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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 21
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 21 Post by :vastdream Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2595

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI

As it had become manifestly impossible to keep the secret of the discovery in the Palazzo Conti any longer, Volterra had behaved with his accustomed magnanimity. He had not only communicated all the circumstances to the authorities at once, offering the government the refusal of the statues, which the law could not oblige him to sell if he chose to keep them in the palace, but also publicly giving full credit to the "learned archaeologist and intrepid engineer, Signer Marino Malipieri, already famous throughout Europe for his recent discoveries in Carthage." In two or three days the papers were full of Malipieri's praises. Those that were inclined to differ with the existing state of things called him a hero, and even a martyr of liberty, besides a very great man; and those which were staunch to the monarchy poked mild fun at his early political flights and congratulated him upon having descended from the skies, after burning his wings, not only to earth, but to the waters that are under the earth, returning to the upper air laden with treasures of art which reflected new glory upon Italy.

All this was very fine, and much of it was undoubtedly true, but it did not in the least help Malipieri to solve the problem which had presented itself so suddenly in his life. The roads to happiness and to reputation rarely lead to the same point of the compass when he who hopes to attain both has more heart than ambition. It is not given to many, as it was to Baron Volterra, to lead an admiring, submissive and highly efficient wife up the broad steps of political power, financial success and social glory. Neither Caesar nor Bonaparte reached the top with the wife of his heart, yet Volterra, more moderately endowed, though with almost equal ambition, bade fair to climb high with the virtuous helpmeet of his choice on his arm.

Malipieri slept badly and grew thinner during those days. His devotion to his dying friend had been absurdly quixotic, according to ordinary standards, but it had never seemed foolish to him, and he had never regretted it. He had always believed that a man of action and thought is freer to think and act if he remains unmarried, and it had never occurred to him that he might fall in love with a young girl, without whom life would seem empty. He was quixotic, generous and impulsive, but like many men who do extremely romantic things, he thought himself quite above sentimentality and entirely master of his heart. Hitherto the theory had worked very well, because he had never really tried to practise it. Nothing had seemed easier than not to fall in love with marriageable young women, and he had grown used to believing that he never could.

With that brutality to his own feelings of which only a thoroughly sentimental man is capable, he left the Palazzo Conti on the day following the adventure, and took rooms in a hotel in the upper part of the city. Nothing would have induced him to spend a night in his room since Sabina's head had lain upon his pillow. With Volterra's powerful help, Masin had been released, though poor Sassi had not returned to consciousness, and Malipieri learned that the old man had changed his mind at the last minute, had insisted upon trying to follow Sabina after all, and had fallen heavily upon his head in trying to get down into the first chamber; while Masin, behind him, implored him to come back, or at least to wait for help where he was. The rest needs no explanation.

Malipieri took a few things with him to the hotel, and left Masin to collect his papers and books on the following day, instructing him to send the scanty furniture, linen and household belongings to the nearest auction rooms, to be sold at once. Masin, none the worse for a night and day in prison, came back to his functions as if nothing had happened. He and his master had been in more than one adventure together. This one was over and he was quite ready for the next.

There was probably not another man in Italy, and there are not many alive anywhere, who would have done what Malipieri did, out of pure sentiment and nothing else. To him, it seemed like a natural sacrifice to his inward honour, to refuse which would have been cowardly. He had weakly allowed himself to fall in love with a girl whom he could not possibly marry, and whom he respected as much as he loved. He guessed, though he tried to deny it, that she was more than half in love with him, since love sometimes comes by halves. To lie where she had lain, dreaming of her with his aching eyes open and his blood on fire, would be a violation of her maiden privacy, morally not much less cowardly in the spirit than it could have been in the letter, since he could not marry her.

The world laughs at such refinements of delicate feeling in a man, but cannot help inwardly respecting them a little, as it respects many things at which it jeers and rails. Moreover, Malipieri did not care a fig for the world's opinion, and if he had needed to take a motto he would have chosen "Si omnes, ego non"; for if there was a circumstance which always inclined him to do anything especially quixotic, it was the conviction that other people would probably do the exact opposite. So Masin took the furniture to an auction room on a cart, and Malipieri never saw it again.

While the press was ringing his praises, and he himself was preparing a carefully written paper on the two statues, while the public was pouring into the gate of the Palazzo Conti to see them, and Volterra was driving a hard bargain with the government for their sale, he lived in a state of anxiety and nervousness impossible to describe. He was haunted by the fear that some one might find out where Sabina had been on the night after she had left Volterra's house, and the mere thought of such a possibility was real torment, worse than the knowledge that he could never marry her, and that without her his life did not seem worth living. Whatever happened to Sabina would be the result of his folly in taking her to the vaults. He might recover from any wound he had himself received, but to see the good name of the innocent girl he loved utterly ruined and dragged through the mud of newspaper scandal would be a good deal worse than being flayed alive. It was horrible to think of it, and yet he could not keep it out of his thoughts. There had been too many people about the palace on the morning when Sabina had left it with the Baroness. Especially, there had been that carpenter, of whom no one had thought till it was too late. If Gigi had recognized Sabina, that would be Malipieri's fault too, for Volterra had not known that the man had been employed about the house for years. A week passed, and nothing happened. He had neither seen Sabina nor heard of her from any one. He was besieged by journalists, artists, men of letters and men of learning, and the municipal authorities had declared their intention of giving a banquet in his honour and Volterra's, to celebrate the safe removal of the two statues from the vault in which they had lain so long. He, who hated noisy feasting and speech-making above all things, could not refuse the public invitation. All sorts of people came to see him, in connection with the whole affair, and he was at last obliged to shut himself in during several hours of the day, in order to work at his dissertation. Masin alone was free to reach him in case of any urgent necessity.

One morning, while he was writing, surrounded by books, drawings and papers, Masin came and stood silently at his elbow, waiting till it should please him to look up. Malipieri carefully finished the sentence he had begun, and laid down his pen. Then Masin spoke.

"There is a lady downstairs, sir, who says that you will certainly receive her upon very important business. She would not give her name, but told the porter to try and get me to hand you this note."

Malipieri sighed wearily and opened the note without even glancing at the address. He knew that Sabina would not write to him, and no one else interested him in the least. But he looked at the signature before reading the lines, and his expression changed. The dowager Princess Conti wrote a few words to say that she must see him at once and was waiting. That was all, but his heart sank. He sent Masin to show her the way, and sat resting his forehead in his hand until she appeared.

She entered and stood before him, softly magnificent as a sunset in spring; looking as even a very stout woman of fifty can, if she has a matchless complexion, perfect teeth, splendid eyes, faultless taste, a wonderful dressmaker and a maid who does not hate her.

Malipieri vaguely wondered how Sabina could be her daughter, drew an armchair into place for her, and sat down again by his writing-table. The windows were open and the blinds were drawn together to keep out the glare, for it was a hot day. A vague and delicious suggestion of Florentine orris-root spread through the warm air as the Princess sat down. Malipieri watched her face, but her expression showed no signs of any inward disturbance.

"Are you sure that nobody will interrupt us?" she asked, as Masin went out and shut the door.

"Quite sure. What can I do to serve you?"

"I have had this disgusting letter."

She produced a small, coarse envelope from the pale mauve pocket-book she carried in her hand, and held it out to Malipieri, who took it and read it carefully. It was not quite easy for him to understand, as Gigi wrote in the Roman dialect without any particular punctuation, and using capitals whenever it occurred to him, except at the beginning of a sentence. To Malipieri, as a Venetian, it was at first sight about as easy as a chorus of Aeschylus looks to an average pass- man.

As the sense became clear to him, his eyelids contracted and his face was drawn as if he were in bodily pain.

"When did you get this?" he asked, folding the letter and putting it back into the envelope.

"Five or six days ago, I think. I am not sure of the date, but it does not matter. It says the money must be paid in ten days, does it not? Yes--something like that. I know there is some time left. I have come to you because I have tried everything else."

"Everything else?" cried Malipieri, in sudden anxiety. "What in the world have you tried?"

"I sent for Volterra the day after I got this."

"Oh!" Malipieri was somewhat relieved. "What did he advise you to do? To employ a detective?"

"O dear, no! Nothing so simple and natural. That man is an utter brute, and I am sorry I left Sabina so long with his wife. She would have been much better in the convent with her sister. I am afraid that is where she will end, poor child, and it will be all your fault, though you never meant any harm. You do not think you could divorce and marry her, do you?"

Malipieri stared at her a moment, and then bit his lip to check the answer. He had no right to resent whatever she chose to say to him, for he was responsible for all the trouble and for Sabina's good name.

"There is no divorce law in Italy," he answered, controlling himself. "Why do you say that Volterra is an utter brute? What did he advise you to do?"

"He offered to silence the creature who wrote this letter if I would make a bargain with him. He said he would pay the money, if I would give Sabina to his second son, who is a cavalry officer in Turin, and whom none of us has ever seen."

Malipieri's lips moved, but he said nothing that could be heard. A vein that ran down the middle of his forehead was swollen, and there was a bad look in his eyes.

"I would rather see the child dead than married to one of those disgusting people," the Princess said. "Did you ever hear of such impertinence?"

"You let her live with them for more than two months," observed Malipieri.

"I know I did. It was simply impossible to think of anything better in the confusion, and as they offered to take charge of her, I consented. Yes, it was foolish, but I did not suppose that they would let her go off in a cab with that old dotard and stay out all night."

Malipieri felt as if she were driving a blunt nail into his head.

"Poor Sassil" he said. "He was buried yesterday."

"Was he? I am not in the least sorry for him. He always made trouble, and this was the worst of all Sabina almost cried because I would not let her go and see him at the hospital. You know, he never spoke after he was taken there--he did not feel anything."

Malipieri wondered whether the Princess, in another sense, had ever felt anything, a touch of real pity, or real love, for any human being. He did not remember to have ever met a woman who had struck him as so utterly heartless; and yet he could not forget the look that had come into her face, and the simple word she had spoken, when he had told her his story.

"I understand that you refused Volterra's proposal," he said, returning to the present trouble. "Do you mean to say that he declined to help you unless you would accept it?"

"Oh, no! He only said that as I was not disposed to accept what would make it so much easier, he would have to think it over. I have not seen him since."

"But you understand what he had planned, do you not?" Malipieri asked. "It is very simple."

"It is not so clear to me. I am not at all clever, you know." The Princess laughed carelessly. "He must have a very good reason for offering to pay a hundred thousand francs in order that his son may marry Sabina, who has not a penny. I confess, if it were not an impertinence, it would look like a foolish caprice. I suppose he thinks it would be socially advantageous."

Her lip curled and showed her even white teeth.

"His wife is a snob," Malipieri answered, "but Volterra does not care for anything but power and money, except perhaps for the sort of reputation he has, which helps him to get both." "Then of what possible use could it be to him to marry his son to Sabina, and to throw all that money away for the sake of getting her?"

Malipieri hesitated, not sure whether it would be wise to tell her all he thought.

"In the first place," he said slowly, "I do not believe he would really pay the blackmail, or if he did, he would catch the man, get the money back, and have him sent to penal servitude. He is very clever, and in his position he can have whatever help he asks from the government, especially in a just cause, as that would be. Perhaps he thinks that he has guessed who the man is."

"Have you any idea?" asked the Princess, glancing down at the dirty little letter she still held.

"In the second place," Malipieri continued, without heeding the question, "I am almost sure that when you were in difficulties, two or three months ago, he got the better of you, as he gets the better of every one. With the value of these statues, he has probably pocketed a couple of million francs by the transaction."

"The wretch!" exclaimed the Princess. "I wish you were my lawyer! You have such a clear way of putting things."

Even then Malipieri smiled.

"I have always believed what I have just told you," he answered. "That was the reason why I hoped that Donna Sabina might yet recover what she should have had from the estate. Volterra is sure that if you can take proper steps, you will recover a large sum, and that is why he is so anxious to marry his son to your daughter. He thinks the match would settle the whole affair."

"The idiot! As if I did not need the money myself!"

Again Malipieri smiled.

"But you will not get it," he answered. "You will certainly not get it if Volterra is interested in the matter, for it will all go to your daughter. Your other two children have had their share of their father's estate, and that of the daughters should have amounted to at least two millions each. But Donna Sabina has never had a penny. Whatever is recovered from Volterra will go to her, not to you."

"It would be the same thing," observed the Princess carelessly.

"Not exactly," Malipieri said, "for the court will appoint legal guardians, and the money will be paid to her intact when she comes of age. In other words, if she marries Volterra's son, the little fortune will return to Volterra's family. But of course, if you consented to the marriage, he would compromise for the money, before the suit was brought, by settling the two millions upon his daughter-in-law, and if he offered to do that, as he would, no respectable lawyer in the world would undertake to carry on the suit, because Volterra would have acted in strict justice. Do you see?"

"Yes. It is very disappointing, but I suppose you are right."

"I know I am, except about the exact sum involved. I am an architect by profession, I know something of Volterra's affairs and I do not think I am very far wrong. Very good. But Volterra has accidentally got hold of a terrible weapon against you, in the shape of this blackmailer's letter."

"Then you advise me to accept his offer after all?"

"He knows that you must, unless you can find something better. You are in his power."

"But why should I, if I am to get nothing by it?" asked the Princess absent-mindedly.

"There is Donna Sabina's good name at stake," Malipieri answered, with a little sternness.

"I had forgotten. Of course! How stupid of me!" For a moment Malipieri knew that he should like to box her ears, woman though she was; then he felt a sort of pity for her, such as one feels for half-witted creatures that cannot help themselves nor control their instincts.

"Then I must accept, and let Sabina marry that man," she said, after a moment's silence. "Tell me frankly, is that what you think I ought to do?"

"If Donna Sabina wishes to marry him, it will be a safe solution," Malipieri answered steadily.

"My dear man, she is in love with you!" cried the Princess in one of her sudden fits of frankness. "She told me so the other day in so many words, when she was so angry because I would not let her go to see poor old Sassi die. She said that you and he and her schoolmistress were the only human beings who had ever been good to her, or for whom she had ever cared, You may just as well know it, since you cannot marry her!"

In a calmer moment, Malipieri might have doubted the logic of the last statement; but at the present moment he was not very calm, and he turned a pencil nervously in his fingers, standing it alternately on its point and its blunt end, upon the blotting-paper beside him, and looking at the marks it made.

"How can she possibly wish to marry that Volterra creature?" asked the Princess, by way of conclusion. "She will have to, that is all, whether she likes it or not. After all, nobody seems to care much, nowadays," she added in a tone of reflection. "It is only the idea I always heard that Volterra kept a pawnshop in Florence, and then became a dealer in bric-a-brac, and afterwards a banker, and all sorts of things. But it may not be true, and after all, it is only prejudice. A banker may be a very respectable person, you know."

"Certainly," assented Malipieri, wishing that he could feel able to smile at her absurd talk, as a sick man wishes that he could feel hungry when he sees a dish he likes very much, and only feels the worse for the mere thought of touching food.

"Nothing but prejudice," the Princess repeated. "I daresay he was never really a pawnbroker and is quite respectable. By the bye, do you think he wrote this letter himself? It would be just like him."

"No," Malipieri answered. "I am sure he did not. Volterra never did anything in his life which could not at least be defended in law. The letter is genuine."

"Then there is some one who knows, besides ourselves and Volterra and his wife?"

"Yes. I am sure of it."

"You are so clever. You must be able to find out who it is."

"I will try. But I am sure of one thing. Even if the money is not paid on the day, the story will not be published at once. The man will try again and again to get money from you. There is plenty of time."

"Unless it is a piece of servants' vengeance," the Princess said. "Our servants were always making trouble before we left the palace, I could never understand why. If it is that, we shall never be safe. Will you come and see me, if you think of any plan?"

She rose to go.

"I will go to the Embassy to-morrow afternoon, between three and four."

"Thanks. Do you know? I really cannot help liking you, though I think you are behaving abominably. I am sure you could get a divorce in Switzerland."

"We will not talk about that," Malipieri answered, a little harshly.

When she was gone, he called Masin, and then, instead of explaining what he wanted, he threw himself into an armchair and sat in silence for nearly half an hour. Masin was used to his master's ways and did not speak, but occupied himself in noiselessly dusting the mantelpiece at least a hundred times over.

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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
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