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- The Heart of Rome - 3/59 -
She moved cautiously forward in the direction whence the sound had come. Then she saw the edge of a fawn-coloured cloth skirt on the red carpet by an armchair. She went on, hesitating no longer. She had seen the frock only a day or two ago, and it belonged to Sabina Conti.
A very fair young girl was kneeling in the shadow, crouching over something on the floor. Her hair was like the pale mist in the morning, tinged with gold. She was very slight, and as she bent down, her slender neck was dazzling white above the collar of her frock. She was trembling a little.
"My dear Sabina, what has happened?" asked the Baroness Volterra, leaning over her with an audible crack in the region of the waist.
At the words the girl turned up her pale face, without the least start of surprise.
"It is dead," she said, in a very low voice.
The Baroness looked down, and saw a small bunch of yellow feathers lying on the floor at the girl's knees; the poor little head with its colourless beak lay quite still on the red carpet, turned upon one side, as if it were resting.
"A canary," observed the Baroness, who had never had a pet in her life, and had always wondered how any one could care for such stupid things.
But the violet eyes gazed up to hers reproachfully and wonderingly.
"It is dead."
That should explain everything; surely the woman must understand. Yet there was no response. The Baroness stood upright again, grasping her parasol and looking down with a sort of respectful indifference. Sabina said nothing, but took up the dead bird very tenderly, as if it could still feel that she loved it, and she pressed it softly to her breast, bending her head to it, and then kissing the yellow feathers. When it was alive it used to nestle there, almost as it lay now. It had been very tame.
"I suppose a cat killed it," said the Baroness, wishing to say something.
Sabina shook her head. She had found it lying there, not wounded, its feathers not torn--just dead. It was of no use to answer. She rose to her feet, still holding the tiny body against her bosom, and she looked at the Baroness, mutely asking what had brought her there, and wishing that she would go away.
"I came to see your sister," said the elder woman, with something like apology in the tone.
Sabina was still very pale, and her delicate lips were pressed together, but there were no tears in her eyes, as she waited for the Baroness to say more.
"Then I heard the bad news," the latter continued. "I heard it from the porter."
Sabina looked at her quietly. If she had heard the bad news, why had she not gone away? The Baroness began to feel uncomfortable. She almost quailed before the pale girl of seventeen, slender as a birch sapling in her light frock.
"It occurred to me," she continued nervously, "that I might be of use."
"You are very kind," Sabina answered, with the faintest air of surprise, "but I really do not see that you could do anything."
"Perhaps your mother would allow you to spend a few days with me-- until things are more settled," suggested the Baroness.
"Thank you very much. I do not think she would like that. She would not wish me to be away from her just now, I am sure. Why should I leave her?"
The Baroness Volterra did not like to point out that the Princess Conti might soon be literally homeless.
"May I ask your mother?" she enquired. "Should you like to come to me for a few days?"
"If my mother wishes it."
"But should you like to come?" persisted the elder woman.
"If my mother thinks it is best," answered Sabina, avoiding the Baroness's eyes, as she resolutely avoided answering the direct question.
But the Baroness was determined if possible to take in one of the family, and it had occurred to her that Sabina would really be less trouble than her mother or elder sister. Clementina was the eldest and was already looked upon as an old maid. She was intensely devout, and that was always troublesome, for it meant that she would insist upon going to church at impossibly early hours, and must have fish-dinners on Fridays. But it would certainly be conferring a favour on the Princess to take Sabina off her hands at such a time. The devout Clementina could take care of herself. With her face, the Baroness reflected, she would be safe among Cossacks; besides, she could go into a retreat, and stay there, if necessary. Sabina was quite different.
The Princess thought so too, as it turned out. Sabina took the visitor to her mother's door, knocked, opened and then went away, still pressing her dead canary to her bosom, and infinitely glad to be alone with it at last.
There was confusion in the Princess Conti's bedroom, the amazing confusion which boils up about an utterly careless woman of the great world, if she be accidentally left without a maid for twenty-four hours. It seemed as if everything the Princess possessed in the way of clothes, necessary and unnecessary, had been torn from wardrobes and chests of drawers by a cyclone and scattered in every direction, till there was not space to move or sit down in a room which was thirty feet square.
Princess Conti was a very stout woman of about the same age as her visitor, but not resembling her in the least. She had been beautiful, and still kept the dazzling complexion and magnificent eyes for which she had been famous. It was her boast that she slept eight hours every night, without waking, whatever happened, and she always advised everybody to do the same, with an airy indifference to possibilities which would have done credit to a doctor.
She was dressed, or rather wrapped, in a magnificent purple velvet dressing-gown, trimmed with sable, and tied round her ample waist with a silver cord; her rather scanty grey hair stood out about her head like a cloud in a high wind; and her plump hands were encased in a pair of old white gloves, which looked oddly out of place. She was standing in the middle of the room, and she smiled calmly as the Baroness entered. On a beautiful inlaid table beside her stood a battered brass tray with an almost shapeless little brass coffee-pot, a common earthenware cup, chipped at the edges, and three pieces of doubtful-looking sugar in a tiny saucer, also of brass. The whole had evidently been brought from a small cafe near by, which had long been frequented by the servants from the palace.
Judging from her smile, the Princess seemed to think total ruin rather an amusing incident. She had always complained that the Romans were very dull; for she was not a Roman herself, but came of a very great old Polish family, the members of which had been distinguished for divers forms of amiable eccentricity during a couple of centuries.
She looked at the Baroness, and smiled pleasantly, showing her still perfect teeth.
"I always said that this would happen," she observed. "I always told my poor husband so."
As the Prince had been dead ten years, the Baroness thought that he might not be wholly responsible for the ruin of his estate, but she discreetly avoided the suggestion. She began to make a little apology for her visit.
"But I am delighted to see you!" cried the Princess. "You can help me to pack. You know I have not a single maid, not a woman in the house, nor a man either. Those ridiculous servants fled last night as if we had the plague!"
"So you are going out of town?" enquired the Baroness, laying down her parasol.
"Of course. Clementina has decided to be a nun, and is going to the convent this morning. So sensible of her, poor dear! It is true that she has made up her mind to do it three or four times before now, but the circumstances were different, and I hope this will be final. She will be much happier."
The Princess stirred the muddy coffee in the chipped earthenware cup, and then sipped it thoughtfully, sipped it again, and made a face.
"You see my breakfast," she said, and then laughed, as if the shabby brass tray were a part of the train of amusing circumstances. "The porter's wife went and got it at some dirty little cafe," she added.
"How dreadful!" exclaimed the Baroness, with more real sympathy in her voice than she had yet shown.
"I assure you," the Princess answered serenely, "that I am glad to have any coffee at all. I always told poor dear Paolo that it would come to this."
She swallowed the rest of the coffee with a grimace. and set down the cup. Then, with the most natural gesture in the world, she pushed the tray a little way across the inlaid table, towards the Baroness, as she would have pushed it towards her maid, and as if she wished the thing taken away. She did it merely from force of habit, no doubt.
Baroness Volterra understood well enough, and for a moment she affected not to see. The Princess had the blood of Polish kings in her veins, mingled with that of several mediatized princes, but that was no reason why she should treat a friend like a servant; especially as the friend's husband practically owned the palace and its contents, and had lent the money with which the high and mighty lady and her son had finally ruined themselves. Yet so overpowering is the moral domination of the born aristocrat over the born snob, that the Baroness changed her mind, and humbly took the obnoxious tray away and
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