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- Sant' Ilario - 10/92 -
contract which must be settled between notaries and ratified by parental assent, that to love a young girl seems to them like an episode out of a fairy tale, enchantingly novel and altogether delightful. To us, who consider love as a usual if not an absolutely necessary preliminary to marriage, this point of view is hardly conceivable; but it is enough to tell a Frenchman that you have married your wife because you loved her, and not because your parents or your circumstances arranged the match for you, to hear him utter the loudest exclamations of genuine surprise and admiration, declaring that his ideal of happiness, which he considers of course as quite unattainable, would be to marry the woman of his affections. The immediate result of a state in which that sort of bliss is considered to be generally beyond the grasp of humanity has been to produce the moral peculiarities of the French novel, of the French play, and of the French household, as it is usually exhibited in books and on the stage.
The artist-Zouave was made of determined stuff. It was not for nothing that he had won the great prize which brought him to the Academy in Rome, nor was it out of mere romantic idleness that he had thrown over the feeble conspiracies of Madame Mayer and her set in order to wear a uniform. He had profound convictions, though he was not troubled with any great number of them. Each new one which took hold of him marked an epoch in his young life, and generally proved tenacious in proportion as he had formerly regarded it as absurd; and it was a proof of the sound balance of his mind that the three or four real convictions which he had accumulated during his short life were in no way contradictory to each other. On the contrary, each one seemed closely bound up with the rest, and appeared to bring a fresh energy to that direct action which, with Anastase, was the only possible result of any belief whatsoever.
There was therefore a goodly store of logic in his madness, and though, like Childe Harold, he had sighed to many, and at present loved but one, yet he was determined, if it were possible, that this loved one should be his; seeing that to sigh for anything, and not to take it if it could be taken, was the part of a boy and not of a strong man. Moreover, although the social difficulties which lay in his way were an obstacle which would have seemed insurmountable to many, there were two considerations which gave Anastase some hope of ultimate success. In the first place Donna Faustina herself was not indifferent; and, secondly, Anastase was no longer the humble student who had come to Rome some years earlier with nothing but his pension in his pocket and his talent in his fingers. He was certainly not of ancient lineage, but since he had attained that position which enabled him to be received as an equal in the great world, and had by his skill accumulated a portion of that filthy lucre which is the platform whereon society moves and has its exclusive being, he had the advantage of talking to Donna Faustina, wherever he met her, in spite of her father's sixty-four quarterings. Nor did those meetings take place only under the auspices of so much heraldry and blazon, as will presently appear.
At that period of the year, and especially during such a time of disturbance, there was no such thing as gaiety possible in Rome. People met quietly in little knots at each other's houses and talked over the state of the country, or walked and drove as usual in the villas and on the Pincio. When society cannot be gay it is very much inclined to grow confidential, to pull a long face, and to say things which, if uttered above a whisper, would be considered extremely shocking, but which, being communicated, augmented, criticised, and passed about quickly without much noise, are considered exceedingly interesting. When every one is supposed to be talking of politics it is very easy for every one to talk scandal, and to construct neighbourly biography of an imaginary character which shall presently become a part of contemporary history. On the whole, society would almost as gladly do this as dance. In those days of which I am speaking, therefore, there were many places where two or three, and sometimes as many as ten, were gathered together in council, ostensibly for the purpose of devising means whereby the Holy Father might overcome his enemies, though they were very often engaged in criticising the indecent haste exhibited by their best friends in yielding to the wiles of Satan.
There were several of these rallying points, among which may be chiefly noticed the Palazzo Valdarno, the Palazzo Saracinesca, and the Palazzo Montevarchi. In the first of these three it may be observed in passing that there was a division of opinion, the old people being the most rigid of conservatives, while the children declared as loudly as they dared that they were for Victor Emmanuel and United Italy. The Saracinesca, on the other hand, were firmly united and determined to stand by the existing order of things. Lastly, the Montevarchi all took their opinions from the head of the house, and knew very well that they would submit like sheep to be led whichever way was most agreeable to the old prince. The friends who frequented those various gatherings were of course careful to say whatever was most sure to please their hosts, and after the set speeches were made most of them fell to their usual occupation of talking about each other.
Gouache was an old friend of the Saracinesca, and came whenever he pleased; since his accident, too, he had become better acquainted with the Montevarchi, and was always a welcome guest, as he generally brought the latest news of the fighting, as well as the last accounts from France, which he easily got through his friendship with the young attaches of his embassy. It is not surprising therefore that he should have found so many opportunities of meeting Donna Faustina, especially as Corona di Sant' Ilario had taken a great fancy to the young girl and invited her constantly to the house.
On the very first occasion when Gouache called upon the Princess Montevarchi in order to express again his thanks for the kindness he had received, he found the room half full of people. Faustina was sitting alone, turning over the pages of a book, and no one seemed to pay any attention to her. After the usual speeches to the hostess Gouache sat down beside her. She raised her brown eyes, recognised him, and smiled faintly.
"What a wonderful contrast you are enjoying, Donna Faustina," said the Zouave.
"How so? I confess it seems monotonous enough."
"I mean that it is a great change for you, from the choir of the Sacro Cuore, from the peace of a convent, to this atmosphere of war."
"Yes; I wish I were back again."
"You do not like what you have seen of the world, Mademoiselle? It is very natural. If the world were always like this its attraction would not be dangerous. It is the pomps and vanities that are delightful."
"I wish they would begin then," answered Donna Faustina with more natural frankness than is generally found in young girls of her education.
"But were you not taught by the good sisters that those things are of the devil?" asked Gouache with a smile.
"Of course. But Flavia says they are very nice."
Gouache imagined that Flavia ought to know, but he thought fit to conceal his conviction.
"You mean Donna Flavia, your sister, Mademoiselle?"
"I suppose you are very fond of her, are you not? It must be very pleasant to have a sister so nearly of one's own age in the world."
"She is much older than I, but I think we shall be very good friends."
"Your family must be almost as much strangers to you as the rest of the world," observed Gouache. "Of course you have only seen them occasionally for a long time past. You are fond of reading, I see."
He made this remark to change the subject, and glanced at the book the young girl still held in her hand.
"It is a new book," she said, opening the volume at the title- page. "It is Manon Lescaut. Flavia has read it--it is by the Abbe Prevost. Do you know him?"
Gouache did not know whether to laugh or to look grave.
"Did your mother give it to you?" he asked.
"No, but she says that as it is by an abbe, she supposes it must be very moral. It is true that it has not the imprimatur, but being by a priest it cannot possibly be on the Index."
"I do not know," replied Gouache, "Prevost was certainly in holy orders, but I do not know him, as he died rather more than a hundred years ago. You see the book is not new."
"Oh!" exclaimed Donna Faustina, "I thought it was. Why do you laugh? Am I very ignorant not to know all about it?"
"No, indeed. Only, you will pardon me, Mademoiselle, if I offer a suggestion. You see I am French and know a little about these matters. You will permit me?"
Faustina opened her brown eyes very wide, and nodded gravely.
"If I were you, I would not read that book yet. You are too young."
"You seem to forget that I am eighteen years old, Monsieur Gouache."
"No, not at all. But five and twenty is a better age to read such books. Believe me," he added seriously, "that story is not meant for you."
Faustina looked at him for a few seconds and then laid the volume on the table, pushing it away from her with a puzzled air. Gouache was inwardly much amused at the idea of finding himself the moral preceptor of a young girl he scarcely knew, in the house of her parents, who passed for the most strait-laced of their kind. A feeling of deep resentment against Flavia, however, began to rise
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