Chapter 12




Gigetto had refused to accompany Annetta and her party to the fair at Civitella San Sisto. He had been to Rome several times, and was far too fine a young gentleman to divert himself in such a very primitive place. He preferred to spend his leisure hours, which were very many, in elegant idleness, according to his lights, between the tobacconist's, the chemist's shop, which was the resort of all the superior men of the place after four o'clock in the afternoon, and the abundant, though not very refined table which was spread twice daily in his father's house. Civitella wine, Civitella fireworks, and especially Civitella girls, were quite beneath his notice. As for Annetta, he looked upon her with something like contempt, though he had a high respect for the fortune which must one day be hers. She was to be a necessary encumbrance of his future life, and for the present he meant to see as little of her as was conveniently possible without relinquishing his claims to her hand. She had admired him, in a way, until the arrival of Dalrymple, and he felt a little irritation at the Scotchman's presence in the house, so that he occasionally frightened Sora Nanna by talking of waiting for him with a gun at the corner of the forest. It produced a good impression, he thought, to show from time to time that he was not without jealousy. But as for going with her on such an expedition as a visit to a country fair, it was not to be expected of him.

Nevertheless, Annetta had enjoyed herself thoroughly with her companions, and was very glad that Gigetto had not been at her elbow with his city notions of propriety, which he applied to her, but made as elastic as he pleased for himself. She had been to high mass in the village church, crowded to suffocation, she had walked up and down the main street half the afternoon, arm in arm with the other girls, giggling and showing off her handsome costume to the poorer natives of the little place, and smiling wickedly at the handsome youths who stood idly in groups at the corners of the streets. She had dined sumptuously, and had made her eyes sparkle like rather vulgar little stars by drinking a glass of strong old white wine to the health and speedy marriage of all the other girls. She had gone out with them at dusk, and had watched the pretty fireworks in the small piazza, and had wandered on with them afterwards in the moonlight to the ruin of the Cyclopean fortress which overlooks the two valleys. Then back to the house of her friends, who kept the principal inn, and more tough chicken and tender salad and red wine for supper. And on the next day they had all gone down to the meagre vineyards, half way to San Vito and just below the thick chestnut woods which belong to the Marchese and feudal lord of that ancient town. And there amongst the showers of reddening vine leaves, she had helped to gather the last grapes of the year, with song and jest and laughter. At noon they climbed the hill again in the October sun, and dined upon the remains of the previous day's feast; then, singing still, they had started on their homeward downward way, happy and not half tired yet when they reached Subiaco in the evening glow.

They came trooping through the town to the little piazza in which the doctor's house was situated. They separated here, some to go up to the higher part, while others were to go down in the same direction as Annetta. The girl looked up at the doctor's windows, and her small eyes flashed viciously. It would be a pleasant ending to the two days' holiday to have a look at her work. Now that he was getting well, as Dalrymple told her, she was glad that she had not killed him. It was an even greater satisfaction to have almost frightened the old coward to death. She had been uneasy about the question of confession.

"By Bacchus," she laughed, "I will go and see Sor Tommaso. They say he is better."

So she took leave of her companions and entered the narrow door, and climbed the short flight of dark steps and knocked. The doctor's sleeping-room opened directly upon the staircase. He used the room on the ground floor as an office and dining-room, his old peasant woman-servant slept in the attic, and the other two rooms were let by the year. It was a very small house.

The old woman, whose name was Serafina, opened the bedroom door and thrust out her head, covered with a dark and threadbare shawl. There was a sibylline gloom about her withered face, as though she had lived a lifetime in the face of a horror to come.

"What do you want?" she croaked roughly, and not opening the door any wider.

"Eh! What do I want? I am the Annetta of Stefanone, and I have come to pay a visit to this dear doctor, because they say that he is better, God bless him."

"Oh! I did not recognize you," said the old woman. "I will ask."

Still holding the door almost closed, she drew in her head and spoke with Sor Tommaso. Annetta could hear his answer.

"Of course!" he said, in a voice still weak, but singularly oily with the politeness of his intention. "Let her favour us!"

The door was opened, and Annetta went in. Sor Tommaso was sitting up near the window, in a deep easy-chair covered with ragged green damask. The girl was surprised by his pallor, as compared with his formerly rubicund complexion. Peasant-like, she glanced about the room to judge of its contents before she spoke.

"How are you, dear Sor Tommaso?" she asked after the short pause. "Eh, what we have suffered for you, all of us! Who was this barbarian who wished to send you to Paradise?"

"Who knows?" returned Sor Tommaso, with amazing blandness. "I trust that he may be forgiven as I forgive him."

"What it is to be a wise man!" exclaimed Annetta, with affected admiration. "To have such sentiments! It is a beautiful thing. And how do you feel now, dear Sor Tommaso? Are you getting your strength again? They took your blood, those cowardly murderers! You must make it again."

Their eyes met, and each knew that the other knew and understood. Sor Tommaso smiled gently. The savage girl's mouth twitched as though she should have liked to laugh.

"Little by little; who goes slowly goes safely," answered the doctor. "I am an old man, you must know."

"Old!" Annetta was glad of the opportunity to laugh at last. "Old? Eh, on Sunday, when you have on those new black trousers of yours that are tight, tight—you seem to me a boy as young as Gigetto. For my part, I should prefer you. You are more serious. Gigetto! What must I say? He is handsome, he may be good, but he has not a head. There is nothing in that pumpkin."

"Blood of youth," answered Sor Tommaso. "It must boil. It must fling its chains about. Afterwards it begins to know the chains. Little by little it accustoms itself to them. Then it is quiet, quiet, as we old ones are. Sit down, my daughter. Serafina! A chair—the one that is not lame. These chairs remember the blessed soul of mamma," added Sor Tommaso, in explanation of their weakness.

"Requiesca'!" exclaimed Annetta, sitting down.

"Amen," responded Sor Tommaso. "You are so beautiful to-day," he continued, looking at her flowered bodice and new apron; "where have you been?"

"Where should I go? To Civitella. There was the fair. We ate certain chickens—tough! But the air of the mountain consumes. There were also fireworks."

"What? Have you walked?" asked Sor Tommaso.

"Even with two legs one can walk," laughed the girl. "But of course a beast is better with four. The beasts had all gone to Tivoli with wine for Rome. They had not come back yesterday morning. Therefore with these two feet I walked. I and many others, girls like me. It is true that I am half dead."

"You are fresher than lettuce," observed Sor Tommaso. "And then you have climbed up my stairs. This is a true Christian act. God return it to you. I am alone all day."

"But the Englishman comes to see you," said Annetta, indifferently.

"The Englishman, yes. He comes. More or less, he has almost cured me. But then, for his conversation, I say nothing!"

"Meanwhile he is also curing the abbess. He has a fortunate hand. There death, here death—he makes them all alive. Where is death, now? Here, perhaps? Hidden in some corner, or under the bed? He has certain medicines, that Englishman! Medicines that you do not even dream of. Strong! It is I that tell you. Sometimes, the whole house smells of them. Death could not resist them a moment. They drive even the flies out of the windows. The Englishman gave me some once. I had been in the sun and had drunk a gallon of cold water, foolish as I was. I was thirsty, as I am now. Well, he gave me a spoonful of something like water, mixed in water. I do not tell you anything. At first it burned me. Arch-priest, it burned! Then, not even a minute, and I had Paradise in my body. And so it passed."

"Who knows? A cordial, perhaps," observed Sor Tommaso, thoughtfully. "I have such cordials, too."

"I do not doubt it," answered the girl, suspiciously. "But I would rather not taste them. I feel quite well."

It crossed her mind that in return for three knife-thrusts, Sor Tommaso would probably not miss so good a chance of paying her with a glass of poison. She would certainly have done as much herself, had she been in his place.

"Who thought of offering you cordials!" replied the doctor, with a polite laugh. "I said it to say it. But if you are thirsty, command me. There is water and good wine. They are the best cordials."

"Eh, a little water. I do not refuse. As for the wine, no. I thank you the same. I am fasting and have walked. After supper, at home, I will drink."

"Serafina!" cried Sor Tommaso, and the old sibyl immediately appeared from the stairs, whither she had discreetly retired to wait during Annetta's visit. "Bring water, and that bottle of my wine from downstairs. You know, the bottle of old wine of Stefanone's that was opened."

"No, no. I want no wine," said Annetta, quickly.

"Bring it all the same. Perhaps she will do us the honour to drink it."

Serafina nodded, and her bare feet were heard on the stone steps as she descended.

"It is bad to drink pure water when one is very thirsty," said Sor Tommaso. "It cramps the stomach. A little wine gives the stomach strength. But it is best to eat. If you will eat, there are fresh jumbles. I also eat them."

"I thank you the same," answered Annetta. "I wish only water. It is a long way from Civitella, and there is no good spring. There is the brook that runs out of the pond at the foot of the last hill. But it is heavy water, full of stuff."

Serafina came back, bringing two heavy tumblers of pressed glass on a little black japanned tray, with a decanter of cold water. In her other hand she carried two bottles, one half full of wine, the other containing the white and sugary syrup of peach kernels of which Italians are so fond.

"I brought this also," she said, holding up the bottle as she set down the tray. "Perhaps it is better."

"Yes," said Sor Tommaso, nodding in approbation. "It is better."

"You will drink a little orgeat?" asked the old woman, in a tone of persuasion, and mixing it in the glass.

"Water, simply water," said Annetta, who was still suspicious. "Give me water in the other glass."

"But I have mixed already in both," answered Serafina. "Eh, you will drink it. You will not make an old woman like me go all the way down the stairs again. But then, it is good. It is I that tell you. I made it myself, yesterday morning, for the doctor, to refresh his blood a little."

Annetta had risen to her feet and was watching the glasses, as the old woman stirred the white syrup in the water with an old-fashioned, long-handled spoon. She did not wish to seem absurdly suspicious, and yet she distrusted her enemy. She took one of the glasses, went to his side, and held it to his lips as one gives an invalid drink.

"After you," he said, with a polite smile, but raising his hand to take the glass.

"Sick people first, well people afterwards," answered Annetta, smiling too, but watching him intently.

He had satisfied himself that she really suspected foul play, for he knew the peasants well, and was only a degree removed from them himself. He at once dismissed her suspicions by drinking half the tumbler at a draught. She immediately took the other and emptied it eagerly, as she was really very thirsty.

"A little more?" suggested Serafina, in her croaking voice.

"No," interposed Sor Tommaso. "It might hurt her—so much at once."

But Annetta filled the tumbler with pure water, and emptied it again.

"At last!" she exclaimed with a sigh of satisfaction. "What thirst! I seemed to have eaten ashes! And now I thank you, Sor Tommaso, and I am going home; for it is Ave Maria, and I do not wish to make a bad meeting in the dark as happened to you. Ugly assassins! I will never forgive them, never! What am I to say at home? That you will come to supper one of these days?"

"Eh, if God wills," answered the doctor. "I will be accompanied by Serafina."

"I!" exclaimed the old woman. "I am afraid even of a cat! What could I do for you?"

"Company is always company," said Sor Tommaso, wisely. "Where one would not go, two go bravely. Good evening, my beautiful daughter," he added, looking up at Annetta. "The Madonna go with you."

"Thank you, and good evening," answered the girl, dropping half a courtsey, with a vicious twinkle in her little eyes.

She turned, and was out of the room in a moment. On the way home through the narrow streets in the evening glow, she sang snatches of song to herself, and thought of all she had said to Sor Tommaso, and of all he had said to her, and of how much afraid he was of her father's knife. For otherwise, as she knew, he would have had her arrested.

Suddenly, at the last turning she stopped and turned very pale, clasping both hands upon her bodice.

"Assassin!" she groaned, grinding her short white teeth. "He has poisoned me, after all! An evil death to him and all his house! Assassin!"

She forgot that she had experienced precisely the same sensations once before, when she had been overheated and had swallowed too much cold water.




 



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