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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhosoever Shall Offend - Chapter 10
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Whosoever Shall Offend - Chapter 10 Post by :patrick6 Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1132

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Whosoever Shall Offend - Chapter 10

CHAPTER X


The Contessa wrote to Corbario two days later, addressing her letter to Rome, as she did not know where he was. It was not like her to meddle in the affairs of other people, or to give advice, but this was a special case, and she felt that something must be done to save Marcello; for she was a woman of the world, with much experience and few illusions, and she understood at a glance what was happening to her dead friend's son. She wrote to Folco, telling him of the accidental meeting in the portico of the Theatre Francais, describing Marcello's looks, and saying pretty clearly what she thought of the extremely handsome young woman who was with him.

Now Paris is a big city, and it chanced that Corbario himself was there at that very time. Possibly he had kept out of Marcello's way for some reason of his own, but he had really not known that the Contessa was there. Her letter was forwarded from Rome and reached him four days after it was written. He read it carefully, tore it into several dozen little bits, looked at his watch, and went at once to the quiet hotel in the Rue Saint Honore. The Contessa was alone, Aurora having gone out with her mother's maid.

Maddalena was glad to see him, not because she liked him, for she did not, but because it would be so much easier to talk of what was on her mind than to write about it.

"I suppose you are surprised to see me," said Folco, after the first conventional greeting.

"No, for one may meet any one in Paris, at any time of the year. When I wrote, I thought Marcello must be alone here--I mean, without you," she added.

"I did not know he had been here, until I heard that he was gone. He left three or four days ago. I fancy that when you wrote your letter he was already gone."

"Do you let him wander about Europe as he pleases?" asked the Contessa.

"He is old enough to take care of himself," answered Corbario. "There is nothing worse for young men than running after them and prying into their affairs. I say, give a young fellow his independence as soon as possible. If he has been brought up in a manly way, with a feeling of self-respect, it can only do him good to travel alone. That is the English way, you know, and always succeeds."

"Not always, and besides, we are not English. It is not 'succeeding,' as you call it, in Marcello's case. He will not live long, if you let him lead such a life."

"Oh, he is stronger than he looks! He is no more threatened with consumption than I am, and a boy who can live through what happened to him two years ago can live through anything."

Not a muscle of his face quivered as he looked quietly into the Contessa's eyes. He was quite sure that she did not suspect him of having been in any way concerned in Marcello's temporary disappearance.

"Suppose him to be as strong as the strongest," Maddalena answered. "Put aside the question of his health. There is something else that seems to me quite as important."

"The moral side?" Corbario smiled gravely. "My dear lady, you and I know the world, don't we? We do not expect young men to be saints!"

Maddalena, who had not always been a saint, returned his look coldly.

"Let us leave the saints out of the discussion," she said, "unless we speak of Marcello's mother. She was one, if any one ever was. I believe you loved her, and I know that I did, and I do still, for she is very real to me, even now. Don't you owe something to her memory? Don't you know how she would have felt if she could have met her son the other night, as I met him, looking as he looked? Don't you know that it would have hurt her as nothing else could? Think a moment!"

She paused, waiting for his answer and watching his impenetrable face, that did not change even when he laughed, that could not change, she thought; but she had not seen him by Marcello's bedside at the hospital, when the mask had been gone for a few seconds. It was there now, in all its calm stillness.

"You may be right," he answered, almost meekly, after a little pause. "I had not looked at it in that light. You see, I am not a very sensitive man, and I was brought up rather roughly. My dear wife went to the other extreme, of course. No one could really be what she wished to make Marcello. He felt that himself, though I honestly did all I could to make him act according to his mother's wishes. But now that she is gone--" he broke off, and was silent a moment. "You may be right," he repeated, shaking his head thoughtfully. "You are a very good woman, and you ought to know."

She leaned back in her chair, and looked at him in silence, wondering whether she was not perhaps doing him a great injustice; yet his voice rang false to her ear, and the old conviction that he had never loved his wife came back with increased force and with the certainty that he had been playing a part for years without once breaking down.

"I will join Marcello, and see what I can do," he said.

"Do you know where he is?"

"Oh, yes! He keeps me informed of his movements; he is very good about writing. You know how fond of each other we are, too, and I am sure he will be glad to see me. He is back in Italy by this time. He was going to Siena. We were to have met in Rome in about a month, to go down to San Domenico together, but I will join him at once."

"If you find that--that young person with him, what shall you do?"

"Send her about her business, of course," answered Folco promptly.

"Suppose that she will not go, what then?"

"It can only be a question of money, my dear lady. Leave that to me. Marcello is not the first young fellow who has been in a scrape!"

Still Maddalena did not trust him, and she merely nodded with an air of doubt.

"Shall I not see Aurora?" he asked suddenly.

"She is out," answered the Contessa. "I will tell her that you asked after her."

"Is she as beautiful as ever?" inquired Folco.

"She is a very pretty girl."

"She is beautiful," Folco said, with conviction. "I have never seen such a beautiful girl as she was, even when she was not quite grown up. No one ever had such hair and such eyes, and such a complexion!"

"Dear me!" exclaimed Maddalena with a little surprise. "I had no idea that you thought her so good-looking!"

"I always did. As for Marcello, we used to think he would never have eyes for any one else."

"Young people who have known each other well as children rarely fall in love when they grow up," answered Maddalena.

"So much the better," Folco said. "Aurora and Marcello are not at all suited to one another."

"That is true," answered the Contessa.

"And besides, he is much too young for her. They are nearly of the same age."

"I never thought of their marrying," replied Maddalena, with a little emphasis, "and I should certainly not choose this time to think of it!"

"I fancy few men can look at your daughter without wishing that they might marry her, my dear lady," said Corbario, rising to go away. "Pray present my homage to her, and tell her how very sorry I am not to have seen her."

He smiled as if he were only half in earnest, and he took his leave. He was scarcely gone when Aurora entered the sitting-room by another door.

"Was it Marcello?" she asked quietly enough, though her voice sounded a little dull.

"No, dear," answered her mother. "It was Folco Corbario. I wrote to him some days ago and he came to see me. Marcello has left Paris. I did not know you had come home."

Aurora sat down rather wearily, pulled out her hatpins, and laid her hat on her knee. Then she slowly turned it round and round, examining every inch of it with profound attention, as women do. They see things in hats which we do not.

"Mamma--" Aurora got no further, and went on turning the hat round.

"Yes? What were you going to say?"

"Nothing--I have forgotten." The hat revolved steadily. "Are we going to stay here long?"

"No. Paris is too expensive. When we have got the few things we want we will go back to Italy--next week, I should think."

"I wish we were rich," observed Aurora.

"I never heard you say that before," answered her mother. "But after all, wishing does no harm, and I am silly enough to wish we were rich too."

"If I married Marcello, I should be very rich," said Aurora, ceasing to turn the hat, but still contemplating it critically.

Maddalena looked at her daughter in some surprise. The girl's face was quite grave.

"You had better think of getting rich in some other way, my dear," said the Contessa presently, with an asperity that did not escape Aurora, but produced no impression on her.

"I was only supposing," she said. "But if it comes to that, it would be much better for him to marry me than that good-looking peasant girl he has picked up."

The Contessa sat up straight and stared at her in astonishment. There was a coolness in the speech that positively horrified her.

"My dear child!" she cried. "What in the world are you talking about?"

"Regina," answered Aurora, looking up, and throwing the hat upon the table. "I am talking about Marcello's Regina. Did you suppose I had never heard of her, and that I did not guess that it was she, the other night? I had a good look at her. I hate her, but she is handsome. You cannot deny that."

"I do not deny it, I'm sure!" The Contessa hardly knew what to say.

"Very well. Would it not be much better for Marcello if he married me than if he let Regina marry him, as she will!"

"I--possibly--you put it so strangely! But I am sure Marcello will never think of marrying her."

"Then why does he go about with her, and what is it all for?" Aurora gazed innocently at her mother, waiting for an answer which did not come. "Besides," she added, "the girl will marry him, of course."

"Perhaps. I daresay you are right, and after all, she may be in love with him. Why should you care, child?"

"Because he used to be my best friend," Aurora answered demurely. "Is it wrong to take an interest in one's friends? And I still think of him as my friend, though I have never had a chance to speak to him since that day by the Roman shore, when he went off in a rage because I laughed at him. I wonder whether he has forgotten that! They say he lost his memory during his illness."

"What a strange girl you are! You have hardly ever spoken of him in all this time, and now"--the Contessa laughed as if she thought the idea absurd--"and now you talk of marrying him!"

"I have seen Regina," Aurora replied, as if that explained everything.

The Contessa returned no answer, and she was rather unusually silent and preoccupied during the rest of that day. She was reflecting that if Aurora had not chanced to meet Marcello just when Regina was with him the girl might never have thought of him again, except with a half-amused recollection of the little romantic tenderness she had once felt for the friend and playfellow of her childhood. Maddalena was a wise woman now, and did not underestimate the influence of little things when great ones were not far off. That is a very important part of worldly wisdom, which is the science of estimating chances in a game of which love, hate, marriage, fortune, and social life and death may be the stakes.

Her impulse was to prevent Aurora from seeing Marcello for a long time, for the thought of a possible marriage had never attracted her, and since the appearance of Regina on the scene every instinct of her nature was against it. Her pride revolted at the idea that her daughter might be the rival of a peasant girl, quite as much as at the possibility of its being said that she had captured her old friend's son for the sake of his money. But she remembered her own younger years and she judged Aurora by herself. There had been more in that little romantic tenderness for Marcello than any one had guessed, much of it had remained, it had perhaps grown instead of dying out, and the sight of Regina had awakened it to something much stronger than a girlish fancy.

Maddalena remembered little incidents now, of which the importance had escaped her the more easily because the loss of her dearest friend had made her dull and listless at the time. Aurora had scarcely asked about Marcello during the weeks that followed his disappearance, but she had often looked pale and almost ill just then. She had been better after the news had come that he had been found, though she had barely said that she was glad to hear of him. Then she had grown more restless than she used to be, and there had sometimes been a dash of hardness in the things she said; and her mother was now quite sure that Aurora had intentionally avoided all mention of Marcello. To-day, she had suddenly made that rather startling remark about marrying him. All this proved clearly enough that he had been continually in her thoughts. When very young people take unusual pains to ignore a certain subject, and then unexpectedly blurt out some very rough observation about it, the chances are that they have been thinking of nothing else for a long time.

A good deal had happened on that afternoon, for what Corbario had said about Aurora, half playfully and half in earnest, had left Maddalena under the impression that he had been trying a little experiment on his own account, to feel his way. Aurora had more than once said in the preceding years that she did not like his eyes and a certain way he had of looking at her. He had admired her, even then, and now that he was a widower it was not at all unlikely that he should think of marrying her. He was not much more than thirty years old, and he had a singularly youthful face. There was no objection on the score of his age. He was rich, at least for his life-time. He had always been called a model husband while his wife had been alive, and was said to have behaved with propriety since. Maddalena tried to look at the matter coolly and dispassionately, as if she did not instinctively dislike him. Why should he not wish to marry Aurora? No one of the Contessa's acquaintances would be at all surprised if he did, and most people would say that it was a very good match, and that Aurora was fortunate to get such a husband.

This was precisely what Folco thought; and as it was his nature to think slowly and act quickly, it is not impossible that he may have revolved the plan in his mind for a year or two while Aurora was growing up. The final decision had perhaps been reached on that evening down by the Roman shore, when Professor Kalmon had held up to his eyes the sure means of taking the first step towards its accomplishment; and it had been before him late on the same night when he had stood still in the verandah holding the precious and terrible little tablet in the hollow of his hand; and the next morning when he had suddenly seen Marcello close before him, unconscious of his presence and defenceless. He had run a great risk in vain that day, since Marcello was still alive, a risk more awful than he cared to remember now; but it had been safely passed, and he must never do anything so dangerous again. There was a far safer and surer way of gaining his end than clumsy murder, and from what the Contessa had told him of the impression she had received the accomplishment was not far off. She had said that Marcello had looked half dead; his delicate constitution could not bear such a life much longer, and he would soon be dead in earnest.

Marcello did not write as regularly as Folco pretended, but the latter had trustworthy and regular news of him from some one else. Twice a week, wherever he might be, a square envelope came by the post addressed in a rather cramped feminine hand, the almost unmistakable writing of a woman who had seen better days and had been put to many shifts in order to keep up some sort of outward respectability. The information conveyed was tolerably well expressed, in grammatical Italian; the only names contained in the letters were those of towns, and hotels, and the like, and Marcello was invariably spoken of as "our dear patient," and Regina as "that admirable woman" or "that ideal companion." The writer usually said that the dear patient seemed less strong than a month ago, or a week ago, and expressed a fear that he was slowly losing ground. Sometimes he was better, and the news was accompanied by a conventional word or two of satisfaction. Again, there would be a detailed account of his doings, showing that he had slept uncommonly little and had no appetite, and mentioning with a show of regret the sad fact that he lived principally on cigarettes, black coffee, and dry champagne. The ideal companion seemed to be always perfectly well, showed no tendency to be extravagant, and gave proof of the most constant devotion. The writer always concluded by promising that Corbario's instructions with regard to the dear patient should be faithfully carried out in future as they had been in the past.

This was very reassuring, and Folco often congratulated himself on the wisdom he had shown in the selection of Settimia as a maid for Regina. The woman not only did what was required of her with the utmost exactitude; she took an evident pleasure in her work, and looked forward to the fatal result at no very distant time with all the satisfaction which Corbario could desire. So far everything had gone smoothly.

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CHAPTER IX Two years had passed since Marcello had been brought home from the hospital, very feeble still, but himself again and master of his memory and thoughts. In his recollection, however, there was a blank. He had left Aurora standing in the gap the storm swept inland from the sea; then the light had gone out suddenly, in something violent which he could not understand, and after that he could remember nothing except that he had wandered in lonely places, trying to find out which way he was going, and terrified by the certainty that he had lost all
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