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- Sant' Ilario - 80/92 -
"Grazie, Eccelenza!" said Meschini with great humility, making horns with his fingers behind his back to ward off the evil eye, and edging away in the direction of the grand staircase.
San Giacinto returned to the door and paid no more attention to him. Then Meschini almost ran down the stairs and did not slacken his speed until he found himself in the street. The cold air of the winter's day revived him, and he found himself walking rapidly in the direction of the Ponte Quattro Capi. He generally took that direction when he went out without any especial object, for his friend Tiberio Colaisso, the poor apothecary, had his shop upon the little island of Saint Bartholomew, which is connected with the shores of the river by a double bridge, whence the name, "the bridge of four heads."
Meschini paused and looked over the parapet at the yellow swirling water. The eddies seemed to take queer shapes and he watched them for a long time. He had a splitting headache, of the kind which is made more painful by looking at quickly moving objects, which, at the same time, exercise an irresistible fascination over the eye. Almost unconsciously he compared his own life to the river-- turbid, winding, destroying. The simile was incoherent, like most of his fancies on that day, but it served to express a thought, and he began to feel an odd sympathy for the muddy stream, such as perhaps no one had ever felt before him. But as he looked he grew dizzy, and drew back from the parapet. There must have been something strange in his face, for a man who was passing looked at him curiously and asked whether he were ill. He shook his head with a sickly smile and passed on.
The apothecary was standing idly at his door, waiting for a custom that rarely came his way. He was a cadaverous man, about fifty years of age, with eyes of an uncertain colour set deep in his head. An ill-kept, grizzled beard descended upon his chest, and gave a certain wildness to his appearance. A very shabby green smoking cap, trimmed with tarnished silver lace, was set far back upon his head, displaying a wrinkled forehead, much heightened by baldness, but of proportions that denoted a large and active brain. That he took snuff in great quantities was apparent. Otherwise he was neither very dirty nor very clean, but his thumbs had that peculiar shape which seems to be the result of constantly rolling pills. Meschini stopped before him.
"Sor Arnoldo, good-day," said the chemist, scrutinising his friend's face curiously.
"Good-day, Sor Tiberio," replied the librarian. "Will you let me come in for a little moment?" There seemed to be an attempt at a jest in the question, for the apothecary almost smiled.
"Padrone," he said, retiring backwards through the narrow door. "A game of scopa to-day?"
"Have you the time to spare?" inquired the other, in a serious tone. They always maintained the myth that Tiberio Colaisso was a very busy man.
"To-day," answered the latter, without a smile, and emphasising the word as though it defined an exception, "to-day, I have nothing to do. Besides, it is early."
"We can play a hand and then we can dine at Cicco's."
"Being Friday in Advent, I had intended to fast," replied the apothecary, who had not a penny in his pocket "But since you are so good as to invite me, I do not say no."
Meschini said nothing, for he understood the situation, which was by no means a novel one. His friend produced a pack of Italian cards, almost black with age. He gave Meschini the only chair, and seated himself upon a three-legged stool.
It was a dismal scene. The shop was like many of its kind in the poorer quarters of old Rome There was room for the counter and for three people to stand before it when the door was shut. The floor was covered with a broken pavement of dingy bricks. As the two men began to play a fine, drizzling rain wet the silent street outside, and the bricks within at once exhibited an unctuous moisture. The sky had become cloudy after the fine morning, and there was little light in the shop. Three of the walls were hidden by cases with glass doors, containing an assortment of majolica jars which would delight a modern amateur, but which looked dingy and mean in the poor shop. Here and there, between them, stood bottles large and small, some broken and dusty, others filled with liquids and bearing paper labels, brown with age, the ink inscriptions fading into the dirty surface that surrounded them. The only things in the place which looked tolerably clean were the little brass scales and the white marble tablet for compounding solid medicines.
The two men looked as though they belonged to the little room. Meschini's yellow complexion was as much in keeping with the surroundings as the chemist's gray, colourless face. His bloodshot eyes wandered from the half-defaced cards to the objects in the shop, and he was uncertain in his play. His companion looked at him as though he were trying to solve some intricate problem that gave him trouble. He himself was a man who, like the librarian, had begun life under favourable circumstances, had studied medicine and had practised it. But he had been unfortunate, and, though talented, did not possess the qualifications most necessary for his profession. He had busied himself with chemistry and had invented a universal panacea which had failed, and in which he had sunk most of his small capital. Disgusted with his reverses he had gravitated slowly to his present position. Finding him careless and indifferent to their wants, his customers had dropped away, one by one, until he earned barely enough to keep body and soul together. Only the poorest class of people, emboldened by the mean aspect of his shop, came in to get a plaster, an ointment or a black draught, at the lowest possible prices. And yet, in certain branches, Tiberio Colaisso was a learned man. At all events he had proved himself able to do all that Meschini asked of him. He was keen, too, in an indolent way, and a single glance had satisfied him that something very unusual had happened to the librarian. He watched him patiently, hoping to find out the truth without questions. At the same time, the hope of winning a few coppers made him keep an eye on the game. To his surprise he won easily, and he was further astonished when he saw that the miserly Meschini was not inclined to complain of his losses nor to accuse him of cheating.
"You are not lucky to-day," he remarked at last, when his winnings amounted to a couple of pauls--a modern franc in all.
Meschini looked at him uneasily and wiped his brow, leaning back in the rickety chair. His hands were trembling.
"No," he answered. "I am not quite myself to-day. The fact is that a most dreadful tragedy occurred in our house last night, the mere thought of which gives me the fever. I am even obliged to take a little stimulant from time to time."
So saying, he drew the bottle from his pocket and applied it to his lips. He had hoped that it would not be necessary, but he was unable to do without it very long, his nerves being broken down by the quantity he had taken on the previous night. Colaisso looked on in silence, more puzzled than ever. The librarian seemed to be revived by the dose, and spoke more cheerfully after it.
"A most terrible tragedy," he said. "The prince was murdered yesterday afternoon. I could not speak of it to you at once."
"Murdered?" exclaimed the apothecary in amazement. "And by whom?"
"That is the mystery. He was found dead in his study. I will tell you all I know."
Meschini communicated the story to his friend in a disjointed fashion, interspersing his narrative with many comments intended to give himself courage to proceed. He told the tale with evident reluctance, but he could not avoid the necessity. If Tiberio Colaisso read the account in the paper that evening, as he undoubtedly would, he would wonder why his companion had not been the first to relate the catastrophe; and this wonder might turn into a suspicion. It would have been better not to come to the apothecary's, but since he found himself there he could not escape from informing him of what had happened.
"It is very strange," said the chemist, when he had heard all. Meschini thought he detected a disagreeable look in his eyes.
"It is, indeed," he answered. "I am made ill by it. See how my hand trembles. I am cold and hot."
"You have been drinking too much," said Colaisso suddenly, and with a certain brutality that startled his friend. "You are not sober. You must have taken a great deal last night. A libation to the dead, I suppose, in the manner of the ancients."
Meschini winced visibly and began to shuffle the cards, while he attempted to smile to hide his embarrassment.
"I was not well yesterday--at least--I do not know what was the matter--a headache, I think, nothing more. And then, this awful catastrophe--horrible! My nerves are unstrung. I can scarcely speak."
"You need sleep first, and then a tonic." said the apothecary in a business-like tone.
"I slept until late this morning. It did me no good. I am half dead myself. Yes, if I could sleep again it might do me good."
"Go home and go to bed. If I were in your place I would not drink any more of that liquor. It will only make you worse."
"Give me something to make me sleep. I will take it."
The apothecary looked long at him and seemed to be weighing something in his judgment. An evil thought crossed his mind. He was very poor. He knew well enough, in spite of Meschini's protestations, that he was not so poor as he pretended to be. If he were he could not have paid so regularly for the chemicals and for the experiments necessary to the preparation of his inks. More than once the operations had proved to be expensive, but the librarian had never complained, though he haggled for a baiocco over his dinner at Cicco's wine shop, and was generally angry when he lost a paul at cards. He had money somewhere. It was evident that he was in a highly nervous state. If he could be induced to take opium once or twice it might become a habit. To sell opium was very profitable, and Colaisso knew well enough the power of
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