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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 20
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 20 Post by :cdromcsc Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2667

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

"So he got out," said Gigi to Toto, filling the latter's glass to the brim.

"May he die assassinated!" answered Toto. "I will burn a candle to the Madonna every day, in order that an apoplexy may seize him. He is the devil in person, this cursed engineer. Even the earth and the water will not have him. They spit him out, like that."

Toto illustrated the simile with force and noise before drinking. Gigi's cunning face was wreathed in smiles.

"You know nothing," he observed.

"What is it?" asked Toto, with his glass in his hand and between two sips.

"There was old Sassi, who was hurt, and the engineer's gaol-bird mason-servant. They were with him. It was all in the _Messaggero this morning."

"I know that without the newspaper, you imbecile. It was I that told you, for I saw all three pass under the window while I was locked in. Is there anything else you know?"

"Oh, yes! There was another person with them."

"I daresay," Toto answered, pretending blank indifference. "He must have been close to the wall as they went by. What difference does it make since that pig of an engineer got out?"

"The other person was caught with him when the water rose," said Gigi, who meant to give his information by inches.

"Curse him, whoever he was! He helped the engineer and that is why they got out. No man alone could have broken through that wall in a night, except one of us."

"The other person was only a woman, after all," answered Gigi. "But you do not care, I suppose."

"Speak, animal of a Jesuit that you are!" cried Toto. "Do not make me lose my soul!"

Gigi smiled and drank some of his wine.

"There are people who would pay to know," he said, "and you would never tell me whether the sluice gate of the 'lost water' is under number thirteen or not."

"It is under number thirteen, Master Judas. Speak!"

"It was the little fair girl of Casa Conti who was caught with the engineer in the vaults."

Even Toto was surprised, and opened his eyes and his mouth at the same time.

"The little Princess Sabina?" he asked in a low voice.

Gigi shrugged his shoulders with a pitying air and grinned.

"I told you that you knew nothing," he observed in triumph. "They were together all night, and she slept in his room, and the Senator's wife came to get her in the morning. The engineer took the porter off to the cellars before they came down, so that he should not see her pass; but he forgot me, the old carpenter of the house, and I opened the postern for the two ladies to go out. The little Princess's skirt had been torn. I saw the pins with these eyes. It was also spotted with mud which had been brushed off. But thanks be to heaven I have still my sight. I see, and am not blind."

"Are you sure it was she?" asked Toto, forgetting to curse anybody.

"I saw her as I see you. Have I not seen her grow up, since she used to be wheeled about in a baby carriage in Piazza Navona, like a flower in a basket? Her nurse made love with the 'woodpecker' who was always on duty there."

The Romans call the municipal watchmen "woodpeckers," because they wear little pointed cocked hats with a bunch of feathers. They have nothing to do with police soldiers, nor with the carabineers.

Toto made Gigi tell him everything he knew. At the porter's suggestion Volterra had sent for the mason, as the only man who knew anything about the "lost water," and Toto had agreed, with apparent reluctance, to do what he could at once, as soon as he had satisfied himself that Malipieri had really made another opening by which the statues could be reached. Toto laid down conditions, however. He pretended that he must expose himself to great danger, and insisted upon being paid fifty francs for the job. Furthermore, he obtained from Volterra, in the presence of the porter as witness, a formal promise that his grandfather's bones should have Christian burial, with a fine hearse and feathers, and a permanent grave in the cemetery of Saint Lawrence, which latter is rather an expensive luxury, beyond the means of the working people. But the Baron made no objection. The story would look very well in a newspaper paragraph, as a fine illustration of the Senator's liberality as well as of his desire to maintain the forms of religion. It would please everybody, and what will do that is cheap at any price, in politics.

The result of these negotiations had of course been that the water had subsided in the vaults within a few hours, and Toto even found a way of draining the outer cellars, which had been flooded to the depth of a couple of feet, because the first breach made by Malipieri had turned out to be an inch or two lower than the level of the overflow shaft.

When the two workmen had exchanged confidences, they ordered another half litre of wine, and sat in silence till the grimy host had set it down between them on the blackened table, and had retired to his den. Then they looked at each other.

"There is an affair here," observed Gigi presently.

"I suppose you mean the newspapers," said Toto nodding gravely. "They pay for such stories."

"Newspapers!" Gigi made a face. "All journalists are pigs who are dying of hunger."

Toto seemed inclined to agree with this somewhat extreme statement, on the whole, but he distinguished. There were papers, he said, which would pay as much as a hundred francs for a scandalous story about the Roman princes. A hundred francs was not a gold mine, it was not Peru. But it was a hundred francs. What did Gigi expect? The treasure of Saint Peter's? A story was a story, after all, and anybody could deny it.

"It is worth more than a hundred francs," Gigi answered, with his weasel smile, "but not to the newspapers. The honour of a Roman princess is worth a hundred thousand."

Toto whistled, and then looked incredulous, but it began to dawn upon him that the "affair" was of more importance than he had supposed. Gigi was much cleverer than he; that was why he always called Gigi an imbecile.

The carpenter unfolded his plan. He knew as well as any one that the Conti were ruined and could not raise any such sum as he proposed to demand, even to save Sabina's good name. It would apparently be necessary to extract the blackmail from Volterra by some means to be discovered. On the other hand, Volterra was not only rich, he also possessed much power, and it would be somewhat dangerous to incur his displeasure.

Toto, though dull, had a certain rough common sense and pointed this out. He said that the Princess must have jewels which she could sell to save her daughter from disgrace. She and Donna Sabina were at the Russian Embassy, for the _Messaggero said so. Gigi, who could write, might send her a letter there.

"No doubt," assented the carpenter with a superior air. "I have some instruction, and can write a letter. But the jewels are paste. Half the Roman princesses wear sham jewellery nowadays. Do you suppose the Conti have not sold everything long ago? They had to live."

"I do not see why," observed Toto. "Princes without money might as well be dead, an apoplexy on them all! Well, what do you propose to do? That old franc-eater of a Senator will not pay you for the girl's reputation, since she is not his daughter."

"We must think," said Gigi. "Perhaps it would do no harm to write a letter to the Princess. The engineer is poor, of course. It is of no use to go to him."

"All engineers are starving to death," Toto answered cheerfully. "I have seen them eat bread and onions and drink water, like us. Would they eat onions and dry bread if they could have meat? It is when they become contractors that they get money, by cheating the rich and strangling the poor. I know them. They are all evil people."

"This is true," assented Gigi, "I have seen several, before this one."

"This one is the eternal father of all assassins," growled Toto. "He talked of walling me up alive."

"That was only a joke, to frighten you into holding your tongue," said Gigi. "And you did."

"A fine joke! I wish you had been down there, hiding beside the gold statue instead of me, while two murderers sat by the little hole above and talked of walling it up for a week or ten days! A fine joke. The joke the cat makes to the mouse before eating it!"

"I can tell the Princess that the money must be sent In thousand-franc notes," said Gigi, who was not listening. "It cannot go to the post- office registered, because it must be addressed to a false name. Somebody must bring it to us."

"And bring the police to catch us at the same time," suggested Toto contemptuously. "That will not do."

"She must bring it herself, to a safe place."

"How?"

"For instance, I can write that she must take a cab and drive out of the city on the Via Appia, and drive, and drive, until she meets two men--they will be you and me--one with a red handkerchief hanging out of his coat pocket, and the other with an old green riband for a band to his hat. I have an old green riband that will do. She must come alone in the cab. If we see any one with her, she shall not see us. She will not know how far out we shall be, so she cannot send the police to the place. It may be one mile from the gate, or five. I will write that if she does not come alone, the story will be printed in all the papers the next morning."

Toto now looked at his friend with something almost like admiration.

"I did not know that you had been a brigand," he remarked pleasantly. "That is well thought. Only the Princess may not be able to get the money, and if she does, she had better bring it in gold. We will then go to America."

Neither of the men had the least idea that a hundred thousand francs in gold would be an uncommonly awkward and heavy load to carry. They supposed it would go into their pockets.

"If she does not come, we will try the Senator before we publish the story," said Gigi. "By that time we shall have been able to think of some way of putting him under the oil-press to squeeze the gold out of him."

"In any case, this is a good affair," Toto concluded, filling his pipe. "Nothing is bad which ends well, and we may both be gentlemen in America before long."

So the two ruffians disposed of poor little Sabina's reputation in the reeking wine shop, very much to their own imaginary advantage; and the small yellow-and-blue clouds from their stinking pipes circled up slowly through the gloom into the darkness above their heads, as the light failed in the narrow street outside.

Then Gigi, the carpenter, bought two sheets of paper and an envelope, and a pen and a wretched little bottle of ink, and a stamp, all at the small tobacconist's at the corner of Via della Scrofa, and went to Toto's lodging to compose his letter, because Toto lived alone, and there were no women in the house.

Just at the same time, Volterra was leaving the Palazzo Madama, where the Senate sits, not a couple of hundred yards away. And the two workmen would have been very much surprised if they could have guessed what was beginning to grow in the fertile but tortuous furrows of his financial and political intelligence, and that in the end their schemes might possibly fall in with his.

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