I do not mind the pain at
He stared at her, trying to fathom her thoughts, but he altogether
failed to understand her.
"Why did you do it?" he asked, drawing the lids close together over his
"You are so dull!" she answered. "You shall see. I cannot explain now. I
have been really poisoned and I feel ill and weak. Do not go out
to-morrow before I see you."
He left her, but she did not sleep all night. In spite of what she had
gone through on that evening and of all the mental suffering of many
days, she was stronger still than any one knew. It was between two and
three in the morning when she lighted a candle, wrapped herself in a
dressing-gown and began to make certain preparations for the day.
In the first place she locked both her doors very softly, and arranged a
stocking over each keyhole, twisting it round the keys themselves. Then
she got some stiff writing-paper, and a heavy ivory paper-knife, and
from the locked drawers she took that other package which was done up
in coarse paper.
From this she took some of the rough, half-pulverized white stuff, laid
it upon the marble top of the chest of drawers, and with the ivory
paper-knife, pressing heavily, she little by little crushed it as fine
She then took nine of the eighteen little papers containing the arsenic,
which were left, opened each one at the end and poured out the contents
apart, into a little heap quite separate from the other. And of the
other, she took a pinch for each little paper and dropped it in--about
as much in quantity as she had taken out. Then she closed each of the
papers, carefully slipping one folded end into the other as chemists do;
when they were all closed, she made a tiny hole in each with the point
of a needle, so that she should know the bad from the good, if
necessary. This was only a precaution, and could do no harm. Then she
arranged the good and the bad in their little packages of five, each in
a tiny india-rubber band, laying bad ones and good ones alternately.
When this was done, she put all the packages into the original paper,
loosely opened, and laid them once more before her looking-glass, upon
the toilet table. Her large white hands were exceedingly skilful, and it
would have needed sharp eyes to see that the papers of medicine had been
After this, she cut a sheet of the writing-paper into four square
pieces, and very neatly made out of three of them three very small open
boxes, for moulds, each of the size of a large lump of sugar, and she
set them up side by side in a row. One was larger than the other two.
They had brought her powdered sugar, with the juice of a lemon in a
glass and a decanter of water; she had said that if she were thirsty she
would make herself a glass of lemonade in the night. She had also a
bottle of ordinary sticking gum.
She took the sugar and mixed a very little with some of the stuff she
had pulverized, and with a few drops of the gum, till it was a stiff,
hard paste, and with the end of the paper-knife she carefully filled the
largest of her three moulds with it. She was sure that it would be dry
and hard by the next day, and it would have the size, the appearance,
and somewhat the taste of a lump of sugar.
Then she halved the little heap of arsenic medicine as exactly as she
could. There were nine powders in all. To produce the symptoms of
poisoning in herself, she had taken four from her old supply, that
evening. Half of nine would be four and a half, and that would not be
too much. She mixed enough wet sugar and gum with each little pile to
fill one of each of the smaller moulds, pressing the sticky mass firmly
into the paper.
When all was finished, she carefully cleaned the marble top of the
chest of drawers, and threw what little of the coarser powder remained
into the ashes of the fire, in which a few coals still glowed. The heat
would consume the powder immediately.
Having done this, she set the three little moulds on the warm marble
hearthstone to dry, took the remainder of the package of coarser powder,
twisted the stiff paper closely, so that it should not open, took the
stockings from the keyholes, and, candle in hand, left the room, locking
the door softly behind her. She made no noise as she traversed the dim
rooms, in her felt slippers; but she avoided the yellow drawing-room and
passed through a passage behind it. Her nerves were singularly good, but
since Bosio's death she did not like to be alone in that room at night.
Bosio had been fond of dabbling in spiritism and such things, and they
had often talked about the possibility of coming back after death, in
that very room, promising each other that, if it were possible, the one
who died first would try to communicate with the other. Matilde turned
aside from the room in which they had said those things to each other.
She walked more and more cautiously as she came to the other end of the
long apartment, where Veronica lived, and she stopped in a dark corridor
before the door of Elettra's room. It was not ajar this time, but
closed. Matilde did not hesitate, and began to turn the handle very
slowly. Then she pushed the door and looked in, shading her candle with
her hand, from her eyes, so as to look over it. She had determined, if
she found the woman in bed, to wake her boldly, to say that she felt ill
again and to tell her to go and heat some water. That would have taken
some time. But Elettra was not there, and the bed, as usual of late, was
Matilde looked about her hastily, at the same time extracting the
package from the wide pocket of her dressing-gown. The furniture was
scant and simple--the bed, a table covered with things belonging to
Veronica, beside which lay sewing-materials, two chairs, a shabby chest
of drawers, a deal washstand--that was all. Italian servants are not
accustomed to very luxurious quarters. A couple of coarse, uncoloured
prints of saints were tacked to the wall over the bed, and a bit of a
dusty olive branch, from the last Palm Sunday, nine months ago, was
stuck behind one of them.
Matilde looked about her, and hesitated a moment. Then, setting the
candlestick down, she knelt upon the floor, and thrust the package as
far as she could under the chest of drawers. Of all the things she had
to do, in the course of that night and the following day, this was the
only one with which any danger was connected, for at any moment Elettra
might have come from Veronica's room to her own. The thing was possible,
but not probable, between three and four o'clock in the morning. It did
not happen, and when Matilde left the room and softly closed the door
behind her, all was safe.
Before she went to bed, she entered the dining-room, poured herself out
a glass of strong Sicilian wine from a decanter on the sideboard and
drank it at a draught, for she was very tired. She left the decanter and
the glass on the table, so that any one might see them. If by any remote
possibility some wakeful person had chanced to hear her moving about in
the night, she would say that she had felt ill, and had left her room in
order to find the stimulant. She thought of every possible detail which
could in any way hereafter be brought up in evidence.
At last she went back to her room, unlocked the door, and locked herself
Her plan was simple, though the details of it were complicated, so far
as the preparation was concerned. It was an extremely bold plan, but one
not at all likely to fail in the execution. Almost all the difficulty
had lain in the preparations, and she had spared no pains and no
suffering for herself, in the preliminaries.
She knew the story of Elettra's husband very well, and of how he had
been murdered by peasants near Muro in trying to collect the exorbitant
rents Macomer had attempted to exact. She was a good enough judge of
character to see that Elettra had the revengeful disposition common to
many of the southern hill people, and the woman's dark complexion,
sombre eyes, and thin frame would all help to strengthen the impression
in the mind of an unprejudiced judge.
She intended to make it appear that Elettra had poisoned the whole
family, beginning with Matilde herself, out of revenge for her dead
husband. Veronica was to die, but Gregorio and Matilde herself would
only suffer a certain amount of pain for a few hours, and then recover.
She had begun by half poisoning herself, both to remove all suspicion,
and as a sort of experiment, to be sure that she was giving herself and
her husband a sufficient amount to produce the real symptoms of
poisoning by arsenic. No half measures, no mere acting, would be of any
The stuff in the package wrapped in coarse paper was an almost pure salt
of arsenic, sold by grocers as rat-poison.
The two small lumps of sugar and arsenic medicine were for herself and
her husband; the large lump of almost pure poison was for Veronica.
In the examination which would follow upon the deed, the package of
rat-poison would be found under the chest of drawers in the maid's room,
half empty. It would be discovered that every alternate paper of
Matilde's medicine had been tampered with, and it would be supposed
that Matilde had at the first time taken one of those containing poison,
whereas the doctor who had attended her had taken the next, which was
untouched and only had medicine in it.
She intended to make tea on the following afternoon in Veronica's room.
She could easily find an excuse for bringing in Gregorio who, like many
modern Italians, had acquired the habit of drinking tea every day. She
herself would make the tea, and put in the sugar and cream. Elettra
would, as usual, have brought in the tea-tray with the silver urn, for
Veronica always preferred being served by her maid when she had anything
in her own room. It would go hard, if Matilde could not divert
Veronica's attention for one moment while she dropped the lumps into the
cups, having concealed them in her handkerchief beforehand. There would
be no servant in the room, for Elettra would have gone out. Gregorio
would know beforehand what was to be done and would help to divert
Veronica at the right moment. Arsenic had little or no taste, and
Veronica would drink her cup readily like the rest.
She would die before the next morning. That was certain. Everything
would tend to throw the suspicion of having attempted to commit a
horrible wholesale murder, upon Elettra. The will could be kept back
until the first uproar and excitement should be over. Then Matilde
would have the fortune, Gregorio would be saved, and Elettra would be
condemned to penal servitude for life.
It was certainly a very bold plan, and Matilde did not see where it
Matilde received on the following morning a curious letter which
surprised and startled her. She had risen at last, grey and weary of
face, with heavy eyes and drawn lips, to face the deed she meant to do.
The sky was overcast, but it was not raining yet, though it soon would.
She had risen before ringing for her maid, and had carefully removed the
paper from the three little cakes of white stuff which she had made. It
had to be done cleverly, for the smaller ones seemed likely to crumble;
but the large one was quite consistent. She had hidden them all in the
drawer she kept locked; then she had unfastened her door and had rung
the bell. It was past nine o'clock, and her maid had brought her a
letter with her coffee.
It was very short, but the few words it contained were exceedingly
disquieting. It was accompanied by a card on which Matilde read
'Giuditta Astarita, Sonnambula,' and the address was below, in one
corner. The few words of the letter, written in a subtle, sloping,
feminine handwriting, correctly spelt and grammatically well expressed,
ran as follows:--
"The spirit of B.M. wishes to make you an important communication and
torments me continually. I pray you to come to me soon, on any day
between ten and three o'clock. In order that you may be assured that it
is really the spirit of B.M., and not a deceiving spirit, I am to remind
you that on the evening of the ninth of this month, when you and he were
alone together in a room which is all yellow, you laid your hand upon
his head and stroked his hair and said: 'It is to save me.' The spirit
tells me that you will remember this and understand it, and know that he
is not a deceiving spirit."
Matilde read the short letter many times over, and her hands trembled
when she at last folded it and returned it to its envelope. A sensation
of curiosity and of ghastly horror ran through her hair, more than once,
like a cool breeze, and with it came the infinite desire for some one
word of truth out of the black beyond, from the one being whom she had
loved so fiercely.
But in such things she was sceptical, and she sought to make some theory
which should explain the writer of the letter into a common impostor.
She could find none. She remembered the act and the words that had gone
with it. Only she and Bosio had known, and he was dead--he had died
four-and-twenty hours after she had touched his hair and had said: 'It
is to save me.' And she knew him well. He was not, under any
circumstances, a man to speak of such things to a third person. Then,
how did this Giuditta Astarita know what Matilde had said and done? It
was not natural, and not natural meant supernatural--supernatural meant
the possibility of communication, and she had loved the dead man with
all her big, sinful soul.
It would be long before the time came for the deed, in the late
afternoon, and the terrible day must be disposed of in some way or
other. She was not afraid of going mad, nor of losing her nerve, nor of
making a mistake at the last moment, but even to her courage and
strength the hours before her were hours of fear.
She planned her day. The doctor would come, in the first place, at about
ten o'clock. He would recommend her to be quiet, to take a little broth
for luncheon, and a little more broth for dinner. She smiled grimly, as
she thought of his probable instructions, and she knew what she could do
and bear at pinch of pressing need. He would also tell her that the
powder contained only just the right quantity of medicine, and that she
must have been poisoned in some other way. She knew that.
Afterwards, Gregorio would need his instructions. He was to be at home
in the afternoon, and to come and drink his tea in Veronica's room when
Matilde sent for him. Just when Matilde was pouring out the tea, he was
to distract Veronica's attention from the tea-table for a moment. She
would not tell him that she intended to half poison him, too, for he was
a coward, and at the last minute, dreading pain, he would not drink from
his cup. She knew that well enough. She would tell him when he began to
suffer the effects, and assure him that he was not going to die. Again
she smiled grimly, and chancing to be just then before the mirror, she
saw that her face had all at once grown old since yesterday. And in
spite of her strength of body and will, she felt weak and exhausted, and
hated the hours that were to be between.
But when she had spoken to Gregorio, she would go out alone, on foot.
And she knew that she should find the address given on Giuditta
Astarita's card, and enter the house and see the woman who had written
to her, and hear the message that was promised. If she left her own
house, her feet must take her that way, whether she would or not.
And so it all happened just as she foresaw. But she had not known that
in threading the intricate, dark streets she would almost forget what
she was to do that day, in the mad hope of the one more word from
beyond. She had not known that at the thought her eyes would brighten
eagerly, the colour would come back to her cheeks, and the strength to
her limbs as she walked. After all, the strongest thing that had ever
been in her, or ever could be, was that passionate, dominating,
despotic devotion to one being; and the merest suggestion that he might
not be gone quite beyond the reach of spiritual touch had power to veil
the awful future of the day, when her hand was already uplifted to kill.
She was not a woman to hesitate at the last moment, unstrung and
womanishly trembling because the victim was young, and smiled, and had
innocent eyes. And yet, perhaps, had she not gone that day to answer the
spirit-seer's summons and to catch at the straw thrown to her from
beyond the grave, she might have seen a reason for changing her mind,
and all might have happened very differently. But Fate does not sleep,
though she seems sometimes to nod and forget to kill.
Matilde came to the house as the clock struck eleven, and entered by the
dark, arched door, and went up the damp, stone steps, as Bosio had done
a fortnight earlier. She was admitted by the decent woman whose one eye
was of a china blue, and she waited for Giuditta in the same small
sitting-room, of which the one heavily curtained window looked out upon
an inner court. She did not know that Bosio had ever been there, but in
her thoughts of him she felt his presence, and turned, with a shiver
under her hair, to look behind her as she stood waiting before the
window, just where he had stood. The day was dark, and the room was all
dim and cold, with its stiff, ugly furniture and its bare, tiled floor.
The corners were shadowy, and her eyes searched in them uneasily, and
she would not turn her back upon them again and look out of the windows.
Then the door opened noiselessly, and Giuditta Astarita entered, in her
loose black silk gown, with her little bunch of charms against the evil
eye, hanging by a chain from a button hole.
The china blue eyes looked steadily at Matilde, out of the unhealthy
face, but the woman gave no sign to show that she knew who her visitor
was. Her hoarse voice pronounced the usual words: "You wish to consult
"You wrote to me. I am the Countess Macomer," answered Matilde, lifting
her veil, which was a thick one.
The expression in the woman's eyes did not change, but she still looked
steadily at Matilde for three or four seconds.
"Yes," she said. "I thought so. I am glad that you have come, for I have
suffered much on your account."
She looked as though she were suffering, Matilde thought. Then she placed
the chairs, made the countess sit down, and drew the curtains, just as
she had done for Bosio.
Then, in the dark, there was silence. It seemed to Matilde a long time,
and she grew nervous, and moved uneasily. Then, without warning, she
heard that other voice, clear, deep, and bell-like, which Bosio had
heard, and she trembled.
"I see a name written on your breast,--Bosio Macomer."
The darkness, the voice, the shiver of anticipation, unnerved the strong
"What does he say to me?" she asked unsteadily.
Again there was a long silence, longer than the first, and by many
degrees more disturbing to Matilda, as she waited for the answer.
"Bosio loves you," said the voice. "He is watching over you. He tells
you to remember what you promised each other in the room that is all
yellow, long ago,--that the one that should die first would visit the
other. He tells you that it is possible, and that he has kept his
promise. He loves you always, and you will be spirits together."
Matilde felt that in the darkness she was horribly pale, but she was no
"Will he come to me when I am alone?" she asked, and her voice did not
"I will ask him," answered the clear voice, and again there was silence,
but only for a few seconds. "This is his answer," continued the voice.
"He cannot come to you when you are alone, as yet. By and by he will
come. But he watches over you. For the present he can only speak with
you through Giuditta Astarita, who is now asleep."
"Is she asleep?" asked Matilde.
"She is in a trance," the voice replied. "I speak through her, but when
she awakes, she will not know what I have said. The spirits come to her
directly sometimes, when she is awake, and they torment her. Bosio has
been coming to her often, and has made her suffer, until she wrote to
you. The spirits themselves suffer when they wish to communicate with
the living, and cannot."
"What are you?" inquired Matilda.
"I am Giuditta's familiar. The spirits generally speak, through me, to
her, when she is in the trance."
"And she knows nothing of what you say?"
"Nothing, after she is awake."
"Is Bosio suffering now?" asked Matilde, gravely but eagerly, after a
"I will ask him." And another brief pause followed. "Yes," continued the
voice. "He is suffering because he has left you. He suffers remorse. He
cannot be happy unless he can communicate with you."
"Can you see him? Can you see his face?"
"Yes," replied the voice, without hesitation. "He is very pale. His hair
is soft, brown, and silky, with a few grey streaks in it. His eyes are
gentle and tender, and his beard is like his hair, soft and like silk.
He is as you last saw him alive, when you kissed him by the fireplace in
the room that is yellow, just before he died. He loves you, as he did
Such evidence of unnatural knowledge might have convinced a more
sceptical mind than Matilde's of the fact that the somnambulist could at
least read her thoughts and memories from her mind as from a book. It
was impossible that any one but herself could know how, and in what
room, she had kissed him for the last time, a few minutes before his
end. Again the cold shiver ran under her hair, and she could not speak
again for a few moments.
"Does he know what I am going to do to-day?" she asked at last, in a
very low voice.
"I will ask him."
The silence which followed was the longest of all that there had been.
"I cannot see him any more," said the voice, speaking more faintly. "He
is gone. He will communicate with you again. I cannot find him. Giuditta
is tired--she will--" The last words were hardly audible, and the voice
died away altogether.
In the dark, Matilde heard something like a yawn, as of a person waking
from sleep. Then Giuditta's croaking voice spoke to her.
"I am tired," she said. "The spirits have kept me a long time. Did you
hear anything that you wished to hear?"
"Yes. I heard much."
While Matilde was speaking, the woman drew the curtain back, and the
dull steel light of the gloomy day filled the small room. But after the
darkness it was almost dazzling. Matilde looked at Giuditta's face, and
saw the same staring, china eyes, and the same listless expression in
the unhealthy features. She had felt a sensation of relief when the
voice had been unable to answer the last question she had asked; for she
still thought that there might be a doubt as to Giuditta's total
forgetfulness on waking. But that doubt was greatly diminished by the
woman's indifferent and weary look.
"I hope that he will not torment me so much after this," said Giuditta.
"I have lost my sleep for several nights."
Matilde, believing that the somnambulist was one person when awake and
quite another when asleep, did not care to enter into conversation with
her in her present state. The vivid, terrible future of the day returned
to her mind, too. She had been momentarily unstrung and was in haste to
be gone and to be alone. She had her purse in her hand, and stood still
a moment, hesitating.
"I generally ask twenty-five francs for a consultation," said Giuditta.
"But I am so much obliged to you for coming to free me from this
obsession, that I shall not charge anything to-day."
"No," answered Matilde, quietly. "I am not accustomed to receiving
anything without paying for it. But I thank you."
She laid the money upon the polished table, beside the volumes in their
"Very well," said Giuditta. "If you desire it, I thank you. If you
should wish to come again, I am always to be found between ten and three
"I will come again," answered Matilde.
She passed through the door while Giuditta held it open for her, and in
the passage she was met by the one-eyed woman. But she was more unnerved
and less observant than Bosio had been, and she did not notice the
extraordinary resemblance between the colour of the woman's one eye and
that of Giuditta's two. She descended the stairs slowly, feeling dizzy
at the turnings, but steadying herself as she went down each straight
flight. She made her way quickly to the nearest large thoroughfare and
took the first passing cab to get home, for she felt that she had not
strength left to walk much more on that day.
She had a moment of weakness and doubt, as she went up her own stairs,
knowing that in half an hour she must sit down to table with Gregorio
and with Veronica. It would be the last time, for Veronica would never
sit down with them again. She had not realized exactly how it was to be.
Henceforth, at that table, two places were to be vacant, of two persons
dead within a fortnight, the one by his own hand, the other by hers; and
from that day, when she and her husband sat there, the shadows of those
two would be between them always.
She paused on the staircase, and steadied herself with her hand against
the wall. She knew that from now until it was done, she should have no
moment in which she could allow herself the pitiful luxury of feeling
weak. And as she stood there, and thought of the strange messages she
had but now received from beyond the grave, she felt the terror of what
the dead man's spirit might say to her when all was done, and Veronica
lay dead in her own room upstairs--in this coming night.
The fear followed her up the steps like a living thing, its hand on her
shoulder, its cold lips close to her ears, breathing fright and
whispering terror. And it went in with her to her own room, and kept
freezing company with her throughout a long half-hour of mental agony.
It could not bend her, but it almost broke her. If she could stand and
walk and see, she would go to Veronica's room that afternoon and kill
her. She hated her, too. She hated her all the more bitterly because she
felt afraid to kill her, and knew that she must conquer her fear before
she could do it. She hated her most savagely because, but for her, Bosio
Macomer would still have been alive. As though she had been herself
about to die, the great pictures of her own past rose in fierce colours,
and faced her with vivid life in the very midst of death. And with them
came the clear echo of that bell-like voice she had heard speaking
message for message between her and the man she had lost.
Her soul was not in the balance, for the die was cast and the deed was
to be done. But she suffered then, as though she had still been free to
choose. She was not. The atrocious vision of an infamous disgrace stood
between her and all possibility of relenting. She saw again the coarse
striped clothes, the cropped hair, the hands and feet shackled in irons,
the hideous faces of women murderers and thieves around her. Well, that
was the alternative, if she let Veronica live--all that, or death.
Of course, in such a case she would have chosen death. But it was
characteristic of her that from beginning to end she never thought of
taking her own life. She was too vital by nature. She had loved life
long and well; she loved it even now that it was not worth living. She
never even asked herself the question, whether it would not be better
and easier to end all and leave Gregorio to his fate. Gregorio! Her
smooth lip curled in contempt. A coward, a thief, a fool--why should she
care what became of him? Coldly and sincerely she wished that she were
going to kill him, and not Veronica. She despised the one, and hated the
other; of the two, she would rather have let the hated one live. But to
die herself seemed absurd to her, because she really feared death with
all her heart, and clung to life with all her strong, vital nature. If
the lives of all Naples could have saved her own, death should have had
them all, rather than take hers. To live was a passion of itself--even
to live lonely, with a despicable and hated companion in the
consciousness of the enormous and irrevocable crime by which that living
was to be secured to her.
There was a common, straight-backed chair in the room, between the chest
of drawers and the wall. Through that interminable half-hour she sat
upright upon it, her hands folded upon her knees, quite cold and
motionless, her eyes closed, and her lips parted in an expression of
bodily pain. Then she rose suddenly, all straight at once, tall and
unbending, and stood still while one might have counted ten, and she
opened and shut her eyes slowly, two or three times, as though she were
comparing the outer world with that within her. So Clytemnestra might
have stood, before she laid her hands to the axe.
She did not mean to be alone again until all was over. It would be
easier then. She would have her own bodily pain to bear. There would be
confusion in the house--doctors--screaming women--trembling
men-servants--her husband's groans; for he was a coward, and would bear
ill the little suffering which would help to save him. Then they would
tell her that Veronica was dead; and then--then she could sleep for
hours, nights, days, calmly, and at rest.
She bathed her tired face in cold water, and went to face them at
luncheon. With iron will, she ate and drank and talked, bearing herself
bravely, as some great actresses have acted out their parts, while death
waited for them at the stage door.
Had the weather been fine, she would have persuaded Veronica to drive
with her, as on the previous day. But it was dark and gloomy, and there
would be rain before night. She talked with the young girl, and began to
make plans with her for going away. Gregorio ate nothing, and looked on,
uttering a monosyllable now and then, and laughing frantically, two or
three times. Nobody paid any attention to his laughter, now, for the
household had grown used to it. It might break out just when a servant
was handing him something; the man would merely draw back a step, and
wait until the count was quiet again, before offering the dish.
Over their coffee, Matilde read fragments of news from the day's paper,
and made comments on what was happening in the world. Veronica thought
her unnaturally talkative and excited, but put it down to the reaction
after the poisoning of the previous night. Matilde drank two cups of
coffee instead of one. Macomer smoked one cigarette after another, and
sent for a sweet liqueur, of which he swallowed two glasses. He did not
look at Veronica, when he could avoid doing so.
At last Matilde rose and asked Veronica to allow her to bring her work
and sit with her in her room, to which the young girl of course
"By and by, we will have tea there," said Matilde. "Perhaps you will let
your uncle come and have a cup with us--he always drinks tea in the
"Certainly," answered Veronica, quietly. "Will you come at four o'clock,
Uncle Gregorio? Or is that too early?"
"Thank you. I will come at four, my dear," said Gregorio; and Matilde
saw that his knees shook as he moved.
In Veronica's room the two women sat through the early part of the
afternoon, and still Matilde talked almost continuously. That was the
only outward sign that she was not in her usual state, and Veronica
scarcely noticed it, for as the time wore on, she spoke less excitedly,
and more often waited for an answer to what she said. Of course, the
conversation turned for some time upon what had occurred on the
preceding evening. Matilde scouted the idea that any one had attempted
to poison her. It was perfectly clear, she said, that, although the
paper which the doctor had carried away to examine only contained
exactly the right amount of medicine, the one from which Matilda had
taken her dose must have had too much in it. She was quite out of the
habit of taking arsenic, too, and a very slight overdose would always
produce the symptoms of poisoning. Veronica could see that she had felt
no serious ill effects from the accident. As for thinking that any one
had given her poison intentionally, it was utterly and entirely absurd.
Matilde refused to entertain the idea even for a moment, and presently
she went on to speak of other things, and soon fell back upon making
plans for the winter. She did not allow the conversation to flag, for
she feared lest Veronica should be tired of sitting in her room and
suddenly propose to go somewhere else, just for the sake of the change.
It was essential to Matilde's plan that Elettra should bring the things
She did not allow herself to think, and she succeeded in staving off
silence. Now that the deed was so near, it seemed unreal. Once she
touched her handkerchief in her pocket, and felt the three prepared
lumps concealed in it, to assure herself that she was not imagining all
she had done, and meant to do. Then, suddenly, she felt that her brow
was moist, a thing she could hardly remember having noticed before in
her life. But the moisture disappeared almost instantly, and her skin
was dry and burning.
Then the time came, and it was four o'clock.
Elettra opened the door and brought in the tea things on a large silver
tray, set them down, and went to get the little tea-table, that was made
with a shelf below, between the four legs, as a table with two stories.
"Let me make it," said Matilde, cheerfully; "I like to do it."
She laid down her work, and Elettra set the table before her knees, with
its high silver urn, and all the necessary little implements. Veronica
found herself on the other side of it, for Matilde had carefully chosen
her seat when she had first come, placing herself in such a way with
regard to Veronica as to make the present result almost inevitable
unless the girl moved into a very inconvenient position.
The big grey Maltese cat came in through the still open door, in the
hope of cream at the tea hour, as usual. The creature rubbed itself
along Elettra's skirt while she was lighting the spirit lamp under the
urn, which contained water already almost boiling.
"Will you kindly call the count?" said Matilde, addressing the maid.
Elettra left the room, and Matilde settled herself to make the tea, as
women do, raising her elbow a little on each side and then dropping them
again, bending her face down to see whether the lamp were burning well,
opening the teapot, pouring a little hot water into it, opening and
shutting the tea-caddy, and settling each spoon in each saucer in a
dainty and utterly futile way.
The cat rubbed its grey sides against Veronica's skirt and against her
little slipper, as she sat there, one knee crossed over the other. The
young girl bent down and stroked it, and hesitated, looking at the
tea-table, and not wishing to disturb the things to take a saucer for
the cat until the tea was made. As she bent down, Matilde took her
handkerchief quietly from her pocket and laid it quite naturally in her
lap. Veronica, being on the other side of the table and the urn, could
not possibly see what she did.
Gregorio came in. Elettra had opened the door from without, for him to
pass. She stood on the threshold a moment, and looked towards the table,
to see whether anything had been forgotten. Then she closed the door,
and went away, leaving the three together. The water boiled almost
immediately; and Gregorio was just sitting down when Matilde poured the
water out of the teapot, and part in the tea. She filled the pot, and
leaned back in her chair to allow it to draw a few moments.
The silence was intense during several seconds. Only the purring of the
cat was heard, as Veronica, letting her arm hang down without stooping,
gently rubbed its broad head. It pushed itself under her hand, bending
its back to her caress, turned quickly, and pushed its head under her
hand once more, doing the same thing again and again.
Matilde sat upright, lifted the cover of the teapot an instant, and then
began to move the cups. Veronica, whose thoughts were intent upon the
animal she was touching, and which, as she knew, was begging for cream,
immediately leaned forward, and took from under the silver cream jug a
saucer which Elettra had especially brought for the purpose. She poured
a little cream into it, and, bending down, placed it on the lower shelf
of the tea-table, and gently pushed the cat towards it.
Matilde saw her opportunity, while Veronica was stooping; and in that
moment she distributed the three lumps from her handkerchief in the
three cups before her, and at once began to pour tea into the one
containing the largest lump. The cat, for some reason, wished the saucer
to be set upon the floor; and Veronica still bent down, until it sprang
lightly upon the lower shelf, and began the slow and dainty operation of
lapping the cream.
During all this, Gregorio, anxious to seem unaware of anything
extraordinary, and not really knowing how his wife meant to put the
poison into the tea, was nervously looking away from her, sometimes
towards the window, at the fast-fading light of the grey afternoon on
the opposite house, and sometimes at Veronica's head as she bent down.
When she looked up, Matilde was holding out her cup to her, having put
some cream into it and a lump of real sugar to really sweeten the tea.
Veronica thanked her, drew a little nearer to the table, held her cup on
her knee, and took a thin slice of bread and butter, which she proceeded
to eat, stirring the tea slowly with her left hand.
Matilde meanwhile filled the other two cups, and handed one to her
husband, who took it in silence, unsuspectingly.
"I can never understand why the tea we make here is better than mine,"
she said, smiling. "It is the same tea, of course. But it certainly is
better in your room."
"Is it?" asked Veronica, carelessly and looking down at the cup she held
on her knee, while she slowly stirred the contents.
As though to verify Matilde's assertion, she bent a little, raised the
cup, and tasted the liquid. It was still too hot to drink, and she
stirred it again on her knee. She noticed that although it had been
sweet enough to her taste, there was a lump of sugar, not yet dissolved,
still in the cup: she never took but one piece, and her aunt had
evidently put in two.
Still holding the cup on her knee, where Matilde could not possibly see
it, she quietly fished the superfluous piece of sugar out with her
teaspoon, and bending down again she deposited it in the saucer from
which the cat was lapping the last drops of cream. She noticed that it
was only dissolved at the corners, but she had observed before that one
sometimes finds a lump of sugar which remains hard a long time. The cat
would eat it, for it liked sugar, as some cats do.
Then she filled the cat's saucer again. By that time what she had was
cooler, and she drank some of it.
"It is certainly very good tea," she said thoughtfully. "I think you
probably make it better than I do."
As she drank again, Gregorio's unearthly laugh cracked and jarred in the
room. But neither he nor his wife had seen what Veronica had done. They
were staring hard at each other, and for the second time Matilde felt
that her brow was moist.
The Maltese cat died before six o'clock. The poor creature suffered
horribly, and Elettra carried it off to her room that Veronica might not
see its agony. But Veronica followed her maid. Elettra had laid the
beast upon a folded rug on the floor and knelt beside it. It seemed half
paralyzed already, but when Veronica knelt down, too, and tried to
caress it, the cat sprang from them both in sudden terror. It stood
still an instant, wagging its head while its shoulders contracted
violently. Then it glided under the chest of drawers to die alone, if
possible, after the manner of animals of prey. The girl and her maid
heard its rattling breathing and its convulsions: its body thumped
against the lower drawer. Then, while Veronica listened and Elettra
bent, candle in hand, till her face touched the floor, to see it and get
it out, all at once it was quiet.
"Get up," said Veronica, nervously, for she was fond of the creature.
"Help me to move the chest of drawers out. Then we can get it out."
"It is dead," answered Elettra, still on the floor, and thrusting her
long, thin arm under the piece of furniture. "But I cannot pull him
out," she added. "He is so big!"
She got upon her feet, and together, without much difficulty, the two
dragged the chest of drawers away from the wall, and then bent down
behind it, with the candle, to look at the dead animal.
"It is quite dead," said Elettra. "Poor beast! What can have happened to
it?" Veronica was really sorry, but of the two the maid had been the
more fond of the cat. "It must have eaten something."
Elettra looked up, suspiciously, and Veronica drew back a step, half
straightening herself. Her foot touched something close to the wall. She
stooped again and picked up the package of rat-poison which Matilda had
hidden under the chest of drawers on the previous night. She looked at
it closely. It had evidently not lain long where she had found it, for
there was no dust on it, and the coarse paper had an unmistakably fresh
look. The indication of the contents was written upon it in ink, in
"It is rat-poison!" exclaimed Veronica. "The cat must have eaten some of
it! How did it come here?"
She looked at her maid curiously.
"The cat could not have wrapped it up and folded in the ends of the
paper," observed Elettra.
"That is true."
They looked at each other, in considerable astonishment. Then they
talked about it. Veronica asked whether Elettra had complained that
there were mice in her room, and whether some stupid servant, having a
package of rat-poison at hand, had not stuck it under the chest of
drawers, not even thinking of opening the paper. Elettra was suspicious.
"At all events, Excellency," she said, "remember that you found it, and
that it was carefully closed."
Suddenly, as they were speaking together, Veronica's face changed, and
she grasped the corner of the piece of furniture convulsively. Though
she had taken the poisoned lump from her cup in time to save her life,
enough had been dissolved already to make her very ill.
Again there was dire confusion and fear in the Palazzo Macomer, by
night. It was a wholesale poisoning. Veronica, Matilde, and Gregorio
were all seized nearly at the same time.
Several of the servants left the house within half an hour after it was
known that their masters were all poisoned. Within a fortnight, Bosio
Macomer had killed himself and there had been two poisonings. Matilde's
maid and a housemaid, the cook, and the butler went quietly to their
several rooms, took the most valuable of their own possessions, and
slipped out. They felt that the house was doomed, with every one in it.
But some one had gone for the doctor, and he arrived in a short time.
Matilde, to whom all the proper antidotes had been given on the previous
day, might have taken them at once, but in the first place, weak and
still suffering the consequence of the first dangerous experiment, she
was almost unconscious with pain, and secondly, if she had taken an
antidote herself, it would have seemed strange that she should not
administer it to Veronica, or at least send some one to the young girl
to do so. Gregorio lay howling with pain in his room. But Matilde had
warned him that it would come, after they had left Veronica's room
together, and he knew that everything depended on his not hinting at the
The doctor came to Matilde first. Far away, at the other end of the
house, Elettra was with Veronica. She had known what they had done for
the countess on the preceding evening, and while the servants were
screaming and running hither and thither through the apartments, like
scared sheep, the woman had quietly got oil and warm water, and was
giving both to her mistress. She knew that a footman had gone for the
doctor. When Veronica had first been seized with pain, Elettra had
thrust the package of poison into her own pocket, and it was still
By the time the antidote began to act, Elettra believed that the doctor
must be in the house. Not wishing to leave Veronica even for a moment,
she rang the bell. But no one came. The woman suspected that the doctor
had gone first to Matilde, and she decided in a moment that it was
better to leave her mistress alone for two or three minutes than not to
have the physician's assistance at once. She hastened to Matilde's room.
As she passed a half-open door the package of poison in her pocket
struck against the door-post and reminded her of its presence, if she
The doctor was bending over Matilde, who seemed very weak. As Elettra
entered, she saw that there was no one else in the room. A drawer in a
piece of furniture stood open as Matilde had left it, and as Elettra
passed, she dropped the package in, and with a movement of her hand
covered it with some folded handkerchiefs, from a little heap, shutting
the drawer with a quick push. Neither Matilde nor the doctor saw her do
it. As Elettra spoke to the doctor, the countess started at the sound of
her voice. She thought the maid had come to say that Veronica was dead.
Almost violently the woman dragged the physician away with her, and
Matilde smiled in the midst of her sufferings.
It would be useless to chronicle the details of the night and of the
following morning. The three poisoned persons were almost recovered
within twelve hours. Of the servants who had fled, Matilde's maid was
the first to come back when she learned that no one was dead.
As the night wore on towards dawn, and the countess learned that
Veronica was alive and not at all likely to die, she silently turned her
face to the wall and tore her pocket-handkerchief slowly with her teeth.
In the morning, when the doctor was there, the maid was alone in the
room, arranging things as quickly as she could, and hoping that in the
confusion of the previous night, her absence might not have been
observed. In the drawer, amongst the handkerchiefs and other things, she
came upon the package, looked at it in surprise, turned it round and
round, and read the words written on it. Then, thinking that she had
discovered the clue to the attempted wholesale murder, and that she
might obtain pardon for her defection, she came to the bedside and held
it up to the doctor. He, too, looked at it, and read the words.
Matilde's heavy eyes opened, and then stared as she recognized the
package. She thought that of course it had been found in Elettra's room,
and was sure of the answer, when she put the question to her maid.
"Where did you find it?" she asked faintly.
"In the drawer, here, Excellency."
"In the drawer!" cried Matilde, starting up, and leaning on her elbow,
as though electrified. "In the drawer? Here, in my room? Why--it was--"
Her head sank back, and her eyes closed. She had nearly betrayed
herself, for she was very weak.
"It was not there yesterday--I am sure of it," she said feebly.
"Give it to me," said the doctor, sternly, and he put it into his
All that day Matilde lay in her room. Gregorio had recovered. He came to
her, and when they were alone, he reproached her bitterly and upbraided
her in unmeasured language for her failure. Veronica was alive, and his
terror of the ruin before him grew stronger with the physical weakness.
He was a coward always, but he was now half mad with fear. He laughed
hideously, and his face twitched. He sawed the air with extraordinary
gestures while he walked up and down in his wife's room, speaking
excitedly in a low tone. Matilde turned to the wall and answered
nothing. For she could not have found anything to say.
From time to time, during the day, she had news of Veronica. Elettra
never left her mistress but once, shortly before twelve o'clock. She
went out for a quarter of an hour, and came back bringing fresh eggs,
bread, and wine, which she had bought herself.
"It is poor fare, Excellency," she said, as she boiled the eggs in the
tea-urn, "but it is safe. If you are strong enough this afternoon, we
will go away. This is not a good house. I do not understand what was
done; but it was done to kill you and not to hurt them."
"I think it was," said Veronica. "I am not frightened, but I do not
think that I am safe here."
After she had eaten a little and drunk some wine, she felt stronger and
wrote a line to the Princess Corleone, asking the latter to receive her
for a few days, as she was in trouble. In an hour she had an answer.
Bianca, of course, was ready for her whenever she might come. Elettra
quickly began to pack such things as her mistress might need
Veronica lay still, listening to Elettra's movements in the next room.
In a flash she had guessed half the truth, and reflexion now brought her
most of the rest. She remembered Don Teodoro's earnest face and the
quiet eyes that had looked at her through the silver spectacles while he
had been speaking. There had been conviction in them, and even then she
had felt that he believed the truth of what he said, however mistaken he
might be. And now she felt that it was not he who had spoken, but Bosio,
through him, that the warning came from beyond the grave, and that she
had risked her life in disregarding it. She believed that Bosio had been
a truthful man, and each detail of what had happened fitted itself to
the next, to make up the whole story which the priest had told her. All
but Bosio's love for Matilde, and in that Don Teodoro had misunderstood
him. He might have loved her in the past. That was possible, and to the
young girl's mind, in comparison with all that had recently happened,
the wrong of that love dwindled to an insignificant detail. She had not
been near enough to loving the man herself to be jealous of his past.
And she was glad that he had not told Don Teodoro of his love for
The rest all grew to distinctness and to the coincidence of the fact
with the warning. She was brave enough to face danger as well as a man,
but there was no reason why she should stay where she was, waiting to be
murdered. She had a right to save herself without despising herself as a
coward. She therefore said nothing to stop Elettra in her preparations,
and the maid silently went on with her work in the other room.
She still felt ill and terribly shaken, but she rose softly, to try her
strength, and she found that after the first moment's dizziness she
could stand and walk alone. She looked at her hands, and she thought
that they had shrunk and were thinner than ever. Then she lay down again
and called Elettra, and bade her prepare her own belongings and then
come and dress her, when she should have finished.
That was almost all that the woman had said, since she had boiled the
eggs for her mistress's luncheon, and Veronica herself did not speak
except to give an order about some detail of the packing. It would have
been impossible to talk of what had happened without speaking clearly
about Matilde, and Veronica did not wish to do that, though Elettra was
of her own people and devotedly attached to her.
Elettra had been careful that no one in the household should learn her
mistress's intention of leaving the palace. Veronica intended to go away
in a cab, and it would be the question of a moment only to call one.
When all was ready, Elettra went out for that purpose herself, and
Veronica went without hesitation to Matilde's room. When she entered,
the countess was alone, propped with pillows on a low couch near the
fire. Her large white hands lay listlessly upon the dark shawl that was
drawn over her, and she had thrown a piece of thick black lace over her
head. It was nearly four o'clock, and the light was already waning, so
that, as she lay with her back to the window, Veronica could hardly see
her face. She raised her head slowly and wearily as the young girl
entered, and then started visibly, as she recognized her.
"It is I," said Veronica, when she had closed the door.
She came and stood beside the couch on which her aunt lay, and she
looked down at the reclining woman. Matilde's listless hands suddenly
clasped each other.
"Yes," she answered, with an effort. "Are you going out? Are you well
enough to go out?" she asked, adding the last question quickly.
"I should go if I were much more ill than I have been," Veronica
replied. "I am not coming back."
"Not coming back?" Surprise brought energy into Matilde's voice.
"No. I am not coming back. Do not be astonished. I understand what has
happened, and I am going to a safer place."
"What? How? I do not understand." Matilde spoke rapidly and unsteadily.
"You must stay here--Gregorio is going to send for the chief of
police--there will be an inquiry, and you must answer questions--we
suspect one of the servants, who has a grudge against your uncle, and
who has tried to murder us all in revenge--"
"Yes," said Veronica, calmly. "It was well arranged, I am sure. If I had
not found the rat-poison under the chest of drawers in Elettra's room,
you might have thrown suspicion upon her, because her husband was
murdered at Muro. If I had not found my tea too sweet, I should not have
taken out the second piece and given it to the cat. The taste I had of
it almost killed me--you have explained the rest to me now. But I knew
all that I needed to know."
Matilde put her feet to the ground and slowly rose to her feet while
Veronica was speaking. Then she laid her two hands upon the girl's
shoulders and stared into her face.
"Do you dare to accuse me of trying to poison you?" she asked in a low,
"Take your hands from me!" cried Veronica, thrusting her back. "Call
your husband. I will accuse you both--you and him."
They were women of the same race and name, and both brave. But the elder
and stronger felt her nerves growing weak in her when she heard the
other's voice. Perhaps courageous people recognize courage and
conviction in others more easily than cowards can. Matilde hesitated.
"Call him!" repeated Veronica, in a tone of command. "I insist upon it.
He shall hear what I have to say."
"I will call him, that he may see for himself that you are quite mad,"
answered Matilde. "That is," she added, "if he is well enough to come
here from his room." And she moved slowly towards the door.
"If I am alive, he is well enough to hear me speak," said the young
Matilde stopped, turned, and faced her a moment, as though about to
speak angrily. Then she went on. It was best, on the whole, to call her
husband, she thought, though her reasoning was confused and uncertain.
In her view of matters, the burden of the crime she had tried to commit
all fell upon him, and she was willing that he should face Veronica, and
realize what he had done. At the same time she believed herself so safe
as still to be able to throw the suspicion entirely upon Elettra, though
Veronica would protect her. Moreover, though she would not have admitted
the fact, her strength was momentarily so broken that she felt it easier
to obey the young girl than to visit her and fight out the interview
Veronica did not move while she was gone, but stood quite still,
watching the door. She was very pale, with illness and rising anger, but
she was not weak, as Matilde was. She had not gone through half so much.
Presently Matilde returned, followed by Macomer, wrapped in a dark
velvet dressing-gown, his face white and twitching, his usually smooth
grey beard unbrushed, and his grey hair in disorder. With drawn lids he
looked at Veronica, and in his terror he tried to smile, but there was
something at once cowardly and insolent in the expression--there was
something else, too, which the young girl did not understand, a sort of
vacancy of the brow and unnatural weakness of the mouth.
"I am glad that you have come," she said, when the door was shut. "I
have not much to say, and I wish you to hear it."
They were all standing. Gregorio steadied himself by the head of the
couch, and was as erect as ever.
"I will tell you something which you do not know," said Veronica, fixing
her eyes on him. "Before Bosio died he told the whole truth to Don
Teodoro Maresca, his friend. And the day after his death, Don Teodoro
came and told it all to me."
"Bosio!" exclaimed Gregorio, his knees shaking. "Bosio told--"
"What did Bosio tell?" asked Matilde, interrupting her husband in a loud
voice to cover any mistake he might be about to make.
But Veronica had seen Macomer's face and had heard his tone of dread.
Whatever doubts she still had, disappeared for the last time.
"He told his friend the whole truth about your management of my
fortune," she answered steadily. "He told how you had lost your own in
speculation and had taken everything of mine upon which you could lay
hands--all my income and much more, so long as you were still my
guardian--you and Lamberto Squarci, helping each other. And I
understand now why you would not give me that money the other day. You
had not got it to give me. My aunt must have borrowed it. And Bosio told
Don Teodoro, that unless he was married to me, you meant to kill me,
because I had signed a will leaving you everything. There was nothing
that Bosio did not tell, and Don Teodoro repeated every word of it to
me. I thought him mad. But now I know that he was not. I have been saved
by a miracle, but you shall not try to murder me again--so I am going
Macomer had listened to the end, his face working horribly and his hands
grasping the head of the couch. When Veronica paused, his head fell
forward as he stood. Even Matilde could not speak, for a moment. The
revelation that Bosio had told all before he died, and that Veronica
knew it, fell upon her like a blow, with stunning force. The first words
came from Gregorio.
"Bosio!" he exclaimed in a loud voice. "The devil take his soul!"
"God will have mercy upon the soul that was lost through your deeds,"
said the young girl, solemnly. "Amongst you, you drove him to
madness--it was not his fault. But for his soul you shall answer, as
well as for your deeds--and that is much to answer for, to Heaven and to
me. You neither of you have the strength to deny one word of what Bosio
"He was mad!" Matilde broke in. "You are mad, too--"
"Oh no!" interrupted Veronica, with contempt. "You cannot fasten that
upon me. I am not mad at all, and I will show you what it is to be sane,
for I know that every word of what Bosio told Don Teodoro was true. I
was foolish not to believe it at once--it almost cost my life to believe
you better than you are."
"He was quite insane," muttered Gregorio, in almost imbecile repetition
of what his wife had said.
Matilde made another great effort to impose her remaining strength upon
the young girl.
"Whether you are mad or not, you shall not stand there accusing me of
monstrous crimes!" she cried, moving a step towards Veronica, and
raising her hand with a menacing gesture.
"Shall not?" repeated Veronica, proudly, and instead of retreating she
advanced calmly to meet her aunt.
"Would you not rather that I accused you here, and proved you guilty and
let you go free, than that I should do as much in a court of justice?
You know what the end of that would be--penal servitude for you
both--and unless--" she paused, for she was growing hot and she wished
to speak with coolness.
"Unless?" Matilde uttered the one word scornfully, still facing her.
"Unless you will confess the truth, here, before I leave the house, I
will do what I can to have you both convicted," said Veronica. "That is
your only chance. That or the galleys. Choose. You are thieves and
She spoke like a man to those who would have murdered her and had
failed, but who had robbed her with impunity for years. Gregorio
Macomer's face was all distorted. All at once his maniac laugh broke
out. But it stopped suddenly and unexpectedly, and it changed to another
sort of laughter--low and not unpleasant to hear, but a little vacant.
Matilde turned her head slowly and gazed at him. He was bending now and
resting his elbows on the head of the couch, instead of his hands, and
he held his hands themselves opposite to each other, crooking first one
finger and then another, and making one finger bow to the other, as
children sometimes do, and laughing vacantly to himself, with a queer
little chuckle of enjoyment. Veronica stared. Matilde held her breath.
Still he laughed softly.
"Marionettes," he said, looking up at his wife, his little eyes wide
open. "Do you see the marionettes? This is Pulcinella. This is his wife.
Do you see how they quarrel? Is it not pretty? I always like to see the
marionettes in the streets. Ha! ha! ha! see them!"
And he played with his fingers and made them bob and bow, like little
"He is ill," said Matilde, in a low, uneasy voice. "Pay no attention to
He had always intended to save himself by pretending to go mad, but even
Matilde was amazed at his power of acting.
"He will recover," answered Veronica, coldly. "You can still understand
me, at all events, even if he cannot. You have your choice. If you tell
me the truth, I will not allow any inquiry. I will take over my fortune,
if you have left me any, and for the sake of my father's name, I will
not bring you to justice, even if you have ruined me. But I warn
you--and it is the last time, for I am going--if you still try to deny
what I know to be the truth, the prosecution shall begin to-morrow. You
will not be able to murder me, for I shall be protected, and with all
your abominable courage you are not brave enough to try and kill me
here, before I leave this room. No--you are not. I am not afraid of you.
But you have reason to be afraid. You will be convicted. Nothing can
save you. Though people do not know me as they knew my father,--though I
am only a girl and came to you, straight from the convent,--I know that
I have power, and I shall use it. I am not poor Elettra, whom you
intended to accuse. I am the Princess of Acireale; I have been your
ward; you and your husband have robbed me, and you have tried to murder
me. Though I am only a girl, justice will move more quickly for me than
it would for you, even if you could call it to help you. Now choose, and
waste no time."
While she had been speaking, Macomer had stared at her with an
expression of genuine childish amusement.
"Poor Pulcinella!" he exclaimed softly. "How your wife can talk, when
she is angry! Poor fellow!"
The tone was so natural that Matilde again looked at him uneasily, and
moved nearer to him, not answering Veronica.
"Come, Gregorio," she said, "you are ill. Come to your room--you must
not stay here."
"I am sorry you do not like the marionettes," he said gravely. "They
always amuse me. Stay a little longer."
Veronica supposed that he was ill from the effects of the poisoning and
that he was in some sort of delirium. But she did not pity him, and was
relentless. She moved nearer to her aunt.
"Answer me!" she said sternly. "This is the last time. If you deny the
truth now, I will go to the chief of police at once."
"Oh! poor old Pulcinella!" cried Macomer, laughing gently. "How she
gives it to him!"
Matilde was almost distracted.
"You will be arrested at once," said Veronica, pitilessly.
"Never mind, Pulcinella!" exclaimed Macomer. "Courage, my friend! You
know you always get away from the policeman! Ha! ha! ha!"
Matilde saw Veronica moving to go to the door. She straightened herself
and pointed to her husband.
"Yes," she said. "He did it--and he is mad."
Her voice was firm and clear, for the die was cast. When she had spoken,
she turned from them both towards the fireplace, and hid her face in her
hands. If he could act his madness out, she, at least, would still be
free and alive. Veronica stood still a moment longer, looking back.
"That is the other piece," said Macomer, thoughtfully. "Pulcinella does
not go mad in this one. The man has forgotten the parts. It is a
pity--it was so amusing."
There was silence for a moment. Matilde did not look round.
"I think he will recover," said Veronica. "But I am glad you have told
the truth. I promise that you shall be safe."
In a moment she was gone.
"Just so," said Macomer, speaking to himself. "He forgot the words of
the piece, and so he made it end rather abruptly. Let us go home,
Matilde, since it is over."
"It is of no use to go on acting insanity before me," answered Matilde,
with a bitter sigh, as she raised her face from her hands and moved
away from the fireplace, not looking at him.
"That is the reason why Pulcinella's wife disappeared so suddenly," he
replied. "You see, there are two pieces which the marionettes act. In
the one which begins with the quarrel--"
"I tell you it is of no use to do that!" cried Matilde, angrily, and
beginning to walk up and down the room, still keeping her eyes from the
face she hated.
"How nervous you are!" he exclaimed, with irritation. "I was only trying
"Oh, I know! I know! Keep this acting for the doctors! You will drive me
"The doctors?" He stared at her and smiled childishly. "Oh no!" he
exclaimed. "The doctor is in the other piece--I was going to explain--"
She turned with a fierce exclamation upon him and grasped his arm,
shaking him savagely, as though to rouse him. To her horror, he burst