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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 42. The Shadow On Conspiracy
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Vittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 42. The Shadow On Conspiracy Post by :puthranv Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :3601

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Vittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 42. The Shadow On Conspiracy


Merthyr left the house at Laura's whispered suggestion. He was agitated beyond control, for Vittoria had fallen with her eyes fixed on him; and at times the picture of his beloved, her husband, and Countess Ammiani, and the children bending over her still body, swam before him like a dark altar-piece floating in incense, so lost was he to the reality of that scene. He did not hear Beppo, his old servant, at his heels. After a while he walked calmly, and Beppo came up beside him. Merthyr shook his hand.

"Ah, signor Mertyrio! ah, padrone!" said Beppo.

Merthyr directed his observation to a regiment of Austrians marching down the Corso Venezia to the Ticinese gate.

"Yes, they are ready enough for us," Beppo remarked. "Perhaps Carlo Alberto will beat them this time. If he does, viva to him! If they beat him, down goes another Venetian pyramid. The Countess Alessandra--" Beppo's speech failed.

"What of your mistress?" said Merthyr.

"When she dies, my dear master, there's no one for me but the Madonna to serve."

"Why should she die, silly fellow?"

"Because she never cries."

Merthyr was on the point of saying, "Why should she cry?" His heart was too full, and he shrank from inquisitive shadows of the thing known to him.

"Sit down at this caffe with me," he said. "It's fine weather for March. The troops will camp comfortably. Those Hungarians never require tents. Did you see much sacking of villages last year?"

"Padrone, the Imperial command is always to spare the villages."

"That's humane."

"Padrone, yes; if policy is humanity."

"It's humanity not carried quite as far as we should wish it."

Beppo shrugged and said: "It won't leave much upon the conscience if we kill them."

"Do you expect a rising?" said Merthyr.

"If the Ticino overflows, it will flood Milan," was the answer.

"And your occupation now is to watch the height of the water?"

"My occupation, padrone? I am not on the watch-tower." Beppo winked, adding: "I have my occupation." He threw off the effort or pretence to be discreet. "Master of my soul! this is my occupation. I drink coffee, but I do not smoke, because I have to kiss a pretty girl, who means to object to the smell of the smoke. Via! I know her! At five she draws me into the house."

"Are you relating your amours to me, rascal?" Merthyr interposed.

"Padrone, at five precisely she draws me into the house. She is a German girl. Pardon me if I make no war on women. Her name is Aennchen, which one is able to say if one grimaces;--why not? It makes her laugh; and German girls are amiable when one can make them laugh. 'Tis so that they begin to melt. Behold the difference of races! I must kiss her to melt her, and then have a quarrel. I could have it after the first, or the fiftieth with an Italian girl; but my task will be excessively difficult with a German girl, if I am compelled to allow myself to favour her with one happy solicitation for a kiss, to commence with. We shall see. It is, as my abstention from tobacco declares, an anticipated catastrophe."

"Long-worded, long-winded, obscure, affirmatizing by negatives, confessing by implication!--where's the beginning and end of you, and what's your meaning?" said Merthyr, who talked to him as one may talk to an Italian servant.

"The contessa, my mistress, has enemies. Padrone, I devote myself to her service."

"By making love to a lady's maid?"

"Padrone, a rat is not born to find his way up the grand staircase. She has enemies. One of them was the sublime Barto Rizzo--admirable--though I must hate him. He said to his wife: 'If a thing happens to me, stab to the heart the Countess Alessandra Ammiani.'"

"Inform me how you know that?" said Merthyr.

Beppo pointed to his head, and Merthyr smiled. To imagine, invent, and believe, were spontaneous with Beppo when has practical sagacity was not on the stretch. He glanced at the caffe clock.

"Padrone, at eleven to-night shall I see you here? At eleven I shall come like a charged cannon. I have business. I have seen my mistress's blood! I will tell you: this German girl lets me know that some one detests my mistress. Who? I am off to discover. But who is the damned creature? I must coo and kiss, while my toes are dancing on hot plates, to find her out. Who is she? If she were half Milan..."

His hands waved in outline the remainder of the speech, and he rose, but sat again. He had caught sight of the spy, Luigi Saracco, addressing the signor Antonio-Pericles in his carriage. Pericles drove on. The horses presently turned, and he saluted Merthyr.

"She has but one friend in Milan: it is myself," was his introductory remark. "My poor child! my dear Powys, she is the best--'I cannot sing to you to-day, dear Pericles'--she said that after she had opened her eyes; after the first mist, you know. She is the best child upon earth. I could wish she were a devil, my Powys. Such a voice should be in an iron body. But she has immense health. The doctor, who is also mine, feels her pulse. He assures me it goes as Time himself, and Time, my friend, you know, has the intention of going a great way. She is good: she is too good. She makes a baby of Pericles, to whom what is woman? Have I not the sex in my pocket? Her husband, he is a fool, ser." Pericles broke thundering into a sentence of English, fell in love with it, and resumed in the same tongue: "I--it is I zat am her guard, her safety. Her husband--oh! she must marry a young man, little donkey zat she is! We accept it as a destiny, my Powys. And he plays false to her. Good; I do not object. But, imagine in your own mind, my Powys--instead of passion, of rage, of tempest, she is frozen wiz a repose. Do you, hein? sink it will come out,"--Pericles eyed Merthyr with a subtle smile askew,--"I have sot so;--it will come out when she is one day in a terrible scene ... Mon Dieu! it was a terrible scene for me when I looked on ze clout zat washed ze blood of ze terrible assassination. So goes out a voice, possibly! Divine, you say? We are a machine. Now, you behold, she has faints. It may happen at my concert where she sings to-morrow night. You saw me in my carriage speaking to a man. He is my spy--my dog wiz a nose. I have set him upon a woman. If zat woman has a plot for to-morrow night to spoil my concert, she shall not know where she shall wake to-morrow morning after. Ha! here is military music--twenty sossand doors jam on horrid hinge; and right, left, right, left, to it, confound! like dolls all wiz one face. Look at your soldiers, Powys. Put zem on a stage, and you see all background people--a bawling chorus. It shows to you how superior it is--a stage to life! Hark to such music! I cannot stand it; I am driven away; I am violent; I rage."

Pericles howled the name of his place of residence, with an offer of lodgings in it, and was carried off writhing his body as he passed a fine military marching band.

The figure of old Agostino Balderini stood in front of Merthyr. They exchanged greetings. At the mention of Rome, Agostino frowned impatiently. He spoke of Vittoria in two or three short exclamations, and was about to speak of Carlo, but checked his tongue. "Judge for yourself. Come, and see, and approve, if you can. Will you come? There's a meeting; there's to be a resolution. Question--Shall we second the King of Sardinia, Piedmont, and Savoy? If so, let us set this pumpkin, called Milan, on its legs. I shall be an attentive listener like you, my friend. I speak no more."

Merthyr went with him to the house of a carpenter, where in one of the uppermost chambers communicating with the roof, Ugo Corte, Marco Sana, Giulio Bandinelli, and others, sat waiting for the arrival of Carlo Ammiani; when he came Carlo had to bear with the looks of mastiffs for being late. He shook Merthyr's hand hurriedly, and as soon as the door was fastened, began to speak. His first sentence brought a grunt of derision from Ugo Corte. It declared that there was no hope of a rising in Milan. Carlo swung round upon the Bergamasc. "Observe our leader," Agostino whispered to Merthyr; "it would be kindness to give him a duel." More than one tumult of outcries had to be stilled before Merthyr gathered any notion of the designs of the persons present. Bergamasc sneered at Brescian, and both united in contempt of the Milanese, who, having a burden on their minds, appealed at once to their individual willingness to use the sword in vindication of Milan against its traducers. By a great effort, Carlo got some self-mastery. He admitted, colouring horribly, that Brescia and Bergamo were ready, and Milan was not; therefore those noble cities (he read excerpts from letters showing their readiness) were to take the lead, and thither on the morrow-night he would go, let the tidings from the king's army be what they might.

Merthyr quitted the place rather impressed by his eloquence, but unfavourably by his feverish look. Countess d'Isorella had been referred to as one who served the cause ably and faithfully. In alluding to her, Carlo bit his lip; he did not proceed until surrounding murmurs of satisfaction encouraged him to continue a sort of formal eulogy of the lady, which proved to be a defence against foregone charges, for Corte retracted an accusation, and said that he had no fault to find with the countess. A proposal to join the enterprise was put to Merthyr, but his engagement with the Chief in Rome saved him from hearing much of the marvellous facilities of the plot. "I should have wished to see you to-night," Carlo said as they were parting. Merthyr named his hotel. Carlo nodded. "My wife is still slightly feeble," he said.

"I regret it," Merthyr rejoined.

"She is not ill."

"No, it cannot be want of courage," Merthyr spoke at random.

"Yes, that's true," said Carlo, as vacantly. "You will see her while I am travelling."

"I hope to find the Countess Alessandra well enough to receive me."

"Always; always," said Carlo, wishing apparently to say more. Merthyr waited an instant, but Carlo broke into a conventional smile of adieu.

"While he is travelling," Merthyr repeated to Agostino, who had stood by during the brief dialogue, and led the way to the Corso.

"He did not say how far!" was the old man's ejaculation.

"But, good heaven! if you think he's on an unfortunate errand, why don't you stop him, advise him?" Merthyr broke out.

"Advise him! stop him! my friend. I would advise him, if I had the patience of angels; stop him, if I had the power of Lucifer. Did you not see that he shunned speaking to me? I have been such a perpetual dish of vinegar under his nose for the last month, that the poor fellow sniffs when I draw near. He must go his way. He leads a torrent that must sweep him on. Corte, Sana, and the rest would be in Rome now, but for him. So should I. Your Agostino, however, is not of Bergamo, or of Brescia; he is not a madman; simply a poor rheumatic Piedmontese, who discerns the point where a united Italy may fix its standard. I would start for Rome to-morrow, if I could leave her--my soul's child!" Agostino raised his hand: "I do love the woman, Countess Alessandra Ammiani. I say, she is a peerless woman. Is she not?"

"There is none like her," said Merthyr.

"A peerless woman, recognized and sacrificed! I cannot leave her. If the Government here would lay hands on Carlo and do their worst at once, I would be off. They are too wary. I believe that they are luring him to his ruin. I can give no proofs, but I judge by the best evidence. What avails my telling him? I lose my temper the moment I begin to speak. A curst witch beguiles the handsome idiot--poor darling lad that he is! She has him--can I tell you how? She has got him--got him fast!--The nature of the chains are doubtless innocent, if those which a woman throws round us be ever distinguishable. He loves his wife--he is not a monster."

"He appears desperately feverish," said Merthyr.

"Did you not notice it? Yes, like a man pushed by his destiny out of the path. He is ashamed to hesitate; he cannot turn back. Ahead of him he sees a gulf. That army of Carlo Alberto may do something under its Pole. Prophecy is too easy. I say no more. We may have Lombardy open; and if so, my poor boy's vanity will be crowned: he will only have the king and his army against him then."

Discoursing in this wise, they reached the caffe where Beppo had appointed to meet his old master, and sat amid here and there a whitecoat, and many nods and whispers over such news as the privileged journals and the official gazette afforded.

Beppo's destination was to the Duchess of Graatli's palace. Nearing it, he perceived Luigi endeavouring to gain a passage beside the burly form of Jacob Baumwalder Feckelwitz, who presently seized him and hurled him into the road. As Beppo was sidling up the courtway, Jacob sprang back; Luigi made a rush; Jacob caught them both, but they wriggled out of his clutch, and Luigi, being the fearfuller, ran the farthest. While he was out of hearing, Beppo told Jacob to keep watch upon Luigi, as the bearer of an amorous letter from a signor of quality to Aennchen, the which he himself desired to obtain sight of; "for the wench has caused me three sleepless nights," he confessed frankly. Jacob affected not to understand. Luigi and Beppo now leaned against the wall on either side of him and baited him till he shook with rage.

"He is the lord of the duchess, his mistress--what a lucky fellow!" said Luigi. "When he's dog at the gates no one can approach her. When he isn't, you can fancy what!"--"He's only a mechanical contrivance; he's not a man," said Beppo. "He's the principal flea-catcher of the palace," said Luigi--"here he is all day, and at night the devil knows where he hunts."--Luigi hopped in a half-circle round the exacerbated Jacob, and finally provoked an assault that gave an opening to Beppo. They all ran in, Luigi last. Jacob chased Beppo up the stairs, lost him, and remembered what he had said of the letter borne by Luigi, for whom he determined to lie in waiting. "Better two in there than one," he thought. The two courted his Aennchen openly; but Luigi, as the bearer of an amorous letter from the signor of quality, who could be no other than signor Antonio-Pericles, was the one to be intercepted. Like other jealous lovers, Jacob wanted to read Aennchen's answer, to be cured of his fatal passion for the maiden, and on this he set the entire force of his mind.

Running up by different staircases, Beppo and Luigi came upon Aennchen nearly at the same time. She turned a cold face on Beppo, and requested Luigi to follow her. Astonished to see him in such favour, Beppo was ready to provoke the quarrel before the kiss when she returned; but she said that she had obeyed her mistress's orders, and was obeying the duchess in refusing to speak of them, or of anything relating to them. She had promised him an interview in that little room leading into the duchess's boudoir. He pressed her to conduct him. "Ah; then it's not for me you come," she said. Beppo had calculated that the kiss would open his way to the room, and the quarrel disembarrass him of his pretty companion when there. "You have come to listen to conversation again," said Aennchen. "Ach! the fool a woman is to think that you Italians have any idea except self-interest when you, when you... talk nonsense to us. Go away, if you please. Good-evening." She dropped a curtsey with a surly coquetry, charming of its kind. Beppo protested that the room was dear to him because there first he had known for one blissful half-second the sweetness of her mouth.

"Who told you that persons who don't like your mistress are going to talk in there?" said Aennchen.

"You," said Beppo.

Aennchen drew up in triumph: "And now will you pretend that you didn't come up here to go in there to listen to what they say?"

Beppo clapped hands at her cleverness in trapping him. "Hush," said all her limbs and features, belying the previous formal "good-evening." He refused to be silent, thinking it a way of getting to the little antechamber. "Then, I tell you, downstairs you go," said Aennchen stiffly.

"Is it decided?" Beppo asked. "Then, good-evening. You detestable German girls can't love. One step--a smile: another step--a kiss. You tit-for-tat minx! Have you no notion of the sacredness of the sentiments which inspires me to petition that the place for our interview should be there where I tasted ecstatic joy for the space of a flash of lightning? I will go; but it is there that I will go, and I will await you there, signorina Aennchen. Yes, laugh at me! laugh at me!"

"No; really, I don't laugh at you, signor Beppo," said Aennchen, protesting in denial of what she was doing. "This way."

"No, it's that way," said Beppo.

"It's through here." She opened a door. "The duchess has a reception to-night, and you can't go round. Ach! you would not betray me?"

"Not if it were the duchess herself," said Beppo; "he would refuse to satisfy man's natural vanity, in such a case."

Eager to advance to the little antechamber, he allowed Aennchen to wait behind him. He heard the door shut and a lock turn, and he was in the dark, and alone, left to take counsel of his fingers' ends.

"She was born to it," Beppo remarked, to extenuate his outwitted cunning, when he found each door of the room fast against him.

On the following night Vittoria was to sing at a concert in the Duchess of Graatli's great saloon, and the duchess had humoured Pericles by consenting to his preposterous request that his spy should have an opportunity of hearing Countess d'Isorella and Irma di Karski in private conversation together, to discover whether there was any plot of any sort to vex the evening's entertainment; as the jealous spite of those two women, Pericles said, was equal to any devilry on earth. It happened that Countess d'Isorella did not come. Luigi, in despair,--was the hearer of a quick question and answer dialogue, in the obscure German tongue, between Anna von Lenkenstein and Irma di Karski; but a happy peep between the hanging curtains gave him sight of a letter passing from Anna's hands to Irma's. Anna quitted her. Irma, was looking at the superscription of the letter, an the act of passing in her steps, when Luigi tore the curtains apart, and sprang on her arm like a cat. Before her shrieks could bring succour, Luigi was bounding across the court with the letter in his possession. A dreadful hug awaited him; his pockets were ransacked, and he was pitched aching into the street. Jacob Baumwalder Feckelwitz went straightway under a gas-lamp, where he read the address of the letter to Countess d'Isorella. He doubted; he had a half-desire to tear the letter open. But a rumour of the attack upon Irma had spread among the domestics and Jacob prudently went up to his mistress. The duchess was sitting with Laura. She received the letter, eyed: it all over, and held it to a candle.

Laura's head was bent in dark meditation. The sudden increase of light aroused her, and she asked, "What is that?"

"A letter from Countess Anna to Countess d'Isorella," said the duchess.

"Burnt!" Laura screamed.

"It's only fair," the duchess remarked.

"From her to that woman! It may be priceless. Stop! Let me see what remains. Amalia! are you mad? Oh! you false friend. I would have sacrificed my right hand to see it."

"Try and love me still," said the duchess, letting her take one unburnt corner, and crumble the black tissuey fragments to smut in her hands.

There was no writing; the unburnt corner of the letter was a blank.

Laura fooled the wretched ashes between her palms. "Good-night," she said. "Your face will be of this colour to me, my dear, for long."

"I cannot behave disgracefully, even to keep your love, my beloved," said the duchess.

"You cannot betray a German, you mean," Laura retorted. "You could let a spy into the house."

"That was a childish matter--merely to satisfy a whim."

"I say you could let a spy into the house. Who is to know where the scruples of you women begin? I would have given my jewels, my head, my husband's sword, for a sight of that letter. I swear that it concerns us. Yes, us. You are a false friend. Fish-blooded creature! may it be a year before I look on you again. Hide among your miserable set!"

"Judge me when you are cooler, dearest," said the duchess, seeking to detain the impetuous sister of her affection by the sweeping skirts; but Laura spurned her touch, and went from her.

Irma drove to Countess d'Isorella's. Violetta was abed, and lay fair and placid as a Titian Venus, while Irma sputtered out her tale, with intermittent sobs. She rose upon her elbow, and planting it in her pillow, took half-a-dozen puffs of a cigarette, and then requested Irma to ring for her maid. "Do nothing till you see me again," she said; "and take my advice: always get to bed before midnight, or you'll have unmanageable wrinkles in a couple of years. If you had been in bed at a prudent hour to-night, this scandal would not have occurred."

"How can I be in bed? How could I help it?" moaned Irma, replying to the abstract rule, and the perplexing illustration of its force.

Violetta dismissed her. "After all, my wish is to save my poor Amaranto," she mused. "I am only doing now what I should have been doing in the daylight; and if I can't stop him, the Government must; and they will. Whatever the letter contained, I can anticipate it. He knows my profession and my necessities. I must have money. Why not from the rich German woman whom he jilted?"

She attributed Anna's apparent passion of revenge to a secret passion of unrequited love. What else was implied by her willingness to part with land and money for the key to his machinations?

Violetta would have understood a revenge directed against Angelo Guidascarpi, as the slayer of Anna's brother. But of him Anna had only inquired once, and carelessly, whether he was in Milan. Anna's mystical semi-patriotism--prompted by her hatred of Vittoria, hatred of Carlo as Angelo's cousin and protector, hatred of the Italy which held the three, who never took the name Tedesco on their tongues without loathing--was perfectly hidden from this shrewd head.

Some extra patrols were in the streets. As she stepped into the carriage, a man rushed up, speaking hoarsely and inarticulately, and jumped in beside her. She had discerned Barto Rizzo in time to give directions to her footman, before she was addressed by a body of gendarmes in pursuit, whom she mystified by entreating them to enter her house and search it through, if they supposed that any evil-doer had taken advantage of the open door. They informed her that a man had escaped from the civil prison. "Poor creature!" said the countess, with womanly pity; "but you must see that he is not in my house. How could three of you let one escape?" She drove off laughing at their vehement assertion that he would not have escaped from them. Barto Rizzo made her conduct him to Countess Ammiani's gates.

Violetta was frightened by his eyes when she tried to persuade him in her best coaxing manner to avoid Count Ammiani. In fact she apprehended that he would be very much in her way. She had no time for chagrin at her loss of power over him, though she was sensible of vexation. Barto folded his arms and sat with his head in his chest, silent, till they reached the' gates, when he said in French, "Madame, I am a nameless person in your train. Gabble!" he added, when the countess advised him not to enter; nor would he allow her to precede him by more than one step. Violetta sent up her name. The man had shaken her nerves. "At least, remember that your appearance should be decent," she said, catching sight of blood on his hands, and torn garments. "I expect, madame," he replied, "I shall not have time to wash before I am laid out. My time is short. I want tobacco. The washing can be done by-and-by, but not the smoking."

They were ushered up to the reception-room, where Countess Ammiani, Vittoria, and Carlo sat, awaiting the visitor whose unexpected name, cast in their midst at so troubled a season, had clothed her with some of the midnight's terrors.

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