It was very early morning, and there was no shooting, for a southwesterly gale had been blowing all night, and the birds passed far inland. All along the beach, for twenty-five miles in an unbroken line, the surf thundered in, with a double roar, breaking on the bar, then gathering strength again, rising grey and curling green and crashing down upon the sand. Then the water opened out in vast sheets of crawling foam that ran up to the very foot of the bank where the scrub began to grow, and ran regretfully back again, tracing myriads of tiny channels where the sand was loose; but just as it had almost subsided, another wave curled and uncurled itself, and trembled a moment, and flung its whole volume forwards through a cloud of unresisting spray.
It had rained a little, too, and it would rain again. The sky was of an even leaden grey, and as the sun rose unseen, a wicked glare came into it, as if the lead were melting; and the wind howled unceasingly, the soft, wet, southwest wind of the great spring storms.
Less than a mile from the shore a small brigantine, stripped to a lower topsail, storm-jib, and balance-reefed mainsail, was trying to claw off shore. She had small chance, unless the gale shifted or moderated, for she evidently could not carry enough sail to make any way against the huge sea, and to heave to would be sure destruction within two hours.
The scrub and brushwood were dripping with raindrops, and the salt spray was blown up the bank with the loose sand. Everything was wet, grey, and dreary, as only the Roman shore can be at such times, with that unnatural dreariness of the south which comes down on nature suddenly like a bad dream, and is a thousand times more oppressive than the stern desolation of any northern sea-coast.
Marcello and Aurora watched the storm from a break in the bank which made a little lee. The girl was wrapped in a grey military cloak, of which she had drawn the hood over her loose hair. Her delicate nostrils dilated with pleasure to breathe the salt wind, and her eyelids drooped as she watched the poor little vessel in the distance.
"You like it, don't you?" asked Marcello, as he looked at her.
"I love it!" she answered enthusiastically. "And I may never see it all again," she added after a little pause.
"Never?" Marcello started a little. "Are you going away?"
"We are going to Rome to-day. But that is not what I mean. We have always come down every year for ever so long. How long is it, Marcello? We were quite small the, first time."
"It must be five years. Four or five--ever since my mother bought the land here."
"We were mere children," said Aurora, with the dignity of a grown person. "That is all over."
"I wish it were not!" Marcello sighed.
"How silly you are!" observed Aurora, throwing back her beautiful head. "But then, I am sure I am much more grown up than you are, though you are nineteen, and I am not quite eighteen."
"You are seventeen," said Marcello firmly.
"I shall be eighteen on my next birthday!" retorted Aurora with warmth. "Then we shall see who is the more grown up. I shall be in society, and you--why, you will not even be out of the University."
She said this with the contempt which Marcello's extreme youth deserved.
"I am not going to the University."
"Then you will be a boy all your life. I always tell you so. Unless you do what other people do, you will never grow up at all. You ought to be among men by this time, instead of everlastingly at home, clinging to your mother's skirts!"
A bright flush rose in Marcello's cheeks. He felt that he wanted to box her ears, and for an instant he wished himself small again that he might do it, though he remembered what a terrible fighter Aurora had been when she was a little girl, and had preserved a vivid recollection of her well-aimed slaps.
"Don't talk about my mother in that way," he said angrily.
"I'm not talking of her at all. She is a saint, and I love her very much. But that is no reason why you should always be with her, as if you were a girl! I don't suppose you mean to begin life as a saint yourself, do you? You are rather young for that, you know."
"No," Marcello answered, feeling that he was not saying just the right thing, but not knowing what to say. "And I am sure my mother does not expect it of me, either," he added. "But that is no reason why you should be so disagreeable."
He felt that he had been weak, and that he ought to say something sharp. He knew very well that his mother believed it quite possible for a boy to develop into saintship without passing through the intermediate state of sinning manhood; and though his nature told him that he was not of the temper that attains sanctity all at once, he felt that he owed to his mother's hopes for him a sort of loyalty in which Aurora had made him fail. The reasonings of innocent sentiment are more tortuous than the wiles of the devil himself, and have amazing power to torment the unfledged conscience of a boy brought up like Marcello.
Aurora's way of thinking was much more direct.
"If you think I am disagreeable, you can go away," she said, with a scornful laugh.
"Thank you. You are very kind." He tried to speak sarcastically, but it was a decided failure.
To his surprise, Aurora turned and looked at him very quietly.
"I wonder whether I shall like you, when you are a man," she said in a tone of profound reflection. "I am rather ashamed of liking you now, because you are such a baby."
He flushed again, very angry this time, and he moved away to leave her, without another word.
She turned her face to the storm and took no notice of him. She thought that he would come back, but there was just the least doubt about it, which introduced an element of chance and was perfectly delightful while it lasted. Was there ever a woman, since the world began, who did not know that sensation, either by experience or by wishing she might try it? What pleasure would there be in angling if the fish did not try to get off the hook, but stupidly swallowed it, fly and all? It might as well crawl out of the stream at once and lay itself meekly down in the basket.
And Marcello came back, before he had taken four steps.
"Is that what you meant when you said that you might never come here again?" he asked, and there was something rough in his tone that pleased her.
"No," she answered, as if nothing had happened. "Mamma talked to me a long time last night."
"What did she say?"
"Do you want to know?"
"There is no reason why I should not tell you. She says that we must not come here after I go into society, because people will think that she is trying to marry me to you."
She looked at him boldly for a moment, and then turned her eyes to the sea.
"Why should she care what people think?" he asked.
"Because it would prevent me from marrying any one else," answered Aurora, with the awful cynicism of youth. "If every one thought I was engaged to you, or going to be, no other man could ask for me. It's simple enough, I'm sure!"
"And you wish other men to ask you to marry them, I suppose?"
Marcello was a little pale, but he tried to throw all the contempt he could command into his tone. Aurora smiled sweetly.
"Naturally," she said. "I'm only a woman."
"Which means that I'm a fool to care for you!"
"You are, if you think I'm not worth caring for." The girl laughed.
This was so very hard to understand that Marcello knit his smooth young brow and looked very angry, but could find nothing to say on the spur of the moment. All women are born with the power to put a man into such a position that he must either contradict himself, hold his tongue, or fly into a senseless rage. They do this so easily, that even after the experience of a life-time we never suspect the trap until they pull the string and we are caught. Then, if we contradict ourselves, woman utters an inhuman cry of triumph and jeers at our unstable purpose; if we lose our tempers instead, she bursts into tears and calls us brutes; and finally, if we say nothing, she declares, with a show of reason, that we have nothing to say.
Marcello lost his temper.
"You are quite right," he said angrily. "You are not worth caring for. You are a mere child, and you are a miserable little flirt already, and you will be a detestable woman when you grow up! You will lead men on, and play with them, and then laugh at them. But you shall not laugh at me again. You shall not have that satisfaction! You shall wish me back, but I will not come, not if you break your silly little heart!"
With this terrific threat the boy strode away, leaving her to watch the storm alone in the lee of the sandbank. Aurora knew that he really meant to go this time, and at first she was rather glad of it, since he was in such a very bad temper. She felt that he had insulted her, and if he had stayed any longer she would doubtless have called him a brute, that being the woman's retort under the circumstances. She had not the slightest doubt of being quite reconciled with him before luncheon, of course, but in her heart she wished that she had not made him angry. It had been very pleasant to watch the storm together, and when they had come to the place, she had felt a strong presentiment that he would kiss her, and that the contrast between the kiss and the howling gale would be very delightful.
The presentiment had certainly not come true, and now that Marcello was gone it was not very amusing to feel the spray and the sand on her face, or to watch the tumbling breakers and listen to the wind. Besides, she had been there some time, and she had not even had her little breakfast of coffee and rolls before coming down to the shore. She suddenly felt hungry and cold and absurdly inclined to cry, and she became aware that the sand had got into her russet shoes, and that it would be very uncomfortable to sit down in such a place to take them off and shake it out; and that, altogether, misfortunes never come singly.
After standing still three or four minutes longer, she turned away with a discontented look in her face, all rosy with the wind and spray. She started as she saw Corbario standing before her, for she had not heard his footsteps in the gale. He wore his shooting-coat and heavy leathern gaiters, but he had no gun. She thought he looked pale, and that there was a shade of anxiety in his usually expressionless face.
"We wondered where you were," he said. "There is coffee in the verandah, and your mother is out already."
"I came down to look at the storm," Aurora answered. "I forgot all about breakfast."
They made a few steps in the direction of the cottage. Aurora felt that Corbario was looking sideways at her as they walked.
"Have you seen Marcello?" he asked presently.
"Did you not meet him?" Aurora was surprised. "It is not five minutes since he left me."
"No. I did not meet him."
"That is strange."
They went on in silence for a few moments.
"I cannot understand why you did not meet Marcello," Aurora said suddenly, as if she had thought it over. "Did you come this way?"
"Perhaps he got back before you started. He walks very fast."
"Perhaps," Corbario said, "but I did not see him. I came to look for you both."
"Expecting to find us together, of course!" Aurora threw up her head a little disdainfully, for Marcello had offended her.
"He is generally somewhere near you, poor boy," answered Corbario in a tone of pity.
"Why do you say 'poor boy' in that tone? Do you think he is so much to be pitied?"
"A little, certainly." Corbario smiled.
"I don't see why."
"Women never do, when a man is in love!"
"Women"--the flattery was subtle and Aurora's face cleared. Corbario was a man of the world, without doubt, and he had called her a woman, in a most natural way, as if she had been at least twenty years old. It did not occur to her to ask herself whether Folco had any object in wishing to please her just then, but she knew well enough that he did wish to do so. Even a girl's instinct is unerring in that; and Corbario further pleased her by not pursuing the subject, for what he had said seemed all the more spontaneous because it led to nothing.
"If Marcello is not in the cottage," he observed, as they came near, "he must have gone off for a walk after he left you. Did you not see which way he turned?"
"How could I from the place where I stood?" asked Aurora in reply. "As soon as he had turned behind the bank it was impossible to say which way he had gone."
"Of course," assented Folco. "I understand that."
Marcello had not come home, and Aurora was sorry that she had teased him into a temper and had then allowed him to go away. It was not good for him, delicate as he was, to go for a long walk in such weather without any breakfast, and she felt distinctly contrite as she ate her roll in silence and drank her coffee, on the sheltered side of the cottage, under the verandah. The Signora Corbario had not appeared yet, but the Contessa was already out. As a rule the Signora preferred to have her coffee in her room, as if she were in town. For some time no one spoke.
"Had we not better send Ercole to find Marcello?" the Contessa asked at last.
"I had to send Ercole to Porto d'Anzio this morning," Corbario answered. "I took the opportunity, because I knew there would be no quail with this wind."
"Marcello will come in when he is hungry," said Aurora, rather sharply, because she really felt sorry.
But Marcello did not come in.
Soon after eight o'clock his mother appeared on the verandah. Folco dropped his newspaper and hastened to make her comfortable in her favourite chair. Though she was not strong, she was not an invalid, but she was one of those women whom it seems natural to help, to whom men bring cushions, and with whom other women are always ready to sympathise. If one of Fra Angelico's saints should walk into a modern drawing-room all the men would fall over each other in the scramble to make her comfortable, and all the women would offer her tea and ask her if she felt the draught.
The Signora looked about, expecting to see her son.
"Marcello has not come in," said Folco, understanding. "He seems to have gone for a long walk."
"I hope he has put on his thick boots," answered the Signora, in a thoughtful tone. "It is very wet."
She asked why Folco was not with him shooting, and was told that there were no birds in such weather. She had never understood the winds, nor the points of the compass, nor why one should see the new moon in the west instead of in the east. Very few women do, but those who live much with men generally end by picking up a few useful expressions, a little phrase-book of jargon terms with which men are quite satisfied. They find out that a fox has no tail, a wild boar no teeth, a boat no prow, and a yacht no staircase; and this knowledge is better than none.
The Signora accepted the fact that there were no birds that morning, and began to talk to Maddalena. Aurora got a book and pretended to read, but she was really listening for Marcello's footsteps, and wondering whether he would smile at her, or would still be cross when he came in. Corbario finished his paper and went off to look at the weather from the other side of the house, and the two women talked in broken sentences as old friends do, with long intervals of silence.
The wind had moderated a good deal, but as the sun rose higher the glare in the sky grew more yellow, the air was much warmer, and the trees and shrubs and long grass began to steam as if they had been half boiled. All manner of tiny flies and gnats chased each other in the lurid light.
"It feels as if there were going to be an earthquake," said Maddalena, throwing back the lace from her grey hair as if even its light weight oppressed her.
The women sat in silence, uneasy, their lips a little parted. Not that an earthquake would have disturbed them much, for slight ones are common enough in Italy, and could do no harm at all to a wooden cottage; it was a mere physical breathlessness that they felt, as the gale suddenly dropped and the heavy air became quite still on the sheltered side of the cottage.
Aurora threw aside her book impatiently and rose from her chair.
"I am going to look for Marcello," she said, and she went off without turning her head.
On the other side of the cottage, as she went round, she found Folco sitting on the steps of the verandah, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his folded hands, apparently in deep thought. He had a cigar between his teeth, but it had gone out.
"I am going to look for Marcello," said Aurora, as she passed close beside him.
He said nothing, and hardly moved his head. Aurora turned and looked at him as she stepped upon the path.
"What is the matter?" she asked, as she saw his face. "Is anything wrong?"
Corbario looked up quickly, as if he had been in a reverie.
"Anything the matter? No. Where did you say you were going?"
"To find Marcello. He has not come in yet."
"He has gone for a walk, I suppose. He often walks alone on off days. He will be back before luncheon, and you are not going to town till the afternoon."
"Will you come with me?" Aurora asked, for she was in a good humour with Folco.
He rose at once.
"I'll go with you for a stroll," he said, "but I don't think it is of any use to look for Marcello near the house."
"It can do no harm."
"And it will do us good to walk a bit."
They went down the path and through the trees towards the break in the bank.
"The sand was very wet this morning, even inside the bank," Aurora said. "I daresay we shall find his footsteps and be able to guess which way he went."
"Very likely," Folco answered.
He pushed back his tweed cap a little and passed his handkerchief across his smooth brow. Aurora noticed the action, because he did not usually get warm so easily.
"Are you hot?" she asked carelessly.
"A little," he answered. "The air is so heavy this morning."
"Perhaps you are not quite well," said Aurora. "You are a little pale."
Apparently something in her youthfully patronising tone came as near irritating him as anything ever could.
"What does it matter, whether I am hot or not?" he asked, almost impatiently, and again he passed his handkerchief over his forehead.
"I did not mean to annoy you," Aurora answered with uncommon meekness.
They came near the break in the bank, and she looked at the sand on each side of her. She thought it seemed smoother than usual, and that there were not so many little depressions in it, where there had been footsteps on previous days, half obliterated by wind and rain.
"I cannot see where you and I passed an hour ago," she said, in some surprise.
"The wind draws through the gap with tremendous strength," Folco explained. "Just before the gale moderated there was a heavy squall with rain."
"Was there? I did not notice that--but I was on the lee side of the house. The wind must have smoothed the sand, just like a flat-iron!"
"Yes." Corbario answered indifferently and gazed out to sea.
Aurora left his side and looked about, going to a little distance from the gap, first on one side and then on the other.
"It is as if the wind had done it on purpose!" she cried impatiently. "It is as smooth as if it had all been swept with a gardener's broom."
Corbario turned, lighted his extinguished cigar, and watched her, as she moved about, stooping now and then to examine the sand.
"I don't believe it is of any use to look here," he said. "Besides, he will be back in time for luncheon."
"I suppose so," answered Aurora. "Why do you look at me in that way?" she asked, standing upright and meeting his eyes suddenly.
He laughed softly and took his cigar from his mouth.
"I was watching you. You are very graceful when you move."
She did not like his expression.
"I wish you would think less about me and more about finding Marcello," she said rather sharply.
"You talk as if he were lost. I tell you he will surely come back before long."
"I hope so."
But Marcello did not come back, and after Aurora had returned to the cottage and was seated in her chair again, with her book, she grew restless, and went over in her memory what had passed in the morning. It was not possible that Marcello should really mean to carry out his threat, to go away without a word, to leave her, to leave his mother; and yet, he was gone. A settled conviction came over her that he was really gone, just as he was, most probably back to Rome. She had teased him, and he had been very angry, absurdly angry; and yet she was perhaps responsible, in a way, for his disappearance. Presently his mother would grow anxious and would ask questions, and then it would all come out. It would be better to be brave and to say at once that he had been angry with her; she could confess the truth to her mother, to the Signora, if necessary, or even to both together, for they were women and would understand. But she could not tell the story before Corbario. That would be out of the question; and yet, anything would be better than to let them all think that something dreadful had happened to Marcello. He had gone to Rome, of course; or perhaps only to Porto d'Anzio, in which case he would meet Ercole coming back.
The hours wore on to midday, and Signora Corbario's uneasiness grew into real anxiety. The Contessa did her best to soothe her, but was anxious herself, and still Aurora said nothing. Folco was grave, but assured every one that the boy would soon return, though the Signora would not believe it.
"He will never come back! Something dreadful has happened to him!" And therewith she broke down completely and burst into tears.
"You must go and look for him," said Maddalena quietly to Corbario.
"I think you are right," he answered. "I am going to find him," he said softly, bending down to his wife as she lay in her chair, trying to control her sobs. "I will send some of the men towards Porto d'Anzio and will go towards Nettuno myself."
She loved him and believed in him, and she was comforted when she saw him go away and heard him calling the men from their hut.
Aurora was left alone with the two women.
"I am afraid Marcello is gone to Rome," she said, with an effort.
The Signora raised herself in her long chair and stared hard at the girl. The Contessa looked at her in surprise.
"What do you know about it?" cried the Signora. "Why have you not spoken, if you know anything? Don't you see that I am half mad with anxiety?"
Aurora had never seen the good lady in such a state, and was almost frightened; but there was nothing to be done now, except to go on. She told her little story timidly, but truthfully, looking from her mother to the Signora while she spoke, and wondering what would happen when she had finished.
"He said, 'You shall wish me back, but I will not come.' I think those were his last words."
"You have broken my boy's heart!" cried the Signora Corbario, turning her face away.
Maddalena, whose heart had really been broken long ago, could not help smiling.
"I am sure I did not mean to," cried Aurora, contritely. "And after all, though I daresay it was my fault, he called me a miserable little flirt, and I only called him a baby."
Maddalena would have laughed if her friend had not been in such real distress. As for Aurora, she did not know whether she would have laughed or cried if she had not felt that her girl's dignity was at stake. As it was, she grew preternaturally calm.
"You have driven him away," moaned the Signora piteously. "You have driven away my boy! Was he not good enough for you?"
She asked the question suddenly and vehemently, turning upon poor Aurora with something like fury. She was quite beside herself, and the Contessa motioned the girl away. Aurora rose and disappeared round the corner of the house.
Alone with her friend, Maddalena did her best to comfort her. There were arguments enough: it was barely noon, and Marcello had not been gone four hours; he was used to taking long walks, he had probably gone as far as the tower, and had rested there before coming back; or he had gone to meet Ercole on the road to Porto d'Anzio; or he had gone off towards the Nettuno woods to get over his anger in solitude; it was natural enough; and after all, if he had gone to Rome as Aurora thought, no harm could come to him, for he would go home, and would surely send a telegram before evening. It was unlike him, yes; but just at his age boys often did foolish things.
"Marcello is not foolish!" objected the Signora indignantly.
She could by no means listen to reason, and was angry because her friend tried to argue with her. She rose with an energy she seldom displayed, and began to walk up and down the verandah. Her face was very pale, her lip quivered when she spoke, and there was an unnatural light in her eyes. There was room for much moderate affection in her gentle nature; she had loved her first husband; she loved Corbario dearly; but the passion of her life was her son, and at the first presentiment of real danger to him the dominant preoccupation of her heart took violent possession of everything else in her, regardless of reason, friendship, consideration for others, or common sense.
Maddalena walked up and down beside her, putting one arm affectionately round her waist, and doing the best she could to allay the tempest.
It subsided suddenly, and was followed by a stony silence that frightened the Contessa. It was time for luncheon, and Aurora came back, hoping to find that she had been forgiven during her absence, but the Signora only looked at her coldly once or twice and would not speak. None of the three even pretended to have an appetite.
"I shall not go back to Rome to-day," said the Contessa. "I cannot leave you in such anxiety."
"Folco will take care of me," answered the Signora in a dull tone. "Do not change your plans on my account. The carriage is ordered at three o'clock."
She spoke so coldly that Maddalena felt a little pardonable resentment, though she knew that her friend was not at all herself.
"Very well," she answered quietly. "If you had rather that I should not stay with you we will go back this afternoon."
"It will be much better."
When the carriage appeared neither Folco nor any of the men had returned. The Signora made an evident attempt to show a little of her habitual cordiality at parting, and she even kissed Aurora coldly on the forehead, and embraced Maddalena with something like her usual affection. The two looked back as they drove away, calling out a last good-bye, but they saw that the Signora was not even looking after them; she was leaning against one of the wooden supports of the verandah, gazing towards the trees, and pressing one hand to her forehead.
"Do you think it was my fault, mamma?" asked Aurora, when they were out of sight of the cottage.
"No, dear," answered Maddalena. "Something has happened, I wish I knew what!"
"I only told him he was a baby," said Aurora, settling herself in the corner of the carriage, and arranging her parasol behind her so that it rested on the open hood; for the weather had cleared and the sun was shining brightly after the storm.
So she and her mother went back to Rome that afternoon. But when the Signora was alone, she was sorry that her friend was gone, and was all at once aware that her head was aching terribly. Every movement she made sent an agonizing thrill through her brain, and her hand trembled from the pain, as she pressed her palm to her forehead.
She meant to go down to the beach alone, for she was sure that she could find Marcello, and at least she would meet the men who were searching for him, and have news sooner than if she stayed in the cottage. But she could not have walked fifty steps without fainting while her headache lasted. She would take five grains of phenacetine, and in a little while she would be better.
She found the glass tube with the screw cap, and swallowed one of the tablets with a little water. Then she sat down on the edge of her long chair in the verandah to wait for the pain to pass. She was very tired, and presently, she scarcely knew how it was, she was lying at full length in her chair, her head resting comfortably against the cushion.
The sunlight fell slanting across her feet. Amongst the trees two or three birds were twittering softly; it was warm, it was dreamy, she was forgetting Marcello. She tried to rouse herself as the thought of him crossed her mind, and she fancied that she almost rose from the chair; but she had hardly lifted one hand. Then she saw his face close before her, her lips relaxed, the pain was gone, she smiled happily, and she was asleep.
Half an hour later her maid came quietly out to ask whether she needed anything, and seeing that she was sleeping peacefully spread a light shawl over her feet, placed the silver handbell within easy reach on the table, and went away again.
Towards evening Folco came back and then the men, straggling in on their tired little horses, for they had ridden far and fast. Marcello was not with them.
Corbario came in alone, and saw his wife lying in her chair in the evening light. He stood still a moment, and then came over and bent near her, looking earnestly into her quiet face.
"Already," he said aloud, but in a very low voice.
His hand shook as he laid it on her heart, bending low. Then he started violently and stood bolt upright, as an unearthly howl rent the air.
Nino, Ercole's queer dog, was close beside him, his forepaws planted on the upper step of the verandah, his head thrown up, his half-open jaws showing his jagged teeth, his rough coat bristling like spikes of bearded barley.
And Ercole, still a hundred yards away amongst the trees, shook his head and hurried forward as he heard the long-drawn note of brute terror.
"Somebody is dead," he said to himself.