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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 23
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 23 Post by :christof21 Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :796

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII

Toto had done it. In his heart, the thick-headed, practical fellow had never quite believed in Gigi's ingenious scheme, and the idea of getting a hundred thousand francs had seemed very visionary. Since Gigi had got himself locked up it would be more sensible to realize a little cash for the story from the _Messaggero_, saying nothing about the carpenter. The only lie he needed to invent was to the effect that he had been standing near the door of the palace when Sabina had come out. The porter, being relieved from the order to keep the postern shut against everybody had been quite willing to gossip with Toto about the detective's visit, the closed room and Malipieri's refusal to let any one enter it. As for what had happened in the vaults, Toto could reconstruct the exact truth much more accurately than Gigi could have done, even with his help. It was a thrilling story; the newspaper paid him well for it and printed it with reservations.

There was not a suggestion of offence to Sabina, such as might have afforded ground for an action against the paper, or against those that copied the story from it. The writer was careful to extol Malipieri's heroic courage and strength, and to point out that Sabina had been half-dead of fatigue and cold, as Toto knew must have been the case. It was all a justification, and not in the least an accusation. But the plain, bald fact was proved, that Donna Sabina Conti had spent the night in the rooms of the now famous Signor Malipieri, no one else being in the apartment during the whole time. He had saved her life like a hero, and had acted like a Bayard in all he had done for the unfortunate young lady. It was an adventure worthy of the middle ages. It was magnificent. Her family, informed at once by Malipieri, had come to get her on the following morning. Toto had told the people at the office of the _Messaggero_, who it was that had represented the "family," but the little newspaper was far too worldly-wise to mention Volterra in such a connection. Donna Sabina, the article concluded, was now with her mother at the Russian Embassy.

The evening papers simply enlarged upon this first story, and in the same strain. Malipieri was held up to the admiration of the public. Sabina's name was treated with profound respect, there was not a word which could be denied with truth, or resented with a show of justice. And yet, in Italy, and most of all in Rome, it meant ruin to Sabina, and the reprobation of all decent people upon Malipieri if he did not immediately marry her.

It was the ambassador himself who informed the Princess of what had happened, coming himself to the sitting-room as soon as he learned that she was visible. He stayed with her a long time, and they sent for Sabina, who was by far the least disturbed of the three. It was all true, she said, and there was nothing against her in the article.

Masin brought the news to Malipieri with his coffee, and the paper itself. Malipieri scarcely ever read it, but Masin never failed to, and his big, healthy face was very grave.

Malipieri felt as if he were going to have brain fever, as his eye ran along the lines.

"Masin," he said, when he had finished, "did you ever kill a man?"

"No, sir," answered Masin. "You have always believed that I was innocent, though I had to serve my seven years."

"I did not mean that," said Malipieri.

Then he sat a long time with his untasted coffee at his elbow and the crumpled little sheet in his hand.

"Of course, sir," Masin said at last, "I owe you everything, and if you ordered me--"

He paused significantly, but his master did not understand.

"What?" he asked, starting nervously.

"Well, sir, if it were necessary for your safety, that somebody should be killed, I would risk the galleys for life, sir. What am I, without you?"

Malipieri laughed a little wildly, and dropped the paper.

"No, my friend," he said presently, "we would risk our lives for each other, but we are not murderers. Besides, there is nobody to be killed, unless you will have the goodness to put a bullet through my head."

And he laughed again, in a way that frightened the quiet man beside him. What drove him almost mad was that he was powerless. He longed to lay his hands on the editor of the paper, yet there was not a word, not a suggestion, not an implied allusion for which any man in his senses could have demanded an apology. It was the plain truth, and nothing else; except that it was adorned by fragmentary panegyrics of himself, which made it even more exasperating if that were possible. He had not only wrecked Sabina's reputation by his quixotic folly; he was to be praised to the skies for doing it.

His feverish anger turned into a dull pain that was much worse. The situation looked utterly hopeless. Masin stood still beside him watching him with profound concern, and presently took the cup of coffee and held it to his lips. He drank a little, like a sick man, only half consciously, and drew back, and shook his head. Masin did not know what to do and waited in mute distress, as a big dog, knowing that his master is in trouble, looks up into his face and feebly wags his sympathetic tail, just a little, at long intervals, and then keeps quite still.

Malipieri gradually recovered his senses enough to think connectedly, and he tried to remember whether he had ever heard of a situation like his own. As he was neither a novelist nor a critic, he failed, and frankly asked himself whether suicide might not be a way out of the difficulty for Sabina. He was not an unbeliever, and he had always abhorred and despised the idea of suicide, as most thoroughly healthy men do when it occurs to them; but if at that time he could have persuaded himself that his death could undo the harm he had brought upon Sabina he would not have hesitated a moment. Neither his body nor his soul could matter much in comparison with her good name. Hell was full of people who had got there because they had done bad things for their own advantage; if he went there, it would at least not be for that. He did not think of hell at all, just then, nor of heaven or of anything else that was very far off. He only thought of Sabina, and if he once wished himself dead for his own sake, he drove the cowardly thought away. As long as he was alive, he could still do something for her--surely, there must be something that he could do. There must be a way out, if he could only use his wits and his strength, as he had made a way out of the vaults, for her to pass through, ten days ago.

There was nothing, or at least he could think of nothing, that could help her. To try and free himself from the bond he had put upon himself would be to break a solemn promise given to a dying man whom he had dearly loved. The woman he had seen that once, to marry her and leave her, had been worthy of the sacrifice, too, as far as lay in her. He had given her a small income, enough for her and her little girl to live on comfortably. She had not only kept within it, but had learned to support herself, little by little, till she had refused to take the money that was sent to her. At regular times, she wrote to him, as to a benefactor, touching and truthful letters, with news of the growing child. He knew that it was all without affectation of any sort, and that she had turned out a thoroughly good and honest woman. The little girl knew that her father was dead, and that her own name was really and legally Malipieri, beyond a doubt. Her mother kept the copy of her certificate of birth together with the certificate of marriage. The Signora Malipieri lived as a widow in Florence and gave lessons in music and Italian. She had never asked but one thing of Malipieri, which was that he would never try to see her, nor let her daughter know that he was alive. It was easy to promise that. He knew that she had been most faithful to her lover's memory, cherishing the conviction that in the justice of heaven he was her true husband, as he would have been indeed had he lived but a few months longer. She was bringing up her child to be like herself, save for her one fault. Malipieri had settled a sufficient dowry on the girl, lest anything should happen to him before she was old enough to marry.

The mere suggestion of divorcing a woman who had acted as she had done since his friend's death, was horrible to him. It was like receiving a blow in the face, it was mud upon his honour, it was an insult to his conscience, it was far worse than merely taking back a gift once given in a generous impulse. If he had felt himself capable of such baseness he could never again have looked honest men fairly in the eyes. It would mean that he must turn upon her, to insult her by accusing her of something she had never done; he knew nothing of the divorce laws in foreign countries, except that Italians could obtain divorce by a short residence and could then come back and marry again under Italian law. That was all he knew. The Princess had not asked of him a legal impossibility, but he had felt, when she spoke, that it would be easier to explain the dogma of papal infallibility to a Chinese pirate than to make her understand how he felt towards the good woman who had a right to live under his name and had borne it so honourably for many years.

Sabina would understand. He wished now, with all his heart, that in the hours they had spent together he had told her the secret which he had been obliged to confide to her mother. He wondered whether she knew it, and hoped that she did. She would at least understand his silence now, she would know why he was not at the Embassy that morning as soon as he could be received by her mother. She might not forgive him, because she knew that he loved her, but she would see why he could not divorce in order to marry her.

An hour passed, and two hours, and still he sat in his chair, while Masin came and went softly, as if his master were ill. Then reporters sent up cards, with urgently polite requests to be received, and he had to give orders that he was not to be disturbed on any account. He would see no one, he would answer no questions, until he had made up his mind what to do.

At last he rose, shook himself, walked twice up and down the room and then spoke to Masin.

"I am going out," he said. "I shall be back in an hour."

He had seen that there was at least one thing which he must do at once, and after stopping short, stunned to stupor by what had happened, his life began to move on again. It was manifestly his duty to see the Princess again, and he knew that she would receive him, for she would think that he had changed his mind after all, and meant to free himself. He must see her and say something, he knew not what, to convince her that he was acting honourably.

He was shown to her sitting-room, as if he were expected. It was not long since the ambassador had left her and her daughter had gone back to her room, and she was in a humour in which he had not seen her before, as he guessed when he saw her face. Her wonderful complexion was paler than usual, her brows were drawn together, her eyes were angry, there was nothing languid or careless in her attitude, and she held her head high.

"I expected you," she said. "I sent word that you were to come up at once."

She did not even put out her hand, but there was a chair opposite her and she nodded towards it. He sat down, feeling that a struggle was before him.

"The ambassador has just been here," she said. "He brought the newspaper with him, and I have read the article. I suppose you have seen it."

Malipieri bent his head, but kept his eyes upon her.

"I have told the ambassador that Sabina is engaged to marry you," she said calmly.

Malipieri started and sat upright in his chair. If he had known her better, he might have guessed that what she said was untrue, as yet; but she had made the statement with magnificent assurance.

"Your engagement will be announced in the papers this evening," she continued. "Shall you deny it?"

She looked at him steadily, and he returned her gaze, but for a long time he could not answer. She had him at a terrible advantage.

"I shall not deny it publicly," he said at last. "That would be an injury to your daughter."

"Shall you deny it at all?" She was conscious of her strong position, and meant to hold it.

"I shall write to the lady who is living under my name, and I shall tell her the circumstances, and that I am obliged to allow the announcement to be made by you."

"Give me your word that you will not deny your engagement to any one else. You know that I have a right to require that. My daughter knows that you are married."

Malipieri hesitated only a moment.

"I give you my word," he said.

She rose at once and went towards one of the doors, without looking at him. He wondered whether she meant to dismiss him rudely, and stood looking after her. She stopped a moment, with her hand on the knob of the lock, and glanced back.

"I will call Sabina," she said, and she was gone.

He stood still and waited, and two or three minutes passed before Sabina entered. She glanced at him, smiled rather gravely, and looked round the room as she came forward, as if expecting to see some one else.

"Where is my mother?" she asked, holding out her hand.

"She said she was going to call you," Malipieri answered.

"So she did, and she told me she was coming back to you, because I was not quite ready."

"She did not come back."

"She means us to be alone," Sabina said, and suddenly she took both his hands and pressed them a little, shaking them up and down, almost childishly. "I am so glad!" she cried. "I was longing to see you!"

Even then, Malipieri could not help smiling, and for a moment he forgot all his troubles. When they sat down, side by side, upon a little sofa, the Princess was already telling the ambassador that Malipieri had come and that they were engaged to be married. She had carried the situation by a master stroke.

"She has told you all about me," Malipieri said, turning his face to Sabina. "You know what my life is. Has she told you everything?"

"Yes," Sabina answered softly, but not meeting his look, "everything. But I want to hear it from you. Will you tell me? Will it hurt you to tell me about what you did for your friend? You know my mother is not always very accurate in telling a story. I shall understand why you did it."

He had known that she would, and he told her the story, a little less baldly than he had told her mother, yet leaving out such details as she need not hear. He hesitated a little, once or twice.

"I understand," she repeated, watching him with innocent eyes. "She felt just as if they were really married, and he could not bear to die, feeling that she would be without protection, and that other men would all want to marry her, because she was beautiful. And her father and mother were angry because she loved him so much."

"Yes," Malipieri answered, smiling, "that was it. They loved each other dearly."

"It was splendid of you," she said. "I never dreamt that any man would do such a thing."

"It cannot be undone." He was at least free to say that much, sadly.

There was a pause, and they looked away from each other. At last Sabina laid her hand lightly upon his for a moment, though she did not turn her face to him.

"I should not like you so much, if you wished to undo it," she said.

"Thank you," he answered, withdrawing the hand she released when she had finished speaking, and folding it upon his other. "I should love you less, if you did not understand me so well."

"It is more than understanding. It is much more."

He remembered how he had taken her slender body in his arms to warm her when she had been almost dead of the cold and dampness, and a mad impulse was in him to press her to him now, as he had done then, and to feel her small fair head lay itself upon his shoulder peacefully, as it surely would. He sat upright and pressed one hand upon the other rather harder than before.

"You believe it, do you not?" she asked. "Why is your face so hard?"

"Because I am bound hand and foot, like a man who is carried to execution."

"But we can always love each other just the same," Sabina said, and her voice was warm and soft.

"Yes, always, and that will not make it easier to live without you," he answered rather harshly.

"You need not," she said, after an instant's pause.

He turned suddenly, startled, not understanding, wondering what she could mean. She met his eyes quite quietly, and he saw how deep and steady hers were, and the light in them.

"You need not live without me unless you please," she said.

"But I must, since I cannot marry you, and you understand that I could not be divorced--"

"My mother has just told me that no decent man will marry me, because all the world knows that I stayed at the palace that night. She must be right, for she could have no object in saying it if it were not true, could she? Then what does it matter how any one talks about me now? I will go with you. We cannot marry, but we shall always be together."

Malipieri's face expressed his amazement.

"But it is impossible!" he cried. "You cannot do that! You do not know what you are saying!"

"Oh, yes, I do! That poor, kind old Sassi has left me all he had, and I can go where I please. I will go with you. Would you rather have me shut up in a convent to die? That is what my mother will try to do with me, and she will tell people that I was 'mad, poor girl'! Do you think I do not know her? She wants this little sum of money that I am to have, too, as if she and the others had not spent all I should have had. Do you think I am bound to obey my mother, if she takes me to the convent door, and tells me that I am to stay there for the rest of my life?"

The gentle voice was clear and strong and indignant now. Malipieri twisted his fingers one upon another, and sat with his head bent low. He knew that she had no clear idea of what she was saying when she proposed to join her existence with his. Her maiden thoughts could find no harm in it.

"You do not know what your mother said to me, before you came in," he answered. "She told me that she would announce our engagement at once, and made me give my word that I would not deny it to any one but my legal wife."

"You gave your word?" Sabina asked quickly, not at all displeased.

"What could I do?"

"Nothing else! I am glad you did, for we can see each other as much as we like now. But how shall we manage it in the end, since we cannot marry?"

"Break the imaginary engagement, I suppose," Malipieri answered gloomily. "I see nothing else to be done."

"But then my mother says that no decent man will marry me. It will be just the same, all over again. It was very clever of her; she is trying to force you to do what she wants. In the meantime you can come and see me every day--that is the best part of it. Besides, she will leave us alone together here, for hours, because she thinks that the more you fall in love with me the more you will wish to get a divorce. Oh, she is a very clever woman! You do not know her as I do!"

Malipieri marvelled at the amazing combination of girlish innocence and keen insight into her mother's worldly and cynical character, which Sabina had shown during the last few minutes. There never yet was a man in love with girl or woman who did not find in her something he had never dreamt of before.

"She is clever," he assented gravely, "but she cannot make me break that promise, even for your sake. I cannot help looking forward and thinking what the end must be."

"It is much better to enjoy the present," Sabina answered. "We can be together every day. You will write to your--no, she is not your wife, and I will not call her so! She would not be really your wife if she could, for she made you promise never to go and see her. That was nice of her, for of course she knew that if she saw you often, she must end by falling in love with you. Any woman would; you know it perfectly well. You need not shake your head at me, like that. You will write to her, and explain, and she will understand, and then we will let things go on as long as they can till something else happens."

"What can possibly happen?"

"Something always happens. Things never go on very long without a change, do they? I am sure, everything in my life has changed half a dozen times in the last fortnight."

"In mine, too," Malipieri answered.

"And if things get worse, and if worse comes to worst," Sabina answered, "I have told you what I mean to do. I shall come to you, wherever you are, and you will have to let me stay, no matter what people choose to say. That is, if you still care for me!"

She laughed softly and happily, and not in the least recklessly, though she was talking of throwing the world and all connection with it to the winds. The immediate future looked bright to her, since they were to meet every day, and after that, "something" would happen. If nothing did, and they had to face trouble again, they would meet it bravely. That was all any one could do in life. She had found happiness too suddenly after an unhappy childhood, to dream of letting it go, cost what it might to keep it.

But she saw how grave he looked and the hopeless expression in his loving eyes, as he turned them to her.

"Why are you sad?" she asked, smiling, and laying her hand on his. "We can be happy in the present. We love each other, and can meet often. You have made a great discovery and are much more famous than you were a few days ago. A newspaper has told our story, it is true, but there was not a word against either of us in it, for I made them let me read it myself. And now people will say that we are engaged to be married, and that we got into a foolish scrape and were nearly killed together, and that we are a very romantic couple, like lovers in a book! Every girl I know wishes she were in my place, I am sure, and half the men in Rome wish that they could have saved some girl's life as you did mine. What is there so very dreadful in all that? What is there to cry about--dear?"

Half in banter, half in earnest, she spoke to him as if he were a child compared with her, and leaned affectionately towards him; and the last word, the word neither of them had spoken yet, came so softly and sweetly to him on her breath, that he caught his own, and turned a little pale; and the barriers broke all at once, and he kissed her. Then he got hold upon himself again, and gently pushed her a little further from him, while he put his other hand to his throat and closed his eyes.

"Forgive me," he said, in a thick voice. "I could not help it."

"What is there to forgive? We are not betraying any one. You are not breaking a promise to any other woman. What harm is there? You did not give your friend your word that you would never love any one, did you? How could you? How could you know?"

"I could not know," he answered in a low voice. "But I should not have kissed you."

He knew that she could not understand the point of honour that was so clear to him.

"Let me think for you, sometimes," she said.

Her voice was as low as his, but dreamily passionate, and the strange young magic vibrated in it, which perfect innocence wields with a destroying strength not even guessed at by itself.

The door opened and the Princess entered the room in a leisurely fashion, wreathed in smiles. She had successfuly done what it would be very hard for Malipieri to undo. He rose.

"Have you told Sabina what I said?" she enquired.

"Yes."

She turned to the girl, who was leaning back in the corner of the sofa.

"Of course you agree, my child?" she said, with a question in her voice, though with no intonation of doubt as to the answer.

"Certainly," Sabina answered, with perfect self-possession. "I think it was by far the most sensible we could do. Signor Malipieri will come to see us, as if he and I were really engaged."

"Yes," assented the Princess. "You cannot go on calling him Signor Malipieri when we are together in the family, my dear. What is your Christian name?" she asked, turning to him.

"Marino."

"I did not know," Sabina said, with truth, and looking at him, as if she had found something new to like in him. "Is he to call me Sabina, mother?"

"Naturally. Well, my dear Marino--"

Malipieri started visibly. The Princess explained.

"I shall call you so, too. It looks better before people, you know. You must leave a card for the ambassador, at the porter's, when you go downstairs, He is going to ask you to dinner, with a lot of our relations, to announce the engagement. I have arranged it all beautifully--he is so kind!"

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