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- The Heart of Rome - 50/59 -
existing state of things called him a hero, and even a martyr of liberty, besides a very great man; and those which were staunch to the monarchy poked mild fun at his early political flights and congratulated him upon having descended from the skies, after burning his wings, not only to earth, but to the waters that are under the earth, returning to the upper air laden with treasures of art which reflected new glory upon Italy.
All this was very fine, and much of it was undoubtedly true, but it did not in the least help Malipieri to solve the problem which had presented itself so suddenly in his life. The roads to happiness and to reputation rarely lead to the same point of the compass when he who hopes to attain both has more heart than ambition. It is not given to many, as it was to Baron Volterra, to lead an admiring, submissive and highly efficient wife up the broad steps of political power, financial success and social glory. Neither Caesar nor Bonaparte reached the top with the wife of his heart, yet Volterra, more moderately endowed, though with almost equal ambition, bade fair to climb high with the virtuous helpmeet of his choice on his arm.
Malipieri slept badly and grew thinner during those days. His devotion to his dying friend had been absurdly quixotic, according to ordinary standards, but it had never seemed foolish to him, and he had never regretted it. He had always believed that a man of action and thought is freer to think and act if he remains unmarried, and it had never occurred to him that he might fall in love with a young girl, without whom life would seem empty. He was quixotic, generous and impulsive, but like many men who do extremely romantic things, he thought himself quite above sentimentality and entirely master of his heart. Hitherto the theory had worked very well, because he had never really tried to practise it. Nothing had seemed easier than not to fall in love with marriageable young women, and he had grown used to believing that he never could.
With that brutality to his own feelings of which only a thoroughly sentimental man is capable, he left the Palazzo Conti on the day following the adventure, and took rooms in a hotel in the upper part of the city. Nothing would have induced him to spend a night in his room since Sabina's head had lain upon his pillow. With Volterra's powerful help, Masin had been released, though poor Sassi had not returned to consciousness, and Malipieri learned that the old man had changed his mind at the last minute, had insisted upon trying to follow Sabina after all, and had fallen heavily upon his head in trying to get down into the first chamber; while Masin, behind him, implored him to come back, or at least to wait for help where he was. The rest needs no explanation.
Malipieri took a few things with him to the hotel, and left Masin to collect his papers and books on the following day, instructing him to send the scanty furniture, linen and household belongings to the nearest auction rooms, to be sold at once. Masin, none the worse for a night and day in prison, came back to his functions as if nothing had happened. He and his master had been in more than one adventure together. This one was over and he was quite ready for the next.
There was probably not another man in Italy, and there are not many alive anywhere, who would have done what Malipieri did, out of pure sentiment and nothing else. To him, it seemed like a natural sacrifice to his inward honour, to refuse which would have been cowardly. He had weakly allowed himself to fall in love with a girl whom he could not possibly marry, and whom he respected as much as he loved. He guessed, though he tried to deny it, that she was more than half in love with him, since love sometimes comes by halves. To lie where she had lain, dreaming of her with his aching eyes open and his blood on fire, would be a violation of her maiden privacy, morally not much less cowardly in the spirit than it could have been in the letter, since he could not marry her.
The world laughs at such refinements of delicate feeling in a man, but cannot help inwardly respecting them a little, as it respects many things at which it jeers and rails. Moreover, Malipieri did not care a fig for the world's opinion, and if he had needed to take a motto he would have chosen "Si omnes, ego non"; for if there was a circumstance which always inclined him to do anything especially quixotic, it was the conviction that other people would probably do the exact opposite. So Masin took the furniture to an auction room on a cart, and Malipieri never saw it again.
While the press was ringing his praises, and he himself was preparing a carefully written paper on the two statues, while the public was pouring into the gate of the Palazzo Conti to see them, and Volterra was driving a hard bargain with the government for their sale, he lived in a state of anxiety and nervousness impossible to describe. He was haunted by the fear that some one might find out where Sabina had been on the night after she had left Volterra's house, and the mere thought of such a possibility was real torment, worse than the knowledge that he could never marry her, and that without her his life did not seem worth living. Whatever happened to Sabina would be the result of his folly in taking her to the vaults. He might recover from any wound he had himself received, but to see the good name of the innocent girl he loved utterly ruined and dragged through the mud of newspaper scandal would be a good deal worse than being flayed alive. It was horrible to think of it, and yet he could not keep it out of his thoughts. There had been too many people about the palace on the morning when Sabina had left it with the Baroness. Especially, there had been that carpenter, of whom no one had thought till it was too late. If Gigi had recognized Sabina, that would be Malipieri's fault too, for Volterra had not known that the man had been employed about the house for years. A week passed, and nothing happened. He had neither seen Sabina nor heard of her from any one. He was besieged by journalists, artists, men of letters and men of learning, and the municipal authorities had declared their intention of giving a banquet in his honour and Volterra's, to celebrate the safe removal of the two statues from the vault in which they had lain so long. He, who hated noisy feasting and speech-making above all things, could not refuse the public invitation. All sorts of people came to see him, in connection with the whole affair, and he was at last obliged to shut himself in during several hours of the day, in order to work at his dissertation. Masin alone was free to reach him in case of any urgent necessity.
One morning, while he was writing, surrounded by books, drawings and papers, Masin came and stood silently at his elbow, waiting till it should please him to look up. Malipieri carefully finished the sentence he had begun, and laid down his pen. Then Masin spoke.
"There is a lady downstairs, sir, who says that you will certainly receive her upon very important business. She would not give her name, but told the porter to try and get me to hand you this note."
Malipieri sighed wearily and opened the note without even glancing at the address. He knew that Sabina would not write to him, and no one else interested him in the least. But he looked at the signature before reading the lines, and his expression changed. The dowager Princess Conti wrote a few words to say that she must see him at once and was waiting. That was all, but his heart sank. He sent Masin to show her the way, and sat resting his forehead in his hand until she appeared.
She entered and stood before him, softly magnificent as a sunset in spring; looking as even a very stout woman of fifty can, if she has a matchless complexion, perfect teeth, splendid eyes, faultless taste, a wonderful dressmaker and a maid who does not hate her.
Malipieri vaguely wondered how Sabina could be her daughter, drew an armchair into place for her, and sat down again by his writing-table. The windows were open and the blinds were drawn together to keep out the glare, for it was a hot day. A vague and delicious suggestion of Florentine orris-root spread through the warm air as the Princess sat down. Malipieri watched her face, but her expression showed no signs of any inward disturbance.
"Are you sure that nobody will interrupt us?" she asked, as Masin went out and shut the door.
"Quite sure. What can I do to serve you?"
"I have had this disgusting letter."
She produced a small, coarse envelope from the pale mauve pocket-book she carried in her hand, and held it out to Malipieri, who took it and read it carefully. It was not quite easy for him to understand, as Gigi wrote in the Roman dialect without any particular punctuation, and using capitals whenever it occurred to him, except at the beginning of a sentence. To Malipieri, as a Venetian, it was at first sight about as easy as a chorus of Aeschylus looks to an average pass- man.
As the sense became clear to him, his eyelids contracted and his face was drawn as if he were in bodily pain.
"When did you get this?" he asked, folding the letter and putting it back into the envelope.
"Five or six days ago, I think. I am not sure of the date, but it does not matter. It says the money must be paid in ten days, does it not? Yes--something like that. I know there is some time left. I have come to you because I have tried everything else."
"Everything else?" cried Malipieri, in sudden anxiety. "What in the world have you tried?"
"I sent for Volterra the day after I got this."
"Oh!" Malipieri was somewhat relieved. "What did he advise you to do? To employ a detective?"
"O dear, no! Nothing so simple and natural. That man is an utter brute, and I am sorry I left Sabina so long with his wife. She would have been much better in the convent with her sister. I am afraid that is where she will end, poor child, and it will be all your fault, though you never meant any harm. You do not think you could divorce and marry her, do you?"
Malipieri stared at her a moment, and then bit his lip to check the answer. He had no right to resent whatever she chose to say to him, for he was responsible for all the trouble and for Sabina's good name.
"There is no divorce law in Italy," he answered, controlling himself. "Why do you say that Volterra is an utter brute? What did he advise you to do?"
"He offered to silence the creature who wrote this letter if I would make a bargain with him. He said he would pay the money, if I would give Sabina to his second son, who is a cavalry officer in Turin, and whom none of us has ever seen."
Malipieri's lips moved, but he said nothing that could be heard. A vein that ran down the middle of his forehead was swollen, and there was a bad look in his eyes.
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