The little house in Trastevere was shut up, but the gardener had the keys, and came twice a week to air the rooms and sweep the paths and water the shrubs. He was to be informed by Settimia of Regina's return in time to have everything ready, but he did not expect any news before the end of September; and if he came regularly, on Tuesday and Saturday, and did his work, it was because he was a conscientious person in his way, elderly, neat, and systematic, a good sort of Roman of the old breed. But if he came on other days, as he often did, not to air the rooms, but to water and tend certain plants, and to do the many incomprehensible things which gardeners do with flower-pots, earth, and seeds, that was his own affair, and would bring a little money in the autumn when the small florists opened their shops and stands again, and the tide of foreigners set once more towards Rome. Also, if he had made friends with the gardeners at the beautiful villa on the Janiculum, that was not Corbario's business; and they gave him cuttings, and odds and ends, such as can be spared from a great garden where money is spent generously, but which mean a great deal to a poor man who is anxious to turn an honest penny by hard work.
The immediate result of this little traffic was that the gardeners at the villa knew all about the little house in Trastevere; and what the gardeners knew was known also by the porter, and by the other servants, and through them by the servants of other people, and the confidential valet told his master, and the maid told her mistress; and so everybody had learned where "Consalvi's Regina" lived, and it was likely that everybody would know when she came back to Rome, and whether Marcello came with her or not.
He had not taken Folco's advice, much to the latter's disappointment and annoyance. On the contrary, he and Regina had left the Engadine very suddenly, without so much as letting Corbario guess that they were going away; and Regina had managed to keep Settimia so very busy and so constantly under her eye that the maid had not been able to send Folco a word, warning him of the anticipated move. Almost for the first time Marcello had made up his mind for himself, and had acted upon his decision; and it seemed as if the exercise of his will had made a change in his character.
They wandered from place to place; they went to Venice in the hottest season, when no one was there, and they came down to Florence and drove up to Vallombrosa, where they stumbled upon society, and were stared at accordingly. They went down to Siena, they stopped in Orvieto, and drove across to Assisi and Perugia; but they were perpetually drawn towards Rome, and knew that they longed to be there again.
Marcello had plenty of time to think, and there was little to disturb his meditations on the past and future; for Regina was not talkative, and was content to be silent for hours, provided that she could see his face. He never knew whether she felt her ignorance about all they saw, and his own knowledge was by no means great. He told her what he knew and read about places they visited, and she remembered what he said, and sometimes asked simple questions which he could answer easily enough. For instance, she wished to know whether America were a city or an island, and who the Jews were, and if the sun rose in the west on the other side of the world, since Marcello assured her that the world was round.
He was neither shocked nor amused; Ercole had asked him similar questions when he had been a boy; so had the peasants in Calabria, and there was no reason why Regina should know more than they did. Besides, she possessed wonderful tact, and now spoke her own language so well that she could pass for a person of average education, so long as she avoided speaking of anything that is learned from books. She was very quick to understand everything connected with the people she heard of, and she never forgot anything that Marcello told her. She was grateful to him for never laughing at her, but in reality he was indifferent. If she had known everything within bounds of knowledge, she would not have been a whit more beautiful, or more loving, or more womanly.
But he himself was beginning to think, now that his faith in Folco had been shaken, and he began to realise that he had been strangely torpid and morally listless during the past years. The shock his whole system had received, the long interval during which his memory had been quite gone, the physical languor that had lasted some time after his recovery from the fever, had all combined to make the near past seem infinitely remote, to cloud his judgment of reality, and to destroy the healthy tension of his natural will. A good deal of what Corbario had called "harmless dissipation" had made matters worse, and when Regina had persuaded him to leave Paris he had really been in that dangerous moral, intellectual, and physical condition in which it takes very little to send a man to the bad altogether, and not much more to kill him outright, if he be of a delicate constitution and still very young. Corbario had almost succeeded in his work of destruction.
He would not succeed now, for the worst danger was past, and Marcello had found his feet after being almost lost in the quicksand through which he had been led.
He had not at first accused Folco of anything worse than that one little deception about the arrival of the Contessa, and of having caused him to be too closely watched by Settimia. Little by little, however, other possibilities had shaped themselves and had grown into certainties at an alarming rate. He understood all at once how Folco himself had been spending his time, while society had supposed him to be a broken hearted widower. A few hints which he had let fall about the things he would have shown Marcello in Paris suggested a great deal; his looks and manner told the rest, now that Marcello had guessed the main truth. He had not waited three months after his wife's death to profit by his liberty and the wealth she had left him. Marcello remembered the addresses he had given from time to time--Monte Carlo, Hombourg, Pau, and Paris very often. He had spoken of business in his letters, as an excuse for moving about so much, but "business" did not always take a man to places of amusement, and Folco seemed to have visited no others. Men whom Marcello had met had seen Corbario, and what they said about him was by no means indefinite. He had been amusing himself, and not alone, and the young men had laughed at his attempts to cloak his doings under an appearance of sorrowing respectability.
As all this became clear to Marcello he suffered acutely at times, and he reproached himself bitterly for having been so long blind and indifferent. It was bad enough that he should have been leading a wild life with Regina in Paris within a few months of his mother's death, but even in the depths of his self-reproach he saw how much worse it was that Folco should have forgotten her so soon. It was worse than a slight upon his mother's memory, it was an insult. The good woman who was gone would have shed hot tears if she could have come to life and seen how her son was living; but she would have died again, could she have seen the husband she adored in the places where many had seen him since her death. It was no wonder that Marcello's anger rose at the mere thought.
Moreover, as Marcello's understanding awoke, he realised that Folco had encouraged him in all he had done, and had not seemed pleased when he had begun to live more quietly. Folco would have made him his companion in pleasure, if he could, and the idea was horrible to Marcello as soon as it presented itself.
It was the discovery that he had been mistaken in Corbario that most directly helped him to regain his foothold in life and his free will. There was more in the Spartan method than we are always ready to admit, for it is easier to disgust most men by the sight of human degradation than to strengthen them against temptation by preaching, or by the lessons of example which are so very peculiarly disagreeable to the normal man.
"I am virtuous, I am sober, I resist temptation, imitate me!" cries the preacher. You say that you are virtuous, and you are apparently sober, my friend; and perhaps you are a very good man, though you need not scream out the statement at the top of your voice. But how are we to know that you have any temptations to resist? Or that your temptations are the same as ours, even supposing that you have any? Or that you are speaking the truth about yourself, since what you say is so extremely flattering to your vanity? Wherever there is preaching, those who are preached at are expected to accept a good deal on the mere word of the preacher, quite aside from anything they have been brought to believe elsewhere.
"Temptation?" said a certain great lady who was not strong in theology. "That is what one yields to, isn't it?"
She probably knew what she was talking about, for she had lived in the world a good while, as we have. But the preacher is not very often one of us, and he knows little of our ways and next to nothing of our real feelings; yet he exhorts us to be like him. It would be very odd if we succeeded. The world would probably stand still if we did, and most of us are so well aware of the fact that we do not even try; and the sermon simply has no effect at all, which need not prevent the preacher from being richly remunerated for delivering it.
"Vice is very attractive, of course," he says, "but you must avoid it because it is sinful."
And every time vice is mentioned we think how attractive it must be, since it is necessary to preach against it so much; and the more attractive it seems, the greater the temptation.
"Should you like to try a vice or two?" said the Spartan, "Very well. Come with me, my boy, and you shall see what vice is; and after that, if you care to try it, please yourself, for I shall have nothing more to say!"
And forthwith he played upon the string of disgust, which is the most sensitive of all the strings that vibrate in the great human instrument; and the boy's stomach rose, and he sickened and turned away, and remembered for ever, though he might try ever so hard to forget.
Marcello at last saw Folco as he was, though still without understanding the worst, and with no suspicion that Folco wished him out of the world, and had deliberately set to work to kill him by dissipation; and the disgust he felt was the most horrible sensation that he could remember. At the same time he saw himself and his whole life, and the perplexity of his position frightened him.
It seemed impossible to go back and live under the same roof with Corbario now. He flushed with shame when he remembered the luncheon at Saint Moritz, and how he had been almost persuaded to leave poor Regina suddenly, and to go back to Paris with his stepfather. He saw through the devilish cleverness of the man's arguments, and when he remembered that his dead mother's name had been spoken, a thrill of real pain ran through his body and he clenched his teeth and his hands.
He asked himself how he could meet Folco after that, and the only answer was that if they met they must quarrel and part, not to meet again.
He told Regina that he would not go back to the villa after they reached Rome, but would live in the little house in Trastevere. To his surprise, she looked grave and shook her head. She had never asked him what was making him so silent and thoughtful, but she had guessed much of the truth from little things; she herself had never trusted Corbario since she had first seen his face at the hospital, and she had long foreseen the coming struggle.
"Why do you shake your head?" he asked. "Do you not want me at the little house?"
"The villa is yours, not his," she said. "He will be glad if you will leave him there, for he will be the master. Then he will marry again, and live there, and it will be hard to turn him out."
"What makes you think he wishes to marry again?"
"He would be married already, if the girl would have him," answered Regina.
"How do you know?"
"You told me to watch, to find out. I have obeyed you. I know everything."
Marcello was surprised, and did not quite understand. He only remembered that he had asked her to ascertain whether Settimia had sent a note to Folco at Saint Moritz. After a day or two she told him that she was quite sure of it. That was all, and Regina had scarcely ever spoken of Folco since then. Marcello reminded her of this, and asked her what she had done.
"I can read," she said. "I can read writing, and that is very hard, you know. I made Settimia teach me. I said with myself, if he should be away and should write to me, what should I do? I could not let Settimia read his letters, and I am too well dressed to go to a public letter-writer in the street, as the peasants do. He would think me an ignorant person, and the people in the street would laugh. That would not help me. I should have to go to the priest, to my confessor."
"Your confessor? Do you go to confession?"
"Do you take me for a Turk?" Regina asked, laughing. "I go to confession at Christmas and Easter. I tell the priest that I am very bad, and am sorry, but that it is for you and that I cannot help it. Then he asks me if I will promise to leave you and be good. And I say no, that I will not promise that. And he tells me to go away and come back when I am ready to promise, and that he will give me absolution then. It is always the same. He shakes his head and frowns when he sees me coming, and I smile. We know each other quite well now. I have told him that when you are tired of me, then I will be good. Is not that enough? What can I do? I should like to be good, of course, but I like still better to be with you. So it is."
"You are better than the priest knows," said Marcello thoughtfully, "and I am worse."
"It is not true. But if I had a letter from you, I would not take it to the priest to read for me. He would be angry, and tear it up, and send me away. I understood this at the beginning, so I made Settimia teach me how to read the writing, and I also learned to write myself, not very well, but one can understand it."
"I know. I have seen you writing copies. But how has that helped you to find out what Folco is doing?"
"I read all Settimia's letters," Regina answered, with perfect simplicity.
"Eh?" Marcello thought he had misunderstood her.
"I read all the letters she gets," Regina replied, unmoved. "When she was teaching me to read I saw where she kept all her letters. It is always the same place. There is a pocket inside a little black bag she has, which opens easily, though she locks it. She puts the letters there, and when she has read them over she burns them. You see, she has no idea that I read them. But I always do, ever since you asked me about that note. When I know that she has had a letter, I send her out on an errand. Then I read. It is so easy!"
Regina laughed, but Marcello looked displeased.
"It is not honest to do such things," he said.
"Not honest?" Regina stared at him in amazement. "How does honesty enter into the question? Is Settimia honest? Then honest people should all be in the galleys! And if you knew how he writes to her! Oh, yes! You are the 'dear patient,' and I am the 'admirable companion.' They have known each other long, those two. They have a language between them, but I have learned it. They have no more secrets that I do not know. Everything the admirable companion does that makes the dear patient better is wrong, and everything that used to make him worse was right. They were killing you in Paris, they wanted you to stay there until you were dead. Do you know who saved your life? It was the Contessa, when I heard her say that you were looking ill! If you ever see her again, thank her, for I was blind and she opened my eyes. The devil had blinded me, and the pleasure, and I could not see. I see now, thanks to heaven, and I know all, and they shall not hurt you. But they shall pay!"
She was not laughing now, as she said the last words under her breath, and her beautiful lips just showed her white teeth, set savagely tight as though they had bitten through something that could be killed. Folco Corbario was not timid, but if he had seen her then, and known that the imaginary bite was meant for his life, he would have taken special care of his bodily safety whenever she was in his neighbourhood.
Marcello had listened in profound surprise, for what she said threw new light on all he had thought out for himself of late.
"And you say that Folco is thinking of marrying again," he said, almost ashamed to profit by information obtained as Regina had got it.
"Yes, he is in love with a young girl, and wishes to marry her."
Marcello said nothing.
"Should you like to know her name?" asked Regina.
Still Marcello was silent, as if refusing to answer, and yet wishing that she should go on.
"I will tell you," Regina said. "Her name is Aurora dell' Armi."
Marcello started, and looked into her face, doubting her word for the first time. He changed colour, too, flushing and then turning pale.
"It is not true!" he cried, rather hoarsely. "It cannot be true!"
"It is true," Regina answered, "but she will not have him. She would not marry him, even if her mother would allow it."
"Thank God!" exclaimed Marcello fervently.
Regina sighed, and turned away.