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- Sant' Ilario - 90/92 -


inclination and offered the pen to Saraeinesca. The old gentleman pushed back his chair and marched forward with erect head and a firm step to sign away what had been his birthright. From first to last he had acknowledged the justice of his cousin's claims, and he was not the man to waver at the supreme moment. His hair bristled more stiffly than ever, and his dark eyes shot fire, but he took the pen and wrote his great strong signature as clearly as he had written it at the foot of his marriage contract five and thirty years earlier. Giovanni looked at him with admiration.

Then San Giacinto, who had risen out of respect to the old man, came forward and took the pen in his turn. He wrote out his name in straight, firm characters as usual, but at the end the ink made a broad black mark that ended abruptly, as though the writer had put the last stroke to a great undertaking.

"There should be two witnesses," said the notary in the awkward silence that followed. "Don Giovanni can be one," he added, giving the latter the only name that was now his, with a lawyer's scrupulous exactness.

"One of your clerks can be the other," suggested Saracinesca, who was anxious to get away as soon as possible.

"It is not usual," replied the notary. "Is there no one in the palace? One of the young princes would do admirably."

"They are all away," said San Giacinto. "Let me see--there is the librarian. Will he answer the purpose? He must be in the library at this hour. A respectable man--he has been thirty years in the house. For that matter, the steward is probably in his office, too."

"The librarian is the best person," answered the notary.

"I will bring him at once--I know the way." San Giacinto left the study by the door that opened upon the passage. The others could hear his heavy steps as he went rapidly up the paved corridor. Old Saracinesca walked up and down the room unable to conceal his impatience. Giovanni resumed his seat and waited quietly, indifferent to the last.

Arnoldo Meschini was in the library, as San Giacinto had anticipated. He was seated at his usual place at the upper end of the hall, surrounded by books and writing materials which he handled nervously without making any serious attempt to use them. He had lost all power of concentrating his thoughts or of making any effort to work. Fortunately for him no one had paid any attention to him during the past ten days. His appearance was dishevelled and slovenly, and he was more bent than he had formerly been. His eyes were bleared and glassy as he stared at the table before him, assuming a wild and startled expression when, looking up, he fancied he saw some horrible object gliding quickly across the sunny floor, or creeping up to him over the polished table. All his former air of humility and shabby respectability was gone. His disordered dress, his straggling grayish hair that hung from beneath the dirty black skullcap around his misshapen ears, his face, yellow in parts and irregularly flushed in others, as though it were beginning to be scorched from within, his unwashed hands, every detail of his appearance, in short, proclaimed his total degradation. But hitherto no one had noticed him, for he had lived between his attic, the deserted library and the apothecary's shop on the island of Saint Bartholomew. His mind had almost ceased to act when he was awake, except in response to the fear which the smallest circumstances now caused him. If he had dreams by night, he saw visions also in the day, and his visions generally took the shape of San Giacinto. He had not really seen him since he had met him when the prince lay in state, but the fear of him was, if anything, greater than if he had met him daily. The idea that the giant was lying in wait for him had become fixed, and yet he was powerless to fly. His energy was all gone between his potations and the constant terror that paralysed him.

On that morning he had been as usual to the Ponte Quattro Capi and had returned with the means of sleep in his pocket. He had no instinct left but to deaden his sensations with drink during the hours of light, while waiting for the time when he could lie down and yield to the more potent influence of the opium. He had therefore come back as usual, and by force of habit had taken his place in the library, the fear of seeming to neglect his supposed duties forbidding him to spend all his time in his room. As usual, too, he had locked the door of the passage to separate himself from his dread of a supernatural visitation. He sat doubled together in his chair, his long arms lying out before him upon the books and papers.

All at once he started in his seat. One, two, one two--yes, there were footsteps in the corridor--they were coining nearer and nearer--heavy, like those of the dead prince--but quicker, like those of San Giacinto--closer, closer yet. A hand turned the latch once, twice, then shook the lock roughly. Meschini was helpless. He could neither get upon his feet and escape by the other exit, nor find the way to the pocket that held his weapon. Again the latch was turned and shaken, and then the deep voice he dreaded was heard calling to him.

"Signor Meschini!"

He shrieked aloud with fear, but he was paralysed in every limb. A moment later a terrible crash drowned his cries. San Giacinto, on hearing his agonised scream, had feared some accident. He drew back a step and then, with a spring, threw his colossal strength against the line where the leaves of the door joined. The lock broke in its sockets, the panels cracked under the tremendous pressure, and the door flew wide open. In a moment San Giacinto was standing over the librarian, trying to drag him back from the table and out of his seat. He thought the man was in a fit. In reality he was insane with terror.

"An easy death, for the love of heaven!" moaned the wretch, twisting himself under the iron hands that held him by the shoulders. "For God's sake! I will tell you all--do not torture me--oh! oh!--only let it be easy--and quick--yes, I tell you--I killed the prince--oh, mercy, mercy, for Christ's sake!"

San Giacinto's grip tightened, and his face grew livid. He lifted Meschini bodily from the chair and set him against the table, holding him up at arm's length, his deep eyes blazing with a rage that would soon be uncontrollable. Meschini's naturally strong constitution did not afford him the relief of fainting.

"You killed him--why?" asked San Giacinto through his teeth, scarcely able to speak.

"For you, for you--oh, have mercy--do not--"

"Silence!" cried the giant in a voice that shook the vault of the hall. "Answer me or I will tear your head from your body with my hands! Why do you say you killed him for me?"

Meschini trembled all over, and then his contorted face grew almost calm. He had reached that stage which may be called the somnambulism of fear. The perspiration covered his skin in an instant, and his voice sank to a distinct whisper.

"He made me forge the deeds, and would not pay me for them. Then I killed him."

"What deeds?"

"The deeds that have made you Prince Saracinesca. If you do not believe me, go to my room, the originals are in the cupboard. The key is here, in my right-hand pocket."

He could not move to get it, for San Giacinto held him fast, and watched every attempt he made at a movement. His own face was deathly pale, and his white lips were compressed together.

"You forged them altogether, and the originals are untouched?" he asked, his grasp tightening unconsciously till Meschini yelled with pain.

"Yes!" he cried. "Oh, do not hurt me--an easy death--"

"Come with me," said San Giacinto, leaving his arms and taking him by the collar. Then he dragged and pushed him towards the splintered door of the passage. At the threshold, Meschini writhed and tried to draw back, but he could no more have escaped from those hands that held him than a lamb can loosen the talons of an eagle when they are buried deep in the flesh.

"Go on!" urged the strong man, in fierce tones. "You came by this passage to kill him--you know the way."

With a sudden movement of his right hand he launched the howling wretch forward into the corridor. All through the narrow way Meschini's cries for mercy resounded, loud and piercing, but no one heard him. The walls were thick and the distance from the inhabited rooms was great. But at last the shrieks reached the study.

Saracinesca stood still in his walk. Giovanni sprang to his feet. The notaries sat in their places and trembled. The noise came nearer and then the door flew open. San Giacinto dragged the shapeless mass of humanity in and flung it half way across the room, so that it sank in a heap at the old prince's feet.

"There is the witness to the deeds," he cried savagely. "He forged them, and he shall witness them in hell. He killed his master in this very room, and here he shall tell the truth before he dies. Confess, you dog! And be quick about it, or I will help you."

He stirred the grovelling creature with his foot. Meschini only rolled from side to side and hid his face against the floor. Then the gigantic hands seized him again and set him on his feet, and held him with his face to the eight men who had all risen and were standing together in wondering silence.

"Speak!" shouted San Giacinto in Meschini's ear. "You are not dead yet--you have much to live through, I hope."

Again that trembling passed over the unfortunate man's limbs, and he grew quiet and submissive. It was all as he had seen it in his wild dreams and visions, the secret chamber whence no sound could reach the outer world, the stern judges all in black, the cruel strength of San Giacinto ready to torture him. The shadow of death rose in his eyes.

"Let me sit down," he said in a broken voice.


Sant' Ilario - 90/92

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