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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVittoria - Book 3 - Chapter 15. Ammiani Through The Midnight
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Vittoria - Book 3 - Chapter 15. Ammiani Through The Midnight Post by :Trevor_Reed Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :3347

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Vittoria - Book 3 - Chapter 15. Ammiani Through The Midnight


Ammiani hurried Vittoria out of the street to make safety sure. 'Home,' she said, ashamed of her excitement, and not daring to speak more words, lest the heart in her throat should betray itself. He saw what the fright had done for her. Perhaps also he guessed that she was trying to conceal her fancied cowardice from him. 'I have kissed her hands,' he thought, and the memory of it was a song of tenderness in his blood by the way.

Vittoria's dwelling-place was near the Duomo, in a narrow thoroughfare leading from the Duomo to the Piazza of La Scala, where a confectioner of local fame conferred upon the happier members of the population most piquant bocconi and tartlets, and offered by placard to give an emotion to the nobility, the literati, and the epicures of Milan, and to all foreigners, if the aforesaid would adventure upon a trial of his art. Meanwhile he let lodgings. It was in the house of this famous confectioner Zotti that Vittoria and her mother had lived after leaving England for Italy. As Vittoria came under the fretted shadow of the cathedral, she perceived her mother standing with Zotti at the house-door, though the night was far advanced. She laughed, and walked less hurriedly. Ammiani now asked her if she had been alarmed. 'Not alarmed,' she said, 'but a little more nervous than I thought I should be.'

He was spared from putting any further question by her telling him that Luigi, the Motterone spy, had in all probability done her a service in turning one or other f the machinations of the Signor Antonio. 'My madman,' she called this latter. 'He has got his Irma instead of me. We shall have to supply her place tomorrow; she is travelling rapidly, and on my behalf! I think, Signor Carlo, you would do well by going to the maestro when you leave me, and telling him that Irma has been caught into the skies. Say, "Jealous that earth should possess such overpowering loveliness," or "Attracted in spite of themselves by that combination of genius and beauty which is found united nowhere but in Irma, the spirits of heaven determined to rob earth of her Lazzeruola." Only tell it to him seriously, for my dear Rocco will have to work with one of the singers all day, and I ought to be at hand by them to help her, if I dared stir out. What do you think?'

Ammiani pronounced his opinion that it would be perilous for her to go abroad.

'I shall in truth, I fear, have a difficulty in getting to La Scala unseen,' she said; 'except that we are cunning people in our house. We not only practise singing and invent wonderful confectionery, but we do conjuring tricks. We profess to be able to deceive anybody whom we please.'

'Do the dupes enlist in a regiment?' said Ammiani, with an intonation that professed his readiness to serve as a recruit. His humour striking with hers, they smiled together in the bright fashion of young people who can lose themselves in a ray of fancy at any season.

Vittoria heard her mother's wailful voice. 'Twenty gnats in one,' she said.

Ammiani whispered quickly to know whether she had decided for the morrow. She nodded, and ran up to her mother, who cried:

'At this hour! And Beppo has been here after you, and he told me I wrote for him, in Italian, when not a word can I put to paper: I wouldn't!--and you are threatened by dreadful dangers, he declares. His behaviour was mad; they are all mad over in this country, I believe. I have put the last stitch to your dress. There is a letter or two upstairs for you. Always letters!'

'My dear good Zotti,' Vittoria turned to the artist in condiments, 'you must insist upon my mother going to bed at her proper time when I am out.'

'Signorina,' rejoined Zotti, a fat little round-headed man, with vivacious starting brown eyes, 'I have only to tell her to do a thing--I pull a dog by the collar; be it said with reverence.'

'However, I am very glad to see you both such good friends.'

'Yes, signorina, we are good friends till we quarrel again. I regret to observe to you that the respectable lady is incurably suspicious. Of me--Zotti! Mother of heaven!'

'It is you that are suspicious of me, sir,' retorted madame. 'Of me, of all persons! It's "tell me this, tell me that," all day with you; and because I can't answer, you are angry.'

'Behold! the signora speaks English; we have quarrelled again,' said Zotti.

'My mother thinks him a perfect web of plots,' Vittoria explained the case between them, laughing, to Ammiani; 'and Zotti is persuaded that she is an inveterate schemer. They are both entirely innocent, only they are both excessively timid. Out of that it grows.'

The pair dramatized her outline on the instant:

'"Did I not see him speak to an English lady, and he will not tell me a word about it, though she's my own countrywoman?"'

'"Is it not true that she received two letters this afternoon, and still does she pretend to be ignorant of what is going on?"'

'Happily,' said Vittoria, 'my mother is not a widow, or these quarrels might some day end in a fearful reconciliation.'

'My child,' her mother whimpered, 'you know what these autumn nights are in this country; as sure as you live, Emilia, you will catch cold, and then you're like a shop with shutters up for the dead.'

At the same time Zotti whispered: 'Signorina, I have kept the minestra hot for your supper; come in, come in. And, little things, little dainty bits!--do you live in Zotti's house for nothing? Sweetest delicacies that make the tongue run a stream!--just notions of a taste--the palate smacks and forgets; the soul seizes and remembers!'

'Oh, such seductions!' Vittoria exclaimed.

'It is,' Zotti pursued his idea, with fingers picturesquely twirling in a spider-like distension; 'it is like the damned, and they have but a crumb of a chance of Paradise, and down swoops St. Peter and has them in the gates fast! You are worthy of all that a man can do for you, signorina. Let him study, let him work, let him invent,--you are worthy of all.'

'I hope I am not too hungry to discriminate! Zotti I see Monte Rosa.'

'Signorina, you are pleased to say so when you are famishing. It is because--' the enthusiastic confectioner looked deep and oblique, as one who combined a remarkable subtlety of insight with profound reflection; 'it is because the lighter you get the higher you mount; up like an eagle of the peaks! But we'll give that hungry fellow a fall. A dish of hot minestra shoots him dead. Then, a tart of pistachios and chocolate and cream--and my head to him who shall reveal to me the flavouring!'

'When I wake in the morning, I shall have lived a month or two in Arabia, Zotti. Tell me no more; I will come in,' said Vittoria.

'Then, signorina, a little crisp filbert--biscuit--a composition! You crack it, and a surprise! And then, and then my dish; Zotti's dish, that is not yet christened. Signorina, let Italy rise first; the great inventor of the dish winked and nodded temperately. 'Let her rise. A battle or a treaty will do. I have two or three original conceptions, compositions, that only wait for some brilliant feat of arms, or a diplomatic triumph, and I send them forth baptized.'

Vittoria threw large eyes upon Ammiani, and set the underlids humorously quivering. She kissed her fingers: 'Addio; a rivederla.' He bowed formally: he was startled to find the golden thread of their companionship cut with such cruel abruptness. But it was cut; the door had closed on her. The moment it had closed she passed into his imagination. By what charm had she allayed the fever of his anxiety? Her naturalness had perforce given him assurance that peace must surround one in whom it shone so steadily, and smiling at the thought of Zotti's repast and her twinkle of subdued humour, he walked away comforted; which, for a lover in the season of peril means exalted, as in a sudden conflagration of the dry stock of his intelligence. 'She must have some great faith in her heart,' he thought, no longer attributing his exclusion from it to a lover's rivalry, which will show that more than imagination was on fire within him. For when the soul of a youth can be heated above common heat, the vices of passion shrivel up and aid the purer flame. It was well for Ammiani that he did perceive (dimly though it was perceived) the force of idealistic inspiration by which Vittoria was supported. He saw it at this one moment, and it struck a light to light him in many subsequent perplexities; it was something he had never seen before. He had read Tuscan poetry to her in old Agostino's rooms; he had spoken of secret preparations for the revolt; he had declaimed upon Italy,--the poetry was good though the declamation may have been bad,--but she had always been singularly irresponsive, with a practical turn for ciphers. A quick reckoning, a sharp display of figures in Italy's cause, kindled her cheeks and took her breath. Ammiani now understood that there lay an unspoken depth in her, distinct from her visible nature.

He had first an interview with Rocco Ricci, whom he prepared to replace Irma.

His way was then to the office of his Journal, where he expected to be greeted by two members of the Polizia, who would desire him to march before the central bureau, and exhibit proofs of articles and the items of news for inspection, for correction haply, and possibly for approval. There is a partial delight in the contemplated submission to an act of servitude for the last time. Ammiani stepped in with combative gaiety, but his stiff glance encountered no enemy. This astonished him. He turned back into the street and meditated. The Pope's Mouth might, he thought, hold the key to the riddle. It is not always most comfortable for a conspirator to find himself unsuspected: he reads the blank significantly. It looked ill that the authorities should allow anything whatsoever to be printed on such a morrow: especially ill, if they were on the alert. The neighbourhood by the Pope's Mouth was desolate under dark starlight. Ammiani got his fingers into the opening behind the rubbish of brick, and tore them on six teeth of a saw that had been fixed therein. Those teeth were as voluble to him as loud tongues. The Mouth was empty of any shred of paper. They meant that the enemy was ready to bite, and that the conspiracy had ceased to be active. He perceived that a stripped ivy-twig, with the leaves scattered around it, stretched at his feet. That was another and corroborative sign, clearer to him than printed capitals. The reading of it declared that the Revolt had collapsed. He wound and unwound his handkerchief about his fingers mechanically: great curses were in his throat. 'I would start for South America at dawn, but for her!' he said. The country of Bolivar still had its attractions for Italian youth. For a certain space Ammiani's soul was black with passion. He was the son of that fiery Paolo Ammiani who had cast his glove at Eugene's feet, and bade the viceroy deliver it to his French master. (The General was preparing to break his sword on his knee when Eugene rushed up to him and kissed him.) Carlo was of this blood. Englishmen will hardly forgive him for having tears in his eyes, but Italians follow the Greek classical prescription for the emotions, while we take example by the Roman. There is no sneer due from us. He sobbed. It seemed that a country was lost.

Ammiani had moved away slowly: he was accidentally the witness of a curious scene. There came into the irregular triangle, and walking up to where the fruitstalls stood by day, a woman and a man. The man was an Austrian soldier. It was an Italian woman by his side. The sight of the couple was just then like an incestuous horror to Ammiani. She led the soldier straight up to the Mouth, directing his hand to it, and, what was far more wonderful, directing it so that he drew forth a packet of papers from where Ammiani had found none. Ammiani could see the light of them in his hand. The Austrian snatched an embrace and ran. Ammiani was moving over to her to seize and denounce the traitress, when he beheld another figure like an apparition by her side; but this one was not a whitecoat. Had it risen from the earth? It was earthy, for a cloud of dust was about it, and the woman gave a stifled scream. 'Barto! Barto!' she cried, pressing upon her eyelids. A strong husky laugh came from him. He tapped her shoulder heartily, and his 'Ha! ha!' rang in the night air.

'You never trust me,' she whimpered from shaken nerves.

He called her, 'Brave little woman! rare girl!'

'But you never trust me!'

'Do I not lay traps to praise you?'

'You make a woman try to deceive you.' If she could! If only she could!'

Ammiani was up with them.

'You are Barto Rizzo,' he spoke, half leaning over the man in his impetuosity.

Barto stole a defensive rearward step. The thin light of dawn had in a moment divided the extreme starry darkness, and Ammiani, who knew his face, had not to ask a second time. It was scored by a recent sword-cut. He glanced at the woman: saw that she was handsome. It was enough; he knew she must be Barto's wife, and, if not more cunning than Barto, his accomplice, his instrument, his slave.

'Five minutes ago I would have sworn you were a traitress he said to her.

She was expressionless, as if she had heard nothing; which fact, considering that she was very handsome, seemed remarkable to the young man. Youth will not believe that stupidity and beauty can go together.

'She is the favourite pupil of Bartolommeo Rizzo, Signor Carlo Ammiani,' quoth Barto, having quite regained his composure. 'She is my pretty puppet-patriot. I am not in the habit of exhibiting her; but since you see her, there she is.'

Barto had fallen into the Southern habit of assuming ease in quasi-rhetorical sentences, but with wary eyes over them. The peculiar, contracting, owl-like twinkle defied Ammiani's efforts to penetrate his look; so he took counsel of his anger, and spoke bluntly.

'She does your work?'

'Much of it, Signor Carlo: as the bullet does the work of the rifle.'

'Beast! was it your wife who pinned the butterfly to the Signorina Vittoria's dress?'

'Signor Carlo Ammiani, you are the son of Paolo, the General: you call me beast? I have dandled you in my arms, my little lad, while the bands played "There's yet a heart in Italy!" Do you remember it?' Barto sang out half-a-dozen bars. 'You call me beast? I'm the one man in Milan who can sing you that.'

'Beast or man, devil or whatever you are!' cried Ammiani, feeling nevertheless oddly unnerved, 'you have committed a shameful offence: you, or the woman, your wife, who serves you, as I see. You have thwarted the best of plots; you have dared to act in defiance of your Chief--'

'Eyes to him!' Barto interposed, touching over his eyeballs.

'And you have thrown your accursed stupid suspicions on the Signorina Vittoria. You are a mad fool. If I had the power, I would order you to be shot at five this morning; and that 's the last rising of the light you should behold. Why did you do it? Don't turn your hellish eyes in upon one another, but answer at once! Why did you do it?'

'The Signorina Vittoria,' returned Barto--his articulation came forth serpent-like--'she is not a spy, you think. She has been in England: I have been in England. She writes; I can read. She is a thing of whims. Shall she hold the goblet of Italy in her hand till it overflows? She writes love-letters to an English whitecoat. I have read them. Who bids her write? Her whim! She warns her friends not to enter Milan. She--whose puppet is she? Not yours; not mine. She is the puppet of an English Austrian!'

Barto drew back, for Ammiani was advancing.

'What is it you mean?' he cried.

'I mean,' said Ammiani, still moving on him, 'I mean to drag you first before Count Medole, and next before the signorina; and you shall abjure your slander in her presence. After that I shall deal with you. Mark me! I have you: I am swifter on foot, and I am stronger. Come quietly.'

Barto smiled in grim contempt.

'Keep your foot fast on that stone, you're a prisoner,' he replied, and seeing Ammiani coming, 'Net him, my sling-stone! my serpent!' he signalled to his wife, who threw herself right round Ammiani in a tortuous twist hard as wire-rope. Stung with irritation, and a sense of disgrace and ridicule and pitifulness in one, Ammiani, after a struggle, ceased the attempt to disentwine her arms, and dragged her clinging to him. He was much struck by hearing her count deliberately, in her desperation, numbers from somewhere about twenty to one hundred. One hundred was evidently the number she had to complete, for when she had reached it she threw her arms apart. Barto was out of sight. Ammiani waved her on to follow in his steps: he was sick of her presence, and had the sensations of a shame-faced boy whom a girl has kissed. She went without uttering a word.

The dawn had now traversed the length of the streets, and thrown open the wide spaces of the city. Ammiani found himself singing, 'There's yet a heart in Italy!' but it was hardly the song of his own heart. He slept that night on a chair in the private room of his office, preferring not to go to his mother's house. 'There 's yet a heart in Italy!' was on his lips when he awoke with scattered sensations, all of which collected in revulsion against the song. 'There's a very poor heart in Italy!' he said, while getting his person into decent order; 'it's like the bell in the lunatic's tower between Venice and the Lido: it beats now and then for meals: hangs like a carrion-lump in the vulture's beak meanwhile!'

These and some other similar sentiments, and a heat about the brows whenever he set them frowning over what Barto had communicated concerning an English Austrian, assured Ammiani that he had no proper command of himself: or was, as the doctors would have told him, bilious. It seemed to him that he must have dreamed of meeting the dark and subtle Barto Rizzo overnight; on realizing that fact he could not realize how the man had escaped him, except that when he thought over it, he breathed deep and shook his shoulders. The mind will, as you may know, sometimes refuse to work when the sensations are shameful and astonished. He despatched a messenger with a 'good morrow' to his mother, and then went to a fencing-saloon that was fitted up in the house of Count Medole, where, among two or three, there was the ordinary shrugging talk of the collapse of the projected outbreak, bitter to hear. Luciano Romara came in, and Ammiani challenged him to small-sword and broadsword. Both being ireful to boiling point, and mad to strike at something, they attacked one another furiously, though they were dear friends, and the helmet-wires and the padding rattled and smoked to the thumps. For half an hour they held on to it, when, their blood being up, they flashed upon the men present, including the count, crying shame to them for letting a woman alone be faithful to her task that night. The blood forsook Count Medole's cheeks, leaving its dead hue, as when blotting-paper is laid on running-ink. He deliberately took a pair of foils, and offering the handle of one to Ammiani, broke the button off the end of his own, and stood to face an adversary. Ammiani followed the example: a streak of crimson was on his shirt-sleeve, and his eyes had got their hard black look, as of the flint-stone, before Romara in amazement discovered the couple to be at it in all purity of intention, on the sharp edge of the abyss. He knocked up their weapons and stood between them, puffing his cigarette leisurely.

'I fine you both,' he said.

He touched Ammiani's sword-arm, nodded with satisfaction to find that there was no hurt, and cried, 'You have an Austrian out on the ground by this time tomorrow morning. So, according to the decree!'

'Captain Weisspriess is in the city,' was remarked.

'There are a dozen on the list,' said little Pietro Cardi, drawing out a paper.

'If you are to be doing nothing else to-morrow morning,' added Leone Rufo, 'we may as well march out the whole dozen.'

These two were boys under twenty.

'Shall it be the first hit for Captain Weisspriess?' Count Medole said this while handing a fresh and fairly-buttoned foil to Ammiani.

Romara laughed: 'You will require to fence the round of Milan city, my dear count, to win a claim to Captain Weisspriess. In the first place, I yield him to no man who does not show himself a better man than I. It's the point upon which I don't pay compliments.'

Count Medole bowed.

'But, if you want occupation,' added Luciano, closing his speech with a merely interrogative tone.

'I scarcely want that, as those who know me will tell you,' said Medole, so humbly, that those who knew him felt that he had risen to his high seat of intellectual contempt. He could indulge himself, having shown his courage.

'Certainly not; if you are devising means of subsistence for the widows and orphans of the men who will straggle out to be slaughtered to-night,' said Luciano; 'you have occupation in that case.'

'I will do my best to provide for them,'--the count persisted in his air of humility, 'though it is a question with some whether idiots should live.' He paused effectively, and sucked in a soft smile of self-approbation at the stroke. Then he pursued: 'We meet the day after to-morrow. The Pope's Mouth is closed. We meet here at nine in the morning. The next day at eleven at Farugino's, the barber's, in Monza. The day following at Camerlata, at eleven likewise. Those who attend will be made aware of the dispositions for the week, and the day we shall name for the rising. It is known to you all, that without affixing a stigma on our new prima-donna, we exclude her from any share in this business. All the Heads have been warned that we yield this night to the Austrians. Gentlemen, I cannot be more explicit. I wish that I could please you better.'

'Oh, by all means,' said Pietro Cardi: 'but patience is the pestilence; I shall roam in quest of adventure. Another quiet week is a tremendous trial.'

He crossed foils with Leone Rufo, but finding no stop to the drawn 'swish' of the steel, he examined the end of his weapon with a lengthening visage, for it was buttonless. Ammiani burst into laughter at the spontaneous boyishness in the faces of the pair of ambitious lads. They both offered him one of the rapiers upon equal terms. Count Medole's example of intemperate vanity was spoiling them.

'You know my opinion,' Ammiani said to the count. 'I told you last night, and I tell you again to-day, that Barto Rizzo is guilty of gross misconduct, and that you must plead the same to a sort of excuseable treason. Count Medole, you cannot wind and unwind a conspiracy like a watch. Who is the head of this one? It is the man Barto Rizzo. He took proceedings before he got you to sanction them. You may be the vessel, but he commands, or at least, he steers it.'

The count waited undemonstratively until Ammiani had come to an end. 'You speak, my good Ammiani, with an energy that does you credit,' he said, 'considering that it is not in your own interest, but another person's. Remember, I can bear to have such a word as treason ascribed to my acts.'

Fresh visitors, more or less mixed, in the conspiracy, and generally willing to leave the management of it to Count Medole, now entered the saloon. These were Count Rasati, Angelo Dovili, a Piedmontese General, a Tuscan duke, and one or two aristocratic notabilities and historic nobodies. They were hostile to the Chief whom Luciano and Carlo revered and obeyed. The former lit a cigarette, and saying to his friend, 'Do you breakfast with your mother? I will come too,' slipped his hand on Ammiani's arm; they walked out indolently together, with the smallest shade of an appearance of tolerating scorn for those whom they left behind.

'Medole has money and rank and influence, and a kind of I-don't-know-what womanishness, that makes him push like a needle for the lead, and he will have the lead and when he has got the lead, there 's the last chapter of him,' said Luciano. 'His point of ambition is the perch of the weather-cock. Why did he set upon you, my Carlo? I saw the big V running up your forehead when you faced him. If you had finished him no great harm would have been done.'

'I saw him for a short time last night, and spoke to him in my father's style,' said Carlo. 'The reason was, that he defended Barto Rizzo for putting the ring about the Signorina Vittoria's name, and causing the black butterfly to be pinned to her dress.'

Luciano's brows stood up.

'If she sings to-night, depend upon it there will be a disturbance,' he said. 'There may be a rising in spite of Medole and such poor sparks, who're afraid to drop on powder, and twirl and dance till the wind blows them out. And mind, the chance rising is commonly the luckiest. If I get a command I march to the Alps. We must have the passes of the Tyrol. It seems to me that whoever holds the Alps must ride the Lombard mare. You spring booted and spurred into the saddle from the Alps.'

Carlo was hurt by his friend's indifference to the base injury done to Vittoria.

'I have told Medole that she will sing to-night in spite of him,' he was saying, with the intention of bringing round some reproach upon Luciano for his want of noble sympathy, when the crash of an Austrian regimental band was heard coming up the Corso. It stirred him to love his friend with all his warmth. 'At any rate, for my sake, Luciano, you will respect and uphold her.'

'Yes, while she's true,' said Luciano, unsatisfactorily. The regiment, in review uniform, followed by two pieces of artillery, passed by. Then came a squadron of hussars and one of Uhlans, and another foot regiment, more artillery, fresh cavalry.

'Carlo, if three generations of us pour out our blood to fertilize Italian ground, it's not too much to pay to chase those drilled curs.' Luciano spoke in vehement undertone.

'We 'll breakfast and have a look at them in the Piazza d'Armi, and show that we Milanese are impressed with a proper idea of their power,' said Carlo, brightening as he felt the correction of his morbid lover's anger in Luciano's reaching view of their duties as Italian citizens. The heat and whirl of the hour struck his head, for to-morrow they might be wrestling with that living engine which had marched past, and surely all the hate he could muster should be turned upon the outer enemy. He gained his mother's residence with clearer feelings.

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