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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 13
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 13 Post by :duchessr Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1200

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII

Sabina had the delightful sensation of doing something she ought not to do, but which was perfectly innocent; she had moreover the rarer pleasure, quite new to her, of committing the little social misdeed in the company of the first man she had ever liked in her life. She knew very well that old Sassi would not be able to reach the inner chamber of the excavation, and she inwardly hoped that Malipieri's servant would discreetly wait outside of it, so that she might be alone with Malipieri when she first set eyes on the wonderful statue. It was amusing to think how the nuns would have scolded her for the mere wish, and how her pious sister would have condemned her to eternal flames for entertaining the temptation.

Malipieri had told her to put on an old frock, as she might spoil her clothes in spite of the efforts he had made to enlarge and smooth the way for her to pass. Her mother had a way of calling everything old which she had possessed three months, and for once Sabina was of her mother's opinion. She had a very smart cloth costume, with a rather short skirt, which had come home in February, and which she had worn only four times because the spring had been warm. It was undoubtedly "old" for she could not wear it in summer, and next winter the fashion would change; and it had rained all the morning, so that the air was damp and cold. Besides, the costume fitted her slender figure to perfection--it was such a pity that it was old already, for she might never have another as smart. The least she could do was to try and wear it out when she had the chance. It was of a delicate fawn colour; it had no pocket and it was fastened in a mysterious way. The skirt was particularly successful, and, as has been said, it was short, which was a great advantage in scrambling about a damp cellar. In order to show that she was in earnest, she put on russet leather shoes. Her hat was large, because that was the fashion, but nothing could have been simpler; it matched the frock in colour, and no colour was so becoming to her clear girlish pallor and misty hair as light fawn.

Malipieri had carried out his intention of getting rid of the porter, and was waiting inside the open postern when the cab drove up. Hitherto he had only seen Sabina indoors, at luncheon and in the evening, and when he saw her now he received an altogether new impression. Somehow, in her walking dress, she seemed more womanly, more "grown up" as she herself would have called it. As she got out of the wretched little cab, and came forward to greet him, her grace stirred his blood. It was final; he was in love.

Her intuition told her the truth, of course. There was something in his look and voice which had not quite been in either on the previous evening. He had been glad, last night, because she had come to the drawing-room, as he had hoped that she would; but to-day he was more than glad, he was happy, merely because he saw her. There never was a woman yet that could not tell that difference at a glance.

She was proud of being loved by him, and as he walked by her side, she looked up at the blue sky above the courtyard, and was glad that the clouds had passed away, for it must be sweeter to be loved when there was sunshine overhead than when it rained; but all the time, she saw his face, without looking at it, and it was after her own heart, and much to her liking. Besides, he was not only a manly man, and strong, and, of course, brave; he was already famous, and might be great some day; and she knew that he loved her, which was much to his advantage. As for being madly, wildly, desperately in love with him herself, she was not that yet; it was simply a very delicious sensation of being adored by somebody very sympathetic. Some women never get nearer to love than that, in all their lives, and are quite satisfied, and as they grow older they realize how much more convenient it is to be adored than to adore, and are careful to keep their likings within very manageable limits, while encouraging the men who love them to behave like lunatics.

Sabina was not of that kind; she was only very young, which, as Pitt pointed out, is a disadvantage but not a real crime.

They walked side by side, almost touching as they moved; they were drawn one to another, as all nature draws together those pairs of helpless atoms that are destined to one end.

Old Sassi went gravely with them. To him, it was a sad thing to see Sabina come to the palace in a way almost clandestine, as if she had no right there, and he shook his head again and again, silently grieving over the departed glory of the Conti, and wishing that he could express his sympathy to the young girl in dignified yet tender language. But Sabina was not in need of sympathy just then. Life in the Volterra establishment had been distinctly more bearable since Malipieri's appearance on the scene, and her old existence in the palace had been almost as really gloomy as it now seemed to her to have been. Moreover, she was intensely interested in what Malipieri was going to shew her.

Masin was waiting at the head of the winding stair with lanterns already lighted. When they had all entered, he turned the key. Sassi asked why he did this, and as they began to go down Malipieri explained that it was a measure of safety against the old porter's curiosity.

Sabina stepped carefully on the damp steps, while Malipieri held his lantern very low so that she could see them.

"I am sure-footed," she said, with a little laugh.

"This is the easiest part," he answered. "There are places where you will have to be careful."

"Then you will help me."

She thought it would, be pleasant to rest her hand on his arm, where the way was not easy, and she knew instinctively that he hoped she would do so. They reached the floor of the cellar, and Masin walked in front, lighting the way. Sassi looked about him; he had been in the cellars two or three times before.

"They did not get in by this way when the first attempt was made," he said.

"No," answered Malipieri. "I cannot find out how they made an entrance."

"There used to be a story of an oubliette that was supposed to be somewhere in the house," said Sabina.

"I have found it. You will see it in a moment, for we have to pass through the bottom of it."

"How amusing! I never saw one."

They came to the first breach in the cellar wall. A small lamp had been placed on a stone in a position to illuminate the entrance, and was burning brightly. Masin had lighted two others, further on, and had covered the bones in the dry well with pieces of sacking. Malipieri went up the causeway first. At first he held out his hand to Sabina, but she shook her head and smiled. There would be no satisfaction in being helped over an easy place; she should like him to help her where it would need some strength and skill to do so. She drew her skirt round her and walked up unaided, and followed by Sassi, leaning on his stick with one hand and on Masin with the other.

The descent into the first chamber was less easy. Standing at the top, Sabina looked down at Malipieri, who held his lantern to her feet. She felt a delicious little uneasiness now, and listened to the ghostly gurgle from the channel in the dark.

"What is that?" she asked, and her voice was a little awed by the darkness and strangeness of the place.

"The 'lost water.' It runs through here."

She listened a moment longer, and began to descend, placing her feet on the stones upon which Malipieri laid his hand, one after another, to show her the way.

"Perhaps you might help me a little here," she said.

"If you will let me put your feet on the right step, it will be easier," he answered.

"Yes. Do that, please. Show me the place first."

"There. Do you see? Now!"

He laid his hand firmly upon her small russet shoe, guided the little foot to a safe position and steadied it there a moment.

"So," he said. "Now the next. There are only four or five more."

She was rather sorry that there were so few, for they seemed delightfully safe, or just dangerous enough to be amusing; she was not quite sure which. Women never analyze the present, unless it is utterly dull.

At the bottom of the descent, both looked up, and saw at a glance that poor old Sassi could never get down, even with assistance. He seemed unable to put his foot down without slipping, in spite of Masin's help.

"I think you had better not try it," said Malipieri quietly. "In a few days I am sure that the Senator will have a way broken through from above, and then it will be easy enough."

"Yes," answered the old man regretfully. "I will go back again to the other side and wait for you."

"I am so sorry," said Sabina untruthfully, but looking up with sympathy.

"Take Signor Sassi back to the cellar," said Malipieri to Masin. "Then you can follow us."

Sassi and Masin disappeared through the breach. Malipieri led the way into the dry well, where there was another light. In her haste to reach the end, Sabina did not even glance at the sacking that covered the skeletons.

"Can you climb a ladder?" asked Malipieri.

"Of course!" Such a question was almost a slight.

Malipieri went up nimbly with his lantern, and knelt on the masonry to hold the top of the ladder. Sabina mounted almost as quickly as he had done, till she reached the last few steps and could no longer hold by the uprights. Then she put out her hands; he grasped then both and slid backwards on his knees as she landed safely on the edge. She had not felt that she could possibly fall, even if her feet slipped, and she now knew that he was strong, and that it was good to lean on him.

"You will have to stoop very low for a few steps," he said, taking up his lantern, and he kept his hold on one of her hands as he led her on. "It is not far, now," he added encouragingly, "and the rest is easy."

He guided her past the boards and stones that covered the overflow shaft, and down the inclined passage and the steps to the space between the vaults. A third lamp was burning here, close to the hole beneath which the statue lay. Malipieri lowered his lantern for her to see it.

She uttered an exclamation of surprise and delight. The pure gold that covered the bronze was as bright as if it had not lain in the vault for many centuries, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, no one could tell yet. The light fell into the huge ruby as into a tiny cup of wine.

"Can one get down?" asked Sabina breathlessly, after a moment's silence.

"Certainly. I have not gone down myself yet, but it is easy. I wanted you to be the first to see it all. You will have to sit on the edge and step upon the wrist of the statue."

Sabina gathered her skirt neatly round her, and with a little help she seated herself as he directed.

"Are you sure it will not hurt it, to step on it?" she asked, looking up.

"Quite sure." Malipieri smiled, as he thought of Toto's hobnailed shoes. "When you are standing firmly, I will get down too, if there is room."

"It is not a very big hole," observed Sabina, letting herself down till her feet rested on the smooth surface. She did not quite wish to be as near him as that; at least, not yet.

"I will creep down over the arm," she said, "and then you can follow me. I hope there are no beasts," she added. "I hate spiders."

Malipieri lowered his lantern beside her, and she crept along towards the statue's head. In a few moments he was beside her, bringing both the lantern and the lamp with him. They had both forgotten Masin's existence, as he had not yet appeared. Sabina looked about for spiders, but there were none in sight. The vault was perfectly dry, and there was hardly any dust clinging to the rough mortar that covered the stones. It was clear that the framework must have been carefully removed, and the place thoroughly cleaned, before the statue had been drawn into the vault from one end.

"He is perfectly hideous," said Sabina, as they reached the huge face. "But it is magnificent," she added, passing her gloved hand over the great golden features. "I wonder who it is meant for."

"A Roman emperor as Hercules, I think," Malipieri answered. "It may be Commodus. We are so near that it is hard to know how the head would look if the statue were set up."

He was thinking very little of the statue just then, as he knelt on its colossal chest beside Sabina, and watched the play of the yellow light on her delicate face. There was just room for them to kneel there, side by side.

It was magnificent, as Sabina had said, the great glittering thing, lying all alone in the depths of the earth, an enormous golden demigod in his tomb.

"You are wonderful!" exclaimed Sabina, suddenly turning her face to Malipieri.

"Why?"

"To have found it," she explained.

"I wish I had found something more practical," he answered. "In my opinion this thing belongs to you, and I suppose it represents a small fortune. But the only way for you to get even a share of it will be by bringing a suit against Volterra. Half a dozen rubies like the one in the ring would have been enough for you, and you could have taken them home with you in your pocket."

"I am afraid I have none!" Sabina laughed.

"This one will be safe in mine," Malipieri answered.

"You are not going to take it?" cried Sabina, a little frightened.

"Yes. I am going to take it for you. I daresay it is worth a good deal of money."

"But--is it yours?"

"No. It is yours."

"I wonder whether I have any right to it." Sabina was perhaps justly doubtful about the proceeding.

"I do not care a straw for the government, or the laws, or Volterra, where you are concerned. You shall have what is yours. Shall we get down to the ground and see if there is anything else in the vault?"

He let himself slide over the left shoulder, and the lion's skin that was modelled over it, and Sabina followed him cautiously. By bending their heads they could now stand and walk, and there was a space fully five feet wide, between the statue and the perpendicular masonry from which the vault sprang.

Malipieri stopped short, with both lights in his hand, and uttered an exclamation.

"What is it?" asked Sabina. "Oh!" she cried, as she saw what he had come upon.

For some moments neither spoke, and they stood side by side, pressed against each other in the narrow way and gazing down, for before them lay the most beautiful marble statue Sabina had ever seen. In the yellow light it was like a living woman asleep rather than a marble goddess, hewn and chipped, smoothed and polished into shape ages ago, by men's hands.

She lay a little turned to one side and away; the arm that was undermost was raised, so that the head seemed to be resting against it, though it was not; the other lying along and across the body, its perfect hand just gathering up a delicately futile drapery. The figure was whole and unbroken, of cream-like marble, that made soft living shadows in each dimple and hollow and seemed to quiver along the lines of beauty, the shoulder just edging forwards, the bent arm, the marvellous sweep of the limbs from hip to heel.

"It is a Venus, is it not?" asked Sabina with an odd little timidity.

"Aphrodite," answered Malipieri, almost unconsciously.

It was not the plump, thick-ankled, doubtfully decent Venus which the late Greeks made for their Roman masters; it was not that at all. It was their own Aphrodite, delicate, tender and deadly as the foam of the sea whence she came to them.

Sabina would scarcely have wondered if she had turned and smiled, there on the ground, to brush the shadows of ages from her opening eyes, and to say "I must have slept," like a woman waked by her lover from a dream of kisses. That would have seemed natural.

Malipieri felt that he was holding his breath. Sabina was so close to him that it was as if he could feel her heart beating near his own, and as fast; and for a moment he felt one of those strong impulses which strong men know when to resist, but to resist which is like wrestling against iron hands. He longed, as he had never longed for anything in his life, to draw her yet closer to him and to press his lips hard upon hers, without a word.

Instead, he edged away from her, and held the lights low beside the wonderful statue so that she might see it better; and Aphrodite's longing mouth, that had kissed gods, was curved with a little scorn for men.

The air was still and dry, and Sabina felt a strange little thrill in her hair and just at the back of her neck. Perhaps, in the unknown ways of fruitful nature, the girl was dimly aware of the tremendous manly impulse of possession, so near her in that narrow and silent place. Something sent a faint blush to her cheek, and she was glad there was not much light, and she did not wish to speak for a little while.

"I hate to think that she has lain so long beside that gilded Roman monster," said Malipieri presently.

The vast brutality of the herculean emperor had not disgusted him at first; it had merely displeased his taste. Now, it became suddenly an atrocious contrast to the secret loveliness of unveiled beauty. That was a manly instinct in him, too, and Sabina felt it.

"Yes," she said softly. "And she seems almost alive."

"The gods and goddesses live for ever," Malipieri answered, smiling and looking at her, in spite of himself.

Her eyes met his at once, and did not turn away. He fancied that they grew darker in the shadow, and in the short silence.

"I suppose we ought to be going," she said, still looking at him. "Poor old Sassi is waiting in the cellar."

"We have not been all round the vault yet," he answered. "There may be something more."

"No, she has been alone with the monster, all these centuries. I am sure of it. There cannot be anything else."

"We had better look, nevertheless," said Malipieri. "I want you to see everything there is, and you cannot come here again--not in this way."

"Well, let us go round." Sabina moved.

"Besides," continued Malipieri, going slowly forward and lighting the way, "I am going to leave the palace the day after to-morrow."

"Why?" asked Sabina, in surprise.

"Because Volterra has requested me to go. I may have to leave Rome altogether."

"Leave Rome?"

Her own voice sounded harsh to her as she spoke the words. She had been so sure that he was in love with her, she had begun to know that she would soon love him; and he was going away already.

"Perhaps," he answered, going on. "I am not sure."

"But--" Sabina checked herself and bit her lip.

"What?"

"Nothing. Go on, please. It must be getting late."

There was nothing more in the vault. They went all round the gilt statue without speaking, came back to the feet of the Aphrodite from the further side and stopped to look again. Still neither spoke for a long time. Malipieri held the lights in several positions, trying to find the best.

"Why must you leave Rome?" Sabina asked, at last, without turning her face to him.

"I am not sure that I must. I said I might, that was all."

Sabina tapped the ground impatiently with her foot.

"Why 'may' you have to go, then?" she asked a little sharply.

"Volterra may be able to drive me away. He will try, because he is afraid I may wish to get a share in the discovery."

"Oh! Then you will not leave Rome, unless you are driven away?"

Malipieri tried to see her eyes, but she looked steadily down at the statue.

"No," he said. "Certainly not."

Sabina said nothing, but her expression changed and softened at once. He could see that, even in the play of the shadows. She raised her head, glanced at him, and moved to go on. After making a few steps in the direction of the aperture she stopped suddenly as if listening. Malipieri held his breath, and then he heard, too.

It was the unmistakable sound of water trickling faster and faster over stones. For an instant his blood stood still. Then he set the lamp down, grasped Sabina's wrist and hurried her along, carrying only the lantern.

"Come as fast as you can," he said, controlling his voice.

She understood that there was danger and obeyed without losing her head. As he helped her up through the hole in the vault, she felt herself very light in his hands. In a moment he was beside her, and they were hurrying towards the inclined passage, bending low.

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CHAPTER XIVA broad stream of water was pouring down, and spreading on each side in the space between the vaults. In a flash, Malipieri understood. The dry well had filled, but the overflow shaft was covered with the weighted boards, and only a little water could get down through the cracks. The rest was pouring down the passage, and would soon fill the vault, which was at a much lower level. "Stay here! Do not move!" Sabina stood still, but she trembled a little, as he dashed up through the swift, shallow stream, not ankle deep, but steady as fate. In
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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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