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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 44. The Wife And The Husband
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Vittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 44. The Wife And The Husband Post by :masterzinc Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2515

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Vittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 44. The Wife And The Husband

BOOK VIII CHAPTER XLIV. THE WIFE AND THE HUSBAND

When they were alone Merthyr said: "I cannot give many minutes, not much time. I have to speak to your husband."

She answered: "Give me many minutes--much time. All other speaking is vain here."

"It concerns his safety."

"It will not save him."

"But I have evidence that he is betrayed. His plans are known; a trap is set for him. If he moves, he walks into a pit."

"You would talk reason, Merthyr," Vittoria sighed. "Talk it to me. I can listen; I thirst for it. I beat at the bars of a cage all day. When I saw you this afternoon, I looked on another life. It was too sudden, and I swooned. That was my only show of weakness. Since then you are the only strength I feel."

"Have they all become Barto Rizzos?" Merthyr exclaimed.

"Beloved, I will open my mind to you," said Vittoria. "I am cowardly, and I thought I had such courage! Tonight a poor mad creature has been here, who has oppressed me, I cannot say how long, with real fear--that I only understand now that I know the little ground I had for it. I am even pleased that one like Barto Rizzo should see me in a better light. I find the thought smiling in my heart when every other thing is utterly dark there. You have heard that Carlo goes to Brescia. When I was married, I lost sight of Italy, and everything but happiness. I suffer as I deserve for it now. I could have turned my husband from this black path; I preferred to dream and sing. I would not see--it was my pride that would not let me see his error. My cowardice would not let me wound him with a single suggestion. You say that he is betrayed. Then he is betrayed by the woman who has never been unintelligible to me. We were in Turin surrounded by intrigues, and there I thanked her so much for leaving me the days with my husband by Lake Orta that I did not seek to open his eyes to her. We came to Milan, and here I have been thanking her for the happy days in Turin. Carlo is no longer to blame if he will not listen to me. I have helped to teach him that I am no better than any of these Italian women whom he despises. I spoke to him as his wife should do, at last. He feigned to think me jealous, and I too remember the words of the reproach, as if they had a meaning. Ah, my friend! I would say of nothing that it is impossible, except this task of recovering lost ground with one who is young. Experience of trouble has made me older than he. When he accused me of jealousy, I could mention Countess d'Isorella's name no more. I confess to that. Yet I knew my husband feigned. I knew that he could not conceive the idea of jealousy existing in me, as little as I could imagine unfaithfulness in him. But my lips would not take her name! Wretched cowardice cannot go farther. I spoke of Rome. As often as I spoke, that name was enough to shake me off: he had but to utter it, and I became dumb. He did it to obtain peace; for no other cause. So, by degrees, I have learnt the fatal truth. He has trusted her, for she is very skilful; distrusting her, for she is treacherous. He has, therefore, believed excessively in his ability to make use of her, and to counteract her baseness. I saw his error from the first; and I went on dreaming and singing; and now this night has come!"

Vittoria shadowed her eyes.

"I will go to him at once," said Merthyr.

"Yes; I am relieved. Go, dear friend," she sobbed; "you have given me tears, as I hoped. You will not turn him; had it been possible, could I have kept you from him so long? I know that you will not turn him from his purpose, for I know what a weight it is that presses him forward in that path. Do not imagine our love to be broken. He will convince you that it is not. He has the nature of an angel. He permitted me to speak before these men to-night--feeble thing that I am! It was a last effort. I might as well have tried to push a rock."

She rose at a noise of voices in the hall below.

"They are going, Merthyr. See him now. There may be help in heaven; if one could think it! If help were given to this country--if help were only visible! The want of it makes us all without faith."

"Hush! you may hear good news from Carlo Alberto in a few hours," said Merthyr.

"Ask Laura; she has witnessed how he can be shattered," Vittoria replied bitterly.

Merthyr pressed her fingers. He was met by Carlo on the stairs.

"Quick!" Carlo said; "I have scarce a minute to spare. I have my adieux to make, and the tears have set in already. First, a request: you will promise to remain beside my wife; she will want more than her own strength."

Such a request, coming from an Italian husband, was so great a proof of the noble character of his love and his knowledge of the woman he loved, that Merthyr took him in his arms and kissed him.

"Get it over quickly, dear good fellow," Carlo murmured; "you have something to tell me. Whatever it is, it's air; but I'll listen."

They passed into a vacant room. "You know you are betrayed," Merthyr began.

"Not exactly that," said Carlo, humming carelessly.

"Positively and absolutely. The Countess d'Isorella has sold your secrets."

"I commend her to the profit she has made by it."

"Do you play with your life?"

Carlo was about to answer in the tone he had assumed for the interview. He checked the laugh on his lips.

"She must have some regard for my life, such as it's worth, since, to tell you the truth, she is in the house now, and came here to give me fair warning."

"Then, you trust her."

"I? Not a single woman in the world!--that is, for a conspiracy."

It was an utterly fatuous piece of speech. Merthyr allowed it to slip, and studied him to see where he was vulnerable.

"She is in the house, you say. Will you cause her to come before me?"

"Curiously," said Carlo, "I kept her for some purpose of the sort. Will I? and have a scandal now? Oh! no. Let her sleep."

Whether he spoke from noble-mindedness or indifference, Merthyr could not guess.

"I have a message from your friend Luciano. He sends you his love, in case he should be shot the first, and says that when Lombardy is free he hopes you will not forget old comrades who are in Rome."

"Forget him! I would to God I could sit and talk of him for hours. Luciano! Luciano! He has no wife."

Carlo spoke on hoarsely. "Tell me what authority you have for charging Countess d'Isorella with... with whatever it may be."

"A conversation between Countess Anna of Lenkenstein and a Major Nagen, in the Duchess of Graatli's house, was overheard by our Beppo. They spoke German. The rascal had a German sweetheart with him. She imprisoned him for some trespass, and had come stealing in to rescue him, when those two entered the room. Countess Anna detailed to Nagen the course of your recent plotting. She named the hour this morning when you are to start for Brescia. She stated what force you have, what arms you expect; she named you all."

"Nagen--Nagen," Carlo repeated; "the man's unknown to me."

"It's sufficient that he is an Austrian officer."

"Quite. She hates me, and she has reason, for she's aware that I mean to fight her lover, and choose my time. The blood of my friends is on that man's head."

"I will finish what I have to say," pursued Merthyr. "When Beppo had related as much as he could make out from his sweetheart's translation, I went straight to the duchess. She is an Austrian, and a good and reasonable woman. She informed me that a letter addressed by Countess Anna to Countess d'Isorella fell into her hands this night. She burnt it unopened. I leave it to you to consider whether you have been betrayed and who has betrayed you. The secret was bought. Beppo himself caught the words, 'from a mercenary Italian.' The duchess tells me that Countess Anna is in the habit of alluding to Countess d'Isorella in those terms."

Carlo stretched his arms like a man who cannot hide the yawning fit.

"I promised my wife five minutes, though we have had the worst of the parting over. Perhaps you will wait for me; I may have a word to say."

He was absent for little more than the space named. When he returned, he was careful to hide his face. He locked the door, and leading Merthyr to an inner room, laid his watch on the table, and said: "Now, friend, you will see that I have nothing to shrink from, for I am going to do execution upon myself, and before him whom I would, above all other men, have think well of me. My wife supposes that I am pledged to this Brescian business because I am insanely patriotic. If I might join Luciano tomorrow I would shout like a boy. I would be content to serve as the lowest in the ranks, if I might be with you all under the Chief. Rome crowns him, and Brescia is my bloody ditch, and it is deserved! When I was a little younger--I am a boy still, no doubt--I had the honour to be distinguished by a handsome woman; and when I grew a little older, I discovered by chance that she had wit. The lady is the Countess Violetta d'Isorella. It is a grief to me to know that she is sordid: it hurts my vanity the more. Perhaps: you begin to perceive that vanity governs me. The signora Laura has not expressed her opinion on this subject with any reserve, but to Violetta belongs the merit of having seen it without waiting for the signs. First--it is a small matter, but you are English--let me assure you that my wife has had no rival. I have taunted her with jealousy when I knew that it was neither in her nature to feel it, nor in mine to give reason for it. No man who has a spark of his Maker in him could be unfaithful to such a woman. When Lombardy was crushed, we were in the dust. I fancy we none of us knew how miserably we had fallen--we, as men. The purest--I dare say, the bravest--marched to Rome. God bless my Luciano there! But I, sir, I, my friend, I, Merthyr, I said proudly that I would not abandon a beaten country: and I was admired for my devotion. The dear old poet, Agostino, praised me. It stopped his epigrams--during a certain time, at least. Colonel Corte admired me. Marco Sana, Giulio Bandinelli admired me. Vast numbers admired me. I need not add that I admired myself. I plunged into intrigues with princes, and priests, and republicans. A clever woman was at my elbow. In the midst of all this, my marriage: I had seven weeks of peace; and then I saw what I was. You feel that you are tired, when you want to go another way and you feel that you have been mad when you want to undo your work. But I could not break the chains I had wrought, for I was a chief of followers. The men had come from exile, or they had refused to join the Roman enterprise:--they, in fact, had bound themselves to me; and that means, I was irrevocably bound to them. I had an insult to wipe out: I refrained from doing it, sincerely, I may tell you, on the ground that this admired life of mine was precious. I will heap no more clumsy irony on it: I can pity it. Do you see now how I stand? I know that I cannot rely on the king's luck or on the skill of his generals, or on the power of his army, or on the spirit in Lombardy: neither on men nor on angels. But I cannot draw back. I have set going a machine that's merciless. From the day it began working, every moment has added to its force. Do not judge me by your English eyes: other lands, other habits; other habits, other thoughts. And besides, if honour said nothing, simple humanity would preserve me from leaving my band to perish like a flock of sheep."

He uttered this with a profound conviction of his quality as leader, that escaped the lurid play of self-inspection which characterized what he had previously spoken, and served singularly in bearing witness to the truth of his charge against himself.

"Useless!" he said, waving his hand at anticipated remonstrances. "Look with the eyes of my country; not with your own, my friend. I am disgraced if I do not go out. My friends are disgraced if I do not head them in. Brescia--sacrificed!--murdered!--how can I say what? Can I live under disgrace or remorse? The king stakes on his army; I on the king. Whether he fights and wins, or fights and loses, I go out. I have promised my men--promised them success, I believe!--God forgive me! Did you ever see a fated man before? None had plotted against me. I have woven my own web, and that's the fatal thing. I have a wife, the sweetest woman of her time. Goodnight to her! our parting is over."

He glanced at his watch. "Perhaps she will be at the door below. Her heart beats like mine just now. You wish to say that you think me betrayed, and therefore I may draw back? Did you not hear that Bergamo has risen? The Brescians are up too by this time. Gallant Brescians! they never belie the proverb in their honour; and to die among them would be sweet if I had all my manhood about me. You would have me making a scene with Violetta."

"Set the woman face to face with me!" cried Merthyr, sighting a gleam of hope.

Carlo smiled. "Can she bear my burden though she be ten times guilty? Let her sleep. I have her here harmless for the night. The Brescians are up:--that's an hour that has struck, and there's no calling it to move a step in the rear. Brescia under the big Eastern hill which throws a cloak on it at sunrise! Brescia is always the eagle that looks over Lombardy! And Bergamo! you know the terraces of Bergamo. Aren't they like a morning sky? Dying there is not death; it's flying into the dawn. You Romans envy us. Come, confess it; you envy us. You have no Alps, no crimson hills, nothing but old walls to look on while you fight. Farewell, Merthyr Powys. I hear my servant's foot outside. My horse is awaiting me saddled, a mile from the city. Perhaps I shall see my wife again at the door below, or in heaven. Addio! Kiss Luciano for me. Tell him that I knew myself as well as he did, before the end came. Enrico, Emilio, and the others--tell them I love them. I doubt if there will ever be but a ghost of me to fight beside them in Rome. And there's no honour, Merthyr, in a ghost's fighting, because he's shotproof; so I won't say what the valiant disembodied 'I' may do by-and-by."

He held his hands out, with the light soft smile of one who asks forgiveness for flippant speech, and concluded firmly: "I have talked enough, and you are the man of sense I thought you; for to give me advice is childish when no power on earth could make me follow it. Addio! Kiss me."

They embraced. Merthyr said no more than that he would place messengers on the road to Brescia to carry news of the king's army. His voice was thick, and when Carlo laughed at him, his sensations strangely reversed their situations.

There were two cloaked figures at different points in the descent of the stairs. These rose severally at Carlo's approach, took him to their bosoms, and kissed him in silence. They were his mother and Laura. A third crouched by the door of the courtyard, which was his wife.

Merthyr kept aloof until the heavy door rolled a long dull sound. Vittoria's head was shawled over. She stood where her husband had left her, groping for him with one hand, that closed tremblingly hard on Merthyr when he touched it. Not a word was uttered in the house.

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