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- VITTORIA - 10/16 -
Rome. So might I have; it is the Head of Italy. Let us raise the body first. And we have been beaten here. Great Gods! we will have another fight for it on the same spot, and quickly. Besides, I cannot face Luciano and tell him why I was away from him in the dark hour. How can I tell him that I was lingering to bear a bride to the altar? while he and the rest--poor fellows! Hard enough to have to mention it to you, signora!"
She understood his boyish sense of shame. Making smooth allowances for a feeling natural to his youth and the circumstances, she said, "I am your sister, for you were my husband's brother in arms, Carlo. We two speak heart to heart: I sometimes fancy you have that voice: you hurt me with it more than you know; gladden me too! My Carlo, I wish to hear why Countess d'Isorella objects to your marriage."
"She does not object."
"An answer that begins by quibbling is not propitious. She opposes it."
"For this reason: you have not forgotten the bronze butterfly?"
"I see more clearly," said Laura, with a start.
"There appears to be no cure for the brute's mad suspicion of her," Carlo pursued: "and he is powerful among the Milanese. If my darling takes my name, he can damage much of my influence, and--you know what there is to be dreaded from a fanatic."
Laura nodded, as if in full agreement with him, and said, after meditating a minute, "What sort of a lover is this!"
She added a little laugh to the singular interjection.
"Yes, I have also thought of a secret marriage," said Carlo, stung by her penetrating instinct so that he was enabled to read the meaning in her mind.
"The best way, when you are afflicted by a dilemma of such a character, my Carlo," the signora looked at him, "is to take a chess-table and make your moves on it. 'King--my duty;' 'Queen--my passion;' 'Bishop--my social obligation;' 'Knight--my what-you-will and my round-the-corner wishes.' Then, if you find that queen may be gratified without endangering king, and so forth, why, you may follow your inclinations; and if not, not. My Carlo, you are either enviably cool, or you are an enviable hypocrite."
"The matter is not quite so easily settled as that," said Carlo.
On the whole, though against her preconception, Laura thought him an honest lover, aud not the player of a double game. She saw that Vittoria should have been with him in the critical hour of defeat, when his passions were down, and heaven knows what weakness of our common manhood, that was partly pride, partly love-craving, made his nature waxen to every impression; a season, as Laura knew, when the mistress of a loyal lover should not withhold herself from him. A nature tender like Carlo's, and he bearing an enamoured heart, could not, as Luciano Romara had done, pass instantly from defeat to drill. And vain as Carlo was (the vanity being most intricate and subtle, like a nervous fluid), he was very open to the belief that he could diplomatize as well as fight, and lead a movement yet better than follow it. Even so the signora tried to read his case.
They were all, excepting Countess Ammiani ("who will never, I fear, do me this honour," Violetta wrote, and the countess said, "Never," and quoted a proverb), about to pass three or four days at the villa of Countess d'Isorella. Before they set out, Vittoria received a portentous envelope containing a long scroll, that was headed "YOUR CRIMES," and detailing a lest of her offences against the country, from the revelation of the plot in her first letter to Wilfrid, to services rendered to the enemy during the war, up to the departure of Charles Albert out of forsaken Milan.
"B. R." was the undisguised signature at the end of the scroll.
Things of this description restored her old war-spirit to Vittoria. She handed the scroll to Laura; Laura, in great alarm, passed it on to Carlo. He sent for Angelo Guidascarpi in haste, for Carlo read it as an ante- dated justificatory document to some mischievous design, and he desired that hands as sure as his own, and yet more vigilant eyes, should keep watch over his betrothed.
The villa inhabited by Countess d'Isorella was on the water's edge, within clear view of the projecting Villa Ricciardi, in that darkly- wooded region of the lake which leads up to the Italian-Swiss canton.
Violetta received here an envoy from Anna of Lenkenstein, direct out of Milan: an English lady, calling herself Mrs. Sedley, and a particular friend of Countess Anna. At the first glance Violetta saw that her visitor had the pretension to match her arts against her own; so, to sound her thoroughly, she offered her the hospitalities of the villa for a day or more. The invitation was accepted. Much to Violetta's astonishment, the lady betrayed no anxiety to state the exact terms of her mission: she appeared, on the contrary, to have an unbounded satisfaction in the society of her hostess, and prattled of herself and Antonio-Pericles, and her old affection for Vittoria, with the wiliest simplicity, only requiring to be assured at times that she spoke intelligible Italian and exquisite French. Violetta supposed her to feel that she commanded the situation. Patient study of this woman revealed to Violetta the amazing fact that she was dealing with a born bourgeoise, who, not devoid of petty acuteness, was unaffectedly enjoying her noble small-talk, and the prospect of a footing in Italian high society. Violetta smiled at the comedy she had been playing in, scarcely reproaching herself for not having imagined it. She proceeded to the point of business without further delay.
Adela Sedley had nothing but a verbal message to deliver. The Countess Anna of Lenkenstein offered, on her word of honour as a noblewoman, to make over the quarter of her estate and patrimony to the Countess d'Isorella, if the latter should succeed in thwarting--something.
Forced to speak plainly, Adela confessed she thought she knew the nature of that something.
To preclude its being named, Violetta then diverged from the subject.
"We will go round to your friend the signor Antonio-Pericles at Villa Ricciardi," she said. "You will see that he treats me familiarly, but he is not a lover of mine. I suspect your 'something' has something to do with the Jesuits."
Adela Sedley replied to the penultimate sentence: "It would not surprise me, indeed, to hear of any number of adorers."
"I have the usual retinue, possibly," said Violetta.
"Dear countess, I could be one of them myself!" Adela burst out with tentative boldness.
"Then, kiss me."
And behold, they interchanged that unsweet feminine performance.
Adela's lips were unlocked by it.
"How many would envy me, dear Countess d'Isorella!"
She really conceived that she was driving into Violetta's heart by the great high-road of feminine vanity. Violetta permitted her to think as she liked.
"Your countrywomen, madame, do not make large allowances for beauty, I hear."
"None at all. But they are so stiff! so frigid! I know one, a Miss Ford, now in Italy, who would not let me have a male friend, and a character, in conjunction."
"You are acquainted with Count Karl Lenkenstein?"
Adela blushingly acknowledged it.
"The whisper goes that I was once admired by him," said Violetta.
"And by Count Ammiani."
"By count? by milord? by prince? by king?"
"By all who have good taste."
"Was it jealousy, then, that made Countess Anna hate me?"
"She could not--or she cannot now."
"Because I have not taken possession of her brother."
"I could not--may I say it?--I could not understand his infatuation until Countess Anna showed me the portrait of Italy's most beautiful living woman. She told me to look at the last of the Borgia family."
Violetta laughed out clear music. "And now you see her?"
"She said that it had saved her brother's life. It has a star and a scratch on the left cheek from a dagger. He wore it on his heart, and an assassin struck him there: a true romance. Countess Anna said to me that it had saved one brother, and that it should help to avenge the other. She has not spoken to me of Jesuits."
"Nothing at all of the Jesuits?" said Violetta carelessly. "Perhaps she wishes to use my endeavours to get the Salaseo armistice prolonged, and tempts me, knowing I am a prodigal. Austria is victorious, you know, but she wants peace. Is that the case? I do not press you to answer."
Adela replied hesitatingly: "Are you aware, countess, whether there is any truth in the report that Countess Lena has a passion for Count Ammiani?"
"Ah, then," said Violetta, "Countess Lena's sister would naturally wish to prevent his contemplated marriage! We may have read the riddle at last. Are you discreet? If you are, you will let it be known that I had the honour of becoming intimate with you in Turin--say, at the Court. We shall meet frequently there during winter, I trust, if you care to make a comparison of the Italian with the Austrian and the English nobility."
An eloquent "Oh!" escaped from Adela's bosom. She had certainly not
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