Tales of To-day and Other Days/Il Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia
Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia
I WAS twenty-three years old when I set out for Rome. My father gave me a dozen letters of introduction, one alone of which, that was no less than four pages long, was sealed. It bore the address: "For the Marquise Aldobrandi."
"I wish you to write," my father said to me, "and let me know if the marquise still retains her good looks."
Now, ever since childhood I had been accustomed to see a miniature that hung in my father's study, over the fireplace, the portrait of a very pretty woman, wearing her hair in powder and crowned with an ivy-wreath and with a tiger-skin thrown over her shoulders. At the bottom was the inscription: "Roma, 18—." Attracted by the singularity of the costume, I had many a time inquired who the lady was. The answer always came:
"It is a bacchante."
But this answer was not at all satisfactory to me; I even suspected the existence of a secret, for at that question, innocent as it was, my mother would purse her lips and my father's countenance assume an aspect of seriousness.
On this occasion, as he handed me the sealed letter, he cast a furtive look at the portrait; I involuntarily followed his example, and the idea came into my head that that powdered bacchante might be no other than the Marquise Aldobrandi. As I was beginning to have some insight into the things of this world, I drew all sorts of conclusions from my mother's manner and from that glance of my father's.
When I reached Rome, the first of my letters that I presented was the marquise's. She lived in a handsome palace near the place Saint Marc.
I handed my letter and my card to a servant in yellow livery, who ushered me into a large, dark and gloomy drawing-room, rather scantily furnished. In Rome, however, in all the palaces there are paintings by distinguished masters. This salon contained quite a number of such pictures, several of which were well worthy of attention.
The first that I remarked was a portrait of a woman, which seemed to me to be a Leonardo da Vinci. The richness of its frame and of the ebony easel upon which it stood showed conclusively enough that it was considered the gem of the collection. As the marquise was slow in making her appearance I had time to make a leisurely examination of it. I even carried it to a window so as to get a more favorable light on it. It was evidently a portrait and not a product of the imagination, for fancy never conceives such physiognomies as that: a beautiful woman, with rather thick lips, eyebrows that almost met, and an expression that was lofty and at the same time caressing. In the bottom corner was an escutcheon surmounted by a ducal coronet. What struck me most, however, was that the costume, with the exception of the powder, was the same as that of my father's bacchante.
I still had the portrait in my hand when the marquise entered the room.
"Just like his father!" she exclaimed, as she came toward me. "Ah! those Frenchmen! those Frenchmen! Scarcely inside my door, and he already has his hand on Madame Lucréce!"
I was vehement in apologizing for my temerity and involved myself in a long eulogistic disquisition upon the chef d'œuvre of Leonardo that I had had the boldness to remove from its place.
"It is in fact a Leonardo," said the marquise, "and it is the portrait of the too famous Lucrezia Borgia. Your father used to admire it more than all the rest of my collection. But, good heavens! what a resemblance! It seems to me as if I were looking on your father as he was twenty-five years ago. How is he? What is he doing? Won't he come to Rome to see us some day?"
Although the marquise had neither powder in her hair nor tiger-skin upon her shoulders, I recognized in her my father's bacchante at the very first glance, by sheer force of genius. Twenty-five years or so had been unable completely to efface the traces of what had once been a great beauty. Her expression alone had changed, like her toilette. She was dressed all in black, and her triple chin, her sedate smile, her mingled air of cheerfulness and solemnity, told me that she was become devout.
Her reception of me, however, was as affectionate as it well could be. In three words she placed at my disposal her house, her purse, her friends, among whom she named several cardinals.
"Look upon me as your mother," she said. "Your father charges me to keep an eye on you and advise your inexperience."
To prove to me that she did not consider her charge a sinecure, she began forthwith to put me on my guard against the perilous attractions that Rome has for a young man of my age and exhorted me strenuously to avoid them. I was to shun bad company, artists in particular, and associate only with such persons as she should recommend to me. In a word, she gave me a sermon under three heads. I replied respectfully and with the proper amount of hypocrisy.
As I was rising to take leave:
"I regret," she said, "that my son the marquis is just now absent at our country-place in the Romagna, but I wish to make you acquainted with my second son, Don Ottavio, who will soon be a monsignor. I hope that you will like him and that you will be friends together, as you should be——" And she added hurriedly: "For you are of nearly the same age, and he is a quiet, steady young man, like yourself."
She sent at once to summon Don Ottavio. I beheld a tall, pale young man of melancholy aspect, who never took his eyes from the floor, already exhaling an odor of monkish hypocrisy.
The marquise, without giving him a chance to say a word, made me the most courteous proffers of service in his name. He confirmed every one of his mother's words with a low bow, and it was agreed that he should come and take me next morning for a ramble about the city and bring me back to the Palace Aldobrandi for a family dinner.
I had scarcely taken twenty steps in the street when some one behind me shouted in an imperious tone:
"Don Ottavio, where are you going alone at such an hour as this?"
I turned my head and beheld a portly abbé who was staring at me with all his eyes.
"I am not Don Ottavio," I said to him.
The abbé bowed almost to the ground and was profuse in his apologies; a moment later I saw him enter the Palace Aldobrandi. I went my way, not over well pleased to have been taken for a sucking monsignor. Notwithstanding the marquise's admonitions, perhaps even because of them, one of the first things that I did was to hunt up the dwelling-place of an artist of my acquaintance, and I spent an hour in his atelier conversing with him upon the facilities for amusement, innocent or otherwise, that Rome had to offer. I turned the conversation upon the Aldobrandi.
The marquise, he told me, after having been very frivolous in her younger days, had devoted her attention to spiritual things when she saw that there were no more conquests in store for her. Her elder son was a brute who spent his time in hunting and taking care of the money that was paid in to him by the tenants of his extensive property. They were pursuing a course to make an idiot of Don Ottavio, the second son, and intended to make a cardinal of him some day. In the meanwhile he was handed over to the Jesuits. He never left the house unattended; he was forbidden to look at a woman or to stir a step out of doors without having at his heels an abbé who had trained him for the service of God and who, after having been the last amico of the marquise, now ruled her household with an authority that was almost despotic.
The next morning Don Ottavio, accompanied by the Abbé Negroni, the individual who the day before had mistaken me for his pupil, came with a carriage and offered me his services as cicerone.
The first monument that we stopped to inspect was a church. There Don Ottavio, following the example of his abbé, kneeled, beat his breast and made innumerable signs of the cross. Upon arising he pointed out to me the various frescoes and statues and discoursed upon them like a man of taste and good sense. I was agreeably surprised. We began to converse and his talk pleased me. We had been speaking Italian for some time; all at once he said to me in French:
"My tutor does not understand a word of your language; let us talk French; we shall be more at our ease."
It seemed as if the young man in changing his idiom had suffered a change of nature. Nothing in his conversation savored of the priest. I seemed to be listening to one of our provincial politicians of a liberal turn. I noticed that he rattled off everything in one unvarying monotonous tone of voice, and that this tone was frequently in strange contrast with the liveliness of his expressions. This was apparently a habit assumed for the purpose of mystifying Negroni, who kept asking us from time to time what we were talking about. It may be imagined that the translations which we gave him were of the freest.
We saw a young man in violet stockings pass by.
"Behold," said Don Ottavio, "our patricians of the present day. Degrading livery! and in a few months I shall be wearing it! What happiness," he added, after a momentary silence, "what happiness to live in a country like yours! Were I a Frenchman, perhaps I might some day become a deputy."
This noble ambition inspired me with a strong inclination to laugh, which having been noticed by our abbé, I was obliged to explain to him that we were talking of the blunder of an archæologist who had mistaken a statue by Bernini for an antique.
We returned to the Palace Aldobrandi for dinner. We had scarcely swallowed our coffee when the marquise made her excuses tome in behalf of her son, who was compelled to retire to his apartment on account of certain pious observances. I was left alone with her and the Abbé Negroni who, buried in a great easy-chair, slept the sleep of the just. The marquise, meanwhile, was questioning me in detail upon my father, upon Paris, upon my past life and my plans for the future. She gave me the impression of being amiable and kind-hearted, but rather too inquisitive, and, in particular, too much interested in my religious well-being. She spoke Italian with admirable purity, though, and I received from her a fine lesson in pronunciation, which I promised myself to repeat without loss of time.
I often returned to see her. Almost every morning I would go to visit the antiquities in company with her son and the everlasting Negroni, and in the evening would dine with them at the Palace Aldobrandi. The marquise received but little society and that little consisted almost entirely of ecclesiastics.
On one occasion, however, she presented me to a German lady, a fresh convert to the faith and her intimate friend. This was a Madame de Strahlenheim, an extremely handsome person who had made Rome her dwelling-place for a long time. While these ladies were discussing the merits of a famous preacher I was scrutinizing the portrait of Lucrèce by the light of a lamp, when I thought it incumbent on me to put in my word.
"What eyes!" I exclaimed; "one would almost swear that he saw those lids move!"
At this rather high-flown hyperbole, which I put forth with a view to impress Madame de Strahlenheim with an idea of my connoisseurship, she started with affright and hid her face in her handkerchief.
"What ails you, my dear?" said the marquise.
"Ah, nothing! only what this gentleman has just said!"
She was at once overwhelmed with questions, and once she admitted that the expression I had made use of reminded her of a frightful story, she was obliged to tell it. It was briefly as follows:
Madame de Strahlenheim had a sister-in-law named Wilhelmine who was engaged to a young man of Westphalia, Julius de Katzenellenbogen, a volunteer in General Kleist's division. (It afflicts me to have to repeat so many barbarous cognomens, but it is a fact that these marvelous stories never happen except to people with unpronounceable names.)
Julius was an extremely nice young man, stuffed full with patriotism and metaphysics. When he left for the army he had given Wilhelmine his portrait and Wilhelmine had given him hers, which he wore constantly upon his heart. That sort of thing is practiced quite extensively in Germany.
On the 13th of September, 1813, at about five o'clock in the afternoon, Wilhelmine was at Cassel, in a salon with her mother and sister-in-law, busy with her knitting. Without interrupting her work she would frequently glance at the portrait of her betrothed, which she had laid upon a small work-table that stood in front of her. All at once she uttered a fearful shriek, carried her hand to her heart, and fainted. It was with the greatest difficulty that they succeeded in bringing her to, and as soon as she could speak:
"Julius is dead!" she exclaimed. "Julius has been killed!"
She declared, and the horror that was depicted on all her lineaments was sufficient proof of the earnestness of her conviction, that she had seen the portrait close its eyes, and that at the same moment she had suffered an unspeakable pang, as if a red-hot iron had been thrust into her heart.
Every one strove, to no purpose, to make it clear to her that her vision could have no connexion with reality and that she should attach no importance to it. The poor child was inconsolable; she passed the night in tears and next day insisted on putting on mourning, as if already assured of the misfortune that had been revealed to her.
Two days after that the news came of the bloody battle of Leipzic. Julius sent his betrothed a note dated the 13th, at three o'clock in the afternoon. He had not been wounded, had distinguished himself in the action and had just entered Leipzic, where he was expecting to spend the night at headquarters and would consequently be out of the way of all danger. This letter, reassuring as it was, did not serve to remove Wilhelmine's apprehensions, who, noticing that it was dated at three o'clock, persisted in believing that her lover had died at five.
The unfortunate girl was not mistaken. It soon became known that Julius had been intrusted with an order to deliver; he had left Leipzic at half-past four, and three-fourths of a league from the city, on the other side of the Elster, one of the enemy's stragglers had fired at him, from his hiding-place in a ditch, and killed him. The ball, on its way to the young man's heart, had pierced Wilhelmine's portrait and destroyed it.
"And what became of the poor young lady?" I asked Madame de Strahlenheim.
"Oh! she was very, very ill. She is married now to M. de Werner, the councilor, and should you ever go to Dessau she will show you Julius' portrait."
"All that is the work of the devil," said the abbé, who had been sleeping with one eye open during Madame de Strahlenheim's story. "He who used to make the old pagan oracles talk can very well cause the eyes of a portrait to move when he sees fit. It is less than twenty years ago that an Englishman was choked to death by a statue at Tivoli."
"By a statue!" I exclaimed; "and how was that?"
"It was an English milord who had been making excavations at Tivoli. He had dug up a statue of one of the empresses, Agrippina, Messalina,—it don't make much difference whom. The sum and substance of it was that he had her carried home to his abode and by dint of looking at her and admiring her he became mad. All those Protestant gentlemen are more than half mad, any way. He used to call her his wife, his 'milady,' and he would kiss her, all of marble though she was. He said that the statue came to life every night for his sake, and this went on until one morning they found milord stone dead in his bed. Well, you would not believe it, but there was another Englishman foolish enough to buy that statue. If it had been my case I would have had the thing burned for lime."
When people once get fairly started on the subject of supernatural adventures they never know when to stop. Every one had his story to tell. I made my own contribution to the cycle of blood-curdling tales, and the result was that when the time came for us to separate we were all pretty well worked up and imbued with respect for the power of his satanic majesty.
I started on foot to reach my lodging, and in order to get into the Rue du Corso, took a little tortuous lane through which I had never yet passed. It was quite deserted. All that was to be seen were long garden walls and a few houses of mean appearance, in no one of which was a light visible. The bells had just struck midnight; it was very dark. I was in the middle of the street, walking at a good round pace, when I heard a faint sound, a st! just above my head, and at the same moment a rose fell at my feet. I raised my eyes, and, notwithstanding the darkness, discovered a woman dressed in white standing at a window with her arm extended in my direction. We Frenchmen are regarded with very kindly eyes in foreign lands, and our fathers, who vanquished all Europe, have comforted us with traditions very flattering to our national vanity. It was my pious belief that every German, Spanish or Italian lady would kindle up like so much tinder at the mere sight of a Frenchman. To tell the truth, in those days I was pretty much like the rest of my countrymen, and then, besides, had not the rose spoken clearly enough?
"Madame," said I, in a low voice, picking up the rose, "you have dropped your bouquet."
But the woman had already disappeared and the window had closed without making the slightest noise. I did what any one else in my place would have done. I sought the nearest door; it was only two steps from the window, and having found it I waited for someone to come and open it for me. Five minutes passed in deep silence. Then I coughed, then I scratched gently with my finger nails upon the wood, but the door did not open. I examined it more closely, hoping to discover a key or a latch; to my great surprise I found that it was fastened with a padlock.
"The jealous husband is not come home yet," I said to myself.
I picked up a small pebble and threw it against the window; it struck a wooden shutter and fell back at my feet.
"The deuce!" I thought, "do the Roman ladies imagine that folks go about carrying ladders in their pockets? That is a custom that I never heard speak of."
I waited several minutes longer with equally fruitless results, only once or twice it seemed to me. that the shutter shook a little, as if someone on the inside were trying to put it back in order to obtain a glimpse into the street. At the expiration of a quarter of an hour, my patience being exhausted, I lit a cigar and went my way, not, however, until I had carefully noted the location of the house of the padlock.
When I came to reflect upon this adventure the following morning I reached these conclusions: A young Roman lady, probably of surpassing beauty, had caught sight of me in my strolls about the city and fallen a victim to my poor charms. If she had selected no other means of declaring her flame than the gift of a mystic flower, the reason was that she had been restrained by her decorous modesty, or it may have been that she was prevented by the presence of some old duenna, or perhaps by an accursed guardian, like Rosina's Bartolo. I made up my mind that I would lay siege according to rule to the house inhabited by this infanta.
With this fine project in my head I brushed my hair so as to give myself a conquering aspect and started forth from my lodging. I had put on my new frock coat and a pair of yellow gloves. Thus attired, with my hat cocked over my ear and the faded rose in my button-hole, I turned my steps toward the street of which, as yet, I knew not the name, but which I had no difficulty in finding again. A signboard fastened up over the head of a Madonna informed me that it was called il viccolo di Madama Lucrezia.
The name took me aback. I immediately remembered the portrait by Leonardo da Vinci and the stories of presentiments and diabolical doings generally that had been told at the marquise's the night before. Then I reflected that there are loves that are predestined in heaven. Why should not the object of my affections be named Lucrèce? What reason was there why she should not be like the Lucrèce in the Aldobrandi gallery?
It was broad day, I was but a couple of steps away from a charming young lady, and no thought of evil intruded upon the emotion that I experienced.
I was before the house. It bore the number 13—an omen of ill. Alas! it did not answer in the slightest degree to the idea that I had formed from having seen it by night. It was not a palace, very far from it, I beheld an inclosure of moss-covered walls, blackened by time, behind which rose the branches of a few ill-cared-for fruit trees. At one corner of the inclosure stood a pavilion of a single story, with two windows opening on the street, both of them closed by old wooden shutters reinforced on the outside by numerous iron bars. The door was low, surmounted by an obliterated escutcheon, and was made fast, as it had been the night before, by a huge padlock attached to a chain. On this door was the inscription, written in chalk: This house for sale or to let.
And yet I could not be mistaken; on that side of the street the houses were so few in number as to render any confusion impossible. It was my padlock, beyond a doubt, and in addition two rose-leaves upon the pavement, close beside the door, indicated the very spot where my loved one had signaled me her declaration, and at the same time bore witness to the fact that no one ever swept the space before the house.
I questioned some poor people of the neighborhood to learn where the custodian of this mysterious dwelling might live.
"Not here," was the abrupt answer that I received.
My question seemed to be unwelcome to those whom 1 interrogated, and that only served to excite my curiosity still further. Keeping on from door to door, I wound up by entering a kind of dark cavern where there was an old woman who might have been suspected of being a witch, for she had a black cat and was cooking some indistinguishable mess in a kettle.
"You wish to see the house of Madame Lucrèce?" said she. "It is I who have the keys."
"Well, show it to me."
"Would you be wanting to hire it?" she asked, smiling with a rather doubtful air.
"Yes, if it suits me."
"It won't suit you. But come, will you give me a paul if I show it to you?"
"I shall be very glad to."
Upon this assurance she arose nimbly from her bench, took from its place on the wall a key that was quite covered with rust, and conducted me to the door of No. 13.
"Why," I asked her, "do they call this house the house of Lucrèce?"
The old woman replied with a sneer: "Why do they call you foreigner? Isn't it because you are a foreigner?"
"Very well; but who was this Madame Lucrèce? Was she a Roman lady?"
"What! You come to Rome and have never heard of Madame Lucrèce? I will tell you her story when we get inside the house. But here is some more of the devil's work! I don't know what has got into this key, it won't turn. Try it yourself."
It was a long time, in fact, since the lock and the key had seen anything of each other. Still, by dint of thrice gritting my teeth very hard and indulging in profanity a similar number of times, I succeeded in turning the key in the lock, but I tore my yellow gloves and sprained the palm of my hand. We entered a dark passage-way which afforded access to several low apartments.
The ceilings, intricately paneled, were covered with spiders' webs, beneath which some traces of gilding were with difficulty to be distinguished. The smell of mold that exhaled from all the rooms demonstrated conclusively that they had been untenanted for a very long time. Not an article of furniture was to be seen. Some strips of old leather were hanging in streamers from the sweating walls. I judged from the carvings on some brackets and the shape of the chimney-pieces that the house dated back to the fifteenth century, and it is likely that in former days its decorations had had some pretensions to elegance. The windows, with very small panes, most of them broken, had an outlook on the garden, where I distinguished a rose tree in bloom, together with some fruit trees and an abundance of broccoli.
When I had inspected all the apartments of the rez-de-chaussée I ascended to the floor above, where I had seen my fair unknown. The old woman endeavored to prevent me, saying that there was nothing to be seen there and that the staircase was in very bad condition, but seeing that I was determined she followed me, though with visible reluctance. The rooms on this floor were very like those below, only they were not so damp; the windows and the floor, too, were in a better state of preservation. In the room that I entered last there was a large fauteuil in black leather, which, strange to say, was not covered with dust. I seated myself in it, and finding the place a comfortable one to listen to a story in, requested the old crone to tell me that of Madame Lucrèce; but first, in order to refresh her memory, I made her a present of a few pauls. She coughed, wiped her nose, and started off after this fashion:
"In the time of the pagans, Alexander being emperor, there was a girl who was as beautiful as the day and whom they called Madame Lucrèce. See, there she is!"
I turned about quickly. The hag pointed to a carved bracket that sustained the main beam of the apartment. It was a siren of very, clumsy execution.
"Dame" the old woman went on, "she liked to enjoy herself, she did, and as her father might have seen fit to make a fuss about it she had this house built for herself where we are now.
"Every night she would hasten down from the Quirinal and come here to have a good time. She would seat herself by that window, and whenever there passed along the street a handsome cavalier, like yourself, monsieur, she would call him in; you can imagine whether he was well received. But men are talkative, some of them are, at least, and they might have done her harm with their babbling. So, she took steps to make that all right. When she had said good-night to the gallant her bravos were there, waiting on the stairs by which we came up. They finished him off for you, then they buried him for you in those broccoli beds. Allez, they have turned up their bones, right there in that garden!
"This business lasted for some time. One evening, though, look you, along comes her brother, whose name was Tarquinius Sixtus, and passes beneath her window. She does not recognize him. She calls him in. He ascends the stair. At night all cats are gray. As it had been with the others, so it was with him. But he had left his pocket-handkerchief behind him, on which his name was written.
"No sooner had she seen the wickedness that they had been guilty of than she was seized with despair, so, quick she unclasps her garter and hangs herself to that beam there. Well, there you have a fine example for young folks!"
While the old woman was thus confounding the centuries, and mixing up the Tarquins and the Borgias, I had my eyes fixed on the floor. I had discovered there a few rose petals, still quite fresh, which gave me food for reflection.
"Who is it that cultivates this garden?" I asked the crone.
"My son, sir, who is gardener to M. Vanozzi, the gentleman who owns .the garden next door. M. Vanozzi is always in the Maremma; he don't ever come to Rome nowadays. That is why the garden is not kept in better order. My son is with him—and I'm afraid that they won't return very soon," she added, with a sigh.
"So M. Vanozzi keeps him occupied, does he?"
"Ah! he is a strange man, and he gives my son too many things to do. I am afraid that there is something wrong going on. . . . . Ah, my poor boy!"
She made a step toward the door as if desirous of ending the conversation.
"No one lives here, then?" I continued, stopping her.
"Not a soul."
"And why is that?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Listen," said I, giving her a piastre, "tell me the truth. There is a woman who comes here."
"Holy Jesus, a woman!"
"Yes, I saw her last night. I spoke to her."
"Holy Madonna!" cried the old woman, making a dash for the stairs;" it must have been Madame Lucrèce! Let us go, let us go, good gentleman! I had been told that she walked by night, but I did not wish to tell you of it for fear of doing the owner a bad turn, for I thought that you were inclined to hire the house."
I could not keep her. She was in haste to leave the house, in order, she said, to carry a wax candle to the nearest church without delay. I let her go, and left the house myself, despairing of learning anything further from her.
It may be imagined that I did not tell my story at the Aldobrandi palace: the marquise was too prudish, and Don Ottavio was too much wrapped up in his politics to be a competent adviser in a love affair. I went and hunted up my painter, however, who knew all Rome, from the cedar to the hyssop, and asked him what he thought of it.
"I think," he said, "that you have seen the phantom of Lucrèce Borgia. What a risk you incurred! Dangerous as she was while living, just think for a moment what she must be now that she is dead! It is enough to make one shake in his shoes."
"Joking apart, what could it have been?"
"That is to say that the gentleman is a philosopher and an atheist and has no faith in the things most worthy of respect. Very good; what say you then to this other hypothesis? Let us suppose that the old harridan lends her house to women who are not above addressing gentlemen who pass along the street. There have been old women depraved enough to ply that trade."
"That sounds reasonable enough," I said, "but then I must have a very goody-goody air for the old woman not to have made me the offer of her services. The supposition is offensive to me. And then, my dear fellow, remember how the house was furnished. It could scarcely please anyone unless he were possessed with a devil."
"In that case it is a spook, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Hold on, though! Here is just one hypothesis remaining: you made a mistake in the house. Parbleu! I have it: near a garden? a little low door? Well, it is my old friend Rosina. It is less than a year and a half ago that she was the principal ornament of that street. It is true that she has gone blind, but that's a mere detail; she still has a very handsome profile."
None of these explanations were satisfactory to me. When evening came I walked slowly past the house of Lucrèce. I saw nothing. I turned and passed it again, with no better result. Three or four evenings in succession, on my way home from the Aldobrandi palace, did I stop and cool my heels beneath those windows, but always to no purpose. The mysterious inhabitant of the house No. 13 was beginning to fade from my memory when, passing through the viccolo about midnight, I distinctly heard a low woman's laugh behind the window-shutter at the very spot where the fair flower-girl had appeared to me. Twice I heard that low laugh, and I could not help being a little frightened when I saw a troop of cowled penitents, bearing wax-candles and conveying a dead body to the grave, make their appearance at the other end of the street. When they were gone by I posted myself as sentry beneath the window, but then there was nothing more to be heard. I tried throwing pebbles, I even used my voice with more or less distinctness; no one appeared, and a shower coming up just then obliged me to beat a retreat.
I am ashamed to tell how many times I stopped in front of that accursed house, without ever succeeding in solving the riddle that was bothering me. Only on one occasion did I pass through the viccolo of Madame Lucrezia in company with Don Ottavio and his inseparable abbé.
"There is the house of Lucrèce," said I.
I noticed that he changed color.
"Yes," he replied, "an ill-defined popular tradition has it that Lucrezia Borgia had her 'little house’ here. If those walls could only speak what horrors they might reveal! And yet, my friend, when I compare that time with our own, I can scarce help regretting it. There were Romans still in the days of Alexander VI.; to-day they have ceased to exist. Cæsar Borgia was a monster, but he was a great man; it was his aim to expel the barbarians from Italy, and had his father lived, perhaps he might have succeeded in accomplishing that grand design. Ah! would that Heaven might grant us a tyrant like Borgia to deliver us from these human despots who are reducing us to the level of the brutes."
When Don Ottavio once took his flight into the regions of politics there was no such thing as stopping him. When we had reached the Place du Peuple his panegyric upon enlightened despotism was still running its course, but we were a hundred leagues away from my Lucrèce.
On a certain evening when I had gone at a very late hour to pay my respects to the marquise, she told me that her son was indisposed and requested me to go upstairs to his room. I found him lying upon his bed, fully dressed, and reading a French newspaper that I had sent him that morning carefully concealed in a volume of the Fathers of the Church. For sometime past the collection of the Fathers had served as a vehicle for those communications that had to be kept from the eyes of the abbé and the marquise. On those days when the French mail was due a servant would bring me a folio volume, and I would return another into which I had slipped a newspaper that had been loaned me by the secretary of the embassy. It was the means of giving the marquise and her director an exalted idea of my piety, and now and then they tried to induce me to talk theology.
After I had conversed with Don Ottavio for a while, noticing that he was greatly agitated and that even politics failed to interest him and secure his attention, I advised him to undress and go to bed and bade him adieu. The weather was cold and I had no cloak. Don Ottavio urged me to take his, so I accepted it and received a lesson in the difficult art of draping one's self in the true Roman fashion.
I left the Aldobrandi palace, muffled up to the ears. I had barely taken a few steps along the sidewalk of the Place Saint Marc when a man of the people, whom I had observed sitting upon a bench by the palace door, came up to me and handed me a paper with writing on it.
"For the love of God," he said, "read this."
Whereupon he disappeared, running as fast as his legs could carry him.
I had taken the paper, and looked about for a light to read it by. By the light of a lamp burning before a Madonna I saw that it was a note written in pencil and apparently by a trembling hand. With considerable difficulty I managed to decipher the following words:
"Do not come this evening, or we are undone! Everything is known excepting your name. Nothing shall ever separate us.
"Lucrèce!" I exclaimed. "Still Lucrèce! What diabolical mystification is there at the bottom of all this? 'Don't come!' But I would like to know what road one has to take to reach you, my pretty one."
While ruminating upon this note I had mechanically turned my steps in the direction of the viccolo di Madama Lucrezia, and soon I found myself in front of the house No. 13.
The little street was in its usual deserted condition and there was no sound to break the silence that reigned throughout the neighborhood save my footsteps. I halted and raised my eyes toward a window that was well known to me. This time I could not be mistaken: the shutter was thrown back.
There was the window wide open.
I thought that I could descry a human form drawn in relief against the dark background of the apartment.
"Lucrèce, is that you?" I said in a low voice.
There was no answer, but I heard a clicking sound of which I did not at first understand the cause.
"Is that you, Lucrèce?" I repeated, a little louder this time.
At the same moment I received a terrible blow in the chest, a loud report was heard and I found myself lying prone upon the pavement. A hoarse voice cried to me:
"Take that from the Signora Lucrèce!"
And the shutter was closed noiselessly.
I arose immediately, reeling as I did so, and the first thing that I did was to make an inspection of myself, fully expecting to find a great hole in the middle of my stomach. The cloak was perforated, and my coat as well, but the thick folds of heavy cloth had served to deaden the force of the ball and I escaped with a severe contusion. The idea entered my head that a second shot might not be long in coming, so I forthwith dragged myself away from that inhospitable house, hugging the walls in such a way as to prevent any one from securing a fair aim at me.
I was retiring as rapidly as I was able to, quite breathless still, when a man whom I had not noticed, owing to his being behind me, came up and took my arm and inquired with much feeling if I was wounded. I recognized the voice; it was Don Ottavio. It was not the time for asking questions, however surprised I might be at seeing him alone and in the street at that hour of the night. I briefly told him that some one had fired at me from a certain window that I described and that I had got off with a contusion.
"It was a mistake!" he exclaimed. "But I hear people coming this way. Are you able to walk? I am lost if we are found together. Still, I will not leave you."
He took me by the arm and dragged me rapidly away. We walked, or rather ran, as long as I could go, but soon my breath failed me and I was compelled to seat myself upon a stone. We luckily chanced to be but a little way from a great mansion where there was a ball going on. There were coaches in abundance standing before the door. Don Ottavio went and procured one, helped me into it and went with me to my hotel. A large glass of water that I drank having quite put me to rights again, I proceeded to relate to him in detail everything that had happened me before that ill-omened house, from the present of a rose down to that of a leaden bullet.
He listened to my story with his head down, half hidden in one of his hands. When I showed him the note that I had received he snatched it from me, read it eagerly, and again exclaimed:
"It is all a mistake! a horrible mistake!"
"You must admit, my dear fellow," said I, "that it is a very disagreeable one for me, and for you also. I narrowly escape being killed, and you have ten or a dozen holes punctured in your handsome cloak. Heavens! what a jealous set your countrymen are!"
Don Ottavio pressed my hand with an air of compunction and read the note over again without making me any answer.
"Try and see if you can't give me some explanation of all this business," I said to him. "The deuce take me if I can make head or tail of it."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"At least," said I, "what am I to do? To whom must I address myself, in this holy city of yours, in order to obtain redress against this gentleman who blazes away at people in the street without so much as stopping to ask what their name is? I confess that it would afford me much delight to be the means of having him hanged."
"Do nothing of the kind!" he exclaimed. "You are not acquainted with this country. Say nothing of what has happened you to any one. You would be exposing yourself to great danger."
"How should I be exposing myself? Morbleu, I mean to have my revenge. If I had given the ragamuffin any cause for being offended it would have been a different matter, but for having picked up a rose—in all conscience, I don't deserve a bullet for that."
"Leave the matter to me," said Don Ottavio; "perhaps I may be able to clear up the mystery. But I ask you as a favor, as a signal proof of your friendship for me, don't speak of this affair to a living soul. Will you promise me that?"
He had such an expression of sadness as he addressed this supplication to me that I had not the courage to refuse him, and so I promised all that he desired. He thanked me effusively, and after having applied a compress of eau de Cologne to my chest, clasped my hand and bade me good-night.
"Apropos," I asked him just as he was opening the door to leave the room, "tell me how it was that you happened to be on hand just at the right moment to come to my assistance?"
"I heard the report," he replied, not without some display of embarrassment, "and left the house immediately, fearing that something might have happened you."
He left me hurriedly, after having again enjoined me to secrecy.
In the morning a surgeon came to look at me, sent, doubtless, by Don Ottavio. He prescribed an embrocation, but asked me no question as to the cause that had been instrumental in strewing violets upon the lilies of my complexion. They are close-mouthed at Rome, and being in that city I wished to conform to the usages of the inhabitants thereof.
Several days passed without my having an opportunity of conversing freely with Don Ottavio. He was preoccupied, even more gloomy than usual, and appeared, besides, to endeavor to avoid ray questions; he said not a word about the strange inhabitants of the viccolo di Madama Lucrezia during our brief and infrequent interviews. The day fixed for his ordination was drawing near, and I attributed his moodiness to his dislike for the profession that was being forced upon him.
For my part, I was making my preparations to leave Rome in order to go to Florence. When I mentioned my impending departure to the Marquise Aldobrandi, Don Ottavio, alleging some pretext or other, I have forgotten what, requested me to come up to his room. There taking me by my two hands:
"My dear friend," said he, "if you don't grant me the favor that I am about to ask of you I shall certainly blow my brains out, for I can see no other way of extricating myself from the difficulty that I am in. I am firmly resolved never to put on the hateful coat that they want to make me wear. It is my wish to fly this country. What I have to ask of you is that you will take me with you. You can pass me off as your servant; a single word added to your passport will suffice to facilitate my flight."
At first I tried to dissuade him from his project by speaking to him of the grief that he would cause his mother, but finding him inexorable in his determination I finally promised to take him with me and to have the necessary alterations made in my passport.
"That is not all," he said. "My departure is contingent also upon the success of an enterprise in which I am engaged. You intend to set out day after to-morrow; by that time I shall have been successful, may be, and then I am wholly at your service."
"You can't have been so mad," I asked him, not without uneasiness," as to have gone and got yourself entangled in some conspiracy?"
"No," he replied, "the interests at stake are of less importance than the fate of my country, but yet they are of such weight that on the success of my enterprise depend my life and happiness. I cannot tell you more just now; in two days you shall know all."
I accepted the situation resignedly, for I was beginning to become accustomed to mystery. It was settled that we were to start at three o'clock in the morning and that we were to make no stop until we had reached Tuscan territory.
Convinced that it was useless to go to bed, having to start at such an early hour, I employed the last evening that I was to spend in Rome in paying visits at all the houses where I had been received. I went to take leave of the marquise and shake hands with her son, ceremonially and for form's sake. I could feel his hand tremble as I took it in my own. He said to me in a whisper:
"At this moment my life is hanging on the toss of a penny. When you return to your hotel you will find a letter from me. If I am not with you by three o'clock precisely, do not wait for me."
I was struck by the changed expression of his countenance, but I attributed it to a very natural emotion on his part at a moment when he was about to separate himself from his family, perhaps for ever.
I reached my lodging about one o'clock. I desired once more to pass through the viccolo of Madame Lucrèce. There was something white hanging from the window where I had beheld two apparitions of such different nature. I approached it cautiously. It was a knotted rope. Was it an invitation to go and say good-by to the signora? It looked very much like it, and the temptation was great. I did not give way to it, however, remembering the promise that I had made Don Ottavio and also, if the truth must be told, the unpleasant reception that a much less audacious proceeding had earned for me a few days before.
I went my way, therefore, but slowly, vexed to lose this last occasion of penetrating the mystery of the house No. 13. At every step that I took I turned my head, fully expecting to see a human form ascending or descending by the rope-ladder. Nothing appeared. At last I came to the end of the viccolo; I was about to enter the Corso.
"Adieu, Madame Lucrèce," said I, taking off my hat to the house that was still visible to me where I stood. "Please see if you can't find some other one than me upon whom to wreak your vengeance against the jealous husband who keeps you in bondage."
It was striking two when I returned to my hotel. The carriage was standing in the courtyard, all packed and ready. One of the hotel attendants handed me a letter. It was Don Ottavio's, and as it seemed to be a long one I thought that it would be better to read it in my room, so I told the waiter to go before with a light.
"Monsieur," he said, "the domestic that you spoke to us of, he who was to travel with Monsieur——"
"Well, is he arrived?"
"He is at the post; he will come with the horses."
"Monsieur, there came a lady a little while ago who asked to speak to Monsieur's domestic. She insisted upon going up to Monsieur's apartment, and instructed me to tell Monsieur's domestic, the very moment that he came, that Madame Lucrèce is in your room."
"In my room?" I exclaimed, grasping the rail of the staircase with all my strength.
"Yes, Monsieur. And it appears that she is going, too, for she gave me a little bundle. I have put it in the boot."
My Heart was beating violently. I cannot describe the mingled feeling of superstitious terror and curiosity that had taken possession of me. I ascended the staircase, step by step. When I reached the first story (my room was on the second), the waiter who was preceding me made a misstep and the candle that he was carrying fell from his hand and was extinguished. He begged a million pardons and went down to relight it, but I kept on ascending.
Already my hand was on the handle of my door. I hesitated. What new vision was about to greet my sight? More than once the story of the bleeding nun had recurred to my memory in the darkness; was I, like Don Alonso, possessed by a demon? It seemed to me that the waiter was horribly slow in returning with the candle.
I opened my door. Praise be to Heaven! there was a light in my bedroom. I passed with rapid steps through the small sitting-room from which it opened. A glance was sufficient to show me that there was no one in my sleeping-room, but I immediately heard, close at my heels, light footsteps and the rustling of a woman's dress. I think that the hair upon my head stood straight on end. I wheeled about abruptly.
A woman, dressed all in white, with a black mantilla over her head, came toward me with outstretched arms.
"Here you are at last, my beloved," she cried, seizing my hand. Her own was cold as ice and her features bore the pallor of death. I retreated to the wall.
"Holy Virgin! it is not he! Ah! Monsieur, are you the friend of Don Ottavio?"
At these words everything was made clear. Despite her pallor, the young woman had nothing of the air of a phantom. She cast down her eyes, a thing which ghosts never do, and held her two hands crossed before her in a modest attitude, which led me to believe that my friend Don Ottavio was not so much of a politician as I had given him credit for being, after all. In a word, the time had come for abducting the fair Lucrèce, and the only rôle that I was fated to play in the adventure was that of confidant.
Don Ottavio appeared upon the scene a moment after, disguised; the horses came arid we started. There was no passport for Lucrèce, but a woman, and a pretty woman at that, never inspires suspicion. There was one gendarme, however, who was inclined to raise difficulties. I told him that he was a brave fellow and that he certainly must have served under the great Napoleon. He did not deny it, and I made him a present of a portrait of that illustrious man, in gold. Then it was all plain sailing.
If I must give you the whole of this story, Don Ottavio, the traitor, had made the acquaintance of this charming person, who was sister to a certain Vanozzi, a wealthy farmer and a man of ill-repute as being a little of a liberal and a good deal of a smuggler. Don Ottavio was well aware that, even if his relatives had not destined him for the church, they would never have consented to let him marry a girl of a consented to let him marry a girl of a condition so far beneath his own.
Love, they say, laughs at locksmiths. The Abbé Negroni's pupil succeeded in establishing a secret correspondence with his beloved. Every night he made his escape from the Aldobrandi palace, and as it would have been too hazardous an undertaking to attempt to escalade Vanozzi's house, the two lovers made their rendezvous in that of Madame Lucrèce, the evil reputation of which, moreover, served them as a protection against intruders. A little door, concealed by a fig tree, afforded communication between the two gardens. Young, and in love as they were, Lucrèce and Ottavio never thought of complaining of the scantiness of their furniture, which consisted, as I think I have already mentioned, of a single old leather-covered armchair.
One evening, while awaiting Don Ottavio, Lucrèce mistook me for him and made me the present that I carried off in his place. It is true that there was some resemblance in height and shape between Don Ottavio and myself. . . . . Then it came to pass that the confounded brother got wind of the affair, but his threats were unavailing to make Lucrèce divulge the hame of her lover. You know how he revenged himself, and how I thought to pay the scot for the whole party.
It is useless to tell you how the two lovers "took the key of the fields," each in his own way.
Conclusion. We arrived safely at Florence, all three of us. Don Ottavio married Lucrèce and started immediately with her for Paris. There my father welcomed him with the same cordiality that I had received from the marquise. He took it upon himself to negotiate a reconciliation between mother and son, and was finally successful, though not without considerable difficulty. The Marquis Aldobrandi very opportunely contracted the fever of the Campagna and died of it. Ottavio inherited his title and fortune, and I was godfather to his first child.