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- Sant' Ilario - 5/92 -
during the months spent in Rome, and so it fell out that he did very much what most young men of his birth found quite sufficient as an employment; he spent a deal of time in strolling where others strolled, in lounging at the club, and in making visits which filled the hours between sunset and dinner. To him this life was new, and not altogether tasteful; but his friends did not fail to say that Giovanni had been civilised by his marriage with the Astrardente, and was much less reserved than he had formerly been.
When Corona went to see the dressmaker, Giovanni very naturally took his hat and went out of the house. The September day was warm and bright, and in such weather it was a satisfaction merely to pace the old Roman streets in the autumn sun. It was too early to meet any of his acquaintance, and too soon in the season for any regular visiting. He did not know what to do, but allowed himself to enjoy the sunshine and the sweet air. Presently, the sight of a couple of Zouaves, talking together at the corner of a street, recalled to his mind the accident which had happened to Gouache. It would be kind to go and see the poor fellow, or, at least, to ask after him. He had known him for some time and had gradually learned to like him, as most people did who met the gifted artist day after day throughout the gaiety of the winter.
At the Palazzo Montevarchi Giovanni learned that the princess had just finished breakfast. He could hardly ask for Gouache without making a short visit in the drawing-room, and he accordingly submitted, regretting after all that he had come. The old princess bored him, he did not know Faustina, who was just out of the convent, and Flavia, who amused many people, did not amuse him in the least. He inwardly rejoiced that he was married, and that his visit could not be interpreted as a preliminary step towards asking for Flavia's hand.
The princess looked up with an expression of inquiry in her prominent blue eyes, as Sant' Ilario entered. She was stout, florid, and not well dressed. Her yellow hair, already half gray, for she was more than fifty years old, was of the unruly kind, and had never looked neat even in her best days. Her bright, clear complexion saved her, however, as it saves hundreds of middle-aged Englishwomen, from that look of peculiar untidiness which belongs to dark-skinned persons who take no trouble about their appearance or personal adornment. In spite of thirty-three years of residence in Rome, she spoke Italian with a foreign accent, though otherwise correctly enough. But she was nevertheless a great lady, and no one would have thought of doubting the fact. Fat, awkwardly dressed, of no imposing stature, with unmanageable hair and prominent teeth, she was not a person to be laughed at. She had what many a beautiful woman lacks and envies--natural dignity of character and manner, combined with a self-possession which is not always found in exalted personages. That repose of manner which is commonly believed to be the heirloom of noble birth is seen quite as often in the low-born adventurer, who regards it as part of his stock-in-trade; and there are many women, and men too, whose position might be expected to place them beyond the reach of what we call shyness, but who nevertheless suffer daily agonies of social timidity and would rather face alone a charge of cavalry than make a new acquaintance. The Princess Montevarchi was made of braver stuff, however, and if her daughters had not inherited all her unaffected dignity they had at least received their fair share of self-possession. When Sant' Ilario entered, these two young ladies, Donna Flavia and Donna Faustina, were seated one on each side of their mother. The princess extended her hand, the two daughters held theirs demurely crossed upon their knees. Faustina looked at the carpet, as she had been taught to do in the convent. Flavia looked up boldly at Giovanni, knowing by experience that her mother could not see her while greeting the visitor. Sant' Ilario muttered some sort of civil inquiry, bowed to the two young ladies and sat down.
"How is Monsieur Gouache?" he asked, going straight to the point. He had seen the look of surprise on the princess's face as he entered, and thought it best to explain himself at once.
"Ah, you have heard? Poor man! He is badly hurt, I fear. Would you like to see him?"
"Presently, if I may," answered Giovanni. "We are all fond of Gouache. How did the accident happen?"
"Faustina ran over him," said Flavia, fixing her dark eyes on Giovanni and allowing her pretty face to assume an expression of sympathy--for the sufferer. "Faustina and papa," she added.
"Flavia! How can you say such things!" exclaimed the princess, who spent a great part of her life in repressing her daughter's manner of speech.
"Well, mamma--it was the carriage of course. But papa and Faustina were in it. It is the same thing."
Giovanni looked at Faustina, but her thin fresh face expressed nothing, nor did she show any intention of commenting on her sister's explanation. It was the first time he had seen her near enough to notice her, and his attention was arrested by something in her looks which surprised and interested him. It was something almost impossible to describe, and yet so really present that it struck Sant' Ilario at once, and found a place in his memory. In the superstitions of the far north, as in the half material spiritualism of Polynesia, that look has a meaning and an interpretation. With us, the interpretation is lost, but the instinctive persuasion that the thing itself is not wholly meaningless remains ineradicable. We say, with a smile at our own credulity, "That man looks as though he had a story," or, "That woman looks as though something odd might happen to her." It is an expression in the eyes, a delicate shade in the features, which speak of many things which we do not understand; things which, if they exist at all, we feel must be inevitable, fatal, and beyond human control. Giovanni looked and was surprised, but Faustina said nothing.
"It was very good of the prince to bring him here," remarked Sant' Ilario.
"It was very unlike papa," exclaimed Flavia, before her mother could answer. "But very kind, of course, as you say," she added, with a little smile. Flavia had a habit of making rather startling remarks, and of then adding something in explanation or comment, before her hearers had recovered breath. The addition did not always mend matters very much.
"Do not interrupt me, Flavia," said her mother, severely.
"I beg your pardon, were you speaking, mamma?" asked the young girl, innocently.
Giovanni was not amused by Flavia's manners, and waited calmly for the princess to speak.
"Indeed," said she, "there was nothing else to be done. As we had run over the poor man--"
"The carriage--" suggested Flavia. But her mother took no notice of her.
"The least we could do, of course, was to bring him here. My husband would not have allowed him to be taken to the hospital."
Flavia again fixed her eyes on Giovanni with a look of sympathy, which, however, did not convey any very profound belief in her father's charitable intentions.
"I quite understand," said Giovanni. "And how has he been since you brought him here? Is he in any danger?"
"You shall see him at once," answered the princess, who rose and rang the bell, and then, as the servant's footsteps were heard outside, crossed the room to meet him at the door.
"Mamma likes to run about," said Flavia, sweetly, in explanation. Giovanni had risen and made as though he would have been of some assistance.
The action was characteristic of the Princess Montevarchi. An Italian woman would neither have rung the bell herself, nor have committed such an imprudence as to turn her back upon her two daughters when there was a man in the room. But she was English, and a whole lifetime spent among Italians could not extinguish her activity; so she went to the door herself. Faustina's deep eyes followed her mother as though she were interested to know the news of Gouache.
"I hope he is better," she said, quietly.
"Of course," echoed Flavia, "So do I. But mamma amuses me so much! She is always in a hurry."
Faustina made no answer, but she looked at Sant' Ilario, as though she wondered what he thought of her sister. He returned her gaze, trying to explain to himself the strange attraction of her expression, watching her critically as he would have watched any new person or sight. She did not blush nor avoid his bold eyes, as he would have expected had he realised that he was staring at her.
A few minutes later Giovanni found himself in a narrow, high room, lighted by one window, which showed the enormous thickness of the walls in the deep embrasure. The vaulted ceiling was painted in fresco with a representation of Apollo in the act of drawing his bow, arrayed for the time being in his quiver, while his other garments, of yellow and blue, floated everywhere save over his body. The floor of the room was of red bricks, which had once been waxed, and the furniture was scanty, massive and very old. Anastase Gouache lay in one corner in a queer-looking bed covered with a yellow damask quilt the worse for a century or two of wear, upon which faded embroideries showed the Montevarchi arms surmounted by a cardinal's hat. Upon a chair beside the patient lay the little heap of small belongings he had carried in his pocket when hurt, his watch and purse, his cigarettes, his handkerchief and a few other trifles, among which, half concealed by the rest, was the gold pin he had picked up by the bridge on the previous evening. There was a mingled smell of dampness and of stale tobacco in the comfortless room, for the windows were closely shut, in spite of the bright sunshine that flooded the opposite side of the street.
Gouache lay on his back, his head tied up in a bandage and supported by a white pillow, which somehow conveyed the impression of one of those marble cushions upon which in old-fashioned monuments the effigies of the dead are made to lean in eternal prayer, if not in eternal ease. He moved impatiently as the door opened, and then recognising Giovanni, he hailed him in a voice
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