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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 15
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 15 Post by :MaxDax Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1315

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

There 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 writing, anything to explain the girl's unexpected absence.

She could find nothing except the short letter from Sabina's mother to which reference has been made, and she read it over several times. Sabina received no letters, and had been living in something like total isolation. The Baroness had reached a certain degree of intimacy with her beloved aristocracy; but though she occasionally dropped in upon it, and was fairly well received, it rarely, if ever, dropped in upon her. It showed itself quite willing, however, to accept a formal invitation to a good dinner at her house.

She telephoned to the Senate and to a club, but Volterra could not be found. Then she went to dress, giving orders that Sabina was to be sent to her the moment she came in. She was very angry, and her sallow face was drawn into severe angles; she scolded her maid for everything, and rustled whenever she moved.

At last the Baron came home, and she learned who Sassi was. Volterra was very much surprised, but said that Sassi must have come for Sabina in connection with some urgent family matter. Perhaps some one of her family had died suddenly, or was dying. It was very thoughtless of Sabina not to leave a word of explanation, but Sassi was an eminently respectable person, and she was quite safe with him.

The Baron ate his dinner, and repeated the substance of this to his wife before the servants, whose good opinion they valued. Probably Donna Clementina, the nun, was very ill, and Sabina was at the convent. No, Sabina did not love her sister, of course; but one always went to see one's relations when they were dying, in order to forgive them their disagreeable conduct; all Romans did that, said the Baroness, and it was very proper. By and by a note could be sent to the convent, or the carriage could go there to bring Sabina back. But the Baron did not order the carriage, and became very thoughtful over his coffee and his Havana. Sabina had been gone more than four hours, and that was certainly a longer time than could be necessary for visiting a dying relative. He said so.

"Perhaps," suggested his wife, "it is the Prince who is ill, and Signor Sassi has taken Sabina to the country to see her brother."

"No," answered the Baron after a moment's thought. "That family is eccentric, but the girl would not have gone to the country without a bag."

"There is something in that," answered the Baroness, and they relapsed into silence.

Yet she was not satisfied, for, as her husband said, the Conti were all eccentric. Nevertheless, Sabina would at least have telegraphed, or sent a line from the station, or Sassi would have done it for her, for he was a man of business.

After a long time, the Baroness suggested that if her husband knew Sassi's address, some one should be sent to his house to find out if he had gone out of town.

"I have not the least idea where he lives," the Baron said. "As long as I had any business with him, I addressed him at the palace."

"The porter may know," observed the Baroness.

"The porter is an idiot," retorted the Baron, puffing at his cigar.

His wife knew what that meant, and did not enquire why an idiot was left in charge of the palace. Volterra did not intend to take that way of making enquiries about Sabina, if he made any at all, and the Baroness knew that when he did not mean to do a thing, the obstinacy of a Calabrian mule was docility compared with his dogged opposition. Moreover, she would not have dared to do it unknown to him. There was some good reason why he did not intend to look for Sassi.

"Besides," he condescended to say after a long time, "she is quite safe with that old man, wherever they are."

"Society might not think so, my dear," answered the Baroness in mild protest.

"Society had better mind its business, and let us take care of ours."

"Yes, my dear, yes, of course!"

She did not agree with him at all. Her ideal of a happy life was quite different, for she was very much pleased when society took a lively interest in her doings, and nothing interested her more than the doings of society. She presently ventured to argue the case.

"Yes, of course," she repeated, by way of preliminary conciliation. "I was only wondering what people will think, if anything happens to the girl while she is under our charge."

"What can happen to her?"

"There might be some talk about her going out in this way. The servants know it, you see, and she is evidently not coming home this evening. They know that she went out without leaving any message, and they must think it strange."

"I agree with you."

"Well, then, there will be some story about her. Do you see what I mean?"

"Perfectly. But that will not affect us in the least. Every one knows what strange people the Conti are, and everybody knows that we are perfectly respectable. If there is a word said about the girl's character, you will put her into the carriage, my dear, and deposit her at the convent under the charge of her sister. Everybody will say that you have done right, and the matter will be settled."

"You would not really send her to the convent!"

"I will certainly not let her live under my roof, if she stays out all night without giving a satisfactory account of herself."

"But her mother--"

"Her mother is no better than she should be," observed the Baron virtuously, by way of answer.

The Baroness was very much disturbed. She had been delighted to be looked upon as a sort of providence to the distressed great, and had looked forward to the social importance of being regarded as a second mother to Donna Sabina Conti. She had hoped to make a good match for her, and to shine at the wedding; she had dreamed of marrying the girl to Malipieri, who was such a fine fellow, and would be so rich some day that he might be trapped into taking a wife without a dowry.

These castles in the air were all knocked to pieces by the Baron's evident determination to get rid of Sabina.

"I thought you liked the girl," said the Baroness in a tone of disappointment.

Volterra stuck out both his feet and crossed his hands on his stomach, after his manner, smoking vigorously. Then, with his cigar in one corner of his mouth, he laughed out of the other, and assumed a playful expression.

"I do not like anybody but you, my darling," he said, looking at the ceiling. "Nobody in the whole wide world! You are the deposited security. All the other people are the floating circulation."

He seemed pleased with this extraordinary view of mankind, and the Baroness smiled at her faithful husband. She rarely understood what he was doing, and hardly ever guessed what he meant to do, but she was absolutely certain of his conjugal fidelity, and he gave her everything she wanted.

"The other people," he said, "are just notes, and nothing else. When a note is damaged or worn out, you can always get a new one at the bank, in exchange for it. Do you understand?"

"Yes, my dear. That is very clever."

"It is very true," said the Baron. "The Conti family consists chiefly of damaged notes."

He had not moved his cigar from the corner of his mouth to speak.

"Yes, my dear," answered the Baroness meekly, and when she thought of her last interview with the dowager Princess, she was obliged to admit the fitness of the simile.

"The only one of them at all fit to remain in circulation," he continued, "was this girl. If she stays out all night she will be distinctly damaged, too. Then you will have to pass her off to some one else, as one does, you know, when a note is doubtful."

"The cook can generally change them," observed the Baroness irrelevantly.

"I do not think she is coming home," said the Baron, much more to the point. "I hope she will! After all, if she does not, you yourself say that she is quite safe with this Signor Sassi--"

"I did not say that she would be safe from gossip afterwards, did I?"

It was perfectly clear by this time that he wished Sabina to leave the house as soon as possible, and that he would take the first opportunity of obliging her to do so. Even if his wife had dared to interfere, it would have been quite useless, for she knew him to be capable of hinting to the girl herself that she was no longer welcome. Sabina was very proud, and she would not stay under the roof an hour after that.

"I did not suggest that you should bring her here," Volterra continued presently. "Please remember that. I simply did not object to her coming. That was all the share I had in it. In any case I should have wished her to leave us before we go away for the summer."

"I had not understood that," answered the Baroness resignedly. "I had hoped that she might come with us."

"She has settled the matter for herself, my dear. After this extraordinary performance, I must really decline to be responsible for her any longer."

It was characteristic of his methods that when he had begun to talk over the matter before dinner, she had not been able to guess at all how he would ultimately look at it, and that he only let her know his real intention by degrees. Possibly, he had only wished to gain time to think it over. She did not know that he had asked Malipieri to leave the Palazzo Conti, and if she had, it might not have occurred to her that there was any connection between that and his desire to get rid of Sabina. His ways were complicated, when they were not unpleasantly direct, not to say brutal.

But the Baroness was much more human, and had grown fond of the girl, largely because she had no daughter of her own, and had always longed to have one. Ambitious women, if they have the motherly instinct, prefer daughters to sons. One cannot easily tell what a boy may do when he grows up, but a girl can be made to do almost anything by her own mother, or to marry almost any one. The Baroness's regret for losing Sabina took the form of confiding to her husband what she had hoped to do for the girl.

"I am very sorry," she said, "but if you wish her to go, she must leave us. Of late, I had been thinking that we might perhaps marry her to that clever Malipieri."

The Baron smiled thoughtfully, took his cigar from his lips at last, and looked at his wife.

"To Malipieri?" he asked, as if not quite understanding the suggestion.

"Yes, I am sure he would make her a very good husband. He evidently admires her, too."

"Possibly. I never thought of it. But she has no dowry. That is an objection."

"He will be rich some day. Is he poor now?"

"No. Not at all."

"And she certainly likes him very much. It would be a very good match for her."

"Admirable. But I do not think we need trouble ourselves with such speculations, since she is going to leave us so soon."

"I shall always take a friendly interest in her," said the Baroness, "wherever she may be."

"Very well, my dear," Volterra answered, dropping the end of his cigar and preparing to rise. "That will be very charitable of you. But your friendly interest can never marry her to Malipieri."

"Perhaps not. But it might have been done, if she had not been so foolish."

"No," said the Baron, getting to his feet, "it never could have been done."

"Why not?" asked his wife, surprised by the decision of his tone.

"Because there is a very good reason why Malipieri cannot marry her, my dear."

"A good reason?"

"A very good reason. My dear, I am sleepy. I am going to bed."

Volterra rang the bell by the fireplace, and a man appeared almost instantly.

"You may put out the lights," he said. "We are going to bed."

"Shall any one sit up, in case Donna Sabina should come in, Excellency?" asked the servant.

"No."

He went towards the door, and his wife followed him meekly.

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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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