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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 18
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 18 Post by :Tanner Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1607

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII

The Baroness had been called to the telephone five minutes after Volterra had gone out with the porter, leaving word that he was going to the Palazzo Conti and would be back within two hours. The message she received was from the Russian Embassy, and informed her that the dowager Princess Conti had arrived at midnight, was the guest of the Ambassador, and wished her daughter Sabina to come and see her between eleven and twelve o'clock. In trembling tones the Baroness had succeeded in saying that Sabina should obey, and had rung off the connection at once. Then, for the first time in her life, she had felt for a moment as if she were going to faint.

The facts, which were unknown to her, were simple enough. The Ambassador had been informed that a treasure had been discovered, and had telegraphed the fact in cipher to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg, who had telegraphed the news to Prince Rubomirska, who had telegraphed to the Ambassador, who was his intimate friend, requesting him to receive the Princess for a few days. As the Prince and his sister were already in the country, in Poland, not far from the Austrian frontier, it had not taken her long to reach Rome. Of all this, the poor Baroness was in ignorance. The one fact stared her in the face, that the Princess had come to claim Sabina, and Sabina had disappeared.

She had learned that the porter had come to say that the cellars of the Palazzo Conti were flooded, and she knew that her husband would be there some time. She found Sassi's card, on which his address was printed, and she drove there in a cab, climbed the stairs and rang the bell. The old woman who opened was in terrible trouble, and was just going out. She showed the Baroness the news of Sassi's mysterious accident shortly given in a paragraph of the _Messaggero_, the little morning paper which is universally read greedily by the lower classes. She was just going to the accident hospital, the "Consolazione," to see her poor master. He had gone out at half past four on the previous afternoon, and she had sat up all night, hoping that he would come in. She was quite sure that he had not returned at all after he had gone out. She was quite sure, too, that he had been knocked down and robbed, for he had a gold watch and chain, and always carried money in his pocket.

The Baroness looked at her, and saw that she was speaking the truth and was in real distress. It would be quite useless to search the rooms for Sabina. The old woman-servant had no idea who the Baroness was, and in her sudden trouble would certainly have confided to her that there was a young lady in the house, who had not been able to get home.

"For the love of heaven, Signora," she cried, "come with me to the hospital, if you know him, for he may be dying."

The Baroness promised to go later, and really intended to do so. She drove to the convent in which Donna Clementina was now a cloistered nun, and asked the portress whether Donna Sabina Conti had been to see her sister on the previous day. The portress answered that she had not, and was quite positive of the fact. The Baroness looked at her watch and hastened to the Palazzo Conti. When she got there, the porter had already returned to his lodge, and he led her upstairs and to the door of the study.

Finding her husband alone, she explained what was the matter, in a few words and in a low voice. The Princess had come back, and wished to see Sabina that very morning, and Sabina could not be found. She sank into a chair, and her sallow face expressed the utmost fright and perplexity.

"Sassi left our house at five o'clock with Sabina," said the Baron, "and at a quarter to six he was taken from the door of this palace to the hospital by Malipieri's man. Either Malipieri or his man must have seen her."

"She is here!" cried the Baroness in a loud tone, something of the truth flashing upon her. "I know she is here!"

Volterra's mind worked rapidly at the possibility, as at a problem. If his wife were not mistaken it was easy to explain Malipieri's flat refusal to let any one enter the bedroom.

"You may be right," he said, rising. "If she is in the palace she is in the room beyond that one." He pointed to the door. "You must go in," he said. "Never mind Malipieri. I will manage him."

At that moment the door opened. Malipieri had recovered his senses enough to attempt a final resistance, and stood there, very pale, ready for anything.

But the fat Baron knew what he was about, and as he came forward with his wife he suddenly thrust out his hand at Malipieri's head, and the latter saw down the barrel of Volterra's revolver.

"You must let my wife pass," cried Volterra coolly, "or I will shoot you."

Malipieri was as active as a sailor. In an instant he had hurled himself, bending low, at the Baron's knees, and the fat man fell over him, while the revolver flew from his hand, half across the room, fortunately not going off as it fell on its side. While Malipieri was struggling to get the upper hand, the detective ran forward and helped Volterra. The two threw themselves upon the younger man, and between the detective's wiry strength and the Baron's tremendous weight, he lay panting and powerless on his back for an instant.

The Baroness had possibly assisted at some scenes of violence in the course of her husband's checkered career. At all events, she did not stop to see what happened after the way was clear, but ran to the door of the bedroom, and threw it wide open, for it was not locked. The light that entered showed her where the window was; she opened it in an instant, and looked round.

Sabina was sitting up in bed, staring at her with a dazed expression, her hair in wild confusion round her pale face and falling over her bare neck. Her clothes lay in a heap on the floor, beside the bed, Never was any woman more fairly caught in a situation impossible to explain. Even in that first moment she felt it, when she looked at the Baroness's face.

The latter did not speak, for she was utterly incapable of finding words. The sound of a scuffle could be heard from the study in the distance; she quietly shut the door and turned the key. Then she came and stood by the bed, facing the window. Sabina had sunk back upon the pillows, but her eyes looked up bravely and steadily. Of the two she was certainly the one less disturbed, even then, for she remembered that Malipieri had meant to go and tell the Baroness the whole truth, early in the morning. He had done so, of course, and the Baroness had come to take her back, very angry of course, but that was all. This was what Sabina told herself, but she guessed that matters would turn out much worse.

"Did he tell you how it happened that I could not get home?" she asked, almost calmly.

"No one has told me anything. Your mother arrived in Rome last night. She is at the Russian Embassy and wishes to see you at eleven o'clock."

"My mother?" Sabina raised herself on one hand in surprise.

"Yes. And I find you here."

The Baroness folded her arms like a man, her brows contracted, and her face was almost livid.

"Have you the face to meet your mother, after this?" she asked sternly.

"Yes--of course," answered Sabina. "But I must go home and dress. My frock is ruined."

"You are a brazen creature," said the Baroness in disgust and anger. "You do not seem to know what shame means."

Sabina's deep young eyes flashed; it was not safe to say such things to her.

"I have done nothing to be ashamed of," she answered proudly, "and you shall not speak to me like that. Do you understand?"

"Nothing to be ashamed of!" The Baroness stared at her in genuine amazement. "Nothing to be ashamed of!" she repeated, and her voice shook with emotion. "You leave my house by stealth, you let no one know where you are going, and the next morning I find you here, in your lover's house, in your lover's room, the door not even locked, your head upon your lover's pillow! Nothing to be ashamed of! Merciful heavens! And you have not only ruined yourself, but you have done an irreparable injury to honest people who took you in when you were starving!"

The poor woman paused for breath, and in her horror, she hid her face in her hands. She had her faults, no doubt, and she knew that the world was bad, but she had never dreamt of such barefaced and utterly monstrous cynicism as Sabina's. If the girl had been overcome with shame and repentance, and had broken down entirely, imploring help and forgiveness, as would have seemed natural, the Baroness, for her own social sake, might have been at last moved to help her out of her trouble. Instead, being a person of rigid virtue and judging the situation in the only way really possible for her to see it, she was both disgusted and horrified. It was no wonder. But she was not prepared for Sabina's answer.

"If I were strong enough, I would kill you," said the young girl, quietly laying her head on the pillow again.

The Baroness laughed hysterically. She felt as if she were in the presence of the devil himself. She was not at all a hysterical woman nor often given to dramatic exhibitions of feeling, but she had never dreamt that a human being could behave with such horribly brazen shamelessness.

For some moments there was silence. Then Sabina spoke, in a quietly scornful tone, while the Baroness turned her back on her and stood quite still, looking out of the window.

"I suppose you have a right to be surprised," Sabina said, "but you have no right to insult me and say things that are not true. Perhaps Signor Malipieri likes me very much. I do not know. He has never told me he loved me."

The Baroness's large figure shook with fury, but she did not turn round. What more was the girl going to say? That she did not even care a little for the man with whom she had ruined herself? Yes. That was what she was going on to explain. It was beyond belief.

"I have only seen him a few times," Sabina said. "I daresay I shall be very fond of him if I see him often. I think he is very like my ideal of what a man should be."

The Baroness turned her face half round with an expression that was positively savage. But she said nothing, and again looked through the panes. She remembered afterwards that the room smelt slightly of stale cigar smoke, soap and leather.

"He wished me to see the things he has found before any one else should," Sabina continued. "So he got Sassi to bring me here. While we were in the vaults, the water came, and we could not get out. He worked for hours to break a hole, and it was two o'clock in the morning when we were free. I had not had any dinner, and of course I could not go with him to your house at that hour, even if I had not been worn out. So he brought me here and gave me something to eat, and his room to sleep in. As for the door not being locked, he told me twice to lock it, and I was so sleepy that I forgot to. That is what happened." After an ominous silence, the Baroness turned round. Her face was almost yellow now.

"I do not believe a word you have told me," she said, half choking.

"Then go!" cried Sabina, sitting up with flashing eyes. "I do not care a straw whether you believe the truth or not! Go! Go!"

She stretched out one straight white arm and pointed to the door, in wrath. The Baroness looked at her, and stood still a moment. Then she shrugged her shoulders in a manner anything but aristocratic, and left the room without deigning to turn her head. The instant she was gone Sabina sprang out of bed and locked the door after her.

Meanwhile, the struggle between Malipieri and his two adversaries had come to an end very soon. Malipieri had not really expected to prevent the Baroness from going to Sabina, but he had wished to try and explain matters to her before she went. He had upset Volterra, because the latter had pointed a revolver at his head, which will seem a sufficient reason to most hot-tempered men. The detective had suggested putting handcuffs on him, while they held him down, but Volterra was anxious to settle matters amicably.

"It was my fault," he said, drawing back. "I thought that you were going to resist, and I pulled out my pistol too soon. I offer you all my apologies."

He had got to his feet with more alacrity than might have been expected of such a fat man, and was adjusting his collar and tie, and smoothing his waistcoat over his rotundity. Malipieri had risen the moment he was free. The detective looked as if nothing had happened out of the common way, and the neatness of his appearance was not in the least disturbed.

"I offer you my apologies, Signor Malipieri," repeated the Baron cordially and smiling in a friendly way. "I should not have drawn my pistol on you. I presume you will accept the excuses I make?"

"Do not mention the matter," answered Malipieri with coolness, but civilly enough, seeing that there was nothing else to be done. "I trust you are none the worse for your fall."

"Not at all, not at all," replied Volterra. "I hope," he said, turning to the detective, "that you will say nothing about this incident, since no harm has been done. It concerns a private matter,--I may almost say, a family matter. I have some little influence, and if I can be of any use to you, I shall always be most happy."

The gratitude of so important a personage was not to be despised, as the detective knew. He produced a card bearing his name, and handed it to the Senator with a bow.

"Always at your service, sir," he said. "It is very fortunate that the revolver did not go off and hurt one of us," he added, picking up the weapon and handing it to Volterra. "I have noticed that these things almost invariably kill the wrong person, when they kill anybody at all, which is rare."

Volterra smiled, thanked him and returned the revolver to his pocket. Malipieri had watched the two in silence. Fate had taken matters out of his hands, and there was absolutely nothing to be done. In due time, Sabina would come out with the Baroness, but he could not guess what would happen then. Volterra would probably not speak out before the detective, who would not recognize Sabina, even if he knew her by sight. The Baroness would take care that he should not see the girl's face, as both Volterra and Malipieri knew.

The three men sat down and waited in silence after the detective had last spoken. Volterra lit a fresh cigar, and offered one to the detective a few moments later. The latter took it with a bow and put it into his pocket for a future occasion.

The door opened at last, and the Baroness entered, her face discoloured to a blotchy yellowness by her suppressed anger. She stood still a moment after she had come in, and glared at Malipieri. He and the detective rose, but Volterra kept his seat.

"Were you right, my dear?" the latter enquired, looking at her.

"Yes," she answered in a thick voice, turning to him for an instant, and then glaring at Malipieri again, as if she could hardly keep her hands from him in her righteous anger.

He saw clearly enough that she had not believed the strange story which Sabina must have told her, and he wondered whether any earthly power could possibly make her believe it in spite of herself. During the moments of silence that followed, the whole situation rose before him, in the only light under which it could at first appear to any ordinary person. It was frightful to think that what had been a bit of romantic quixotism on his part, in wishing Sabina to see the statues which should have been hers, should end in her social disgrace, perhaps in her utter ruin if the Baroness and her husband could not be mollified. He did not know that there was one point in Sabina's favour, in the shape of the Princess's sudden return to Rome, though he guessed the Baroness's character well enough to have foreseen, had he known of the new complication, that she would swallow her pride and even overlook Sabina's supposed misdeeds, rather than allow the Princess to accuse her of betraying her trust and letting the young girl ruin herself.

"I must consult with you," the Baroness said to her husband, controlling herself as she came forward into the room and passed Malipieri. "We cannot talk here," she added, glancing at the detective.

"This gentleman," said Volterra, waving his hand towards the latter, "is here officially, to make an enquiry about Sassi's accident."

"I shall be happy to wait outside if you have private matters to discuss," said the detective, who wished to show himself worthy of the Baron's favour, if he could do so without neglecting his duties.

"You are extremely obliging," Volterra said, in a friendly tone.

The detective smiled, bowed and left the room by the door leading towards the hall.

"It seems to me," the Baroness said, still suppressing her anger, as she turned her face a little towards Malipieri and spoke at him over her shoulder, "it seems to me that you might go too."

It was not for Malipieri to resent her tone or words just then, and he knew it, though he hated her for believing the evidence of her senses rather than Sabina's story. He made a step towards the door.

"No," Volterra said, without rising, "I think he had better stay, and hear what we have to say about this. After all, the responsibility for what has happened falls upon him."

"I should think it did!" cried the Baroness, breaking out at last, in harsh tones. "You abominable villain, you monster of iniquity, you snake, you viper--"

"Hush, hush, my dear!" interposed the Baron, realizing vaguely that his wife's justifiable excitement was showing itself in unjustifiably vulgar vituperation.

"You toad!" yelled the Baroness, shaking her fist in Malipieri's face. "You reptile, you accursed ruffian, you false, black-hearted, lying son of Satan!"

She gasped for breath, and her whole frame quivered with fury, while her livid lips twisted themselves to hiss out the epithets of abuse. Volterra feared lest she should fall down in an apoplexy, and he rose from his seat quickly. He gathered her to his corpulent side with one arm and made her turn away towards the window, which he opened with his free hand.

"I should be all that, and worse, if a tenth of what you believe were true," Malipieri said, coming nearer and then standing still.

He was very pale, and he was conscious of a cowardly wish that Volterra's revolver might have killed him ten minutes earlier. But he was ashamed of the mere thought when he remembered what Sabina would have to face. Volterra, while holding his wife firmly against the window sill, to force her to breathe the outer air, turned his head towards Malipieri.

"She is quite beside herself, you see," he said apologetically.

The Baroness was a strong woman, and after the first explosion of her fury she regained enough self-control to speak connectedly. She turned round, in spite of the pressure of her husband's arm.

"He is not even ashamed of what he has done!" she said. "He stands there--"

The Baron interrupted her, fearing another outburst.

"Let me speak," he said in the tone she could not help obeying. "What explanation have you to offer of Donna Sabina's presence here?" he asked.

As he put the question, he nodded significantly to Malipieri, over his wife's shoulder, evidently to make the latter understand that he must at least invent some excuse if he had none ready. The Baron did not care a straw what became of him, or of Sabina, and wished them both out of his way for ever, but he had always avoided scandal, and was especially anxious to avoid it now.

Malipieri resented the hint much more than the Baroness's anger, but he was far too much in the wrong, innocent though he was, to show his resentment.

He told his story firmly and coolly, and it agreed exactly with Sabina's.

"That is exactly what happened last night," he concluded. "If you will go down, you will find the breach I made, and the first vaults full of water. I have nothing more to say."

"You taught her the lesson admirably," said the Baroness with withering scorn. "She told me the same story almost word for word!"

"Madam," Malipieri answered, "I give you my word of honour that it is true."

"My dear," Volterra said, speaking to his wife, "when a gentleman gives his word of honour, you are bound to accept it."

"I hope so," said Malipieri.

"Any man would perjure himself for a woman," retorted the Baroness with contempt.

"No, my dear," the Baron objected, trying to mollify her. "Perjury is a crime, you know."

"And what he has done is a much worse crime!" she cried.

"I have not committed any crime," Malipieri answered. "I would give all I possess, and my life, to undo what has happened, but I have neither said nor done anything to be ashamed of. For Donna Sabina's sake, you must accept my explanation. In time you will believe it."

"Yes, yes," urged Volterra, "I am sure you will, my dear. In any case you must accept it as the only one. I will go downstairs with Signor Malipieri and we will take the porter to the cellars. Then you can go out with Sabina, and if you are careful no one will ever know that she has been here."

"And do you mean to let her live under your roof after this?" asked the Baroness indignantly.

"Her mother is now in Rome," answered Volterra readily. "When she is dressed, you will take her to the Princess, and you will say that as we are going away, we are reluctantly obliged to decline the responsibility of keeping the young girl with us any longer. That is what you will do."

"I am glad you admit at least that she cannot live with us any longer," the Baroness answered. "I am sure I have no wish to ruin the poor girl, who has been this man's unhappy victim--"

"Hush, hush!" interposed Volterra. "You must really accept the explanation he has given."

"For decency's sake, you may, and I shall have to pretend that I do. At least," she continued, turning coldly to Malipieri, "you will make such reparation as is in your power."

"I will do anything I can," answered Malipieri gravely.

"You will marry her as soon as possible," the Baroness said with frigid severity. "It is the only thing you can do."

Malipieri was silent. The Baron looked at him, and a disagreeable smile passed over his fat features. But at that moment the door opened, and Sabina entered. Without the least hesitation she came forward to Malipieri, frankly holding out her hand.

"Good morning," she said. "Before I go, I wish to thank you again for saving my life, and for taking care of me here."

He held her hand a moment.

"I ask your pardon, with all my heart, for having brought you into danger and trouble," he answered.

"It was not your fault," she said. "It was nobody's fault, and I am glad I saw the statues before any one else. You told me last night that you were probably going away. If we never meet again, I wish you to remember that you are not to reproach yourself for anything that may happen to me. You might, you know. Will you remember?"

She spoke quite naturally and without the least fear of Volterra and his wife, who looked on and listened in dumb surprise at her self- possession. She meant every word she said, and more too, but she had thought out the little speech while she was dressing, for she had guessed what must be happening in the study. Malipieri fixed his eyes on hers gratefully, but did not find an answer at once.

"Will you remember?" she repeated.

"I shall never forget," he answered, not quite steadily,

By one of those miracles which are the birthright of certain women, she had made her dress look almost fresh again. The fawn-coloured hat was restored to its shape, or nearly. The mud that had soiled her skirt had dried and she had brushed it away, though it had left faint spots on the cloth, here and there; pins hid the little rents so cleverly that only a woman's eye could have detected anything wrong, and the russet shoes were tolerably presentable. The Baroness saw traces of the adventure to which the costume had been exposed, but Volterra smiled and was less inclined than ever to believe the story which both had told, though he did not say so.

"My wife and I," he said cordially, "quite understand what has happened, and no one shall ever know about it, unless you speak of it yourself. She will go home with you now, and will then take you to the Russian Embassy to see your mother."

Sabina looked at him in surprise, for she had expected a disagreeable scene. Then she glanced at the Baroness's sallow and angry face, and she partly understood the position.

"Thank you," she said proudly, "but if you do not mind, I will go to my mother directly. You will perhaps be so kind as to have my things sent to the Embassy, or my mother's maid will come and get them."

"You cannot go looking like that," said the Baroness severely.

"On the contrary," Volterra interposed, "I think that considering your dangerous adventure, you look perfectly presentable. Of course, we quite understand that as the Princess has returned, you should wish to go back to her at once, though we are very sorry to let you go."

Sabina paused a moment before answering. Then she spoke to the Baroness, only glancing at Volterra.

"Until to-day, you have been very kind to me," she said with an effort. "I thank you for your kindness, and I am sorry that you think so badly of me."

"My dear young lady," cried the Baron, lying with hearty cordiality, "you are much mistaken! I assure you, it was only a momentary misapprehension on the part of my wife, who had not even spoken with Signor Malipieri. His explanation has been more than satisfactory. Is it not so, my dear?" he asked, turning to the Baroness for confirmation of his fluent assurances.

"Of course," she answered, half choking, and with a face like thunder; but she dared not disobey.

"If my mother says anything about my frock, I shall tell her the whole story," said Sabina, glancing at her skirt.

"If you do," said the Baroness, "I shall deny it from beginning to end."

"I think that it would perhaps be wiser to explain that in some other way," the Baron suggested. "Signor Malipieri, will you be so very kind as to go down first, and take the porter with a light to the entrance of the cellars? He knows Donna Sabina, you see. I will come down presently, for I shall stay behind and ask the detective to look out of the window in the next room, while my wife and Donna Sabina pass through. In that way we shall be quite sure that she will not be recognized. Will you do that, Signor Malipieri? Unless you have a better plan to suggest, of course."

Malipieri saw that the plan was simple and apparently safe. He looked once more at Sabina, and she smiled, and just bent her head, but said nothing. He left the room. The detective was sitting in a corner of the room beyond, and the two men exchanged a silent nod as Malipieri passed.

Everything was arranged as the Baron had planned, and ten minutes later the Baroness and Sabina descended the stairs together in silence and reached the great entrance. The two soldiers were standing by the open door of the lodge, and saluted in military fashion. Gigi, the carpenter, sprang forward and opened the postern door, touching his paper cap to the ladies.

They did not exchange a word as they walked to the Piazza Sant' Apollinare to find a cab. Sabina held her head high and looked straight before her, and the Baroness's invisible silk bellows were distinctly audible in the quiet street.

"By the hour," said the Baroness, as they got into the first cab they reached on the stand. "Go to the Russian Embassy, in the Corso."

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