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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 2/39 -

attitude of alarm. She fixed him with her fiery little black eyes.

"The Signorino is not well!" she cried, in the tones of one launching a denunciation.

Peter roused himself.

"Er--yes--I 'm pretty well, thank you," he reassured her. "I --I 'm only dying," he added, sweetly, after an instant's hesitation.

"Dying--!" echoed Marietta, wild, aghast.

"Ah, but you can save my life--you come in the very nick of time," he said. "I'm dying of curiosity--dying to know something that you can tell me."

Her stare dissolved, her attitude relaxed. She smiled--relief, rebuke. She shook her finger at him.

"Ah, the Signorino gave me a fine fright," she said.

"A thousand regrets," said Peter. "Now be a succouring angel, and make a clean breast of it. Who is my landlady?"

Marietta drew back a little. Her brown old visage wrinkled up, perplexed.

"Who is the Signorino's landlady?" she repeated.

"Ang," said he, imitating the characteristic nasalised eh of Italian affirmation, and accompanying it by the characteristic Italian jerk of the head.

Marietta eyed him, still perplexed--even (one might have fancied) a bit suspicious.

"But is it not in the Signorino's lease?" she asked, with caution.

"Of course it is," said he. "That's just the point. Who is she?"

"But if it is in your lease!" she expostulated.

"All the more reason why you should make no secret of it," he argued plausibly. "Come! Out with it! Who is my landlady?"

Marietta exchanged a glance with heaven.

"The Signorino's landlady is the Duchessa di Santangiolo," she answered, in accents of resignation.

But then the name seemed to stimulate her; and she went on "She lives there--at Castel Ventirose." Marietta pointed towards the castle. "She owns all, all this country, all these houses --all, all." Marietta joined her brown old hands together, and separated them, like a swimmer, in a gesture that swept the horizon. Her eyes snapped.

"All Lombardy?" said Peter, without emotion.

Marietta stared again.

"All Lombardy? Mache!" was her scornful remonstrance. "Nobody owns all Lombardy. All these lands, these houses."

"Who is she?" Peter asked.

Marietta's eyes blinked, in stupefaction before such stupidity.

"But I have just told you," she cried "She is the Duchessa di Santangiolo."

"Who is the Duchessa di Santangiolo?" he asked.

Marietta, blinking harder, shrugged her shoulders.

"But"--she raised her voice, screamed almost, as to one deaf --"but the Duchessa di Santangiolo is the Signorino's landlady la, proprietaria di tutte queste terre, tutte queste case, tutte, tutte."

And she twice, with some violence, reacted her comprehensive gesture, like a swimmer's.

"You evade me by a vicious circle," Peter murmured.

Marietta made a mighty effort-brought all her faculties to a focus--studied Peter's countenance intently. Her own was suddenly illumined.

"Ah, I understand," she proclaimed, vigorously nodding. "The Signorino desires to know who she is personally!"

"I express myself in obscure paraphrases," said he; "but you, with your unfailing Italian simpatia, have divined the exact shade of my intention."

"She is the widow of the Duca di Santangiolo," said Marietta.

"Enfin vous entrez dans la voie des aveux," said Peter.

"Scusi?" said Marietta.

"I am glad to hear she's a widow," said he. "She--she might strike a casual observer as somewhat young, for a widow."

"She is not very old," agreed Marietta; "only twenty-six, twenty-seven. She was married from the convent. That was eight, nine years ago. The Duca has been dead five or six."

"And was he also young and lovely?"

Peter asked.

"Young and lovely! Mache!" derided Marietta. "He was past forty. He was fat. But he was a good man."

"So much the better for him now," said Peter.

"Gia," approved Marietta, and solemnly made the Sign of the Cross.

"But will you have the kindness to explain to me," the young man continued, "how it happens that the Duchessa di Santangiolo speaks English as well as I do?"

The old woman frowned surprise.

"Come? She speaks English?"

"For all the world like an Englishman," asseverated Peter.

"Ah, well," Marietta reflected, "she was English, you know."

"Oho!" exclaimed Peter. "She was English! Was she?" He bore a little on the tense of the verb. "That lets in a flood of light. And--and what, by the bye, is she now?" he questioned.

"Ma! Italian, naturally, since she married the Duca," Marietta replied.

"Indeed? Then the leopard can change his spots?" was Peter's inference.

"The leopard?" said Marietta, at a loss.

"If the Devil may quote Scripture for his purpose, why may n't I?" Peter demanded. "At all events, the Duchessa di Santangiolo is a very beautiful woman."

The Signorino has seen her?" Marietta asked.

"I have grounds for believing so. An apparition--a phantom of delight--appeared on the opposite bank of the tumultuous Aco, and announced herself as my landlady. Of course, she may have been an impostor--but she made no attempt to get the rent. A tall woman, in white, with hair, and a figure, and a voice like cooling streams, and an eye that can speak volumes with a look."

Marietta nodded recognition.

"That would be the Duchessa."

"She's a very beautiful duchessa," reiterated Peter.

Marietta was Italian. So, Italian--wise, she answered, "We are all as God makes us."

"For years I have thought her the most beautiful woman in Europe," Peter averred.

Marietta opened her eyes wide.

"For years? The Signorino knows her? The Signorino has seen her before?"

A phrase came back to him from a novel he had been reading that afternoon in the train. He adapted it to the occasion.

"I rather think she is my long-lost brother."

"Brother--?" faltered Marietta.

"Well, certainly not sister," said Peter, with determination. "You have my permission to take away the coffee things."


Up at the castle, in her rose-and-white boudoir, Beatrice was writing a letter to a friend in England.

"Villa Floriano," she wrote, among other words, "has been let

The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 2/39

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