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With slow steps, and pressing her clasped hands to her bodice, the girl reached the door of her father's house at dusk. She knew that he was away, and that as she had not come home earlier her mother would be in the lower regions preparing Dalrymple's supper for him. The door which gave access to the staircase from the street was still open, and she was almost sure of being able to reach her own room unobserved, unless she chanced to come upon Dalrymple himself on the stairs. Just then she would rather have met him than her mother. She was in great pain, and it would have been hard to explain to Sora Nanna that she believed herself to have been deliberately poisoned.
She crept noiselessly up the stairs, which were almost dark, and she came to Dalrymple's door which faced the first landing. She paused and hesitated, leaning against the wall. He was a wise man in her opinion, and would of course understand her symptoms at once. But then, as she was poisoned, he could do nothing for her. If that were true, her next thought told her that Sor Tommaso must have poisoned himself. He would not do that. She had never heard of antidotes; for though poisoning was traditionally familiar to her and the people of her class, it was very uncommon. Yet her sharpened wit told her that if Sor Tommaso had swallowed the stuff, as he had done, with a smile, he had means at his disposal for counteracting it—some medicine which he had doubtless taken as soon as she had left him. But if he had medicine to save from poison, Dalrymple, who was a far wiser man, must have such medicines, too, and even better ones. This reflexion decided her. She was close to his door. It was probable that he would be in his room at that hour. She was in fear of her life, and she knocked.
But Dalrymple had not come back. He had gone for a long walk alone in the hills, had climbed higher as the sun sank lower, and was belated in steep paths along which even his mountain-trained feet trod with some caution. He was too familiar with the country to lose his way, but he by no means found the shortest way there was, nor was he especially anxious to do so. The hours would pass sooner in walking than in sitting over his books under the flaring little flames of the three brass beaks.
Annetta saw that there was no light in the room, for the hole through which the latch-string hung was worn wide with use. She felt dizzy, too, and the knife-like pain ran through her so that she bent herself. She knew that Dalrymple kept his medicines locked up in the laboratory, and that she could not get at them, though she would have had little hesitation in swallowing anything she found, in the simple certainty that all his medicines must be good in themselves, and therefore life-saving and good for her. But he was out, and she was sure that there could be nothing in the bedroom. She had herself too often looked into every corner when she watered and swept the brick floor each morning, and put things in order according to her primitive ideas.
She then and there lost her hold upon life. She was poisoned, and must die. She was as sure of it as the Chinaman who has seen an eagle, and who, recognizing that his hour is come, calmly lies down and breathes his last by the mere suspension of volition. In old countries the lower orders, as a rule, have but a low vitality. It may be truer to say that the vital volition is weak. Let the learned settle the definition. The fact is easily accounted for. During generations upon generations the majority of European agricultural populations live upon vegetable food, like the majority of Eastern Asiatics, and with the same result. Hard labour produces hard muscles, but vegetable food yields a low vital tension, so to say. Soldiers know it well enough. The pale-faced city clerk who eats meat twice a day will out-fight and out-last and out-starve the burly labourer whose big thews and sinews are mostly compounded of potatoes, corn, and water.
The girl crept up the stairs stealthily to her lonely little room, and lay down to die upon her bed, as though that were the only thing to be done under the circumstances. It never occurred to her to go to her mother and tell her what had happened and what she suspected, any more than it had suggested itself to Sor Tommaso to lay information against her for having stabbed him. If her father had been at home, she might perhaps have gone to him and told him with her dying breath that the doctor had killed her, and that Stefanone must avenge her. But he was away. She was stronger than her mother and had always dominated her. She knew also that if she complained, Sora Nanna would raise such a scream as would bring half Subiaco running to the house. The girl's animal instinct was to die alone, and quietly. So she made no sound, and lay upon her bed writhing in pain and holding her sides with all her might, but with close-set teeth and silent lips.
Looked at from the point of view of fact, it was all ridiculous enough. The girl had been all day in the hot autumn sun, had eaten a quantity of over-ripe figs and grapes, which might have upset the digestion of an ostrich, had tired even her strong limbs with the final walk home, and had then, at Sor Tommaso's house, swallowed nearly a quart of ice-cold water. It was not surprising that she should be very ill. It was not even strange that the theory of poison should suggest itself. To her it was tragedy, and meant nothing less than death, when she lay down upon her bed.
Between the spasms all sorts of things passed through her mind, when her head lay still upon the pillow. Chiefly and particularly her thoughts were filled with hatred of Sor Tommaso, and a sort of doglike longing to see Dalrymple's face before she died. She was still fascinated by the vision of his red hair and bright blue eyes which came back to her vividly, with the careless smile his hard face had for her half-childish, half-malicious sayings. And with the thought of him came also jealousy of Maria Addolorata, and another hatred which was deeper and stronger and more vengeful than any she owed Sor Tommaso. She felt, rather than understood, that Dalrymple loved the nun with all his heart. She had spoken of her to him and had watched his face, and had seen the quick, savage glare of his eyes, though his voice had only expressed his annoyance. As the vision of him rose before her, she saw him as he had been when the angry blush had overspread his face to the roots of his hair.
The image fixed itself. In the dim shadow behind it, she saw the face of Maria Addolorata like a death-mask, and those strange, deep eyes of the nun's looking scornfully at her over the man's shoulder, though she forgot him in the woman's deadly fascination. She stared, unable to close her lids, as it seemed to her, though she longed to shut out the sight. Then a dull noise seemed to be in her ears, a noise that was not a sound, but the stunning effect on her brain of a sound not heard but imagined. There were great circles of light around the nun's head, which cut through Dalrymple's face and then hid it. They were like glories, like the halos about the heads of saints. Annetta was angry with them, for she was sure that Maria Addolorata was bad, and sinned in her throat.
"An evil death on you and all your house!" cried the angry peasant girl, in a low voice.
"Death!" She could not tell whence the echo came back to her, in a tone strange to her ears—for it was her own, perhaps.
She was startled. The vision vanished, and she sat up on her bed with a quick movement, suddenly wide awake. The pain must have passed. No—it came again, but with far less keenness. She felt her face with her hands, and laughed softly, for she knew that she was alive. It was night, and she must have lain some time there all alone, for there was a silvery, misty something through the darkness, the white dawn of moonrise, which is not like the dawn of day, nor like the departing twilight. As she sat up she saw the outline of the hills, jagged against the crosses of the lead-joined panes in the window. There was the moon-dawn sending up its soft radiance to the sky. A little longer she watched, and a single bright point sent one level ray straight into her face. A moment more and the room was flooded with light so that she could see the smallest objects distinctly.
"But I am alive!" she exclaimed in a soft, glad tone. "The brigand only did me a spite. He was afraid to kill me."
The pain seized her again, less sharp than before, but keen enough to stir her anger. She still sat up, but bent forward, clasping her bodice. In the moonlight she could see her heavy shoes on her feet sticking up before her. Realizing that it was a disgraceful thing to lie down with them on, she sprang off the bed, and began to dust the coverlet with her hand. The pain passed.
After all, she reflected, she had swallowed a quantity of cold water at Sor Tommaso's, whether the first glass had contained any poison or not. She had not forgotten, either, that the same thing had once happened to her before, and that Dalrymple had made it pass with a spoonful of something that had stung her mouth and throat, but which had afterwards warmed her and cured her. She felt chilly now, and she wished that she had some of that same stinging, warming stuff.
Something moved, somewhere in the house. The girl listened intently for a moment. Probably Dalrymple had come back and was moving about in his room, washing his hands, as he always did before supper, and taking off his heavy boots. His room was immediately under hers, facing in the same direction. She went towards the door, intending to go down at once and ask him for some of his medicine. By this time she was persuaded that she was not in any danger, and her common-sense told her that she had merely made herself momentarily ill with too many grapes, too much cold water, and too long exposure to the sun. She did not care to let her mother know anything about it, for Sora Nanna would scold her. It would be a simple matter to catch the Scotchman at his door, to get what she wanted from him with an easily given promise of secrecy, and then to come downstairs as though nothing had happened.
Annetta only hesitated a moment, and then went out into the dark staircase, and crept down, as she had crept up, feeling her way at the turnings, by the wall. She reached the door, and was surprised to see that there was no light within—none of that yellow light which a lamp makes, but only the grey glimmer of the moonlight through the shadow, creeping out by the hole of the latch-string. Her ears had deceived her, and Dalrymple was not there. Nevertheless she believed that he was. The moonlight would be in his room as it was in hers, just overhead, and he might not have taken the trouble to light his lamp. It was very probable. She tapped softly, but there was no answer. She was afraid that her mother might come up the stairs and hear her speaking through the door, as though by stealth. She put her lips close to the hole of the latch and whistled softly. Her whistle was broken by her own smile as she fancied that Dalrymple might start at the unexpected sound.
But there was no response. Growing bolder, she called him gently.
"Signor! Are you there?"
There was no answer. Just then, as she stooped, the pain ran through her once more. She was so sure that she had heard him that she was convinced he must be within, very probably in his little laboratory beyond the bedroom. The pain hurt her, and he had the medicine. Very naturally she pulled the string and pushed the door open.
He was not there. The moonlight flooded everything, and the whitewashed walls reflected it, so that the place was as bright as day. The first object that met her eyes was a small bottle standing near the edge of the table in the middle of the room, where Dalrymple had carelessly set it down in the afternoon when Sora Nanna had called him to read her letter. It was directly in the line of the moon's rays, and the stopper gleamed like a little star.
Annetta started with joy as she saw it. It was the very bottle from which he had given her the camphor, less than a month ago—the same in size, in its transparent contents, in its label. It might have deceived a keener eye than hers.
The door of the laboratory stood open, as he had left it, being at the time preoccupied and careless. She only stopped a moment to assure herself that the bottle was the right one, reflecting that he had perhaps felt ill and had taken some of it himself. She went on and looked into the little room.
"Signore!" she called softly. But there was no answer.
It was clear that Dalrymple was either still out, or was downstairs at his supper, with her mother. He might be out, however. It was quite possible, on such a fine evening, for he was irregular in his hours. He would not like it if he came in suddenly and found her meddling with his belongings. She crossed the room again and softly shut the door. At least, if he came, she would not be found with the bottle in her hand. She could give an excuse.
It was all so natural. It was the same bottle. She knew the right quantity, for she had the peasant's memory for such detail. There was a glass and a decanter of water on a white plate on the table. She had no spoon, but that did not matter. She took out the stopper with her strong fingers, though it stuck a little. The pain ran through her again as she poured some of the contents into the tumbler, and it made her hand shake so that she poured out a little more than necessary. But it did not matter. She filled it up with water, held the glass up to the moonlight, and drank it at a draught, and set the empty tumbler upon the table again.
Instantly her features changed. She felt as though she were struck through head and heart and body with red-hot steel. Maria Addolorata's death-mask rose before her in the moonlight.
"An evil death on you and all your house!" she tried to say.
But the words were not out of her mouth before she shivered, caught herself by the table, sank down, and lay stone dead upon the brick floor.
There was no noise. Dying, she thought she screamed, but only the faintest moan had passed her lips.
The door was shut, and the quiet moonlight floated in and silvered her dark, dead face.
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