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"One might almost think that you wished to marry Aurora yourself," said Corbario, with a sneer.
He was standing with his back to the fire in the great library of the villa, for it was late autumn again; it was raining hard and the air was raw and chilly.
"You may think what you please," Marcello answered, leaning back in his deep leathern chair and taking up a book. "I am not going to argue with you."
"Insufferable puppy," growled Folco, almost under his teeth; but Marcello heard.
He rose instantly and faced the elder man without the slightest fear or hesitation.
"If this were not my house, and you my guest, I would have you put out of doors by the servants," he said, in a tone Corbario had never heard before. "As it is, I only advise you to go before I lose my temper altogether."
Corbario backed till his heels were against the fender, and tried to smile.
"My dear Marcello!" he protested. "What nonsense is this? You know I am not in earnest!"
"I am," said Marcello quietly enough, but not moving.
The half-invalid boy was not a boy any longer, nor an invalid either, and he had found his hold on things, since the days when Folco had been used to lead him as easily as if he had no will of his own. No one would have judged him to be a weak man now, physically or mentally. His frame was spare and graceful still, but there was energy and directness in his movements, his shoulders were square and he held his head high; yet it was his face that had changed most, though in a way very hard to define. A strong manhood sometimes follows a weak boyhood, very much to the surprise of those who have long been used to find feebleness where strength has suddenly developed. Marcello Consalvi had never been cowardly, or even timid; he had only been weak in will as in body, an easy prey to the man who had tried to ruin him, body and soul, in the hope of sending him to his grave.
"I really cannot understand you, my dear boy," Corbario said very sweetly. "You used to be so gentle! But now you fly into a passion for the merest thing."
"I told you that I would not argue with you," Marcello said, keeping his temper. "This is my house, and I choose that you should leave it at once. Go your way, and leave me to go mine. You are amply provided for, as long as you live, and you do not need my hospitality any longer, since you are no longer my guardian. Live where you please. You shall not stay here."
"I certainly don't care to stay here if you don't want me," Folco answered. "But this is really too absurd! You must be going mad, to take such a tone with me!"
"It is the only one which any honourable man who knows you would be inclined to take."
"Take care! You are going too far."
"Because you are under my roof? Yes, perhaps. As my guest, if I have been hasty, I apologise for expressing my opinion of you. I am going out now. I hope you will find it convenient to have left before I come in."
Thereupon Marcello turned his back on Corbario, crossed the great library deliberately, and went out without looking round.
Folco was left alone, and his still face did not even express surprise or annoyance. He had indeed foreseen the coming break, ever since he had returned to the villa three weeks earlier, when Marcello had received him with evident coldness, not even explaining where he had been since they had last parted. But Folco had not expected that the rupture would come so suddenly, still less that he was literally to be turned out of the house which he still regarded as his own, and in which he had spent so many prosperous years. There had, indeed, been some coldly angry words between the two men. Marcello had told Folco quite plainly that he meant to be the master, and that he was of age, and should regulate his own life as he pleased, and he had expressed considerable disgust at the existence Folco had been leading in Paris and elsewhere; and Folco had always tried to laugh it off, calling Marcello prudish and hypersensitive in matters of morality, which he certainly was not. Once he had attempted an appeal to Marcello's former affection, recalling his mother's love for them both, but a look had come into the young man's eyes just then which even Corbario did not care to face again, and the relations between the two had become more strained from that time on.
It might seem almost incredible that a man capable of the crimes Corbario had committed in cold blood, for a settled purpose, should show so little power of following the purpose to its accomplishment after clearing the way to it by a murder; but every one who has had to do with criminals is aware that after any great exertion of destructive energy they are peculiarly subject to a long reaction of weakness which very often leads to their own destruction. If this were not a natural law, if criminals could exert continually the same energy and command the same superhuman cunning which momentarily helped them to perpetrate a crime, the world would be in danger of being possessed and ruled by them, instead of being mercifully, and perhaps too much, inclined to treat them as degenerates and madmen. Their conduct after committing a murder, for instance, seems to depend much more on their nerves than on their intelligence, and the time almost invariably comes when their nerves break down. It is upon the moment when this collapse of the will sets in that the really experienced detective counts, knowing that it may be hastened or retarded by circumstances quite beyond the murderer's control. The life of a murderer, after the deed, is one long fight with such circumstances, and if he once loses his coolness he is himself almost as surely lost as a man who is carried away by his temper in a duel with swords.
After Folco had killed his wife and had just failed to kill Marcello, he had behaved with wonderful calm and propriety for a little while; but before long the old wild longing for excitement and dissipation, so long kept down during his married life, had come upon him with irresistible force, and he had yielded to it. Then, in hours of reaction, in the awful depression that comes with the grey dawn after a night of wine and pleasure and play, terrible little incidents had come back to his memory. He had recalled Kalmon's face and quiet words, and his own weakness when he had first come to see Marcello in the hospital--that abject terror which both Regina and the doctor must have noticed--and his first impression that Marcello no longer trusted him as formerly, and many other things; and each time he had been thus disturbed, he had plunged deeper into the dissipation which alone could cloud such memories and keep them out of sight for a time; till at last he had come to live in a continual transition from recklessness to fear and from fear to recklessness, and he had grown to detest the very sight of Marcello so heartily that an open quarrel was almost a relief.
If he had been his former self, he would undoubtedly have returned to his original purpose of killing Marcello outright, since he had not succeeded in killing him by dissipation. But his nerve was not what it had been, and the circumstances were not in his favour. Moreover, Marcello was now of age, and had probably made a will, unknown to Corbario, in which case the fortune would no longer revert to the latter. The risk was too great, since it would no longer be undertaken for a certainty amounting to millions. It was better to be satisfied with the life-interest in one-third of the property, which he already enjoyed, and which supplied him with abundant means for amusing himself.
It was humiliating to be turned out of the house by a mere boy, as he still called Marcello, but he was not excessively sensitive to humiliation, and he promised himself some sort of satisfactory vengeance before long. What surprised him most was that the first quarrel should have been about Aurora. He had more than once said in conversation that he meant to marry the girl, and Marcello had chosen to say nothing in answer to the statement; but when Folco had gone so far as to hint that Aurora was in love with him and was about to accept him, Marcello had as good as given him the lie direct, and a few more words had led to the outbreak recorded at the beginning of this chapter.
As a matter of fact Corbario understood what had led to it better than Marcello himself, who had no very positive reason for entirely disbelieving his stepfather's words. The Contessa and her daughter had returned to Rome, and Corbario often went to see them, whereas Marcello had not been even once. When Marcello had last seen Folco in the Engadine, he had left him sitting in their little room at the hotel. Folco was not at all too old to marry Aurora; he was rich, at least for life, and Aurora was poor; he was good-looking, accomplished, and ready with his tongue. It was by no means impossible that he might make an impression on the girl and ultimately win her. Besides, Marcello felt that odd little resentment against Aurora which very young men sometimes feel against young girls, whom they have thought they loved, or are really about to love, or are afraid of loving, which makes them rude, or unjust, or both, towards those perhaps quite unconscious maidens, and which no woman can ever understand.
"My dear Harry, why will you be so disagreeable to Mary?" asks the wondering mother. "She is such a charming girl, and only the other day she was saying that you are such a nice boy!"
"Humph!" snorts Harry rudely, and forthwith lights his pipe and goes off to the stables to growl in peace, or across country, or to his boat, or to any other heavenly place not infested by women.
There had been moments when, in his heart, Marcello had almost said that it would serve Aurora right to be married to Corbario; yet at the first hint from the latter that she was at all in danger of such a fate, Marcello had broken out as if the girl's good name had been attacked, and had turned his stepfather out of the house in a very summary fashion.
Having done so, he left the villa on foot, though it was raining hard, and walked quickly past San Pietro in Montorio and down the hill towards Trastevere. The southwest wind blew the rain under his umbrella; it was chilly as well as wet, and a few big leaves were beginning to fall from the plane-trees.
He was not going to the little house, where Regina sat by the window looking at the rain and wishing that he would come soon. When he was down in the streets he hailed the first cab he saw, gave the man an address in the Forum of Trajan, and climbed in under the hood, behind the dripping leathern apron, taking his umbrella with him and getting thoroughly wet, as is inevitable when one takes a Roman cab in the rain.
The Contessa was out, in spite of the weather, but Marcello asked if Aurora would see him, and presently he was admitted to the drawing-room, where she was sitting beside a rather dreary little fire, cutting a new book. She threw it down and rose to meet him, as little outwardly disturbed as if they had seen each other constantly during the past two years. She gave him her hand quietly, and they sat down and looked at the fire.
"It won't burn," Aurora said, rather disconsolately. "It never did burn very well, but those horrid people who have had the apartment for two years have spoilt the fireplace altogether."
"I remember that it used to smoke," Marcello answered, going down on his knees and beginning to move the little logs into a better position.
"Thank you," Aurora said, watching him. "You won't succeed, but it's good of you to try."
Marcello said nothing, and presently he took the queer little Roman bellows, and set to work to blow upon the smouldering spots where the logs touched each other. In a few seconds a small flame appeared, and soon the fire was burning tolerably.
"How clever you are!" Aurora laughed quietly.
Marcello rose and sat upon a low chair, instead of on the sofa beside her. For a while neither spoke, and he looked about him rather awkwardly, while Aurora watched the flames. It was long since he had been in the room, and it looked shabby after the rather excessive magnificence of the villa on the Janiculum, for which Corbario's taste had been largely responsible. It was just a little shabby, too, compared with the dainty simplicity of the small house in Trastevere. The furniture, the carpets, and the curtains were two years older than when he had seen them last, and had been unkindly used by the tenants to whom the Contessa had sub-let the apartment in order to save the rent. Marcello missed certain pretty things that he had been used to see formerly, some bits of old Saxe, a little panel by an early master, a chiselled silver cup in which there always used to be flowers. He wondered where these things were, and felt that the room looked rather bare without them.
"It burns very well now," said Aurora, still watching the fire.
"What has become of the old silver cup," Marcello asked, "and all the little things that used to be about?"
"We took them away with us when we let the apartment, and they are not unpacked yet, though we have been here two months."
"Yes. I was wondering whether you were ever coming to see us again!"
"Were you? I fancied that you would not care very much to see me now."
Aurora said nothing to this, and they both looked at the fire for some time. The gentle sound of the little flames was cheerful, and gave them both the impression of a third person, talking quietly.
"I should not have come to-day," Marcello said at last, "except that something has happened."
"Nothing bad, I hope!" Aurora looked up with a sudden anxiety that surprised him.
"Bad? No. At least, I think not. Why are you startled?"
"I have had a headache," Aurora explained. "I am a little nervous, I fancy. What is it that has happened?"
Marcello glanced at her doubtfully before he answered. Her quick interest in whatever chanced to him took him back to the old times in an instant. The place was familiar and quiet; her voice was like forgotten music, once delightful, and now suddenly recalled; her face had only changed to grow more womanly.
"You never thought of marrying Folco, did you?" he asked, all at once, and a little surprised at the sound of his own words.
"I?" Aurora started again, but not with anxiety. "How can you think such a thing?"
"I don't think it; but an hour ago, at the villa, he told me in almost so many words that you loved him and meant to accept him."
A blush of honest anger rose in the girl's fair face, and subsided instantly.
"And what did you say?" she asked, with a scarcely perceptible tremor in her tone.
"I turned him out of the house," Marcello answered quietly.
"Turned him out?" Aurora seemed amazed. "You turned him out because he told you that?"
"That and other things. But that was the beginning of it. I told him that he was lying, and he called me names, and then I told him to go. He will be gone when I reach home."
To Marcello's surprise, Aurora got up suddenly, crossed the room and went to one of the windows. Marcello rose, too, and stood still. She seemed to be looking out at the rain, but she had grasped one of the curtains tightly, and it looked as if she were pressing the other hand to her left side. For a second her head bent forward a little and her graceful shoulders moved nervously, as though she were trying to swallow something hard. Marcello watched her a moment, and then crossed the room and stood beside her.
"What is it?" he asked in a low voice, and laying his hand gently on hers that held the curtain.
She drew her own away quietly and turned her head. Her eyes were dry and bright, but there were deep bistre shadows under them that had not been there before, and the lower lids were swollen.
"It is nothing," she answered, and then laughed nervously. "I am glad you have made your stepfather go away. It was time! I was afraid you were as good friends as ever."
"We have not been on good terms since we parted in Pontresina. Do you remember when I left him in your sitting-room at the hotel? He had been trying to persuade me to go back to Paris with him at once. In fact--" he hesitated.
"You intended to go," Aurora said, completing the sentence. "And then you changed your mind."
"Yes. I could not do it. I cannot explain everything."
"I understand without any explanation. I think you did right."
She went back to the fireplace and sat down in the corner of the sofa, leaning far back and stretching out one foot to the fender in an unconscious attitude of perfect grace. In the grey afternoon the firelight began to play in her auburn hair. Now and then she glanced at Marcello with half-closed lids, and there was a suggestion of a smile on her lips. Marcello saw that in her way she was as beautiful as Regina, and he remembered how they had kissed, without a word, when the moon's rays quivered through the trees by the Roman shore, more than two years ago. They had been children then. All at once he felt a great longing to kneel down beside the sofa and throw his arms round her waist and kiss her once again; but at almost the same instant he thought of Regina, waiting for him by the window over there in Trastevere, and he felt the shame rising to his face; and he leaned back in his low chair, clasping his hands tightly over one knee, as if to keep himself from moving.
"Marcello," Aurora began presently, but she got no further.
"Yes?" Still he did not move.
"I have something on my conscience." She laughed low. "No, it is serious!" she went on, as if reproving herself. "I have always felt that everything that has happened to you since we parted that morning by the shore has been my fault."
"Why?" Marcello seemed surprised.
"Because I called you a baby," she said. "If you had not been angry at that, if you had not turned away and left me suddenly--you were quite right, you know--you would not have been knocked down, you would not have wandered away and lost yourself. You would not have lost your memory, or been ill in a strange place, or--or all the rest! So it is all my fault, you see, from beginning to end."
"How absurd!" Marcello looked at her and smiled.
"No. I think it is true. But you have changed very much, Marcello. You are not a boy any longer. You have a will of your own now; you are a man. Do you mind my telling you that?"
"Certainly not!" He smiled again.
"I remember very well what you answered. You said that I should not laugh at you again. And that has come true. You said a good many other things. Do you remember?"
"No. I was angry. What did I say? Everything that happened before I was hurt seems very far off."
"It does not matter," Aurora answered softly. "I am glad you have forgotten, for though I was angry too, and did not care at the time, the things you said have hurt me since."
"I am sorry," Marcello said gently, "very, very sorry. Forgive me."
"It was all my fault, for I was teasing you for the mere fun of the thing. I was nothing but a silly school-girl then."
"Yes. You have changed, too."
"Am I at all what you expected I should be?" Aurora asked, after a moment's silence.
Marcello glanced at her, and clasped his hands over his knee more tightly than ever.
"I wish you were not," he answered in a low voice.
"Don't wish that." Her tone was even lower than his.
Neither spoke again for some time, and they did not look at each other. But the flames flickering in the small fireplace seemed to be talking, like a third person in the room. Aurora moved at last, and changed her position.
"I am glad that you have quarrelled with your stepfather," she said. "He meant to do you all the harm he could. He meant you to die of the life you were leading."
"You know that?" Marcello looked up quickly.
"Yes. I have heard my mother and Professor Kalmon talking about it when they thought I was not listening. I always pretend that I am not listening when anybody talks about you." She laughed a little. "It is so much simpler," she added, as if to explain. "The Professor said that your stepfather was killing you by inches. Those were his words."
"The Professor never liked him. But he was right. Have you seen him often?"
"Yes." Aurora laughed again. "He always turns up wherever we are, pretending that it is the most unexpected meeting in the world. He is just like a boy!"
"What do you mean? Is he in love with you?"
"With me? No! He is madly in love with my mother! Fancy such a thing! When he found that we were coming back to Rome he gave up his professorship in Milan, and he has come to live here so as to be able to see her. So I hear them talking a great deal, and he seems to have found out a great many things about your stepfather which nobody ever knew. He takes an extraordinary interest in him for some reason or other."
"What has he found out?" asked Marcello.
"Enough to hang him, if people could be hanged in Italy," Aurora answered.
"I should have thought Folco too clever to do anything really against the law," said Marcello, who did not seem much surprised at what she said.
"The Professor believes that it was he that tried to kill you."
"How is that possible?" Marcello asked, in great astonishment. "You would have seen him!"
"I did. You had not been gone three minutes when he came round to the gap in the bank where I was standing. He came from the side towards which I had seen you go. It was perfectly impossible that he should not have met you. The Professor says he must have known that you were there, looking at the storm, but that he did not know that I was with you, and that he was lying in wait for you to strike you from behind. If we had gone back together he would not have shown himself, that's all, and he would have waited for a better chance. If I had only followed you I should have seen what happened."
"That is the trouble," said Marcello thoughtfully. "No one ever saw what happened, and I remember nothing but that I fell forward, feeling that I had been struck on the back of the head. Did you not hear any sound?"
"How could I, in such a gale as was blowing? It all looks dreadfully likely and quite possible, and the Professor is convinced that your stepfather has done some worse things."
"Yes, because he did not fail in doing them, as he did when he tried to kill you."
"But what must such a man be?" cried Marcello, suddenly breaking out in anger. "What must his life have been in all the years before my mother married him?"
"He was a kind of adventurer in South America. I don't quite know what he did there, but Professor Kalmon has found out a great deal about him from the Argentine Republic, where he lived until he killed somebody and had to escape to Europe. If I were you I would go and see the Professor, since he is in Rome. He lives at No. 16, Via Sicilia. He will tell you a great deal about that man when he knows that you have parted for good."
"I'll go and see him. Thank you. I cannot imagine that he could tell me anything worse than I have already heard."
"Perhaps he may," Aurora answered very gravely.
Then she was silent, and Marcello could not help looking at her as she leaned back in the corner of the sofa. Of all things, at that moment, he dreaded lest he should lose command of himself under the unexpected influence of her beauty, of old memories, of the failing light, of the tender shadows that still lingered under her eyes, of that exquisite small hand that lay idly on the sofa beside her, just within his reach. He rose abruptly, no longer trusting himself.
"I must be going," he said.
"Already? Why?" She looked up at him and their eyes met.
"Because I cannot be alone with you any longer. I do not trust myself."
"Yes, you do. You are a man now, and I trust you."
He had spoken roughly and harshly in his momentary self-contempt, but her words were clear and quiet, and rang true. He stood still in silence for a moment.
"And besides," she added softly, "she trusts you too."
There was a little emphasis on the word "she" and in her tone that was a reproach, and he looked at her in wonder.
"We cannot talk of her, you and I," she said, turning her eyes to the fire, "but you know what I mean, Marcello. It is not enough to be kind. We women do not think so much of that as you men fancy. You must be true as well."
"I know it," Marcello answered, bending his head a little. "Good-bye, Aurora."
"No. Not good-bye, for you will come again soon, and then again, and often."
"Yes, because we can trust each other, though we are fond of each other. We are not children any longer, as we used to be."
"Then I will come sometimes."
He took her hand, trying not to feel that it was in his, and he left her sitting by the rather dreary little fire, in the rather shabby room, in the grey twilight.
As he drove through the wet streets, he went over all she had said, went over it again and again, till he knew her words by heart. But he did not try, or dare to try, to examine what he felt, and was going to feel. The manliness that had at last come to its full growth in him clung to the word "true" as she had meant it.
But she, being left alone, leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and clasping her hands as she gazed at the smouldering remains of the fire. She had known well enough that she had loved him before he had come; she had known it too well when he had told her how he had driven Folco out of his house for having spoken of her too carelessly. Then the blood had rushed to her throat, beating hard, and if she had not gone quickly to the window she felt that she must have cried for joy. She was far too proud to let him guess that, but she was not too proud to love him, in spite of everything, though it meant that she compared herself with the peasant girl, and envied her, and in all maiden innocence would have changed places with her if she could.
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