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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 11
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 11 Post by :superwoods2004 Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2353

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

Masin led the way back, Toto followed and Malipieri went last, so that the mason was between his two captors. They did not quite trust him, and Masin was careful not to walk too fast where the way was so familiar to him, while Malipieri was equally careful not to lag behind. In this order they reached the mouth of the overflow shaft, covered with the loaded boards. Masin bent down and examined them, for he wished to convince himself that the stones had been moved since he had himself placed them there. A glance showed that this was the case, and he was about to go on, when he bent down again suddenly and listened, holding up his hand.

"There is water," he said, and began to lift off the stones, one by one.

Toto helped him quickly. There were only three or four, and they were not heavy. When the mouth of the shaft was uncovered all three knelt down and listened, instinctively lowering their lanterns into the blackness below. The shaft was not wider than a good-sized old- fashioned chimney, like those in Roman palaces, up and down which sweeps can just manage to climb.

The three men listened, and distinctly heard the steady falling of a small stream of water upon the stones at the bottom.

"It is raining," Toto said confidently, but he was evidently as much surprised by the sound as the others. "There must be some communication with the gutters in the courtyard," he added.

"There is probably a thunderstorm," answered Malipieri. "We can hear nothing down here."

"If I had gone down again, I should have been drowned," Toto said, shaking his head. "Do you hear? Half the water from the courtyard must be running down there!"


The sound of the falling stream increased to a hollow roar.

"Do you think the water can rise in the shaft?" asked Malipieri.

"Not unless the river rises and backs into it," replied Toto. "The drain is large below."

"That cannot be 'lost water,' can it?"

"No. That is impossible."

"Put the boards in their place again," Malipieri said. "It is growing late."

It was done in a few moments, but now the dismal roar of the water came up very distinctly through the covering. Malipieri had been in many excavations, and in mines, too, but did not remember that he had ever felt so strongly the vague sense of apprehension that filled him now. There is something especially gloomy and mysterious about the noise of unexplained water heard at a great depth under the earth and coming out of darkness. Even the rough men with him felt that.

"It is bad to hear," observed Masin, putting one more stone upon the boards, as if the weight could keep the sound down.

"You may say that!" answered Toto. "And in this tomb, too!"

They went on, in the same order as before. The passage to the dry well had been so much enlarged that by bending down they could walk to the top of the rope ladder. Malipieri went down first, with his lantern. Toto followed, and while Masin was descending, stood looking at the bones of the dead mason, and at the skull that grinned horribly in the uncertain yellow glare.

He took a half-burnt candle from his pocket, and some sulphur matches, and made a light for himself, with which he carefully examined the bones. Malipieri watched him.

"The man who was drowned over sixty years ago," said the architect.

"This," answered Toto, with more feeling than accuracy, "is the blessed soul of my grandfather."

"He shall have Christian burial in a few days," Malipieri said gravely.

Toto shrugged his shoulders, not irreverently, but as if to say that when a dead man has been without Christian burial sixty years, it cannot make any difference whether he gets it after all or not. "The crowbar is still good," Toto said, stooping down to disengage it from the skeleton's grasp. But Malipieri laid a hand on his shoulder, for it occurred to him that the mason, armed with an iron bar, might be a dangerous adversary if he tried to escape.

"You do not need that just now," said the architect.

Toto glanced at Malipieri furtively and saw that he was understood. He stood upright, affecting indifference. They went on, through the breach to which the slit had been widened. Toto moved slowly, and held his candle down to the running water in the channel.

"There is plenty of it," he observed.

"Where does it come from?" asked Malipieri, suddenly, in the hope of an unguarded answer.

"From heaven," answered Toto without hesitation; "and everything that falls from heaven is good," he added, quoting an ancient proverb.

"What would happen if we closed the entrance, so that it could not get in at all?"

"The book of wisdom," Toto replied, "is buried under Pasquino. How should I know what would happen?"

"You know a good many things, my friend."

Malipieri understood that the man would not say more, and led the way out.

"Good-bye, grandpapa," growled Toto, waving his hairy hand towards the well. "Who knows whether we shall meet again?"

They went on, and in due time emerged into the upper air. It was raining heavily, as Toto had guessed, and before they had reached the other end of the courtyard they were drenched. But it was a relief to be out of doors, and Malipieri breathed the fresh air with keen delight, as a thirsty man drinks. The rain poured down steadily and ran in rivers along the paved gutters, and roared into the openings that carried it off. Malipieri could not help thinking how it must be roaring now, far down at the bottom of the old shaft, led thither through deep-buried and long-forgotten channels.

Upstairs, Masin was inclined to be friendly with his fellow-craftsman, and gave him dry clothes to sleep in, and bread and cheese and wine in his own room. In spite of his experiences, Masin had never known how to be suspicious. But as Malipieri looked once more at the man's stony face and indistinguishable eyes, he thought differently of his prisoner. He locked the outer door and took the key of the patent lock with him when he went to bed at last.

It does not often rain heavily in Rome, late in the spring, for any long time, but when Malipieri looked out the next morning, it was still pouring steadily, and the sky over the courtyard was uniformly grey. It is apparently a law of nature that exceptions should come when least wanted.

In spite of the weather Malipieri went out, however, and did not even send for a cab. The porter was in a particularly bad humour and eyed him distrustfully, for he had been put to the trouble of cleaning the stairs where the three men had left plentiful mud in their track during the night. Malipieri nodded to the old man as usual, and was about to go out, but turned back and gave him five francs. Thus mollified the porter at once made a remark about the atrocious weather and proceeded to ask how the work was progressing.

"I have explored a good deal," answered Malipieri. "The Senator is coming to-morrow, and you had better sweep carefully. He looks at everything, you know."

He went out into the pouring rain, keeping a sharp lookout from under the edge of the umbrella he held low over his head. He had grown cautious of late. As he expected, he came upon one of the respectable men he now met so often, before he had turned into the Piazza Agonale. The respectable man was also carrying his umbrella low, and looking about him as he walked along at a leisurely pace. Malipieri hailed a cab.

Even in wet weather there are no closed cabs in that part of Rome. One is protected from the wet, more or less, by the hood and by a high leathern apron which is hooked to it inside. The cabman, seated under a huge standing umbrella, bends over and unhooks it on one side for you to get in and out.


Malipieri employed the usual means of eluding pursuit. He gave an address and told the man to drive fast, got out quickly on reaching the house, enquired for an imaginary person with a foreign name, who, he was of course told, did not live there, got in again and had himself driven to Sassi's door, sure of losing his pursuer, if the detective followed him in another cab. Then he paid the man two fares, to save time, and went in. He had never taken the trouble to do such a thing since his political adventures, but he was now very anxious not to let it be known that he had any dealings with the former agent of the Conti family.

The matter was settled easily enough and to his satisfaction. Old Sassi worshipped Sabina, and was already fully persuaded that whatever could be found under the palace should belong to her, as also that she had a right to see what was discovered before Volterra did, and before anything was moved. He was at least as quixotic in his crabbed fashion as Malipieri himself; and besides, he really could not see that there was the least harm or danger in the scheme. It certainly would have been improper for Malipieri to go and fetch the young lady himself, but it was absurd to suppose that a man over sixty could be blamed for accompanying a girl of eighteen on a visit to her old home, in her own interest, especially when the man had been all his life employed by her family in a position of trust and confidence. Finally, Sassi hated Volterra with all his heart, as the faithful adherents of ruined gentlefolks often hate those who have profited by their ruin.

Sassi, as an old Roman, predicted that the weather would improve in the afternoon. Malipieri advised him nevertheless to keep the hood of his cab raised when he brought Sabina to the palace. To this Sassi answered that he should of course get a closed carriage from a livery stable, and an argument followed which took some time. In the opinion of the excellent old agent, it would be almost an affront to fetch the very noble Donna Sabina in a vehicle so plebeian as a cab, and it was with the greatest difficulty that Malipieri made him understand that a cab was much safer on such an occasion.

What was important was that the weather should be fine, for otherwise the Baroness might not go out, and the whole scheme would fail. In that case, it must be arranged for the following day, and Malipieri would find an excuse for putting off Volterra's visit.

He left the house on foot. So far, he had not allowed himself to think too much of the future, and had found little time for such reflection. He was a man who put all his energy into what he was doing, and was inclined to let consequences take care of themselves rather than waste thought in providing for them. He believed he was doing what was just and honourable, and if there was a spice of adventure and romance in it, that only made it the more easy to do. The only danger he could think of was that Sabina might slip in one of the difficult passages and hurt her foot a little, or might catch cold in the damp vaults. Nothing else could happen.

He congratulated himself on having got Toto in his power, since Toto was the only man who understood the ways of the "lost water." If he had before suspected that there was any one at large in Rome who knew as much he would have hesitated. But he had made the discovery of the man and had taken him prisoner at the same moment, and all danger in that quarter seemed to be removed.

As for the material difficulty, he and Masin could smooth the way very much in two or three hours, and could substitute a solid wooden ladder for the one of rope in the well. Sabina was young, slight, and probably active, and with a little help she would have no difficulty in reaching the inner chamber. It might be well to cover the skeletons. Young girls were supposed to be sensitive about such things, and Malipieri had no experience of their ways. Nevertheless he had an inward conviction that Sabina would not go into hysterics at the sight.

Old Sassi might not be able to get up the ladder, but once beyond the reach of social observation, he would trust Sabina to Malipieri and Masin for a quarter of an hour, and he could wait in the outer cellar. Malipieri had prepared him for this, and he had made no objection, only saying that he should like to see the treasure himself if it could possibly be managed. In his heart, Malipieri hoped that it would prove too much for the old man and that he might have the pleasure of showing Sabina what he had found without having the old agent at his elbow. Toto would be locked in, upstairs, for the day. He could not get out by the door, and he would not risk breaking his legs by jumping from the window. The intermediate story of the Palazzo Conti was far too high for that.

Malipieri calculated that if Sassi were punctual, Sabina would be at the door of the palace at a quarter-past five. At five minutes past, he came down, and sent the porter on an errand which would occupy at least half an hour even if executed with despatch. Masin would keep the door, he said. The old man was delighted to have an excuse for going out, and promised himself to spend a comfortable hour in a wine shop if he could find a friend. His wife, as there was so little to do, had found some employment in a laundry, to which she went in the morning and which kept her out all day. No one would see Sabina and Sassi enter, and if it seemed advisable they could be got out in the same way. No one but Masin and Malipieri himself need ever know that they had been in the palace that afternoon.

It was all very well prepared, by a man well accustomed to emergencies, and it was not easy to see how anything could go wrong. Even allowing more time than was necessary, Sabina's visit to the vaults could not possibly occupy much more than an hour.

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CHAPTER XIIMalipieri was beginning to realize that his work in the vaults had been watched with much more interest than he had supposed possible, and that in some way or other news of his progress had reached various quarters. In the first place, his reputation was much wider than he knew, and many scholars and archaeologists throughout Europe had been profoundly impressed both by what he had discovered and by the learning he had shown in discussing his discoveries. It followed that many were curious to see what he would do next, and there were paragraphs about him in grave reviews,
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CHAPTER XMalipieri was convinced that Volterra not only knew exactly how far the work under the palace had proceeded, but was also acquainted with the general nature of the objects found in the inner chamber, beyond the well shaft. The apparent impossibility of such a thing was of no importance. The Baron would never have been so anxious to get rid of Malipieri unless he had been sure that the difficult part of the work was finished and that the things discovered were of such dimensions as to make it impossible to remove them secretly. Malipieri knew the man and guessed
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