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Orsino had shown less anxiety to see Madame d'Aranjuez than might perhaps have been expected. In the ten days which had elapsed between the sitting at Gouache's studio and the first of January he had only once made an attempt to find her at home, and that attempt had failed. He had not even seen her passing in the street, and he had not been conscious of any uncontrollable desire to catch a glimpse of her at any price.
But he had not forgotten her existence as he would certainly have forgotten that of a wholly indifferent person in the same time. On the contrary, he had thought of her frequently and had indulged in many speculations concerning her, wondering among other matters why he did not take more trouble to see her since she occupied his thoughts so much. He did not know that he was in reality hesitating, for he would not have acknowledged to himself that he could be in danger of falling seriously in love. He was too young to admit such a possibility, and the character which he admired and meant to assume was altogether too cold and superior to such weaknesses. To do him justice, he was really not of the sort to fall in love at first sight. Persons capable of a self-imposed dualism rarely are, for the second nature they build up on the foundation of their own is never wholly artificial. The disposition to certain modes of thought and habits of bearing is really present, as is sufficiently proved by their admiration of both. Very shy persons, for instance, invariably admire very self-possessed ones, and in trying to imitate them occasionally exhibit a cold-blooded arrogance which is amazing. Timothy Titmouse secretly looks up to Don Juan as his ideal, and after half a lifetime of failure outdoes his model, to the horror of his friends. Dionysus masks as Hercules, and the fox is sometimes not unsuccessful in his saint's disguise. Those who have been intimate with a great actor know that the characters he plays best are not all assumed; there is a little of each in his own nature. There is a touch of the real Othello in Salvini--there is perhaps a strain of the melancholy Scandinavian in English Irving.
To be short, Orsino Saracinesca was too enthusiastic to be wholly cold, and too thoughtful to be thoroughly enthusiastic. He saw things differently according to his moods, and being dissatisfied, he tried to make one mood prevail constantly over the other. In a mean nature the double view often makes an untruthful individual; in one possessing honourable instincts it frequently leads to unhappiness. Affectation then becomes aspiration and the man's failure to impose on others is forgotten in his misery at failing to impose upon himself.
The few words Orsino had exchanged with Maria Consuelo on the morning of the great ceremony recalled vividly the pleasant hour he had spent with her ten days earlier, and he determined to see her as soon as possible. He was out of conceit with himself and consequently with all those who knew him, and he looked forward with pleasure to the conversation of an attractive woman who could have no preconceived opinion of him, and who could take him at his own estimate. He was curious, too, to find out something more definite in regard to her. She was mysterious, and the mystery pleased him. She had admitted that her deceased husband had spoken of being connected with the Saracinesca, but he could not discover where the relationship lay. Spicca's very odd remark, too, seemed to point to her, in some way which Orsino could not understand, and he remembered her having said that she had heard of Spicca. Her husband had doubtless been an Italian of Spanish descent, but she had given no clue to her own nationality, and she did not look Spanish, in spite of her name, Maria Consuelo. As no one in Rome knew her it was impossible to get any information whatever. It was all very interesting.
Accordingly, late on the afternoon of the second of January, Orsino called and was led to the door of a small sitting-room on the second floor of the hotel. The servant shut the door behind him and Orsino found himself alone. A lamp with a pretty shade was burning on the table and beside it an ugly blue glass vase contained a few flowers, common roses, but fresh and fragrant. Two or three new books in yellow paper covers lay scattered upon the hideous velvet table cloth, and beside one of them Orsino noticed a magnificent paper cutter of chiselled silver, bearing a large monogram done in brilliants and rubies. The thing contrasted oddly with its surroundings and attracted the light. An easy chair was drawn up to the table, an abominable object covered with perfectly new yellow satin. A small red morocco cushion, of the kind used in travelling, was balanced on the back, and there was a depression in it, as though some one's head had lately rested there.
Orsino noticed all these details as he stood waiting for Madame d'Aranjuez to appear, and they were not without interest to him, for each one told a story, and the stories were contradictory. The room was not encumbered with those numberless objects which most women scatter about them within an hour after reaching a hotel. Yet Madame d'Aranjuez must have been at least a month in Rome. The room smelt neither of perfume nor of cigarettes, but of the roses, which was better, and a little of the lamp, which was much worse. The lady's only possessions seemed to be three books, a travelling cushion and a somewhat too gorgeous paper cutter; and these few objects were perfectly new. He glanced at the books; they were of the latest, and only one had been cut. The cushion might have been bought that morning. Not a breath had tarnished the polished blade of the silver knife.
A door opened softly and Orsino drew himself up as some one pushed in the heavy, vivid curtains. But it was not Madame d'Aranjuez. A small dark woman of middle age, with downcast eyes and exceedingly black hair, came forward a step.
"The signora will come presently," she said in Italian, in a very low voice, as though she were almost afraid of hearing herself speak.
She was gone in a moment, as noiselessly as she had come. This was evidently the silent maid of whom Gouache had spoken. The few words she had spoken had revealed to Orsino the fact that she was an Italian from the north, for she had the unmistakable accent of the Piedmontese, whose own language is comprehensible only by themselves.
Orsino prepared to wait some time, supposing that the message could hardly have been sent without an object. But another minute had not elapsed before Maria Consuelo herself appeared. In the soft lamplight her clear white skin looked very pale and her auburn hair almost red. She wore one of those nondescript garments which we have elected to call tea-gowns, and Orsino, who had learned to criticise dress as he had learned Latin grammar, saw that the tea-gown was good and the lace real. The colours produced no impression upon him whatever. As a matter of fact they were dark, being combined in various shades of olive.
Maria Consuelo looked at her visitor and held out her hand, but said nothing. She did not even smile, and Orsino began to fancy that he had chosen an unfortunate moment for his visit.
"It was very good of you to let me come," he said, waiting for her to sit down.
Still she said nothing. She placed the red morocco cushion carefully in the particular position which would be most comfortable, turned the shade of the lamp a little, which, of course, produced no change whatever in the direction of the light, pushed one of the books half across the table and at last sat down in the easy chair. Orsino sat down near her, holding his hat upon his knee. He wondered whether she had heard him speak, or whether she might not be one of those people who are painfully shy when there is no third person present.
"I think it was very good of you to come," she said at last, when she was comfortably settled.
"I wish goodness were always so easy," answered Orsino with alacrity.
"Is it your ambition to be good?" asked Maria Consuelo with a smile.
"It should be. But it is not a career."
"Then you do not believe in Saints?"
"Not until they are canonised and made articles of belief--unless you are one, Madame."
"I have thought of trying it," answered Maria Consuelo, calmly. "Saintship is a career, even in society, whatever you may say to the contrary. It has attractions, after all."
"Not equal to those of the other side. Every one admits that. The majority is evidently in favour of sin, and if we are to believe in modern institutions, we must believe that majorities are right."
"Then the hero is always wrong, for he is the enthusiastic individual who is always for facing odds, and if no one disagrees with him he is very unhappy. Yet there are heroes--"
"Where?" asked Orsino. "The heroes people talk of ride bronze horses on inaccessible pedestals. When the bell rings for a revolution they are all knocked down and new ones are set up in their places--also executed by the best artists--and the old ones are cast into cannon to knock to pieces the ideas they invented. That is called history."
"You take a cheerful and encouraging view of the world's history, Don Orsino."
"The world is made for us, and we must accept it. But we may criticise it. There is nothing to the contrary in the contract."
"In the social contract? Are you going to talk to me about Jean-Jacques?"
"Have you read him, Madame?"
"'No woman who respects herself--'" began Maria Consuelo, quoting the famous preface.
"I see that you have," said Orsino, with a laugh. "I have not."
To Orsino's surprise, Madame d'Aranjuez blushed. He could not have told why he was pleased, nor why her change of colour seemed so unexpected.
"Speaking of history," he said, after a very slight pause, "why did you thank me yesterday for having got you a card?"
"Did you not speak to Gouache about it?"
"I said something--I forget what. Did he manage it?"
"Of course. I had his wife's place. She could not go. Do you dislike being thanked for your good offices? Are you so modest as that?"
"Not in the least, but I hate misunderstandings, though I will get all the credit I can for what I have not done, like other people. When I saw that you knew the Del Ferice, I thought that perhaps she had been exerting herself."
"Why do you hate her so?" asked Maria Consuelo.
"I do not hate her. She does not exist--that is all."
"Why does she not exist, as you call it? She is a very good-natured woman. Tell me the truth. Everybody hates her--I saw that by the way they bowed to her while we were waiting--why? There must be a reason. Is she a--an incorrect person?"
"No. That is the point at which existence is more likely to begin than to end."
"How cynical you are! I do not like that. Tell me about Madame Del Ferice."
"Very well. To begin with, she is a relation of mine."
"Seriously. Of course that gives me a right to handle the whole dictionary of abuse against her."
"Of course. Are you going to do that?"
"No. You would call me cynical. I do not like you to call me by bad names, Madame."
"I had an idea that men liked it," observed Maria Consuelo gravely.
"One does not like to hear disagreeable truths."
"Then it is the truth? Go on. You have forgotten what we were talking about."
"Not at all Donna Tullia, my second, third or fourth cousin, was married once upon a time to a certain Mayer."
"And left him. How interesting!"
"No, Madame. He left her--very suddenly, I believe--for another world. Better or worse? Who can say? Considering his past life, worse, I suppose; but considering that he was not obliged to take Donna Tullia with him, decidedly better."
"You certainly hate her. Then she married Del Ferice."
"Then she married Del Ferice--before I was born. She is fabulously old. Mayer left her very rich, and without conditions. Del Ferice was an impossible person. My father nearly killed him in a duel once--also before I was born. I never knew what it was about. Del Ferice was a spy, in the old days when spies got a living in a Rome--"
"Ah! I see it all now!" exclaimed Maria Consuelo. "Del Ferice is white, and you are black. Of course you hate each other. You need not tell me any more."
"How you take that for granted!"
"Is it not perfectly clear? Do not talk to me of like and dislike when your dreadful parties have anything to do with either! Besides, if I had any sympathy with either side it would be for the whites. But the whole thing is absurd, complicated, mediaeval, feudal--anything you like except sensible. Your intolerance is--intolerable."
"True tolerance should tolerate even intolerance," observed Orsino smartly.
"That sounds like one of the puzzles of pronunciation like 'in un piatto poco cupo poco pepe pisto cape,'" laughed Maria Consuelo. "Tolerably tolerable tolerance tolerates tolerable tolerance intolerably--"
"You speak Italian?" asked Orsino, surprised by her glib enunciation of the difficult sentence she had quoted. "Why are we talking a foreign language?"
"I cannot really speak Italian. I have an Italian maid, who speaks French. But she taught me that puzzle."
"It is odd--your maid is a Piedmontese and you have a good accent."
"Have I? I am very glad. But tell me, is it not absurd that you should hate these people as you do--you cannot deny it--merely because they are whites?"
"Everything in life is absurd if you take the opposite point of view. Lunatics find endless amusement in watching sane people."
"And of course, you are the sane people," observed Maria Consuelo.
"What becomes of me? I suppose I do not exist? You would not be rude enough to class me with the lunatics."
"Certainly not. You will of course choose to be a black."
"In order to be discontented, as you are?"
"Yes. Are you not utterly out of sympathy with your surroundings? Are you not hampered at every step by a network of traditions which have no meaning to your intelligence, but which are laid on you like a harness upon a horse, and in which you are driven your daily little round of tiresome amusement--or dissipation? Do you not hate the Corso as an omnibus horse hates it? Do you not really hate the very faces of all those people who effectually prevent you from using your own intelligence, your own strength--your own heart? One sees it in your face. You are too young to be tired of life. No, I am not going to call you a boy, though I am older than you, Don Orsino. You will find people enough in your own surroundings to call you a boy--because you are not yet so utterly tamed and wearied as they are, and for no other reason. You are a man. I do not know your age, but you do not talk as boys do. You are a man--then be a man altogether, be independent--use your hands for something better than throwing mud at other people's houses merely because they are new!"
Orsino looked at her in astonishment. This was certainly not the sort of conversation he had anticipated when he had entered the room.
"You are surprised because I speak like this," she said after a short pause. "You are a Saracinesca and I am--a stranger, here to-day and gone to-morrow, whom you will probably never see again. It is amusing, is it not? Why do you not laugh?"
Maria Consuelo smiled and as usual her strong red lips closed as soon as she had finished speaking, a habit which lent the smile something unusual, half-mysterious, and self-contained.
"I see nothing to laugh at," answered Orsino. "Did the mythological personage whose name I have forgotten laugh when the sphynx proposed the riddle to him?"
"That is the third time within the last few days that I have been compared to a sphynx by you or Gouache. It lacks originality in the end."
"I was not thinking of being original. I was too much interested. Your riddle is the problem of my life."
"The resemblance ceases there. I cannot eat you up if you do not guess the answer--or if you do not take my advice. I am not prepared to go so far as that."
"Was it advice? It sounded more like a question."
"I would not ask one when I am sure of getting no answer. Besides, I do not like being laughed at."
"What has that to do with the matter? Why imagine anything so impossible?"
"After all--perhaps it is more foolish to say, 'I advise you to do so and so,' than to ask, 'Why do you not do so and so?' Advice is always disagreeable and the adviser is always more or less ridiculous. Advice brings its own punishment."
"Is that not cynical?" asked Orsino.
"No. Why? What is the worst thing you can do to your social enemy? Prevail upon him to give you his counsel, act upon it--it will of course turn out badly--then say, "I feared this would happen, but as you advised me I did not like--" and so on! That is simple and always effectual. Try it."
"Not for worlds!"
"I did not mean with me," answered Maria Consuelo with a laugh.
"No. I am afraid there are other reasons which will prevent me from making a career for myself," said Orsino thoughtfully.
Maria Consuelo saw by his face that the subject was a serious one with him, as she had already guessed that it must be, and one which would always interest him. She therefore let it drop, keeping it in reserve in case the conversation flagged.
"I am going to see Madame Del Ferice to-morrow," she observed, changing the subject.
"Do you think that is necessary?"
"Since I wish it! I have not your reasons for avoiding her."
"I offended you the other day, Madame, did I not? You remember--when I offered my services in a social way."
"No--you amused me," answered Maria Consuelo coolly, and watching to see how he would take the rebuke.
But, young as Orsino was, he was a match for her in self-possession.
"I am very glad," he answered without a trace of annoyance. "I feared you were displeased."
Maria Consuelo smiled again, and her momentary coldness vanished. The answer delighted her, and did more to interest her in Orsino than fifty clever sayings could have done. She resolved to push the question a little further.
"I will be frank," she said.
"It is always best," answered Orsino, beginning to suspect that something very tortuous was coming. His disbelief in phrases of the kind, though originally artificial, was becoming profound.
"Yes, I will be quite frank," she repeated. "You do not wish me to know the Del Ferice and their set, and you do wish me to know the people you like."
"Why should I not do as I please?"
She was clearly trying to entrap him into a foolish answer, and he grew more and more wary.
"It would be very strange if you did not," answered Orsino without hesitation.
"Because you are absolutely free to make your own choice."
"And if my choice does not meet with your approval?" she asked.
"What can I say, Madame? I and my friends will be the losers, not you."
Orsino had kept his temper admirably, and he did not suffer a hasty word to escape his lips nor a shadow of irritation to appear in his face. Yet she had pressed him in a way which was little short of rude. She was silent for a few seconds, during which Orsino watched her face as she turned it slightly away from him and from the lamp. In reality he was wondering why she was not more communicative about herself, and speculating as to whether her silence in that quarter proceeded from the consciousness of a perfectly assured position in the world, or from the fact that she had something to conceal; and this idea led him to congratulate himself upon not having been obliged to act immediately upon his first proposal by bringing about an acquaintance between Madame d'Aranjuez and his mother. This uncertainty lent a spice of interest to the acquaintance. He knew enough of the world already to be sure that Maria Consuelo was born and bred in that state of life to which it has pleased Providence to call the social elect. But the peculiar people sometimes do strange things and afterwards establish themselves in foreign cities where their doings are not likely to be known for some time. Not that Orsino cared what this particular stranger's past might have been. But he knew that his mother would care very much indeed, if Orsino wished her to know the mysterious lady, and would sift the matter very thoroughly before asking her to the Palazzo Saracinesca. Donna Tullia, on the other hand, had committed herself to the acquaintance on her own responsibility, evidently taking it for granted that if Orsino knew Madame d'Aranjuez, the latter must be socially irreproachable. It amused Orsino to imagine the fat countess's rage if she turned out to have made a mistake.
"I shall be the loser too," said Maria Consuelo, in a different tone, "if I make a bad choice. But I cannot draw back. I took her to her house in my carriage. She seemed to take a fancy to me--" she laughed a little.
Orsino smiled as though to imply that the circumstance did not surprise him.
"And she said she would come to see me. As a stranger I could not do less than insist upon making the first visit, and I named the day--or rather she did. I am going to-morrow."
"To-morrow? Tuesday is her day. You will meet all her friends."
"Do you mean to say that people still have days in Rome?" Maria Consuelo did not look pleased.
"Some people do--very few. Most people prefer to be at home one evening in the week."
"What sort of people are Madame Del Ferice's friends?"
"Why are you so cautious?"
"Because you are about to be one of them, Madame."
"Am I? No, I will not begin another catechism! You are too clever--I shall never get a direct answer from you."
"Not in that way," answered Orsino with a frankness that made his companion smile.
"I think you would know how," he replied gravely, and he fixed his young black eyes on her with an expression that made her half close her own.
"I should think you would make a good actor," she said softly.
"Provided that I might be allowed to be sincere between the acts."
"That sounds well. A little ambiguous perhaps. Your sincerity might or might not take the same direction as the part you had been acting."
"That would depend entirely upon yourself, Madame."
This time Maria Consuelo opened her eyes instead of closing them.
"You do not lack--what shall I say? A certain assurance--you do not waste time!"
She laughed merrily, and Orsino laughed with her.
"We are between the acts now," he said. "The curtain goes up to-morrow, and you join the enemy."
"Come with me, then."
"In your carriage? I shall be enchanted."
"No. You know I do not mean that. Come with me to the enemy's camp. It will be very amusing."
Orsino shook his head.
"I would rather die--if possible at your feet, Madame."
"Are you afraid to call upon Madame Del Ferice?"
"More than of death itself."
"How can you say that?"
"The conditions of the life to come are doubtful--there might be a chance for me. There is no doubt at all as to what would happen if I went to see Madame Del Ferice."
"Is your father so severe with you?" asked Maria Consuelo with a little scorn.
"Alas, Madame, I am not sensitive to ridicule," answered Orsino, quite unmoved. "I grant that there is something wanting in my character."
Maria Consuelo had hoped to find a weak point, and had failed, though indeed there were many in the young man's armour. She was a little annoyed, both at her own lack of judgment and because it would have amused her to see Orsino in an element so unfamiliar to him as that in which Donna Tullia lived.
"And there is nothing which would induce you to go there?" she asked.
"At present--nothing," Orsino answered coldly.
"At present--but in the future of all possible possibilities?"
"I shall undoubtedly go there. It is only the unforeseen which invariably happens."
"I think so too."
"Of course. I will illustrate the proverb by bidding you good evening," said Orsino, laughing as he rose. "By this time the conviction must have formed itself in your mind that I was never going. The unforeseen happens. I go."
Maria Consuelo would have been glad if he had stayed even longer, for he amused her and interested her, and she did not look forward with pleasure to the lonely evening she was to spend in the hotel.
"I am generally at home at this hour," she said, giving him her hand.
"Then, if you will allow me? Thanks. Good evening, Madame."
Their eyes met for a moment, and then Orsino left the room. As he lit his cigarette in the porch of the hotel, he said to himself that he had not wasted his hour, and he was pleasantly conscious of tha inward and spiritual satisfaction which every very young man feels when he is aware of having appeared at his best in the society of a woman alone. Youth without vanity is only premature old age after all.
"She is certainly more than pretty," he said to himself, affecting to be critical when he was indeed convinced. "Her mouth is fabulous, but it is well shaped and the rest is perfect--no, the nose is insignificant, and one of those yellow eyes wanders a little. These are not perfections. But what does it matter? The whole is charming, whatever the parts may be. I wish she would not go to that horrible fat woman's tea to-morrow."
Such were the observations which Orsino thought fit to make to himself, but which by no means represented all that he felt, for they took no notice whatever of that extreme satisfaction at having talked well with Maria Consuelo, which in reality dominated every other sensation just then. He was well enough accustomed to consideration, though his only taste of society had been enjoyed during the winter vacations of the last two years. He was not the greatest match in the Roman matrimonial market for nothing, and he was perfectly well aware of his advantages in this respect. He possessed that keen, business-like appreciation of his value as a marriageable man which seems to characterise the young generation of to-day, and he was not mistaken in his estimate. It was made sufficiently clear to him at every turn that he had but to ask in order to receive. But he had not the slightest intention of marrying at one and twenty as several of his old school-fellows were doing, and he was sensible enough to foresee that his position as a desirable son-in-law would soon cause him more annoyance than amusement.
Madame d'Aranjuez was doubtless aware that she could not marry him if she wished to do so. She was several years older than he--he admitted the fact rather reluctantly--she was a widow, and she seemed to have no particular social position. These were excellent reasons against matrimony, but they were also equally excellent reasons for being pleased with himself at having produced a favourable impression on her.
He walked rapidly along the crowded street, glancing carelessly at the people who passed and at the brilliantly lighted windows of the shops. He passed the door of the club, where he was already becoming known for rather reckless play, and he quite forgot that a number of men were probably spending an hour at the tables before dinner, a fact which would hardly have escaped his memory if he had not been more than usually occupied with pleasant thoughts. He did not need the excitement of baccarat nor the stimulus of brandy and soda, for his brain was already both excited and stimulated, though he was not at once aware of it. But it became clear to him when he suddenly found himself standing before the steps of the Capitol in the gloomy square of the Ara Coeli, wondering what in the world had brought him so far out of his way.
"What a fool I am!" he exclaimed impatiently, as he turned back and walked in the direction of his home. "And yet she told me that I would make a good actor. They say that an actor should never be carried away by his part."
At dinner that evening he was alternately talkative and very silent.
"Where have you been to-day, Orsino?" asked his father, looking at him curiously.
"I spent half an hour with Madame d'Aranjuez, and then went for a walk," answered Orsino with sudden indifference.
"What is she like?" asked Corona.
"Clever--at least in Rome." There was an odd, nervous sharpness about the answer.
Old Saracinesca raised his keen eyes without lifting his head and looked hard at his grandson. He was a little bent in his great old age.
"The boy is in love!" he exclaimed abruptly, and a laugh that was still deep and ringing followed the words. Orsino recovered his self-possession and smiled carelessly.
Corona was thoughtful during the remainder of the meal.
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