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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 14
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 14 Post by :manso36 Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1482

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV

A 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 a moment he had disappeared from her sight, and she was all alone in the dismal place, in darkness, save for a little light that forced its way up from below through the hole. It seemed five minutes before his plashing footsteps stopped, up there in the passage; then came instantly the noise of stones thrown aside into the water, and of heavy pieces of board grating and bumping, as they floated for a moment. Almost instantly a loud roar came from the same direction, as the inflowing stream from the well thundered down the shaft. Sabina heard Malipieri's voice calling to her, and his approaching footsteps.

"The water cannot reach you now!" he cried.

It had already stopped running down the passage, when Malipieri emerged, dripping and holding out the lantern in front of him, as his feet slipped on the wet stones. Sabina was very pale, but quite quiet.

"What has happened?" she asked mechanically.

"The water has risen suddenly," he said, paler than she, for he knew the whole danger. "We cannot get out till it goes down."

"How soon will that be?" Sabina asked steadily.

"I do not know."

They looked at each other, and neither spoke for a moment.

"Do you think it may be several hours?" asked Sabina.

"Yes, perhaps several hours."

Something in his tone told her that matters might be worse than that.

"Tell me the truth," she said. "It may be days before the water goes down. We may die here. Is that what you mean?"

"Unless I can make another way out, that is what may happen. We may starve here."

"You will find the other way out," Sabina said quietly. "I know you will."

She would rather have died that moment than have let him think her a coward; and she was really brave, and was vaguely conscious that she was, and that she could trust her nerves, as long as her bodily strength lasted. But it would be very horrible to die of hunger, and in such a place. It was better not to think of it. He stood before her, with his lantern, a pale, courageous, strong man, whom she could not help trusting; he would find that other way.

"You had better get down again," he said, after a little reflection. "It is dry below, and the lamp is there."

"I can help you."

Malipieri looked at the slight figure and the little gloved hands and smiled.

"I am very strong," Sabina said, "much stronger than you think. Besides, I could not sit all alone down there while you are groping about. The water might come down and drown me, you know."

"It cannot run down, now. If it could, I should be drowned first."

"That would not exactly be a consolation," answered Sabina. "What are you going to do? I suppose we cannot break through the roof where we are, can we?"

"There must be ten or fifteen feet of earth above it. We are under the courtyard here."

Sabina's slight shoulders shuddered a little, for the first time, as she realized that she was perhaps buried alive, far beyond the possibility of being heard by any human being.

"The water must have risen very soon after we came down," Malipieri said thoughtfully. "That is why my man could not get to us. He could not get into the well."

"At all events he is not here," Sabina answered, "so it makes no difference where he is."

"He will try to help us from without. That is what I am thinking of. The first thing to be done is to put out that lamp, for we must not waste light. I had forgotten that."

Sabina had not thought of it either, and she waited while he went down again and brought the lamp up. He extinguished it at once and set it down.

"Only three ways are possible," he said, "and two are out of the question. We cannot get up the old shaft above the well. It is of no use to think of that. We cannot get down the overflow and out by the drains because the water is pouring down there, and besides, the Tiber must have risen with the rain."

"Which is the third way?"

"To break an opening through the wall in the highest part of the passage. It may take a long time, for I have no idea how thick the wall may be, and the passage is narrow. But we must try it, and perhaps Masin will go to work nearly at the same spot, for he knows as much about this place as I do, and we have often talked about it. I have some tools down here. Will you come? We must not waste time."

"I can hold the lantern," said Sabina. "That may be of some use."

Malipieri gave her the lantern and took up the crowbar and pickaxe which lay near the hole in the vault.

"You will wet your feet, I am afraid," he said, as they went up the passage, and he was obliged to speak in a louder tone to be heard above the steady roar of the water.

He had marked the spot where he had expected that a breach would have to be made to admit visitors conveniently, and he had no trouble in finding it. He set the stones he had taken off the boards in a proper position, laid one of the wet boards upon them, and then took off his coat and folded it for a cushion, more or less dry. He made Sabina sit down with the lantern, though she protested.

"I cannot work with my coat on," he answered, "so you may as well sit on it."

He set to work, and said no more. The first thing to be done was to sound the thickness of the wall, if possible, by making a small hole through the bricks. If this could be done, and if Masin was on the other side, a communication could be established. He knew well enough that even with help from without, many hours might be necessary in order to make a way big enough for Sabina to get out; it was most important to make an opening through which food could be passed in for her. He had to begin by using his pick-axe because the passage was so narrow that he could not get his crowbar across it, much less use it with any effect. It was very slow work at first, but he did it systematically and with steady energy.

Sabina watched him in silence for a long time, vaguely wondering when he would be tired and would be obliged to stop and rest. Somehow, it was impossible to feel that the situation was really horrible, while such a man was toiling before her eyes to set her free. From the first, she was perfectly sure that he would succeed, but she had not at all understood what the actual labour must be.

He had used his pickaxe for more than half an hour, and had made a hollow about a foot and a half deep, when he rested on the shaft of the tool, and listened attentively. If the wall were not enormously thick, and if any one were working on the other side, he was sure that he could hear the blows, even above the roar of the water. But he could distinguish no sound.

The water came in steadily from the full well, a stream filling the passage beyond the dark chasm into which it was falling, and at least six inches deep. It sent back the light of the lantern in broken reflections and shivered gleams. Sabina did not like to look that way.

She was cold, now, and she felt that her clothes were damp, and a strange drowsiness came over her, brought on by the monotonous tone of the water. Malipieri had taken up his crowbar.

"I wonder what time it is," Sabina said, before he struck the wall again.

He looked at his watch.

"It is six o'clock," he answered, trying to speak cheerfully. "It is not at all late yet. Are you hungry?"

"Oh, no! We never dine till eight."

"But you are cold?"

"A little. It is no matter."

"If you will get up I will put my waistcoat on the board for you to sit upon, and then you can put my coat over your shoulders. I am too hot."

"Thank you."

She obeyed, and he made her as comfortable as he could, a forlorn little figure in her fawn-coloured hat, wrapped in his grey tweed coat, that looked utterly shapeless on her.

"Courage," he said, as he picked up his crowbar.

"I am not afraid," she answered.

"Most women would be."

He went to work again, with the end of the heavy bar, striking regularly at the deepest part of the hollow, and working the iron round and round, to loosen the brick wherever that was possible. But he made slow progress, horribly slow, as Sabina realized when nearly half an hour had passed again, and he paused to listen. He was much more alarmed than he would allow her to guess, for he was now quite convinced that Masin was not working on the other side; he knew that his strength would never be equal to breaking through, unless the crowbar ran suddenly into an open space beyond, within the next half- hour. The wall might be of any thickness, perhaps as much as six or seven feet, and the bricks were very hard and were well cemented. Perhaps, too, he had made a mistake in his rough calculations and was not working at the right spot after all. He was possibly hammering away at the end of a cross wall, following it in its length. That risk had to be taken, however, for there was at least as good a chance of breaking through at this point as at any other. He believed that by resting now and then for a short time, he could use his tools for sixteen or eighteen hours, after which, if he were without food, his strength would begin to give way. There was nothing to be done but to go on patiently, doing his best not to waste time, and yet not overtaxing his energy so as to break down before he had done the utmost possible.

He would not think of what must come after that, if he failed, and if the water did not subside.

Sabina understood very imperfectly what had happened, and there had been no time to explain. He could not work and yet talk to her so as to be heard above the roaring of the water and the noise of the iron bar striking against the bricks. She knew that, and she expected nothing of him beyond what he was doing, which was all a man could do.

She drew his coat closely round her and leaned back against the damp wall; and with half-closed eyes she watched the moving shadows of his arms cast on the wall opposite by the lantern. He worked as steadily as a machine, except when he withdrew the bar for a moment, in order to clear out the broken brick and mortar with his hand; then again the bar struck the solid stuff, and recoiled in his grasp and struck again, regularly as the swinging of a pendulum.

But no echo came back from an emptiness beyond. Ignorant as Sabina was of all such things, her instinct told her that the masonry was enormously thick; and yet her faith in him made him sure that he had chosen the only spot where there was a chance at all.

Sometimes she almost forgot the danger for a little while. It pleased her to watch him, and to follow the rhythmic movements of his strong and graceful body. It is a good sight to see an athletic man exerting every nerve and muscle wisely and skilfully in a very long-continued effort; and the woman who has seen a man do that to save her own life is not likely to forget it.

And then, again, the drowsiness came over her, and she was almost asleep, and woke with a shiver, feeling cold. He had given her his watch to hold, when he had made her sit on his waistcoat, and she had squeezed it under her glove into the palm of her hand. It was a plain silver watch with no chain. She got it out and looked at it.

Eight o'clock, now. The time had passed quickly, and she must have really been asleep. The Baron and his wife were just going to sit down to dinner, unless her disappearance had produced confusion in the house. But they would not be frightened, though they might be angry. The servants would have told them that Signor Sassi, whose card was there to prove his coming, had asked for Donna Sabina, and that she had gone out with him in a cab, dressed for walking. Signor Sassi was a highly respectable person, and though it might be a little eccentric, according to the Baroness's view, for Sabina to go out with him in a cab, especially in the afternoon, there could really be no great harm in it. The Baroness would be angry because she had stayed out so late. The Baroness would be much angrier by and by, when she knew what had really happened, and it must all be known, of course. When Sassi was sure that Masin could not get the two out of the vault himself, or with such ordinary help as he could procure, he would have to go to the Baron, who would instantly inform the authorities, and bring an engineer and a crowd of masons to break a way. There was some comfort in that, after all. It was quite impossible that she and Malipieri should be left to starve to death.

Besides, she was not at all hungry, though it was dinner time. She was only cold and sleepy. She wished she could take the crowbar from Malipieri's hands and use it for a few minutes, just to warm herself. He had said that he was too hot, and by the uncertain light she fancied she could see a little moisture on his white forehead.

She was right in that, for he was growing tired and knew that before long he must rest for at least a quarter of an hour. The hole was now three feet deep or more, yet no hollow sound came back from, the blows he dealt. His arms were beginning to ache, and he began to count the strokes. He would strike a hundred more, and then he would rest. He kept up the effort steadily to the end, and then laid down the bar and passed his handkerchief over his forehead. Sabina watched him and looked up into his face when he turned to her.

"You are tired," she said, rising and standing beside him, so as to speak more easily.

"I shall be quite rested in a few minutes," he answered, "and then I will go on."

"You must be very strong," said Sabina.

Then she told him what she had been thinking of, and how it was certain that the Baron would bring a large force of men to set them free. Malipieri listened to the end, and nodded thoughtfully. She was right, supposing that nothing had happened to Sassi and Masin; but he knew his own man, and judged that he must have made some desperate attempt to stop the inflowing water in the outer chamber, and it was not impossible that poor old Sassi, in his devotion to Sabina, had made a mad effort to help Masin, and that they had both lost their lives together. If that had happened, there was no one to tell Volterra where Sabina was. Enquiries at Sassi's house would be useless; all that could be known would be that he had gone out between four and five o'clock, that he had called at the house in the Via Ludovisi, and that he and Sabina had driven away together. No doubt, in time, the police could find the cab they had taken, and the cabman would remember that they had paid him at the Palazzo Conti. But all that would take a long time. The porter knew nothing of their coming, and being used to Malipieri's ways would not think of ringing at his door. In time Toto would doubtless break out, but he had not seen Sabina, for Malipieri had been very careful to make her walk close to the wall. He did not tell Sabina these things, as it was better that she should look forward to being set free in a few hours, but he had very grave doubts about the likelihood of any such good fortune.

"You must sit down," said Sabina. "You cannot rest unless you sit down. I will stand for a while."

"There is room for us both," Malipieri answered.

They sat down side by side on the board with the lantern at their feet, and they were very close together,

"But you will catch cold, now that you have stopped, working," Sabina said suddenly. "How stupid of me!"

As she spoke she pulled his coat off her shoulders, and tried to throw it over his, but he resisted, saying that he could not possibly have time to catch cold, if he went back to work in a few minutes. Yet he already felt the horrible dampness that came up out of the overflow shaft and settled on everything in glistening beads. It only made him understand how cold she must be, after sitting idle for two hours.

"Do you think we shall get out to-night?" Sabina asked suddenly, with the coat in her hand.

"I hope so," he answered.

She stood up, and looked at the cavity he had made in the wall.

"Where will that lead to?" she enquired.

He had risen, too.

"It ought to lead into the coach-house, so far as I can judge."

Instinctively, he went forward to examine the hole, and at that moment Sabina cleverly threw the coat over his shoulders and held it round his neck with both her hands.

"There!" she cried. "You are caught now!" And she laughed as lightly as if there were no such thing as danger.

Malipieri wondered whether she realized the gravity of the situation, or whether she were only pretending to be gay in order to make it easier for him. In either case she was perfectly brave.

"You must not!" he answered, gently trying to free himself. "You need it more than I."

"I wonder if it is big enough to cover us both," Sabina said, as the idea struck her. "Come! Sit down beside me and we will try."

He smiled and sat down beside her, and they managed to hold the coat so that it just covered their shoulders.

"Paul and Virginia," said Malipieri, and they both laughed a little.

But as their laughter died away, Sabina's teeth chattered, and she drew in her breath. At the slight sound Malipieri looked anxiously into her face, and saw that her lips were blue.

"This is folly," he said. "You will fall ill if you stay here any longer. It is quite dry in the vault, and warm by comparison with this place. You must go down there, while I stay here and work."

He got up, and in spite of a little resistance he made her put her arms into the sleeves of the coat, and turned the cuffs back, and fastened the buttons. She was shivering from head to foot.

"What a miserable little thing I am!" she cried impatiently.

"You are not a miserable little thing, and you are much braver than most men," said Malipieri. "But it will be of very little use to get you out of the vault alive if you are to die of a fever in a day or two."

She said nothing and he led her carefully down the inclined passage and the steps, away from the gloomy overflow, and the roaring water and the fearful dampness. He helped her down into the vault very gently, over the glittering chest of the great imperial statue. The air felt warm and dry, now that she was so badly chilled, and her lips looked a little less blue.

"I will light the lamp, and turn it very low," said Malipieri.

"I am not afraid of the dark," Sabina answered. "You said that we must not waste our light."

"Shall you really not be nervous?" Malipieri supposed that all women were afraid to be in the dark alone.

"Of course not. Why should I? There are no spiders, and I do not believe in ghosts. Besides, I shall hear you hammering at the wall."

"You had better sit on the body of the Venus. I think the marble is warmer than the bronze. But there is the board--I forgot. Wait a minute."

He was not gone long, and came back bringing the board and his waistcoat. To his surprise, he found her sitting on the ground, propping herself with one hand.

"I felt a little dizzy in the dark," she explained, "so I sat down, for fear of falling."

He glanced at her face, and his own was grave, as he placed the board on the ground, and laid the waistcoat over the curving waist of the Aphrodite, so that she could lean against it. She got up quickly when it was ready and seated herself, drawing up her knees and pulling her skirt closely round her damp shoes to keep her feet warm, if possible. He set the lamp beside her and gave her a little silver box of matches, so that she could get a light if she felt nervous. He looked at her face thoughtfully as he stood with his lantern in his hand, ready to go.

"But you have nothing to put on, if you have to rest again!" she said, rather feebly.

"I will come and rest here, about once an hour," he answered.

Her face brightened a little, and she nodded, looking up into his eyes.

"Yes. Come and rest beside me," she said.

He went away, climbing over the statue and out through the hole in the vault. Just before he disappeared, he held up his lantern and looked towards her. She was watching him.

"Good-night," he said. "Try to sleep a little."

"Come back soon," she answered faintly, and smiled.

Presently he was at work again, steadily driving the bar against the hard bricks, steadily chipping away a little at a time, steadily making progress against the enormous obstacle. The only question was whether his strength would last, for if he had been able to get food, it would have been merely a matter of time. A crowbar does not wear down much on bricks.

At first, perfectly mechanical work helps a man to think, as walking generally does; but little by little it dulls the faculties and makes thought almost impossible. Senseless words begin to repeat themselves with the movement, fragments of tunes fit themselves to the words, and play a monotonous and exasperating music in the brain, till a man has the sensation of having a hurdy-gurdy in his head, though he may be working for his life, as Malipieri was. Yet the unchanging repetition makes the work easier, as a sailor's chanty helps at the topsail halliards.

"We must get out before we starve, we must get out before we starve," sang the regular blows of the bar to a queer little tune which Malipieri had never heard.

When he stopped to clear out the chips, the song stopped too, and he thought of Sabina sitting alone in the vault, propped against the Aphrodite; and he hoped that she might be asleep. But when he swung the bar back into position and heard it strike the bricks, the tune and the words came back with the pendulum rhythm; and went on and on, till they were almost maddening, though there no longer seemed to be any sense in them. They made the time pass.

Sabina heard the dull blows, too, though not very loud. It was a comfort to hear anything in the total darkness, and she tried to amuse herself by counting the strokes up to a hundred and then checking the hundreds by turning in one finger after another. It would be something to tell him when he came back. She wondered whether there would be a thousand, and then, as she was wondering, she lost the count, and by way of a change she tried to reckon how many seconds there were in an hour. But she got into trouble with the ciphers when she tried to multiply sixty by sixty in her head, and she began counting the strokes again. They always stopped for a few seconds somewhere between thirty and forty.

She wished he would come back soon, for she was beginning to feel very cold again, so cold that presently she got upon her feet and walked a dozen steps, feeling her way along the great bronze statue. It was better than sitting still. She had heard of prisoners who had kept themselves sane in a dark dungeon by throwing away a few pins they had, and finding them again. It was a famous prisoner who did that. It was the prisoner of Quillon--no, "quillon" had something to do with a sword--no, it was Chillon. Then she felt dizzy again, and steadied herself against the statue, and presently groped her way back to her seat. She almost fell, when she sat down, but saved herself and at last succeeded in getting to her original position. It was not that she was faint from hunger yet; her dizziness was probably the result of cold and weariness and discomfort, and most of all, of the unaccustomed darkness.

She was ashamed of being so weak, when she listened to the steady strokes, far off, and thought of the strength and endurance it must need to do what Malipieri seemed to be doing so easily. But she was very cold indeed, chilled to the bone and shivering, and she could not think of any way of getting warm. She rose again, and struck one of the matches he had given her, and by its feeble light she walked a few seconds without feeling dizzy, and then sat down just as the little taper was going to burn her fingers.

A few minutes later she heard footsteps overhead, and saw a faint light through the hole. He was coming at last, and she smiled happily before she saw him.

He came down and asked how she was, and he sat on the Aphrodite beside her.

"If I could only get warm!" she answered.

"Perhaps you can warm your hands a little on the sides of the lantern," he said.

She tried that and felt a momentary sensation of comfort, and asked him what progress he was making.

"Very slow," he replied. "I cannot hear the least sound from the other side yet. Masin is not there."

She did not expect any other answer, and said nothing, as she sat shivering beside him.

"You are very brave," he said presently.

A long pause followed. She had bent her head low, so that her face almost touched her knees.

"Signor Malipieri--" she began, at last, in rather a trembling tone.

"Yes? What is it?" He bent down to her, but she did not look up.

"I--I--hardly know how to say it," she faltered. "Shall you think very, very badly of me if I ask you to do something--something that--" She stopped.

"There is nothing in heaven or earth I will not do for you," he answered. "And I shall certainly not think anything very dreadful." He tried to speak cheerfully.

"I think I shall die of the cold," she said. "There might be a way--"

"Yes? Anything!"

Then she spoke very low.

"Do you think you could just put your arms round me for a minute or two?" she asked.

Piteously cold though she was, the blood rushed to her face as she uttered the words; but Malipieri felt it in his throat and eyes.

"Certainly," he answered, as if she had asked the most natural thing in the world. "Sit upon my knees, and I will hold my arms round you, till you are warm."

He settled himself on the marble limbs of the Aphrodite, and the frail young girl seated herself on his knees, and nestled to him for warmth, while he held her close to him, covering her with his arms as much as he could. They went quite round her, one above the other, and she hid her face against his shoulder. He could feel her trembling with the cold like a leaf, under the coat he had made her put on.

Suddenly she started a little, but not as if she wished to go; it was more like a sob than anything else.

"What is the matter?" he asked, steadying his voice with difficulty.

"I am so ashamed of myself!" she answered, and she buried her face against his shoulder again.

"There is nothing to be ashamed of," he said gently. "Are you a little warmer now?"

"Oh, much, much! Let me stay just a little longer."

"As long as you will," he answered, pressing her to him quietly.

He wondered if she could hear his heart, which was beating like a hammer, and whether she noticed anything strange in his voice. If she did, she would not understand. She was only a child after all. He told himself that he was old enough to be her father, though he was not; he tried not to think of her at all. But that was of no use. He would have given his body, his freedom, his soul and the life to come, to kiss her as she lay helpless in his arms; he would have given anything the world held, or heaven, if it had been his; anything, except his honour. But that he would not give. His heart might beat itself to pieces, his brain might whirl, the little fires might flash furiously in his closed eyes, his throat might be as parched as the rich man's in hell--she had trusted herself to him like a child, in sheer despair and misery, and safe as a child she should lie on his breast. She should die there, if they were to die.

"I am warm now," she said at last, "really quite warm again, if you want to go back."

He did not wonder. He felt as if he were on fire from his head to his feet. At her words he relaxed his arms at once, and she stood up.

"You are so good to me," she said, with an impulse of gratitude for safety which she herself did not understand. "What makes you so good to me?"

He shook his head, as if he could not answer then, and smiled a little sadly.

"Now that you are warm, I must not lose time," he said, a moment later, taking up his lantern.

She sat down in her old place, and gathered her skirt to her feet and watched him as he climbed out and the last rays of light disappeared. Then the pounding at the wall began again, far off, and she tried to count the strokes, as she had done before; but she wished him back, and whether she felt cold or not, she wished herself again quietly folded in his arms, and though she was alone and it was quite dark she blushed at the thought. It seemed to her that the blows were struck in quicker succession now than before. Was he willing to tire himself out a little sooner, so as to earn the right to come back to her?

That was not it. He was growing desperate, and could not control the speed of his hands so perfectly as before. The night was advancing, he knew, though he had not looked at the watch, which was still in Sabina's glove. It was growing late, and he could distinguish no sound but that of the blows he struck at the bricks and the steady roar of the water. The conviction grew on him that Masin was drowned, and perhaps old Sassi too, and that their bodies lay at the bottom of the outer chamber, between the well and the wall of the cellar. If Masin had been able to get into the well, before the water was too high, he would have risen with it, for he was a good swimmer.

So was Malipieri, and more than once he thought of making an attempt to reach the widened slit in the wall by diving. That he could find the opening he was sure, but he was almost equally sure that he could never get through it alive and up to the surface on the other side. If he were drowned too, Sabina would be left to die alone, or perhaps to go mad with horror before she was found. He had heard of such things.

It was no wonder that he unconsciously struck faster as he worked, and at first he felt himself stronger than before, as men do when they are almost despairing. The sweat stood out on his forehead, and his hands tingled, when he drew back the iron to clear away the chips. He worked harder and harder.

The queer little tune did not ring in his head now, for he could think of nothing but Sabina and of what was to become of her, even if he succeeded in saving her life. It was almost impossible that such a strange adventure should remain a secret, and, being once known, the injury to the girl might be irreparable. He hated himself for having brought her to the place. Yet, as he thought it over, he knew that he would have done it again.

It had seemed perfectly safe. Any one could have seen that the water had not risen in the well for many years. Day after day, for a long time, he and Masin had worked in the vaults in perfect safety. The way to the statues had been made so easy that only a timid old man like Sassi could have found it impassable. There had been absolutely no cause to fear that after fifty or sixty years the course of the water should be affected, and the chances against such an accident happening during that single hour of Sabina's visit were as many millions to one. His motive in bringing her had been quixotic, no doubt, but good and just, and so far as Sabina's reputation was concerned, Sassi's presence had constituted a sufficient social protection.

He hammered away at the bricks furiously, and the cavity grew deeper and wider. Surely he had made a mistake at first in wishing to husband his strength too carefully. If he had worked from the beginning as he was working now, he would have made the breach by this time.

Unless that were impossible; unless, after all, he had struck the end of a cross wall and was working through the length of it instead of through its thickness. The fear of such a misfortune took possession of him, and he laid down his crowbar to examine the wall carefully. There was one way of finding out the truth, if he could only get light enough; no mason that ever lived would lay his bricks in any way except lengthwise along each course. If he had struck into a cross wall, he must be demolishing the bricks from their ends instead of across them, and he could find out which way they lay at the end of the cavity, if he could make the light of the lantern shine in as far as that. The depth was more than five feet now, and his experience told him that even in the construction of a mediaeval palace the walls above the level of the ground were very rarely as thick as that, when built of good brick and cement like this one.

When he took up his lantern, he was amazed at what he had done in less than four hours; if he had been told that an ordinary man had accomplished anything approaching to it in that time, he would have been incredulous. He had hardly realized that he had made a hole big enough for him to work in, kneeling on one knee, and bracing himself with the other foot.

But the end was narrow, of course, and when he held the light before it, he could not see past the body of the lantern. He opened the latter, took out the little oil lamp carefully and thrust it into the hole. He could see now, as he carefully examined the bricks; and he was easily convinced that he had not entered a cross wall. Nevertheless, when he had been working with the bar, he had not detected any change in the sound, as he thought he must have done, if he had been near the further side. Was the wall ten feet thick? He looked again. It was not a vaulting, that was clear; and it could not be anything but a wall. There was some comfort in that. He drew back a little, put the lamp into the lantern again and got out backwards. The passage was bright; he looked up quickly and started.

Sabina was standing beside him, holding the large lamp. Her big hat had fallen back and her hair made a fair cloud between it and her white face.

"I thought something had happened to you," she said, "so I brought the lamp. You stopped working for such a long time," she explained, "I thought you must have hurt yourself, or fainted."

"No," answered Malipieri. "There is nothing the matter with me. I was looking at the bricks."

"You must need rest, for it is past ten o'clock. I looked at the watch."

"I will rest when I get through the wall. There is no time to be lost. Are you very hungry?"

"No. I am a little thirsty." She looked at the black water, pouring down the overflow shaft.

"That water is not good to drink," said Malipieri, thinking of what was at the bottom of the well. "We had better not drink it unless we are absolutely forced to. I hope to get you out in two hours."

He stood leaning on his crowbar, his dark hair covered with dust, his white shirt damp and clinging to him, and all stained from rubbing against the broken masonry.

"It would be better to rest for a few minutes," she said, not moving.

He knew she was right, but he went with her reluctantly, and presently he was sitting beside her on the marble limbs of the Aphrodite. She turned her face to him a little shyly, and then looked away again.

"Were ever two human beings in such a situation before!"

"Everything has happened before," Malipieri answered. "There is nothing new."

"Does it hurt very much to die of starvation?" Sabina asked after a little pause.

"Not if one has plenty of water. It is thirst that drives people mad. Hunger makes one weak, that is all."

"And cold, I am sure."

"Very cold."

They were both silent. She looked steadily at the gleaming bronze statue before her, and Malipieri looked down at his hands.

"How long does it take to starve to death?" she asked at last.

"Strong men may live two or three weeks if they have water."

"I should not live many days," Sabina said thoughtfully. "It would be awful for you to be living on here, with me lying dead."

"Horrible. Do not think about it. We shall get out before morning."

"I am afraid not," she said quietly. "I am afraid we are going to die here."

"Not if I can help it," answered Malipieri.

"No. Of course not. I know you will do everything possible, and I am sure that if you could save me by losing your life, you would. Yes. But if you cannot break through the wall, there is nothing to be done."

"The water may go down to-morrow. It is almost sure to go down before long. Then we can get out by the way we came in."

"It will not go down. I am sure it will not."

"It is too soon to lose courage," Malipieri said.

"I am not frightened. It will not be hard to die, if it does not hurt. It will be much harder for you, because you are so strong. You will live a long time."

"Not unless I can save you," he answered, rising. "I am going back to work. It will be time enough to talk about death when my strength is all gone."

He spoke almost roughly, partly because for one moment she had made him feel a sort of sudden dread that she might be right, partly to make her think that he thought the supposition sheer nonsense.

"Are you angry?" she asked, like a child.

"No!" He made an effort and laughed almost cheerfully. "But you had better think about what you should like for supper in two or three hours! It is hardly worth while to put out that lamp," he added. "It will burn nearly twelve hours, for it is big, and it was quite full. There is a great deal of heat in it, too."

He went away again. But when he was gone, she drew the lamp over to her without leaving her seat, and put it out. She was very tired and a little faint, and by and by the distant sound of the crowbar brought back the drowsiness she had felt before, and leaning her head against the Aphrodite's curving waist, she lost consciousness.

He worked a good hour or more without result, came down to her, and found her in a deep sleep. As he noiselessly left her, he wondered how many men could have slept peacefully in such a case as hers.

Once more he took the heavy bar, and toiled on, but he felt that his strength was failing fast for want of food. He had eaten nothing since midday, and had not even drunk water, and in six hours he had done as much hard work as two ordinary workmen could have accomplished in a day. With a certain amount of rest, he could still go on, but a quarter of an hour would no longer be enough. He was very thirsty, too, but though he might have drunk his fill from the hollow of his hand, he could not yet bring himself to taste the water. He was afraid that he might be driven to it before long, but he would resist as long as he could.

Every stroke was an effort now, as he struggled on blindly, not only against the material obstacle, but against the growing terror that was taking possession of him, the hideous probability of having worked in vain after all, and the still worse certainty of what the end must be if he really failed.

Effort after effort, stroke after stroke, though each seemed impossible after the last. He could not fail, and let that poor girl die, unless he could die first, of sheer exhaustion.

If he were to stop now, it might be hours before he could go on again, and then he would be already weakened by hunger. There was nothing to be done but to keep at it, to strike and strike, with such half- frantic energy as was left in him. Every bone and sinew ached, and his breath came short, while the sweat ran down into his short beard, and fell in rain on his dusty hands.

But do what he would, the blows followed each other in slower succession. He could not strike twenty more, not ten, not five perhaps; he would not count them; he would cheat himself into doing what could not be done; he would count backwards and forwards, one, two, three, three, two, one, one, two--

And then, all at once, the tired sinews were braced like steel, and his back straightened, and his breath came full and clear. The blow had rung hollow.

He could have yelled as he sent the great bar flying against the bricks again and again, far in the shadow, and the echo rang back, louder and louder, every time.

The bar ran through and the end he held shot from his hands, as the resistance failed at last, and half the iron went out on the other side. He drew it back quickly and looked to see if there were any light, but there was none. He did not care, for the rest would be child's play compared with what he had done, and easier than play now that he had the certainty of safety.

The first thing to be done was to tell Sabina that the danger was past. He crept back with his light and stood upright. It hurt him to straighten himself, and he now knew how tremendous the labour had been; the last furious minutes had been like the delirium of a fever. But he was tough and used to every sort of fatigue, and hope had come back; he forgot how thirsty he had been, and did not even glance behind him at the water.

Sabina was still asleep. He stood before her, and hesitated, for it seemed cruel to wake her, even to tell her the good news. He would go back and widen the breach, and when there was room to get out, he could come and fetch her. She had put out the lamp. He lighted it again quietly, and was going to place it where it could not shine in her eyes and perhaps wake her, when he paused to look at her face.

It was very still, and deadly pale, and her lips were blue. He could not see that she was breathing, for his coat hung loosely over her slender figure. She looked almost dead. Her gloved hands lay with the palms upwards, the one in her lap, the other on the ground beside her. He touched that one gently with the back of his own, and it seemed to him that it was very cold, through the glove.

He touched her cheek in the same way, and it felt like ice. It would surely be better to wake her, and make her move about a little. He spoke to her, at first softly, and then quite loud, but she made no sign. Perhaps she was not asleep, but had fainted from weariness and cold; he knelt beside her, and took her hand in both his own, chafing it between them, but still she gave no sign. It was certainly a fainting fit, and he knew that if a woman was pale when she fainted, she should be laid down at full length, to make the blood return to her head. Kneeling beside her, he lifted her carefully and placed her on her back beside the Aphrodite, smoothing out his waistcoat under her head, not for a pillow but for a little protection from the cold ground.

Then he hesitated, and remained some time kneeling beside her. She needed warmth more than anything else; he knew that, and he knew that the best way to warm her a little was to hold her in his arms. Yet he would try something else first.

He bent over her and undoing one of the buttons of the coat, he breathed into it again and again, long, warm breaths. He did this for a long time, and then looked at her face, but it had not changed. He felt the ground with his hand, and it was cold; as long as she lay there, she could never get warm.

He lifted her again, still quite unconscious, and sat with her in his arms, as he had done before, laying her head against the hollow of his shoulder, and pressing her gently, trying to instil into her some of his own strong life.

At last she gave a little sigh and moved her head, nestling herself to him, but it was long before she spoke. He felt the consciousness coming back in her, and the inclination to move, rather than any real motion in her delicate frame; the more perceptible breathing, and then the little sigh came again, and at last the words.

"I thought we were dead," she said, so low that he could barely hear.

"No, you fainted," he answered. "We are safe. I have got the bar through the wall."

She turned up her face feebly, without lifting her head.

"Really? Have you done it?"

"Yes. In another hour, or a little more, the hole will be wide enough for us to get through it."

She hid her face again, and breathed quietly.

"You do not seem glad," he said.

"It seemed so easy to die like this," she answered.

But presently she moved in his arms, and looked up again, and smiled, though she did not try to speak again. He himself, almost worn out by what he had done, was glad to sit still for a while. His blood was not racing through him now, his head was not on fire. It seemed quite natural that he should be sitting there, holding her close to him and warming her back to life with his own warmth.

It was a strange sensation, he thought afterwards, when many other things had happened which were not long in following upon the events of that night. He could not quite believe that he was almost stupid with extreme fatigue, and yet he remembered that it had been more like a calm dream than anything else, a dream of peace and rest. At the time, it all seemed natural, as the strangest things do when one has been face to face with death for a few hours, and when one is so tired that one can hardly think at all.

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 15
CHAPTER XVThere was less consternation in the Volterra household than might have been expected when Sabina did not return before bedtime. The servants knew that she had gone out with an old gentleman, a certain Signor Sassi, at about five o'clock, but until Volterra came in, the Baroness could not find out who Sassi was, and she insisted on searching every corner of the house, as if she were in quest of his biography, for the servants assured her that Sabina was still out, and they certainly knew. She carefully examined Sabina's room too, looking for a note, a line of
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CHAPTER XIIISabina 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
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