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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVittoria - Book 4 - Chapter 22. Wilfrid Comes Forward
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Vittoria - Book 4 - Chapter 22. Wilfrid Comes Forward Post by :Trevor_Reed Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :1704

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Vittoria - Book 4 - Chapter 22. Wilfrid Comes Forward

BOOK IV CHAPTER XXII. WILFRID COMES FORWARD

An order for the immediate arrest of Vittoria was brought round to the stage at the fall of the curtain by Captain Weisspriess, and delivered by him on the stage to the officer commanding, a pothered lieutenant of Croats, whose first proceeding was dictated by the military instinct to get his men in line, and who was utterly devoid of any subsequent idea. The thunder of the house on the other side of the curtain was enough to disconcert a youngster such as he was; nor have the subalterns of Croat regiments a very signal reputation for efficiency in the Austrian Service. Vittoria stood among her supporters apart; pale, and 'only very thirsty,' as she told the enthusiastic youths who pressed near her, and implored her to have no fear. Carlo was on her right hand; Luciano on her left. They kept her from going off to her room. Montini was despatched to fetch her maid Giacinta with cloak and hood for her mistress. The young lieutenant of Croats drew his sword, but hesitated. Weisspriess, Wilfrid, and Major de Pyrmont were at one wing, between the Italian gentlemen and the soldiery. The operatic company had fallen into the background, or stood crowding the side places of exit. Vittoria's name was being shouted with that angry, sea-like, horrid monotony of iteration which is more suggestive of menacing impatience and the positive will of the people, than varied, sharp, imperative calls. The people had got the lion in their throats. One shriek from her would bring them, like a torrent, on the boards, as the officers well knew; and every second's delay in executing the orders of the General added to the difficulty of their position. The lieutenant of Croats strode up to Weisspriess and Wilfrid, who were discussing a plan of action vehemently; while, amid hubbub and argument, De Pyrmont studied Vittoria's features through his opera-glass, with an admirable simple languor.

Wilfrid turned back to him, and De Pyrmont, without altering the level of his glass, said, 'She's as cool as a lemon-ice. That girl will be a mother of heroes. To have volcanic fire and the mastery of her nerves at the same time, is something prodigious. She is magnificent. Take a peep at her. I suspect that the rascal at her right is seizing his occasion to plant a trifle or so in her memory--the animal! It's just the moment, and he knows it.'

De Pyrmont looked at Wilfrid's face.

'Have I hit you anywhere accidentally?' he asked, for the face had grown dead-white.

'Be my friend, for heaven's sake!' was the choking answer. 'Save her! Get her away! She is an old acquaintance of mine--of mine, in England. Do; or I shall have to break my sword.'

'You know her? and you don't go over to her?' said De Pyrmont.

'I--yes, she knows me.'

'Then, why not present yourself?'

'Get her away. Talk Weisspriess down. He is for seizing her at all hazards. It 's madness to provoke a conflict. Just listen to the house! I may be broken, but save her I will. De Pyrmont, on my honour, I will stand by you for ever if you will help me to get her away.'

'To suggest my need in the hour of your own is not a bad notion,' said the cool Frenchman. 'What plan have you?'

Wilfrid struck his forehead miserably.

'Stop Lieutenant Zettlisch. Don't let him go up to her. Don't--'

De Pyrmont beheld in astonishment that a speechlessness such as affects condemned wretches in the supreme last minutes of existence had come upon the Englishman.

'I'm afraid yours is a bad case,' he said; 'and the worst of it is, it's just the case women have no compassion for. Here comes a parlementaire from the opposite camp. Let's hear him.'

It was Luciano Romara. He stood before them to request that the curtain should be raised. The officers debated together, and deemed it prudent to yield consent.

Luciano stipulated further that the soldiers were to be withdrawn.

'On one wing, or on both wings?' said Captain Weisspriess, twinkling eyes oblique.

'Out of the house,' said Luciano.

The officers laughed.

'You must confess,' said De Pyrmont, affably, 'that though the drum does issue command to the horse, it scarcely thinks of doing so after a rent in the skin has shown its emptiness. Can you suppose that we are likely to run when we see you empty-handed? These things are matters of calculation.'

'It is for you to calculate correctly,' said Luciano.

As he spoke, a first surge of the exasperated house broke upon the stage and smote the curtain, which burst into white zigzags, as it were a breast stricken with panic.

Giacinta came running in to her mistress, and cloaked and hooded her hurriedly.

Enamoured; impassioned, Ammiani murmured in Vittoria's ear: 'My own soul!'

She replied: 'My lover!'

So their first love-speech was interchanged with Italian simplicity, and made a divine circle about them in the storm.

Luciano returned to his party to inform them that they held the key of the emergency.

'Stick fast,' he said. 'None of you move. Whoever takes the first step takes the false step; I see that.'

'We have no arms, Luciano.'

'We have the people behind us.'

There was a fiercer tempest in the body of the house, and, on a sudden, silence. Men who had invaded the stage joined the Italian guard surrounding Vittoria, telling that the lights had been extinguished; and then came the muffled uproar of universal confusion. Some were for handing her down into the orchestra, and getting her out through the general vomitorium, but Carlo and Luciano held her firmly by them. The theatre was a rageing darkness; and there was barely a light on the stage. 'Santa Maria!' cried Giacinta, 'how dreadful that steel does look in the dark! I wish our sweet boys would cry louder.' Her mistress, almost laughing, bade her keep close, and be still. 'Oh! this must be like being at sea,' the poor creature whined, stopping her ears and shutting her eyes. Vittoria was in a thick gathering of her defenders; she could just hear that a parley was going on between Luciano and the Austrians. Luciano made his way back to her. 'Quick!' he said; 'nothing cows a mob like darkness. One of these officers tells me he knows you, and gives his word of honour--he's an Englishman--to conduct you out: come.'

Vittoria placed her hands in Carlo's one instant. Luciano cleared a space for them. She heard a low English voice.

'You do not recognize me? There is no time to lose. You had another name once, and I have had the honour to call you by it.'

'Are you an Austrian?' she exclaimed, and Carlo felt that she was shrinking back.

'I am the Wilfrid Pole whom you knew. You are entrusted to my charge; I have sworn to conduct you to the doors in safety, whatever it may cost me.'

Vittoria looked at him mournfully. Her eyes filled with tears. 'The night is spoiled for me!' she murmured.

'Emilia!'

'That is not my name.'

'I know you by no other. Have mercy on me. I would do anything in the world to serve you.'

Major de Pyrmont came up to him and touched his arm. He said briefly: 'We shall have a collision, to a certainty, unless the people hear from one of her set that she is out of the house.'

Wilfrid requested her to confide her hand to him.

'My hand is engaged,' she said.

Bowing ceremoniously, Wilfrid passed on, and Vittoria, with Carlo and Luciano and her maid Giacinta, followed between files of bayonets through the dusky passages, and downstairs into the night air.

Vittoria spoke in Carlo's ear: 'I have been unkind to him. I had a great affection for him in England.'

'Thank him; thank him,' said Carlo.

She quitted her lover's side and went up to Wilfrid with a shyly extended hand. A carriage was drawn up by the kerbstone; the doors of it were open. She had barely made a word intelligible; when Major de Pyrmont pointed to some officers approaching. 'Get her out of the way while there's time,' he said in French to Luciano. 'This is her carriage. Swiftly, gentlemen, or she's lost.'

Giacinta read his meaning by signs, and caught her mistress by the sleeve, using force. She and Major de Pyrmont placed Vittoria, bewildered, in the carriage; De Pyrmont shut the door, and signalled to the coachman. Vittoria thrust her head out for a last look at her lover, and beheld him with the arms of dark-clothed men upon him. La Scala was pouring forth its occupants in struggling roaring shoals from every door. Her outcry returned to her deadened in the rapid rolling of the carriage across the lighted Piazza. Giacinta had to hold her down with all her might. Great clamour was for one moment heard by them, and then a rushing voicelessness. Giacinta screamed to the coachman till she was exhausted. Vittoria sank shuddering on the lap of her maid, hiding her face that she might plunge out of recollection.

The lightnings shot across her brain, but wrote no legible thing; the scenes of the opera lost their outlines as in a white heat of fire. She tried to weep, and vainly asked her heart for tears, that this dry dreadful blind misery of mere sensation might be washed out of her, and leave her mind clear to grapple with evil; and then, as the lurid breaks come in a storm-driven night sky, she had the picture of her lover in the hands of enemies, and of Wilfrid in the white uniform; the torment of her living passion, the mockery of her passion by-gone. Recollection, when it came back, overwhelmed her; she swayed from recollection to oblivion, and was like a caged wild thing. Giacinta had to be as a mother with her. The poor trembling girl, who had begun to perceive that the carriage was bearing them to some unknown destination, tore open the bands of her corset and drew her mistress's head against the full warmth of her bosom, rocked her, and moaned over her, mixing comfort and lamentation in one offering, and so contrived to draw the tears out from her, a storm of tears; not fitfully hysterical, but tears that poured a black veil over the eyeballs, and fell steadily streaming. Once subdued by the weakness, Vittoria's nature melted; she shook piteously with weeping; she remembered Laura's words, and thought of what she had done, in terror and remorse, and tried to ask if the people would be fighting now, but could not. Laura seemed to stand before her like a Fury stretching her finger at the dear brave men whom she had hurled upon the bayonets and the guns. It was an unendurable anguish. Giacinta was compelled to let her cry, and had to reflect upon their present situation unaided. They had passed the city gates. Voices on the coachman's box had given German pass-words. She would have screamed then had not the carriage seemed to her a sanctuary from such creatures as foreign soldiers, whitecoats; so she cowered on. They were in the starry open country, on the high-road between the vine-hung mulberry trees. She held the precious head of her mistress, praying the Saints that strength would soon come to her to talk of their plight, or chatter a little comfortingly at least; and but for the singular sweetness which it shot thrilling to her woman's heart, she would have been fretted when Vittoria, after one long-drawn wavering sob, turned her lips to the bared warm breast, and put a little kiss upon it, and slept.

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