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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Strolling Saint - Book 2. Giuliana - Chapter 5. Pabulum Acherontis
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The Strolling Saint - Book 2. Giuliana - Chapter 5. Pabulum Acherontis Post by :Odilia_Paula Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2162

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The Strolling Saint - Book 2. Giuliana - Chapter 5. Pabulum Acherontis

BOOK II. GIULIANA
CHAPTER V. PABULUM ACHERONTIS

It was late that afternoon when Astorre Fifanti set out. He addressed a few brief words to me, informing me that he should return within four days, betide what might, setting me tasks upon which I was meanwhile to work, and bidding me keep the house and be circumspect during his absence.

From the window of my room I saw the doctor get astride his mule. He was girt with a big sword, but he still wore his long, absurd and shabby gown and his loose, ill-fitting shoes, so that it was very likely that the stirrup-leathers would engage his thoughts ere he had ridden far.

I saw him dig his heels into the beast's sides and go ambling down the little avenue and out at the gate. In the road he drew rein, and stood in talk some moments with a lad who idled there, a lad whom he was wont to employ upon odd tasks about the garden and elsewhere.

This, Madonna also saw, for she was watching his departure from the window of a room below. That she attached more importance to that little circumstance than did I, I was to learn much later.

At last he pushed on, and I watched him as he dwindled down the long grey road that wound along the river-side until in the end he was lost to view--for all time, I hoped; and well had it been for me had my idle hope been realized.

I supped alone that night with no other company than Busio's, who ministered to my needs.

Madonna sent word that she would keep her chamber. When I had supped and after night had fallen I went upstairs to the library, and, shutting myself in, I attempted to read, lighted by the three beaks of the tall brass lamp that stood upon the table. Being plagued by moths, I drew the curtains close across the open window, and settled down to wrestle with the opening lines of the (Title in Greek) of Aeschylus.

But my thoughts wandered from the doings of the son of Iapetus, until at last I flung down the book and sat back in my chair all lost in thought, in doubt, and in conjecture. I became seriously introspective. I made an examination not only of conscience, but of heart and mind, and I found that I had gone woefully astray from the path that had been prepared for me. Very late I sat there and sought to determine upon what I should do.

Suddenly, like a manna to my starving soul, came the memory of the last talk I had with Fra Gervasio and the solemn warning he had given me. That memory inspired me rightly. To-morrow--despite Messer Fifanti's orders--I would take horse and ride to Mondolfo, there to confess myself to Fra Gervasio and to be guided by his counsel. My mother's vows concerning me I saw in their true light. They were not binding upon me; indeed, I should be doing a hideous wrong were I to follow them against my inclinations. I must not damn my soul for anything that my mother had vowed or ever I was born, however much she might account that it would be no more than filial piety so to do.

I was easier in mind after my resolve was taken, and I allowed that mind of mine to stray thereafter as it listed. It took to thoughts of Giuliana--Giuliana for whom I ached in every nerve, although I still sought to conceal from myself the true cause of my suffering. Better a thousand times had I envisaged that sinful fact and wrestled with it boldly. Thus should I have had a chance of conquering myself and winning clear of all the horror that lay before me.

That I was weak and irresolute at such a time, when I most needed strength, I still think to-day--when I can take a calm survey of all--was the fault of the outrageous rearing that was mine. At Mondolfo they had so nurtured me and so sheltered me from the stinging blasts of the world that I was grown into a very ripe and succulent fruit for the Devil's mouth. The things to whose temptation usage would have rendered me in some degree immune were irresistible to one who had been tutored as had I.

Let youth know wickedness, lest when wickedness seeks a man out in his riper years he shall be fooled and conquered by the beauteous garb in which the Devil has the cunning to array it.

And yet to pretend that I was entirely innocent of where I stood and in what perils were to play the hypocrite. Largely I knew; just as I knew that lacking strength to resist, I must seek safety in flight. And to-morrow I would go. That point was settled, and the page, meanwhile, turned down. And for to-night I delivered myself up to the savouring of this hunger that was upon me.

And then, towards the third hour of night, as I still sat there, the door was very gently opened, and I beheld Giuliana standing before me. She detached from the black background of the passage, and the light of my three-beaked lamp set her ruddy hair aglow so that it seemed there was a luminous nimbus all about her head. For a moment this gave colour to my fancy that I beheld a vision evoked by the too great intentness of my thoughts. The pale face seemed so transparent, the white robe was almost diaphanous, and the great dark eyes looked so sad and wistful. Only in the vivid scarlet of her lips was there life and blood.

I stared at her. "Giuliana!" I murmured.

"Why do you sit so late?" she asked me, and closed the door as she spoke.

"I have been thinking, Giuliana," I answered wearily, and I passed a hand over my brow to find it moist and clammy. "To-morrow I go hence."

She started round and her eyes grew distended, her hand clutched her breast. "You go hence?" she cried, a note as of fear in her deep voice. "Hence? Whither?"

"Back to Mondolfo, to tell my mother that her dream is at an end."

She came slowly towards me. "And... and then?" she asked.

"And then? I do not know. What God wills. But the scapulary is not for me. I am unworthy. I have no call. This I now know. And sooner than be such a priest as Messer Gambara--of whom there are too many in the Church to-day--I will find some other way of serving God."

"Since... since when have you thought thus?"

"Since this morning, when I kissed you," I answered fiercely.

She sank into a chair beyond the table and stretched a hand across it to me, inviting the clasp of mine. "But if this is so, why leave us?"

"Because I am afraid," I answered. "Because... O God! Giuliana, do you not see?" And I sank my head into my hands.

Steps shuffled along the corridor. I looked up sharply. She set a finger to her lips. There fell a knock, and old Busio stood before us.

"Madonna," he announced, "my Lord the Cardinal-legate is below and asks for you."

I started up as if I had been stung. So! At this hour! Then Messer Fifanti's suspicions did not entirely lack for grounds.

Giuliana flashed me a glance ere she made answer.

"You will tell my Lord Gambara that I have retired for the night and that... But stay!" She caught up a quill and dipped it in the ink-horn, drew paper to herself, and swiftly wrote three lines; then dusted it with sand, and proffered that brief epistle to the servant.

"Give this to my lord."

Busio took the note, bowed, and departed.

After the door had closed a silence followed, in which I paced the room in long strides, aflame now with the all-consuming fire of jealousy. I do believe that Satan had set all the legions of hell to achieve my overthrow that night. Naught more had been needed to undo me than this spur of jealousy. It brought me now to her side. I stood over her, looking down at her between tenderness and fierceness, she returning my glance with such a look as may haunt the eyes of sacrificial victims.

"Why dared he come?" I asked.

"Perhaps... perhaps some affair connected with Astorre..." she faltered.

I sneered. "That would be natural seeing that he has sent Astorre to Parma."

"If there was aught else, I am no party to it," she assured me.

How could I do other than believe her? How could I gauge the turpitude of that beauty's mind--I, all unversed in the wiles that Satan teaches women? How could I have guessed that when she saw Fifanti speak to that lad at the gate that afternoon she had feared that he had set a spy upon the house, and that fearing this she had bidden the Cardinal begone? I knew it later. But not then.

"Will you swear that it is as you say?" I asked her, white with passion.

As I have said, I was standing over her and very close. Her answer now was suddenly to rise. Like a snake came she gliding upwards into my arms until she lay against my breast, her face upturned, her eyes languidly veiled, her lips a-pout.

"Can you do me so great a wrong, thinking you love me, knowing that I love you?" she asked me.

For an instant we swayed together in that sweetly hideous embrace. I was as a man sapped of all strength by some portentous struggle. I trembled from head to foot. I cried out once--a despairing prayer for help, I think it was--and then I seemed to plunge headlong down through an immensity of space until my lips found hers. The ecstasy, the living fire, the anguish, and the torture of it have left their indelible scars upon my memory. Even as I write the cruelly sweet poignancy of that moment is with me again--though very hateful now.

Thus I, blindly and recklessly, under the sway and thrall of that terrific and overpowering temptation. And then there leapt in my mind a glimmer of returning consciousness: a glimmer that grew rapidly to be a blazing light in which I saw revealed the hideousness of the thing I did. I tore myself away from her in that second of revulsion and hurled her from me, fiercely and violently, so that, staggering to the seat from which she had risen, she fell into it rather than sat down.

And whilst, breathless with parted lips and galloping bosom, she observed me, something near akin to terror in her eyes, I stamped about that room and raved and heaped abuse and recriminations upon myself, ending by going down upon my knees to her, imploring her forgiveness for the thing I had done--believing like a fatuous fool that it was all my doing--and imploring her still more passionately to leave me and to go.

She set a trembling hand upon my head; she took my chin in the other, and raised my face until she could look into it.

"If it be your will--if it will bring you peace and happiness, I will leave you now and never see you more. But are you not deluded, my Agostino?"

And then, as if her self-control gave way, she fell to weeping.

"And what of me if you go? What of me wedded to that monster, to that cruel and inhuman pedant who tortures and insults me as you have seen?"

"Beloved, will another wrong cure the wrong of that?" I pleaded. "O, if you love me, go--go, leave me. It is too late--too late!"

I drew away from her touch, and crossed the room to fling myself upon the window-seat. For a space we sat apart thus, panting like wrestlers who have flung away from each other. At length--"Listen, Giuliana," I said more calmly. "Were I to heed you, were I to obey my own desires, I should bid you come away with me from this to-morrow."

"If you but would!" she sighed. "You would be taking me out of hell."

"Into another worse," I countered swiftly. "I should do you such a wrong as naught could ever right again."

She looked at me for a spell in silence. Her back was to the light and her face in shadow, so that I could not read what passed there. Then, very slowly, like one utterly weary, she got to her feet.

"I will do your will, beloved; but I do it not for the wrong that I should suffer--for that I should count no wrong--but for the wrong that I should be doing you."

She paused as if for an answer. I had none for her. I raised my arms, then let them fall again, and bowed my head. I heard the gentle rustle of her robe, and I looked up to see her staggering towards the door, her arms in front of her like one who is blind. She reached it, pulled it open, and from the threshold gave me one last ineffable look of her great eyes, heavy now with tears. Then the door closed again, and I was alone.

From my heart there rose a great surge of thankfulness. I fell upon my knees and prayed. For an hour at least I must have knelt there, seeking grace and strength; and comforted at last, my calm restored, I rose, and went to the window. I drew back the curtains, and leaned out to breathe the physical calm of that tepid September night.

And presently out of the gloom a great grey shape came winging towards the window, the heavy pinions moving ponderously with their uncanny sough. It was an owl attracted by the light. Before that bird of evil omen, that harbinger of death, I drew back and crossed myself. I had a sight of its sphinx-like face and round, impassive eyes ere it circled to melt again into the darkness, startled by any sudden movement. I closed the window and left the room.

Very softly I crept down the passage towards my chamber, leaving the light burning in the library, for it was not my habit to extinguish it, and I gave no thought to the lateness of the hour.

Midway down the passage I halted. I was level with Giuliana's door, and from under it there came a slender blade of light. But it was not this that checked me. She was singing, Such a pitiful little heartbroken song it was:

"Amor mi muojo; mi muojo amore mio!"

ran its last line.

I leaned against the wall, and a sob broke from me. Then, in an instant, the passage was flooded with light, and in the open doorway Giuliana stood all white before me, her arms held out.

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