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for female society, as I have told you before. Of your two intimacies, I
much prefer that of Donna Aurelia for you. There, now, is a girl
naturaliter Christiana - but that is characteristic of her nation: the
elect city of Mary, indeed, as the pious Gigli has observed in a large
volume. Come," he said suddenly, "come, Francis, I will take you to see
Donna Aurelia this moment. There shall be no drawbacks to our mutual
affection. What do you say?"

I stammered my thanks, shed tears and kissed my director's hands. The
acts of the next half-hour were done to a wild and piercing music. I
could scarcely breathe, let alone think or speak. I was swept along the
streets, I achieved the portal, I achieved the parlour. Pictures of
saints, wholly Sienese, reeled from the walls: a great white crucifix
dipped and dazzled. Father Carnesecchi, after a time of shrill suspense,
came in to fetch me, took me tottering up the stairs. My heart stood
still; but the door was open. I blundered in, I saw her again - her
lovely childish head, her innocent smile, her melting eyes, her colour
of pale rose, her bounty, her fragrance, her exquisite, mysterious
charm! Blushes made her divine; she curtseyed deeply to me; I fell upon
my knee; and Count Giraldi rose from his seat and performed a graceful
salute.

She told me that she freely forgave me an indiscretion natural to my
youth and position, whose consequences, moreover, could not have been
foreseen by either of us. She said that she was about to return to her
husband, who would probably come to Florence to meet her - and she added
that she hoped I should resume my studies at the university, and in
serious preparation for the future obliterate all traces of the past. At
these words, which I am inclined to fancy had been got by rote, she
sighed and looked down. I promised her entire obedience in every
particular, and growing bolder by her timidity, said that, with the
doctor's permission, I should wait upon her at her convenience. Aurelia
pressed me to come; and then told me that, thanks to the benevolence of
Donna Giulia conveyed to her by the excellency of Count Giraldi, my
visit might be made at the Villa San Giorgio at her ladyship's next
reception. "I believe, Don Francis, that you know the way thither," she
said. Very much affected, I kissed her hand again, and Father
Carnesecchi, suggesting that she might be fatigued, took me away. My
next visit to her was paid at the Villa San Giorgio, and on that
occasion I saw her alone. Count Giraldi was, in fact, at that very hour,
engaged with Virginia in my lodgings.

This time I was neither ridiculous nor thought to be so. My lady came
into the saloon where I was and ran towards me, begging me not to kneel
to her. She resumed for that happy moment at least her old part of
guardian angel, sat on the couch by my side, and looking kindly at me
from her beautiful eyes, said in the easiest way, "I see very well that
you have not been cared for so well in Florence as in Padua. Now you are
to be your good and obedient self again and do everything I tell you."

I murmured my long-meditated prayer for forgiveness, making a sad botch
of its periods. She put her hand over my mouth.

"Not a word of that hateful affair," she said firmly. "You were absurd,
of course, and I was to blame for allowing it; but I could not be angry
with such a perfect little poet, and that monster should have known with
whom he had to deal. He knows it now, I believe. He knows that a
Gualandi of Siena is not at the beck and call of a pig of Padua. When he
comes here, he will come in his right senses, you will see."

I begged her to tell me her story; but she said there was little to
tell. She had not left Padua, as I had supposed, but had stayed with
friends of hers in the hope that what she called the pazzeria of the
doctor would be blown away. Finding that he was obstinate, she had gone
to Modena, where she lived for a while as companion to an ancient lady,
who became very fond of her. It needed, indeed, a convenient bronchitis
to give her her liberty again. When this occurred she found herself
provided with a pretty legacy - enough to make her independent of the
doctor, but at the same time more necessary to his happiness. She had
intended, she said, for Siena; but the hospitality of Donna Giulia was
pressed upon her, and the good services of the count were freely hers.
There was talk of a judgeship for her husband; she would see how events
turned about before she made any plans. "And you, Francis," she
continued, "are not to be ridiculous any more, nor wander about without
shoes, nor consort with rubbish any more. You are to go back to your
studies and your books, and take your degree. You are to say good-bye to
Aurelia as soon as you are well enough, and forget that you ever knew
her, if you can."

"If I forget you, Aurelia, I shall forget Heaven," I said.

"We will talk about Heaven another time," said Aurelia. "Who was that
saucy girl I met at the convent, who seemed to know all about you?"

I told her Virginia's story exactly. She said, "The piece is madly in
love with you." I assured her that she was mistaken, but she shook her
head, then nodded it many times. "Certainly, certainly she is in love
with you," and after a pause - "and I don't wonder. You have greatly
improved, Francis."

To this I said that nothing was further from my thoughts than to do
Virginia any harm. I promised to marry her to my man Scipione as soon as
possible, since protection of some sort was necessary to a bondswoman
who had run away from the land to which she belonged. Aurelia heard me
thoughtfully, tapping her little foot on the floor in that quick,
impatient way I loved so well in her. "Marry her - yes," she said, "that
will be only prudent on your part. Well! it is not for me to quarrel
with you - but - " she shrugged and went on quickly - "Oh, I don't deny
that the wench is well enough in her broomstick way!" she cried out.

I said, No, she looked very well when she was dressed. This was an
unlucky speech.

"So I have understood, sir," cried Aurelia, breathing fast. "I hear that
you were seen with her at Prato; that she was dressed in silk and a
hoop, and had her hair on a cushion, and I dare say a fan, of the
afternoons. And you think her very well? So - so - so!" My beloved Aurelia
had tears in her eyes - one dropped and lay upon her bosom. I fell on my
knees before her and would have kissed her foot, but she sprang from me,
and went quickly out of the room.

I was left alone in the greatest agitation. It was the recollection of
this scene which troubled me when, returning to my lodging, I found
Virginia again in masquerade.




CHAPTER XXVI

I DISAPPOINT MY FRIENDS


My forebodings were more than fulfilled. The next time, which was at a
week's interval, that I presented myself at the Villa San Giorgio, Donna
Aurelia, in full reception, turned her back upon me and left the room in
company of the Marchese Semifonte. I suffered the indignity as best I
might - I did not quit the company; nobody, I flatter myself, knew what
pangs of mortification I was feeling. I saw no more of Aurelia that
evening, and a conversation which I had with Donna Giulia made matters
no better. She spoke to me very plainly and with some warmth.

"Here you had, but a few days ago, your mistress in a most promising
humour," she said, "detesting her doctor, yet resolved to have him back
in order to give you a countenance. In Count Giraldi and myself you
have, I take leave to say, two of the most complaisant friends in
Europe; yet what are you doing? You maintain, for reasons best known to
yourself, a pretty girl in your lodgings, pranked out in silks and
furbelows - a runaway from a house of discipline - and (if it is all true
that they tell me) one who, if she belongs to anybody, dare not belong,
certainly, to you. Really, Don Francis, you are exorbitant. Pray, do you
propose to us to keep Aurelia here in order that she may listen to your
poetry, and then to return from your intellectual feast to the arms of
your little peasant? And Aurelia is to know it and acquiesce? Good
heavens! do you know that she is young, fresh, and charming, and of
Siena? I ask your pardon, Don Francis - but oh, my perverse young friend,
why on earth don't you take her?"

"Dearest lady!" I cried out, "what under Heaven am I to take? I adore
Aurelia; I ask nothing better than leave to serve her, to kneel at her
feet. If she is cruel to me, that is my pride. If she is kind, that is
my humiliation. If she were to kill me, that would be my topmost
reward."

"Very true indeed," she said. "And what if she were to do, as I should
certainly do, ignore you altogether?"

"I should not cease to love her. I should have nothing to complain of,"
I said.

She tossed her hands up in despair. "If this is what conies of reading
your Dante, I advise the 'Song of Solomon,'" she said. "I have never
opened the 'Divine Comedy' - still less the 'Vita Nova'; but I consider
the author a donkey, and am sure that was the opinion of his Donna
Beatrice."

Count Giraldi, for some reason which I could not then comprehend, did
not care to talk of my affair. He said nothing of Aurelia to me - and, so
far as I could see, avoided the lady herself as much as the discussion
of her position. He told me that he had been able to offer a judgeship
of the Court of Cassation to Dr. Lanfranchi, and that he was in great
hopes that he would take it. In that case he would, of course, reside in
Florence; and "The rest," said he, "I shall leave to you."

I told him that, if Donna Aurelia was reconciled to her husband through
his means, I should be eternally in his debt - and not less so though I
should be in Padua and with the mountains between us.

He frowned, he was puzzled. "You leave us?" he said; "you abandon Donna
Aurelia?" I told him that I could never cease to love her, but that love
for a lady seemed to me an extremely bad reason for bringing about her
ruin. I had gone so near to that already that nothing in the world would
induce me to risk it again.

He affected to misunderstand me, in his scoffing way. "Admirable!
Admirable!" he cried. "I see that you have recovered your spirits."

"I hope my spirit has never failed me yet when I have had need of it," I
said. "I shall thank God on my knees this night that my lady has been
saved alive. No lover in the world has ever begged for his mistress's
surrender so heartily as I shall pray for the return of mine to her
husband's arms."

He clapped me on the back. "You are a master of paradox indeed," he
said.

I assured him that I was serious. "Then," said he, "I admire while I do
not follow you. I ask you once more, do you wish me to understand that
you abandon Donna Aurelia? I have my reasons, mind you, and have no wish
to take you unawares."

"I cannot abandon what I do not pursue," I replied. "I can only repeat
that it would be a very curious proof of my love for a lady to urge her
to perdition on my account."

He looked at me oddly, fixedly, for a long time. Then he said, "It is
true that you are an Englishman. I had forgotten it." Suddenly he threw
up his hands. "What a nation! What a lover!" His hand came down and
rested upon my shoulders. "My friend," he said, "I am not so young as I
was, but I do believe that I can teach you something." With that he left
me.

Upon returning to my house, sadly out of countenance by the coldness of
Aurelia, I was met by Virginia, who reminded me that Scipione had
obtained leave of absence for the night in order to visit his wife. She
seemed excited and unlike herself, very careful to lock and bolt the
front door, and was continually at the window, looking over the Piazza.
Occupied as I was with my own troubles, I took no notice of her, and
she, with the intelligence peculiar to her, saw how the land lay. She
was not accustomed to pick her words with me - no Tuscan servants are -
and after a time of silence on my part and pretended business about the
room on hers, she asked leave to speak to me, and without getting it,
said, "Excuse me, Don Francis, for the liberty I take, but I see you
very miserable, and guess the reason. You have had words with your
mistress - and no wonder. Let me tell you that you have not the rudiments
of love in you."

"Enough of that, Virginia," I said; but she would not oblige me.

"Let me tell your honour," said she, "that your sex has had the monopoly
of mine since this world was first put in order. If you want your
Aurelia, as I told you before, you must take her. Your proposals towards
her are very Christian, but I have noticed that it is not the Christians
who have the prettiest women at their disposition, but the Turks, of
whom there are more in the world than you think for. Your doctor, for
example, was a Turk of the Turks; and what did your Aurelia do but
grovel for his rod until you came along, and she said, 'Hey, here is one
who is Turchissimo, the grandest of grand Turks, with a longer and
sharper rod'? You had a great chance then, Don Francis - what under
Heaven possessed you to break the rod in her presence, or rather to put
it into her hands, saying, 'Behold, madam, the rod. It is yours, not
mine; use it. I kneel to receive it'? Why, Lord of Mercies, is this
madness? Let me remind you of what I told you at Prato not so long ago,
that to pray at a lady's feet when you ought to have her in your arms is
to prepare misery for the pair of you. The whole trouble about that
precious fault of yours was - not that you committed it, Dio mio, but
that you did not commit it again. There, sir, that is my opinion - make
what you will of it."

I was too profoundly dejected to be angry as I ought to have been; I
believe I made no reply. Emboldened, or piqued, by that, she came nearer
and spoke with great passion. "I'll tell you another thing," she said.
"I am in your way, and am quite aware of it. Donna Aurelia and all your
fine friends believe that I am with you - as - as I am not. Well, now, Don
Francis, you may be rid of me whenever you please. Fra Palamone is here,
and the Marchese Semifonte also. I have seen them both - in this very
Piazza - this afternoon. Once they were together, and once Palamone was
here alone. That means something. Now, if you choose to hand me over to
those two you will do a fine stroke of business. Your Count Giraldi has
a fancy for Donna Aurelia, I can see that plainly. It suits him very
well that I should be here. Get rid of me, and where is the count? Do
you not see?"

I turned upon her then and reproved her. "You hurt yourself more than
me, Virginia," I said, "by talking in this strain. Your word 'fancy' is
a word of the market. Grooms FANCY a horse at the fair, housewives fancy
a leg of lamb, leering ploughboys in a tavern FANCY the wench who cleans
the pots. Gentlemen do not so use to beautiful and wise ladies. You use
horrible words, my poor child, but non omnia possumus omnes."

She listened at first with lowering brows, and eyes which watched me
guardedly. But as I went on, more scornfully than perhaps I thought, a
change came over her. She let fall her arms, she drooped, became
distressed. I saw a tear fall, but I believed that I did well to be
angry.

"Be sure of this," I said sharply, "that I will suffer no word in
disparagement of Donna Aurelia to be said in my presence. Your word
'fancy,' as applied to her, is horrible to me. You will take care not to
repeat it. If you choose to whisper to your friends that I have a
'fancy' for you, or that the marchese has purchased Fra Palamone to
indulge a similar 'fancy' on his account, I have nothing to say. No term
of the sort is by this time too hard for me to bear; and the marchese,
no doubt, can take care of himself. But Donna Aurelia, once and for all,
is to be left out of your dictionary if you can only couple her name
with a degrading qualification. Enough of that. I am about to return to
Padua, and shall take you with me as far as Condoglia." This was indeed
my intention, for I was hurt more than I cared to own by Donna Aurelia's
reception of me, and yet knew all the time that I deserved nothing more.

Virginia listened with head hung down and clenched hands; when I had
done she would have rushed headlong into speech - but she checked herself
by biting her lip forcibly. She curtseyed to me, and went quickly out of
the room. I spent a great part of the night in the destruction of
papers, collection of objects which I wished to take with me, and in
committing to the flame certain others which I now knew I must do
without. Treasured memories of Aurelia went with them. She was still in
my heart, and must ever remain there, patroness of my honest intention.
Daylight was creeping over the Piazza and putting my candles to shame
before I discovered how tired I was. I blew them out, opened windows and
shutters, and leaned into the sweet air. St. Mary's church stared hard,
an unearthly black and white; the Piazza, perfectly empty, looked of
enormous size. In it the dawn-wind blew up little spirals of dust; and
it was so quiet, that when a scrap of paper was whirled into the air, I
heard the littering noise it made before it started on its flight. The
sky was of exquisite purity, pale as milk, with a very faint flush of
rose behind the church. In a few minutes the sun would be up from behind
Vallombrosa, and all the glory of the Italian day would roll over
Florence in a flood. I felt mortally and suddenly tired, too languid to
face the richness of life to come, poor and famished as I must now be.

As I was turning from the window I saw the figures of two men come out
of the sharp angle of St. Mary's and walk towards the town. Both were
tall, both in cloaks; but one wore his hat and the other carried it. By
this, as well as his drooping, deferential shoulders, I knew this latter
to be the servant, the former his patron. Midway towards the Via de'
Benci they stopped, while he of the bare head explained at length,
pointing this way and that with his hat, then counting on his fingers. I
was now expert enough to be able to read an Italian conversation more
quickly than I could gather it in talk. There was no doubt what was
meant. "I shall go to such and such place, come back to such and such
place; the carriage will stay here; in eight hours from now your
lordship shall be satisfied." The man of position nodded his agreement,
acknowledged with another nod a low bow from his inferior, and walked
into Florence. As he entered the Via de' Benci I saw him plainly. It was
the Marchese Semifonte. I saw his pale, wandering eyes, his moth-white
face. So then I knew who was the other, standing out in the Piazza by
himself, looking up towards my room.




CHAPTER XXVII

I SLAY A MAN


A sudden desire, whose origin I could not have defined, unless it sprang
directly from alarm on her account, moved me away from the window
towards the door of Virginia's room. I listened at it, but could hear
nothing, so presently (fearing some wild intention of sacrifice on her
part) I lifted the latch and looked in. No - she was there and asleep. I
could see the dark masses of her hair, hear her quick breathing, as
impatient as a child's, and as innocent. Poor, faithful, ignorant,
passionate creature - had I wronged her? Did not her vehemence spring
from loyalty? If she was mistaken, was it her fault? For what could she -
that unkempt companion of pigs and chicken, offspring of parents little
higher in degree - what could she know of exalted love? What, indeed?

I lit a candle and went to look at her. I considered her carefully,
lying there prone, her face turned sideways to the pillow, one bare arm
flung over her eyes. She looked beautiful asleep, for her mouth had
relaxed its look of proud reserve, and all her lines were softened. She
looked very tired, very pure, very young.

"God of Nature!" thought I. "Assuredly Thou didst not shape this fine,
true creature for some villain's idle appetite. Assuredly also Thou
didst put her in my way for her salvation - and, may be, for mine. I
accept the sign. Do Thou, therefore, stand my friend." I shut the door
softly and returned to my parlour. Very cautiously I drew near the
window and peered out.

It was well that I took care. Fra Palamone was immediately underneath
the window, grinning up, showing his long tooth, and picking at his
beard. I do not think I ever saw such a glut of animal enjoyment in a
man's face before. There was not the glimmer of a doubt what he
intended. Semifonte had been told of his bondslave, and Palamone's hour
of triumph was at hand. He would bring a warrant; no doubt he had it by
him; he waited only for the police. I was laid by the heels.

A gust of anger, like a puff of hot wind, blew upon me and made my skin
prick me. All that I had endured at this rascal's hands swelled within;
and now I remembered also that I, a gentleman by birth and training, had
been the galled slave of a low ruffian, who now intended to sell into
vice and infamy an honest girl whom I was pledged to protect. Well-
being, rehabilitation, the respect of my own world had done their work.
He had to do with a man now, I told myself, not with a boy. I went to my
bureau, took out, primed and cocked my pistols, returned to the window
and showed myself full to the frate.

"I wish you good morning, Fra Palamone," I said. His grinning face
grinned awry, I promise you; but he recovered himself and made a brave
show.

"Buon di, Ser Francesco, buon di. You are betimes, I see. Or is it that
you are belated like my injured friend Semifonte? The smarting of his
honour has kept him from his bed, let me tell you. But he has gone
thither now, I hope, appeased."

"You intend to appease him, I believe, in eight hours from now," said I.
"The commissary will be at his chocolate at eight o'clock, at his office
by eleven. It is now three."

"You are getting proficient in our tongue," he said, somewhat put out by
my exactitude.

"Oh, I am proficient in more ways than one," I told him. "You taught me
at Prato how to draw teeth, and I showed you, in the same town, how
claws could be cut. What did you think of the carcere? Well, now I will
show you another accomplishment I have. Draw teeth, cut claws! I can
drill holes also, Palamone."

"What the devil are you talking about, poet?" says he, always quick to
be amused.

"Why, this," I said. "I will come down to you in the Piazza. We have it
to ourselves." I held up my pistol by the nozzle. He saw the butt. He
said, "Oho! that's your work, is it? You are growing in grace, Don
Francis; and I am not the little man to disoblige you. Many a score is
on my slate to your name, and short scores make the longest friendships.
Come down, my son, and play a better game than faro."

By the time I got down he had taken off his cloak and came smiling
towards me with both his hands held out. He was going to embrace me - I
knew that very well. He would have kissed me on both cheeks, warmly and
with sincerity; and then, before his arms were loosed from my neck, by a
sudden surging of his lust, he would have throttled me. All that was as
clear in his looks as are the marks on this paper; but I could read my
gentleman by now and was in no mood for his freakish humours. "Take
warning," I said, "that if you move one step nearer to me I shoot you
like a rabbit." I crooked my arm and levelled at him as I spoke. I
suppose he saw truth in the mouth of the barrel, for he stopped, and
looked at me, breathing hard.

"I admire you, Francis," he said. "I admire you more than ever before.
If I had kissed you as I intended, you would have known it."

"I do know it, damn you!" I replied. "But you would have strangled me
afterwards."

"Why, so I should," he confessed, "even as surely as I mean to shoot you
now. But that is neither here nor there. I'm a wild, hungry old devil of
a frate, but no man denies that I love a high spirit. I should have
kissed you for that, and wrung the breath out of you afterwards for a
starved, misbegotten spawn of an English apothecary - as you are, my son.
Now hand me one of those pistols of yours, and say your paternoster
while you are in the mind."

I handed him the weapon, telling him that I had loaded it myself
overnight, but that if he wished to satisfy himself, I had both powder
and ball at his service.

He looked somewhat offended. "Do you think, my lad, that I doubt you?"
he said. "I tell you that I love you. I would as soon doubt my mother,
who is in Heaven, or believe my father, who is not."

"You shall join one or the other of them," said I, "in a few moments.
Have no doubt of that, and let me alone. One condition. I will drop my


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Online LibraryMaurice HewlettThe Fool Errant → online text (page 14 of 25)