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Very late, one night in the Carnival season, Paul Griggs was walking the streets alone. His sufferings were no longer so small as they had been, and the bitterness of solitude was congenial to him.
He had been at the house of a Spanish artist, where there had been dancing and music and supper and improvised tableaux. Gloria and her father and Reanda had all been there, too, and something had happened which had stirred the depths of the young man's slow temper. He hated to make an exhibition of himself, and much against his will he had been exhibited, as it were, to help the gaiety of the entertainment. Cotogni, the great sculptor, had suggested that Griggs should appear as Samson, asleep with his head on Delilah's knee, and bound by her with cords which he should seem to break as the Philistines rushed in. He had refused flatly, again and again, till all the noisy party caught the idea and forced him to it.
They had dressed him in silk draperies, his mighty arms bare almost to the shoulder, and they had given him a long, dark, theatrical wig. They had bound his arms and chest with cords, and had made him lie down and pretend to be asleep at the feet of the artist's beautiful wife. They had made slipping knots in the cords, so that he could easily wrench them loose. Then the curtain had been drawn aside, and there had been a pause as the tableau was shown. All at once a mob of artists, draped hastily in anything they could lay their hands upon, and with all manner of helmets on their heads from the Spaniard's collection, had rushed in.
"The Philistines are upon thee!" cried Delilah in a piercing voice.
He sprang to his feet, his legs being free, and he struggled with the cords. The knots would not slip as they were meant to do. The situation lasted several seconds, and was ridiculous enough.
People began to laugh.
"Cut off his hair!" cried one.
"Of what use was the wig?" laughed another, and every one tittered.
Griggs could hear Gloria's clear, high laugh above the rest. His blood slowly rose in his throat. But no one pulled the curtain across. The Philistines, young artists, mad with Carnival, improvised a very eccentric dance of triumph, and the laughter increased.
Griggs looked at the cords. Then his mask-like face turned slowly to the audience. Only the great veins swelled suddenly at his temples, while every one watched him in the general amusement. Suddenly his eyes flashed, and he drew a deep breath, for he was angry. In an instant there was dead silence in the room. A moment later one of the cords, drawn tight round his chest, over the silk robe, snapped like a thread, then another, and then a third. Then in a sort of frenzy of anger he savagely broke the whole cord into pieces with his hands, tossing the bits contemptuously upon the floor. His face was as white as a dead man's.
A roar of applause broke the silence when the guests realized what he had done. The artists seized him and carried him high in procession round the room, the women threw flowers at him, and some one struck up a triumphal march on the piano. It was an ovation. Half an hour later, dressed again in his ordinary clothes, he found himself next to Gloria.
"You told me the other day that you were not Samson," she said. "You see you can be when you choose."
"No," answered Griggs, coldly; "I am a clown."
What she had said was natural enough, but somehow the satisfaction of his bodily vanity had stung his moral pride beyond endurance. It seemed a despicable thing to be as vain as he was of a gift for which he had not paid any price. Deep down, too, he felt bitterly that he had never received the slightest praise for any thought of his which he had written down and sent to that cauldron of the English daily press in which all individual right to distinction disappears, with all claim to praise, from written matter, however good it be. He worked, he read, he studied, he wrote late, and rose early to observe. But his natural gift was to be a mountebank, a clown, a circus Hercules. By stiffening one of his senseless arms he could bring down roars of applause. By years of bitter labour with his pen he earned the barest living. The muscles that a porter might have, offered him opulence, because it was tougher by a few degrees than the flesh of other men. The knowledge he had striven for just kept him above absolute want.
He slipped away from the gay party as soon as he could. His last glance round the room showed him Angelo Reanda and Gloria, sitting in a corner apart. The girl's face was grave. There was a gentle and happy light in the artist's eyes which Griggs had never seen. That also was the strong man's portion.
Wrathfully he strode away from the house, under the dim oil lamps, an unlighted cigar between his teeth, his soft felt hat drawn over his eyes. He crossed the city towards the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona, his cigar still unlighted.
The streets were alive, though it was very late. There was more freedom to be gay and more hope of being simply happy in those days. Many men and women wandered about in bands of ten or a dozen, singing in soft voices, above which now and then rose a few ringing tenor notes. There was laughter everywhere in the air; tambourines drummed and thumped and jingled, guitars twanged, and mandolines tinkled and quavered. From a dark lane somewhere off the broader thoroughfare, a single voice sang out in serenade. The Corso was bright with unusual lights, and strewn with the birdseed and plaster-of-Paris 'confetti,' with yellow sand and sprigs of box leaves, and withering flowers, and there was about all the neighbourhood that peculiar smell of plaster and crushed flower-stalks which belonged then to the street carnival of Rome. Further on, in the dim quarters by the Tiber, the wine shops were all crowded, and men stood and drank outside on the pavement, and paid, and went laughing on, laughing and singing, singing and laughing, through the night.
Griggs felt the penetrating loneliness of him who cannot laugh amidst laughter, and it was congenial to him. He had always been alone, and he felt that the world held no companion for him. There was satisfaction in knowing that no one could ever guess what went on between his heart and his head.
He wandered on with the same even, untiring stride, for a long time, through the dark and winding ways, from the Pantheon through the old city, through Piazza Paganica and Costaguti to Piazza Montanara, where the carters and carriers congregate from the country. There, in the middle of the three-cornered open space, a flag in the paving marked the spot on which men used to be put to death. To-night even the carriers were making merry. Griggs was thirsty, and paused at the door of a wine shop. Though it was winter, men were sitting outside, for there was no more room within. A flaring torch of pitched rope was stuck in an iron ring, and shed an uncertain, smoky light upon the men's faces. A drawer in an apron brought Griggs a glass, and he drank standing.
"It makes no difference," said a rough voice in the little crowd. "They may cut off my head there on the paving-stone. They would do me a favour. If I find him, I kill him. An evil death on him and all his house!"
Griggs looked at the speaker without surprise, for he had often heard such things said. He saw an iron-grey man in good peasant's clothes of dark blue with broad silver buttons, a man with a true Roman face, a small aquiline nose, and keen, dark eyes. He turned away, and began to retrace his steps.
In half an hour he was at the door of the old Falcone inn, gone now like many relics of that day. It stood in the Piazza of Saint Eustace near the Pantheon, and in its time was the best of the old-fashioned eating-houses. Griggs felt suddenly hungry. He had walked seven or eight miles since he had left the party. He entered, and passed through the crowded rooms below and up the narrow steps to a small upper chamber, where he hoped to be alone. But there, also, every seat was taken.
To his surprise Dalrymple and Reanda were at the table furthest from him, in earnest conversation, with a measure of wine between them. Griggs had never seen the Italian there before, but the latter caught sight of him as he stood in the door, and rose to his feet, making a sign which meant that he was going away, and that the chair was vacant. Griggs came forward, and looked into his face as they met. There was the same gentle and happy light in Reanda's eyes which had been there when he was sitting with Gloria in the corner of the Spanish artist's drawing-room. Then Griggs understood and knew the truth, and guessed the meaning of the unaccustomed pressure of the hand as Reanda greeted him without speaking, and hurriedly went out.
Dalrymple had seen Griggs coming and was already calling to a man in a spotless white jacket for another glass and more wine. The Scotchman's bony face was haggard, but there was a little colour in his cheeks, and he seemed pleased.
"Sit down, Griggs," he said. "There are no more chairs, so we can keep the table to ourselves. I hope you are half as thirsty as I am."
"Rather more than half," answered the other, and he drank eagerly. "Give me some more, please," he said, holding out his glass.
"I see that you are in the right humour to hear good news," said the Scot. "Reanda is to marry my daughter in the summer."
"I congratulate you all three," said Griggs, slowly, for he had known what was coming. "Let us drink the health of the couple."
"By all means," answered Dalrymple, filling again. "By all means let us drink. I could not swallow that sweet stuff at Mendoza's. This is better. By all means let us drink as much as we can."
"That might mean a good deal," said Griggs, quickly, and he drained a third glass. "Were you ever drunk, Dalrymple?" he inquired gravely.
"No. I never was," answered the Scotchman.
"Nor I. This seems a fitting occasion for trying an experiment. We might try to get drunk."
"By all means, let us try," replied Dalrymple. "I have my doubts about the possibility of the thing, however."
"So have I."
They sat opposite to one another in silence for some minutes, each satisfied that the other was in earnest. Dalrymple solemnly filled the glasses and then leaned back in his chair.
"You did not seem much surprised by what I told you," he observed at last. "I suppose you expected it."
"Yes. It seemed natural enough, though it is not always the natural things that happen."
"I think they are suited to marry. Of course, Reanda is very much older, but he is comparatively a young man still."
"Comparatively. He will make a better husband for having had experience, I daresay."
"That depends on what experience he has had. When I first saw him I thought he was in love with Donna Francesca. It would have been like an artist. They are mostly fools. But I was mistaken. He worships at a distance."
"And she preserves the distance," Griggs remarked. "You are not drinking fair. My glass is empty."
Dalrymple finished his and refilled both.
"I have been here some time," he observed, half apologetically. "But as I was saying—or rather, as you were saying—Donna Francesca preserves the distance. These Italians do that admirably. They know the difference between intimacy and familiarity."
"That is a nice distinction," said Griggs. "I will use it in my next letter. No. Donna Francesca could never be familiar with any one. They learn it when they are young, I suppose, and it becomes a race-characteristic."
"What?" asked Dalrymple, abruptly.
"A certain graceful loftiness," answered the younger man.
The Scotchman's wrinkled eyelids contracted, and he was silent for a few moments.
"A certain graceful loftiness," he repeated slowly. "Yes, perhaps so. A certain graceful loftiness."
"You seem struck by the expression," said Griggs.
"I am. Drink, man, drink!" added Dalrymple, suddenly, in a different tone. "There's no time to be lost if we mean to drink enough to hurt us before those beggars go to bed."
"Never fear. They will be up all night. Not that it is a reason for wasting time, as you say."
He drank his glass and watched Dalrymple as the latter did likewise, with that deliberate intention which few but Scotchmen can maintain on such occasions. The wine might have been poured into a quicksand, for any effect it had as yet produced.
"Those race-characteristics of families are very curious," continued Griggs, thoughtfully.
"Are they?" Dalrymple looked at him suspiciously.
"Very. Especially voices. They run in families, like resemblance of features."
"So they do," answered the other, thoughtfully. "So they do."
He had of late years got into the habit of often repeating such short phrases, in an absent-minded way.
"Yes," said Griggs. "I noticed Donna Francesca's voice, the first time I ever heard it. It is one of those voices which must be inherited. I am sure that all her family have spoken as she does. It reminds me of something—of some one—"
Dalrymple raised his eyes suddenly again, as though he were irritated.
"I say," he began, interrupting his companion. "Do you feel anything? Anything queer in your head?"
"You are talking rather disconnectedly, that is all."
"Am I? It did not strike me that I was incoherent. Probably one half of me was asleep while the other was talking." He laughed drily, and drank again. "No," he said thoughtfully, as he set down his glass. "I feel nothing unusual in my head. It would be odd if I did, considering that we have only just begun."
"So I thought," answered Dalrymple.
He ordered more wine and relapsed into silence. Neither spoke again for a long time.
"There goes another bottle," said Dalrymple, at last, as he drained the last drops from the flagon measure. "Drink a little faster. This is slow work. We know the old road well enough."
"You are not inclined to give up the attempt, are you?" inquired Griggs, whose still face showed no change. "Is it fair to eat? I am hungry."
"Certainly. Eat as much as you like."
Griggs ordered something, which was brought after considerable delay, and he began to eat.
"We are not loquacious over our cups," remarked Dalrymple. "Should you mind telling me why you are anxious to get drunk to-night for the first time in your life?"
"I might ask you the same question," answered Griggs, cautiously.
"Merely because you proposed it. It struck me as a perfectly new idea. I have not much to amuse me, you know, and I shall have less when my daughter leaves me. It would be an amusement to lose one's head in some way."
"In such a way as to be able to get it back, you mean. I was walking this evening after the party, and I came to the Piazza Montanara. There is a big flagstone there on which people used to leave their heads for good."
"Yes. I have seen it. You cannot tell me much about Rome which I do not know."
"There were a lot of carriers drinking close by. It was rather grim, I thought. An old fellow there had a spite against somebody. You know how they talk. 'They may cut off my head there on the paving-stone,' the man said. 'If I find him, I kill him. An evil death on him and all his house!' You have heard that sort of thing. But the fellow seemed to be very much in earnest."
"He will probably kill his man," said Dalrymple.
Suddenly his big, loose shoulders shook a little, and he shivered. He glanced towards the window, suspecting that it might be open.
"Are you cold?" asked Griggs, carelessly.
"Cold? No. Some one was walking over my grave, as they say. If we varied the entertainment with something stronger, we should get on faster, though."
"No," said Griggs. "I refuse to mix things. This may be the longer way, but it is the safer."
And he drank again.
"He was a man from Tivoli, or Subiaco," he remarked presently. "He spoke with that accent."
"I daresay," answered Dalrymple, who looked down into his glass at that moment, so that his face was in shadow.
Just then four men who had occupied a table near the door rose and went out. It was late, even for a night in Carnival.
"I hope they are not going to leave us all to ourselves," said Dalrymple. "The place will be shut up, and we need at least two hours more."
"At least," assented Paul Griggs. "But they expect to be open all night. I think there is time."
The men at the other tables showed no signs of moving. They sat quietly in their places, drinking steadily, by sips. Some of them were eating roasted chestnuts, and all were talking more or less in low tones. Occasionally one voice or another rose above the rest in an exclamation, but instantly subsided again. Italians of that class are rarely noisy, for though the Romans drink deep, they generally have strong heads, and would be ashamed of growing excited over their wine.
The air was heavy, for several men were smoking strong cigars. The vaulted chamber was lighted by a single large oil lamp with a reflector, hung by a cord from the intersection of the cross-arches. The floor was of glazed white tiles, and the single window had curtains of Turkey red. It was all very clean and respectable and well kept, even at that crowded season, but the air was heavy with wine and tobacco, and the smell of cooked food,—a peculiar atmosphere in which the old-fashioned Roman delighted to sit for hours on holidays.
Dalrymple looked about him, moving his pale blue eyes without turning his head. The colour had deepened a little on his prominent cheek bones, and his eyes were less bright than usual. But his red hair, growing sandy with grey, was brushed smoothly back, and his evening dress was unruffled. He and Griggs were so evidently gentlemen, that some of the Italians at the other tables glanced at them occasionally in quiet surprise, not that they should be there, but that they should remain so long, and so constantly renew their order for another bottle of wine.
Giulio, the stout, dark drawer in a spotless jacket, moved about silently and quickly. One of the Italians glanced at Griggs and Dalrymple and then at the waiter, who also glanced at them quickly and then shrugged his shoulders almost perceptibly. Dalrymple saw both glances, and his eyes lighted up.
"I believe that fellow is laughing at us," he said to Griggs.
"There is nothing to laugh at," answered the latter, unmoved. "But of course, if you think so, throw him downstairs."
Dalrymple laughed drily.
"There is a certain calmness about the suggestion," he said. "It has a good, old-fashioned ring to it. You are not a very civilized young man, considering your intellectual attainments."
"I grew up at sea and before the mast. That may account for it."
"You seem to have crammed a good deal into a short life," observed Dalrymple. "It must have been a classic ship, where they taught Greek and Latin."
"The captain used to call her his Ship of Fools. As a matter of fact, it was rather classic, as you say. The old man taught us navigation and Greek verse by turns for five years. He was a university man with a passion for literature, but I never knew a better sailor. He put me ashore when I was seventeen with pretty nearly the whole of my five years' pay in my pocket, and he made me promise that I would go to college and stay as long as my money held out. I got through somehow, but I am not sure that I bless him. He is afloat still, and I write to him now and then."
"An Englishman, I suppose?"
"No. An American."
"What strange people you Americans are!" exclaimed Dalrymple, and he drank again. "You take up a profession, and you wear it for a bit, like a coat, and then change it for another," he added, setting down his empty glass.
"Very much like you Scotch," answered Griggs. "I have heard you say that you were a doctor once."
"A doctor—yes—in a way, for the sake of being a man of science, or believing myself to be one. My family was opposed to it," he continued thoughtfully. "My father told me it was his sincere belief that science did not stand in need of any help from me. He said I was more likely to need the help of science, like other lunatics. I will not say that he was not right."
He laughed a little and filled his glass.
"Poor Dalrymple!" he exclaimed softly, still smiling.
Paul Griggs raised his slow eyes to his companion's face.
"It never struck me that you were much to be pitied," he observed.
"No, no. Perhaps not. But I will venture to say that the point is debatable, and could be argued. 'To be, or not to be' is a question admirably calculated to draw out the resources of the intellect in argument, if you are inclined for that sort of diversion. It is a very good thing, a very good thing for a man to consider and weigh that question while he is young. Before he goes to sleep, you know, Griggs, before he goes to sleep."
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