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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStradella - Chapter 22
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Stradella - Chapter 22 Post by :flashzoe Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2012 Read :813

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Stradella - Chapter 22

CHAPTER XXII

When Trombin had dropped Don Alberto upon the ladder, to take the chances of a bad fall, he looked down to see what happened, and being satisfied that the courtier was not much hurt, he turned at once to Ortensia; for if young Altieri had broken his neck, it might have been necessary to hasten what was to take place next. As for anything the courtier might do on the spur of the moment, Trombin knew that Gambardella and Tommaso were in the vineyard, ready to stop any mischief.

Ortensia was lying by the wall where she had fallen, but was regaining consciousness, for her limbs stirred now and then, and as the Bravo looked at her she opened her eyes and turned her head.

'Coward!' she said faintly, as what had happened began to dawn upon her and the recollection of the furious struggle came back. 'Coward!' she repeated, closing her eyes as Trombin dropped beside her on one knee.

'I have thrown him out of the window,' he said quietly.

She opened her eyes wide now, stared at him and recognised him, though as in a dream. Then she tried to raise herself on her elbow, and instantly he helped her; and feeling the strength of his arm, she got upon her feet, though with more assistance from him than she knew. He led her to a stiff little sofa at the other end of the room, picked up Don Alberto's cloak, rolled it into a pillow for her, and made her lie down. She had almost lost consciousness again with the effort of walking so far.

He saw the deep scratch on her arm, from which a few drops of blood were still slowly oozing, and he fetched a basin with cold water and a towel from the bedroom, and bathed the slight wound, binding it up afterwards with his lawn handkerchief, for he was skilled in such matters. Ortensia smiled faintly, without opening her eyes; but he, with the strangest expression in the world, drew in his lips till his mouth almost disappeared; and he fixed his round eyes on the shapely arm he was dressing, and touched it with a sort of wonder. For there was a secret side of his character which even his friend Gambardella did not know, any more than Trombin knew his companion's own love-story.

When Trombin said that he was a susceptible creature, full of sentiment, he was telling the truth, though his friend had never believed it. He loved all women in general, and seemed able to love a number of them in particular in close succession. Gambardella saw this, and exercised his wit upon the weakness; but what he never saw and could not guess was that his fellow-cut-throat was as shy and timid as a schoolboy in the presence of his sweetheart for the time being, whether she were of low degree or of the burgher class, above which Trombin had never aspired till he had seen Ortensia. The reckless Bravo, the perpetrator of a score of atrocious crimes, the absolutely intrepid swordsman, would blush like a girl, and stand speechless and confused when he was alone for the first time with a pretty girl or a buxom dame whose mere side-glance made the blood tingle in his neck. Moreover, many women know that there are plenty of such men in the world; and I dare say that more than one man may read these lines who has faced the extremest danger without a quickened pulse, but has collapsed like a scared child before a girl of eighteen or a cool-handed widow of eight-and-twenty. Oddly enough, those are not the men whom women love least, explain it how you will.

So Trombin, who had talked of carrying off Ortensia with even more assurance than Don Alberto himself, and had just found her senseless on the floor after he had put her assailant to flight, could no more have had the boldness to kiss the white arm he was dressing so tenderly and skilfully than young Altieri had found courage to fight him when he had suddenly appeared through the window, rapier in hand and glaring like a panther.

Meanwhile Ortensia came quite to herself, looked at him quietly, and thanked him.

'Where is he gone?' she asked, for she had not realised what he had said when he had first answered her.

As he met her eyes Trombin's white forehead blushed, and he stepped back, taking away the basin and towel he had used in washing her wound.

'Out of the window, gracious lady,' he said, as he disappeared into the next room.

'Out of the window!' cried Ortensia in astonishment. 'Is he dead?'

'No, alive and well,' answered Trombin from the distance. 'But I hear something at this very moment,' he added, coming back empty-handed and trying the front window, as if he did not know that it was fastened with nails.

He laid his ear to the crack, and held out one hand to keep Ortensia silent.

'Yes,' he whispered an instant later, loud enough for her to hear. 'Yes--it is the sound of kicking and running--some one is kicking some one else down the hill--it is gone now!'

He stood upright again and looked round at Ortensia, whose face betrayed her anxiety, now that she was fully conscious.

'Who can it be?' she asked.

'Most gentle lady,' answered Trombin, 'I do not know, but I suspect, pray, hope, and inwardly believe that the patient, if I may so call him, was Don Alberto, and the kicker was very likely my friend Gambardella.'

'But you were to have brought my husband here! Your friend told me so!'

Ortensia's memory came back completely at Gambardella's name, and she slipped her feet from the sofa to the floor and sat up suddenly. Trombin was, of course, prepared for the question with a plausible story, but he could never count on his presence of mind when he was in love and alone for the first time with the object of his affections.

'Madam,' he answered, 'the truth is--or, as I may say, the facts in the case are----' he stammered and stopped, for the lovely Venetian had risen and was beside him already, her frightened eyes very near his, and her hand on his sleeve. His heart beat like a scared bird's and his head was whirling.

'Where is my husband?' cried Ortensia in wild anxiety. 'Something has happened to him, and you are afraid to tell me! For heaven's sake----'

It had never been in Trombin's nature to be rough with a woman. In the two or three cases in which he had been concerned in 'removing' a lady, obnoxious to her husband or relations, he had been accused by his companion of being soft-hearted; but while Ortensia was speaking he was in such a state of rapt adoration that he quite forgot to listen to what she said; and instead of answering when she waited for his reply, he took the hand that lay on his sleeve in his, with such a gentle and sympathetic touch that she did not resist, even when he raised it to his ridiculous little mouth and kissed it delicately, with an air of respectful devotion that would not have offended a saint.

Nor was Ortensia offended; but she was frightened out of her mind by his manner, for it was as if he were already condoling with her, and offering his faithful service, before telling her the awful truth.

'He is dead!' she cried, breaking from him and pressing both hands to her temples in mad grief.

She would have fallen against the table, if Trombin had not caught her and held her up. He understood instantly how she had mistaken his action, and what the question had been which he had not heard.

'No, no!' he cried energetically. 'He is alive and well! He insisted on going back to the palace to wait for Don Alberto when he came home from the Lateran to catch you in your rooms! Instead, the villain tracked you here and got in. It was Tommaso's fault for leaving the back door open to the vineyard, and Altieri fastened it inside, so I broke in through the window to save you! We had nailed all the windows fast for your safety!'

Ortensia leaned back against the table and looked straight at him. He could tell the most amazing untruths with perfect coolness, but just now he was so very near the truth that his worst enemy would have believed him. Untruthful people often have a shifty glance, but the truly accomplished liar is he whose clear and limpid eye meets yours trustfully and sadly, while he tells you falsehoods that would make the Father of Lies himself look grave. The immediate result of Trombin's words was that Ortensia could almost have thrown her arms round his neck in her joy.

'Take me to him!' she cried, forgetting everything else. 'Take me to him! Come!' She tried to drag him towards the door in her haste, but he quietly resisted her.

'We must wait for Gambardella,' he said. 'Besides, you will have to trust your husband to settle matters with Don Alberto without you. He is far more likely to be prudent if they meet alone than if you are beside him----'

Ortensia's face fell, for she saw that Trombin did not mean to let her leave the house at once.

'But Don Alberto can do anything,' she pleaded, with clear foresight of Stradella's temper and consequent danger. 'My husband will accuse him, and will be furiously angry! He will not hesitate to strike him, or to fight him in his own house! And then Don Alberto will have him imprisoned!'

It was, in fact, what was about to happen, and what Trombin himself expected. On the other hand, Don Alberto knew very well where the house was to which he had been taken by Tommaso, for he was a Roman, and every yard of the road was familiar to him. Within less than an hour it was more than likely that he would send a force of sbirri to besiege the house, men who would not hesitate to break down the doors if they were not admitted, and by no means so easy to frighten away as the clumsily armed watchmen whom the Bravi had put to flight. The only possible safety for the Bravi lay in leaving the place with Ortensia before such a thing happened. The post-carriage in which Trombin meant to carry her off that very night was waiting not far away in charge of a well-paid stable hand, and Tommaso and Gambardella had only to bring it to the door. The stableman was then to take back the two mules, and the coach would leave the city at once, by Porta San Lorenzo, while Ortensia would suppose that she was being taken to the Palazzo Altieri or to some new place of safety. The plan was well laid, for it would be easy for Gambardella to make Stradella believe that his wife had been spirited away by Don Alberto's agents, and that Trombin had followed on horseback in hot pursuit. Stradella would lose no time, and would certainly accept Gambardella's assistance in the chase; and in due time husband and wife would reach Venice separately and fall into the respective traps the Bravi had ready for them.

All this might succeed easily enough by the liberal use of money, and under the protection of the pardons and passports the two cut-throats had in their possession; but it was clear that no time was to be lost, and while Trombin's gaze lingered on Ortensia's lovely face, he was anxiously listening for his friend's knock below, and he did not even attempt to answer her last speech with reassuring words.

'We cannot move without Gambardella,' he said, speaking in a low tone now, lest any sound from without should escape his hearing.

It came a moment later, and Trombin hastened to the door at the head of the stairs; it was locked, however, and the key was in Don Alberto's pocket, as Ortensia quickly explained. But such a trifle as an ordinary door that was fastened was not likely to stop a man who had lately smashed in a strong window-frame with his fists and his shoulder. He drew back one step, raised his heel to the level of the lock, and smashed it as if it had been made of egg-shells. The door flew open and he ran down the steps to undo the chain. Seeing that her shadow kept the light from the stairs and the vestibule, Ortensia drew back on one side of the entrance, expecting that Trombin would come up at once with Gambardella. Instead, the two stood talking in low tones on the threshold of the front door.

In a few moments it was clear to Ortensia that some disagreement had arisen between the friends. Their voices grew a little louder, so that Ortensia could hear about half of what they said. It was clear that Gambardella was refusing to do something which Trombin insisted with rising temper, while the other grew colder and more obstinate every moment.

'Altieri's thousand crowns,' she heard Gambardella say distinctly; and then, in broken words, '... more than enough ... morning ... the Neapolitan frontier ... leave her here ...'

'Judas!' cried Trombin very audibly, and clearly in a rage.

'At your service,' answered Gambardella, 'and instead of thirty pieces of silver, I fling a thousand in your face! You shall not have her!'

Ortensia heard a sort of chinking thud, as if a heavy purse had fallen on the stones. This was instantly followed by a scuffle, and she knew that the two men had closed and were wrestling. The whole truth had flashed upon her through the few words they had exchanged, or enough of it to prove that young Altieri had not calumniated the men she had thought her friends when he had called them Bravi.

Her heart stood still for an instant, while she looked round for some means of escape. No sound of voices now came up from below, but only the shuffling of feet and the hard-drawn breath of men wrestling in the dark. She ran to the window and looked out, thinking that the ladder was still there, and then, seeing that it was gone, she peered into the gloom. Perhaps she could let herself down by her hands and then drop to the ground. At any moment one of the Bravi might come up again and seize her.

She listened for a moment before trying it. The sound of the struggle had ceased, and all was still again; very cautiously she crept to the door and listened again, but there was not a breath. She ventured to look down the stairs, keeping her body on one side, and she saw that the vestibule was empty, and now her quick hearing caught the sound of shuffling footsteps in the road outside; the noise was decreasing already, as if the two men were moving down the hill in their furious fight. The house was empty for a moment, Trombin had spoken of a back door opening to the vineyard, and she saw her chance.

She ran downstairs, almost falling in her haste, and as she reached the floor she stepped upon something that yielded with a chinking sound. It was the purse containing the thousand crowns in ducats, and she thrust it into her bosom without hesitation. A cool draught of air from under the stairs guided her to the back entrance, which was not closed, as Trombin had said it was, but wide open. She was out of doors in an instant, and in the starlight she could just see a broad path that led straight through the vineyard from the little house. She gathered up her silk skirts with both hands, and ran for her life.

Almost at the same moment Gambardella, who was the lighter man, threw Trombin heavily on his back in the dust, and at once proceeded to kneel on his chest.

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