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When Dalrymple left Maria on that day, he returned as usual to Stefanone's house. Sora Nanna was alone, for Stefanone was still absent in Rome, and Annetta had gone on the previous day with a number of women to the fair at Civitella San Sisto, which took place on Sunday. She was expected to return on Monday afternoon. It is usual enough for a party of women, with two or three men, to go to the fairs in neighbouring towns and to spend the night with the friends of some one of the company. It was more common still, in those days.
Sora Nanna gave Dalrymple his dinner and kept him company for a while. But he was gloomy and preoccupied, and before long she retired to the regions of the laundry, which was installed in a long low building that ran out into the vegetable garden at the back of the house. Monday was generally the day for ironing the heavy linen of the convent, which was taken up on Tuesdays in the huge baskets carried by four women, slung to a pole which rested on their shoulders in the old primitive fashion, just as litters are still carried in many parts of Asia. It had occurred more than once to Dalrymple, during the last two days, that he could hide almost anything he chose in one of these baskets, which were always delivered directly to Maria Addolorata and which she was at liberty to unpack in the privacy of the linen room if she chose.
He thought of this again as he sat over his dinner, and heard the endless song of the women, far off, at their work. He knew the habits of the house thoroughly and all the customs regarding the carrying up of the baskets, and he remembered that several of them would surely be taken to the convent on the morrow. He thought that if he could procure some more suitable clothes for Maria to wear, this would be a safe means of conveying them to her. She could put them on in her cell, just before the hour at which she was to expect him, so that there would be no time lost and the danger of detection during their flight would be greatly diminished. But there were all sorts of difficulties in the way, and he realized them one by one, until he almost abandoned the scheme in favour of the cloak and plaid which he had first proposed.
He pushed back his chair and went upstairs to his own room. The impression made upon him by Maria Addolorata, when she had bitten her hand, had been a strong one, but the man's nature, though not exactly distrustful, was melancholic and pessimistic. Two hours and more had passed since they had been together, and things had a different look. He realized more clearly the strength of the ties which bound Maria to her convent life, and the effort it must be to her to break them. He remembered the arguments he had used, and he saw that they had been those of passion rather than of reason. Their effect could not be lasting, when he himself was not there to lend them his words and the persuasion of his strength. Maria would repent of her promise, and there was nothing to bind her to it. Hitherto there had been no risk, no common danger. By a chain of natural circumstances he had made his way into a most extraordinary position, but it was in her power, in a moment of repentance, to force him from it. While the abbess was ill, Maria was virtually mistress of the convent. At a word from her the doors might be shut in his face. She might promise again, and bite her hand again, but when it came to his waiting outside the garden gate, she might be seized by a fit of repentance, and he might wait till morning.
As he sat in his room he realized all this, and more, for he knew that on calm reflexion he meant to do what he had that morning threatened in his haste. He had never been attached to life for its own sake. Melancholic men often are not. He had many times thought over the subject of suicide with a sort of grim interest in it, which indicated the direction his temper would take if he were ever absolutely defeated in a matter which he had at heart.
Nothing he had ever felt in his life had taken hold of him as his love for Maria Addolorata, for he had never really been in love before and he had completely abandoned himself to it, as such a man was sure to do in such surroundings. She was beautiful, but that was not all. Since he had heard her sing, he knew that her voice and her rare talent together were genius and nothing less. But that was far from being all. She was of his own class, and he had been seeing her daily, when the peasant women amongst whom he lived were little more than good-natured animals; but even that was not all. He was at that time of life when a man's character is apt to take a violent and sudden turn in its ultimate direction, when the forces that have been growing show themselves all at once, when passion, having appealed as yet but to the man, has climbed and is within reach of his soul, to take hold of it and twist it, or to be finally conquered, perhaps, in a holy life. But Dalrymple was very far from being the kind of man who could have taken refuge against himself in higher things. At a time when materialism was beginning to seem a great thing, he was a strong materialist in scientific questions. He grasped what he could see and held it, but what he could not see had no existence for him. Nothing transcendental attracted him beyond the sphere of mathematics. Yet he had not the materialist's temperament, for the Highland blood in his veins brought strong fancies and sudden passions to his head and heart, such as his chemistry could not explain; and when the brain burned and the heart beat fast, it meant doing or dying with him, as with many a Scotchman before and since. Life had never seemed to be worth much in his eyes, compared with a thing he wanted.
He sat still and thought the matter over, and considered the question of death, for a few short minutes. There was not a trace of philosophical speculation in his reflexions, or they would have lasted longer. He merely desired to be sure, with that curious Scotch caution, of his own intentions, in order not to be obliged to think the matter over again at the last minute.
He had drunk a measure of strong wine with his dinner, as usual. To-day it increased the gloom of his temper, and the pessimistic view he took. In less than a quarter of an hour he had made up his mind that if Maria Addolorata repented at a late hour and refused to leave the convent, he would make an attempt to carry her away by force. If he failed, and found himself shut off from all possibility of intercourse with her, life would not be worth living, and he would throw it away. When strong men are in that frame of mind, they generally accomplish what they have in view. Moreover, it is a great mistake to think that the people who think and talk of suicide will not take their own lives. On the contrary, statistics show that it is more often those who speak of it the most frequently, who ultimately make away with themselves. The mere fact of contemplating and discussing death familiarizes man with it till he does not even attribute to it its true value, which is little enough, as most of us know. Dalrymple was in earnest, and he knew it.
He rose from his chair and unlocked his little laboratory. Among many other things upon the long table there was a plain English oak box, filled with small stoppered bottles, each having a label upon it with the name of the contents written in his own hand. Some were merely medicines, which he carried with him in case his services should ever be required, as had happened at the present time. Others were chemicals which he used in his experiments, such as he could not easily have procured in Italy, outside of the great cities. One even contained the common spirits of camphor, of which he had once given Annetta a teaspoonful when she had complained of a chill and sickness. One, however, was more than half full of a solution of hydrocyanide of potassium, a liquid little less suddenly and surely fatal than the prussic acid which enters into its composition.
He took out this bottle and held it up to the light. The liquid was clear and transparent as water. He watched it curiously as he made it run up to the neck and back again. It might have been taken for pure alcohol, being absolutely colourless.
"It would not take much of that," he said to himself, with a grim smile.
His meditations were interrupted by the voice of Sora Nanna, who had opened his bedroom door without ceremony and stood calling to him. He came forward hastily from the laboratory and went up to her.
"You do not know!" she cried, laughing and holding up a letter. "Stefanone has written to me from Rome! To me! Who the devil knows what he says? I do not understand anything of it. Who should teach me to read? He takes me for a priest, that I should know how to read!"
Dalrymple laughed a little as he took the letter. He picked up his hat from a chair, for he meant to go out and spend the afternoon alone upon the hillside.
"We will read it downstairs," he said. "I am going for a walk."
He read it to her in the common room on the ground floor. It was a letter dictated by Stefanone to a public scribe, instructing his wife to tell Gigetto that she must send another load of wine to Rome as soon as possible, as the price was good in the market. Stefanone would remain in the city till it came, and sell it before returning.
"These husbands!" exclaimed Sora Nanna, with a grin. "What they will not do! They go, riding, riding, and they come back when it seems good to them. Who tells me what he does in Rome? Rome is great."
Dalrymple laughed, put on his hat and went off, leaving Sora Nanna to find Gigetto and give the necessary directions.
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