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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhosoever Shall Offend - Chapter 21
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Whosoever Shall Offend - Chapter 21 Post by :liberty Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2021

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Whosoever Shall Offend - Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI


Ercole walked on when he saw some one come out of No. 16, for he did not recognise Regina. She followed him at a distance. Even if he should pass where there might be many people, she would not lose sight of him easily because he had his dog with him. She noticed that his canvas bag was hung over one shoulder and that it seemed to be full, and his gun was slung over the other. He meant to leave Rome that night on foot. He walked fast through the new streets in the upper quarter, turned to the right when he reached the Via Venti Settembre, and went straight on, past the top of the hill, and along the Quirinal Palace; then down and on, down and on, through moonlight and shadow, winding streets and straight, till the Colosseum was in sight. He was going towards the Porta San Sebastiano to take the road to Ardea.

The air was very clear, and the moonlight made the broad space as bright as if there were daylight. Regina walked fast, and began to overtake her father, and the dog turned his head and growled at the tall woman in black. She came up with Ercole by the ruin of the ancient fountain, and the dog snarled at her. Ercole stopped and looked at her sharply, and she raised her veil.

"I have followed you," she said. "We are alone here. We can talk in peace."

"And what am I to say to you?" Ercole asked, in a low and surly voice.

"What you will, little or much, as you please. You shall speak, and I will listen. But we can walk on under the trees there. Then nobody can see us."

Ercole began to go on, and Regina walked on his left side. The dog sniffed at the hem of her long black cloak. They came under the shade of the trees, and Ercole stopped again, and turned, facing the reflection of the moonlight on the vast curve of the Colosseum.

"What do you want of me?" he asked. "Why do you follow me in the night?"

"When you saw that the Signore was with me to-day, you said, 'It cannot be done.' He is not here now."

She stood quite still, looking at him.

"I understand nothing," he said, in the same surly tone as before.

"You wished to kill me to-day," she answered. "I am here. This is a good place."

Ercole looked about him instinctively, peering into the shadows under the trees.

"There is no one," Regina said. "This is a good place."

She had not lifted her veil, but she threw back the collar of her cloak, and with quick fingers undid the fastenings of her dress, opening it wide. Rays of moonlight fell through the trees upon her bosom, and it gleamed like fine ivory newly cut.

"I wait," she said.

She stood motionless before him, expecting the knife, but her father's hands did not move. His eyes were fixed on hers, though he could not see them through the veil.

"So he has left you?" he said slowly.

"No. I am waiting."

Not a fold of her cloak stirred as she stood there to die. It seemed a long time, but his hands did not move. Then he heard the sound of her voice, very low and sweet, repeating a little prayer, but he only heard the last words distinctly.

"--now, and in the hour of our death!"

His right hand moved slowly and found something in his pocket, and then there was the sharp click of a strong spring, and a ray of moonlight fell upon steel, and her voice was heard again.

"--in the hour of our death. Amen!"

An unearthly sound rent the stillness. The huge dog sat upright on his haunches, his head thrown up and back, his terrible lower jaw trembling as he howled, and howled again, waking great echoes where the roar of wild lions had rung long ago.

Regina started, though she did not move a step; but an unreasoning fear fell upon Ercole. He could not see her face, as the dark veil hung down. She was so motionless and fearless; only the dead could be as fearless of death and as still as she. Her breast was so white; her hands were like marble hands, parting a black shroud upon it. She was something risen from the grave to haunt him in that lonely place and drive him mad; and the appalling howl of the great dog robe deafeningly on the silence and trembled and died away, and began again.

Ercole's hand relaxed, and the knife fell gleaming at his feet. One instant more and he turned and fled through the trees, towards San Gregorio, his dog galloping heavily after him.

Regina's hands fell by her sides, and the folds of her cloak closed together and hung straight down. She stared into the shadowy distance a moment after her father, and saw his figure twice in the light where the trees were wider apart, before he disappeared altogether. She looked down and saw the knife at her feet, and she picked it up and felt the point. It was as sharp as a needle, for Ercole had whetted it often since he had sat by the gate in the early morning last August. It was wet, for the grass under the trees had not dried since the rain.

She felt the point and edge with her hand, and sighed. It would have been better to have felt it in her breast, but she would not take her own life. She was not afraid to do it, and her young hand would have been strong enough and sure enough to do it quickly. It was not the thought of the pain that made her close the knife; it was the fear of hell. Nothing she had done in her life seemed very bad to her, because it had all been for Marcello. If Ercole had killed her, she thought that God would have forgiven her after a time. But if she killed herself she would instantly be seized by devils and thrust into real flames, to burn for ever, without the slightest chance of forgiveness. She had been taught that, and she believed it, and the thought of the fire made her shut the clasp-knife and slip it into her dress with a sigh. It would be a pity to throw it away, for it seemed to be a good knife, and her father could not have had it very long.

She fastened her frock under her mantle and went a few steps down the little slope towards the Colosseum. To go on meant to go home, and she stopped again. The place was very lonely and peaceful, and the light on the great walls was quiet and good to see. Though she had stood so still, waiting to die, and had said her little prayer so calmly, her brave heart had been beating slow and hard as if it were counting the seconds before it was to stop; and now it beat fast and softly, and fluttered a little, so that she felt faint, as even brave people do after a great danger is past. I have seen hundreds of men together, just escaped from destruction by earthquake, moving about listlessly with veiled eyes, yawning as if they were dropping with sleep, and saying childish things when they spoke at all. Man's body is the part of himself which he least understands, unless he has spent half his life in studying its ways. Its many portions can only telegraph to the brain two words, 'pain' and 'pleasure,' with different degrees of energy; but that is all. The rest of their language belongs to science.

Regina felt faint and sat down, because there was no reason for making any effort to go home. Perhaps a cab would pass, returning from some outlying part of the city, and she would take it. From the place where she sat she could see one far off, if any came.

She sank down on the wet ground, and drew up her knees and pulled her cloak round her; and gradually her head bent forward and rested upon her hands, till she sat there like a figure of grief outlined in black against the moonlight on the great wall. She had forgotten where she was, and that there was any time in the world.

Half an hour passed, and the moon sank low, and an hour, and the deadly white mist began to rise in the shadow round the base of the Colosseum, and crept up under the trees; and if any one had come upon her then, he would have seen its dull whiteness crawling round her feet and body, a hand-breadth above the wet ground. But she did not know; she had forgotten everything.

Nothing was real any more. She could have believed that her father had killed her and left her corpse there, strangely sitting, though quite dead.

Then she knew that the light had gone out; and suddenly she felt her teeth chatter, and a chill ran through her bones that was bad to feel. She raised her head and saw that the great walls were dark against the starry sky, and she rose with an effort, as if her limbs had suddenly become lead. But she could walk, though it was like walking in sleep.

She did not afterwards remember how she got home, but she had a vague recollection of having lost her way, and of finding a cab at last, and then of letting herself into the little apartment in the dark.

When she was next aware of anything it was broad daylight, and she was lying on her bed, still dressed and wearing her cloak; and Kalmon was bending over her, his eyes on hers and his fingers on her pulse, while old Teresa watched her anxiously from the foot of the bed.

"I'm afraid it is a 'perniciosa,'" he said. "Put her to bed while I call a regular doctor."

Regina looked up at him.

"I have fever, have I not?" she asked quite quietly.

"Yes. You have a little fever," he answered, but his big brown eyes were very grave.

When Marcello came, an hour later, she did not know him. She stared at him with wide, unwinking eyes, and there were bright patches of colour in her cheeks. Already there were hollows in them, too, and at her temples, for the perniciosa fever is frightfully quick to waste the body. In the Campagna, where it is worst, men have died of it in less than four hours after first feeling it upon them. Great men have discovered wonderful remedies for it, but still it kills.

Kalmon got one of the great men, who was his friend, and they did what they could. A nursing sister came and was installed. Marcello was summoned away soon after noon by an official person, who brought a carriage and said that Corbario was now conscious and able to speak, and that it was absolutely necessary that Marcello should be confronted with him, as he might not live another day. It was easier to go than it would have been if Regina had been conscious, but even so it was very hard. The nun and Teresa stayed with her.

(Illustration: "SHE SAT THERE LIKE A FIGURE OF GRIEF OUTLINED IN BLACK AGAINST THE MOONLIGHT ON THE GREAT WALL.")

She said little in her delirium, and nothing that had any meaning for either of the women. Twice she tried to tear away the linen and lace from her throat.

"I wait!" she cried each time, and her eyes fixed themselves on the ceiling, while she held her breath.

The women could not tell what she was waiting for, and they soothed her as best they could. She seemed to doze after that, and when Marcello came back she knew him, and took his hand. He sent away the nurses and sat by the bedside, and she spoke to him in short sentences, faintly. He bent forward, near the pillow, to catch the words.

She was telling him what she had done last night.

"But you promised that I should find you here to-day!" Marcello said, with gentle reproach.

"Yes. I did not mean to break my word. But I thought he would do it. It seemed so easy."

Her voice was weak with the fever, and sank almost to a whisper. He stroked her hand affectionately, hoping that she would go to sleep; and so a long time passed. Then Kalmon came in with his friend the great doctor. They saw that she was not yet any better; the doctor ordered several things to be done and went away. Kalmon drew Marcello out of the room.

"You can do nothing," he said. "She has good care, and she is very strong. Go home and come back in the morning."

"I must stay here," Marcello answered.

"That is out of the question, on account of the Sister of Charity. But you can send for your things and camp in my rooms downstairs. There is a good sofa. You can telephone to the villa for what you want."

"Thank you." Marcello's voice dropped and shook. "Will she live?" he asked.

"I hope so. She is very strong, and it may be only fever."

"What else could it be?"

"Pneumonia."

Marcello bit his lip and closed his eyes as if he were in bodily pain, and a moment later he turned away and went down to Kalmon's apartment.

The Professor went back to Regina's side, and stood quietly watching her, with a very sad look in his eyes. She opened hers and saw him, and she brought one hand to her chest.

"It burns," she said, almost in a whisper, but with a strange sort of eagerness, as if she were glad.

"I wish I could bear it for you, my poor child," Kalmon answered.

She shook her head, and turned uneasily on the pillow. He did not understand.

"What is it?" he asked gently. "What can I do for you? Tell me."

"I want to see some one very much. How long shall I live?"

"You will get quite well," said Kalmon, in a reassuring tone. "But you must be very quiet." Again she moved her burning cheek on the pillow.

"Do you want to see a priest?" asked the Professor, thinking he had guessed. "Is that it?"

"Yes--there is time for that--some one else--could you? Will you?"

"Yes." Kalmon bent down quickly, for he thought the delirium was coming again. "Who is it?" he asked.

"Aurora--I mean, the Signorina--can you? Oh, do you think you could?"

"I'll try," Kalmon answered in great surprise.

But now the hoarseness was suddenly gone, and her sweet voice was softly humming an old song of the hills, forgotten many years, and the Professor saw that she did not know him any more. He nodded to Teresa, who was in the room, and went out.

He wondered much at the request, but he remembered that it had been made in the full belief that he would say nothing of it to Marcello. If she had been willing that Marcello should know, she would have spoken to him, rather than to Kalmon. He had seen little enough of Regina, but he was sure that she could have no bad motive in wishing to see the young girl. Yet, from a social point of view, it was not exactly an easy thing to propose, and the Contessa would have a right to be offended at the mere suggestion that her daughter should speak to "Consalvi's Regina"; and there could not be anything clandestine in the meeting, if Aurora consented to it. Kalmon was too deeply attached to the Contessa herself to be willing to risk her displeasure, or, indeed, to do anything of which she would not approve.

He went to her house by the Forum of Trajan, and he found her at home. It was late in the afternoon, and the lamp was lighted in the little drawing-room, which did not seem at all shabby to Kalmon's accustomed eyes and not very exigent taste. The Contessa was reading an evening paper before the fire. She put out her hand to the Professor.

"It is a bad business," she said, glancing at the newspaper, which had a long account of Corbario's arrest and of the murder of his old accomplice. "Poor Marcello!"

"Poor Marcello! Yes, indeed! I'm sorry for him. There is something more than is in the papers, and more than I have written to you and told you. Regina has the perniciosa fever, complicated with pneumonia, and is not likely to live."

"I am sorry," the Contessa answered. "I am very sorry for her. But after all, compared with what Marcello has learned about his mother's death--and other things Corbario did--"

She stopped, implying by her tone that even if Regina died, that would not be the greatest of Marcello's misfortunes. Besides, she had long foreseen that the relations of the two could not last, and the simplest solution, and the happiest one for the poor devoted girl, was that she should die before her heart was broken. Maddalena dell' Armi had often wished that her own fate had been as merciful.

"Yes," Kalmon answered. "You are right in that. But Regina has made a rather strange request. It was very unexpected, and perhaps I did wrong to tell her that I would do my best to satisfy her. I don't think she will live, and I felt sorry for her. That is why I came to you. It concerns Aurora."

"Aurora?" The Contessa was surprised.

"Yes. The girl knows she is dying, and wishes very much to see Aurora for a moment. I suppose it was weak of me to give her any hope."

The Contessa dropped her newspaper and looked into the fire thoughtfully before she answered.

"You and I are very good friends," she said. "You would not ask me to do anything you would not do yourself, would you? If you had a daughter of Aurora's age, should you let her go and see this poor woman, unless it were an act of real charity?"

"No," Kalmon answered reluctantly. "I don't think I should."

"Thank you for being so honest," Maddalena answered, and looked at the fire again.

Some time passed before she spoke again, still watching the flames. Kalmon sighed, for he was very sorry for Regina.

"On the other hand," the Contessa said at last, "it may be a real charity. Have you any idea why she wishes to see Aurora?"

"No. I cannot guess."

"I can. At least, I think I can." She paused again. "You know everything about me," she continued presently. "In the course of years I have told you all my story. Do you think I am a better woman than Regina?"

"My dear friend!" cried Kalmon, almost angrily. "How can you suggest--"

She turned her clear, sad eyes to him, and her look cut short his speech.

"What has her sin been?" she asked gently. "She has loved Marcello. What was mine? That I loved one man too well. Which is the better woman? She, the peasant, who knew no better, who found her first love dying, and saved him, and loved him--knowing no better, and braving the world? Or I, well born, carefully brought up, a woman of the world, and married--no matter how--not braving the world at all, but miserably trying to deceive it, and my husband, and my child? Do you think I was so much better than poor Regina? Would my own daughter think so if she could know and understand?"

"If you were not a very good woman now," Kalmon said earnestly, "you could not say what you are saying."

"Never mind what I am now. I am not as good as you choose to think. If I were, there would not be a bitter thought left. I should have forgiven all. Leave out of the question what I am now. Compare me as I was with Regina as she is. That is how I put it, and I am right."

"Even if you were," Kalmon answered doubtfully, "the situation would be the same, so far as Aurora is concerned."

"But suppose that this poor woman cannot die in peace unless she has asked Aurora's pardon and obtained her forgiveness, what then?"

"Her forgiveness? For what?"

"For coming between her and Marcello. Say that, so far as Regina knows, my daughter is the only human being she has ever injured, what then?"

"Does Aurora love Marcello?" asked Kalmon, instead of answering the question.

"I think she does. I am almost sure of it."

Kalmon was silent for a while.

"But Marcello," he said at last, "what of him?"

"He has always loved Aurora," the Contessa answered. "Do you blame him so much for what he has done? Why do you blame some people so easily, my dear friend, and others not at all? Do you realise what happened to him? He was virtually taken out of the life he was leading, by a blow that practically destroyed his memory, and of which the consequences altogether destroyed his will for some time. He found himself saved and at the same time loved--no, worshipped--by one of the most beautiful women in the world. Never mind her birth! She has never looked at any other man, before or since, and from what I have heard, she never will. Ah, if all women were like her! Marcello, weak from illness, allowed himself to be worshipped, and Corbario did the rest. I understand it all. Do you blame him very much? I don't. With all your strength of character, you would have done the same at his age! And having taken what she offered, what could he do, when he grew up and came to himself, and felt his will again? Could he cast her off, after all she had done for him?"

"He could marry her," observed Kalmon. "I don't see why he should not, after all."

"Marriage!" There was a little scornful sadness in Maddalena's voice. "Marriage is always the solution! No, no, he is right not to marry her, if he has ever thought of it. They would only make each other miserable for the rest of their lives. Miserable, and perhaps faithless too. That is what happens when men and women are not saints. Look at me!"

"You were never in that position. Others were to blame, who made you marry when you were too young to have any will of your own."

"Blame no one," said the Contessa gravely. "I shall give Aurora Regina's message, and if she is willing to go and see her, I shall bring her to-morrow morning--to-night, if there is no time to be lost. The world need never know. Go and tell Regina what I have said. It may comfort her a little, poor thing."

"Indeed it will!"

Kalmon's brown eyes beamed with pleasure at the thought of taking the kindly message to the dying girl. He rose to his feet at once.

"There is no one like you," he said, as he took her hand.

"It is nothing. It is what Marcello's mother would have done, and she was my best friend. All I do is to take the responsibility upon myself, however Aurora may choose to act. I will send you word, in either case. If Aurora will not go, I will come myself, if I can be of any use, if it would make Regina feel happier. I will come, and I will tell her what I have told you. Good-night, dear friend."

Kalmon was not an emotional man, but as he went out he felt a little lump in his throat, as if he could not swallow.

He had not doubted his friend's kindness, but he had doubted whether she would feel that she had a right to "expose her daughter," as the world would say, to meeting such a "person," as the world called Regina--"Consalvi's Regina."

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Whosoever Shall Offend - Chapter 22
CHAPTER XXII All that night and the following day Regina recognised no one; and it was night again, and her strength began to fail, but her understanding returned. Marcello saw the change, and made a sign to the nurse, who went out to tell Kalmon. It was about nine o'clock when he entered the room, and Regina knew him and looked at him anxiously. He, in turn, glanced at Marcello, and she understood. She begged Marcello to go and get some rest. Her voice was very weak, as if she were suffocating, and she coughed painfully. He did not like to
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CHAPTER XX "I have come to see if you need anything," Marcello said, when they were in the sitting-room. "I am sorry to have been obliged to bring you to such a wretched place, but it seemed a good thing that you should be so near Kalmon." "It is not a wretched place," Regina answered. "It is clean, and the things are new, and the curtains have been washed. It is not wretched. We have been in worse lodgings when we have travelled and stopped in small towns. Professor Kalmon has been very kind. It was wise to bring me here."
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