It was still raining when the three men left the villa, and the night was very dark, for the young moon had already set. The wind howled round San Pietro in Montorio and the Spanish Academy, and whistled through the branches of the plane-trees along the winding descent, and furiously tore the withering leaves. They struck Ercole's weather-beaten face as he sat beside the coachman with bent head, with his soft hat pulled down over his eyes, and the rain dripped from his coarse moustache. Kalmon and Marcello leaned as far back as they could, under the deep hood and behind the high leathern apron.
"There is some animal following us," the cabman said to Ercole as they turned a corner.
"It is my dog," Ercole answered.
"It sounds like a calf," said the cabman, turning his head to listen through the storm.
"It is not a calf," answered Ercole gruffly. "It is my dog. Or if you wish it to be the were-wolf, it will be the were-wolf."
The cabman glanced uneasily at his companion on the box, for the were-wolf is a thing of terror to Romans. But he could not see the countryman's features in the gloom, and he hastened his horse's pace down the hill, for he did not like the sound of those galloping feet behind his cab, in that lonely road, in the dark and the rain.
"Where am I to go?" he asked, as he came near the place where a turn to the right leads out of the Via Garibaldi down to the Via Luciano Manara.
But Kalmon knew where they were, even better than Marcello, to whom the road was familiar by day and night, in all weathers.
"We must leave that message first," said the Professor to Marcello. "We are coming to the turning."
"To Santa Cecilia," Marcello called out to the cabman, thrusting his head forward into the rain, "then I will tell you where to go."
"Santa Cecilia," echoed the cabman.
Ercole growled something quite unintelligible, to which his companion paid no attention, and the cab rattled on through the rain down the long paved street. It made such a noise that the dog's feet could not be heard any more. There were more lamps, too, and it seemed less gloomy than up there under the plane-trees, though there were no lights in the windows at that late hour.
"Now to the right," said Ercole, as they reached the back of Saint Cecilia's at the Via Anicia.
"To the right!" Marcello called out a second later from under the hood.
"You seem to know the way," said the cabman to Ercole. "Why don't you give me the address of the house at once and be done with it?"
"I know the house, but not the street, nor the number."
"I understand. Does your dog also know the house?"
To this question Ercole made no answer, for he considered that it was none of the cabman's business, and, moreover, he regretted having shown that he knew where his master was going. Marcello now gave the final direction to the cabman, who drew up before a door in a wall, in a narrow lane, where the walls were high and the doors were few. It was the garden entrance to the little house in Trastevere.
Marcello got out, opened the door with the key he carried, and went in. It was raining hard, and he disappeared into the darkness, shutting the door behind him. It had a small modern lock with a spring latch that clicked sharply as it shut. The cab had stopped with the door on the left, and therefore on the side on which Ercole was sitting. Nino, the dog, came up from behind, with his tongue hanging out, blood-red in the feeble light of the cab's lamp; he put his head up above the low front wheel to have a look at Ercole. Being satisfied, he at once lay down on the wet stones, with his muzzle towards the door.
Two or three minutes passed thus, in total silence. The cab-horse hung his head patiently under the driving rain, but neither stamped on the paving stones nor shook himself, nor panted audibly, for he was a pretty good horse, as cab-horses go, and was not tired.
Suddenly Nino growled without moving, the ominous low growl of a dog that can kill, and Ercole growled at him in turn, making a sound intended to impose silence. There was no reason why Nino should growl at Marcello. But Nino rose slowly upon his quarters, as if he were about to spring at the door, and his rough coat bristled along his back. Then Ercole distinctly heard the latch click as it had done when Marcello went in, and Nino put his muzzle to the crack of the closed door and sniffed up and down it, and then along the stone step. To Ercole it was clear that some person within had opened the door noiselessly a little way and had shut it again rather hurriedly, on hearing the dog and seeing the cab. Whoever it was had wished to see if there were any one outside, without being seen, or perhaps had meant to slip out without being heard by any one in the house.
Kalmon, leaning back inside, had not heard the sound of the latch, and paid no attention to Nino's growl. It was natural that such an animal should growl and snarl for nothing, he thought, especially on a rainy night, when the lamps of a cab throw strange patches of light on the glistening pavement.
There was some reason why Ercole, who had heard, did not get down and tell the Professor, who had noticed nothing. One reason, and a good enough one, was that whoever it was that had opened the door so cautiously, it certainly was not the man they were all hunting that night. Yet since Ercole knew the little house, and probably knew who lived there, and that it belonged to Marcello, it might have been supposed that he would have told the latter, whose footsteps were heard on the gravel a few moments afterwards. But though Marcello stood a moment by the wheel close to Ercole, and spoke across him to the cabman, Ercole said nothing. Nino had not growled at Marcello, even before the latter had appeared, for Nino had a good memory, for a dog, and doubtless remembered long days spent by the Roman shore, and copious leavings thrown to him from luxurious luncheons. Before they had left the villa he had sniffed at Marcello's clothes and hands in a manner that was meant to be uncommonly friendly, though it might not have seemed reassuring to a stranger; and Marcello had patted his huge head, and called him by name.
The young man had given the cabman the address of the office of the Chief of Police, and when he had got in and hooked up the leathern apron, the cab rolled away over the stones through the dark streets, towards the bridge of Saint Bartholomew.
Within the house Regina sat alone, as Marcello had found her, her chin resting on the back of her closed hand, her elbow on her knee, her eyes gazing at the bright little fire that blazed on the polished hearth. Her hair was knotted for the night, low down on her neck, and the loose dressing-gown of dove-coloured silk plush was unfastened at the neck, where a little lace fell about her strong white throat.
She had sprung to her feet in happy surprise when Marcello had entered the room, though it was not two hours since he had left her, and she could still smell the smoke of his last cigarette. She had felt a sudden chill when she had seen his face, for she never saw him look grave and preoccupied without believing that he had grown suddenly tired of her, and that the end had come. But then she had seen his eyes lighten for her, and she had known that he was not tired of her, but only very much in earnest and very much in a hurry.
He had bidden her find out from Settimia where Corbario was, if the woman knew it; he had told her to find out at any cost, and had put a great deal of emphasis on the last words. In answer to the one question she asked, he told her that Corbario was a murderer, and was trying to escape. He had not time to explain more fully, but he knew that he could count on her. She did not love Folco Corbario, and she came of a race that could hate, for it was the race of the Roman hill peasants. So he left her quickly and went on.
But when he was gone, Regina sat quite still for some time, looking at the fire. Settimia was safe in her own room, and was probably asleep. It would be soon enough to wake her when Regina had considered what she should say in order to get the information Marcello wanted. Settimia would deny having had any communication with Corbario, or that she knew anything of his whereabouts. The next step would probably be to tempt her with money or other presents. If this failed, what was to be done? Somehow Regina guessed that a bribe would not have much effect on the woman.
Marcello had wished to send her away long ago, but Regina had persuaded him to let her stay. It was part of her hatred of Corbario to accumulate proofs against him, and they were not lacking in the letters he wrote to Settimia. Regina could not understand the relation in which they stood to each other, but now and then she had found passages in the letters which referred neither to herself nor Marcello, but to things that had happened a good many years ago in another country. She was convinced that the two had once been companions in some nefarious business, of which they had escaped the consequences. It was her intention to find out exactly what the deed had been, and then to bring Corbario to ruin by exposing it. It was a simple scheme, but it seemed a sure one, and Regina was very patient. Corbario had tried to separate her from Marcello, and she had sworn that he should pay her for that; and besides, he had wished to kill Marcello in order to get his money. That was bad, undoubtedly--very bad; but to her peasant mind it was not unnatural. She had heard all her life of crimes committed for the sake of an inheritance; and so have most of us, and in countries that fondly believe themselves much more civilised than Italy. That was extremely wicked, but the attempt had failed, and it sank into insignificance in comparison with the heinous crime of trying to separate two lovers by treachery. That was what Regina would not forgive Corbario.
Nor would she pardon Settimia, who had been Corbario's instrument and helper; and as she meant to include the woman in her vengeance, she would not let her go, but kept her, and treated her so generously and unsuspiciously that Settimia was glad to stay, since Corbario still wished it.
Regina looked at the little travelling-clock that stood on the low table at her elbow, and saw that it was half-past eleven. Behind the drawn curtains she could hear the rain beating furiously against the shutters, but all was quiet within the house. Regina listened, for Settimia's room was overhead, and when she moved about her footsteps could be heard in the sitting-room. Regina had heard her just before Marcello had come in, but there was no sound now; she had probably gone to bed. Regina lit a candle and went into her own room.
On a shelf near the little toilet-table there was a box, covered with old velvet, in which she kept the few simple pins and almost necessary bits of jewellery which she had been willing to accept from Marcello. She took it down, set it upon the toilet-table and opened it. A small silver-mounted revolver lay amongst the other things, for Marcello had insisted that she should have a weapon of some kind, because the house seemed lonely to him. He had shown her how to use it, but she had forgotten. She took it out, and turned it over and over in her hands, with a puzzled look. She did not even know whether it was loaded or not, and did not remember how to open the chamber. She wondered how the thing worked, and felt rather afraid of it. Besides, if she had to use it, it would make a dreadful noise; so she put it back carefully amongst the things.
There were the cheap little earrings she had worn ever since she had been a child, till Marcello had made her take them out and wear none at all. There was a miserable little brooch of tarnished silver which she had bought with her own money at a country fair, and which had once seemed very fine to her. She had not the slightest sentiment about such trifles, for Italian peasants are altogether the least sentimental people in the world; the things were not even good enough to give to Settimia, and yet it seemed wrong to throw them away, so she had always kept them, with a vague idea of giving them to some poor little girl, to whom they would represent happiness. With them lay the long pin she used to stick through her hair on Sundays when she went to church.
It had been her mother's, and it was the only thing she possessed which had belonged to the murdered woman who had given her birth. It was rather a fine specimen of the pins worn by the hill peasant women, and was made like a little cross-hilted sword, with a blade of fire-gilt steel about eight inches long. A little gilt ball was screwed upon the point, intended to keep the pin from coming out after it was thrust through the hair. Regina took the ball off and felt the point, which was as sharp as that of a pen-knife; and she tried the blade with her hands and found that it did not bend easily. It was strong enough for what she wanted of it. She stuck it through the heavy knot of her hair, rather low down at the back of her neck, where she could easily reach it with her right hand; but she did not screw on the ball. It was not likely that the pin would fall out. She was very deliberate in all she did; she even put up her hand two or three times, without looking at herself in the mirror, to be quite sure where to find the hilt of the pin if she should need it. Marcello had told her to get the information he wanted "at any cost."
Then she went back, with her candle, through the cheerful sitting-room, and out through a small vestibule that was now dark, and up the narrow staircase to find Settimia.
She knocked, and the woman opened, and Regina was a little surprised to see that she was still dressed. She was pale, and looked very anxious as she faced her mistress in the doorway.
"What is the matter?" she asked, rather nervously.
"Nothing," Regina answered in a reassuring tone. "I had forgotten to tell you about a little change I want in the trimming of that hat, and as I heard you moving about, I came up before going to bed."
Settimia had taken off her shoes more than half an hour earlier in order to make no noise, and her suspicions and her fears were instantly aroused. She drew her lids together a little and looked over Regina's shoulder through the open door towards the dark staircase. She was not a tall woman, and was slightly made, but she was energetic and could be quick when she chose, as Regina knew. Regina quietly shut the door behind her and came forward into the room, carrying her candle-stick, which she set down upon the table near the lamp.
"Where is that hat?" she asked, so naturally that the woman began to think nothing was wrong after all.
Settimia turned to cross the room, in order to get the hat in question from a pasteboard bandbox that stood on the floor. Regina followed her, and stood beside her as she bent down.
Then without the slightest warning Regina caught her arms from behind and threw her to her knees, so that she was forced to crouch down, her head almost touching the floor. She was no more than a child in the peasant woman's hands as soon as she was fairly caught. But she did not scream, and she seemed to be keeping her senses about her.
"What do you want of me?" she asked, speaking with difficulty.
Policemen know that ninety-nine out of a hundred criminals ask that question when they are taken.
"I want to know several things," Regina answered.
"Let me go, and I will tell you what I can."
"No, you won't," Regina replied, looking about her for something with which to tie the woman's hands, for she had forgotten that this might be necessary. "I shall not let you go until I know everything."
She felt that Settimia's thin hands were cautiously trying the strength of her own and turning a very little in her grasp. She threw her weight upon the woman's shoulders to keep her down, grasped both wrists in one hand, and with the other tore off the long silk cord that tied her own dressing-gown at the waist. It was new and strong.
"You had better not struggle," she said, as she got the first turn round Settimia's wrists and began to pull it tight. "You are in my power now. It is of no use to scream either, for nobody will hear you."
"I know it," the woman replied. "What are you going to do with me?"
"I shall ask questions. If you answer them, I shall not hurt you. If you do not, I shall hurt you until you do, or until you die. Now I am going to tie your wrists to your heels, so that you cannot move. Then I will put a pillow under your head, so that you can be pretty comfortable while we talk a little."
She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, which terrified Settimia much more than any dramatic display of anger or hatred could have done. In a few moments the woman was bound hand and foot. Regina turned her upon her side, and arranged a pillow under her head as she had promised to do. Then she sat down upon the floor beside the pillow and looked at her calmly.
"In this way we can talk," she said.
Settimia's rather stony eyes were wide with fear now, as she lay on her side, watching Regina's face.
"I have always served you faithfully," she said. "I cannot understand why you treat me so cruelly."
"Yes," Regina answered, unmoved, "you have been an excellent maid, and I am sorry that I am obliged to tie you up like the calves that are taken to the city on carts. Now tell me, where is Signor Corbario?"
"How should I know?" whined Settimia, evidently more frightened. "I know nothing about Signor Corbario. I swear that I have hardly ever seen him. How can I possibly know where he is? He is probably at his house, at this hour."
"No. You know very well that he has left the villa. It will not serve to tell lies, nor to say that you know nothing about him, for I am sure you do. Now listen. I wish to persuade you with good words. You and Signor Corbario were in South America together."
Settimia's face expressed abject terror.
"Never!" she cried, rocking her bound body sideways in an instinctive attempt to emphasise her words by a gesture. "I swear before heaven, and the saints, and the holy--"
"It is useless," Regina interrupted. "You have not forgotten what you and he did in Salta ten years ago. You remember how suddenly Padilla died, when 'Doctor' Corbario was attending him, and you were his nurse, don't you?"
She fixed her eyes sternly on Settimia's, and the woman turned livid, and ground her teeth.
"You are the devil!" she said hoarsely. "But it is all a lie!" she cried, suddenly trying denial again. "I was never in South America, never, never, never!"
"This is a lie," observed Regina, with perfect calm. "If you do not tell me where Signor Corbario is to-night, I shall go to the police to-morrow and tell all I know about you."
"You know nothing. What is all this that you are inventing? You are a wicked woman!"
"Take care! Perhaps I am a wicked woman. Who knows! I am not a saint, but you are not my confessor. It is the contrary, perhaps; and perhaps you will have to confess to me this night, before going to the other world, if you confess at all. Where is Signor Corbario?"
As she asked the question, she quietly took the long pin from her hair and began to play with the point.
"Are you going to murder me?" groaned the wretched woman, watching the terrible little weapon.
"I should not call it murder to kill you. This point is sharp. Should you like to feel it? You shall. In this way you will perhaps be persuaded to speak."
She gently pressed the point against Settimia's cheek.
"Don't move, or you will scratch yourself," she said, as the woman tried to draw back her face. "Now, will you tell me where Signor Corbario is? I want to know."
Settimia must have feared Corbario more than she feared Regina and the sharp pin at that moment, for she shook her head and set her teeth. Perhaps she believed that Regina was only threatening her, and did not mean to do her any real bodily hurt; but in this she was misled by Regina's very quiet manner.
"I shall wait a little while," said Regina, almost indifferently, "and then, if you do not tell me, I shall begin to kill you. It may take a long time, and you will scream a good deal, but nobody will hear you. Now think a little, and decide what you will do."
Regina laid the pin upon the floor beside her, drew up her knees, and clasped her hands together over them, as the hill women often sit for hours when they are waiting for anything.
Her face hardened slowly until it had an expression which Marcello had never seen. It was not a look of cruelty, nor of fierce anticipated satisfaction in what she meant to do; it was simply cold and relentless, and Settimia gazed with terror on the splendid marble profile, so fearfully distinct against the dark wall in the bright light of the lamp. The strength of the woman, quietly waiting to kill, seemed to fill the room; her figure seemed to grow gigantic in the terrified eyes of her prisoner; the slow, regular heave of her bosom as she breathed was telling the seconds and minutes of fate, that would never reach an hour.
It is bad to see death very near when one is tied hand and foot and cannot fight for life. Most people cannot bear the sight quietly for a quarter of an hour; they break down altogether, or struggle furiously, like animals, though they know it is perfectly useless and that they have no chance. Anything is easier than to lie still, watching the knife and wondering when and where it is going to enter into the flesh.
Regina sat thinking and ready. She wished that she had Corbario himself in her power, but it was something to have the woman who had helped him. She was very glad that she had insisted on keeping Settimia in spite of Marcello's remonstrances. It had made it possible to obtain the information he wanted, and which, she felt sure, was to lead to Corbario's destruction. She was to find out "at any cost"; those had been Marcello's words, and she supposed he knew that she would obey him to the letter. For she said to herself that he was the master, and that if she did not obey him in such a matter, when he seemed so much in earnest, he would be disappointed, and angry, and would then grow quickly tired of her, and so the end would come. "At any cost," as he had said it in his haste, meant to Regina at the cost of blood, and life, and limb, if need were. Corbario was the enemy of the man she loved; it was her lover's pleasure to find out his enemy and to be revenged at last; what sort of woman must she be if she did not help him? what was her love worth if she did not obey him? He had been always kind to her, and more than kind; but it would have been quite the same if he had treated her worse than a dog, provided he did not send her away from him. She belonged to him, and he was the master, to do as he pleased. If he sent her away, she would go; but if not, he might have beaten her and she would never have complained. Now that he had given a simple command, she was not going to disobey him. She had pride, but it was not for him, and in her veins the blood of sixty generations of slaves and serfs had come down to her through two thousand years, the blood of men who had killed when they were bidden to kill by their masters, whose masters had killed them like sheep in war and often in peace, of women who had been reckoned as goods and as chattels with the land on which their mothers had borne them--of men and women too often familiar with murder and sudden death from their cradles to their graves.
The minutes passed and Settimia's terror grew till the room swam with her, and she lost hold upon herself, and did not know whether she screamed or was silent, as her parched lips opened wide upon her parted teeth. But she had made no sound, and Regina did not even look at her. Death had not come yet; there was a respite of seconds, perhaps of minutes.
At last Regina unclasped her hands and took up the pin again. The miserable woman fancied that she already felt the little blade creeping through her flesh and blood on its way to her heart. For Regina had said she would take a long time to kill her. It must have been a strong reason that could keep her silent still, if she knew the answer to the question.
Regina turned her head very slowly and looked coldly down at the agonised face.
"I am tired," she said. "I cannot wait any longer."
Settimia's eyes seemed to be starting from her head, and her dry lips were stretched till they cracked, and she thought she had screamed again; but she had not, for her throat was paralysed with fear. Regina rose upon her knees beside the pillow, with the pin in her right hand.
"Where is Corbario?" she asked, looking down. "If you will not tell I shall hurt you."
Settimia's lips moved, as if she were trying to speak, but no words came from them. Regina got up from the floor, went to the washstand and poured some water into the glass, for she thought it possible that the woman was really unable to utter a sound because her throat was parched with fear. But she could speak a little as soon as Regina left her side, and the last peril seemed a few seconds less near.
"For the love of God, don't kill me yet," she moaned. "Let me speak first!"
Regina came back, knelt down, and set the glass on the floor, beside the pin.
"That is all I want," she said quietly, "that you should speak."
"Water," moaned Settimia, turning her eyes to the glass.
Regina held up her head a little and set the tumbler to her lips, and she drank eagerly. The fear of death is more parching than wound-fever or passion.
"Now you can surely talk a little," Regina said.
"Why do you wish to know where he is?" Settimia asked in a weak voice. "Are the police looking for him? What has he done? Why do you want me to betray him?"
"These are too many questions," Regina answered. "I have been told to make you tell where he is, and I will. That is enough."
"I do not know where he is."
In an instant the point of the sharp little blade was pressing against the woman's throat, harder and harder; one second more and it would pierce the skin and draw blood.
"Stop," she screamed, with a convulsion of her whole body. "He is in the house!"