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Guido took Cecilia's letter with a smile of pleasure when his man brought it to him, and, as he felt its thickness between his fingers, the delightful anticipation of reading it alone was already a real happiness. She was distressed and anxious for him, he was sure, and perhaps in saying so she had found some expression less formal than those she generally used when she talked with him and assured him that she really liked him very much.
"You may go," he said to his servant. "I need nothing more, thank you."
He was in bed, propped up by three or four pillows, and his face was unnaturally flushed and already looked thin. A new book of memoirs, half cut, and with the paper-knife between the leaves, lay on the arras counterpane, in the middle of which royal armorial bearings with crown and sceptre were represented in the fat arms of smiling cherubs. The head of the carved bed was towards the windows of the wide room, so that the light fell from behind; for Guido was an indolent man, and often lay reading for an hour before he got up. On the small table beside him stood a heavy Venetian tumbler of the eighteenth century, ornamented with gold designs. A cigarette-case lay beside it. The carpet of the room had been taken up for the summer, and the floor was of dark red tiles, waxed and immaculate. In a modest way, and though he was comparatively a poor man, Guido had always managed to have what he wanted in the way of surroundings.
He looked at the address on the note, prolonging his anticipation as much as possible. He recognised the neat French envelope as one of those the Countess always had on her table in a stamped leather paper-rack. He felt it again, and was sure that it contained at least four sheets. It was good of her to write so much, and he had not really expected anything. He forgot that his head was aching, that he had a tiresome pain in his bones, and could feel the fever pulse beating in his temples.
He glanced at the door, and then raised the letter to his dry lips, with a look of boyish pleasure. Five minutes later the crumpled pages were crushed in his straining fingers, and he lay twisted to one side, his face to the wall and half buried in the pillow. The grief of his life had come upon him unawares, and he was not able to bear it. Even if he had not been alone, he could not have hidden what he felt then.
After a long time he got up and softly locked the door. He felt very dizzy as he came and lay down again. One of the crumpled sheets of Cecilia's letter had fallen to the floor, the rest lay on the bed beside him and under him.
He lay still, and when he shut his eyes he saw red waves coming and going, for the fever was high, and the blood beat up under his ears as if the arteries must burst.
In an hour his man knocked at the door, and almost at the same instant turned the handle, for he was accustomed to be admitted at once.
"Go away!" cried Guido, in a hoarse voice that stuck in his throat.
The servant's footsteps echoed in the corridor, and there was silence again, and time passed. Then the knock was repeated, very discreetly and with no attempt to turn the handle. Guido answered with an oath.
But his man was not satisfied this time, and he stood still outside, with a puzzled expression. He had never heard Guido swear at any one, in all the years of his service, much less at himself. His master was either in a delirium, or something very grave had happened which he had learned by the letter. The doctor had said that he was not dangerously ill, so it was not likely that he should be already raving with the fever. The man went softly away to his pantry, where the telephone was, shutting each door carefully behind him. There was nothing to be done but to inform Lamberti at once, if he could be found.
It was late in the afternoon before he got the message, on coming home from a long day's work at the Ministry of War. He had not breakfasted that day, for he had been unexpectedly sent for in the morning and had been kept at the Ministry without a moment's respite. Without going to his room he ran down the stairs again and hailed the first cab he met as he hurried towards the Palazzo Farnese.
The bedroom door was still locked, but he spoke to Guido through it, in answer to the rough order to go away which followed his first knock. There was no reply.
"Please let me in," Lamberti said quietly. "I want very much to see you."
Something like a growl came from the room, and presently there was a sound of slippers on the smooth tiles, coming nearer. The key turned and the door was opened a little.
"What is it?" Guido asked, in a voice unlike his own.
"I heard you were ill, and I have come to see you."
Lamberti spoke gently and steadily, but he was shocked by Guido's appearance, as the latter stood before him in his loose silk garments, looking gaunt and wild. There were great rings round his eyes, his face was haggard and drawn, and his cheek-bones were flushed with the fever. He looked much more ill than he really was, so far as his body was concerned.
"Well, come in," he said, after a moment's hesitation.
As soon as Lamberti had entered Guido locked the door again to keep his servant out.
"I suppose you had better be the first to know," he said hoarsely, as he recrossed the room with unsteady steps.
He sat down upon the edge of his bed, supporting himself with his hands on each side, his head a little bent.
"What has happened?" Lamberti asked, sitting on the nearest chair and watching him. "Has your aunt been troubling you again?"
"No. It is worse than that." Guido paused, and his head sank lower. "The Contessina has changed her mind," he managed to say clearly enough to be understood.
Lamberti started and leaned forward.
"Do you mean to say that she has thrown you over?"
A dead silence followed. Then Guido threw himself on the bed again and turned his face away.
"Say something, man," he cried, almost angrily.
The afternoon light streamed through the closed blinds and fell on the crumpled sheet of the letter that lay at Lamberti's feet. He did not know what he saw as he stared down at it, and he would have cut off his hand rather than pry into any one's letters, but four words had photographed themselves upon his brain before he had realised their meaning, or even that he had seen them.
"I love another man."
Those were the words, and he had never seen the handwriting, but he knew that Cecilia had written them. Guido's cry for some sort of consolation was still ringing in his ears.
"It is impossible," he said, in a dull voice. "She cannot break off such an engagement."
"She has," Guido answered, still looking away. "It is done. She has written to say that she will never marry me."
"Why?" Lamberti asked mechanically.
"Because—" Guido stopped short. "That is her secret. Unless she chooses to tell you herself."
Lamberti knew the secret already, but he would not pain Guido by saying so. The four words he had read had explained enough, though he had not the slightest clew to the name of the man concerned, and his anger was rising quietly, as it did when he was going to be dangerous. He loved Cecilia much and unreasoningly, yet so long as his friend had stood between her and himself he had been strong enough not to be jealous of him; but he was under no obligation to that other man, and now he wished that he had him in his hands. Moreover, his anger was against the girl, too.
"It is outrageous," he said, at last, with a conviction that comforted Guido a little. "It is perfectly abominable! What shall you do?"
"I can do nothing, of course."
Guido tossed on his pillows, turned his head, and stared at Lamberti, hoping to be contradicted.
"It is of no use to go to bed because a woman is faithless," answered Lamberti rather savagely. Guido almost laughed.
"I am ill," he said. "I can hardly stand. She telephoned to me to go and see her, but I could not, and so she wrote what she had to say. It is just as well. I am glad she cannot see me just now."
"I wish she could," answered Lamberti, closing his teeth on the words sharply. "But you will see her, will you not?" he asked, after a pause. "You will not accept such a dismissal without telling her what you think of her?"
"Why should I tell her anything? If I have not succeeded in making her love me yet, I shall never succeed at all! It is better to bear it as if I had never expected anything else."
"Is there any reason why a woman should be allowed to do with impunity what one man would shoot another for doing?" asked Lamberti, roughly. "She has changed her mind once, she can be made to change it again."
The more he thought of what had happened the angrier he grew, and his jealousy against the unknown man who had caused the trouble was boiling up.
Guido caught at the straw like a drowning man, and raised himself on his elbow.
"Do you really think that she may change her mind? That this is only a caprice?"
"I should not wonder. All women have caprices now and then. It is a fit of conscience. She is not quite sure that she likes you enough to marry you, and you have said something that jarred on her, perhaps. If you had been able to go and see her this morning, she would have begun by being very brave, but in five minutes she would have been as ready to marry you as ever. I will wager anything that when she had written that letter she sent it off as soon as possible for fear that she should not send it at all!"
"What do you advise me to do?" asked Guido, his hopes rising. "I believe you understand women better than I do, after all!"
"They are only human animals, like ourselves," Lamberti answered carelessly. "The chief difference is that they do all the things that we are sometimes inclined to do, but should be ashamed of doing."
"I daresay. But I want your advice."
"Go and tell her that she has made a mistake, that she cannot possibly be in earnest, but that if she does not feel that she can marry you in a fortnight, she can put off the wedding till the autumn. It is quite simple. It has all been rather sudden, from the first, and it is much better that the engagement should go on a little longer."
"That is reasonable," Guido answered, growing calmer every moment. "I wish I could go to her at once."
"I suppose you cannot," said Lamberti, looking at him rather curiously.
He remembered that he had once dragged himself five miles with a bad spear-wound in his leg, to take news to a handful of men in danger, but he supposed that Guido was differently organised. He did not like him the less.
"No!" Guido answered. "The fever makes me so giddy that I can hardly stand."
He put out his hand for the tumbler on the table, but it was empty.
"Lamberti!" he said.
"Yes, I will get you some water at once," the other answered, rising to his feet.
"No," Guido said. "Never mind that, I will ring presently. Will you do something for me?"
"Will you speak to her for me?"
Lamberti was standing by the bedside, and he saw the serious and almost timid look in his friend's eyes. But he had not expected the request, and he hesitated a moment.
"You would rather not," said Guido, disappointed. "I suppose I must wait till I am well. Only it may be too late then. She will tell every one that she has broken off the engagement."
"You misunderstood me," Lamberti said calmly, for he had found time to think while Guido was speaking. "I will see her at once."
It had not been easy to say, for he knew what it meant.
"Thank you," Guido murmured. "Thank you, thank you!" he repeated with a profound sense of relief, as his head sank back on the pillow.
"Will it do you any harm if I smoke?" asked Lamberti, looking at a cigar he had taken from his pocket.
"No. I wish you would. I cannot even smoke a cigarette to-day. It tastes like bad hay."
There is a hideous triviality about the things people say at important moments in their lives. But Lamberti was not listening, and he lit his cigar thoughtfully, without answering. Then he went to the window and looked down through the blinds in silence, pondering on what was before him.
It was certainly the place of a friend in such a case to accept the position Guido was thrusting upon him, and from the first Lamberti had not meant to refuse. He had a strong sense of man's individual right to get what he wanted for himself without great regard for the feelings of others, and he was quite sure that he would not have done for his own brother what he was about to do for Guido. It is even possible that he would not have been so ready to do it for Guido himself if he had not accidentally seen those four words of Cecilia's letter. The knowledge of her secret had at once determined the direction of his impulses. For himself he hoped nothing, but he had made up his mind that if Cecilia would not marry Guido she should by no means marry any other man living, and he was fully determined to make her confess her passing fancy for the unknown one, in order that he might have the right to reproach her with it. He even hoped that he could find out the man's name, and, as he was of a violent disposition, he at once planned vengeance to be wreaked upon him. He turned from the window at last, and blew a cloud of grey smoke into the quiet room.
"I will send a message now," he said, "and I will go myself this evening. They can hardly be dining out."
"No. They are at home. I was to have dined with them."
Guido's voice was faint, but he was calm now. Lamberti unlocked the door and opened it. The man servant was just coming towards it followed by the doctor.
The latter found Guido worse than when he had seen him in the morning. He said it was what he had expected, a sharp attack of influenza, and that Guido must not think of leaving his bed till the fever had disappeared. He dilated a little upon the probable consequences of any exposure to the outer air, even in summer. No one could ever tell what the influenza might leave behind it, and it was much safer to be patient.
"You see," said Guido to Lamberti, when the physician was gone. "It will be quite impossible for me to go out to-morrow, or for several days."
"Quite," Lamberti answered, looking for his straw hat.
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