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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 17
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 17 Post by :islandvip Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1535

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII

Volterra went to bed early, but he did not rise late, for he was always busy, and had many interests that needed constant attention; and he had preserved the habits of a man who had enriched himself and succeeded in life by being wide awake and at work when other people were napping or amusing themselves. At eight o'clock in the morning, he was already in his study, reading his letters, and waiting for his secretary.

He sent for the porter, listened to his story attentively, and without expressing any opinion about what had happened, went directly to the palace in the cab which had brought the old man. He made the latter sit beside him, because it would be an excellent opportunity of showing the world that he was truly democratic. Half of Rome knew him by sight at least, though not one in twenty thousand could have defined his political opinions.

At the palace he paid the cabman instead of keeping him by the hour, for he expected to stay some time, and it was against his principles to spend a farthing for what he did not want. As he entered through the postern, he glanced approvingly at the damp pavement. He did not in the least believe that the porter washed it every morning, of course, but he appreciated the fact that the man evidently wished him to think so, and was afraid of him.

"You say that you rang several times at Signor Malipieri's door," he said. "Has he not told you that he is going to live somewhere else?"

"No, sir."

"Does he never leave his key with you when he goes out?"

"No, sir."

"Did you see him come in last night? Was he at home?"

"No, sir. I rang several times, about dusk, but no one opened. I did not hear him come in after that. Shall I go up and ring again?"

"No." Volterra reflected for a moment. "He has left, and has taken his key by mistake," he said. "But I should think that you must have seen him go. He would have had some luggage with him."

The porter explained that Malipieri had sent him on an errand on the previous afternoon, and had been gone when he returned. This seemed suspicious to Volterra, as indeed it must have looked to any one. Considering his views of mankind generally, it was not surprising if he thought that Malipieri might have absconded with something valuable which he had found in the vaults. He remembered, too, that Malipieri had been unwilling to let him visit the treasure on the previous day, and had named the coming afternoon instead.

"Can you get a man to open the door?" he asked.

"There is Gigi, the carpenter of the palace," answered the porter. "He is better than a locksmith and his shop is close by--but there is the water in the cellars--"

"Go and get him," said the Baron. "I will wait here."

The porter went out, and Volterra began to walk slowly up and down under the archway, breathing the morning air with satisfaction, and jingling a little bunch of keys in his pocket.

There was a knock at the postern. He listened and stood still. He knew that the porter had the key, for he had just seen him return it to his pocket after they had both come in; he did not wish to be disturbed by any one else just then, so he neither answered nor moved. The knock was repeated, louder than before. It had an authoritative sound, and no one but Malipieri himself would have a right to knock in that way. Volterra went to the door at once, but did not open it.

"Who is there?" he asked, through the heavy panel.

"The police," came the answer, short and sharp. "Open at once."

Volterra opened, and was confronted by a man in plain clothes, who was accompanied by two soldiers in grey uniforms, and another man, who looked like a cabman. On seeing a gentleman, the detective, who had been about to enter unceremoniously, checked himself and raised his hat, with an apology. Volterra stepped back.

"Come in," he said, "and tell me what your business is. I am the owner of this palace, at present. I am Baron Volterra, and a Senator."

The men all became very polite at once, and entered rather sheepishly. The cabman came in last, and Volterra shut the door.

"Who is this individual?" he asked, looking at the cabman.

"Tell your story," said the man in plain clothes, addressing the latter.

"I am a coachman, Excellency," the man answered in a servile tone. "I have a cab, number eight hundred and seventy-six, at the service of your Excellency, and it was I who drove the gentleman to the hospital yesterday afternoon."

"What gentleman?"

"The gentleman who was hurt in the house of your Excellency."

Volterra stared from the cabman to the man in plain clothes, not understanding. Then it occurred to him that the man in uniform might be wearing it as a disguise, and that he had to do with a party of clever thieves, and he felt for a little revolver which he always carried about with him.

"I know nothing about the matter," he said.

"Excellency," continued the cabman, "the poor gentleman was lying here, close to the door, bleeding from his head. You see the porter has washed the stones this morning."

"Go on." Volterra listened attentively.

"A big man who looked more like a workman than a servant came to call me in the square. When we got here, he unlocked the door himself, and made me help him to put the gentleman into the cab. It was about half- past five or a quarter to six, Excellency, and I waited at the hospital door till eight o'clock, but could not get any money."

"What became of the big man who called you?" asked Volterra. "Why did he not pay you?"

"He was arrested, Excellency."

"Arrested? Why? For taking a wounded man to the hospital?"

"Yes. You can imagine that I did not wish to be concerned in other people's troubles, Excellency, nor to be asked questions. So when I had seen the man and the doorkeepers take the gentleman in, I drove on about twenty paces, and waited for the man to come out. But soon two policemen came and went in, and came out again a few minutes later with the big man walking quietly between them, and they went off in the other direction, so that he did not even notice me."

"What did you do then?"

"May it please your Excellency, I went back to the door and asked the doorkeeper why the man had been arrested, and told him I had not been paid. But he laughed in my face, and advised me to go to the police for my fare, since the police had taken the man away. And I asked him many questions but he drove me away with several evil words."

"Is that all that happened?" asked Volterra. "Do you know nothing more?"

"Nothing, your Excellency," whined the man, "and I am a poor father of a family with eight children, and my wife is ill--"

"Yes," interrupted Volterra, "I suppose so. And what do you know about it all?" he enquired, turning to the man in plain clothes.

"This, sir. The gentleman was still unconscious this morning, but turns out to be a certain Signor Pompeo Sassi. His cards were in his pocket-book. The man who took him to the hospital was arrested because he entirely declined to give his name, or to explain what had happened, or where he had found the wounded gentleman. Of course all the police stations were informed during the night, as the affair seemed mysterious, and when this cabman came this morning and lodged a complaint of not having been paid for a fare from this palace to the hospital, it looked as if whatever had happened, must have happened here, or near here, and I was sent to make enquiries."

"That is perfectly clear," the Baron said, taking out his pocket-book. "You have no complaint to make, except that you were not paid," he continued, speaking to the cabman. "There are ten francs, which is much more than is owing to you. Give me your number."

The man knew that it was useless to ask for more, and as he produced his printed number and gave it, he implored the most complicated benedictions, even to miracles, including a thousand years of life and everlasting salvation afterwards, all for the Baron, his family, and his descendants.

"I suppose he may go now," Volterra said to the police officer.

The cabman would have liked to stay, but one of the soldiers opened the postern and stood waiting by it till he had gone out, and closed it upon his parting volley of blessings. The Senator reflected that they might mean a vote, some day, and did not regret his ten francs.

"I know Signor Sassi," he said to the detective. "He was the agent of Prince Conti's estate, and of this palace. But I did not know that he had been here yesterday afternoon. I live in the Via Ludovisi and had just come here on business, when you knocked."

He was very affable now, and explained the porter's absence, and the fact that a gentleman who had lived in the house, but had left it, had accidentally taken his key with him, so that it was necessary to get a workman to open the door.

"And it is as well that you should be here," he added, "for the big man of whom the cabman spoke may be the servant of that gentleman. I remember seeing him once, and I noticed that he was unusually big. He may have been here yesterday after his master left, and we may find some clue in the apartment."

"Excellent!" said the detective, rubbing his hands.

He was particularly fond of cases in which doors had to be opened by force, and understood that part of his business thoroughly.

The key turned in the lock of the postern, and the porter entered, bringing Gigi with him. They both started and turned pale when they saw the policeman and the detective.

"At what time did Signor Malipieri send you out on that errand yesterday afternoon?" asked Volterra, looking hard at the porter.

The old man drew himself up, wiped his forehead with a blue cotton handkerchief, and looked from the Baron to the detective, trying to make out whether his employer wished him to speak the truth. A moment's reflection told him that he had better do so, as the visit of the police must be connected with the stain of blood he had washed from the pavement, and he could prove that he had nothing to do with it.

"It was about five o'clock," he answered quietly.

"And when did you come back?" enquired the detective.

"It was dusk. It was after Ave Maria, for I heard the bells ringing before I got here."

"And you did not notice the blood on the stones when you came in, because it was dusk, I suppose," said the detective, assuming a knowing smile, as if he had caught the man.

"I saw it this morning," answered the porter without hesitation, "and I washed it away."

"You should have called the police," said the other severely.

"Should I, sir?" The porter affected great politeness all at once. "You will excuse my ignorance."

"We are wasting time," Volterra said to the detective. "The porter knows nothing about it. Let us go upstairs."

He led the way, and the others followed, including Gigi, who carried a leathern bag containing a few tools.

"It is of no use to ring again," observed Volterra. "There cannot be anybody in the apartment, and this is my own house. Open that door for us, my man, and do as little damage as you can."

Gigi looked at the patent lock.

"I cannot pick that, sir," he said. "The gentleman made me put it on for him, and it is one of those American patent locks."

"Break it, then," Volterra answered.

Gigi selected a strong chisel, and inserted the blade in the crack of the door, on a level with the brass disk. He found the steel bolt easily.

"Take care," he said to the Baron, who was nearest to him and drew back to give him room to swing his hammer.

He struck three heavy blows, and the door flew open at the third. The detective had looked at his watch, for it was his business to note the hour at which any forcible entrance was made. It was twenty minutes to nine. Malipieri and Sabina had slept a little more than five hours and a half.

Malipieri, still sleeping heavily in his armchair, heard the noise in a dream. He fancied he was in the vaults again, driving his crowbar into the bricks, and that he suddenly heard Masin working from the other side. But Masin was not alone, for there were voices, and he had several people with him.

Malipieri awoke with a violent start. Volterra, the detective, the two police soldiers, Gigi and the porter were all in the study, looking at him as he sat there in his armchair, in the broad light, carefully dressed as if he had been about to go out when he had sat down.

"You sleep soundly, Signer Malipieri," said the fat Baron, with a caressing smile.

Malipieri had good nerves, but for a moment he was dazed, and then, perhaps for the first time in his life, he was thoroughly frightened, for he knew that Sabina must be still asleep in his room, and in spite of his urgent request when he had left her, he did not believe that she had locked the door after all. The first thought that flashed upon him was that Volterra had somehow discovered that she was there, and had come to find her. There were six men in the room; he guessed that the Baron was one of those people who carry revolvers about with them, and two of the others were police soldiers, also armed with revolvers. He was evidently at their mercy. Short of throwing at least three of the party out of the window, nothing could avail. Such things are done without an effort on the stage by the merest wisp of a man, but in real life one must be a Hercules or a gladiator even to attempt them. Malipieri thought of what Sabina had said in the vault. Had any two people ever been in such a situation before?

For one instant, his heart stood still, and he passed his hand over his eyes.

"Excuse me," he said then, quite naturally. "I had dressed to go to your house this morning, and I fell asleep in my chair while waiting till it should be time. How did you get in? And why have you brought these people with you?"

He was perfectly cool now, and the Baron regretted that he had made a forcible entrance.

"I must really apologize," he answered. "The porter rang yesterday evening, several times, and again this morning, but could get no answer, and as you had told me that you were going to change your quarters, we supposed that you had left and had accidentally taken the key with you."

Malipieri did not believe a word of what he said, but the tone was very apologetic.

"The cellars are flooded," said the porter, speaking over Volterra's shoulder.

"I know it," Malipieri answered. "I was going to inform you of that this morning," he continued, speaking to the Baron. "I do not think that the police are necessary to our conversation," he added, smiling at the detective.

"I beg your pardon, sir," answered the latter, "but we are here to ask if you know anything of a grave accident to a certain Signor Sassi, who was taken from this palace unconscious, yesterday afternoon, at about a quarter to six, by a very large man, who would not give any name, nor any explanation, and who was consequently arrested."

Malipieri did not hesitate.

"Only this much," he replied. "With the authority of the Senator here, who is the owner of the palace, I have been making some archaeological excavations in the cellars. Signor Sassi was the agent--"

"I have explained that," interrupted the Baron, turning to the detective. "I will assume the whole responsibility of this affair. Signor Sassi shall be well cared for. I shall be much obliged if you will leave us."

He spoke rather hurriedly.

"It is my duty to make a search in order to discover the motive of the crime," said the detective with importance.

"What crime?" asked Malipieri with sudden sternness.

"Signor Sassi was very badly injured in this palace," answered the other. "The man who took him to the hospital would give no account of himself, and the circumstances are suspicious. The Baron thinks that the man may be your servant."

"Yes, he is my servant," Malipieri said. "Signor Sassi was trying to follow me into the excavations--"

"Yes, yes--that is of no importance," interrupted Volterra.

"I think it is," retorted Malipieri. "I will not let any man remain in prison suspected of having tried to murder poor old Sassi! I went on," he continued, explaining to the detective, "leaving the two together. The old gentleman must have fallen and hurt himself so badly that my man thought it necessary to carry him out at once. When I tried to get back, I found that the water had risen in the excavations and that the passage was entirely closed, and I had to work all night with a crowbar and pickaxe to break another way for myself. As for my man, if he refused to give any explanations, it was because he had express orders to preserve the utmost secrecy about the excavations. He is a faithful fellow, and he obeyed. That is all."

"A very connected account, sir, from your point of view," said the detective. "If you will allow me, I will write it down. You see, the service requires us to note everything."

"Write it down by all means," Malipieri answered quietly. "You will find what you need at that table."

The detective sat down, pulled back the cuff of his coat, took up the pen and began his report with a magnificent flourish.

"You two may go," said Malipieri to the porter and Gigi. "We shall not want you any more."

"As witnesses, perhaps," said the detective, overhearing. "Pray let them stay."

He went on writing, and the Baron settled himself in Malipieri's armchair, and lit a cigar. Malipieri walked slowly up and down the room, determined to keep perfectly cool.

"I hope the Baroness is quite well," he said after a time.

"Quite well, thank you," answered Volterra, nodding and smiling.

Malipieri continued to pace the floor, trying to see some way out of the situation in which he was caught, and praying to heaven that Sabina might still be sound asleep. If she were up, she would certainly come to the study in search of him before long, as the doors opened in no other direction. All his nerves and faculties were strung to the utmost tension, and if the worst came he was prepared to attempt anything.

"It is a very fine day after the rain," observed the Baron presently.

"It never rains long in Rome, in the spring," answered Malipieri.

The detective wrote steadily, and neither spoke again till he had finished.

"Of course," he said to Malipieri, "you are quite sure of your statements."

"Provided that you have written down exactly what I said," Malipieri answered.

The detective rose and handed him the sheets, at which he glanced rapidly.

"Yes. That is what I said."

"Let me see," Volterra put in, rising and holding out his hand.

He took the paper and read every word carefully, before he returned the manuscript.

"You might add," he said, "that I have been most anxious to keep the excavations a secret because I do not wish to be pestered by reporters before I have handed over to the government any discoveries which may be made."

"Certainly," answered the man, taking his pen again, and writing rapidly.

Volterra was almost as anxious to get rid of him as Malipieri himself. What the latter had said had informed him that in spite of the water the vaults could be reached, and he was in haste to go down. He had, indeed, noted the fact that whereas Sabina had left his house with Sassi at five o'clock, the latter had been taken to the hospital only three quarters of an hour later, and he wondered where she could be; but it did not even occur to him as possible that she should be in Malipieri's apartment. The idea would have seemed preposterous.

The detective rose, folded the sheets of paper and placed them in a large pocket-book which he produced.

"And now, gentlemen," he said, "we have only one more formality to fulfil, before I have the honour of taking my leave."

"What is that?" asked the Baron, beginning to show his impatience at last.

"Signor Malipieri--is that your name, sir? Yes. Signer Malipieri will be kind enough to let me and my men walk through the rooms of the apartment."

"I think that is quite unnecessary," Malipieri answered. "By this time Signor Sassi has probably recovered consciousness, and has told his own story, which will explain the accident."

"In the performance of my duty," objected the detective, "I must go through the house, to see whether there are any traces of blood. I am sure that you will make no opposition."

Fate was closing in upon Malipieri, but he kept his head as well as he could. He opened the door that led back to the hall.

"Will you come?" he said, showing the way.

The detective glanced at the other door, but said nothing and prepared to follow.

"I will stay here," said the Baron, settling himself in the armchair again.

"Oh, no! Pray come," Malipieri said. "I should like you to see for yourself that Sassi was not hurt here."

Volterra rose reluctantly and went with the rest. His chief preoccupation was to get rid of the detective and his men as quickly as possible. Malipieri opened the doors as he went along, and showed several empty rooms, before he came to Masin's.

"This is where my man sleeps," he said carelessly.

The detective went in, looked about and suddenly pounced upon a towel on which there were stains of blood.

"What is this?" he asked sharply. "What is the meaning of this?"

Malipieri showed his scarred hands.

"After I got out of the vault, I washed here," he said. "I had cut my hands a good deal, as you see. Of course the blood came off on the towels."

The detective assumed his smile of professional cunning.

"I understand," he said. "But do you generally wash in your servant's room?"

"No. It happened to be convenient when I got in. There was water here, and there were towels."

"It is strange," said the detective.

Even Volterra looked curiously at Malipieri, for he was much puzzled. But he was impatient, too, and came to the rescue.

"Do you not see," he asked of the detective, "that Signor Malipieri was covered with dust and that his clothes were very wet? There they are, lying on the floor. He did not wish to go to his bedroom as he was, taking all that dirt and dampness with him, so he came here."

"That is a sufficient explanation, I am sure," said Malipieri.

"Perfectly, perfectly," answered the detective, smiling. "Wrap up those towels in a newspaper," he said to the two soldiers. "We will take them with us. You see," he continued in an apologetic tone, "we are obliged to be very careful in the execution of our duties. If Signor Sassi should unfortunately die in the hospital, and especially if he should die unconscious, the matter would become very serious, and I should be blamed if I had not made a thorough examination."

"I hope he is not so seriously injured," said Malipieri.

"The report we received was that his skull was fractured," answered the detective calmly. "The hospitals report all suspicious cases to the police stations by telephone during the night, and of course, as your man refused to speak, special enquiries were made about the wounded gentleman."

"I understand," said Malipieri. "And now, I suppose, you have made a sufficient search."

"We have not seen your own room. If you will show me that, as a mere formality, I think I need not trouble you any further."

It had come at last. Malipieri felt himself growing cold, and said nothing for a moment. Volterra again began to watch him curiously.

"I fancy," the detective said, "that your room opens from the study in which we have already been. I only wish to look in."

"There is a small room before it, where I keep my clothes."

"I suppose we can go through the small room?"

"You may see that," said Malipieri, "but I shall not allow you to go into my bedroom."

"How very strange!" cried Volterra, staring at him.

Then the fat Baron broke into a laugh, that, made his watch-chain dance on his smooth and rotund speckled waistcoat.

"I see! I see!" he tried to say.

The detective understood, and smiled in a subdued way. Malipieri knit his brows angrily, as he felt himself becoming more and more utterly powerless to stave off the frightful catastrophe that threatened Sabina. But the detective was anxious to make matters pleasant by diplomatic means.

"I had not been told that Signor Malipieri was a married man," he said. "Of course, if the Signora Malipieri is not yet visible, I shall be delighted to give her time to dress."

Malipieri bit his lip and made a few steps up and down.

"I did not know that your wife was in Rome," Volterra said, glancing at him, and apparently confirming the detective in his mistake.

"For that matter," said the detective, "I am a married man myself, and if the lady is in bed, she might allow me merely to stand at the door, and glance in."

"I think she is still asleep," Malipieri answered. "I do not like to disturb her, and the room is quite dark."

"My time is at your disposal," said the detective. "Shall we go back and wait in the study? You would perhaps be so kind as to see whether the Signora is awake or not, but I am quite ready to wait till she comes out of her room. I would not put her to any inconvenience for the world, I assure you."

"Really," the Baron said to Malipieri, "I think you might wake her."

The soldiers looked on stolidly, the porter kept his eyes and ears open, and Gigi, full of curiosity, wore the expression of a smiling weasel. To the porter's knowledge, so far as it went, no woman but his own wife had entered the palace since Malipieri had been living in it.

Malipieri made no answer to Volterra's last speech, and walked up and down, seeking a solution. The least possible one seemed to be that suggested by the Baron himself. The latter, though now very curious, was more than ever in a hurry to bring the long enquiry to a close. It occurred to him that it would simplify matters if he and Malipieri and the detective were left alone together, and he said so, urging that as there was unexpectedly a lady in the case, the presence of so many witnesses should be avoided. Even now he never thought of the possibility that the lady in question might be Sabina.

The detective now yielded the point willingly enough, and the soldiers were sent off with Gigi and the porter to wait in the latter's lodge. It was a slight relief to Malipieri to see them go. He and his two companions went back to the study together.

The Baron resumed his seat in the armchair; he always sat down when he had time, and he had not yet finished his big cigar. The detective went to the window and looked out through the panes, as if to give Malipieri time to make up his mind what to do; and Malipieri paced the floor with bent head, his hands in his pockets, in utter desperation. At any moment Sabina might appear, yet he dared not even go to her door, lest the two men should follow him.

But at least he could prevent her from coming in, for he could lock the entrance to the small room. As he reached the end of his walk he turned the key and put it into his pocket. The detective turned round sharply and Volterra moved his head at the sound.

"Why do you do that?" he asked, in a tone of annoyance.

"Because no one shall go in, while I have the key," Malipieri answered.

"I must go in, sooner or later," said the detective, "I can wait all day, and all night, if you please, for I shall not use force where a lady is concerned. But I must see that room."

Like all such men, he was obstinate, when he believed that he was doing his duty. Malipieri looked from him to Volterra, and back again, and suddenly made up his mind. He preferred the detective, of the two, if he must trust any one, the more so as the latter probably did not know Sabina by sight.

"If you will be so kind as to stay there, in that armchair," he said to Volterra, "I will see what I can do to hasten matters. Will you?"

"Certainly. I am very comfortable here." The Baron laughed a little.

"Then," said Malipieri, turning to the detective, "kindly come with me, and I will explain as far as I can."

He took the key from his pocket again, and opened the door of the small room, let in the detective and shut it after him without locking it. He had hardly made up his mind what to say, but he knew what he wished.

"This is a very delicate affair," he began in a whisper. "I will see whether the lady is awake."

He went to the door of the bedroom on tiptoe and listened. Not a sound reached him. The room was quite out of hearing of the rest of the apartment, and Sabina, accustomed as she was to sleep eight hours without waking, was still resting peacefully. Malipieri came back noiselessly.

"She is asleep," he whispered. "Will you not take my word for it that there is nothing to be found in the room which can have the least connection with Sassi's accident?"

The detective shook his head gravely, and raised his eyebrows, while he shut his eyes, as some men do when they mean that nothing can convince them.

"I advise you to go in and wake your wife," he whispered, still very politely. "She can wrap herself up and sit in a chair while I look in."

"That is impossible. I cannot go in and wake her."

The detective looked surprised, and was silent for a moment.

"This is a very strange situation," he muttered. "A man who dares not go into his wife's room when she is asleep--I do not understand."

"I cannot explain," answered Malipieri, "but it is altogether impossible. I ask you to believe me, on my oath, that you will find nothing in the room."

"I have already told you, sir, that I must fulfil the formalities, whatever I may wish to believe. And it is my firm belief that Signor Sassi came by the injuries of which he may possibly die, somewhere in this apartment, yesterday afternoon. My reputation is at stake, and I am a government servant. To oblige you, I will wait an hour, but if the lady is not awake then, I shall go and knock at that door and call until she answers. It would be simpler if you would do it yourself. That is all, and you must take your choice."

Malipieri saw that he must wake Sabina, and explain to her through the door that she must dress. He reflected a moment, and was about to ask the detective to go back to the study, when a sound of voices came from that direction, and one was a woman's.

"It seems that there is another lady in the house," said the detective. "Perhaps she can help us. Surely you will allow a lady to enter your wife's room and wake her."

But Malipieri was speechless at that moment and was leaning stupidly against the jamb of the study door. He had recognized the voice of the Baroness talking excitedly with her husband. Fate had caught him now, and there was no escape. Instinctively, he was sure that the Baroness had come in search of Sabina, and would not leave the house till she had found her, do what he might.

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