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- The Heart of Rome - 7/59 -
thoughts, irreverently compared Clementina's soul to a race-horse, and her sister to a jockey, riding it cruelly with whip and spur to the goal of salvation, whether it liked it or not.
Sabina rose from her seat by the window, when she thought of liberty, and she walked up and down her room, driven by something she could not understand, and yet withheld by something she understood even less. For it was not fear, nor reflection, nor even common sense nor the thought of giving pain to any one that hindered her from leaving the house at such moments. It was not even the memory of the one human being who had hitherto loved her, and for whom she had felt affection and gratitude,--one of the nuns at the convent school, a brave, quiet little lady who made her believe in good. She meant to do no harm if she were free, and the nun would not really blame her, if she knew the truth.
It was not that. It was the secret conviction that there was harm in the world from which mere courage could not protect her; it was the sort of instinct that warns young animals not to eat plants that are poisonous; it was the maiden intuition of a strange and unknown danger.
She sat down again disconsolately. It was absurd, of course, and she could not run away. Where could she go? She had no money, and she would have to starve or beg before one day was out. She would be homeless, she would be driven to some house of charity, for a meal and a place to sleep, or else to sleep out under the sky. That would be delightful for once. She had always longed to sleep out of doors, to feel the breeze playing with her feathery hair in the dark, to watch the constellations turning slowly westwards, to listen to the night sounds, to the low rhythmical piping of the tree toad, the sorrowful cry of the little southern owl and the tolling of the hour in a far- off belfry.
But it might rain. At the idea, Sabina laughed again. It would be very unpleasant to be caught in a shower while napping on a bench in a public garden. Besides, if the policemen found her there, an extremely young lady, extremely well dressed but apparently belonging to no one, they would in all likelihood ask her name, and she would have to tell them who she was; and then she would be brought back to Baron Volterra's house, unless they thought it more prudent to take her to a lunatic asylum.
At that stage in her imaginings it was generally time to go out with the Baroness for the daily drive, which began with the leaving of cards and notes, then led to the country or one of the villas, and generally ended in a turn or two through the Corso before coming home. The worst part of the daily round was dinner when the Baron was at home. It was then that she felt most strongly the temptation to slip out of the house and never to come back. Often, however, he and his wife dined out, and then Sabina was served alone by two solemn men- servants, so extremely correct that they reminded her a little of her old home. These were the pleasantest evenings she spent during that spring, for when dinner was over she was free to go to her own room and curl herself up in a big armchair with a book, and read or dream till bedtime, as she pleased.
When she was alone, her life seemed less objectless, less inexplicably empty, less stupidly incomprehensible, less lonely than in the company of those excellent people with whom she had nothing in common, but to whom she felt that she was under a great obligation. In their company, it was as if her life had stopped suddenly at the beginning and was never to go on again, as if she had stuck fast like a fly in a drop of amber, as if nothing of interest could ever happen to her though she might live a hundred years.
She could hardly remember anything which had given her great pleasure. She did not remember to have been ever radiantly happy, though she could not recall much unhappiness since she had left the convent school. The last thing that had really hurt her had been the death of her pet canary, and she had kept her feelings to herself as well as she could, with the old aristocratic instinct of hiding pain.
It was all idle and strangely empty, and yet hard to understand. She would have been much surprised if she could have guessed how much its emptiness interested other people in Rome; how the dowagers chattered about her over their tea, abusing her mother and all her relations for abandoning her like a waif; how the men reasoned about Baron Volterra's deep-laid schemes, trying to make out that his semi- adoption of Sabina, as they called it, must certainly bode ruin to some one, since he had never in his life done anything without a financial object; how the young girls unanimously declared that the Baroness wanted Sabina for one of her sons, because she was such a dreadful snob; how Cardinal Della Crusca shook his wise old head knowingly, as he, who knew so much, always did on the rare occasions when he knew nothing about the matter in hand; how a romantic young English secretary of Embassy christened her the Princess in the Tower; and how old Pompeo Sassi went up to his vineyard on Monte Mario every Sunday and Thursday and sat almost all the afternoon under the chestnut-tree thinking about her and making unpractical plans of his own.
If Baron Volterra did not choose to sell the Palazzo Conti to the first comer, he doubtless knew his own business best, and he was not answerable to every one for his opinion that the fine old building was worth a good deal more than the highest offer he had yet received. Everybody knew that the palace was for sale, and some of the attempts made to buy it were openly discussed. A speculator had offered four hundred thousand francs for it, a rich South American had offered half a million; it was rumoured that the Vatican would give five hundred and fifty thousand, provided that the timbers of the carved ceilings were in good condition, but Volterra steadily refused to allow any of the carvings to be disturbed in order to examine the beams. During several days a snuffy little man with a clever face poked about with a light in dark places between floors, trying to find out whether the wood were sound or rotten, and asking all sorts of questions of the old porter, and of two workmen who went with him, and who had been employed in repairs in the palace, as their fathers had been before them, perhaps for generations. But their answers were never quite satisfactory, and the snuffy man disappeared to the mysterious regions beyond the Tiber, and did not come back.
Some people, knowing the ways of the Romans, might have inferred that the two workmen, a mason and a carpenter, had not been treated by Baron Volterra in such a way as to make them give a favourable report; and as he seemed perfectly indifferent about the result this is quite possible. At all events the carpenter made out that he could not get at the beams in question, without moving the decorations which covered them, and the mason affirmed that it was quite impossible to get a view of the foundations of the north-west corner of the palace, which were said to be weak, without knocking a hole through a wall upon which depended such solidity as there was. It was useless, he said. The snuffy gentleman could ask the Baron, if he pleased, and the Baron could do what he liked since the property now belonged to him: but he, the mason, would not lay hand to pick or crowbar without the Baron's express authorization. The Baron was a Senator of the Kingdom, said the mason, and could therefore of course send him to penal servitude in the galleys for life, if he pleased. That is the average Roman workman's idea of justice. The snuffy expert, who looked very much like a poor priest in plain clothes, though he evidently knew his business, made no reply, nor any attempt to help the mason's conscience with money.
But he stood a little while by the wall, with his lantern in his hands, and presently put his ear to the damp stones, and listened.
"There is running water somewhere not far off," he said, looking keenly at the workman.
"It is certainly not wine," answered the man, with a rough laugh, for he thought it a very good joke.
"Are there any 'lost waters' under the palace?" asked the expert.
"I do not know," replied the mason, looking away from the lantern towards the gloom of the cellars.
"I believe," said the snuffy gentleman, setting down his lantern, and taking a large pinch from a battered silver snuff-box, on which the arms of Pius Ninth were still distinguishable, "I believe that the nearest 'lost water' to this place is somewhere under the Vicolo del Soldati."
"I do not know."
The expert skilfully inserted the brown dust into his nostrils with his right thumb, scarcely wasting a grain in the operation.
"You do not seem to know much," he observed thoughtfully, and took up his lantern again.
"I know what I have been taught," replied the mason without resentment.
The expert glanced at him quickly, but said nothing more. His inspection was finished, and he led the way out of the intricate cellars as if he knew them by heart, though he had only passed through them once, and he left the palace on foot when he had brushed some of the dust from his shabby clothes.
The porter looked enquiringly at the two men, as they filled little clay pipes that had cane stems, standing under the deep entrance.
"Not even the price of half a litre of wine," said the mason in answer to the mute question.
"Church stuff," observed the carpenter discontentedly.
The porter nodded gravely, and the men nodded to him as they went out into the street. They had nothing more to do that day, and they turned into the dark little wine shop, where the withered bush stuck out of the blackened grating. They sat down opposite each other, with the end of the grimy board of the table between them, and the carpenter made a sign. The host brought a litre measure of thin red wine and set it down between them with two tumblers. He was ghastly pale, flabby and sullen, with a quarter of an inch of stubbly black beard on his unhealthy face.
The carpenter poured a few drops of wine into one of the tumblers, shook it about, turned it into the other, shook it again, and finally poured it on the unctuous stone floor beside him. Then he filled both
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