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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCaptain Mansana - Chapter 3
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Captain Mansana - Chapter 3 Post by :rlscott Category :Long Stories Author :Bjornstjerne Bjornson Date :May 2012 Read :604

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Captain Mansana - Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

As Giuseppe Mansana followed his father's bones to their last resting-place, looking, even on that sad and solemn occasion, as though he would fain leap over the funeral-car, it was plain enough that he was under the spell of his first burning dream of love. Later on, in the course of that same evening, he took the train to Ancona, where his regiment was quartered. There lived the woman he loved, and nothing but the sight of her could assuage the fire of passion that flamed in his heart.

Giuseppe Mansana was in love with a woman whose temperament was not dissimilar to his own: a woman who must be conquered, and who had captivated hundreds without herself yielding to the spell of any lover. Of her a local poet at Ancona, in a wild burst of passion, had written some verses to the following effect:


"The spirit of all evil things,
The light that comes from Hell,
In your dark beauty, burns and stings,
And holds me with its spell.

"In your deep eyes I see it shine,
It dances in your veins like wine,
Throbs in your smile, your glance of fire,
Your siren laugh, that wakes desire.

"I know it! yet 'tis better far,
My empress, at your feet to lie,
Than be as other lovers are,
And happy live, and peaceful die.

"Yea, better have loved thee and perished,
Sphinx-woman, in darkness and tears,
Than be loved by another and cherished,
Through the long, uneventful, dull years."


She was the daughter of an Austrian general and of a lady who had belonged to one of the noblest families in Ancona. That a woman in this position should marry the chief of the hated foreign garrison caused at the time a good deal of resentment. And the indignation was, if possible, increased by the fact that the husband was quite an elderly man, while the bride was a lovely girl of eighteen. Possibly she had been tempted by the general's fortune, which was very large, especially as she had lived in her ancestral palace in a condition of absolute poverty. It is a state of affairs common enough in Italy, where the family palace is often held as mere trust-property by the occupant, who has no sufficient revenue provided out of the estate to keep it in proper order. This was the case in the present instance. Still there may have been some other attraction in the general besides his wealth; for when he died, shortly after his daughter's birth, his widow went into complete retirement. She was never seen, except at church, and by the priests. The friends, who had broken with her at the time of her marriage, but who now showed themselves extremely willing to renew their acquaintance with the rich and beautiful young widow, she kept steadily at a distance.

Meanwhile Ancona became Italian, and the Austrian general's widow, ill at ease amid the festivities, the illuminations, and the patriotic celebrations of her native town, quitted it and settled in Rome, leaving her empty palace and her deserted villa and grounds to offer their silent protest. But once settled in Rome the Princess Leaney laid aside the black veil, which she had always worn since her husband's death, threw open her _salons_, where all the leaders of the Papal aristocracy were to be seen, and annually contributed large sums to the Peter's pence and other ecclesiastical funds. These actions--the first as well as the last--accentuated the feeling against her in Ancona, and thanks to the efforts of the agents of the "Liberal" party, the sentiment found its echo in Rome. Of this she was herself quite aware; and indeed, when she drove out on Monte Pincio, in all her beauty and elegance, with her little daughter by her side, she could not fail to notice the hostile glances levelled at her by persons she recognised as inhabitants of her native town, as well as by others who were strangers to her. But this only roused in her a spirit of defiance; she continued to show herself regularly on Monte Pincio, and she again returned to Ancona when the summer exodus from Rome set in. Once more she opened her palace as well as her villa, and passed most of her time in the latter residence in order to enjoy the sea-bathing. Though she was obliged to drive through the town to her house in the Corso, or to church, without exchanging greetings with a single human being, she persisted in taking this drive daily. When her daughter grew older, she allowed her to be present at the performances of plays and _tableaux vivants at the evening parties, which the priests promoted under the patronage of the Bishop, in order to assist the collection of Peter's pence in Ancona; and so great was the beauty of the daughter, and the attractions of the mother, that many people would go to these entertainments who otherwise would certainly not have been seen there. As was natural, the girl caught her mother's proud spirit of defiance, and when, at the age of fourteen, she was left motherless, this spirit developed further, with such additions as youth and high courage would be likely to suggest. Rumour soon began to play with her name, more freely and more critically than even it had done with that of her mother, and her reputation extended over a wider area; for with an elderly lady as chaperon--a stiff, decorous person, admirably adapted for the office, who saw everything and said nothing--she travelled a good deal in foreign countries, from England to Egypt. But she so arranged her movements that she always contrived to spend the summer in Ancona and the autumn in Rome.

In due course the latter town, like the former, had become Italian; but in Rome, as well as in Ancona, she continued to display a kind of proud contempt for the governing faction, and particularly for those members of it who tried, by every possible artifice, to gain the heart of a lady at once so rich and so handsome. It was rumoured, indeed, that some of the younger noblemen had entered into a sort of agreement to either conquer her or crush her; and whether there was any truth in the story or not, she certainly believed in it herself. The revenge she took upon those whom she suspected of designs upon her was to bring them to her feet by her fascinations, and then to repulse them scornfully; to render them frantic, first with hope, afterwards with disappointment. When she appeared on the Corso and Monte Pincio, driving her own horses, it was in a sort of triumphal progress, with her captives bound, as it were, to her chariot wheels. If this was not obvious to the general public, she herself was fully conscious of it, and so, indeed, were her victims. She would have been killed, or have met with a fate worse than death itself, but for the protection of a group of staunch admirers, who formed a faithful and adoring body-guard round her. Among these worshippers was the poet whose verses have already been quoted. In Ancona, more particularly, the young officers of the garrison either sighed for her in secret, or regarded her with unconcealed dislike.

At the very time when Giuseppe Mansana's regiment had been ordered to Ancona, she had hit upon a new caprice. She absolutely declined to take part in the fashionable gathering which, every evening, was in the habit of assembling and promenading in the Corso. Here, under the light of the moon and stars and lamps, ladies were to be seen in evening toilettes, their faces half-hidden behind those fans they manipulated so dexterously; gentlemen in uniform, or dressed in the last new summer fashion, strolled up and down, exchanging greetings and jests, gathering about the tables where their friends sat eating ices or drinking coffee, passing from one to the other, and finally settling down into their seats, when a quartette party began to sing, or some band of wandering musicians to play, with zither, flute, and guitar. In this function Theresa Leaney resolutely declined to take part. So far from aiding with her presence this daily display of the fashion, beauty, and elegance of the town, she had devised a plan to throw it into disorder and confusion.

At sunset, when the carriages of the fashionable world were turning homewards, she would drive out, with two unusually small Corsican ponies, which she had purchased that summer; and handling the reins herself, as she always did, she would pass through the streets of the town at a trot. She would choose the moment when the Corso was lighted up, and when the evening assembly was in full swing. On all sides friends and family groups were meeting; young men and maidens were exchanging stolen greetings; silent salutations were passing between wealthy patrons and their hangers-on; lovers, whose mistresses were absent, sighed their woes into the ears of confidants; officers tossed curt nods to their creditors, and high officials were receiving obsequious bows from their subordinates, anxiously hoping for the time when death would give them a chance of promotion. And then--before the young ladies had had time to exhibit their latest Paris gowns in the course of one turn up and one down the promenade, and just as admiring young clerks were opening the conversation with their charmers, while officers were collecting in groups to criticise faces and figures, and the more distinguished members of the local aristocracy were preparing to hold their customary little court--just then our arrogant young damsel, with her stiff, elderly companion sitting by her side, would dash into the very midst of the well-dressed crowd. The two ponies were kept at a smart trot; and officers and young ladies, gentlemen and shop-assistants, family parties and whispering couples, had to separate in all haste, to avoid being driven over. A set of bells on the harness gave warning of the approach of the equipage before it was actually upon the saunterers, so that the police had no ground for interference. But this only intensified the irritation of those whom Theresa offended, first by declining to join their social circle, and secondly by breaking into it in this violent fashion.

On two evenings Giuseppe Mansana had gone to the Corso, and both times he had almost been run over by this reckless charioteer. He was fairly astounded by her audacity, and promptly ascertained who she was. On the third evening, as Theresa Leaney halted her horses at the usual spot outside the city, where she was accustomed to breathe them before beginning the rapid drive through the streets and the Corso, a tall man in military uniform suddenly stood before her and saluted. "May I be permitted to introduce myself? My name is Giuseppe Mansana; I am an officer in the Bersaglieri, and I have made a bet that I will run a race with your two ponies from here to the town. I trust you do not object." It was nearly dusk, and under ordinary circumstances she could hardly have distinguished him clearly; but excitement will sometimes increase our powers of vision. Astonishment, and a certain amount of alarm--for there was something in the voice and bearing of this stranger that terrified her in spite of herself--gave her that courage which fear often inspires. Turning towards the small head and short face, which she could just discern through the twilight, she replied, "It appears to me that a gentleman would have asked my permission _before he allowed himself to make such a wager; but after all an Italian officer----" She broke off, for she herself was frightened at what she had intended to say, and there ensued an ominous silence, which rendered her still more uneasy. Then she heard a hollow voice--there was always something hollow in Mansana's deep tones--which said:

"I have laid the wager with myself, and, truth to tell, I intend to make the attempt whether you give me permission or not."

"What do you mean?" said the girl, as she gathered up the reins. But the same moment she uttered a shriek, which was echoed more loudly by her chaperon, as both nearly fell from the carriage; for with a long whip, that neither of them had noticed, the officer struck a cutting blow over the backs of the two ponies, which started forward with a bound. Two grooms, who sat behind their young mistress and had risen from their seats at a sign from her, to come to her assistance, were thrown back upon the ground. Neither of them could take part in the drive, which now began and was more exciting than long.

It has been said that Mansana's athletic accomplishments included great speed and endurance in running; indeed, there was probably no other exercise in which his training had been so complete. He had no difficulty in keeping pace with the cobs, at any rate at the start, when the animals, firmly held in by their mistress, trotted slowly and uncertainly. Theresa, in her anger, was ready to risk anything rather than submit to such humiliation, and, besides, she was anxious to gain time till her servants could come up. But just as she was succeeding in stopping the horses, the whip came whizzing down across their backs, and again they plunged forward. No word or cry passed Theresa's lips, but she drew at the reins so hard and persistently that the horses came near to a halt, till the lash smote upon their flanks again. Twice was the effort to stop repeated, and twice frustrated in the same rude manner, till both the driver and the beaten ponies felt the futility of the attempt. All through this the elder woman had clung screaming to the girl, both arms thrown round her waist; now she sank forward, in a kind of swoon of terror, and had to be forcibly restrained from falling out of the carriage. A flood of anger and dismay swept over Theresa; for a time the horses, the road, were blurred before her eyes, and at last she could hardly tell whether she still held the reins or not. She had, in fact, allowed them to drop upon her lap; she took them up again, and with one arm thrown round the drooping figure of her chaperon, and both her hands grasping at the reins, she made yet another effort to regain command of the terrified ponies. But she soon perceived that they were now beyond all control. It had grown quite dark; high in the air, above the undergrowth of bushes, the tall poplars by the roadside seemed to be moving swiftly onward, and keeping pace, as it were, with the carriage. She no longer knew where she was. The only object she could clearly distinguish, except the horses, was the tall figure at their side--the spectral form that towered above the little animals, and kept steadily abreast of them. Where were they going? And like lightning the thought flashed upon her that they were not making for the town, that this stranger was not an officer, but a brigand, that she was being carried off to some distant hiding-place, and that presently the rest of the band would be upon her. In the agony of distress which this sudden apprehension raised, there broke from her the cry, "Stop, for God's sake. What is it you are doing? Can you not see----" She could say no more, for again she heard the lash whizzing through the air, and the crack of its stroke upon the backs of the horses, and felt herself whirled faster than ever along the road.

Swiftly as this wild flight itself, the thoughts chased one another through her mind.

"What does he mean to do? Who is he? Can he be one of those whom I have offended?" A hasty succession of figures passed before her, but none of them at all resembled this man. But now the suggestion of revenge had seized hold upon her frightened imagination. What if this stranger had been deputed to take vengeance upon her for all her other victims? And if this was revenge, then worse things yet were in store for her. The tinkle of the horses' bells cut through the rumbling of the wheels; the sharp, shrill sound struck upon her like a cry of anguish, and in her terror she was ready to risk everything in a leap from the carriage. But no sooner did she relax her hold of her companion, than the latter rolled over in a senseless heap, and Theresa, in growing alarm and anxiety, could only lift up the fainting figure and support it across her lap. Thus she sat for a while, too perturbed for definite thought, till suddenly, at a turn of the road, she caught sight of the luminous haze that hung over the city, and for a moment felt that she was saved. But the sensation of relief passed like a flash, as the meaning of the whole scheme dawned upon her. This man was an emissary of vengeance from the Corso! And before the thought had assumed coherent shape in her mind, she cried out, "Ah! no further! no further!"

The echo of her own beseeching words, the jangle of the horses' bells, the mad movement of the poplars alongside, were all she had for answer, as they dashed on. No word came from the silent shape in front. There coursed through her mind a forecast of her pitiful progress through the city, driven onward by the lash, her swooning companion dragging on her arms, the crowd lining the pavements to stare at her, the officers pressing forward to greet her with mocking applause and laughter; for that all this was planned by the officers, to wreak their anger upon her, she now felt certain. She bowed her head as if she were already in the midst of her tormentors. The next moment she could tell by the sound that the horses were slackening speed. They must be close to their destination; but would they stop before they reached it? She looked up with a sudden rush of awakened hope. She perceived why the pace had grown slower. Her captor had fallen back behind the horses; he was now close beside her, and presently she found herself listening to his hurried, laboured breathing, until she could hear nothing else, and all her agonising fear fastened on it. What if this man should fall, with the blood streaming from his lips, in the Corso itself? That blood would be upon her head, for it was her defiant pride which had challenged his desperate feat; and his friends would tear her to pieces in their anger.

"Spare yourself," she implored, "I am conquered--I yield."

But as if this attempt to soften him had roused him anew, he made a final effort. With two or three long strides he was abreast of the horses, who quickened their pace instinctively as they felt his approach, but not soon enough to escape a couple of swinging strokes from the whip.

And now clear before her shone the lights of the first gas-lamps, those round the Cavour memorial; presently they would be at the Corso and the miserable farce would begin. She felt a mastering desire to weep, and yet no tears came; she could only bow her head upon her hands so that she might see nothing. Then of a sudden she heard his voice, though she could not distinguish the words; for the carriage was now rumbling over the paved causeway, and he was too exhausted to speak distinctly. She looked up, the man was gone! Merciful heavens! Had he fallen fainting to the earth? Her blood froze in her veins at the thought, but her fears were needless. She saw him walk slowly away, through the Corso, past the Cafe Garibaldi. Then she herself passed into the Corso, her horses at the trot, the crowd parting to let her through. She bent still lower over the rigid form of her friend, as it lay across her lap; shame and terror drove her onwards, as if with a scourge. A few minutes later, she was safely within the courtyard of her palace. Through the open gateway the horses had swung at full speed, so that it was a wonder the carriage was not upset or dashed to pieces. She was safe; but the strain had been too much for her, and she fainted away.

An old servant stood awaiting her arrival. He called for help, and the two ladies were carried upstairs. Presently the grooms who had been thrown from the carriage came up and related what had happened, so far at least as they knew it themselves. Ashamed and confused by the reproaches which the old retainer showered upon them for their clumsiness, they were only too willing to follow his advice, which was to hold their tongues, and say nothing about the affair. The horses had bolted, after a short halt, just as the grooms were about to mount to their seats. That was the whole story.

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CHAPTER IVWhen Princess Theresa Leaney came to herself again, all her strength and energy seemed gone from her. She would not rise, she scarcely touched her food, and allowed no one to remain near her. In silence her companion passed through the large mirror-room that adjoined the ante-room; in silence she returned when her duties were accomplished, and when she entered the small Gothic apartment which the princess occupied near the centre of the palace, she was still careful to observe the same silence. The servants followed her example. This elderly chaperon of Theresa's had been brought up in a convent,
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CHAPTER IIBy the scene which I had witnessed my memory was long haunted; but not so much by a recollection of the impressive part which the mother had played, as by the defiant countenance, the tall, muscular figure, and the athletic bearing, of the young officer of the Bersaglieri. I was curious to learn something of his history, and discovered, to my surprise, that it was the daring exploits of this son, which, by recalling attention to the father, were responsible for the tardy honours now accorded to the latter's memory. I felt I had struck upon something characteristically Italian. The
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