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- The Heart of Rome - 20/59 -
She was wondering, too, but it was not likely that she would admit it.
"I am very fickle," she replied, with a perfectly self-possessed little laugh.
"So am I," Malipieri answered, following her lead. "My most desperate love affairs have never lasted more than a month or two."
"You have had a great many, I daresay," Sabina observed, with no show of interest. She was amazed and delighted to find how easy it was to act her new part.
"And you," he asked, laughing, "how often have you been in love already?"
"Let me see!"
She turned her eyes to his, without turning her head, and letting the book lie in her lap she pretended to count on her fingers. He watched her gravely, and nodded as she touched each finger, as if he were counting with her. Suddenly she dropped both hands and laughed gaily.
"How childish you are!" she exclaimed.
"How deliciously frank you are!" he retorted, laughing with her.
It was mere banter, and not witty at that, but they were growing intimate in it, much faster than either of them realized, for it was the first time they had been able to talk together quite without constraint, and it was the very first time Sabina had ever had a chance of talking as she pleased to a man whom she really thought young.
Moreover they were quite modern young people, and therefore entirely devoid of all the sentimentality and "world-sorrow" which made youth so delightfully gloomy and desperately cynical, without the least real cynicism, in the middle of the nineteenth century. In those days no young man who showed a ray of belief in anything had a chance with a woman, and no woman had a chance with men unless she had a hidden sorrow. Women used to construct themselves a secret and romantic grief in those times, with as much skill as they bestowed on their figure and face, and there were men who spent hours in reading Schopenhauer in order to pick out and treasure up a few terribly telling phrases; and love-making turned upon the myth that life was not worth living.
We have changed all that now; whether for better or worse, the social historians of the future will decide for us after we are dead, so we need not trouble our heads about the decision unless we set up to be moralists ourselves. The enormous tidal wave of hypocrisy is retiring, and if the shore discovered by the receding waves is here and there horribly devastated and hopelessly bare, it is at least dry land.
The wave covered everything for a long time, from religion to manners, from science to furniture, and we who are old enough to remember, and not old enough to regret, are rubbing our eyes and looking about us, as on a new world, amazed at having submitted so long to what we so heartily despised, glad to be able to speak our minds at last about many things, and astounded that people should at last be allowed to be good and suffered to be bad, without the affectation of seeming one or the other, in a certain accepted manner governed by fashion, and imposed by a civilized and perfectly intolerant society.
While progress advances, it really looks as if humanity were reverting to its types, with an honest effort at simplicity. There is a revival of the moral individuality of the middle ages. The despot proudly says, like Alexander, or Montrose in love, that he will reign, and he will reign alone; and he does. The financier plunders mankind and does not pretend that he is a long-lost type of philanthropist. The anarchist proclaims that it is virtuous to kill kings, and he kills them. The wicked do not even make a pretence of going to church on Sundays. If this goes on, we shall have saints before long.
Hypocrisy has disappeared even from literature, since no one who now writes books fit to read can be supposed to do so out of respect for public opinion, still less from any such base motive as a desire for gain.
Malipieri and Sabina both felt that they had been drawn much nearer together by what had sounded like idle chatter, and yet neither of them was inclined to continue talking in the same way. Moreover time was passing quickly, and there was a matter to be decided before they parted. Malipieri returned to the subject of his discovery, and his desire that Sabina should see it.
"But I cannot possibly come to the palace alone," she objected. "It is quite out of the question. Even if--" she stopped.
"What?" he asked.
"Even if I were willing to do it--" she hesitated again.
"You are not afraid, are you?" There was a slight intonation of irony in his question.
"No, I am not afraid." She paused a moment. "I suppose that if I saw a way of coming, I would come," she said, then. "But I see no way. I cannot go out alone. Every one would know it. There would be a terrible fuss about it!"
The idea evidently amused her.
"Could you come with Sassi?" asked Malipieri presently. "He is respectable enough for anything."
"Even that would be thought very strange," answered Sabina. "I have no good reason to give for going out alone with him."
"You would not give any reason till afterwards, and when it is over there cannot really be anything to be said about it. The Baroness goes out every afternoon. You can make an excuse for staying at home to- morrow, and then you will be alone in the house. Sassi will call for you in a closed cab and bring you to the palace, and I will be at the door to receive you. The chances are that you will be at home again before the Baroness comes in, and she will never know that you have been out. Does that look very hard?"
"No, it looks easy."
"What time shall Sassi call for you to-morrow?" asked Malipieri, who wished to settle the matter at once.
"At five o'clock," answered Sabina, after a moment's thought.
"At five to-morrow, then. You had better not wear anything very new. The place where the statue lies is not a drawing-room, you know, and your frock may be spoilt."
She glanced at the clock, looked at Malipieri as if hesitating, and then rose.
"I shall go back to my room now," she said.
"Yes. It is better. They may come in at any moment." He had risen also.
Their eyes met again, and they smiled at each other, as they realized what they were doing, that they had been nearly an hour together, unknown to any one, and had arranged something very like a clandestine meeting for the next day. Sabina put out her hand.
"At five o'clock," she said again. "Good-night."
He felt her touch for the first time since they had met. It was light and elastic as the pressure of a very delicate spring, perfectly balanced and controlled. But she, on her side, looked down suddenly and uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Oh! How rough your hand is!"
He laughed, and held out his palm, which was callous as a day- labourer's.
"My man and I have done all the work ourselves," he said, "and it has not been play."
"It must be delightful!" answered Sabina with admiration. "I wish I were a man! We could have done it together."
She went to the door, and she turned to smile at him again as she laid her hand on the knob. He remembered her afterwards as she stood there a single moment with the light on her misty hair and white cheeks, and the little shadow round her small bare throat. He remembered that he would have given anything to bring her back to the place where she had sat. There was much less doubt in his mind as to what he felt then than there had been a few minutes earlier.
Half an hour after Sabina had disappeared Malipieri and Volterra were seated in deep armchairs in the smoking-room, the Baron having sent his wife to bed a few minutes after they had come in. She obeyed meekly as she always did, for she had early discovered that although she was a very energetic woman, Volterra was her master and that it was hopeless to oppose his slightest wish. It is true that in return for the most absolute obedience the fat financier gave her the strictest fidelity and all the affection of which he was capable. Like more than one of the great modern freebooters, the Baron's private life was very exemplary, yet his wife would have been willing to forgive him something if she might occasionally have had her own way.
This evening he was not in good-humour, as Malipieri found out as soon as they were alone together. He chewed the end of the enormous Havana he had lighted, he stuck his feet out straight in front of him, resting his heels on the floor and turning his shining patent leather toes straight up, he folded his hands upon the magnificent curve of his white waistcoat, and leaning his head well back he looked steadily at the ceiling. All these were very bad signs, as his wife could have told Malipieri if she had stayed in the room.
Malipieri smoked in silence for some time, entirely forgetting him and thinking of Sabina.
"Well, Mr. Archaeologist," the Baron said at last, allowing his big cigar to settle well into one corner of his mouth, "there is the devil to pay."
He spoke as if the trouble were Malipieri's fault. The younger man eyed him coldly.
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