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did his best to persuade Veronica that she must marry the dying man, in
the bare hope of saving him while there was yet time. He had done his
best, though it was no wonder that there was no conviction, but only
vehemence, in his tone. It had been different on that day, now long ago,
when he had first spoken for Gianluca in the garden. He had not loved
her then. She had been no more to him than any other woman. But even on
that day, when he had left her, he had half guessed that he might love
her if opportunity gave possibility the right of way. He had guessed it,
and even to guess it was to fear it, for Gianluca's sake. He was not
quixotic. Had he been first, death or life, he would not have given
another room at her side, had that or that man been twenty times his
friend or his brother. Even if it had been a little otherwise, if
Gianluca had not confided in him from the beginning, and had stood out
as any other suitor for her hand, Taquisara, as he loved her now, would
hardly have drawn back because his friend had been before him. But
Gianluca had come to him, told him all; asked his advice, taken his
help - all that, when Veronica had still been nothing to Taquisara - less
than nothing, in a way, because she was such a great heiress, and he
would have hesitated before asking for her hand, being but a poor
Sicilian gentleman of good repute, few acres, and old blood.

He was loyal to the core of his sound soul. Whatever became of him,
Gianluca was to be first in his actions, wherever Veronica might stand
in his heart, and he had the strength to do all that he meant to do. He
would do it. He knew that he should do it, and he was glad, for his
honour, that he could do it.

He had avoided all meetings, as much as possible, from the first, going
rarely to Bianca's house, and then not talking with Veronica when he
could help it. For each time that he saw her, he felt that soft mystery
of attraction in which great passion begins; that something which
touches and draws gently on, and presses and draws again more gently,
yet with stronger power, growing great on nothings by day and night,
till it drives the senses slowly mad, and overtops the soul, and pricks,
then goads, then drives - then, at the last, tears men up like straws in
its enormous arms, rising on sudden wings to outstrip wind and whirlwind
in the wild race that ends in death or blinding joy, or reckless ruin of
honour, worse than any death.

He had felt the growing danger at every one of their few meetings, and,
being simple, he mistrusted himself to be what other men were. But in
that, he was not like the many. He was not of the kind and temper to
break down in loyalty, and he could still bear much more. Under strong
pressure, he had come with Gianluca to the gates of Muro, and he had
done his best to get away at once. Fate had been against him. He was
still strong, and could face fate alone. He did not pine, and waste
bodily, as Gianluca had done. But he turned his eyes away when he could,
and spent his hours out of danger when he might, waiting for the moment
when he should be free to go and live his own life alone, husbanding the
strength which was not lacking in him, setting his teeth hard to bear
the pain, - a simple, brave, and loyal man, caught in fate's grip, but
silently unyielding to the last.

It was his nature, to suffer without complaint, when he must suffer at
all. No one can tell whether those feel pain most who show least what
they feel. The measure of pain is always man, and no man can really be
measured except by himself. We often believe that they who utter no cry
are the most badly hurt, perhaps because silence has suggestion in it,
and noise has none. No one knows the truth. No one has stood in the fire
that scorches his brother's soul, to tell us which can suffer the more.

Taquisara lay long awake that night, and every word that had passed
between Veronica and him came back to his thoughts.

More than once he rose and, crossing the intermediate room, went to
Gianluca's side. Once the latter was awake, still half dreaming, and
looked up wonderingly into his friend's eyes. He scarcely knew that he
spoke, as his lips moved.

"I am going to die," he said, in a far-off tone.

Taquisara bent over him quickly, trying to smile.

"Nonsense - no - no!" he said cheerfully. "You have been dreaming - you are
better."

"Yes - I am dreaming - let me sleep," answered the sick man, hardly
articulating the words.

And in a moment, he was asleep again. Taquisara listened to his
breathing, bending down a moment longer. Then he went softly away. He
himself slept a little, but it seemed long before the morning broke.

When it was broad daylight, Gianluca seemed better, for the deep sleep
had refreshed him. It was still very early, when the professor appeared
and paid him a long visit, asking a few questions at first and then
suddenly, beginning to talk of politics and the public news. Taquisara
left the room with him, and they stood together in Gianluca's
sitting-room.

"He is better, is he not?" asked the Sicilian, eagerly.

To his surprise the doctor shook his head and was silent a long time.

"I know nothing," he said, at last. "Nobody knows anything. Surgery is a
fine art, but medicine is witchcraft, or little better. You see, I
speak frankly. I can only give you my experience, and that may be worth
something. I have seen two cases of this kind in which, when the change
came, the patients partially recovered, and lived for several years,
paralyzed downwards from the point in the spine where the disease
begins. I have seen several cases where death has resulted rather
suddenly."

"And do you see a change coming?"

"Yes. It has begun already. Is he a devout man?"

"A religious man, at all events," answered Taquisara, gravely.

"Then, if he wishes to see a priest, it would be as well to send for one
this morning. But if he wishes to be moved as usual, and dressed, let
him have his way. Do not frighten him, if you can help it. No moral
shock can do any good. I leave it to you. It is of no use to tell his
father and mother. They are here, and you will see if he is worse. I
suppose you know that he suffers great pain when he is moved?"

"No!" said Taquisara, anxiously. "I did not know it. I sometimes hear
him draw his breath sharply once or twice - but he never complains. I
thought it hurt him a little."

"It is agony," said the doctor. "He must be a very brave man."

The professor seemed much impressed by what Taquisara had said.




CHAPTER XXV.


Taquisara went immediately to find Don Teodoro, who was generally at
home at that hour, in his little house just opposite the castle gate. He
found him with his silver spectacles pushed up to the top of his head,
his long nose buried in a musty volume, a cup of untasted coffee at his
elbow, absorbed in study. The small room was filled with books, old and
new, and smelt of them. As Taquisara entered, the old priest looked up,
screwing his lids together in the attempt to recognize his visitor
without using his spectacles. He took him for the syndic of Muro, a
respectable countryman of fifty years, come to consult with him about
some public matters.

"Be seated," he said. "If you will pardon me, for a moment - I was
just - "

In an instant his nose almost touched the page again, and he did not
complete the sentence, before he was lost in study once more. Taquisara
sat down upon the only chair there was and waited a few moments, not
realizing that he had not been recognized. But the priest forgot his
existence immediately and if not disturbed would probably have gone on
reading till noon.

"Don Teodoro!" said Taquisara, rousing him. "Pray excuse me - "

The old man looked up suddenly, with an exclamation of surprise.

"Dear me!" he cried. "Are you there, Baron? I beg your pardon. I think I
took you for some one else."

He drew his spectacles down to the level of his eyes, and let the big
book fall back upon the table.

"Our friend is very ill," said Taquisara, gravely. "That is why I have
come to disturb you."

He told the priest what the doctor had said about Gianluca's condition.
Don Teodoro listened with an expression of concern and anxiety, for he
had become fond of the sick man during the past weeks, and Gianluca
liked him, too. Almost every day they talked together, and the refined
taste and sincere love of literature of the younger man delighted in the
profound learning of the old student, while the latter found a rare
pleasure in speaking of his favourite occupations to such an
appreciative listener.

"The fact is," Taquisara concluded, "though I have not much faith in
doctors, I really believe that he may die at any moment. You know what
kind of man he is. Go and sit with him after luncheon to-day - or
before - the sooner, the better. Do not frighten him - do not tell him
that I have spoken to you about his condition. I believe that he knows
it himself, and if he is alone with you for some time, and you speak of
the uncertainty of life, as a priest can, he will probably himself
propose to make his confession. You understand those things, Don
Teodoro - it is your business. It is our business to give you a chance."

"Yes - yes," answered the old man. "I daresay you are right. I suppose
that is what I should do." There was a reluctance in his voice which
surprised Taquisara.

"You do not seem convinced," said the latter.

"I wish there were another priest here," replied Don Teodoro,
thoughtfully, and his clear eyes looked away, avoiding the other's
direct glance.

"Why?" inquired the Sicilian, with increasing astonishment.

"It is a painful office to perform for a friend." The curate looked down
now, and fingered the corner of his old book, in evident hesitation. "It
is quite another thing to assist the poor."

"I do not understand you," said Taquisara. "I suppose that priests have
especial sensibilities of their own - "

"Sometimes - sometimes," interrupted Don Teodoro, as though speaking to
himself. "Yes - I have especial sensibilities."

"It cannot be helped," answered Taquisara, in a tone that had something
of authority in it. "Of course we laymen do not appreciate those nice
questions. A man is dying. He wants a priest. It is your place to go to
him, whether he is your own father, or a swineherd. You are alone here,
and you have no choice."

"Yes, I am alone. I wish I were not. I wish that the princess would get
me an assistant."

"It will be best if you come to the castle in about an hour," said
Taquisara, paying no attention to Don Teodoro's last remark. "By that
time Gianluca will be in his sitting-room, and I shall be with him. The
Duca and Duchessa will be out for their walk, for the weather is cool
and fine, and they do not know of his imminent danger. Come in without
warning, as though you had just come to pay him a visit of a quarter of
an hour. You have done the same thing before. I will go away after five
minutes and leave you together. Donna Veronica will not interrupt you."

"Very well," replied the priest, in a tone that was still reluctant. "If
it must be, it must be."

Taquisara looked at him curiously and went away to arrange matters as he
proposed. But Don Teodoro, though he wore his spectacles, with the help
of which he really could see very well, did not notice the young man's
glance of curiosity, as he went with him to the door, and carefully
fastened it after him, which was an unusual proceeding on his part; for
though he lived quite alone, the poor people never found that door
locked by day or night. An old woman came every day to do the little
household work that was necessary, and to cook something for him, when
he ate at home. But to-day, for once, he drew the rusty old bolt across,
before he went back to his study. He did nothing which could seem to
have justified the precaution, after he had sat down again in his big
wooden easy-chair; and if the door had been wide open, and if any one
had come in without warning, the visitor would have found the priest
before the table, slowly lifting one long, bent shank of his silver
spectacles and letting it fall upon the other, in a slow and
absent-minded fashion to which no one could have attached any especial
importance. People who have kept a secret very long and well, keep it
when they are alone, even when it turns its bones in the narrow grave of
their hearts, reminding them that it is there and would be glad to see
if it could get a vampire's dead life for a night, and come out, and
draw blood.

Taquisara went away and re-entered the castle, walking more slowly than
was his wont. In the narrow court within, he stopped before passing
through the door, and stood a long time staring at a fragment of a
marble tablet with a part of a Roman inscription cut on it, which was
built into the enormous masonry of the main wall and had remained white
while the surrounding blocks had grown black with age. There was no more
apparent reason why he should try to make out the meaning of the
inscription, than why Don Teodoro should play so long with his glasses,
all alone in his room. But Taquisara was not thinking of Don Teodoro. He
had a secret of his own to keep from everybody, and if possible from
himself.

But that was not easy. The thing which had taken hold of him was as
strong as he was and seemed to be watching him, grip for grip, hold for
hold, wrench for wrench. It had not beaten him yet, but he knew that to
yield a hair's breadth would mean a fall, and a bad one. He had almost
relaxed his strength that little, last night, when he had been alone
with Veronica.

He read the letters of the inscription over twenty times, then turned
sharply on his heel and went in, having probably convinced himself that
to waste time over his own thoughts was the worst waste imaginable,
since the more he thought of anything, the more he loved Veronica. And
he had set himself to arrange the meeting between Gianluca and Don
Teodoro, and each hour was precious.

His face helped him, for he did not easily betray emotion; he rarely
changed colour at all, and was not a man of mobile features. But he had
grown thinner since he had been in Muro, and the clearly cut curves that
marked the Saracen strain in him were sharper and more defined.

He went in and met Veronica in the large room in which they usually
fenced, and which lay between what was really the drawing-room and the
apartment set aside for Gianluca and Taquisara. She was standing alone
beside the table, her face very white, and as she turned to Taquisara,
he saw something desperate in her eyes.

"I have seen the doctor again," she said, not waiting for any greeting,
and knowing that he would understand.

"And I have seen the priest," answered Taquisara.

She started, and pressed her lips tightly to suppress something. Her
eyes wandered slowly and then came back to the Sicilian before she
spoke.

"You have done right," she said, and then paused a second. "He is going
to die to-day," she added, very low.

"That is not sure," replied Taquisara. "The doctor says that he has
known cases - "

"No," interrupted Veronica. "I know it - I feel it."

She was resting one hand on the heavy table, and as she spoke she bent
down, as though bowed in bodily pain. Taquisara saw the sharp lines in
the smooth young forehead, and his teeth bit hard on one another as he
watched her. He could not speak. With a quick-drawn breath she
straightened herself suddenly and looked at him again. He thought he
saw the very slightest moisture, not in her eyes, but on the lower lids
and just below them. It was very hard to shed tears, and not like her.

"Hope!" he said gently.

During what seemed a long time they stood looking at each other with
unchanging faces, and neither spoke. Some people know that dead silence
which descends while fate's great hand is working in the dark, and men
hold their breath and shut their eyes, listening speechless for the dull
footfall of near destiny.

At last Veronica, without a word, turned from the table and went slowly
towards a door. Taquisara did not move. When her hand was on the lock,
she turned her head.

"Stand by me, whatever I do to-day," she said earnestly.

"Yes. I will."

He did not find any eloquent words nor oaths of protest, but she saw his
face and believed him. She bent her head once, as though acknowledging
his promise, and she went out quietly, closing the door behind her.

Some minutes passed before Taquisara also left the room in the other
direction. He wondered why she had said those last words, for he had
seen again that desperate look in her face and did not understand it.
Perhaps she meant to marry Gianluca before he died, and at the thought
Taquisara felt as though a strong man had struck him a heavy blow just
on his heart, and for one instant he steadied himself by the table and
swallowed hard, as though the breath were out of him. It did not last a
moment. Then he, too, went out, to go to his friend.

Gianluca was gentle, quiet, almost cheerful, on that morning. He had
evidently forgotten that he had opened his eyes and seen Taquisara
standing by his bedside in the night, nor would he have thought anything
of so common an occurrence had it come back to his recollection. He
certainly did not remember having spoken of dying. But he was very weak,
and his face was deadly pale, rather than transparent, as it usually
seemed.

Taquisara had thought of what the doctor had said about his sufferings,
and hesitated before lifting him to carry him to the next room.

"Tell me," he said, "does it hurt you very much when I take you up?"

"It hurts," answered Gianluca, with a smile. "Hurting is relative, you
know. I can bear it very well. There are things that hurt more."

"What? When you try to move alone?"

"Oh no! Imaginary things. You hurt me very little - you are so careful.
What should I have done without you?"

Taquisara had never touched him so tenderly before, though he was
always as gentle as a woman with him. He lifted him, carried him from
his bedroom and laid him in his accustomed chair. The pale head rested
with a sigh upon the brown silk cushion.

"Thank you," he said faintly. "That was better than ever. But I am
better to-day, too."

The Sicilian said nothing, but proceeded to arrange all the invalid's
small belongings near him, - his books, his cigarettes, - for he sometimes
smoked a little, - and the stimulant he took, and a few wild flowers
which Elettra renewed every morning. Gianluca drew a breath of
satisfaction when all was done. He really felt a little better, and by
Taquisara's care had suffered less than usual in the moving. His father
and mother had been in to see him as usual, before he was up, and before
they went out for their daily walk. Veronica would not come yet, but he
had the true invalid's pleasure in anticipating the coming of a
well-loved woman. As often happens in such cases he seemed quite
unconscious of his approaching danger.

He was not surprised when Don Teodoro came in, a little later, and the
two very soon fell into conversation together. Taquisara presently went
away and left them, as he often did when they began to talk of books.
Half an hour had not passed since his meeting with Veronica, but as he
again entered the room where they had met, he found her standing before
the window, looking out, and twisting her handkerchief slowly with both
her hands. She started when she heard him come in, and she turned her
head to see who it was that had opened the door. To go on, he had to
pass near her, and she kept her eyes on his face as he approached her.

"How is he?" she asked in a voice hardly recognizable as her own.

She had an agonized look, and she raised her handkerchief to her mouth
quickly, and held it, almost biting it, while he answered her.

"He says that he feels better. Don Teodoro is there. He has just come.
Is there anything that I can do?"

She shook her head, still holding the handkerchief to her lips, and
again looked out of the window. He waited a moment longer and then
passed on, leaving her alone. He saw that she was half mad with anxiety,
and he neither trusted himself to speak, nor believed that speaking
could be of any use. He went down to the lower bastion, where he could
be alone, and for a long time he walked steadily up and down, trying
hard to think of nothing, and sometimes counting his steps as he walked,
in order to keep his mind from itself.

He did not idealize the woman he loved, for he was not a man of ideals,
nor of much imagination. Such defects as she might have, he did not
see, and if he had seen them he would have been indifferent to them. To
such a man, loving meant everything and admitted of no comment, because
there was no part of him left free to judge. He was a whole-souled man,
who asked no questions of himself and no advice of others. He had never
needed counsel, in his own opinion, and for the rest, what he felt was
himself and not a secondary, dual being of separate passions and
impressions which he could analyze and examine. He had never
comprehended that strange machine of nicely-balanced doubts and
certainties, forever in a state of half-morbid equilibrium between the
wish, the thought, and the deed - such a man as Pietro Ghisleri was, for
instance, who would refuse a beggar an alms lest the giving should be a
satisfaction to his own vanity, and then, perhaps, would turn back in
pity and give the poor wretch half a handful of silver. When Taquisara
once knew that he loved Veronica, he never reverted to a state of doubt.
He fought against it, because his friend had loved her first, and
rooting himself where he stood, as it were, he would have let the
passion tear him piecemeal rather than be moved by it. But he never had
the smallest doubt as to what the passion was in itself and might be, in
its consequences, if he should be weak for one moment. Simple struggles,
when they are for life and death, are more terrible than any
complicated conflict can possibly be.

Don Teodoro was a long time alone with Gianluca. Whatever reasons he had
of his own for not wishing to comply with Taquisara's request, he
overcame them and faithfully carried out the mission imposed upon him.
In itself it was no very hard one. Gianluca was a religious man, as
Taquisara had said that he was, and he knew that he was very ill, though
he did not believe himself to be dying. With his character and in his
condition, he was glad to talk seriously with such a man as Don Teodoro,
and then to lay before him the account of his few shortcomings according
to the practice of his belief.

The old priest came out at last, grave and bent, and, going through the
rooms, he came upon Veronica standing alone where Taquisara had left
her. She did not know how long she had stood there, waiting for him. He
paused before her, and her eyes questioned him.

"He wishes to see you," he said simply.

"How is he?" He had not understood her unspoken question. "How is he?"
she repeated, as he hesitated a moment.

"To me he seems no worse. He says that he feels better to-day. But there
is something, some change - something, I cannot tell what it is, since I
last saw him."

"Stay here - please stay in the house!" said Veronica. "He may need you."

While she was speaking she had gone to the door, and she went out
without looking back. A moment later, she was by Gianluca's side. She
saw that what Don Teodoro had said was true. There was an undefinable
change in his features since the previous day, and at the first sight of
it her heart stood still an instant and the blood left her face, so that
she felt very cold. She kept her back to the light, that he might not
see that she was disturbed, and while she asked him how he was, her
hands touched, and displaced, and replaced the little objects on the
small table beside him, - the book, the glass, the flowers in the silver
cup, the silver cigarette case, the things which, being quite helpless,
he liked to have within his reach.

"I really feel better to-day," he said, watching her lovingly, as he
answered her question. "I wish I could go out."

"You can be carried out upon the balcony in a little while," she said.
"It is too cool, yet. It was a cold night, for we are getting near the
end of August."

"And in Naples they are sweltering in the heat," he answered, smiling.
"It is beautiful here. I can see the mountains through the open window,
and the flowers tell me what the hillsides are like, in the sunshine.
Taquisara says that your maid brings them every morning. Thank you - of
course it is one of your endless kind doings."



Online LibraryF. Marion CrawfordTaquisara → online text (page 28 of 33)