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- The Heart of Rome - 30/59 -
Sassi and Masin disappeared through the breach. Malipieri led the way into the dry well, where there was another light. In her haste to reach the end, Sabina did not even glance at the sacking that covered the skeletons.
"Can you climb a ladder?" asked Malipieri.
"Of course!" Such a question was almost a slight.
Malipieri went up nimbly with his lantern, and knelt on the masonry to hold the top of the ladder. Sabina mounted almost as quickly as he had done, till she reached the last few steps and could no longer hold by the uprights. Then she put out her hands; he grasped then both and slid backwards on his knees as she landed safely on the edge. She had not felt that she could possibly fall, even if her feet slipped, and she now knew that he was strong, and that it was good to lean on him.
"You will have to stoop very low for a few steps," he said, taking up his lantern, and he kept his hold on one of her hands as he led her on. "It is not far, now," he added encouragingly, "and the rest is easy."
He guided her past the boards and stones that covered the overflow shaft, and down the inclined passage and the steps to the space between the vaults. A third lamp was burning here, close to the hole beneath which the statue lay. Malipieri lowered his lantern for her to see it.
She uttered an exclamation of surprise and delight. The pure gold that covered the bronze was as bright as if it had not lain in the vault for many centuries, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, no one could tell yet. The light fell into the huge ruby as into a tiny cup of wine.
"Can one get down?" asked Sabina breathlessly, after a moment's silence.
"Certainly. I have not gone down myself yet, but it is easy. I wanted you to be the first to see it all. You will have to sit on the edge and step upon the wrist of the statue."
Sabina gathered her skirt neatly round her, and with a little help she seated herself as he directed.
"Are you sure it will not hurt it, to step on it?" she asked, looking up.
"Quite sure." Malipieri smiled, as he thought of Toto's hobnailed shoes. "When you are standing firmly, I will get down too, if there is room."
"It is not a very big hole," observed Sabina, letting herself down till her feet rested on the smooth surface. She did not quite wish to be as near him as that; at least, not yet.
"I will creep down over the arm," she said, "and then you can follow me. I hope there are no beasts," she added. "I hate spiders."
Malipieri lowered his lantern beside her, and she crept along towards the statue's head. In a few moments he was beside her, bringing both the lantern and the lamp with him. They had both forgotten Masin's existence, as he had not yet appeared. Sabina looked about for spiders, but there were none in sight. The vault was perfectly dry, and there was hardly any dust clinging to the rough mortar that covered the stones. It was clear that the framework must have been carefully removed, and the place thoroughly cleaned, before the statue had been drawn into the vault from one end.
"He is perfectly hideous," said Sabina, as they reached the huge face. "But it is magnificent," she added, passing her gloved hand over the great golden features. "I wonder who it is meant for."
"A Roman emperor as Hercules, I think," Malipieri answered. "It may be Commodus. We are so near that it is hard to know how the head would look if the statue were set up."
He was thinking very little of the statue just then, as he knelt on its colossal chest beside Sabina, and watched the play of the yellow light on her delicate face. There was just room for them to kneel there, side by side.
It was magnificent, as Sabina had said, the great glittering thing, lying all alone in the depths of the earth, an enormous golden demigod in his tomb.
"You are wonderful!" exclaimed Sabina, suddenly turning her face to Malipieri.
"To have found it," she explained.
"I wish I had found something more practical," he answered. "In my opinion this thing belongs to you, and I suppose it represents a small fortune. But the only way for you to get even a share of it will be by bringing a suit against Volterra. Half a dozen rubies like the one in the ring would have been enough for you, and you could have taken them home with you in your pocket."
"I am afraid I have none!" Sabina laughed.
"This one will be safe in mine," Malipieri answered.
"You are not going to take it?" cried Sabina, a little frightened.
"Yes. I am going to take it for you. I daresay it is worth a good deal of money."
"But--is it yours?"
"No. It is yours."
"I wonder whether I have any right to it." Sabina was perhaps justly doubtful about the proceeding.
"I do not care a straw for the government, or the laws, or Volterra, where you are concerned. You shall have what is yours. Shall we get down to the ground and see if there is anything else in the vault?"
He let himself slide over the left shoulder, and the lion's skin that was modelled over it, and Sabina followed him cautiously. By bending their heads they could now stand and walk, and there was a space fully five feet wide, between the statue and the perpendicular masonry from which the vault sprang.
Malipieri stopped short, with both lights in his hand, and uttered an exclamation.
"What is it?" asked Sabina. "Oh!" she cried, as she saw what he had come upon.
For some moments neither spoke, and they stood side by side, pressed against each other in the narrow way and gazing down, for before them lay the most beautiful marble statue Sabina had ever seen. In the yellow light it was like a living woman asleep rather than a marble goddess, hewn and chipped, smoothed and polished into shape ages ago, by men's hands.
She lay a little turned to one side and away; the arm that was undermost was raised, so that the head seemed to be resting against it, though it was not; the other lying along and across the body, its perfect hand just gathering up a delicately futile drapery. The figure was whole and unbroken, of cream-like marble, that made soft living shadows in each dimple and hollow and seemed to quiver along the lines of beauty, the shoulder just edging forwards, the bent arm, the marvellous sweep of the limbs from hip to heel.
"It is a Venus, is it not?" asked Sabina with an odd little timidity.
"Aphrodite," answered Malipieri, almost unconsciously.
It was not the plump, thick-ankled, doubtfully decent Venus which the late Greeks made for their Roman masters; it was not that at all. It was their own Aphrodite, delicate, tender and deadly as the foam of the sea whence she came to them.
Sabina would scarcely have wondered if she had turned and smiled, there on the ground, to brush the shadows of ages from her opening eyes, and to say "I must have slept," like a woman waked by her lover from a dream of kisses. That would have seemed natural.
Malipieri felt that he was holding his breath. Sabina was so close to him that it was as if he could feel her heart beating near his own, and as fast; and for a moment he felt one of those strong impulses which strong men know when to resist, but to resist which is like wrestling against iron hands. He longed, as he had never longed for anything in his life, to draw her yet closer to him and to press his lips hard upon hers, without a word.
Instead, he edged away from her, and held the lights low beside the wonderful statue so that she might see it better; and Aphrodite's longing mouth, that had kissed gods, was curved with a little scorn for men.
The air was still and dry, and Sabina felt a strange little thrill in her hair and just at the back of her neck. Perhaps, in the unknown ways of fruitful nature, the girl was dimly aware of the tremendous manly impulse of possession, so near her in that narrow and silent place. Something sent a faint blush to her cheek, and she was glad there was not much light, and she did not wish to speak for a little while.
"I hate to think that she has lain so long beside that gilded Roman monster," said Malipieri presently.
The vast brutality of the herculean emperor had not disgusted him at first; it had merely displeased his taste. Now, it became suddenly an atrocious contrast to the secret loveliness of unveiled beauty. That was a manly instinct in him, too, and Sabina felt it.
"Yes," she said softly. "And she seems almost alive."
"The gods and goddesses live for ever," Malipieri answered, smiling and looking at her, in spite of himself.
Her eyes met his at once, and did not turn away. He fancied that they grew darker in the shadow, and in the short silence.
"I suppose we ought to be going," she said, still looking at him. "Poor old Sassi is waiting in the cellar."
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