Part 6 out of 8
It was like most of his letters at first, being full of matters about
which he had talked with her, and written in the graceful way which was
especially his and which had so much charm for her. But towards the end
his courage must have failed him a little, for there were sad words and
one or two phrases that had in them something touching and tender to
which she was not accustomed. He did not tell her that he was ill and
that he feared lest he might never see her again, for he was far too
careful as yet of hinting at the truth she would not understand. They
were very little things that told her of his sadness--an unfinished
sentence ending in a dash, the fall of half a dozen harmonious words
that were like a beautiful verse and vaguely reminded her of Leopardi's
poetry--small touches here and there which had either never slipped from
his pen before, or which she had never noticed.
They pleased her. She would not have been a human woman if she had not
been a little glad to be missed for herself, even though the writing was
to continue. She read the last part of the letter over three times, the
rest only twice, and then she laid it in an empty drawer of her table,
rather tenderly, to be the first of many. That should be Gianluca's
Amidst her first arrangements for her own comfort, she did not forget
what she looked upon as her chief work, and before that day was over she
had begun what was to be a systematic improvement of Muro. Direct and
practical, with a sense beyond her years, she did not hesitate. The
first step was to clean the little town and pave the streets. The next
to visit and examine the dwellings.
"The place shall be clean," said Veronica to the steward, who stood
before her table, receiving her orders.
"But, Excellency, how can it be clean when there are pigs everywhere?"
inquired the man, astonished at her audacity.
"There shall be no more pigs in Muro," answered the young princess. "The
people shall choose as many trustworthy old men and boys as are
necessary to look after the creatures. They shall be kept at night in
some barn or old building a mile or two from here, and they shall be fed
there, or pastured there. I will pay what it costs."
"Excellency, it is impossible! There will be a revolution!" The steward
held up his hands in amazement.
"Very well, then. Let us have a revolution. But do not tell me that what
I order is impossible. I will have no impossibilities. The town belongs
to me, and it shall be inhabited by human beings, and not by pigs. If
you make difficulties, you may go. I can find people to carry out my
orders. Begin and clean the streets to-day. Take as many hands as you
need and pay them full labourer's wages, but see that they work. Make a
list of the pigs and their owners. Decide where you will keep them. Hire
the swineherds. If I find one pig in Muro a week from to-day, and if, in
fine weather, I cannot walk dry shod where I please, I will take another
steward. I intend to remit a quarter of all the rents this year. You may
tell the people so. You may go and see about these things at once, but
let me hear no more of impossibilities. Only children say that things
The man understood that the old order had departed and that Veronica
Serra meant to be obeyed without question, and he never again raised his
voice to suggest that there might be what he called a revolution if her
orders were carried out.
As for the people of Muro, they were dumb with astonishment. They had a
municipality, of course, a syndic, and a secretary, and certain head
men, to whose authority they were accustomed to appeal in
everything--generally against the extortion of the stewards who had
obeyed Gregorio Macomer. But before Veronica had been in Muro ten days,
the municipality was nothing more than the shadow of a name. The syndic
was her tenant, and bowed down to her, and the rest of the illiterate
officials followed his lead. It was natural enough; for they all
benefited by the lowering of the rents, and they were quick to see that
she meant to spend money in the place, which would be to the advantage
of every one before long.
It was she who made the revolution, and not they. Before the first week
was out the pigs were gone, and she walked dry shod over the stones from
the castle to the entrance of the village. In less than a month the
principal way was levelled and half paved, and masons were everywhere at
work repairing those of the houses which were in most immediate need of
"You are Christians," she said to a little crowd that gathered round her
one day, while she was watching the setting-up of a new door. "You shall
live like Christians. When you have been clean for a month, you will
never wish to be dirty again."
"That is true," answered an old man, shaking his head thoughtfully.
"But, in the name of God, who has ever thought of these things? It
needed this angel from Paradise."
Veronica laughed. They were docile people, and they soon found out that
the young princess was as absolute a despot in character as ever
terrorized Rome or ruled the Russias. At the merest suggestion of
opposition, the small aquiline nose seemed to quiver, the little head
was thrown back, the brown eyes gleamed, the delicate gloved hand either
closed upon itself quickly or went out in a gesture of command.
But then, they sometimes saw another look in her face, though not often,
and perhaps it was less natural to her though not less true to her
nature. They had seen the brown eyes soften wonderfully and the small
hands do very tender things, now and then, for poor children and
suffering women when, no one else was at hand to give aid. Yet, at most
times, she was quiet, cheerful, natural, for it happened more and more
rarely that any one opposed her will.
She became to them the very incarnation of power on earth. She would
have been thought rich in any country; to their utter wretchedness her
wealth was fabulous beyond bounds of fairy tale. Most persons would have
admitted that she was wonderfully practical and showed a great deal of
common sense in what she did; to her own people she seemed
preternaturally wise, only to be compared with Providence for her
foresight, and much more occupied with their especial welfare than
Providence could be expected to be, considering the extent of the world.
She was endlessly charitable to women and children and old men, but to
those who could work she was inexorable. She paid well, but she insisted
that the work should be done honestly. Some of the younger ones murmured
at her hardness when they had tried to deceive her.
"Would you take false money from me?" she asked. "Why should I take
false work from you? You have good work to sell, and I have good money
to give you for it. I do not cheat you. Do not try to cheat me."
They laughed shamefacedly and worked better the next time, for they were
not without common sense, either. Doubtless, she attempted and expected
more than was possible at first, but she had Don Teodoro at her elbow,
and he was able to direct her energy, though he could not have
moderated it. He found it hard, indeed, to keep pace with her swift
advances towards the civilization of Muro, and he was quite incapable of
entering into the boldness of some of her generalizations, which, to
tell the truth, were youthful enough when she first expressed her ideas
to him. But while one of his two great passions was learning, the other
was charity, in that simple form which gives all it has to any one who
seems to be in trouble--the charity that is universal, and easily
imposed upon, and that exists spontaneously and, as it were, for its own
sake, in certain warm-hearted people--an indiscriminate love of giving
to the poor, the overflow of a heart so full of kindness that it would
be kind to a withering flower or a half-dead tree, rather than not
expend itself at all. And so, seeing the great things that were done by
Veronica in Muro, and secretly giving of his very little where she gave
very much, Don Teodoro grew daily to be more and more happy in the
satisfaction of his strongest instinct; and little by little he, also,
came to look upon his princess as the incarnation of a good power come
to illuminate his darkness and to lift his people out of degradation to
Veronica was happy too. There is a sort of exhilaration and daily
surprise in the first use of real power in any degree, and she enjoyed
her own sensations to the fullest extent. When she was alone, she wrote
about them to Gianluca, giving him what was almost a daily chronicle of
her new life, and waiting anxiously for the answers to her letters which
came with almost perfect regularity for some time after her own arrival
They pleased her, too, though the note of sadness was more accentuated
in them, as time went on and spring ran into summer. He had hoped,
perhaps, that she might tire of her solitude and come down to Naples, if
only for a few days; or at least, that something might happen to break
what promised to be a long separation. He longed for a sight of her, and
said so now and then, for letter-writing could not fill up the aching
emptiness she had left in his already empty life. He had not her
occupations and interests to absorb his days and make each hour seem too
short, and, moreover, he loved her, whereas she was not at all in love
Then, a little later, there was a tone of complaint in what he wrote,
which suddenly irritated her. He told her that his life was dreary and
tiresome, and that the people about him did not understand him. She
answered that he should occupy himself, that he should find something to
do and do it, and that she herself never had time enough in the day for
all she undertook. It was the sort of letter which a very young woman
will sometimes write to a man whose existence she does not understand,
a little patronizing in tone and superior with the self-assurance of
successful and unfeeling youth. She even pointed out to him that there
were several things which he did not know, but which he might learn if
he chose, all of which was undoubtedly true, though it was not at all
what he wanted. For him, however, the whole letter was redeemed by a
chance phrase at the end of it. She carelessly wrote that she wished he
were at Muro to see what she had done in a short time. He knew that the
words meant nothing, but he lived on them for a time, because she had
written them to him. His next letter was more cheerful. He repeated her
own words, as though wishing her to see how much he valued them, saying
that he wished indeed that he were at Muro, to see what she had
accomplished. To some extent, he added, the fulfilment of the wish only
depended on herself, for in the following week he was going with his
father and mother and all the family to spend a month in a place they
had not far from Avellino, and that, as she knew, was not at an
impossible distance from Muro. But of course he could not intrude alone
upon her solitude.
When she next wrote, Veronica made no reference to this hint of his. The
man was not the same person to her as the correspondent, and she very
much preferred exchanging letters with him to any conversation. She did
not forget what he had said, however, and when she supposed that the
Della Spina family had gone to the country she addressed her letters to
him near Avellino. He had not yet gone, however, and he soon wrote from
Naples complaining that he had no news from her.
On the following day Veronica was surprised to receive a letter
addressed in a hand she did not know. It was from Taquisara, and she
frowned a little angrily as she glanced at the signature before reading
the contents. It began in the formal Italian manner,--"Most gentle
Princess,"--and it ended with an equally formal assurance of respectful
devotion. But the matter of the letter showed little formality.
"I have hesitated long before writing to you"--it said--"both because I
offended you at our last meeting and because I have not been sure, until
to-day, about the principal matter of which I have to speak. In the
first place, I beg you to forgive me for having spoken to you as I did
at the Princess Corleone's house. I am not skilful at saying
disagreeable things gracefully. I was in earnest, and I meant what I
said, but I am sincerely sorry that I should have said it rudely. I
earnestly beg you to pardon the form which my intention took.
"Secondly, I wish very much that I might see you. I fear that you would
not receive me, and from the ordinary point of view of society you would
be acting quite rightly, since you are really living alone. The world,
however, is quite sure that you have a companion, an elderly gentlewoman
who is a distant relation of yours. It will never be persuaded that this
good lady does not exist, because it cannot possibly believe that you
would have the audacity to live alone in your own house.
"I wish to see you, because my friend Gianluca cannot live much longer.
You may remember that he walked with difficulty, and even used a stick,
before you left Naples. He can now hardly walk at all. According to the
doctors, he has a mortal disease of the spine and cannot live more than
two or three months. Perhaps I am telling you this very roughly, but it
cannot pain you as much as it does me, and you ought to know it. He is
not the man to let any one tell you of his state, and I have taken it
upon myself to write to you without asking his opinion. I told you once
what you were to him. All that I told you is ten times more true, now.
Between you and life, he would not choose, if he could; but he is losing
both. As a Christian woman, in commonest kindness, if you can see him
before he dies, do so. And you can, if you will. He was to have been
moved to the place near Avellino a few days ago, but he was too ill.
They all leave next week, unless he should be worse. You are strong and
well, and it would not be much for you to make that short journey,
considering Gianluca's condition.
"I shall not tell him that I have written to you, and I leave to you to
let him know of my writing, or not, as you think fit."
Here followed the little final phrase and the signature. Veronica let
the sheet fall upon her table, and gazed long and steadily at the
tapestry on the wall opposite her. Her hands clasped each other suddenly
and then fell apart loosely and lay idle before her. Her head sank
forward a little, but her eyes still held the point on which they were
In the first shock of knowing that Gianluca was to die, she felt as
though she had lost a part of him already, and something she dearly
valued seemed to go out of her life. Her instinct was not to go to him
and see him while she could, but to look forward to the blankness that
would be before her when he should be gone. Something of him was an
integral part of her life. But there was something of him for which she
felt that she hardly cared at all.
She was probably selfish in the common sense of that ill-used word. It
is generally applied to persons who do not love those that love them,
but are glad of their existence, as it were, for the sake of something
they receive and perhaps return--as Veronica did. But she did not ask
herself questions, for she had never had the smallest inclination to
analysis or introspection. It was as clear to her as ever that she did
not love Gianluca in the least, but that she should find it hard to be
happy without him. She had been nearer to loving poor Bosio than
Gianluca, though the truth was that she had never loved any one yet.
But she pitied Gianluca with all her heart. That was the most she could
do for that part of him which was nothing to her, and her face grew very
sad as she thought of what he might be suffering, and of how hard it
must be to die so young, with all the world before one. She could not
imagine herself as ever dying.
She sat still a long time and tried to think of what she should do. But
her thoughts wandered, and presently she found that she was asking
herself whether it were her destiny to be fatal to those who loved her.
But the mere idea of fatality displeased her as something which could
oppose her, and perhaps defy her. After all, Gianluca might not die. She
looked over Taquisara's letter again.
He was a man who meant what he said, and he wrote in earnest. There was
something in him that appealed to her, as like to like. He had been rude
and had spoken almost insolently, and even now he dared to write that he
meant what he had said and only regretted the words he had used. For
them, indeed, his apology was sufficient--for the rest, she was
undecided. She went on to what referred to Gianluca, and her face grew
grave and sad again. It must be true.
She laid the letter in the drawer where she kept Gianluca's, but in a
separate corner, by itself. Then she took up her pen to write to
Gianluca, intending to take up the daily written conversation at the
point where she had last broken off, on the previous evening. With an
effort, she wrote a few words, and then stopped short and leaned back in
her chair, staring at the tapestry. It was a grim farce to write about
her streets and her houses and her charities to a man who was dying--and
who loved her. Yet she could not speak of his illness without letting
him know that Taquisara had informed her of it. She tried to go on, and
stopped again. Poor Gianluca--he was so young! All at once her pity
overflowed unexpectedly, and she felt the tears in her eyes and on her
cheeks. She brushed them away, and left her letter unfinished.
Half an hour later she was with Don Teodoro, busy about her usual
occupations and plans. But she was absent-minded, and matters did not go
well. She left him earlier than usual and shut herself up in her own
room. She had not been there a quarter of an hour, however, before she
felt stifled and oppressed by the close solitude, and she came out again
and climbed to the top of the dungeon tower, where the little plot of
cabbages had been converted into a tiny flower garden, and the roses
were all in bloom.
With the rising of her pity had come the desire to see Gianluca and talk
with him. She could not tell why she wished it so much, after having
felt so horribly indifferent at first, but the wish was there, and like
all her wishes, now, it must be satisfied without delay. She was
supremely powerful in her little mountain town, and on the whole she was
using her power very wisely. But her dominant character was rapidly
growing despotic, and it irritated her strangely to want anything which
she could not have. She had almost forgotten that society had any
general claims upon people who chance to belong to it, and the sudden
recollection that if she went down to Naples, she could not go and see
Gianluca, even under his father's and mother's roof, and talk with him
if she pleased, was indescribably offensive to her over-grown sense of
independence. Nor could she invite herself to Avellino to pay a visit to
Gianluca's mother. She understood enough of the customs of the world
with which she had really lived so little, to know that such a thing was
If she could not see him in Naples and could not go to see him at his
father's place, he must come to Muro. It flashed upon her that she had a
right to ask the whole Della Spina family to spend a week with her if
she chose. They might think it extraordinary if they pleased--it would
be an invitation, after all, and the worst that could happen would be
that the old Duchessa might refuse it. But Veronica never anticipated
As for Gianluca, if he were well enough to be taken to Avellino, he
could be brought to Muro. A journey by carriage was no more tiring than
one by railway, and the change and excitement would perhaps do him good.
The more she thought of the possibility of her plan as compared with the
impracticable nature of any other which suggested itself, the more she
looked forward with pleasure to seeing him--and the more clearly it
seemed to her an act of kindness to give him an opportunity of seeing
And between her reflexions, strengthening her intention and hastening
her action, there returned the real and deep sorrow she felt at the
thought of losing her best friend, and the genuine pity she now felt for
him, apart from the selfish consideration which had come first.
In the singular and anomalous position she had created for herself,
there was no one whom she could consult. As for asking Don Teodoro's
opinion, it never entered her head, for it would have been impossible to
do so without confiding to him the nature of her friendship with
Gianluca. She would not do that now. She had first told Bianca Corleone
frankly enough of the exchange of letters, but she herself had not then
known what that secret friendship was to mean in her life, nor how she
and Gianluca would almost conceal it from each other. Besides, she was
accustomed now to impose her will upon the old priest as she imposed it
upon every one in her surroundings. When she asked his advice, it was
about matters of expediency, and that happened every day, but she would
not have thought of taking counsel with him about any action which
concerned herself. If society chanced to be in opposition to her,
society must either give way or make the best of it, or break with her.
But it was certainly within the bounds of social tradition and custom
that she should ask such of her friends as she chose, to stay with her
under her own roof.
One small practical difficulty met her, and it was characteristic of her
that it was the only one to which she paid any attention after she had
made up her mind. She could have found fifty rooms for guests in the
castle, but there were certainly not three which were now sufficiently
furnished to be habitable as bedrooms. She had changed the face of the
town in three months, but she had not at all improved her own
establishment. There were foresters and men occupied upon the estates
who came and went as their work required, and there were generally four
or five of them in the house; but she was served by women, and there was
not a man-servant in the place. She had only five horses in her stable.
She glanced at the black frock she wore and smiled, realizing for the
first time what Elettra had meant by protesting against her wearing it
But none of the details were of a nature to check such a woman in
anything she really wished. If she chose to be waited on by women and to
wear old clothes, that was her affair and concerned no one else. As for
a little furniture more or less, she could get all she wanted from
Naples in three or four days.
Veronica had little doubt but that her invitation would be accepted by
the Della Spina. Had she been as worldly wise, as she was practical in
most things, she would have had no doubts at all, though she would have
hesitated long before writing to the Duchessa. For, of two things, one
or the other must happen. Gianluca must either die, or not die; in the
first case the least which his family could do would be to give him the
opportunity of seeing the woman he loved, before his death, and, in the
second, such an invitation on Veronica's part was almost equivalent to
consenting to marry him if he recovered. To every one except Veronica
herself, the marriage would have seemed in every way as desirable as any
that could be proposed to her, both for herself and for Gianluca.
Her invitation was received with mingled astonishment and delight and
was duly communicated to Gianluca himself. Veronica had written to him
at the same time, and he had already read her letter telling him of her
plan, when his father and mother entered the room where he was lying
near his open window, towards evening. They were good people, and
simple, according to their lights, and they were devotedly attached to
their eldest son. The love of Italians for their children often goes to
lengths which would amaze northern people. It may be that where there
are few love-matches, as in the old Italian society, the natural ties of
blood are stronger than in countries where men leave everything for the
women they love.
The Duchessa's chief preoccupation and anxiety concerned her son's
strength to bear the journey. From day to day the family had been on the
point of moving to Avellino, and the departure had been put off because
Gianluca's condition seemed altogether too precarious. It would be an
even more serious matter to convey him safely to Muro; and between her
extreme anxiety for his health, and her wish that he might be able to
go, the Duchessa was almost distracted. But neither she nor her husband
knew that the doctors despaired of his life. The truth had been kept
from them, and Taquisara had extracted it from one of the physicians
with considerable difficulty, having more than half guessed it during
the past two months.
At the mere suggestion of going to Muro, Gianluca had revived, reading
Veronica's letter alone to himself in his room. When he heard that the
invitation had actually come, he seemed suddenly so much better that
the tears started to the old Duca's weak eyes.
"We must go," said the old gentleman to his wife, as they left Gianluca
to consult together. "What is the use of denying it? It is passion. If
he does not marry that girl, he will die of it."
"Of course she means to marry him," answered the Duchessa, her voice
tremulous with nervous delight. "It is not imaginable that she should
ask us to visit her, unless she means that she has changed her mind! It
would be an outrage--an insult--it would be nothing short of an
abominable action--I would strangle her with these hands!"
The prematurely old woman shook her weak fingers in the air, and her
passionate love for her son lent her feeble features the momentary
dignity of righteous anger.
"I should hardly doubt that she would marry him after this," said the
Duca, thoughtfully. "And besides--where could she find a better husband?
It is passion that has made him ill."
But it was not. In what they said of Veronica's probable intention they
were not altogether wrong, however, from their point of view. They were
in complete ignorance of the long-continued correspondence between her
and Gianluca, and had they known of it, they could not possibly have
understood her way of looking at the matter. Such a character as hers
was altogether beyond their comprehension, and they practically knew
nothing of the circumstances that had lately developed it so quickly. As
for her mode of life, they believed, as most people did, that she had a
companion in the person of an elderly gentlewoman whom she had chosen
for the purpose among her distant relations.
Even Taquisara thought substantially as they did, and he was a man
singularly regardless of conventions. It was true that he was almost as
ignorant of the state of affairs as Gianluca's father and mother. After
the first exchange of letters Gianluca had grown suddenly reticent. So
long as Veronica had seemed altogether beyond his reach he had not
hesitated to confide in the brave and honourable man who was such a
devoted friend to him; but as soon as he began to feel himself growing
intimate with Veronica, he ceased to speak of her except in general
terms. Taquisara, if he had ever felt the need of confidence, would have
stopped at the same point, or earlier, and he understood, and did not
press Gianluca with questions. The latter had said that from time to
time Donna Veronica had been kind enough to write to him--but that was
all, and he never said it again. When the Sicilian heard of the
invitation to Muro, however, he felt that he had a right to express
himself, since the matter was an open one and concerned the whole
family. He felt, too, an immense satisfaction in having produced so
great a result by his letter.
He had written to Veronica what the doctor had told him about the
general verdict after the last consultation. For himself, his faith in
doctors was not by any means blind, and he was not without some hope
that Gianluca might recover. At all events, it was his duty to cheer the
man as far as he could, and he imagined nothing more likely to produce a
good effect than the now reasonable suggestion that Veronica might
possibly change her mind.
"Of course," he said to Gianluca, "the whole situation is extraordinary
beyond anything I ever knew. But since Donna Veronica has left her aunt,
no one can dispute her right to do as she pleases. An invitation to you
and your family means a reopening of the question of the marriage. There
can be no doubt of that. In my opinion, she has reconsidered the matter
and means to accept you, after all."
Gianluca smiled, and his sunken eyes brightened. But he would not admit
that he really had any hopes.
"I wish I were as sanguine as you," he answered.
"If you had my temperament, you would not be where you are, my dear
friend," replied Taquisara, with a dry laugh. "I look at the world
differently. My life may not be worth much, but it is mine, and I would
not let a man take it from me with his hands, nor a woman with her
eyes--without fighting for it, if I had the chance."
"How can a man fight against a woman?" laughed Gianluca, for he was very
"You fight a man by facing him, and a woman by turning your back on
her," said Taquisara. "There are more women in the world than there are
men to love them, after all. For one that will not have you, there are
three who will. Take one of the three."
"What do you know about it? You always say that you were never really in
love. How can you tell what you would do?"
"I suppose I cannot be quite sure. But then--the thing is ridiculous! A
man must be half a poet, he must have sensibilities, ideals, visions, a
nervous heart, an exaggerating eye and a mind sensitized like a
photographer's plate to receive impressions! Do you see me provided with
all that stuff?"
He laughed again, somewhat intentionally, for he meant to amuse
"Nor myself either," answered the latter. "I am much simpler than you
"Are you? So much the better. But it makes very little difference, since
you are to be happy, after all. Seriously, I do not believe that this
invitation can mean anything else. If it does--if she is not in
earnest--" he checked himself.
Gianluca looked at him and did not understand his expression.
"What were you going to say?" asked the younger man, with some
"Then take one of the other three!" said Taquisara, roughly, and he rose
from his seat and walked to the window.
The Duchessa's answer to Veronica was dignified and friendly. After
expressing her cordial thanks for the invitation, she went on to say
that besides the pleasure it would give her and her son to spend a few
days under Veronica's hospitable roof, she was too well acquainted by
hearsay with the splendid climate and situation of Muro to refuse an
offer, by accepting which she might contribute much to Gianluca's
recovery, and she went on to speak of the high mountain air and the
sunshine of the Basilicata. There was truth in what she said, of course,
and she was too proud not to make the most of it, entirely passing over
more personal matters in order to give it the greatest possible
prominence. As for Taquisara, though she guessed that he was almost
indispensable to Gianluca in Naples, she made no mention of him. It
would have been easy for her to suggest that he also might be invited,
but she suspected that her son could do without him well enough when
privileged to see Veronica every day; moreover, he would be in the way,
and would probably himself fall in love with his young hostess, who, in
her turn, might take a sudden fancy to the handsome Sicilian.
It was not until the things which Veronica hastily ordered from Naples
arrived in huge carts from Eboli that she began to reflect seriously
upon what she had done under a sudden impulse. The Duchessa wrote that
she should require four or five days to reach Muro, by easy stages, and
there was plenty of time to make preparations for receiving the party.
After the letter had come, Veronica spoke to Don Teodoro, who had
noticed her extreme preoccupation and was wondering what could have
"I think I understand," he said, looking at her quietly. "It is
right--you are young, but the years pass very quickly."
"What do you mean?" asked Veronica, whose sad face still puzzled him.
"What can their coming mean?" he asked, in reply, with a smile.
"What? It is I who do not understand--or you--or both of us. Don
Gianluca and I are friends. He is very, very ill. The doctors say that
he cannot live many months, and unless I see him now, I shall never see
The old priest gazed at her in distressed surprise, and for a long time
he found nothing to say. Veronica remained silent, scarcely conscious of
his presence, leaning back in her chair, with folded hands and sorrowful
eyes. The thought that Gianluca was to die was becoming more and more
unceasingly painful, day by day. The fact that he wrote regularly to
her, and yet never spoke of his condition, made it worse; for it proved
to her that he could be brave rather than knowingly increase her
anxiety, and the suffering of a brave man gets more true sympathy from
women than the cruel death of many cowards.
"I think you are very rash," said Don Teodoro, gravely, breaking the
silence at last.
Veronica turned upon him instantly, with wide and gleaming eyes, amazed
at the slightest sign of opposition, criticism, or advice.
"Rash!" she exclaimed. "Why? Have I not the right to ask whom I please,
and will, to stay under my own roof? Who has authority over me, to say
that I shall have this one for a friend, or that one, old or young? Am I
a free woman, or a schoolgirl, or a puppet doll, to which the world can
tie strings to make me dance to its silly music? Rash! What rashness is
there in asking my friend and his father and mother here? My dear Don
Teodoro, you will be telling me before long that I should take some
broken-down old lady for a companion!"
"I have sometimes wondered that you do not send for one of your
relations," said the priest, who, mild as he was, could not easily be
daunted when he believed himself right.
"I will make my house a refuge, or a hospital if need be, for our poor
people," answered Veronica, "but not for my relations, whom I have never
seen. I send them money sometimes, but they shall not come here to beg.
That would be too much. I had enough of those I knew. I am willing to
feed anything that needs food except vultures. I have chosen to live
alone, and alone I will live. The world may scream itself mad and crack
with horror at my doings, if it is so sensitive. It cannot hurt me, and
if I choose to shut my gates, it cannot get in. Besides, they are
coming, the Duca, the Duchessa, and Don Gianluca, and that ends the
"Nevertheless--" began Don Teodoro, still obstinately unwilling to
retract his word.
"Dear friend," interrupted Veronica, with sudden gentleness, for she was
fond of him, "I like you very much. I respect you immensely. I could not
do half I am doing without you. But you do not quite understand me. I am
sorry that you should think me rash, if the idea of rashness is
unpleasant to you--I will make any other concession in reason rather
than quarrel with you. But please do not argue with me when I have made
up my mind. I am quite sure that I shall have my own way in the end,
and when the end comes, you will be very glad that you could not hinder
me, because I am altogether right. Now we understand each other, do we
Don Teodoro could not help smiling in a hopeless sort of way, and he
lifted his hands a moment, spreading out the palms as though to express
that he cleared his conscience of all possible responsibility. So they
parted good friends, without further words.
But when Veronica was alone, she began to realize that Don Teodoro was
not so altogether in the wrong as she believed herself to be in the
right. People might certainly be found whom she could not class with the
world she so frankly despised, and who would say that if Gianluca
recovered she should marry him, after extending such an invitation to
him and his people, and that, if she did not, she would deserve to be
called a heartless flirt--from their point of view. Gianluca's father
and mother might say so.
He himself, at least, must know her better than that, she thought. And
then, there was the terrible earnestness of Taquisara's letter, the
sober statement of his best friend, next to herself, and a statement
which it must have cost the man something to make, since it was
necessarily accompanied by an apology. After all, though he had
insulted her, she liked Taquisara for the whole-hearted way in which he
took Gianluca's part in everything. There was that statement, and she
felt that it was a true one. Gianluca was more to her than any one she
knew, in a way which no one could understand, and she had a right to see
him before he died. If, by any happy chance, he should live, people
might perhaps talk. She should not care, for she should have done right.
That was the way in which she accounted to herself for her action; but
the consciousness that Don Teodoro was not quite wrong was there. She
remembered it afterwards, when the fatality that was quietly lying in
wait for her raised its head from ambush and stared her in the face. But
then, at the first beginning, she was angry with the old priest for
trying to oppose her.
There was not more than time to finish the preparations, after all, for
she received a note from the Duchessa, written from Eboli, saying that
they would arrive a day earlier than they had expected, as the heat in
the plain was intense, and they were anxious to get Gianluca to a cooler
region of the mountains as soon as possible. Veronica had written, too,
placing the castle at Laviano at their disposal, as a resting-place, so
as to break the journey more easily for the invalid, and she sent men
over to see that all was in order and to take a few necessary things for
It was a sort of caravan that at last halted before the fountain of
Muro, at the entrance to the village. Veronica had been warned of their
near approach, and was there to meet them, with Don Teodoro by her side.
First came the Duca and Duchessa together in a huge carriage drawn by
four horses, with three servants, two men and a maid. Veronica could not
see past the vehicle, as it blocked the way, and she stopped beside it
to greet the couple.
"My dear child!" cried the Duchessa. "We shall never forget your
kindness, and all the trouble you have taken! Gianluca is in the next
carriage. I think you have saved his life!"
There was a sort of inoffensive motherliness in her tone which surprised
Veronica--a suggestion of possession that irritated her. But she smiled,
said a few words, and ordered the carriage to move on,--an operation
which, though difficult in such a narrow way, was possible since she had
improved and paved the streets. A couple of her men walked before the
horses to clear the way of the women and children and the few men who
were not away at work, for the news of the arrival had spread, and the
people flocked together to see whether the visitors would bear
comparison with their princess.
As the carriage rolled into the street, Veronica went up to meet the
next. It was a very long landau, and in it Gianluca was almost lying
down, his pale face and golden beard in strong relief against a dark
brown silk cushion. To Veronica's amazement, Taquisara sat beside him,
calmly smoking one of those long black cigars which he preferred to all
others. He threw it away, when he saw her. She shook hands frankly with
"I am very glad you are here," she said kindly and cheerfully. "You will
get well here. How do you do?" she added, turning to Taquisara as
naturally as though she had expected him, for she supposed that there
must have been some misunderstanding.
He explained his coming in a few words, before Gianluca could finish the
sentence he began.
"He hates strangers," he said, "and I came up with him, to be of use on
the journey. I am going back at once."
"You will not go back this evening, at all events," answered Veronica,
with a little hospitable smile.
She was grateful to him for Gianluca's sake, both for his letter and for
having accompanied his friend. For what had gone before, he had
apologized and was forgiven.
"I beg your pardon," he answered. "I think I shall be obliged to go back
"Has he any engagement that obliges him to return?" asked Veronica of
As she turned to him, she met his deep blue eyes, fixed on her face
with a strange look, half happy, half hungry, half appealing.
"He has no engagement that I know of," he answered.
"Then you will stay," she said to Taquisara. "Go on!" she added to the
coachman, without giving time for any further answer.
There was a note in her short speech which the Sicilian had never heard
before then. It was the tone of command--not of the drill-sergeant, but
of the conqueror. He almost laughed to himself as the carriage moved
slowly on, while Veronica and Don Teodoro followed on foot.
"You must stay, if she wishes it," said Gianluca, in a low voice.
"I am not used to being ordered to quarters in that way," answered
Taquisara, smiling in genuine amusement. "I can be of no more use to you
when I have got you up to your room, and I think I shall go back as I
"I would not, if I were you. After all, it is a hospitable invitation,
and you cannot invent any reasonable excuse for refusing to stay at
least one night. The horses are worn out, too. You have no pretext."
"Perhaps not. I will see."
The carriages moved at a foot pace. As Veronica walked along she nodded
and spoke to many of the poor people, who drew back into their doors
from the narrow way. Behind her came two more carriages laden with
luggage, and one of her own men on horseback closed the procession. By
urging his stout beast up all the short cuts, he had accomplished the
feat of keeping up with the vehicles.
When they reached the castle gate, the Della Spina's two men-servants
jumped down and got a sort of sedan chair from amongst the luggage, but
Gianluca would not have it.
"I can walk to-day," he said. "Help me, Taquisara. Have you got my
stick? Thank you. No, do not lift me. Let me get out alone! I am sure
that I can do it."
Pale as he was, he blushed with annoyance at his feeble state, when he
saw Veronica's anxious eyes watching his movements.
It was early yet, but the August sun sank behind the lofty heights to
westward, as he set his foot upon the ground. Taquisara's arm was around
him, and the Sicilian's face was quiet and unconcerned, but Veronica saw
the straining of the brown hand that supported the tall invalid, and she
knew that Gianluca could not have stood alone. But he would not let the
servants come near him. The old Duca and his wife touched his sleeve and
asked him nervous, futile questions, and begged him to allow himself to
be carried. Veronica stood in front, ready to lead the way.
"No, no!" exclaimed Gianluca, answering his mother. "You see. I can walk
very well to-day, with scarcely any help."
But his first step was unsteady, and the next was slow. Veronica heard
the uncertain footfall on the flagstones and turned again.
"Will you take my arm on this side?" she asked gently, placing herself
on his right, away from Taquisara.
He hesitated, smiled, and then laid his hand upon her arm, and she and
Taquisara led him in together, the old couple following, and looking at
each other in silence from time to time. Through the dark, inclined way,
they all went up slowly into the courtyard and under the low door, dark
even on that summer's afternoon, slowly, stopping at every dozen paces
and then moving on again. Taquisara almost carrying his friend with his
right arm, while Veronica steadied him on the other side, till they came
out at last into a room which had been furnished as a sort of
sitting-room and library, especially for Gianluca's use. He sank down
into a deep chair facing the window, and drew breath, as he sought
"You are very kind," he said faintly. "But you see how much better I
am," he added at once, in a more cheerful tone. "It is the first walk I
have taken for several days, Donna Veronica. I have really been ill, you
"I know you have," she said, and she turned quickly away, for she felt
more than she cared to show just then.
Possibly the Duca and his wife were too much preoccupied about their
son's condition to think seriously of what was taking place, but it was
strange enough in its way, and Taquisara thought so as he looked on, and
wondered what Neapolitan society would think if it could stand, as one
man, in his place, and see with his eyes, knowing what he knew. But he
had not much time for reflexion. Veronica's women had brought Gianluca
wine, and his mother was giving him certain drops of a stimulant in a
glass of fragrant old malvoisie, while his father bent over him
anxiously, still asking useless questions. Veronica beckoned Taquisara
aside, and they stood together behind Gianluca's chair.
"That is his bedroom," she said, pointing to one of the doors, "and that
is yours," she added, pointing to one opposite.
"Mine? But you did not expect me--"
"I naturally supposed that he would have a man with him, to take care of
him," she answered. "If you are really his friend as you say you are,
stay with him. You see that he cannot get about without you. If either
of you need anything, ask for it," she added, before he could reply.
"I would rather not stay," said Taquisara, looking gravely into her
"Have you a good reason? What is it?" Her features hardened a little.
"I cannot tell you my reason. It concerns myself."
"Then try and forget yourself, for you are needed here," she answered
For two or three seconds they looked into each other's eyes, neither
yielding. Then Taquisara gave way.
"I will stay," he said shortly, and he turned his face from her with a
sort of effort. "Is there a doctor here?" he asked, looking towards the
group of persons who stood around Gianluca.
"Yes--a good one, whom I have lately brought. Shall I send for him? Do
you think he is worse?" She asked the question anxiously.
"No. No doctors can do him any good--but if he should be suddenly worse,
after the long journey--"
"Do you think it is likely?" asked Veronica, interrupting him in a tone
of increasing anxiety.
He turned to her again, and watched her face, curiously, wondering
whether she loved the man, after all.
"I hope not," he answered quietly. "But it was a fatiguing drive, and he
hardly slept at all last night. I suppose that the excitement kept him
awake. He should rest as soon as possible."
"Very well," said Veronica. "I will take his father and mother away and
give them tea. Stay with him and make him lie down and sleep, if
possible. Dinner is at half-past seven. Let me know if we are to wait
She went to Gianluca's side and spoke to the Duchessa.
"Shall I show you your rooms?" she asked. "Then we can have tea. Don
Gianluca must be tired, and he should have quiet and rest before
dinner--or if he prefers it, we will not expect him to-night. Sleep
first, and decide afterwards," she added, addressing Gianluca himself,
and her tone grew suddenly gentle as she spoke to him.
"You are very wise for your age, my dear child!" answered the Duchessa,
in the motherly tone that irritated Veronica.
The old gentleman nodded gravely, being quite too much preoccupied and
surprised to judge at all of his hostess's wisdom, but delighted with
the effect which the change of air seemed already to have produced upon
They went away together, leaving the invalid with Taquisara and his own
servant. Veronica led them to her favourite room, then showed them their
own, and went back to wait for them, while Elettra brought the tea, just
as she had done of old in the Palazzo Macomer. Veronica watched her
while she was arranging the tea-table. Elettra, who rarely spoke
unbidden, ventured to make a remark.
"Their Excellencies will be surprised at being waited on by women," she
said; for though she hated all men-servants, she had pride for the great
old house her fathers had served.
"They will be surprised at so many things that they will not notice it,"
answered her mistress, thoughtfully.
Elettra glanced at her quickly, but said nothing and went away, leaving
her alone. She sat quite still, and did not move until the old couple
came back, ten minutes later. She moved chairs forward for them to sit
in, and poured out a cup of tea for each. Meanwhile they all three made
little idle observations about the weather and the place.
The Duchessa, holding her cup in her hand, looked at the door from time
to time, as though expecting some one to come in. At last she could
contain her curiosity no longer.
"And where is your companion, my dear?" she asked suddenly.
"In the imagination of society, Duchessa," answered Veronica. "I have
none. I live alone."
The Duchessa almost dropped her cup.
"Alone?" she cried, in amazement. "You live alone? In such a place as
this!" She could not believe her ears.
"Yes," said Veronica, smiling. "Does it seem so very terrible to you? I
live alone--and I am waited on only by women. I daresay that surprises
"Alone?" The Duca had got his breath, and sat open-mouthed, holding his
tea-cup low between his knees, in both hands. "Alone! At your age! A
young girl! But the world--society? What will it think?"
"Unless it thinks as I do, I do not care to know," answered Veronica,
indifferently. "Let me give you some bread and butter, Duca."
"Bread and butter? No--no thank you--no--I--I am very much astonished! I
am stupefied! It is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard of!"
"Of course everybody thinks that you have an elderly companion--" chimed
in the Duchessa.
"One of your Spanish relations," said the Duca, with anxious eyes.
"Surely, she was here--"
"And is away just now," suggested his wife. "That accounts for--"
"Not at all," said Veronica, almost laughing. "She never existed. I came
here alone, I live here alone, and I mean to live here alone as long as
I please. The world may say what it pleases. I shall be three-and-twenty
years of age on my next birthday. Ask Don Teodoro whether I am not able
to take care of myself--and of Muro, too, for that matter!"
"Who is Don Teodoro?" asked the Duchessa, nervously, and still
"The parish priest," said Veronica. "A very learned and charitable old
man. He dines with me every evening."
"Then," replied the Duchessa, with a beginning of relief, "then you, and
your good priest, and your woman, make a sort of--of what shall I say--a
sort of little religious community here? Is that it?"
"We are not irreligious," Veronica replied, still at the point of
laughter. "Most of us hear mass every morning--the church is close by
the gate, on the other side of the great tower, you know--and we do not
eat meat on fast days--"
"Yes, yes, I understand!" interrupted the Duchessa, grasping at any
straw by which she could drag the extraordinary young princess within
conceivable distance of what she herself considered socially proper.
"And you spend your time in good works, in the village, of course, and
in edifying conversation with Don Teodoro. Yes--I see! As you put it at
first, it was a little startling, but I understand it better now. You
understand it, Pompeo, do you not? It is quite clear, now."
The Duca rejoiced in the baptismal name of Pompey, like many of his
class in the south, whereas the name of Caesar is more common about
"I have at least done something for the village," said Veronica. "It was
in a bad state when I came here."
"It is a very clean village," observed the Duca, whose eyes still had a
puzzled look in them, though his jaw had slowly recovered from its fall
of amazement. "I saw no pigs in the streets. One generally sees a great
many pigs in these mountain towns."
"I turned them out," said Veronica.
She went on to give a little account of the improvements she had
introduced, not in vanity, but to keep them from returning to the
subject of her living alone. They listened with profound interest, and
with almost as much astonishment as they had shown at first.
"But do you find no opposition here?" asked the Duca. "You seem to do
just as you please."
"Of course," answered Veronica. "The place belongs to me. Why should I
not do as I like? There are a few tolerably well-to-do people here, who
own a little property. Everything I do is to their advantage as well as
to that of the poor peasants, so that they all side with me. No," she
concluded thoughtfully, "I do not think that any one would oppose me in
Muro. But if any one should, I have decided what to do!"
"And what should you do?" asked the Duchessa, rather nervously.
"I should send the whole family to America, with a little money in
their pockets. They are always glad to emigrate, and the opposition
would be quite out of the way in the Argentine Republic." Veronica
When the Duca and his wife went to dress for dinner they had some very
disturbing ideas concerning the character of the young Princess of
Taquisara, almost for the first time in his life, did not know how to
act, but in accepting Veronica's invitation he felt that he could really
be of use to Gianluca, and he saw how unbendingly determined the young
princess was that he should stay. He had very good reasons for not
staying, but they were of such a nature that he could not explain them
to her. He had the power, he thought, to leave Muro at a moment's
notice, and in yielding to Veronica's insistence, he was only
submitting, as a gentleman should, in small matters, rather than engage
in a contest of will with a woman. Yet he knew the matter was neither
small nor indifferent, when he gave way to her, and afterwards.
Gianluca appeared at the dinner hour and reached the dining-room with
his friend's help. He was placed on Veronica's left, in consideration of
being an invalid, though Taquisara should have been there, according to
Italian laws of precedence. Veronica had insisted that Don Teodoro
should come, at all events on this first evening. She did not choose
that the learned old priest should be merely the companion of her
loneliness; and besides, she knew that his presence would probably
prevent the Duca and Duchessa from returning to the question of her
solitary mode of life. She was also willing to let them see that the
humble curate was a man of the world.
It was a day of surprises for the old couple, and their manners were
hard put to it to conceal their astonishment at the way in which
Veronica dined. They were, indeed, accustomed to a singular simplicity
in the country, and to country dishes, as almost all the more
old-fashioned Italians are, but in the whole course of their highly and
rigidly aristocratic lives they had never been waited on by two women in
plain black frocks and white aprons. The Duca, indeed, found some
consolation in the delicious mountain trout, the tender lamb, the
perfect salad, and the fine old malvoisie, for he liked good things and
appreciated them; but the Duchessa's nature was more austerely
indifferent to the taste of what she ate, while her love of established
law insisted with equal austerity that any food, good or bad, should be
brought before her in a certain way, by a certain number of men, arrayed
in coats of a certain cut, and shaven till their faces shone like
marble. In a measure, it was a slight upon her dignity, she thought,
that Veronica should let her be served by waitresses. On the other hand,
she reflected upon the conversation which had taken place at tea, and
was forced to admit that she had then discovered the only theory on
which she could accept Veronica's anomalous position, and
conscientiously remain in the house. Either she must look upon the
castle of Muro and its inhabitants as a sort of semi-religious community
of women, or else, in her duty to the world, and the station to which
she had always belonged, she must raise her voice in protests, loud and
many. For many reasons, she did not wish to insist too much, and she did
her best to seem indifferent, keeping her arguments before her mind
while she ate. The chief of them was, indeed, that she clung desperately
to the hope of a marriage; but in her heart there was something else,
and she knew that she was afraid of Veronica. It seemed ridiculous, but
it was true. And her husband was even more afraid of the dominating
young princess than she. They never acknowledged the fact to each other,
when they exchanged moralities, and discussed Veronica, but each was
afraid, and suspected the other of similar cowardice.
The Duchessa did her best to seem indifferent; but now and then, when
one of the women changed her plate, or poured something into her glass,
she could not help slowly looking round, with an air of bewilderment, as
though expecting to see a man in livery at her elbow.
As for Gianluca, Veronica had described in her letters the way in which
she lived; and Taquisara's face more often betrayed amusement than
surprise at what he saw in the world. On the present occasion, having
accepted the situation into which his affection for his friend had led
him, he had accepted it altogether, and behaved as though he were at a
dinner party in Naples, cheerfully making conversation, telling amazing
stories of brigandage in Sicily, asking Veronica questions about the
surrounding country, and giving such scraps of news about mutual friends
as his letters had recently brought him.
Veronica had never seen the man under such circumstances, and she was
surprised by his readiness and by his ability to help her in a rather
difficult situation. He said nothing which she could compare with what
Gianluca wrote. He never spoke of himself, and she did not afterwards
remember that he had made any very brilliant observation; and yet, when
dinner was over, she wished to hear him talk more, just as she had once
longed to hear him say again the things he had said to her for
Gianluca's sake in Bianca's garden. She had never met any one who seemed
to have such a decided personality, without the slightest apparent
desire to assert it. Instinctively, as women know such things, she felt
that he was a very manly man, very simple and brave, and vain, if at
all, with the sort of vanity which well becomes a soldierly
character--the little touch of willing recklessness that easily stirs
woman's admiration. What women hate most, next to cowardice, is,
perhaps, the caution of the very experienced brave man--and they hate it
all the more because they cannot despise it with any show of reason.
Gianluca was silently happy, perfectly satisfied to hear Veronica's
voice, to watch the face he loved, and to feel that between her and him
there was something which no one knew. When they spoke, there was a
little constraint on both sides; but when they were silent, the bond was
instantly renewed. In silence and in imagination, they were writing to
each other the impressions of which they would not speak. Gianluca was
telling her how grateful he was to her for insisting that Taquisara
should stay, after all, and was pointing out to her that his friend was
bravely bearing the burden of a conversation which kept his father and
mother from prosing about the necessity of a companion for Veronica.
Veronica was replying that Taquisara was more agreeable than she had
expected, but that if he had been as silent as the Sphinx, or as noisy
as Alexander the Coppersmith, she would have pressed him to stay because
he was her friend's friend. There was a good deal about Taquisara in
their imaginary correspondence.
But both felt a little more constraint, when they talked, than they had
ever felt before, for both knew that on the morrow, or on the next day,
at the latest, they were sure to be alone together,--quite alone,--for
the first time; and they wondered whether the curious duality of their
acquaintance and intimacy by word and by letter could be maintained
hereafter, or whether it would suddenly resolve itself into a unity in
the shape of a friendship in which they should speak to each other as
They knew that something of the sort must happen. The Duca and his wife
would certainly not stand sentry from morning till night over the young
people, when they themselves so ardently desired the marriage; and
Taquisara was not the man to be in the way when he was not wanted. It
would be in Veronica's power to put off the meeting, if she chose to do
so; but she knew, and Gianluca guessed, that she would not. Whatever
society might say about it, she had assumed the position and the
independence of a married woman, and had gone further than married women
of her age would generally have the courage to go. To hesitate now, and
to draw back from the possibility of being left alone with any one of
her guests, would be absurd. She would not seek the interview, nor she
would not do anything to avoid it. But she did not wish to be forced
into the necessity of talking alone with Taquisara, if it could be
helped. She was sure, though she had forgiven him, and liked him better
than before, that she should certainly quarrel with him, though she did
not know why there should be any further disagreement between them.
Possibly she recognized in him a will less despotic than her own, but
quite as unbending when he chose to exercise it. The certainty of strong
opposition, which is fear in cowards, becomes combativeness in brave
people, and the fighting instinct takes the place of the inclination to
run away. But Veronica had no further reason for quarrelling with
Taquisara; and because she liked him, she determined to avoid him as
much as possible, lest at the very first point of difference in
conversation there should be war between them about some insignificant
matter perfectly indifferent to both.
Her guests went to bed early. While Gianluca was before her, Veronica
had not retained the impression she had received from Taquisara, that
her friend was a doomed man. Her own vitality lent the sure certainty of
life, in her imagination, to those about her. He was faint and tired
from the journey, of course, but he was by no means the utterly helpless
invalid she had expected to see, and she had not believed, so long as
she could watch him, that he was in mortal danger. But when she was in
her own room, his face came back to her, a pale shade out of dark
shadow, and she saw the hollows about his deep blue eyes, his thin,
bluish temples, his transparent features, and his emaciated throat, that
seemed to have fallen away under his white ears. She was so suddenly
and violently disturbed by the recollection that she spoke to Elettra of
him. The woman had seen him go by when the party had arrived.
"Do you think that Don Gianluca looks very ill?" Veronica asked.
"Excellency--" the maid hesitated. "I wish that all may live--but he
seems a dead man."
Veronica said nothing, but it was long before she got to sleep that
night, and the vision of his face came again and again to her, pale,
haggard, haunting, distressing her exceedingly. She rose even earlier
She did not mean that the presence of her guests should interfere with
what had now become a connected work, to interrupt which would be an
injury to the whole and an injustice to the people who had learned to
expect it of her, looking for more, as she gave them more, and turning
to her in every difficulty. But for the arrival of the party on the
previous afternoon she would have gone down to an outlying farm in the
valley, where the farmhouse needed repairs and there was a question of
cutting down a number of olive trees so old that they hardly bore any
fruit. She had ordered her mare at half-past seven in the morning, and
she rode down the long, winding road, saw, judged, and gave orders,
galloped most of the way up, and exchanged her riding-habit for her
morning frock before the clock struck ten.
One after another, her guests appeared, and everything happened as she
had foreseen. The old couple said that they were accustomed to take a
little walk before the midday meal, for the sake of their appetite;
Taquisara disappeared when he had helped Gianluca to a big chair in a
balcony, in the shade, outside the drawing-room, and Gianluca was left
alone with her, as she had expected. She established herself opposite to
him, for the balcony was so narrow that two chairs could not be placed
upon it side by side.
It was a magnificent summer's day, one of those days in which the whole
glory of the south fills heaven and earth and air, and the stupendous
tide of universal life pours into every sense, to very overflowing, as
the ocean fills its world-wide bed. And the world was ripe and ripening,
the corn and wheat, and olive and vine, and fruit and flower and tree,
from the rich valley below, up the rough hills, as far as sun and soil
and rain could draw the dress of beauty over the mountains' grand bare
strength. Down there, in the vast garden, the hot air quivered with
sheer living; above, the solemn peaks faced God in the still sun. The
breath of the high breeze, between earth and heaven, blew upon
They looked at each other and sat silent, and looked again and smiled,
both happy in those ever-written, never-spoken thoughts which were
theirs together, both fearing speech as a common thing which must jar
and shake them rudely back to their other selves, which were formal, and
constrained, and not at all intimate.
Gianluca lay quite still in his deep chair, his white hands motionless
upon the edge of the grey shawl which was thrown over his knees.
Suddenly, Veronica, sitting close and opposite to him, bent far forward
and gently laid her hand upon one of his. She smiled.
"I am glad that you are here," she said simply, looking into his face.
His own brightened, and the blue eyes grew dark and tender, while her
hand lingered a second.
"How good you are to me!" he exclaimed, in a low voice. "How endlessly
She was still smiling as she withdrew her hand and leaned back in her
chair once more. A little pause followed, during which both were quite
happy, in different ways--he, perhaps, in all ways at once, and she,
because she felt she had broken through something like a sheet of ice by
a mere gesture and half a dozen words, when it had seemed so hard to do.
"No," she said thoughtfully, at last. "It is not a question of goodness.
I am natural--that is all. I do not believe that many people are. And we
had got into an absurd position, you and I!" She laughed, looking at
him. "We could write, but we could not speak. We each knew what the
other was thinking of, and yet, somehow, neither of us could say what we
thought. Was it not as I say?"
"Yes." Gianluca laughed, too, very faintly because he was weak, though
he was so happy.
"It could not last," Veronica continued, "and I am glad it is over. For
it is over, is it not? We can talk quite frankly now. Last night, for
instance. I am sure I know what you were thinking about."
"About Taquisara? At dinner?"
"Of course. He is so much more agreeable than I expected, and I am so
glad that I made him stay. And then, last night, too--did you see how
your mother looked at the serving-woman, expecting to see the butler? It
was so natural. It was just what I should have done in her place, and I
could hardly keep from laughing."
"My dear old mother is not used to such surprises," answered Gianluca.
"Of course I saw it, and knew that you did."
"Yes--but do you not think that I am quite right?" asked Veronica, her
tone changing suddenly as she seemed to appeal to him for support--she,
who needed so little from anybody.
"Of course you are," he answered promptly.
He felt unaccountably flattered and pleased by the mere fact of her
asking him the question. He felt instinctively that she had never asked
any one's opinion about her conduct, and that she really desired his
approval. She, on her part, was perhaps glad to speak freely at last
about the position she had assumed. If he had called her rash just then,
she would not have answered him as she had answered Don Teodoro when he
had used the same word.
"You see," she said, "I am not like other women. I was brought up in a
convent, like most of them, but the rest of my life has been quite
different. Well--you know, if any one does. I used to write you all
about what I meant to do while I was still living with Bianca, and you
know that I have begun to carry out most of my ideas. Yesterday
afternoon, while you were resting, your father and mother and I had tea
together, and she found out for the first time that I had no companion.
You should have seen her face! And then, when I tried to explain, she
got the impression at once that I meant to live here in a sort of
amateur convent, surrounded by women. I think she rather liked the idea.
It seemed to settle her disturbed prejudices a little. Of course--it
must seem stranger to people who all live in the same way as she does.
Oh! how glad I am that we can talk about it, you and I!"
Again she laughed happily. To Gianluca, as his eyes met hers, it seemed
as though a great wave of the huge, exuberant life that filled the
full-blossoming world that day had rolled up out of the broad valley to
his feet and were lifting him and penetrating him and sweeping its hot
tide through the ebb of his failing blood.
"Yes," he answered her. "To be able to talk at last--at last, after so
much waiting, that was only half talking."
He sighed gently, and his hand stroked the grey shawl on his knees,
smoothing it first in one way and then backwards in the other. She
watched him, and thought that she had never seen a hand so thin.
"We shall never go back to the old way, shall we?" he asked, before she
"I hope not!" she answered. "It was so absurd, sometimes. Do you
remember at Bianca's house--"
"The night before you left? When I forgot my stick?"
"Yes; but before that. You seemed to think that there was to be no more
writing because I was coming here."
"Of course--that is, I supposed that it might make a difference--"
"And then you asked me. You should have seen your face! I can remember
it now. It changed all at once."
"It is no wonder. You changed the whole future with one word. You
seemed really to want my letters much more than I had imagined that you
As by the quick lifting of a dividing veil, all the awkward little
incidents and memories of constraint had suddenly become parts of the
much larger and more pleasant recollection of their semi-secret
intimacy, and in blending with the broader picture the little ones
somehow ceased to have anything disagreeable in them, and instead, there
was a touch of humour and a suggestion of laughter each time that they
compared what they had said and done with what they had written and
felt. It was no wonder that the fascination grew on Gianluca with every
dancing beat of the happy man's pulse.
They talked on, and in the way she talked Veronica showed that while her
character had grown in three-quarters of a year from girlhood to
womanhood, and from womanhood to the half-imperial masculinity of a
dictatress, her heart was younger than the youngest, was as unsuspicious
of itself as a child's, ready to give itself in an innocent generosity
which could not conceive that giving might mean being taken, or be as
like it as to deceive such a willing, love-sick man as poor Gianluca.
She did not say that she loved him, she did not love him, she did not
wish him to think that she could love him. Why should he think that she
did? Surely, that he loved her, or thought so, could make no difference.
She was so very young, under her armour of despotism, that she might
almost have loved him, as she had all but loved Bosio, had there been
anything to love. But there was not. Gianluca was a shadow, an
unmaterial being, a thought--anything ethereal, but not a man.
The dream-driven ghost of her dead betrothed was ten times more human
and real than Gianluca was to her now, with his white angel's face and
misty hands that seemed to hang weightless in the air before him when he
moved them. There was more of living humanity in the fast fainting echo
of Bosio's last words to her than in Gianluca's clear, sweet tones. If
he should tell her that he loved her now, she should perhaps not even
blush; for his whole being was sifted and refined and distilled, as the
very spirit of star dust, in which there was nothing left of that sweet,
earthly living, breathing, dying, loving flesh and blood without which
love itself is but a scholar's word, and passion means but a vague,
spiritual suffering, in which there is neither hope of joy to come nor
memory of any past.
Yet Gianluca breathed, and was a human man, and loved her, and he would
have been strangely surprised had he suddenly seen into her heart and
understood that she looked upon him as though he were a being out of
another world. The moment when she had first laid her hand upon his had
been the supremest of his life yet lived, and all the moments since had
been as supremely happy. It was something which he had not dared to
hope--to hear her speaking as though there had never been that veil
between them, against which he had so often struggled, to feel her warm
touch, to see the happy light in her young eyes as she sat there looking
at him, to be sure at last, beyond the half assurance of uncertain
But he was wise, and he bridled back the words that most readily of all
others would have come to his lips. Perhaps even in the midst of his new
happiness, there was the unacknowledged fear of evil chance if he should
speak too soon and put the beautiful gold to the touch while the magic
transmutation was still so dazzlingly fresh. The present was so
immeasurably better than the past, so near a perfection of its own, that
he could wait in it a while before he opened wide his arms to take in
the very whole of happiness itself, wherewith the beautiful future stood
full laden before him.
As they talked, they went over and over much that they had written to
each other during the long months of their correspondence, and at last
Veronica came back to the question she had at first asked him.
"So you think that I am sensible in living as I do," she said. "I am
glad. I value your opinion, you know."
She had perhaps never said as much as that to any one.
"You have made it what it is," he answered.
"How do you mean?" she asked quickly.
"You cannot do wrong," he replied, with his faint, far-off laugh. "If I
had read in a book, of an imaginary person, all that you have written me
of yourself, I should have said that most of it was absolutely
impossible, or wildly rash, or foolishly unwise. You know how we are all
brought up. We are nursed in the arms of tradition, we are fed on ideas
of custom--we are taken to walk, as children, by incarnate prejudice for
a nursery maid, and taught to see things that used to be, where modern
things are. What can you expect? We have not much originality by the
time we grow up."
"Yes--you know that I was educated in a convent."
"That is better than being educated at home by a priest." Gianluca
smiled again. "Besides, you are different. That is why I say that if I
have an opinion, you have made it for me. You are doing all those things
which I could not have believed in a book, and they are turning out
well. If society could see you here, it would not find it necessary to
invent a duenna to chaperon you. But it is not everybody who could do
what you have done, and succeed. I do not wonder that my mother is
astonished, and my father, too. But at the same time, since you can do
such things, it seems to me that you would have made a great mistake in
doing anything else--as great a mistake as Julius Caesar would have made
if he had chosen to remain a fashionable lawyer instead of mixing in
politics, or Achilles, if he had taken a necklace or a bracelet and left
the sword in Ulysses' basket. You would have found your mythical duenna
a nuisance in real life."
"At the end of the first week I should have locked her up in the dungeon
tower, to get rid of her," she said.
"I have no doubt that you would, and your people would have thought it
the most natural thing in the world. You could do anything you pleased
in this place, I fancy. They would not think it strange if you tried and
condemned a cheating steward and had him executed in that gloomy
courtyard we passed through when we came in yesterday."
"The law might find fault with my vivacity," said Veronica. "But my
people would say that I had done right if the man had really cheated
them. It is quite true, I think. I could do almost anything here. I had
a man locked up in the municipal prison the other day for forty-eight
hours, because he was tipsy and swore at Don Teodoro in the street. Of
course, it is nominally the syndic who does that sort of thing; but he
belongs to me, like everything else here, and I do as I please, just as
my grandfather did, when he really had power of life and death in Muro,
including the privilege of torture. The first article mentioned in the
old inventory was forty palms of stout rope for giving the cord, as they
called it. They did it under the main gate,--that is why it came
first,--and they used to pull them up to the vault and then drop them
with a jerk to within two feet of the ground. The ring is still there,
just inside the gate."
"My mother's uncle--the old Marchese di Rionero--once hanged a ruffian
for mutilating one of his horses out of spite. And they say that Italy
has not progressed! There is no hanging, not even for murder, nowadays."
"Yes," answered Veronica, thoughtfully, "we have progressed, in a way.
That is our trouble--we have progressed too fast and improved too
little, I think."
"That sounds paradoxical."
"Oh no! It is common sense, as I mean it. Progress costs money,
improvement brings it. Progress means wearing clothes like other people,
having splendid cities like other nations, keeping up armies and navies
like other great powers. Improvement means helping poor people to earn
more wages and to live better--giving them a possibility of happiness,
instead of taking the little they have in order to give ourselves the
appearance of greatness. That is why I say that in Italy we have too
much progress and too little improvement."
"Yes--how well you put it!" Gianluca looked at her with quick
"Do I? It is because you understand easily. Should you call me
patriotic? I think I am. I am an Italian before anything else, before
being a Serra, a woman, a member of society--anything! I feel as though
I should like to give my heart for my people and my life for our
country, if it would do any good. Of course, if it really came to making
any great sacrifice, I suppose my courage would shrivel up and I should
behave just like any one else."
"No--you would not," said Gianluca, gravely. "There have been women--the
great Countess, and Saint Catherine of Siena--"
"Yes!" Veronica laughed. "And there were also my good ancestors, who
tore Italy to pieces, joined hands with German Emperors, upset Popes,
seized everything they could lay hands upon, and turned the country into
a sort of perpetual gladiator's show. That is a proud and promising
inheritance for an aspiring patriot, is it not? The less you and I talk
of patriotism, the better--seeing what our people have done in history
to make patriotism necessary in our time."
"Perhaps so. Doing is better than talking, and you have begun by doing
good and trying to make people happy. You have succeeded in one case,
She looked at him with a glance of inquiry.
"What case?" she asked.
"I mean myself--of course. You have made me perfectly happy to-day."
"I am glad," she answered. "I wish you to be always happy."
She spoke thoughtfully, gravely, and gently, and then turned from him a
little, and looked through the iron railing of the balcony, down at the
deep distance of the valley. She was wondering, and justly, whether
during the past hour she had not made a mistake, very cruel to him, in
breaking down all at once the barrier of excessive formality which
hitherto had stood between them when they met. Words rose to her lips,
which with the utmost gentleness should quickly undeceive him, if he had
been deceived; but when she looked at him and saw his happy, appealing
eyes and his transparent face, her courage was not ready. Perhaps he was
dying, as she had been told. She turned again and watched the misty
"Don Gianluca--" she began, with a little hesitation. But as she spoke
there was a footfall in the embrasure.
"What were you going to say?" asked Gianluca, knowing from her tone that
she had meant to speak of some grave matter.
"Nothing!" she answered with a little sharpness. "Pray take my chair,
Duchessa," she said, turning to the good lady, who had come slowly
forward till she stood with her head just out in the air. "It is time
for luncheon," she added, as she made the Duchessa sit down, nodded
quickly to Gianluca, and went in.
The regularity of the existence at Muro pleased the old couple, and
contributed in a measure to allay their perpetual anxiety about their
son and to calm their uneasiness about the whole situation. They were
both too wise and too courteous to press the question of marriage upon
Veronica under the present circumstances, but they did not feel that
they were led too far by their affection for Gianluca when they told
each other, in the privacy of the Duchessa's dressing-room, that after
what Veronica had now done she was bound, in common self-respect, to
marry him. That he would recover from his illness, they never doubted;
for, as has been said, the truth had been kept from them, in so far as
the prognostications of doctors could be looked upon as worthy of
belief. He had certainly been much better since they had brought him to
Muro, and they secretly wished that they might all stay where they were
until the autumn.
On that first day, Veronica had been on the point of speaking very
plainly to Gianluca, intending to tell him once again that he must not
be deceived, that she should never marry him, and indeed had no
intention of ever marrying at all. But she had been interrupted by the
coming of the Duchessa; and, as she had not spoken at the first
opportunity, she did not purposely create another at once. She was not
skilful in such situations. When her directness came into conflict with
her sense of delicacy, one or the other gave way; for in serious matters
she instinctively hated complicated methods, and though she could be
hard and perhaps unnecessarily cruel, yet she would at any time rather
be over-kind than take refuge in the compromises of what most people
call tact. The weaknesses of the strong are like the crevasses in a
glacier; they have a general direction, but it is impossible to know
certainly beforehand the precise depth or importance of any one of them,
nor how far it may lead. The little strengths of weak people are like
jagged rocks jutting up in shifting sands and changing tide, the more
dangerous to the unwary because they are few and unexpected, and no one
can tell where they lie, just below the surface. Many a brave enterprise
has gone to pieces upon the stupid, unforeseen obstinacy of a despised
Veronica, like other people, even the very strongest, had weak points,
or moments when some points of her character were weak, which comes to
the same thing in result. She dreaded to hurt Gianluca, and since the
occasion had passed when she might have made everything clear, and
would have done so, she found it hard to decide how to act.
Taquisara had told her that the man was dying. If that were true, it
could make no difference, whether he believed that she would marry him
or not. The thought of his death was terribly painful, and she thrust it
from her; for she was not heartless, and in the days that followed their
conversation on the balcony, her affection grew to be as real and deep
as it could possibly have been for a most dearly loved brother. For her,
there had been none of those ties in which such affections live and grow
and become parts of life itself. Fatherless, motherless, without
brother, or sisters, the girl had grown up not knowing what she had to
give, and giving scarcely anything at all of what was best in her. She
was reticent and proud, and could never be attached to many people.
Bianca had been her friend, in a way, but Bianca's life was mysterious
to her, and Pietro Ghisleri had come between the two.
And now, through many months, by the intimacy of correspondence which
had suddenly turned to an intimacy of real converse in which she had not
been disappointed, she had grown--for it was a true growth--to the power
of a most devoted friendship, capable of great and lasting sacrifice. It
was a friendship, too, that was, as it were, pre-sanctified by the
rising shadow of near death, fore-hallowed by the sure suffering of its
coming end. It would be hard indeed to cut from Gianluca's heart the one
flower of his loving belief.
But then, when she sat beside him on the balcony in the shady hours, and
the great wave of life came up to her from the southern valley, she
could not believe that he was really to die. And then, she hesitated,
and she wished to do what was right and true by him, pain or no pain.
Sometimes there was a little colour in his face, and often the deep blue
light came into his beautiful eyes. He was to live, then, and she felt
that she was cruel, and base, and cowardly to let his thoughts of her
Those were the good days. There were worse ones, when he lay like a dead
angel before her, and only in his eyes there was a little life. Then
more than once, she gave him the magic of her touch, laid one hand
softly upon one of his, or smoothed his silk pillow and arranged the
shawl about him. Perhaps she was wrong to do such things, just because
she was so young; but when she did them he breathed freely again, and
the faint false dawn of a new day that might never brighten rose in the
Once, Taquisara, standing on the great round bastion below, unnoticed by
them both under the spreading vine, turned suddenly by chance and looked
up through the leaves, and he saw how Veronica was bending forward
towards his friend and touching one hand of his--for it was not far to
see. Taquisara did not look again, but presently he went in, and there
was less of unconcern in his handsome bronze face that day, and his dark
eyes were harder and colder than they were wont to be.
Veronica liked him, and forgot altogether the unpleasantness which there
had been between them. He was as gentle as a woman with Gianluca. He
seemed to be strong, too, for on the bad days when his friend could not
walk at all, he carried him like a child from room to room. Veronica saw
how necessary he was, and he knew it himself, for after his first
protest he made no attempt to go away. Gianluca, naturally sensitive and
abnormally impressionable, hated to be touched by servants, as some
invalids do, and Taquisara's constant presence saved him much suffering,
none the less acute because it was imaginary.
At luncheon, at dinner, whenever the Duca and Duchessa were present,
Taquisara did his best to help the conversation and always seemed
cheerful, unconcerned, and hopeful for Gianluca's recovery. It was on
rare occasions, when Veronica found herself alone with him for a few
moments, or together with him and Don Teodoro, that the man appeared to
her silent, morose, and sometimes almost ill-tempered. He did not again
speak rudely in her presence, but she guessed that the unspoken thought
was constantly in his mind--that, and something else which she could not
understand. Daily, hourly perhaps, he was inwardly accusing her of
playing with Gianluca, as he had expressed it.
Strange to say, she began to care for his opinion and to wish that he
could understand her better; and because he could not, she resented the
opinion which she thought he held of her. When she was with him, she
felt something which she did not recognize in herself--a desire to
attack him, for no reason whatever, and at the same time a wish that he
might like her better. Even in her childhood she had never cared very
much whether people liked her or not.
One day it rained,--for it was in August,--and from time to time the
enormous thunder-storms rolled up out of the valley and crashed and
split themselves upon the sharp peak above Muro, and rumbled away to
northward up the pass, while the deluge of cold rain descended in their
It was afternoon. The windows were all shut, the Duca and Duchessa had
disappeared for their daily sleep, as they always did, and Veronica and
Taquisara kept Gianluca company in one of the big rooms. He was better
than usual, but Veronica found it hard to amuse him, and tried to
imagine some diversion for the long hours.
"Can you fence?" she asked suddenly, of Taquisara.
"Of course--after a fashion," he answered, with a laugh of surprise at
the question, which seemed absurd to him.
"Will you fence with me?"
"I? Oh--I remember hearing that you took fencing lessons at the Princess
Corleone's. If it amuses you, of course I will."
"I have all my things here," said Veronica. "There are any number of
foils, and I got two men's jackets and masks, just in the hope that they
might be wanted some day. I am very fond of it, you know. We can move
the table away from the middle of the room--it will be something to do.
It is dull, when it rains, and Don Gianluca can watch us and tell me
when I make mistakes. It will amuse us all."
"Gianluca could give us both lessons," said Taquisara. "He fences
"Ah--if I only could!" exclaimed Gianluca, in a tone that hurt Veronica.
The invalid looked down at his long, thin legs and emaciated hands, and
he tried to smile bravely.
"You would rather not see us--we will not do it," said Veronica, gently,
bending a little to see his face, as she stood near him.
"Oh no! Please do!" he answered. "I have never seen a woman fence--I
cannot imagine how you could. It would amuse me very much. Please send
for the foils."
The things were brought, the tables and chairs were moved away,
Taquisara drew Gianluca's big easy-chair, with him in it, towards the
window, and Veronica put on her leathern jacket and glove, and stood
holding her mask in her hand, as she bent over the foils looking for her
favourite one. She found it, and came forward, carrying both mask and
foil, while Taquisara got ready. Gianluca looked at her and smiled.
There was something defiant and warlike about the small, well-poised
head, the aquiline features, and the bright eyes. With one foot a little
in advance she stood up, straight and daring, in the middle of the room,
waiting for her adversary. The grey light of the rainy afternoon gleamed
coldly along the steel.
Taquisara took the one of the two masks which fitted him the better, and
picked out a foil. He did not think of putting on a jacket to fence with
"No jacket?" asked Veronica, with a short laugh, as she slipped her mask
over her head.
He laughed, too, but said nothing, considering it as a matter of course,
and stepping into position he stood before Veronica with lowered foil.
She raised hers, saluted him, and then Gianluca, as though they were to
fence a bout for a prize. Taquisara did the same.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, in surprise, as both were about to fall into guard.
"Are you left-handed?"
"Yes--did you never notice it?" She laughed again, as her foil played
upon his for a second. "Now then!" she cried.
Taquisara was not an exceptionally good fencer, and had spent very
little time in the study of the art. He was bold, quick, and somewhat
reckless, and in two or three slight affairs in which, like most men of
his society in the south, he had been unavoidably engaged, he had
wounded his adversaries rather by surprise and indifference to his own
safety, than by any superior skill. He had expected that Veronica would
make a few conventional passes and parries, and grow tired of the sport
in a few minutes. To his astonishment, he saw in a moment that she could
really fence fairly well, while the fact of being left-handed gave her a
great advantage, even against an otherwise superior adversary. He had of
course intended and expected only to defend himself without ever really
attacking, as men generally do when they fence with women. But he was
mistaken in supposing that this was what Veronica wanted.
She tried his wrist once or twice and played a little, feeling her way.
Then there was a quick flash, a disengagement, a feint, a lunge that was
like a man's, and as her long left arm shot out like lightning, her foil
bent nearly double, with the button full on his breast. She stepped
back, and he heard her short laugh again, followed by Gianluca's, and
he laughed, too, somewhat disconcerted.
"I took you by surprise," she said. "You had better put on a jacket--it
is just as well."
"Oh no--but you can really fence! I had no idea. I shall be more
careful. Try again!"
They engaged once more, and Taquisara was cautious. His defence did not
compare with his attack, and he could not take the offensive in earnest.
He parried her quick thrusts with some difficulty, and presently she
touched him on the arm.
"Why do you not attack me?" she asked impatiently. "You need not be
afraid--I can defend myself pretty well."
He did not altogether like to lunge as though he were fencing with a
man, and his hesitation gave her a still greater advantage. She felt an
unaccountable delight in attacking him furiously, and in her excitement
she uttered sharp little cries when she touched him, as she did more
than once. She felt that she had never fenced so well in her life, and
she was glad that she should do better against him than against Bianca
or her fencing-master. There was a strange delight in it. He, on his
part, did his best at defence, but he could not bring himself to a real
attack. He tried to disarm her, by sheer strength, but he failed
utterly. Her wrist was more supple than the steel foil itself, and she
It was rather wild play, but it was amusing to watch, and Gianluca
looked on with delighted appreciation. She was so slight and graceful,
and yet so quick and strong. As for Taquisara, he was glad when she drew
back, took her mask from her face, and said that it was enough.
"You ought to know that you can hardly ever disarm a left-handed person
when you are engaged in carte," observed Gianluca, looking at Taquisara.
Though he had never been in a quarrel in his life, he had been
passionately fond of fencing, and in his real interest in what he had
seen he did not even think of complimenting Veronica. She was keen
enough to feel that his scientific remark was better than any flattery.
Taquisara shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"Donna Veronica fences like a man," he said. "And I am not very good at
it either. She would have killed me two or three times!"
"You never really attacked me," she answered, flushed and happy. "By the
by," she added, seeing that he was looking over the other foils, "one of
those is sharp--the one with the green hilt--be careful not to take it
by mistake if we fence again, for you might really kill me."
"How did it come here?" he asked, taking up the one she indicated.
"It was lying about at the Princess Corleone's. I took it by mistake, I
suppose, with my things. I believe that Signor Ghisleri brought it to
show her, one day. I think he said it had been used."
She threw off her leathern jacket, and tossed the other things aside.
"Let us fence a little every day," she said. "That is, if you will
really fence, instead of playing with me."
"I am certainly not able to play with you," he answered. "And I shall
wear a jacket next time."
"You are wonderful," said Gianluca, still watching her with admiration.
The storm had passed, and the rain was over. Before long the Duca and
Duchessa would appear for tea, and Taquisara said that he would go for a
walk. Veronica rang and had the room set in order again, and sat down by
Gianluca. The exercise had done her good, and she still felt that fierce
little satisfaction at having fought with Taquisara. There was an
unwonted colour in her cheeks, and her brown hair had been somewhat
ruffled by the mask. Her hands were warm, and tingled, and she felt
intensely alive. It had been pleasant, for once, to put out all her
energy in something like a real struggle.
Little by little her sensations wore off, and she was quite quiet again,
but the recollection of them remained and made her wish to renew them
"You are wonderful," Gianluca repeated, when they had talked of other
things for a while. "Taquisara is not a fencing-master, but he is as
good as most men, and better than many. You gave him trouble, I could
see. It was all he could do to defend himself against you, sometimes."
"Did it amuse you to watch us?" asked Veronica.
"Then we will do it again, every day. I am glad of a little practice,
and it will not hurt him either. A descendant of Tancred ought to fence
better than that! I suppose that your mother would be horrified."
"She might be a little surprised."
"Shall we tell her?"
"Not unless we are obliged to," answered Gianluca, with a smile. "We do
not tell her everything."
"No," said Veronica, acquiescing rather thoughtfully.
Gianluca was in that state in which there is a delight in having little,
harmless secrets from the world in common with one much loved, but not
yet wholly won, and each small secrecy was to the bond that held him
what the silver threads are to Damascus steel, welded into the whole
that the blade may bend double without breaking. But to Veronica it was
different; for she guessed instinctively how he looked upon such
trifles, and she did not wish them to multiply unduly. Each one was a
sting to her conscience.
"I hate secrets," she said gravely, after a pause. "Let us tell her. It
is much better."
"As you like," answered Gianluca, with a little disappointment, which
she did not fail to notice.
"You think that she will be scandalized? And that we shall not fence any
more? Why? I am sure, if she could see us, she would think it very
proper. It is not improper, is it?" She asked the last question
anxiously, as though in an after-thought.
"Improper? No! How absurd! If everything that is unusual were to be
considered improper, our writing to each other would be improper, too.
But we kept it a secret, all the same. I cannot imagine talking about
it. For me--everything that belongs to you is a secret."
Veronica leaned back in her chair, and her face grew still more grave,
but she did not answer. The struggle had begun again, and the
hesitation. Should she tell him, once for all, that she really never
could love him? Should she leave him the illusion he loved so well? Was
he to die, or was he to live? The answer to each question seemed to lie
in the query of the next. He spoke again before she broke the silence.
"Do you not feel that--a little--not as I do, but just a little, about
me?" he asked in a voice not timid, but very soft.
"No," she answered sadly. "Not as you do. No; it is quite different."
She did not look at him at once, for she was almost afraid to meet his
eyes, but she heard him catch his breath, as though to strangle a sigh
by main force, and his head moved on the cushion.
She had begun to hurt him.
"I thought you might," he said, faintly but steadily. "I almost thought
"No," she repeated, with ever-increasing gentleness. "No. Do not think
that--please do not!"
He said nothing, but again he moved his head. Then, seeing that the
moment had come, and that she must face it with truth or lie to him
while he lived, she turned her face bravely towards him, to tell him all
"You are the only real friend I have in the world," she said. "But I can
never love you--never, Gianluca--never. It is not in me. There is no one
in the whole world for whom I care as I do for you. I cannot imagine
anything that I could not do for your sake. But not love--not love. That
is something else. I do not know what it means. You could make me
understand anything but that. Oh--why must I say it, when it is so hard
His face seemed cut, as a mask of pain, in alabaster, and the appealing,
hungry eyes waited for each fresh hurt.
"You made me think that you might love me," he said, the slow words
hardly forming themselves on his dry lips.
"Then God forgive me!" she cried, clasping her hands and bending her
face over them. "And yet--and yet I knew it. I felt it. I meant to tell
you, if you did not know! I only wished not to hurt you--it is so hard
"Yes," he answered, scarcely above his breath. "I see it is," he added,
after a long time.
As he lay in the deep chair, he turned his face from her, on the
cushion, till she could not see his eyes, and then was quite still. It
would have been easier if he had reproached her vehemently, if he had
turned and tried to win her again, and poured out his heart full of
love. But he lay there, like a dead angel, with his face turned from
her, hardly breathing.
"I have been cowardly, and base, and bad!" she cried, bending over her
clasped hands, and speaking to herself. "I should have said it--I said
it long ago, at Bianca's, and I should have said it again--but I was
Her low voice trembled in anger against herself, in pity for him, in
sorrow for them both. She looked up and saw him still motionless. It
was as though she had killed him and were sitting beside his body. But
he still lived, and might live. For one instant she felt a mad impulse
to give him her life, to marry him, not loving him, to save him if she
could, to atone for what she had done. But a horrible under-thought told
her that it would be but gambling for her freedom with his existence,
and that if she did it, she should do it because she felt that he must
surely die. Even her simplicity seemed gone. She looked again; he had
She threw herself upon her knees, beside his great chair, her clasped
hands on his thin shoulder, in a sort of agony of despair.
"Speak to me!" she cried. "Forgive me--say that I have not killed
One shadowy hand of his was lifted, and touched hers. It was as cold as
though it had lain dead in the dew. She took it quickly and held it
fast. He did not turn his head.
"It has been my life," he said, "my whole life."
He did not try to draw away his hand, but let her hold it, if she would.
There was still magic in her touch.
"Forgive me!" she repeated more softly, and her cheek touched the arm of
the chair. "Forgive me!"
At last he turned his face very wearily and slowly on the brown silk
cushion, and looked at her bent head. Instinctively she raised her hot
"Forgive you?" He spoke very sorrowfully. "I love you. What is there to
forgive? It is not your fault--"
"It is--it is!" she cried, speaking into his sad eyes for forgiveness,
with all her soul.
"I shall die--but it is not your fault," he answered, and he sank back,
for he had raised himself a little. "It is not your fault," he repeated.
"Do not ask me to forgive you. Perhaps I should have lived longer--I do
not know, for I only lived for you. No--I am quiet now. I can speak
better than I could. You must not think that you have killed me, if I
die. Men live through worse, but not men like me, perhaps. Something
else is killing me slowly, but they will not tell me what it is. Never
mind. It will do as well without a name, and if I get well, it needs
none. After all, I am not dead yet, and while I am alive, I can love
you. You have been all to me. If you had loved me, I should have had
more than all the world, and that would have been too much. If I
deceived myself, loving you as I did,--as I do,--it is not your fault,
Veronica. It is not your fault. There was a time last year, when I would
have done anything, given everything, life and all, for one of a
thousand words you have written and said to me since then--when I would
have committed crimes for the touch of this little hand. Do you see? It
is all my fault. That is what I wanted you to understand."