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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Heart Of Rome - Chapter 8
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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 8 Post by :alfiee Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1895

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The Heart Of Rome - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

Malipieri was convinced before long that his doings interested some one who was able to employ men to watch him, and he connected the fact with Bruni's visit. He was not much disturbed by it, however, and was careful not to show that he noticed it at all. Naturally enough, he supposed that his short career as a promoter of republican ideas had caused him to be remembered as a dangerous person, and that a careful ministry was anxious to know why he lived alone in a vast palace, in the heart of Rome, knowing very few people and seeing hardly any one except Volterra. The Baron himself was apparently quite indifferent to any risk in the matter, and yet, as a staunch monarchist and supporter of the ministry then in office, it might have been expected that he would not openly associate with the monarchy's professed enemies. That was his affair, as Malipieri had frankly told him at the beginning. For the rest, the young architect smiled as he thought of the time and money the government was wasting on the supposition that he was plotting against it, but it annoyed him to find that certain faces of men in the streets were becoming familiar to him, quiet, blank faces of respectable middle-aged men, who always avoided meeting his eyes, and were very polite in standing aside to let him pass them on the pavement. There were now three whom he knew by sight, and he saw one of them every time he went out of the house. He knew what that meant. He had not the smallest doubt but that all three reported what they saw of his movements to Signor Vittorio Bruni, every day, in some particularly quiet little office in one of the government buildings connected with the Ministry of the Interior. It troubled him very little, since he was quite innocent of any political machinations for the present.

He had determined from the first not to employ any workmen to help him unless it should be absolutely necessary. He was strong and his practical experience in Carthage had taught him the use of pick and crowbar. Masin was equal to two ordinary men for such work, and could be trusted to hold his tongue.

Malipieri told the porter that he was exploring the foundations before attempting to strengthen them, and from time to time he gave him a little money. At first the old man offered to call Toto, who had always served the house, he said; but Malipieri answered that no help was needed in a mere preliminary exploration, and that another man would only be in the way. He made no secret of the fact that he was working with his own hands, however. Every morning, he and his servant went down into the north-west cellars by a winding staircase that was entered from a passage between the disused stables and the empty coach-house. Like every large Roman palace, the Palazzo Conti had two arched entrances, one of which had never been opened except on important occasions, when the carriages that drove in on the one side drove out at the other after their owner had alighted. This second gate was at the west end of the court, not far from the coach-house. To reach their work Malipieri and Masin had to go down the grand staircase and pass the porter's lodge. Masin wore the rough clothes of a working mason and Malipieri appeared in overalls and a heavy canvas jacket. Very soon the garments of both were so effectually stained with mud, green mould and water that the two men could hardly have been distinguished from ordinary day labourers, even in broad daylight.

They began work on the very spot at which the snuffy little expert had stopped to listen to the water. It was evidently out of the question to break through the wall at the level of the cellar floor, for the water could be heard running steadily through its hidden channel, and if this were opened the cellars might be completely flooded. Besides, Malipieri knew that the water might rise unexpectedly to a considerable height.

It was therefore best to make the opening as high as possible, under the vault, which at that point was not more than ten feet from the ground. The simplest plan would have been to put up a small scaffolding on which to work, but there was no timber suitable for the purpose in the cellar, and Malipieri did not wish to endanger the secrecy of his operations by having any brought down. He therefore set to work to excavate an inclined aperture, like a tunnel, which began at a height of about five feet and was intended to slope upwards so as to reach the interior chamber at the highest point practicable.

It was very hard work at first, and it was not unattended by danger. Masin declared at the outset that it was impracticable without blasting. The wall appeared to be built of solid blocks of travertine stone, rough hewn on the face but neatly fitted together. It would take two men several days to loosen a single one of these blocks, and if they finally succeeded in moving it, it must fall to the ground at once, for their united strength would not have sufficed to lower it gently.

"The facing is stone," said Malipieri, "but we shall find bricks behind it. If we do not, we must try to get in by some other way."

In order to get any leverage at all, it was necessary to chisel out a space between the first block to be moved and those that touched it, an operation which occupied two whole days. Masin worked doggedly and systematically, and Malipieri imitated him as well as he could, but more than once nearly blinded himself with the flying chips of stone, and though he was strong his hands ached and trembled at the end of the day, so that he could hardly hold a pen. To Masin it was easy enough, and was merely a question of time and patience. He begged Malipieri to let him do it alone, but the architect would not hear of that, since there was room for two to use their tools at the same time, at opposite ends of the block. He was in haste to get over the first obstacle, which he believed to be by far the most difficult, and he was not the kind of man to sit idly watching another at work without trying to help him.

On the third day they made an attempt to use a crowbar. They had two very heavy ones, but they did not try to use both, and united their strength upon one only. They might as well have tried to move the whole palace, and it looked as if they would be obliged to cut the block itself away with hammer and chisel, a labour of a fortnight, perhaps, considering the awkward position in which they had to work.

"One dynamite cartridge would do it!" laughed Malipieri, as he looked at the huge stone.

"Thank you, sir," answered Masin, taking the suggestion seriously. "I have been in the galleys seven years, and that is enough for a lifetime. We must try and split it with wedges."

"There is no other way."

They had all the tools necessary for the old-fashioned operation; three drilling irons, of different sizes, and a small sledge-hammer, and they went to work without delay. Malipieri held the iron horizontally against the stone with both hands, turning it a little after Masin had struck it with the sledge. It was very exhausting after a time, as the whole weight of the tool was at first carried by Malipieri's uplifted hands. Moreover, if he forgot to grasp it very firmly, the vibration of the blow made the palms of his hands sting till they were numb. At regular intervals the men changed places, Masin held the drill and Malipieri took the hammer. Every now and then they raked out the dust from the deepening hole with a little round scoop made for the purpose and riveted to the end of a light iron rod a yard long.

Hour after hour they toiled thus together, far down under the palace, in the damp, close air, that was cold and yet stifling to breathe. The hole was now over two feet deep.

Suddenly, as Masin delivered a heavy blow, the drill ran in an inch instead of recoiling in Malipieri's tight hold.

"Bricks," said Masin, resting on the haft of the long hammer.

Malipieri removed the drill, took the scoop and drew out the dust and minute chips. Hitherto the stuff had been grey, but now, as he held his hand under the round hole to catch what came, a little bit of dark red brick fell into his palm. He picked it out carefully and held it close to the bright unshaded lamp.

"Roman brick," he said, after a moment.

"We are not in Milan," observed Masin, by way of telling his master that he did not understand.

"Ancient Roman brick," said Malipieri. "It is just what I expected. This is part of the wall of an old Roman building, built of bricks and faced with travertine. If we can get this block out, the worst will be over."

"It is easier to drill holes in stone than in water," said Masin, who had put his ear to the hole. "I can hear it much louder now."

"Of course you can," answered Malipieri. "We are wasting time," he added, picking up the drill and holding it against the block at a point six inches higher than before.

Masin took his sledge again and hammered away with dogged regularity. So the work went on all that day, and all the next. And after that they took another tool and widened the holes, and then a third till they were two inches in diameter.

Masin suggested that they might drive an iron on through the brickwork, and find out how much of it there was beyond the stone, but Malipieri pointed out that if the "lost water" should rise it would pour out through the hole and stop their operations effectually. The entrance must incline upwards, he said.

They made long round plugs of soft pine to fit the holes exactly, each one scored with a channel a quarter of an inch deep, which was on the upper side when they had driven the plugs into their places, and was intended to lead the water along the wood, so as to wet it more thoroughly. To do this Malipieri poked long cotton wicks into each channel with a wire, as far as possible. He made Masin buy half-a- dozen coarse sponges and tied one upon the upper end of each projecting plug. Finally he wet all the sponges thoroughly and wound coarse cloths loosely round them to keep in as much of the water as possible. By pouring on water from time to time the soft wood was to be ultimately wet through, the wicks leading the moisture constantly inward, and in the end the great block must inevitably be split into halves. It is the prehistoric method, and there never was any other way of cleaving very hard stone until gunpowder first brought in blasting. It is slow, but it is quite sure.

The place where the two men had been working was many feet below the level of the courtyard, but the porter could now and then hear the sound of blows echoing underground through the vast empty cellars, even when he stood near the great entrance.

Toto heard the noise too, one day, as he was standing still to light his pipe in the Vicolo dei Soldati. When it struck his ear he let the match burn out till it singed his horny fingers. His expression became even more blank than usual, but he looked up and down the street, to see if he were alone, and upward at the windows of the house opposite. Nobody was in sight, but in order to place his ear close to the wall and listen, he made a pretence of fastening his shoe-string. The sound came to him from very far beneath, regular as the panting of an engine. He knew his trade, and recognized the steady hammering on the end of a stone drill, very unlike the irregular blows of a pickaxe or a crowbar. The "moles" were at work, and knew their business; sooner or later they would break through. But Toto could not guess that the work was being actually done by Malipieri and his servant, without help. One man alone could not do it, and the profound contempt of the artisan for any outsider who attempts his trade, made Toto feel quite sure that one or more masons had been called in to make a breach in the foundation wall. As he stood up and lighted his pipe at last, he grinned all alone, and then slouched on, his heart full of very evil designs. Had he not always been the mason of the Palazzo Conti? And his father before him? And his grandfather, who had lost his life down there, where the moles were working? And now that he was turned out, and others were called in to do a particularly confidential job, should he not be revenged? He bit his pipe and thrust his rough hands deep into the pockets of his fustian trousers, and instead of turning into the wine shop to meet Gigi, he went off for a walk by himself through all the narrow and winding streets that lie between the Palazzo Conti and Monte Giordano.

He came to no immediate conclusion, and moreover there was no great hurry. He knew well enough that it would take time to pierce the wall, after the drilling was over, and he could easily tell when that point was reached by listening every day in the Vicolo dei Soldati. It would still be soon enough to play tricks with the water, if he chose that form of vengeance, and he grinned again as he thought of the vast expense he could force upon Volterra in order to save the palace. But he might do something else. Instead of flooding the cellars and possibly drowning the masons who had ousted him, he could turn informer and defeat the schemes of Volterra and Malipieri, for he never doubted but that if they found anything of value they meant to keep the whole profit of it to themselves.

He had the most vague notions of what the treasure might be. When the fatal accident had happened his grandfather had been the only man who had actually penetrated into the innermost hiding-place; the rest had fled when the water rose and had left him to drown. They had seen nothing, and their story had been handed down as a mere record of the catastrophe. Toto knew at least that the vaults had then been entered from above, which was by far the easier way, but a new pavement had long ago covered all traces of the aperture.

There was probably gold down there, gold of the ancients, in earthen jars. That was Toto's belief, and he also believed that when it was found it would belong to the government, because the government took everything, but that somehow, in real justice, it should belong to the Pope. For Toto was not only a genuine Roman of the people, but had always regarded himself as a sort of hereditary retainer of an ancient house.

His mind worked slowly. A day passed, and he heard the steady hammering still, and after a second night he reached a final conclusion. The Pope must have the treasure, whatever it might be.

That, he decided, was the only truly moral view, and the only one which satisfied his conscience. It would doubtless be very amusing to be revenged on the masons by drowning them in a cellar, with the absolute certainty of never being suspected of the deed. The plan had great attractions. The masons themselves should have known better than to accept a job which belonged by right to him, and they undoubtedly deserved to be drowned. Yet Toto somehow felt that as there was no woman in the case he might some day, in his far old age, be sorry for having killed several men in cold blood. It was really not strictly moral, after all, especially as his grandfather's death had been properly avenged by the death of the murderer.

As for allowing the government to have a share in the profits of the discovery, that was not to be thought of. He was a Roman, and the Italian government was his natural enemy. If he could have turned all the "lost water" in the city upon the whole government collectively, in the cellars of the Palazzo Conti, he would have felt that it was strictly moral to do so. The government had stolen more than two years of his life by making him serve in the army, and he was not going to return good for evil. With beautiful simplicity of reasoning he cursed the souls of the government's dead daily, as if it had been a family of his acquaintance.

But the Pope was quite another personage. There had always been popes, and there always would be till the last judgment, and everything connected with the Vatican would last as long as the world itself. Toto was a conservative. His work had always kept him among lasting things of brick and stone, and he was proud of never having taken a day's wages for helping to put up the modern new-fangled buildings he despised. The most lasting of all buildings in the world was the Vatican, and the most permanent institution conceivable was the Pope. Gigi, who made wretched, perishable objects of wood and nails and glue, such as doors and windows, sometimes launched into modern ideas. Toto would have liked to know how many times the doors and windows of the Palazzo Conti had been renewed since the walls had been built! He pitied Gigi always, and sometimes he despised him, though they were good friends enough in the ordinary sense.

The Pope should have the treasure. That was settled, and the only question remaining concerned the means of transferring it to him when it was discovered.

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