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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 43. The Last Meeting In Milan
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Vittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 43. The Last Meeting In Milan Post by :masterzinc Category :Long Stories Author :George Meredith Date :May 2012 Read :2576

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Vittoria - Book 8 - Chapter 43. The Last Meeting In Milan


Barto Rizzo had silence about him without having to ask for it, when he followed Violetta into Countess Ammiani's saloon of reception. Carlo was leaning over his mother's chair, holding Vittoria's wrist across it, and so enclosing her, while both young faces were raised to the bowed forehead of the countess. They stood up. Violetta broke through the formal superlatives of an Italian greeting. "Speak to me alone," she murmured for Carlo's ear and glancing at Barto: "Here is a madman; a mild one, I trust." She contrived to show that she was not responsible for his intrusion. Countess Ammiani gathered Vittoria in her arms; Carlo stepped a pace before them. Terror was on the venerable lady's face, wrath on her son's. As he fronted Barto, he motioned a finger to the curtain hangings, and Violetta, quick at reading signs, found his bare sword there. "But you will not want it," she remarked, handing the hilt to him, and softly eyeing the impression of her warm touch on the steel as it passed.

"Carlo, thou son of Paolo! Countess Marcellina, wife of a true patriot! stand aside, both of you. It is between the Countess Alessandra and myself," so the man commenced, with his usual pomp of interjection. "Swords and big eyes,--are they things to stop me?" Barto laughed scornfully. He had spoken in the full roll of his voice, and the sword was hard back for the thrust.

Vittoria disengaged herself from the countess. "Speak to me," she said, dismayed by the look of what seemed an exaltation of madness in Barto's visage, but firm as far as the trembling of her limbs would let her be.

He dropped to her feet and kissed them.

"Emilia Alessandra Belloni! Vittoria! Countess Alessandra Ammiani! pity me. Hear this:--I hated you as the devil is hated. Yesterday I woke up in prison to hear that I must adore you. God of all the pits of punishment! was there ever one like this? I had to change heads."

It was the language of a distorted mind, and lamentable to hear when a sob shattered his voice.

"Am I mad?" he asked piteously, clasping his temples.

"You are as we are, if you weep," said Vittoria, to sooth him.

"Then I have been mad!" he cried, starting. "I knew you a wicked virgin--signora contessa, confess to me, marriage has changed you. Has it not changed you? In the name of the Father of the Saints, help me out of it:--my brain reels backwards. You were false, but marriage--It acts in this way with you women; yes, that we know--you were married, and you said, 'Now let us be faithful.' Did you not say that? I am forgiving, though none think it. You have only to confess. If you will not,--oh!" He smote his face, groaning.

Carlo spoke a stern word in an undertone; counselling him to be gone.

"If you will not--what was she to do?" Barto cut the question to interrogate his strayed wits. "Look at me, Countess Alessandra. I was in the prison. I heard that my Rosellina had a tight heart. She cried for her master, poor heathen, and I sprang out of the walls to her. There--there--she lay like a breathing board; a woman with a body like a coffin half alive; not an eye to show; nothing but a body and a whisper. She perished righteously, for she disobeyed. She acted without my orders: she dared to think! She will be damned, for she would have vengeance before she went. She glorified you over me--over Barto Rizzo. Oh! she shocked my soul. But she is dead, and I am her slave. Every word was of you. Take another head, Barto Rizzo your old one was mad: she said that to my soul. She died blessing you above me. I saw the last bit of life go up from her mouth blessing you. It's heard by this time in heaven, and it's written. Then I have had two years of madness. If she is right, I was wrong; I was a devil of hell. I know there's an eye given to dying creatures, and she looked with it, and she said, the soul of Rinaldo Guidascarpi, her angel, was glorifying you; and she thanked the sticking of her heart, when she tried to stab you, poor fool!"

Carlo interrupted: "Now go; you have said enough."

"No, let him speak," said Vittoria. She supposed that Barto was going to say that he had not given the order for her assassination. "You do not wish me dead, signore?"

"Nothing that is not standing in my way, signora contessa," said Barto; and his features blazed with a smile of happy self-justification. "I have killed a sentinel this night: Providence placed him there. I wish for no death, but I punish, and--ah! the cursed sight of the woman who calls me mad for two years. She thrusts a bar of iron in an engine at work, and says, Work on! work on! Were you not a traitress? Countess Alessandra, were you not once a traitress? Oh! confess it; save my head. Reflect, dear lady! it's cruel to make a man of a saintly sincerity look back--I count the months--seventeen months! to look back seventeen months, and see that his tongue was a clapper,--his will, his eyes, his ears, all about him, everything, stirred like a pot on the fire. I traced you. I saw your treachery. I said--I, I am her Day of Judgement. She shall look on me and perish, struck down by her own treachery. Were my senses false to me? I had lived in virtuous fidelity to my principles. None can accuse me. Why were my senses false, if my principles were true? I said you were a traitress. I saw it from the first. I had the divine contempt for women. My distrust of a woman was the eye of this brain, and I said--Follow her, dog her, find her out! I proved her false; but her devilish cunning deceived every other man in the world. Oh! let me bellow, for it's me she proves the mass of corruption! Tomorrow I die, and if I am mad now, what sort of a curse is that?

"Now to-morrow is an hour--a laugh! But if I've not been shot from a true bow--if I've been a sham for two years--if my name, and nature, bones, brains, were all false things hunting a shadow, Countess Alessandra, see the misery of Barto Rizzo! Look at those two years, and say that I had my head. Answer me, as you love your husband: are you heart and soul with him in the fresh fight for Lombardy?" He said this with a look penetrating and malignant, and then by a sudden flash pitifully entreating.

Carlo feared to provoke, revolted from the thought of slaying him. "Yes, yes," he interposed, "my wife is heart and soul in it. Go."

Barto looked from him to her with the eyes of a dog that awaits an order.

Victoria gathered her strength, and said: "I am not."

"It is her answer!" Barto roared, and from deep dejection his whole countenance radiated. "She says it--she might give the lie to a saint! I was never mad. I saw the spot, and put my finger on it, and not a madman can do that. My two years are my own. Mad now, for, see!

"I worship the creature. She is not heart and soul in it. She is not in it at all. She is a little woman, a lovely thing, a toy, a cantatrice. Joy to the big heart of Barto Rizzo! I am for Brescia!"

He flung his arm like a banner, and ran out.

Carlo laid his sword on a table. Vittoria's head was on his mother's bosom.

The hour was too full of imminent grief for either of the three to regard this scene as other than a gross intrusion ended.

"Why did you deny my words?" Carlo said coldly.

"I could not lie to make him wretched," she replied in a low murmur.

"Do you know what that 'I am for Brescia' means? He goes to stir the city before a soul is ready."

"I warned you that I should speak the truth of myself to-night, dearest."

"You should discern between speaking truth to a madman, and to a man."

Vittoria did not lift her eyes, and Carlo beckoned to Violetta, with whom he left the room.

"He is angry," Countess Ammiani murmured. "My child, you cannot deal with men in a fever unless you learn to dissemble; and there is exemption for doing it, both in plain sense, and in our religion. If I could arrest him, I would speak boldly. It is, alas! vain to dream of that; and it is therefore an unkindness to cause him irritation. Carlo has given way to you by allowing you to be here when his friends assemble. He knows your intention to speak. He has done more than would have been permitted by my husband to me, though I too was well-beloved."

Vittoria continued silent that her head might be cherished where it lay. She was roused from a stupor by hearing new voices. Laura's lips came pressing to her cheek. Colonel Corte, Agostino, Marco Sana, and Angelo Guidascarpi, saluted her. Angelo she kissed.

"That lady should be abed and asleep," Corte was heard to say.

The remark passed without notice. Angelo talked apart with Vittoria. He had seen the dying of the woman whose hand had been checked in the act of striking by the very passion of animal hatred which raised it. He spoke of her affectionately, attesting to the fact that Barto Rizzo had not prompted her guilt. Vittoria moaned at a short outline that he gave of the last minutes between those two, in which her name was dreadfully and fatally, incomprehensibly prominent.

All were waiting impatiently for Carlo's return.

When he appeared he informed his mother that the Countess d'Isorella would remain in the house that night, and his mother passed out to her abhorred guest, who, for the time at least, could not be doing further mischief.

It was a meeting for the final disposition of things before the outbreak. Carlo had begun to speak when Corte drew his attention to the fact that ladies were present, at which Carlo put out his hand as if introducing them, and went on speaking.

"Your wife is here," said Corte.

"My wife and signora Piaveni," Carlo rejoined. "I have consented to my wife's particular wish to be present."

"The signora Piaveni's opinions are known: your wife's are not."

"Countess Alessandra shares mine," said Laura, rather tremulously.

Countess Ammiani at the same time returned and took Vittoria's hand and pressed it with force. Carlo looked at them both.

"I have to ask your excuses, gentlemen. My wife, my mother, and signora Piaveni, have served the cause we worship sufficiently to claim a right--I am sorry to use such phrases; you understand my meaning. Permit them to remain. I have to tell you that Barto Rizzo has been here: he has started for Brescia. I should have had to kill him to stop him--a measure that I did not undertake."

"Being your duty!" remarked Corte.

Agostino corrected him with a sarcasm.

"I cannot allow the presence of ladies to exclude a comment on manifest indifference," said Corte. "Pass on to the details, if you have any."

"The details are these," Carlo resumed, too proud to show a shade of self-command; "my cousin Angelo leaves Milan before morning. You, Colonel Corte, will be in Bergamo at noon to-morrow. Marco and Angelo will await my coming in Brescia, where we shall find Giulio and the rest. I join them at five on the following afternoon, and my arrival signals the revolt. We have decided that the news from the king's army is good."

A perceptible shudder in Vittoria's frame at this concluding sentence caught Corte's eye.

"Are you dissatisfied with that arrangement?" he addressed her boldly.

"I am, Colonel Corte," she replied. So simple was the answering tone of her voice that Corte had not a word.

"It is my husband who is going," Vittoria spoke on steadily; "him I am prepared to sacrifice, as I am myself. If he thinks it right to throw himself into Brescia, nothing is left for me but to thank him for having done me the honour to consult me. His will is firm. I trust to God that he is wise. I look on him now as one of many brave men whose lives belong to Italy, and if they all are misdirected and perish, we have no more; we are lost. The king is on the Ticino; the Chief is in Rome. I desire to entreat you to take counsel before you act in anticipation of the king's fortune. I see that it is a crushed life in Lombardy. In Rome there is one who can lead and govern. He has suffered and is calm. He calls to you to strengthen his hands. My prayer to you is to take counsel. I know the hour is late; but it is not too late for wisdom. Forgive me if I am not speaking humbly. Brescia is but Brescia; Rome is Italy. I have understood little of my country until these last days, though I have both talked and sung of her glories. I know that a deep duty binds you to Bergamo and to Brescia--poor Milan we must not think of. You are not personally pledged to Rome: yet Rome may have the greatest claims on you. The heart of our country is beginning to beat there. Colonel Corte! signor Marco! my Agostino! my cousin Angelo! it is not a woman asking for the safety of her husband, but one of the blood of Italy who begs to offer you her voice, without seeking to disturb your judgement."

She ceased.

"Without seeking to disturb their judgement!" cried Laura. "Why not, when the judgement is in error?"

To Laura's fiery temperament Vittoria's speech had been feebleness. She was insensible to that which the men felt conveyed to them by the absence of emotion in the language of a woman so sorrowfully placed. "Wait," she said, "wait for the news from Carlo Alberto, if you determine to play at swords and guns in narrow streets." She spoke long and vehemently, using irony, coarse and fine, with the eloquence which was her gift. In conclusion she apostrophized Colonel Corte as one who had loved him might have done. He was indeed that figure of indomitable strength to which her spirit, exhausted by intensity of passion, clung more than to any other on earth, though she did not love him, scarcely liked him.

Corte asked her curiously--for she had surprised and vexed his softer side--why she distinguished him with such remarkable phrases only to declare her contempt for him.

"It's the flag whipping the flag-pole," murmured Agostino; and he now spoke briefly in support of the expedition to Rome; or at least in favour of delay until the King of Sardinia had gained a battle. While he was speaking, Merthyr entered the room, and behind him a messenger who brought word that Bergamo had risen.

The men drew hurriedly together, and Countess Ammiani, Vittoria and Laura stood ready to leave them.

"You will give me, five minutes?" Vittoria whispered to her husband, and he nodded.

"Merthyr," she said, passing him, "can I have your word that you will not go from me?"

Merthyr gave her his word after he had looked on her face.

"Send to me every two hours, that I may know you are near," she added; "do not fear waking me. Or, no, dear friend; why should I have any concealment from you? Be not a moment absent, if you would not have me fall to the ground a second time: follow me."

Even as he hesitated, for he had urgent stuff to communicate to Carlo, he could see a dreadful whiteness rising on her face, darkening the circles of her eyes.

"It's life or death, my dearest, and I am bound to live," she said. Her voice sprang up from tears.

Merthyr turned and tried in vain to get a hearing among the excited, voluble men. They shook his hand, patted his shoulder, and counselled him to leave them. He obtained Carlo's promise that he would not quit the house without granting him an interview; after which he passed out to Vittoria, where Countess Ammiani and Laura sat weeping by the door.

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