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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 19
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 19 Post by :Punch_M6.Net Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1318

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX

"So you spent last night in the rooms of a man you have not seen half a dozen times," said the Princess, speaking with a cigarette in her mouth. "And what is worse, those dreadful Volterra people found you there. No Conti ever had any common sense!"

What Sabina had foreseen had happened. Her mother had looked her over, from head to foot, to see what sort of condition she was in, as a horse-dealer looks over a promising colt he has not seen for some time; and the Princess had instantly detected the signs of an accident. In answer to her question Sabina told the truth. Her mother had watched her face and her innocent eyes while she was telling the story, and needed no other confirmation.

"You are a good girl," she continued, as Sabina did not reply to the last speech. "But you are a little fool. I wonder why my children are all idiots! I am not so stupid after all. I suppose it must have been your poor father."

The white lids closed thoughtfully over her magnificent eyes, and opened again after a moment, as if she had called up a vision of her departed husband and had sent it away again.

"I suppose it was silly of me to go at all," Sabina admitted, leaning back in her chair. "But I wanted so much to see the statues!"

She felt at home. Her mother had brought her up badly and foolishly, and of late had neglected her shamefully. Sabina knew that and neither loved her nor respected her, and it was not because she was her mother that the girl felt suddenly at ease in her presence, as she never could feel with the Baroness. She did not wish to be at all like her mother in character, or even in manner, and yet she felt that they belonged to the same kind, spoke the same language, and had an instinctive understanding of each other, though these things implied neither mutual respect nor affection.

"That horrible old Volterra!" said the Princess, with emphasis. "He means to keep everything he has found, for himself, if he can. I have come only just in time."

Sabina did not answer. She knew nothing of the law, and though she fancied that she might have some morally just claim to a share in the treasure, she had never believed that it could be proved.

"Of course," the Princess continued, smoking thoughtfully, "there is only one thing to be done. You must marry this Malipieri at once, whether you like him or not. What sort of man is he?"

The faint colour rose in Sabina's cheeks and not altogether at the mere thought of marrying Malipieri; she was hurt by the way her mother spoke of him.

"What kind of man is he?" the Princess repeated, "I suppose he is a Venetian, a son of the man who married the Gradenigo heiress, about the time when I was married myself. Is he the man who discovered Troy?"

"Carthage, I think," said Sabina.

"Troy, Carthage, America, it is all the same. He discovered something, and I fancy he will be rich. But what is he like? Dark, fair, good, bad, snuffy or smart? As he is an archaeologist, he must be snuffy, a bore, probably, and what the English call a male frump. It cannot be helped, my dear! You will have to marry him. Describe him to me."

"He is dark," said Sabina.

"I am glad of that. I always liked dark men--your father was fair, like you. Besides, as you are a blonde, you will always look better beside a dark husband. But of course he is dreadfully careless, with long hair and doubtful nails. All those people are."

"No," said Sabina. "He is very nice-looking and neat, and wears good clothes."

The Princess's brow cleared.

"All the better," she said. "Well, my dear, it is not so bad after all. We have found a husband for you, rich, of good family--quite as good as yours, my child! Good-looking, smart--what more do you expect? Besides, he cannot possibly refuse to marry you after what has happened. On the whole, I think your adventure has turned out rather well. You can be married in a month. Every one will think it quite natural that it should have been kept quiet until I came, you see."

"But even if I wanted to marry him, he will never ask for me," objected Sabina, who was less surprised than might be expected, for she knew her mother thoroughly.

The Princess laughed, and blew a cloud of smoke from her lips, and then showed her handsome teeth.

"I have only to say the word," she answered. "When a young girl of our world has spent the night in a man's rooms, he marries her, if her family wishes it. No man of honour can possibly refuse. I suppose that this Malipieri is a gentleman?"

"Indeed he is!" Sabina spoke with considerable indignation.

"Precisely. Then he will come to me this afternoon and tell his story frankly, just as you have done--it was very sensible of you, my dear-- and he will offer to marry you. Of course I shall accept."

"But, mother," cried Sabina, aghast at the suddenness of the conclusion, "I am not at all sure--"

She stopped, feeling that she was much more sure of being in love with Malipieri than she had been when she had driven to the palace with Sassi on the previous afternoon.

"Is there any one you like better?" asked the Princess sharply. "Are you in love with any one else?"

"No! But--"

"I had never seen your father when our marriage was arranged," the Princess observed.

"And you were very unhappy together," Sabina answered promptly. "You always say so."

"Oh, unhappy? I am not so sure, now. Certainly Hot nearly so miserable as half the people I know. After all, what is happiness, child? Doing what you please, is it not?"

Sabina had not thought of this definition, and she laughed, without accepting it. In one way, everything looked suddenly bright and cheerful, since her mother had believed her story, and she knew that she was not to go back to the Baroness, who had not believed her at all, and had called her bad names.

"And I almost always did as I pleased," the Princess continued, after a moment's reflection. "The only trouble was that your dear father did not always like what I did. He was a very religious man. That was what ruined us. He gave half his income to charities and then scolded me because I could not live on the other half. Besides, he turned the Ten Commandments into a hundred. It was a perfect multiplication, table of things one was not to do."

Poor Sabina's recollections of her father had nothing of affection in them, and she did not feel called upon to defend his memory. Like many weak but devout men, he had been severe to his children, even to cruelty, while perfectly incapable of controlling his wife's caprices.

"I remember, though I was only a little girl when he died," Sabina said.

"Is Malipieri very religious?" the Princess asked "I mean, does he make a fuss about having fish on Fridays?" She spoke quite gravely.

"I fancy not," Sabina answered, seeing nothing odd in her mother's implied definition of righteousness. "He never talked to me about religion, I am sure."

"Thank God!" exclaimed the Princess devoutly.

"He always says he is a republican," Sabina remarked, glad to talk about him.

"Really?" The Princess was interested. "I adore revolutionaries," she said thoughtfully. "They always have something to say. I have always longed to meet a real anarchist."

"Signor Malipieri is not an anarchist," said Sabina.

"Of course not, child! I never said he was. All anarchists are shoemakers or miners, or something like that. I only said that I always longed to meet one. People who do not value their lives are generally amusing. When I was a girl, I was desperately in love with a cousin of mine who drove a four-in-hand down a flight of steps, and won a bet by jumping on a wild bear's back. He was always doing those things. I loved him dearly." The Princess laughed.

"What became of him?" Sabina asked.

"He shot himself one day in Geneva, poor boy, because he was bored. I was always sorry, though they would not have let me marry him, because he had lost all his money at cards." The Princess sighed. "Of course you want a lot of new clothes, my dear," she said, changing the subject rather suddenly. "Have you nothing but that to wear?"

Sabina's things had not yet come from the Via Ludovisi. She explained that she had plenty of clothes.

"I fancy they are nothing but rags," her mother answered incredulously. "We shall have to go to Paris in any case for your trousseau. You cannot get anything here."

"But we have no money," objected Sabina.

"As if that made any difference! We can always get money, somehow. What a child you are!"

Sabina said nothing, for she knew that her mother always managed to have what she wanted, even when it looked quite impossible. The girl had been brought up in the atmosphere of perpetual debt and borrowing which seemed natural to the Princess, and nothing of that sort surprised her, though it was all contrary to her own instinctively conscientious and honourable nature.

Her mother had always been a mystery to her, and now, as Sabina sat near her, she crossed her feet, which were encased in a pair of the Princess's slippers, and looked at her as she had often looked before, wondering how such a reckless, scatter-brained, almost penniless woman could have remained the great personage which the world always considered her to be, and that, too, without the slightest effort on her part to maintain her position.

Then Sabina reflected upon the Baroness's existence, which was one long struggle to reach a social elevation not even remotely rivalling that of the Princess Conti; a struggle in which she was armed with a large fortune, with her husband's political power, with the most strictly virtuous views of life, and an iron will; a struggle which could never raise her much beyond the point she had already reached.

Sabina's meditations were soon interrupted by the arrival of her belongings, in charge of her mother's maid, and the immediate necessity of dressing more carefully than had been possible when she had been so rudely roused by the Baroness. She was surprised to find herself so little tired by the desperate adventure, and without even a cold as the result of the never-to-be-forgotten chill she had felt in the vaults.

In the afternoon, the Princess declared that she would not go out. She was sure that Malipieri would present himself, and she would receive him in her boudoir. The ambassador had given her a very pretty set of rooms. He was a bachelor, and was of course delighted to have her stay with him, and still more pleased that her pretty daughter should join her. It was late in the season, he was detained in Rome by an international complication, and he looked upon the arrival of the two guests as a godsend, more especially as the Princess was an old acquaintance of his and the wife of an intimate friend. Nothing could have been more delightful, and everything was for the best. The Princess herself felt that fortune was shining upon her, for she never doubted that she could lay hands on some of the money which the statues would bring, and she was sure, at least, of marrying Sabina extremely well in a few weeks, which was an advantage not to be despised.

During the hours that followed her first conversation with her mother, Sabina found time to reflect upon her own future, and the more she thought of it, the more rosy it seemed. She was sure that Malipieri loved her, though he had certainly not told her so yet, and she was sure that she had never met a man whom she liked half so much. It was true that she had not met many, and none at all in even such intimacy as had established itself between him and her at their very first meeting; but that mattered little, and last night she had seen him as few women ever see a man, fighting for her life and his own for hours together, and winning in the end. Indeed, had she known it, their situation had been really desperate, for while Masin was in prison and in ignorance of what had happened, and Sassi lying unconscious at the hospital after a fall that had nearly killed him outright, it was doubtful whether any one else could have guessed that they were in the vaults or would have been able to get them out alive, had it been known.

She had always expected to be married against her will by her mother, or at all events without any inclination on her own part. She had been taught that it was the way of the world, which it was better to accept. If the proposed husband had been a cripple, or an old man, she would have been capable of rebellion, of choosing the convent, of running away alone into the world, of almost anything. But if he had turned out to be an average individual, neither uglier, nor older, nor more repulsive than many others, she would probably have accepted her fate with indifference, or at least with the necessary resignation, especially if she had never met Malipieri. Instead of that, it was probably Malipieri whom she was to marry, the one of all others whom she had chosen for herself, and in place of a dreary existence, stretching out through endless blank years in the future, she saw a valley of light, carpeted with roses, opening suddenly in the wilderness to receive her and the man she loved.

It was no wonder that she smiled in her sleep as she lay resting in the warm afternoon, in her own room. Her mother had made her lie down, partly because she was still tired, and partly because it would be convenient that she should be out of the way if Malipieri came.

He came, as the Princess had expected, and between two and three o'clock, an hour at which he was almost sure to find her at home. From what Sabina had said to the Baroness in his presence, and from his judgment of the girl's character, he felt certain that she would tell her mother the whole story at once. As they had acknowledged to each other in the vaults, they were neither of them good at inventing falsehoods, and Sabina would surely tell the truth. In the extremely improbable case that she had not been obliged to say anything about the events of the night, his visit would not seem at all out of place. He had seen a good deal of Sabina during her mother's absence, and it was proper that he should present himself in order to make the Princess's acquaintance.

He studied her face quickly as he came forward, and made up his mind that she expected him, though she looked up with an air of languid surprise as he entered. She leaned forward a little in her comfortable seat, and held out her plump hand.

"I think I knew your mother, and my daughter has told me about you," she said. "I am glad to see you."

"You are very kind," Malipieri answered, raising her hand to his lips, which encountered a large, cool sapphire. "I have had the pleasure of meeting Donna Sabina several times."

"Yes, I know." The Princess laughed. "Sit down here beside me, and tell me all about your strange adventure. You are really the man I mean, are you not?" she asked, still smiling. "Your mother was a Gradenigo?"

"Yes. My father is alive. You may have met him, though he rarely leaves Venice."

"I think I have, years ago, but I am not sure. Does he never come to Rome?"

"He is an invalid now," Malipieri explained gravely. He cannot leave the house."

"Indeed? I am very sorry. It must be dreadful to be an invalid. I was never ill in my life. But now that we have made acquaintance, do tell me all about last night I Were you really in danger, as Sabina thinks, or is she exaggerating?"

"There was certainly no exaggeration in saying that we were in great danger, as matters have turned out," Malipieri answered. "Of the two men who knew that we were in the vault, one is lying insensible, with a fractured skull, in the hospital of the Consolazione, and the other has been arrested by a mistake and is in prison. Besides, both of them would have had every reason to suppose that we had got out."

"Sabina did not tell me that. How awful! I must know all the details, please!"

Malipieri told the whole story, from the time when Volterra had first invited him to come and make a search. The Princess nodded her energetic approval of his view that Sabina had a right to a large share in anything that was found. The poor girl's dowry, she said, had been eaten up by her father's absurd charities and by the bad administration of the estates which had ruined the whole family. Malipieri paid no attention to this statement, for he knew the truth, and he went on to the end, telling everything, up to the moment when Volterra had at last quitted the palace that morning and had left him free.

"Poor Sassi!" exclaimed the Princess, when he had finished. "He was a foolish old man, but he always seemed very willing. Is that all?"

"Yes. That is all. I think I have forgotten nothing."

The Princess looked at him and smiled encouragingly, expecting him to say something more, but he was grave and silent. Gradually, the smile faded from her face, till she looked away, and took a cigarette from the table at her elbow. Still he said nothing. She lit the cigarette and puffed at it two or three times, slowly and thoughtfully.

"I hope that Donna Sabina is none the worse for the fatigue," Malipieri said at last. "She seemed quite well this morning. I wondered that she had not caught cold."

"She never caught cold easily, even as a child," answered the Princess indifferently. "This affair may have much more serious consequences than a cold in the head," she added, after a long pause.

"I think the Volterra couple will be discreet, for their own sakes," Malipieri answered.

"Their servants must know that Sabina was out all night."

"They do not know that poor Sassi did not bring her to you here, and the Baroness will be careful to let them understand that she is here now, and with you. Those people dread nothing like a scandal. The secret is between them and us. I do not see how any one else can possibly know it, or guess it."

"The fact remains," said the Princess, speaking out, "that my daughter spent last night in your rooms, and slept there, as if she had been in her own home. If it is ever known she will be ruined."

"It will never be known, I am quite sure."

"I am not, and it is a possibility I cannot really afford to contemplate." She looked fixedly at him.

Malipieri was silent, and his face showed that he was trying to find some way out of the imaginary difficulty, or at least some argument which might quiet the Princess's fears.

She did not understand his silence. If he was a man of honour, it was manifestly his duty at least to offer the reparation that lay in his power; but he showed no inclination to do so. It was incomprehensible.

"I cannot see what is to be done," he said at last.

"Is it possible that I must tell you, Signer Malipieri?" asked the Princess, and her splendid eyes flashed angrily.

Malipieri's met them without flinching.

"You mean, of course, that I should offer to marry Donna Sabina," he said.

"What else could an honourable man do, in your position?"

"I wish I knew." Malipieri passed his hand over Ms eyes in evident distress.

"Do you mean to say that you refuse?" the Princess asked, between scorn and anger. "Are you so little one of us that you suppose this to be a question of inclination?"

Malipieri looked up again.

"I wish it were. I love your daughter with all my heart and soul. I did, before I saved her life last night."

The Princess's anger gave way to stupefaction.

"Well--but then? I do not understand. There is something else?"

"Yes, there is something else. I have kept the secret a long time, and it is not all my own."

"I have a right to know it," the Princess answered firmly, and bending her brows.

"I never expected to tell it to any one," Malipieri said, in a low voice, and evidently struggling with himself. "I see that I shall have to trust you."

"You must," insisted the Princess. "My daughter has a right to know, as well as I; and you say that you love her."

"I am married."

"Good heavens!"

She sank back in her chair, overwhelmed with surprise at the simple statement, which, after all, need not have astonished her so much, as she reflected a moment later. She had never heard of Malipieri until that day, and since he had never told any one of his marriage, it was impossible that her daughter should have known of it. She was tolerably sure that the latter's adventure would not be known, but she had formed the determination to take advantage of it in order to secure Malipieri for Sabina, and had been so perfectly sure of the result that she fell from the clouds on learning that he had a wife already.

On his part, he was not thinking of what was passing in her mind, but of what he should have thought of himself, had he, with his character, been in her position. The bald statement that he was married and his confession of his love for Sabina looked badly side by side, in the clear light of his own honour; all the more, because he knew that, without positively or directly speaking out his heart to the girl, he had let her guess that he was falling in love with her. He had said so, though in jest, on that night when he had been alone with her in Volterra's house; his going there, on the mere chance of seeing her alone, and the interest he had shown in her from their first meeting, must have made her think that he was in love. Moreover, he really was, and like most people who are consciously in love where they ought not to be, he felt as if everybody knew it; and yet he was a married man.

"I am legally married under Italian law," he said, after a pause. "But that is all. My wife bears my name, and lives honourably under it, but that is all there has ever been of marriage in my life. I can honestly say that not even a word of affection ever passed between us."

"How strange!" The Princess listened with interest, wondering what was coming next.

"I never saw her but once," Malipieri continued. "We met in the morning, we were married at noon, at the municipality, we parted at the railway station twenty minutes later, and have never met again."

"But you are not married at all!" cried the Princess. "The Church would annul such a marriage without making the least trouble."

"We were not even married in church," said Malipieri. "We were married at the municipality only."

"It is not a marriage at all, then."

"Excuse me. It is perfectly valid in law, and my wife has a certified copy of the register to prove that she has a right to my name."

"Were you mad? What made you do it? It is utterly incomprehensible--to bind yourself for life to a woman you had never seen! What possible motive--"

"I will tell you," said Malipieri. "It all happened long ago, when I was little more than twenty-one. It is not a very long story, but I beg you not to tell it. You do not suppose me capable of keeping it a secret in order to make another marriage, not really legal do you?"

"Certainly not," answered the Princess. "I believe you to be an honourable man. I will not tell your story to any one."

"You may tell Donna Sabina as much of it as you think she need hear. This is what happened. I served my time in a cavalry regiment--no matter where, and I had an intimate friend, nearly of my own age, and a Venetian. He was very much in love with a young girl of a respectable family, but not of his own station. Of course his family would not hear of a marriage, but she loved him, and he promised that he would marry her as soon as he had finished his military service, in spite of his own people. He would have been of age by that time, for he was only a few months younger than I, and he was willing to sacrifice most of his inheritance for love of the girl. Do you understand?"

"Yes. Go on."

"He and I were devotedly attached to each other, said I sympathized with him, of course, and promised to help him if he made a runaway match. He used to get leave for a couple of days, to go and see her, for she lived with her parents in a small city within two hours of our garrison town. You guess what happened.--They were young, they were foolish, and they were madly in love."

The Princess nodded, and Malipieri continued.

"Not long afterwards, my friend was killed by a fall. His horse crushed him. It was a horrible accident, and he lived twelve hours after it, in great pain. He would not let the doctors give him morphia. He said he would die like a man, and he did, with all his senses about him. While he lay dying, I was with him, and then he told me all the truth. The girl would not be able to conceal it much longer. There was no time to bring her to his bedside and marry her while he still breathed. He could not even leave her money, for he was a minor. He could do nothing for her and her parents would turn her into the street; in any case she was ruined. He was in frightful agony of mind for her sake, he was dying before my eyes, powerless to help her and taking his suffering and his fault with him to the next world, and he was my friend. I did what I could. I gave him my word of honour that I would marry her legally, give her and her child my name, and provide for them as well as I could. He thanked me--I shall never forget how he looked--and he died quietly, half an hour afterwards. You know now. I kept my word. That is all."

The Princess looked at his quiet face a moment in silence, and all that was best in her rose up through all that was artificial and worldly, and untruthful and vain.

"I did not know that there were such men," she said simply.

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