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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 16
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 16 Post by :Celeste Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :682

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

Sabina's strength revived in the warm night air, out in the courtyard, under the stars, and the awful danger from which Malipieri had saved her and himself looked unreal, after the first few moments of liberty. She got his watch out of her glove where it had been so many hours, and by the clear starlight they could see that it was nearly twenty minutes past two o'clock. Malipieri had put out the lamp, and the lantern had gone out for lack of oil, at the last moment. It was important that Sabina should not be seen by the porter, in the very unlikely event of his being up at that hour.

They had not thought that it could be so late, for it was long since Sabina had looked at the watch. The first thing that became clear to Malipieri was that it would be out of the question for him to take her home that night. The question was where else to take her. She was exhausted, too, and needed food at once, and her clothes were wet from the dampness. It would be almost a miracle if she did not fall ill, even if she were well taken care of at once.

There was only one thing to be done: she must go up to his apartment, and have something to eat, and then she must rest. In the meantime they would make some plan in order to explain her absence.

The porter's wife might have been of some use, if she could have been trusted with what must for ever remain a dead secret, namely, that Sabina had spent the night in Malipieri's rooms; for that would be the plain fact to-morrow morning. What had happened to Sassi and Masin was a mystery, but it was inconceivable that either of them should have been free to act during the past eight or nine hours and should have made no effort to save the two persons to whom they were respectively devoted as to no one else in the world.

Exhausted though he was, Malipieri would have gone down into the cellars at once to try and find some trace of them, if he had not felt that Sabina must be cared for first; and moreover he was sure that if he found them at all, he should find them both dead.

All this had been clear to him before he had at last succeeded in bringing her out into the open air.

"There is no help for it," he whispered, "you must come upstairs. Do you think you can walk so far?"

"Of course I can!" she answered, straightening herself bravely. "I am not at all tired."

Nevertheless she gladly laid her hand on his aching arm, and they both walked cautiously along the paved gutter that separated the wall from the gravel, for their steps would have made much more noise on the latter. All was quiet, and they reached Malipieri's door, by the help of a wax light. He led her in, still carrying the match, and he shut the door softly after him.

"At least," Sabina said, "no one can hear us here."

"Hush!"

He suspected that Toto must have got out, but was not sure. After lighting a candle, he led the way into his study, and made Sabina sit down, while he went back. He returned in a few moments, having assured himself that Toto had escaped by the window, and that Masin was not in, and asleep.

"Masin has disappeared," he said. "We can talk as much as we please, while you have your supper."

He had brought bread and wine and water, which he set before her, and he went off again to find something else. She ate hungrily after drinking a glass at a draught. He reappeared with the remains of some cold meat and ham.

"It is all I have," he explained, "but there is plenty of bread."

"Nothing ever tasted so good," answered Sabina gravely.

He sat down opposite to her and drank, and began to eat the bread. His hands were grimy, and had bled here and there at the knuckles where they had grazed the broken masonry. His face was streaked with dried perspiration and dust, his collar was no longer a collar at all.

As for Sabina, she had tried to take off the fawn-coloured hat, but it had in some way become entangled with her unruly hair, and it was hanging down her back. Otherwise, as she sat there her dress was not visibly much the worse for the terrible adventure. Her skirt was torn and soiled, indeed, but the table hid it, and the coat had kept the body of her frock quite clean. She did not look much more dishevelled than if she had been at a romping picnic in the country.

Nor did she look at all ill, after the wine and the first mouthfuls of food had brought all the warmth back to her. If anything, she was less pale than usual now, her lips were red again, and there was light in her eyes. There are little women who look as if they had no strength at all, and seem often on the point of breaking down, but who could go through a battle or a shipwreck almost without turning a hair, and without much thought of their appearance either; nor are they by any means generally the mildest and least reckless of their sex.

The two ate in silence for several minutes, but they looked at each other and smiled now and then, while they swallowed mouthful after mouthful.

"I wish I had counted the slices of bread I have eaten," said Sabina at last.

Malipieri laughed gaily. It did not seem possible that an hour or two earlier they had been looking death in the face. But his laughter died away suddenly, and he was very grave in a moment.

"I do not know what to do now," he said. "We shall have to make the Baroness believe that you have spent the night at Sassi's house. That is the only place where you can possibly be supposed to have been. I am not good at lying, I believe. Can you help me at all?"

Sabina laughed.

"That is a flattering way of putting it!" she answered. "It is true that I was brought up to lie about everything, but I never liked it. The others used to ask me why I would not, and whether I thought myself better than they."

"What are we to do?"

"Suppose that we tell the truth," said Sabina, nibbling thoughtfully at a last slice of bread. "It is much easier, you know."

"Yes."

Malipieri set his elbows on the table, leaned his bearded chin upon his scarred knuckles and looked at her. He wondered whether in her innocence she even faintly guessed what people would think of her, if they knew that she had spent a night in his rooms. He had no experience at all of young girls, and he wondered whether there were many like Sabina. He thought it unlikely.

"I believe in telling the truth, too," he said at last. "But when you do, you must trust the person to whom it is told. Now the person in this case will be the Baroness Volterra. I shall have to go and see her in the morning, and tell her what has happened. Then, if she believes me, she must come here in a cab and take you back. That will be absolutely necessary. You need say nothing that I have not said, and I shall say nothing that is not true."

"That is the best way," said Sabina, who liked the simplicity of the plan.

Her voice sounded sleepy, and she suppressed a little yawn.

"But suppose that she refuses to believe me," Malipieri continued, without noticing her weariness, "what then?"

"What else can she believe?" asked Sabina indifferently.

Malipieri did not answer for a long time, and looked away, while he thought over the very difficult situation. When he turned to her again, he saw that she was resting her head in her hand and that her eyes were closed.

"You are sleepy," he said.

She looked up, and smiled, hardly able to keep her eyes open.

"So sleepy!" she answered slowly. "I cannot keep awake a moment longer."

"You must go to bed," he said, rising.

"Yes--anywhere! Only let me sleep."

"You will have to sleep in my room. Do you mind very much?"

"Anywhere!" She hardly knew what she said, she hardly saw his face any longer.

He led the way with one of the lights, and she followed him with her eyes half shut.

"It seems to be in tolerably good order," he said, glancing round, and setting down the candle. "The key is in the inside. Turn it, please, when I am gone."

The room was scrupulously neat. Malipieri shut the window carefully. When he turned, he saw that she was sitting on the edge of the bed, nodding with sleep.

"Good-night," he said, in a low voice that was nevertheless harsh. "Lock your door."

"Good-night," she answered, with an effort.

He did not look at her again as he went out and shut the door, and he went quickly through the small room which divided the bedroom from the study, and in which he kept most of his clothes. He was very wide awake now, in spite of being tired, and he sat down in his armchair and smoked for some time. Suddenly he noticed the state of his hands, and he realized what his appearance must be.

Without making any noise, though he was sure that Sabina was in a deep sleep by this time, he went back through the first door and quietly got a supply of clothes, and took them with him to Masin's room, and washed there, and dressed himself as carefully as if he were going out. Then he went back to his study and sat down wearily in his armchair. Worn out at last, he was asleep in a few minutes, asleep as men are after a battle, whether the fight has ended in victory or defeat. Even the thought of Sabina did not keep him awake, and he would not have thought of her at all as he sat down, if he could have helped it.

After such a night as they had passed it was not likely that they should wake before ten o'clock on the following morning.

But the porter was up early, as usual, with his broom, to sweep the stairs and the paved entrance under the arch. When he had come back from the errand on which Malipieri had sent him, it had been already dusk. He had gone up and had rung the bell several times, but as no one opened he had returned to his lodge. It was not unusual for Malipieri and Masin to be both out at the same time, and he thought it likely that they were in the vaults. He cursed them both quietly for the trouble they had given him of mounting the stairs for nothing, and went to his supper, and in due time to bed.

He must go up again at eight o'clock, by which time Malipieri was always dressed, and as it was now only seven o'clock he had plenty of time to sweep. So he lit his pipe deliberately and took his broom, and went out of his lodge.

The first thing that met his eye was a dark stain on the stones, close to the postern. He passed his broom over it, and saw that it was dry; and it was red, but not like wine. Wine makes a purple stain on stones. He stooped and scratched it with his thick thumbnail. It was undoubtedly blood, and nothing else. Some one had been badly hurt there, or being wounded had stood some moments on the spot to open the door and get out.

The old man leaned on his broom awhile, considering the matter, and debating whether he should call his wife. His natural impulse was not to do so, but to get a bucket of water and wash the place before she could see it. The idea of going out and calling a policeman never occurred to him, for he was a real Roman, and his first instinct was to remove every trace of blood from the house in which he lived, whether it had been shed by accident or in quarrel. On the other hand, his wife might come out at any moment, to go to her work, and find him washing the pavement, and she would of course suppose that he had killed somebody or had helped to kill somebody during the night, and would begin to scream, and call him an assassin, and there would be a great noise, and much trouble afterwards. According to his view, any woman would naturally behave in this way, and as his views were founded on his own experience, he was probably right, so far as his wife was concerned. He therefore determined to call her.

She came, she saw, she threw up her hands and moaned a little about the curse that was on the house, and she helped him to scrub the stones as quickly as possible. When that was done, and when they had flooded the whole pavement under the arch, in order to conceal the fact that it had been washed in one place, it occurred to them that they should look on the stairs, to see if there were any blood there, and in the courtyard, too, near the entrance; but they could not find anything, and it was time for the woman to go to the place where she worked all day at ironing fine linen, which had been her occupation before she had been married. So she went away, leaving her husband alone.

He smoked thoughtfully and swept the stone gutter, towards the other end of the courtyard. He noticed nothing unusual, until he reached the door of the coach-house, and saw that it was ajar, whereas it was always locked, and he had the key in his lodge. He opened it, and looked in. The flood of morning light fell upon a little heap of broken brick and mortar, and he saw at a glance that a small breach had been made in the wall. This did not surprise him, for he knew that Malipieri and Masin had made holes in more than one place, and the architect had more than once taken the key of the coach-house.

What frightened him was the steady, roaring sound that came from the breach. He would as soon have thought of trusting himself to enter the place, as of facing the powers of darkness, even if his big body could have squeezed itself through the aperture. But he guessed that the sound came from the "lost water," which he had more than once heard in the cellar below, in its own channel, and he was instinctively sure that something had happened which might endanger the palace. The cellars were probably flooded.

On the mere chance that the door of the winding staircase might not be locked, he went out and turned into the passage where it was. He found it wide open. He had in his pocket one of those long wax tapers rolled into a little ball, which Roman porters generally have about them; he lit it and went down. There was water at the foot of the steps, water several feet deep. He retreated, and with more haste than he usually showed to do anything, he crossed the courtyard and went up to call Malipieri.

But Malipieri was asleep in his armchair in the inner room, and the bell only rang in the outer hall. The old man rang it again and again, but no one came. Then he stood still on the landing, took off his cap and deliberately scratched his head. In former times, it would have been his duty to inform Sassi, in whom centred every responsibility connected with the palace. But the porter did not know whether Sassi were dead or alive now, and was quite sure that the Baron would not approve of sending for him.

There was nothing to be done but to inform the Baron himself, without delay, since Malipieri was apparently already gone out. The Baron would take the responsibility, since the house was his.

The porter went down to his lodge, took off his old linen jacket and put on his best coat and cap, put some change into his pocket, went out and turned the key of the lock in the postern, and then stumped off towards the Piazza Sant' Apollinare to get a cab, for there was no time to be lost.

It was eight o'clock when he rang at the smart new house in the Via Ludovisi. Sabina and Malipieri had slept barely five hours.

A footman in an apron opened the door, and without waiting to know his business, asked him why he did not go to the servants' entrance.

"I live in a palace where there is a porter," answered the old man, assuming the overpowering manner that belongs to the retainers of really great old Roman houses. "Please inform the Baron that the 'lost water' has broken out and flooded the cellars of the Palazzo Conti, and that I am waiting for instructions."

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