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to be my slave. And wilt thou deny me, Francis - or thou - or thou?"

Her soft eyes, how they peered and sparkled! Her soft lips, how they
faltered between laugh and pout! "If I need him I can have him here," I
heard her say. "I have but to thrill his name - to call Checho - Checho -
and he comes. Is it not so, Checho? Is it not so?"

Call you me, Virginia; call you me in turn, my girl! What said she now
but, "Povera Virginia, che fara? Don Francesco non ti ama piu. Ebbene -
pazienza!" Virginia shrugged her proud shoulders and turned her grey
eyes away. Virginia refused to plead, and was too proud to command.

So stood I, In my fancy, irresolute between these two, their
battleground, the prize, it would seem, of one who now refused to fight
for it, and of one already sure of victory. But this was very odd about
the affair, that the stiffer Virginia grew, as I saw her there, the more
indurate, the more ruggedly of the soil, declining battle, the more
Aurelia shrank in my eyes, the less confident her call to me, the more
frail her hold of my heart. Virginia stood apart like a rock and turned
away her eyes from me. "Thou shalt seek me out of thine own will,
Francis, for I will never come to thee again of mine!" But Aurelia's
halo had slipped; her wings drooped lifeless, her glitter was dimmed.
Her appeal was now urgent; her arms called me as well as her voice; but
I seemed to shrink from them, as if there were danger in her.

This very singular hallucination of mine decided me to go, for now I was
curious. The strife, in which I had had so little to do, had been most
vivid, the parties to it so real, that there were moments when I caught
myself speaking aloud to one of my phantoms. That one was always
Virginia; therefore I dared to go, knowing full well that she would now
go with me.

And it was so. At six o'clock of an evening I went out of doors and
turned my face towards the east. It was a mild evening as that on which
I had seen Virginia for the first time in the wood, her faggot on her
head. I seemed to see her now going bravely before me. So clearly did
she show, I quickened my steps to overtake her; and again my heart beat,
and again I thought of the nymphs and all the soft riot of the woodland
scents and sounds. Strange! how the slim figure of the peasant-girl
possessed me. I thought of her as I entered the grove of cypresses which
led to the villa, and if my heart was in high trouble as I asked for
Donna Aurelia, it was the surmise that I should again see Virginia
fluttering among the trees that set my blood a-tingling.

But she left me there, as I waited in the saloon open to the shadowed
garden; and I knew not whether I felt her the more certainly for her
absence than for her former persistent company.




CHAPTER XLIII

AGITATIONS AT THE VILLA SAN GIORGIO


The servant, an old one of Donna Giulia's, who knew me well by sight,
had grimaced pleasantly as he saluted. "Buon di, signoria," he had said,
and "Servitore del 'lustrissimo." The padrona, he felt sure, was in the
house, and the Excellency of the count was paying a visit. Let the
'lustrissimo accommodate himself, take repose, walk in the garden, do
his perfect pleasure. In two little moments the padrona should be
informed. With that he had gone away, leaving a volley of nods, winks
and exclamations behind him. The windows stood open, the hour, the
season invited. I saw the long, velvety vista of the cypress avenue, the
slender feathers of trees in young leaf, the pleasantness of the grass,
heard the invitation of a calling thrush, thought poignantly of
Virginia, and went out, hoping to see her spirit there.

I paced the well-remembered long avenue to where it opened into a circle
to meet two others. A sun-dial stood here in the midst and marked a
point from which you could look three ways - behind you to the house, to
the right and to the left. I chose for the right, and sauntered slowly
towards the statue of the Dancing Faun, which closed that particular
alley.

Strange, indeed, it was to be within the personal circle of Donna
Aurelia, and undisturbed! But I did not realise then how near her I was.

The sound of voices in debate broke in upon my meditations - a woman's
clear "No, no. At this hour, no!" and a man's, which urged, "Signora, if
my devotion - " I knew both voices - the woman's was not to be mistaken.
Aurelia was there - the divine Aurelia - close at hand. Without thinking
what I did, I took a strong breath and stepped forward to my task. I
reached the statue of the faun, which leered and writhed its leathery
tongue at me; and in the bay which opened out beyond it I found Aurelia
and the count together.

The fair Aurelia was flushed and disarrayed. Her hair was half uncoiled,
her bodice undone. She lay, or rather reclined, upon a garden seat; one
hand was clapped to her side, one hand guarded her bosom. The count, who
had his back to me, was upon one knee before her. He was, or had been,
eloquent. At the moment of my appearance he had finished his period, and
still trembled with the passion of it. For the cynic philosopher he
professed to be, he was, at the moment, singularly without relish of the
humours of his position.

Coming upon all this, I stopped suddenly short. Aurelia saw me, and
uttered a cry. At the same instant her hands were busy with her dress.
The count, on his feet in a moment, turned his head, started violently,
then controlled himself, and advanced to meet me, whom he had once
called his friend.

"My dear Don Francis," he said briskly, "let me be one of the first to
welcome you. I had heard of your arrival only to-day - indeed, I came
here to prepare Donna Aurelia for a pleasant surprise. I believe I was
being eloquent on your account at this moment. You may have overheard
me - if I was too partial, blame my esteem."

I scarcely heard him, and was perhaps barely civil. I went past him, hat
in hand, towards the lady. I saluted her profoundly.

"Madam," I said, "my intrusion is pure accident. I was told that your
ladyship was in the house. Ten thousand pardons that I come unannounced
before you - unwelcome I must needs be, unworthy of your clemency - since
we parted unhappily. Forgive me, I beseech you." I then offered the
count my hand.

"Oh, Signor Francesco," says Aurelia in a twitter, "I am glad to see you
again." She was tremulous, beautiful; she had her old wayward, ardent
ways, her childish bloom and roundness had not left her, nor her
sumptuousness, nor her allure - and yet I could look calmly into her face
and know that she had no charm left for me.

"Madam," I said, "since you showed me so plainly that my company was not
to your taste, I have no right to be here. My fault - my old fault - is so
clearly before me that I should not have dared commit another. If I may
once more ask your pardon - - "

"Oh, my pardon!" cried she, faltering. "Why, what harm have you done me
now, pray?"

"Madam," says the count, "my young friend's fault is a very natural one.
If he is a sinner, what must your ladyship be? For if it is sinful to
love, is it not worse to inspire it?" The lady made no reply at this
gallant diversion.

The position was very awkward. I could not speak as I felt, or as I
ought to feel; the count would not, and Donna Aurelia was on the verge
of tears. Obviously I must retire.

"Madam," I said, "I intruded upon you by misfortune, and may not
trespass. I beg my service to the learned judge, my profoundest respect
to your ladyship. The young man who once showed himself unworthy to be
at your feet may now stand upon his own. Don Francis has offended Donna
Aurelia - - "

"Oh, no, no, no!" said Aurelia in distress. "Oh, Checho, don't leave
me."

I came off my stilts, for I saw that she was unhappy.

"Can I serve you?" I asked her. "Can I be so honoured?"

"Yes, yes," she said brokenly, "stay with me. I need you - stay." Count
Giraldi took a step forward.

"Madam," he said, "I salute your ladyship's hand, and shall do myself
the honour to wait upon you upon a less urgent occasion. Don Francis,
your humble servant - to meet again, no doubt."

He bowed himself away, and left me alone with Aurelia.

For some time neither of us spoke. She sat pensive, with signs of
distress - storm signals - still displayed; she was very nervous, looking
at her fingers at play in her lap. I stood up beside her, not knowing,
in truth, what in the world she wanted with me. The silence, as it
became oppressive, made Aurelia angry. She bit her lip.

"Well," she said at last. "Well! have you nothing to say to me, now that
you have found me?"

"Madam," said I, "my fault - - "

"Oh," cried she in a rage. "Your fault! Do you not see how hateful your
'fault' makes me appear? Do you think the best way of amending this
wonderful fault of yours is to be for ever bewailing it? Has a gentleman
never loved a lady before, or am I a lady whom no man should love? Do
you suppose I am flattered to learn that you have hunted me all over
Italy only for the pleasure of telling me that you are ashamed of ever
having loved me?"

I said, "I loved you unworthily - I played a knave's part. I distorted
your lovely image, I presumed upon your gracious kindness. I was
accursed - accursed. I did sacrilege - I profaned the temple." I strode
about before her declaiming against myself, not looking at her.

She laughed her vexation away. "My poor Checho," she said, "if you knew,
if you could understand! Those days and nights of ours were very sweet.
Come, let us walk a little. It is chilly here. Come, we will go into the
house and you shall tell me of your travels." She took my arm; I led her
back to the house.

I sat by her side in the little saloon which had been Donna Giulia's
boudoir, and served Aurelia now for the same purpose; and judging
honesty the kindest, and only, course, I told her everything of my
defence of Virginia, hinting at the same time at my suspicions of Count
Giraldi. I said that the poor child had certainly been betrayed to the
marchese, that the count and Father Carnesecchi alone had known her
story, that I could not suspect the Jesuit, and therefore - - At this
point Aurelia stopped me, not by any words, but by her appearance of
being upon the point of words. She was very much excited, but she
controlled her speech; and I went on to tell her that, in consequence of
that betrayal, I had felt bound to make Virginia my wife. At this I
thought that she was ill. She stared at me as if I had suddenly stabbed
her; she went perfectly white. "Your wife!" she whispered - "you have - -
"

"Madam," I said, "that is the truth. I have never shrunk from my duty, I
believe, and never saw duty plainlier than then. I married Virginia, or
thought that I did; but it now appears that my marriage was none at all -
not by my fault, but by that noble girl's mistaken generosity. And now
that I have lost her I must by all means find her. She must be mine for
ever."

Aurelia had recovered her colour and self-possession. She was now also
very angry, tapping her foot and breathing fast. She looked disdainfully
at me, and reproachfully. "But," she said, with scorn, "But what I am to
think of you, Don Francis? Do you purpose to spend your life seeking
ladies whom you have compromised? No sooner have you lost me than you
look for another! And when you find your wife - as you choose to call
her - if you are so fortunate, shall you treat her as you have treated
me?"

"I hope so," said I. "My first duty will be to ask her forgiveness; my
second to convince her of my repentance; my third - - "

"Oh, spare me your THIRDLY," said Aurelia drily. "I have no doubt what
your third duty will be, and I am sure you will perform it admirably."
She grew red, tears gathered in her eyes - she stamped her foot.
"Vexatious boy!" she cried out, "I wish to Heaven I had never seen you!
You loved me once - but I was not ready. Now that I am - what I am - you
are not ready." "I did you a wrong - I was a villain." A great terror
struck me. "God have mercy upon me," I cried. "Aurelia! is it possible -
is it possible - that you - - ?"

She came very near me - so near that her quick breath fanned my face - so
near that I could distinguish her heart-beats. She took my hands, tried
to draw me to her.

"Yes, yes - it is possible - it is possible - it is certain - it is true! I
love you - I need you - I will follow you across the world. Do you think
me bold? Judge then of my need. Do you suppose such a confession easy to
a woman - or lightly made - - ? Do you think me a bad woman? I shall not
deny it - but I shall add to your judgment that I am a loving one. Ah,
there was a time," she said bitterly - for she saw my dismay - "there was
a time when you prayed me to love you, and I refused. If then I had
agreed, would you have gone white and red by turns - would you have
averted your eyes - would you have looked on the ground?" She took me in
her eager arms, she clung to me, she strove, panted for a kiss. "To me,
to me, Francis - you loved me first - you taught me - I am yours by right
of conquest. Here I am - on your breast, the forgiving, the longing
Aurelia!"

I cannot express what I felt during this scene. Painful as it was to me
to know myself unaffected by it, it was exquisite grief to me to have
her unqueen herself before my eyes. O Aurelia, to stoop from thy
celestial commerce to barter for a kiss! I know not what I said, nor can
remember exactly what it was that I did. I was, I trust, gentle with
her. I disengaged myself without abruptness and led her to a seat. I
said nothing - but when she was more at ease within herself, I knelt
before her, kissed her hand respectfully, and left her. It was, I am
sure, a case where fewest words were best. I believe that she was
weeping; I know that I was.

Going out of the villa gates into the street, I was aware of a cloaked
figure standing at the first corner towards Florence, evidently upon the
watch for me. The moment I was clear of the gate he came to meet me, and
I saw that he was followed by another muffled man, and that both carried
swords. I kept my course, however, as if they were no concern of mine,
and made room for them to pass me on the side of the wall. But the first
of them stopped in front of me.

"A fine night, Don Francis," he said. It was Count Giraldi.




CHAPTER XLIV

I CONFRONT MY ENEMIES


I could not see his face, for besides that it was now very dark, he kept
his cloak up, and had pulled his hat downwards over his brow; but his
voice was perfectly familiar. His companion was similarly muffled; I did
not then recognise him.

I saluted the count and admitted the fineness of the night. It seemed to
me that he had more to say - and he had.

"I have wished a little conversation with you, Don Francis," he said.
"Shall we walk together? You are returning to your lodging - after an
interview which, to judge from its duration, must have been pleasant."

"My dear count," said I, "Donna Aurelia, as you know, is an old friend
of mine. We had much to say. I will walk with you by all means. But your
friend here - - "

He laughed. "My friend will not disturb us. Let me make two gentlemen
acquainted, who should know each other, at least, by name. Marchese, let
me present you to my friend Mr. Francis Strelley. Don Francis, be
pleased to salute the illustrious Marchese Semifonte."

I began to smell mischief - indeed I had smelt it already. I knew that
the count was no longer my friend; and as for Semifonte, no doubt he
would murder me if he durst. Here, then, were these two worthies in
league, and waiting for me in a lonely place. Lucky that I had my sword.

In the meantime Semifonte raised his hat and bowed; I returned the
salutation and said that I had had the advantage of meeting his lordship
already. To that he made no reply. We then walked on together - I on the
inside, next to me the count, the marchese on the outside.

The count began by congratulating me upon my escape from Florence, and
from what might have been a most awkward affair. "Luckily for me," he
added, "I was out of the city at the time, or, between my duty and my
inclination, I should have found myself in a dilemma."

To that I replied that it was sufficient for me to be sure that he had
been absent. "If I had known that Donna Aurelia was still in the Villa
San Giorgio," I went on, "at the time when I was hiding from your
excellency's servants, I believe I should have pushed my importunities
so far as her door."

"You would have asked Donna Aurelia to interest herself in the cause of
your charming - your too charming - - " I could not see his face, but
could have sworn that he was showing his teeth.

"Not at all, count," I said, "not at all. But I should have asked the
Grand Duke's principal Minister to remember that he had betrayed an
innocent girl's whereabouts to those who sought her ruin, and to give
fair play to him who had risked his life to protect her."

"You wrong me, sir," he said warmly; "you accuse me of treachery. Of
that I am incapable. As for my distinguished friend here - - "

"Let your distinguished friend deny that he purchased Virginia Strozzi
from her parents," I retorted; "that he has sought her ever since - that
he sent Palamone to murder me - that he still intends some mischief. Let
him deny these things, and I speak no more of them."

The marchese said not a word. The count took up the tale.

"Let me, in my turn, trouble you with a few denials. I do not deny that
Donna Aurelia was in Florence earlier than you supposed, nor that I kept
you in ignorance of it. It was judged better on all accounts. Father
Carnesecchi was of that opinion. I believe that the lady had no desire
to see you. Perhaps you will pardon my franchise when I say that it
would have been singular if she had. She desired to be accommodated with
her husband - and that was done. My part in that affair, which I am very
ready to defend, need not concern you, though (if I remember rightly)
you professed yourself anxious on that account. Now for my denials. I
deny flatly that I did any service to my distinguished friend at your
expense. I deny it point-blank. And I deny that, when - not for the first
time - you took the law into your own hands, I purposely removed myself
from the city. That suspicion of yours is not worth so many words. What
should my purpose be? What object could I have? Why should I become your
enemy?"

"That, sir," I said, "is what I intend to find out. Be so good as to add
these to your denials if you can. Will you deny that you witnessed the
performance of the Donne Furlane in Siena on the occasion of the Grand
Duke's birthday last year?"

He said, "I remember it, and a remarkable performance it was."

"And did you see it in company of Donna Aurelia?"

"I did."

"And did you give yourself the pain to send officers to arrest an actor
called De' Pazzi?"

He was silent. I said then:

"And did you not know that I was that actor? Now, Count Giraldi, since
you cannot deny these facts, I will ask you why you are my enemy? For
you are not a man who acts without reason."

We were upon the river bank a little short of the Rubiconte Bridge. The
water rippled languidly over the muddy reaches, but the rush of the weir
was audible. Not another sound was to be heard, not a soul was in sight.
We three stopped - I was facing the two men, my back to the low river
wall. I heard Giraldi's breath come short and whistling through his fine
nose; I heard Semifonte breathing through his mouth - shorter breaths - he
was panting.

Count Giraldi spoke, using great command of himself, measuring his
words.

"I think I will tell you the facts," he said, "I think that will be
best. You can then judge my actions, and, as a reasonable man, govern
your own by them.

"Man of the world as I am," he continued, "I must confess that you
surprised me upon our first acquaintance. I could not tell whether I was
consorting with a very refined profligate or (forgive me) a very
singular fool. You came into the city in search (as you told me) of a
lady with whom you had had an abortive affair - but you came in company
with an attractive person, in a relationship with her which could only
bear one interpretation - No, no, you must hear me out, if you please,"
he said peremptorily, stopping my protest before it could be framed in
words. "Upon your representations I interested myself in Donna Aurelia.
I judged her attractive by your report; I found that your discernment
was even better than I had expected. She came to the convent in some
distress, I saw her, she was charming, she charmed me. She was in a
chastened mood, subdued, softly melancholy. I believe - indeed, I know -
that she had a tenderness for you. Well, I was prepared to be loyal, no
one is to say in my presence that I am a false friend. I WAS loyal
until - Pest!" cried he, "what did I find? I found that, while you
professed the most extravagant regard for the lady, you asked nothing
better for yourself than that she should return to the arms of her
horrible old spouse! I found also that you had recovered possession of
your straight young Contadina by means which were more ingenious than
lawful - that she was in your lodgings - your friend - your - - "

Semifonte here gave a harsh guttural cry. Giraldi spoke to him in an
undertone, then resumed:

"You may remember my interest in that young woman's appearance and
manner, when I chanced to find her in your lodgings in the dress of a
fine lady. You remember that you then told me her history? Believe me
when I say that I did not tell my illustrious friend here of the
adventure. He was told, it is true, but not by me. If it will satisfy
you, I will take my oath to that. I had no intention of depriving you of
your mistress; far from it, that would have destroyed my particular
object, which, I will now confess, was to take your place in Donna
Aurelia's regard, for which you would not ask. I own also that I did not
care to have you in her neighbourhood, and that I very much desired to
get rid of you. Why? Because I could see that Donna Aurelia was in love
with you."

He paused while I admired his affectation of candour. Presently he went
on: "When my friend here proposed to secure your mistress by means of
the Capuchin I gave him a free hand; that is to say, I gave you no
warning, I admit that. Why again? Because I knew you, Don Francis, and
was certain that you would never allow a hand to be laid upon her. I was
right, you did not. You did precisely what I desired. You as good as
killed the Capuchin and you went into hiding. I wished to keep you
there, and so I did. If I had not sent Carabineers into the Piazza - if I
had been accessible to your messengers - you would have been fatally in
my way. You were never in danger of arrest or imprisonment - but you
believed that you were, and that served my purpose.

"You left our State. All was well until you entered it again. I admit
that when I saw you in Siena I was in Donna Aurelia's company, and
feared the effect of your apparition upon her. She did not recognise
you, but I did. I confess that I had you arrested, and assure you that
you would never have gone to Volterra, but to Leghorn. You would have
been placed upon an English ship and sent to your own country, where
your peculiar qualities would have had freer play. Lastly, I admit that
I was vexed at your reappearance here in circumstances of prosperity
which forbade my touching you. I admit that I have resented this late
visit of yours to Donna Aurelia and am still smarting at the length of
it. Ridiculous, but so it is! I know that she has a feeling for you - I
am not secure - I wish you to go. You are really unconscionable, you must
let me say. You have deprived the marchese of a possible mistress, and
now you seem inclined to deprive me of an actual mistress. You are
exorbitant, my young sir - - "

"Stop there, Count Giraldi," I said in a voice which I myself hardly
knew for my own. "Stop there. Repeat your last words. You say that I am
for robbing you - of what?"

"Donna Aurelia," said he deliberately, "has done me great honour. I am
her accepted cavalier. She has accorded me the highest favour. She
occupies my villa - the doctor is my humble servant. You will not wish me
to enlarge upon this?"

"You are a liar," I said, "you are a liar," and struck him full in the
face with my open hand. His white face was nearly all I could see of
him.

He recoiled - he had not expected it, I am sure. At that moment, before
he could recover his self-possession, Semifonte gave another hoarse cry
and leapt at me with a dagger. I caught him under the arm-pit, closed


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