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- The Heart of Rome - 4/59 -
set it down on another table near the door.
"Thank you so much," said the Princess graciously. "It smells, you know."
"Of course," answered the Baroness. "It is not coffee at all! It is made of chicory and acorns."
"I do not know what it is made of," said the Princess, without interest, "but it has an atrociously bad smell, and it has made a green stain on my handkerchief."
She looked at the bit of transparently fine linen with which she had touched her lips, and threw it under the table.
"And Sabina?" began the Baroness. "What shall you do with her?"
"I wish I knew! You see, my daughter-in-law has a little place somewhere in the Maremma. It is an awful hole, I believe, and very unhealthy, but we shall have to stay there for a few days. Then I shall go to Poland and see my brother. I am sure he can arrange everything at once, and we shall come back to Rome in the autumn, of course, just as usual. Sassi told me only last week that two or three millions would be enough. And what is that? My brother is so rich!"
The stout Princess shrugged her shoulders carelessly, as if a few millions of francs more or less could really not be such a great matter. Somebody had always found money for her to spend, and there was no reason why obliging persons should not continue to do the same. The Baroness showed no surprise, but wondered whether the Princess might not have to lunch, and dine too, on some nauseous little mess brought to her on a battered brass tray. It was quite possible that she might not find five francs in her purse; it was equally possible that she might find five thousand; the only thing quite sure was that she had not taken the trouble to look, and did not care a straw.
"Can I be of any immediate use?" asked the Baroness with unnecessary timidity. "Do you need ready money?"
"Ready money?" echoed the Princess with alacrity. "Of course I do! I told you, Sassi says that two or three millions would be enough to go on with."
"I did not mean that. I am afraid--"
"Oh!" ejaculated the Princess with a little disappointment. "Nothing else would be of any use. Of course I have money for any little thing I need. There is my purse. Do you mind looking? I know I had two or three thousand francs the other day. There must be something left. Please count it. I never can count right, you know."
The Baroness took up the mauve morocco pocket-book to which the Princess pointed. It had a clasp in which a pretty sapphire was set; she opened it and took out a few notes and silver coins, which she counted.
"There are fifty-seven francs," she said.
"Is that all?" asked the Princess with supreme indifference. "How very odd!"
"You can hardly leave Rome with so little," observed the Baroness. "Will you not allow me to lend you five hundred? I happen to have a five hundred franc note in my purse, for I was going to pay a bill on my way home."
"Thanks," said the Princess. "That will save me the trouble of sending for Sassi. He always bores me dreadfully with his figures. Thank you very much."
"Not at all, dear friend," the Baroness answered. "It is a pleasure, I assure you. But I had thought of asking if you would let Sabina come and stay with me for a little while, until your affairs are more settled."
"Oh, would you do that?" asked the Princess with something like enthusiasm. "I really do not know what to do with the girl. Of course, I could take her to Poland and marry her there, but she is so peculiar, such a strange child, not at all like me. It really would be immensely kind of you to take her, if your husband does not object."
"He will be delighted."
"Yes," acquiesced the Princess calmly. "You see," she continued in a meditative tone, "if I sent her to stay with any of our cousins here, I am sure they would ask her all sorts of questions about our affairs, and she is so silly that she would blurt out everything she fancied she knew, whether it were true or not--about my son and his wife, you know, and then, the money questions. Poor Sabina! she has not a particle of tact! It really would be good of you to take her. I shall be so grateful."
"I will bring my maid to pack her things," suggested the Baroness.
"Yes. If she could only help me to pack mine too! Do you think she would?"
"You are really the kindest person in the world," said the Princess. "I was quite in despair, when you came. Just look at those things!"
She pointed to the chairs and sofas, covered with clothes and dresses.
"But your boxes, where are they?" asked the Baroness.
"I have not the least idea! I sent the porter's wife to try and find them, but she has never come back. She is so stupid, poor old thing!"
"I think I had better bring a couple of men-servants," said the Baroness. "They may be of use. Should you like my carriage to take you to the station? Anything I can do--"
The Princess stared, as if quite puzzled.
"Thanks, but we have plenty of horses," she said.
"Yes, but you said that all your servants had left last night. I supposed the coachman and grooms were gone too."
"I daresay they are!" The Princess laughed. "Then we will go in cabs. It will be very amusing. By the bye, I wonder whether those brutes of men thought of leaving the poor horses anything to eat, and water! I must really go and see. Poor beasts! They will be starving. Will you come with me?"
She moved towards the door, really very much concerned, for she loved horses.
"Will you go down like that?" asked the Baroness aghast, glancing at the purple velvet dressing-gown, and noticing, as the Princess moved, that her feet, on which she wore small kid slippers, were stockingless.
"Why not? I shall not catch cold. I never do."
The Baroness would have given anything to be above caring whether any one should ever see her, or not, on the stairs of her house in a purple dressing-gown, without stockings and with her hair standing on end; and she pondered on the ways of the aristocracy she adored, especially as represented by her Excellency Marie-Sophie-Hedwige- Zenaide-Honorine-Pia Rubomirska, Dowager Princess Conti. Ever afterwards she associated purple velvet and bare feet with the idea of financial catastrophe, knowing in her heart that even ruin would seem bearable if it could bring her such magnificent indifference to the details of commonplace existence.
At that moment, however, she felt that she was in the position of a heaven-sent protectress to the Princess.
"No," she said firmly. "I will go myself to the stables, and the porter shall feed the horses if there is no groom. You really must not go downstairs looking like that!"
"Why not?" asked the Princess, surprised. "But of course, if you will be so kind as to see whether the horses need anything, it is quite useless for me to go myself. You will promise? I am sure they are starving by this time."
The Baroness promised solemnly, and said that she would come back within an hour, with her servants, to take away Sabina and to help the Princess's preparations. In consideration of all she was doing the Princess kissed her on both her sallow cheeks as she took her leave. The Princess attached no importance at all to this mark of affectionate esteem, but it pleased the Baroness very much.
Just as the latter was going away, the door opened suddenly, and a weak-looking young man put in his head.
"Mamma! Mamma!" he cried, in a thin tone of distress, almost as if he were going to cry.
He was nearly thirty years old, though he looked younger. He was thin, and pale, with a muddy and spotted complexion, and his scanty black hair grew far back on his poorly developed forehead. His eyes had a look that was half startled, half false. Though he was carefully dressed he had not shaved, because he could not shave himself and his valet had departed with the rest of the servants. He was the Princess's only son, himself the present Prince, and the heir of all the Conti since the year eleven hundred.
"What is the matter, sweetheart?" asked the Princess, with ready sympathy. "Your hands are quite cold! Are you ill?"
"The child! Something has happened to it--we do not know--it looks so strange--its eyes are turned in and it is such a dreadful colour--do come--"
But the Princess was already on her way, and he spoke the last words as he ran after her. She turned her head as she went on.
"For heaven's sake send a doctor!" she cried to the Baroness, and in a moment she was gone, with the weak young man close at her side.
The Baroness nodded quickly, and when all three reached the door she left the two to go upstairs and ran down, with a tremendous puffing of the invisible silk bellows.
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