Marcello coughed a little as he and Corbario trudged home through the sand under the hot May sun. It was sultry, though there were few clouds, and everything that grew looked suddenly languid; each flower and shrub gave out its own peculiar scent abundantly, the smell of last year's rotting leaves and twigs all at once returned and mingled with the odours of green things and of the earth itself, and the heavy air was over-rich with it all, and hard to breathe. By and by the clouds would pile themselves up into vast grey and black fortresses, far away beyond Rome, between the Alban and the Samnite hills, and the lightning would dart at them and tear them to pieces in spite, while the thunder roared out at each home-thrust that it was well done; and then the spring rain would sweep the Campagna, by its length and breadth, from the mountains to the sea, and the world would be refreshed. But now it was near noon and a heavy weariness lay upon the earth.
"You are tired," said Corbario, as they reached the shade of some trees, less than half a mile from the cottage. "Let us sit down for a while."
They sat down, where they could see the sea. It was dull and glassy under the high sun; here and there, far out, the sluggish currents made dark, irregular streaks.
Corbario produced cigarettes and offered one to Marcello, but the boy would not smoke; he said that it made him cough.
"I should smoke all the time, if I were quite well," he said, with a smile.
"And do many other things that young men do, I daresay," laughed Corbario. "Ride steeplechases, play cards all night, and drink champagne at breakfast."
"Perhaps." Marcello was amused at the picture. "I wonder whether I ever shall," he added.
Corbario glanced at him curiously. There was the faintest accent of longing in the tone, which was quite new.
"Why not?" Folco asked, still smiling. "It is merely a question of health, my dear boy. There is no harm in steeplechases if you do not break your neck, nor in playing cards if you do not play high, nor in drinking a glass of champagne now and then--no harm at all, that I can see. But, of course, so long as your lungs are delicate, you must be careful."
"Confound my lungs!" exclaimed Marcello with unusual energy. "I believe that I am much stronger than any of you think."
"I am sometimes inclined to believe it too," Corbario answered encouragingly.
"And I am quite sure that it would do me good to forget all about them and live as if there were nothing the matter with me. Don't you think so yourself?"
Corbario made a gesture of doubt, as if it were possible after all.
"Of course I don't mean dissipation," Marcello went on to say, suddenly assuming the manner of an elderly censor of morals, simply because he did not know what he was talking about. "I don't mean reckless dissipation."
"Of course not," Folco answered gravely. "You see, there are two sorts of dissipation. You must not forget that. The one kind means dissipating your fortune and your health; the other merely means dissipating melancholy, getting rid of care now and then, and of everything that bores one. That is the harmless sort."
"What they call 'harmless excitement'--yes, that is what I should like sometimes. There are days when I feel that I must have it. It is as if the blood went to my head, and my nerves are all on edge, and I wish something would happen, I don't know what, but something, something!"
"I know exactly what you mean, my dear boy," said Corbario in a tone of sympathy. "You see I am not very old myself, after all--barely thirty--not quite, in fact. I could call myself twenty-nine if it were not so much more respectable to be older."
"Yes. But do you mean to say that you feel just what I do now and then?" Marcello asked the question in considerable surprise. "Do you really know that sensation? That burning restlessness--that something like what the earth must feel before a thunderstorm--like the air at this moment?"
Not a muscle of Folco's still face moved.
"Yes," he answered quietly. "I know it very well. It is nothing but the sudden wish for a little harmless excitement, nothing else in the world, my dear boy, and it is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It does not follow that it is at all convenient to yield to it, but we feel it because we lead such a very quiet life."
"But surely, we are perfectly happy," observed Marcello.
"Perfectly, absolutely happy. I do not believe that there are any happier people in the world than we three, your mother, you, and I. We have not a wish unfulfilled."
"No, except that one, when it comes."
"And that does not count in my case," answered Folco. "You see I have had a good deal of--'harmless excitement' in my life, and I know just what it is like, and that it is quite possible to be perfectly happy without it. In fact, I am. But you have never had any at all, and it is as absurd to suppose that young birds will not try to fly as that young men will not want amusement, now and then."
"I suppose that women cannot always understand that," said Marcello, after a moment.
"Women," replied Folco, unmoved, "do not always distinguish quite closely between excitement that is harmless for a man and excitement which is not. To tell the truth," he added, with a laugh, "they hardly ever distinguish at all, and it is quite useless to talk to them about it."
"But surely, there are exceptions?"
"Not many. That is the reason why there is a sort of freemasonry among men of the world, a kind of tacit agreement that women need not be told what goes on at the clubs, and at men's dinners, and late at night when old friends have spent an evening together. Not that there is any harm in it all; but women would not understand. They have their innocent little mysteries which they keep from us, and we have harmless little secrets which we do not let them know."
Folco laughed softly at his own way of putting it, and perhaps because Marcello so easily accepted his point of view.
"I see," said the boy. "I wonder whether my mother would not understand that. It seems so simple!"
"She will, when the time comes, no doubt," answered Corbario. "Your mother is a great exception, my dear boy. On the other hand, she is so anxious about your health just now, that, if I were you, I would not say anything about feeling the want of a little excitement. Of course your life is monotonous. I know it. But there is nothing more monotonous than getting well, is there? The best part of it is the looking forward to what one will do when one is quite strong. You and I can talk of that, sometimes, and build castles in the air; but it is of no use to give your mother the idea that you are beating your wings against the bars of your cage, is it?"
Folco was quite lyric that day, but the words made exactly the impression he wished.
"You are right," Marcello said. "You always are. There is nobody like you, Folco. You are an elder brother to me, and yet you don't preach. I often tell my mother so."
This was true, and what Marcello told her added to her happiness, if anything could do that, and she encouraged the two to go off together as much as possible. She even suggested that they should go down to San Domenico for a fortnight, to look after the great Calabrian estate.
They rose and began to walk toward the cottage. The shooting had been good that morning, as quail-shooting goes, and the man who acted as keeper, loader, gardener, and general factotum, and who went out with any one who wanted to shoot, had gone on to the cottage with the bag, the two guns, and the animal which he called his dog. The man's name was Ercole, that is to say, Hercules; and though he was not a giant, he certainly bore a closer resemblance to the hero than his dog did to dogs in general.
"He was born in my house," Ercole said, when any one asked questions. "Find a better one if you can. His name? I call him Nino, short for John, because he barks so well at night. You don't understand? It is the 'voice of one crying in the wilderness.' Did you never go to Sunday school? Or do you call this place a garden, a park, a public promenade? I call it a desert. There are not even cats."
When an Italian countryman says of a place that even cats will not stay in it, he considers that he has evoked a picture of ultimate desolation that cannot be surpassed. It had always been Ercole's dream to live in the city, though he did not look like a man naturally intended for town life. He was short and skinny, though he was as wiry as a monkey; his face was slightly pitted with the smallpox, and the malaria of many summers had left him with a complexion of the colour of cheap leather; he had eyes like a hawk, matted black hair, and jagged white teeth. He and his fustian clothes smelt of earth, burnt gunpowder, goat's cheese, garlic, and bad tobacco. He was no great talker, but his language was picturesque and to the point; and he feared neither man nor beast, neither tramp nor horned cattle, nor yet wild boar. He was no respecter of persons at all. The land where the cottage was had belonged to a great Roman family, now ruined, and when, the land had been sold, he had apparently been part of the bargain, and had come into the possession of the Signora Corbario with it. In his lonely conversations with Nino, he had expressed his opinion of each member of the family with frankness.
"You are a good dog, Nino," he would say. "You are the consolation of my soul. But you do not understand these things. Corbario is an assassin. Money, money, money! That is all he thinks of from morning till night. I know it, because he never speaks of it, and yet he never gives away anything. It is all for himself, the Signora's millions, the boy's millions, everything. When I look at his face, a chill seizes me, and I tremble as when I have the fever. You never had the malaria fever, Nino. Dogs don't have it, do they?"
At the question Nino turned his monstrous head to one side and looked along his muzzle at his master. If he had possessed a tail he would have wagged it, or thumped the hard ground with it a few times; but he had none. He had probably lost it in some wild battle of his stormy youth, fought almost to death against the huge Campagna sheep-dogs; or perhaps a wolf had got it, or perhaps he had never had a tail at all. Ercole had probably forgotten, and it did not really matter much.
"Corbario is an assassin," he said. "Remember that, Nino. As for his poor lady, she is a little lacking, or she would never have married him. But she is a saint, and what do saints want with cleverness? They go to paradise. Does that need much sense? We should all go if we could. Why do you cock your head on one side and look at me like a Christian? Are you trying to make me think you have a soul? You are made of nothing but corn meal and water, and a little wool, poor beast! But you have more sense than the Signora, and you are not an assassin, like her husband."
At this, Nino threw himself upon his back with his four legs in the air and squirmed with sheer delight, showing his jagged teeth and the roof of a very terrible mouth, and emitting a series of wolfish snorts; after which he suddenly rolled over upon his feet again, shook himself till his shaggy coat bristled all over his body, walked sedately to the open door of the hut, and sat down to look at the weather.
"He is almost a Christian," Ercole remarked under his breath, as if he were afraid the dog might hear the compliment and grow too vain.
For Ercole was a reticent man, and though he told Nino what he thought about people, he never told any one else. Marcello was the only person to whom he ever showed any inclination to attach himself. He regarded even the Contessa with suspicion, perhaps merely because she was a woman; and as for Aurora, girls did not count at all in his cosmogony.
"God made all the other animals before making women," he observed contemptuously one day, when he had gone out alone with Marcello.
"I like them," laughed the boy.
"So did Adam," retorted Ercole, "and you see what came of it."
No answer to this argument occurred to Marcello just then, so he said nothing; and he thought of Aurora, and his mother, and the sad-eyed Contessa, and wondered vaguely whether they were very unlike other women, as Ercole implied.
"When you know women," the man vouchsafed to add presently, "you will wish you were dead. The Lord sent them into the world for an affliction and for the punishment of our sins."
"You were never married, were you?" asked Marcello, still smiling.
Ercole stopped short in the sand, amongst the sea-thistles that grew there, and Nino trotted up and looked at him, to be ready if anything happened. Marcello knew the man's queer ways, and waited for him to speak.
"Married?" he snorted. "Married? You have said it!"
This seemed enigmatical, but Marcello understood the words to convey an affirmation.
"Well?" he asked, expecting more.
"Well? Well, what?" growled Ercole. "This is a bad world. A man falls in love with a pretty little caterpillar; he wakes up and finds himself married to a butterfly. Oh, this is a very bad world!"
Marcello was struck by the simile, but he reflected that Aurora looked much more like a butterfly than a caterpillar, a fact which, if it meant anything, should signify that he knew the worst beforehand. Ercole declined to enter into any account of his conjugal experiences, and merely shrugged his shoulders and went on through the sand.
With such fitting and warning as this to keep him out of trouble, Marcello was to face life: with his saintly mother's timid allusions to its wickedness, with Corbario's tempting suggestions of harmless dissipation, with an unlettered peasant's sour reflections on the world in general and women in particular.
In the other scale of the balance fate set his delicate and high-strung nature, his burning desire for the great unknown something, the stinging impatience of bodily weakness, and the large element of recklessness he inherited from his father, besides a fine admixture of latent boyish vanity for women to play upon, and all the ordinary weaknesses of human nature in about the same proportion as every one has them.
Given a large fortune and ordinary liberty, it might be foreseen that the boy would not reach the haven of maturity without meeting a storm, even if the outward circumstances of chance were all in his favour, even if no one had an interest in ruining him, even if Folco Corbario did not want all for himself, as poor Ercole told his dog that he did in the solitude of his hut.
Marcello had a bad chance at the start, and Maddalena dell' Armi, who knew the world well in all its moods, and had suffered by it and sinned for it, and had shed many tears in secret before becoming what she was now, foresaw danger, and hoped that her daughter's fate might not be bound up with that of her friend's son, much as she herself liked the gentle-hearted boy. She wondered how long any one would call him gentle after he got his first taste of pleasure and pain.