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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 24
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 24 Post by :evansmbambo Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1827

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 24

CHAPTER XXIV

Masin was very much relieved when his master came home, looking much calmer than when he had gone out and evidently having all his senses about him. Malipieri sent to ask at what time the mails left Rome for Florence, and he sat down to his table without remembering that he had eaten nothing that day.

It was not easy to write out in a concise form the story of all that has here been told in detail. Besides, he had not the habit of writing to the Signora Malipieri, except such brief acknowledgments of her regular letters to him as were necessary and kind. For years she had been to him little more than a recollection of his youth, a figure that had crossed his life like a shadow in a dream, taking with it a promise which he had never found it hard to keep. He remembered her as she had been then, and it had not even occurred to him to consider how she looked now. She sometimes sent him photographs of the pretty little girl, and Malipieri kept them, and occasionally looked at them, because they reminded him of his friend, of whom he had no portrait.

He found it very hard to tell this half-mythical woman and wholly mythical wife of all that had happened, while scrupulously avoiding the main fact, which was that he and Sabina loved each other. To have told that, too, would have seemed like a reproach, or still worse, like a request to be set at liberty.

He wrote carefully, reading over his sentences, now and then correcting one, and even entertaining a vague idea of copying the whole when he had finished it. The important point was that she should fully understand the necessity of announcing his engagement to marry Donna Sabina Conti, together with his firm intention of breaking it off as soon as the story should be so far forgotten as to make it safe to do so, having due regard for Donna Sabina's reputation and good name.

He laid so much stress on these points, and expressed so strongly his repentance for having led the girl into a dangerous scrape, that many a woman would have guessed at something more. But of this he was quite unaware when he read the letter over, believing that he could judge it without prejudice, as if it had been written by some one else. The explanation was thorough and logical, but there was a little too much protest in the expressions of regret. Besides, there were several references to Sabina's unhappy position as the daughter of an abominably worldly and heartless woman, who would lock her up in a convent for life rather than have the least trouble about her. He could not help showing his anxious interest in her future, much more clearly than he supposed.

The consequence was that when the Signora Malipieri read the letter on the following morning, she guessed the truth, as almost any woman would, without being positively sure of it; and she was absent-minded with her pupils all that day, and looked at her watch uneasily, and was very glad when she was able to go home at last and think matters over.

It was not easy to decide what to do. She could not write to Malipieri and ask him directly if he was in love with Sabina Conti and wished to marry her. She answered him at once, however, telling him that she fully understood his position, and thanking him for having written to her before she could have heard the story from any other source.

He showed the letter to Sabina, and it pleased her by its frank simplicity, and perfect readiness to accept Malipieri's statement without question, and without the smallest resentment. Somehow the girl had felt that this shadowy woman, who stood between her and Malipieri, would make some claim upon him, and assert herself in some disagreeable way, or criticise his action. It was hateful to think she really had a right to call herself his wife, and was therefore legally privileged to tell him unpleasant truths. Sabina always connected that with matrimony, remembering how her father and mother used to quarrel when he was alive, and how her brother and sister-in-law continued the tradition. If the Volterra couple were always peaceful, that was because the Baroness was in mortal awe of her fat husband, a state of life to which Sabina did not wish to be called. It was true that Malipieri's position with regard to his so-called wife had nothing to do with a real marriage, but Sabina had felt the disapproving presence of the woman she had never seen, and whom she imagined to be perpetually shaking a warning finger at Malipieri and reminding him sourly that he could not call his soul his own. The letter had destroyed the impression.

Meanwhile Malipieri was appalled by the publicity of a betrothal which was never to lead to marriage. The Princess took care that as much light as possible should be cast upon the whole affair, and to the Baroness Volterra's stupefaction and delight, told every one that the match had been made under her auspices, and that the Conti family owed her eternal gratitude for it and for her care of Sabina during nearly three months. The Princess told the story of the night in the vaults again and again, to her friends and relations, extolling everything that Malipieri had done, and especially his romantic determination to show the girl he was going to marry the treasures which should have belonged to her, before any one else should see them.

The Princess told Volterra, laughingly and quite frankly, that her lawyer would do everything possible to get for her a share in the value of the statues discovered, and Volterra, following her clever cue, laughed with her, and said it should be a friendly suit, and that the lawyers should decide among themselves how it should be settled, without going into court. Volterra was probably the only man in Rome who entertained a profound respect for the Princess's intelligence; yet he was reckoned a good judge in such matters. He himself was far too wise to waste regrets upon the failure of his tactics, and the stake had not been large, after all, compared with his great fortune. Magnanimity was a form of commodity which could be exchanged for popularity, and popularity was ready money. A thousand votes were as good as two million francs, any day, when one was not a senator for life, and wished to be re-elected; and a reputation for spotless integrity would cover a multitude of financial sins. Since it had been impossible to keep what did not belong to him, the next best thing was to restore it to the accompaniment of a brass band and a chorus of public approval. The Princess, clever woman, knew exactly how he felt and helped him to do the inevitable in a showy way; and it all helped her to carry her daughter and herself out of a difficult position in a blaze of triumph.

"My dear," she said to the girl, "you may do anything you please, if you will only do it in public. Lock your door to say your prayers, and the world will shriek out that you have a scandal to conceal."

It dawned upon Sabina that her cynical, careless, spendthrift, scatter-brained mother had perhaps after all a share of the cunning and the force which rule the world to-day, and which were so thoroughly combined in Volterra's character. That would account for the way in which she sailed through storms that would have wrecked the Baroness and drowned poor little Sabina herself.

Meanwhile a hundred workmen had dug down to the vault under the courtyard of the Palazzo Conti, the statues had been lifted out intact, with cranes, and had been set upon temporary pedestals, under a spacious wooden shed; and the world, the flesh and the devil, including royalty, went to see them and talked of nothing else. All Europe heard the story of Malipieri's discovery, and of his adventure with his betrothed wife, and praised him and called him and her an "ideal couple."

Sabina's brother came up from the country to be present at the Embassy dinner, and of course stopped at the Grand Hotel, and made up his mind to have an automobile at once. His wife stayed in the country with the delicate little child, but sent Sabina a note of congratulation.

Clementina, writing from her convent, said she hoped that Sabina might redeem the follies of her youth in a respectable married life, but the hope was not expressed with much conviction. Sabina need not disturb the peace of a religious house by coming to see her.

The Princess boldly gave out that the marriage would take place in the autumn, and confided to two or three gossips that she really meant to have a quiet wedding in the summer, because it would be so much more economical, and the young couple did not like the idea of waiting so long. As for a dowry, everybody knew that Sassi, dear, kind-hearted old man, had left Sabina what he had; and there were the statues.

Prince Conti came to the Embassy as soon as he arrived, and met Malipieri, to whom he was overpoweringly cordial in his weak way. On the whole, at their first interview, he judged that it would not be easy to borrow money of him, and went away disappointed.

Society asked where Malipieri's father was, and learned that he was nearly seventy and was paralysed, and never left his house in Venice, but that he highly approved of his son's marriage and wished to see his future daughter-in-law as soon as possible. The Princess said that Sabina and Malipieri would live with him, but would come to Rome for the winter.

Prince Rubomirsky, Sabina's uncle, sent her a very handsome diamond necklace, which the Princess showed to all her friends, and some of them began to send wedding presents likewise, because they had been privately informed that the marriage was to take place very soon.

Sabina lived joyously in the moment, apparently convinced that fate would bring everything right, and doing her best to drive away the melancholy that had settled upon Malipieri. Something would happen, she said. It was impossible that heaven could be so cruel as to part them and ruin both their lives for the sake of a promise given to a man dead long ago. Malipieri wished that he could believe it.

He grew almost desperate as time went on and he saw how the Princess was doing everything to make the engagement irrevocable. He grew thin, and nervous, and his eyes were restless. The deep tan of the African sun was disappearing, too, and sometimes he looked almost ill. People said he was too much in love, and laughed. Little by little Sabina understood that she could not persuade him to trust to the future, and she grew anxious about him. He wondered how she could still deceive herself as to the inevitable end.

"We can go on being engaged as long as we please," she said hopefully. "There are plenty of possible excuses."

"You and I are not good at lying," he answered, with a weary smile. "We told each other so, that night."

"But it is perfectly true that I am almost too young to be married," said she; "and really, you know, it might be more sensible to wait till I am nineteen."

"We should not think it sensible to wait a week, if there were no hindrance. You know that."

"Of course! But when there is a hindrance, as you call it, it is very sensible indeed to wait," retorted Sabina, with a truly feminine sense of the value of logic. "I shall think so, and I shall say so, if I must. Then you will have to wait, too, and what will it matter, so long as we can see each other every day? Have people never waited a year to be married?"

"You know that we may wait all our lives."

"No. I will not do that," Sabina said with sudden energy. "If nothing happens, I will make something happen. You know what I told you. Have you forgotten? And I am sure your father will understand."

"I doubt it," Malipieri answered, smiling in spite of himself.

To tell the truth, since her mother had cleared away so many dangers, and showed no intention of shutting her up in a convent, Sabina had begun to see that it would be quite another matter to run away and follow Malipieri to the ideal desert island, especially after they had been openly engaged to be married and the engagement had been broken. The world would have to know the story of his marriage then, and it would call him dishonourable for having allowed himself to be engaged to her when he was not free. It would say that she had found out the truth, and that he was a villain, or something unpleasant of that sort. But she meant to keep up the illusion bravely, as long as there was any life in it at all, and then "something must happen."

"It seems so strange that I should be braver than you," she said.

He did not wonder at that as much as she did. Her reputation was saved now, but his honour was in the balance, and at the mercy of a worldly and unscrupulous woman. When he broke the engagement, the Princess would tell the story of his marriage and publish it on the housetops. He told Sabina so.

"You are safe," he added; "but when I lose you, I shall lose my place among honourable men."

"Then I shall tell the truth, and the whole truth, to every one I know," Sabina answered, in the full conviction that truth, like faith, could perform miracles, and that a grain of it could remove mountains of evil. "I shall tell the whole world!" she cried. "I do not care what my mother says."

He was silent, for it was better, after all, that she should believe in her happiness as long as she could. She said nothing more for some time and they sat quite still, thinking widely opposite thoughts. At last she laid her hand on his; the loving little way had become familiar to her since it had come instinctively the first time.

"Marino!"

"Yes?"

"You know that I love you?"

"Indeed I know it."

"And you love me? Just as much? In the same way?"

"Perhaps more. Who knows?"

"No, that is impossible," she answered. "Now listen to me. It is out of the question that we should ever be parted, loving each other as we do, is it not?"

The door opened and a servant entered, with a card.

"The lady told me to inform your Excellency that she is a connection of Signor Malipieri," said the man. "She hopes that she may be received, as she is in Rome for only a few hours."

Sabina looked at the card and handed it silently to Malipieri, and her fingers trembled.

"Angelica Malipieri."

That was the name and there was the address in Florence, in Via del Mandorlo.

"Ask the lady to come here," said Sabina, quietly; but her face was suddenly very white.

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