For a few weeks all Italy was profoundly interested in the story of Marcello Corbario's disappearance and of his mother's almost unaccountable death. It was spoken of as the "double tragedy of the Campagna," and the newspapers were full of it.
The gates of the beautiful villa on the Janiculum were constantly assailed by reporters; the servants who came out from time to time were bribed, flattered, and tempted away to eat sumptuous meals and drink the oldest wine in quiet gardens behind old inns in Trastevere, in the hope that they might have some information to sell. But no one gained admittance to the villa except the agents of the police, who came daily to report the fruitless search; and the servants had nothing to tell beyond the bare truth. The young gentleman had gone for a walk near the sea, down at the cottage by the Roman shore, and he had never been heard of again. His mother had been suffering from a bad headache, had lain down to rest in a cane chair on the verandah, and had been found dead, with a smile on her face, by her husband, when he came back from his first attempt to find Marcello. The groom who always went down with the carriage could describe with greatest accuracy the spot where the Signorina Aurora had last seen him; the house servants gave the most minute details about the cane chair, the verandah, and the position in which the poor lady had been found; but that was all, and it was not at all what the reporters wanted. They had all been down to the cottage, each with his camera and note-book, and had photographed everything in sight, including Nino, Ercole's dog. What they wanted was a clue, a story, a scandal if possible, and they found nothing of the sort.
Folco Corbario's mourning was unostentatious and quiet, but none of the few persons who saw him, whether detectives or servants, could doubt that he was profoundly affected. He grew paler and thinner every day, until his own man even began to fear that his health was failing. He had done, and continued to do, everything that was humanly possible. He had brought his wife's body to Rome, and had summoned the very highest authorities in the medical profession to discover, if possible, the cause of her death. They had come, old men of science, full of the experience of years, young men of the future, brimming with theories, experts in chemistry, experts in snake poisons; for Folco had even suggested that she might have been bitten by a viper or stung by a venomous spider, or accidentally poisoned by some medicine or something she had eaten.
But the scientific gentlemen were soon agreed that no such thing had happened. Considerably disappointed, and with an unanimity which is so unusual in the confraternity as to be thought absolutely conclusive when it is observed, they decided that the Signora Corbario had died of collapse after intense excitement caused by the disappearance of her son. Thereafter she was buried out at San Lorenzo, with the secret, if there were any; masses were said, the verdict of the doctors was published, with the signatures of the most eminent practitioners and specialists in Italy; and the interest of the public concentrated itself upon the problem of Marcello's mysterious removal, or abduction, or subduction, or recession, or flight, from the very bosom of his family.
This problem had the merit of defying solution. In a comparatively open country, within a space of time which could certainly be limited to five minutes, at a place whence he should have been clearly seen by Folco Corbario as soon as Aurora dell' Armi could no longer see him, the boy had been spirited away, leaving not even the trace of his footsteps in the sand. It was one of the most unaccountable disappearances on record, as Folco insisted in his conversations with the Chief of Police, who went down with him to the cottage and examined the spot most carefully, with several expert detectives. Folco showed him exactly where Aurora had stood, and precisely the direction he himself had followed in approaching the gap, and he declared it to be almost a physical impossibility that Marcello should have become suddenly invisible just then.
The official thought so too, and shook his head. He looked at the detectives, and they shook their heads, also. And then they all looked at Corbario and expressed the opinion that there was some mistake about the length of time supposed by Aurora to have elapsed between the moment when Marcello left her and the instant of Folco's appearance before her. She had not looked at her watch; in fact, she had not carried a watch. The whole story therefore depended upon her more or less accurate judgment of time. It might have been a quarter of an hour instead of five minutes, in which case Corbario had not yet left the cottage, and Marcello would have had ample leisure to disappear in any direction he pleased. Ercole had been away at Porto d'Anzio, the men had been all at the hut; if Folco had not been on the path precisely at the time guessed by Aurora, everything could be accounted for.
"Very well," Corbario answered. "Let us suppose that my stepson had time to get away. In that case he can be found, alive or dead. Italy is not China, nor Siberia, and I can place unlimited funds at your disposal. Find him for me; that is all I ask."
"We shall find him, never fear!" answered the Chief of Police with a confidence he did not feel.
"We shall find him!" echoed the three detectives in chorus.
Ercole watched the proceedings and listened to what was said, for he considered it his duty to attend on such an occasion, his dog at his heels, his gun slung over his shoulder. He listened and looked from one to the other with his deep eyes and inscrutable parchment face, shrivelled by the malarious fever. But he said nothing. The Chief of Police turned to him at last.
"Now what do you think about it?" asked the official. "You know the country. Had there been any suspicious characters about, fellows who could have carried off the boy?"
"Such people would ask a ransom," answered Ercole. "You would soon hear from them. But I saw no one. There have been no brigands about Rome for more than twenty years. Do you dream that you are in Sicily? Praise be to Heaven, this is the Roman Campagna; we are Christians and we live under King Victor! Where are the brigands? They have melted. Or else they are making straw hats in the galleys. Do I know where they are? They are not here. That is enough."
"Quite right, my friend," answered the Chief of Police. "There are no brigands. But I am sorry to say that there are thieves in the Campagna, as there are near every great city."
Ercole shrugged his angular shoulders contemptuously.
"Thieves would not carry a man away," he answered. "You know that, you who are of the profession, as they say. Such ruffians would have knocked the young gentleman on the head to keep him quiet, and would have made off. And besides, we should have found their tracks in the sand, and Nino would have smelt them."
Nino pricked up one ragged ear at the sound of his name.
"He does not look very intelligent," observed the official. "A clever dog might have been used to track the boy."
"How?" inquired Ercole with scorn. "The footsteps of the young gentleman were everywhere, with those of all the family, who were always coming and going about here. How could he track them, or any of us? But he would have smelt a stranger, even if it had rained. I know this dog. He is the head dog on the Roman shore. There is no other dog like him."
"I daresay not," assented the Chief of Police, looking at Nino. "In fact, he is not like any animal I ever saw."
The detectives laughed at this.
"There is no other," said Ercole without a smile. "He is the only son of a widowed mother. I am his family, and he is my family, and we live in good understanding in this desert. If there were no fever we should be like the saints in paradise--eating our corn meal together. And I will tell you another thing. If the young gentleman had been wounded anywhere near here, Nino would have found the blood even after three days. As for a dead man, he would make a point for him and howl half a mile off, unless the wind was the wrong way."
"Would he really?" asked Corbario with a little interest.
Ercole looked at him and nodded, but said no more, and presently the whole party of men went back to Rome, leaving him to the loneliness of the sand-banks and the sea.
Then Ercole came back to the gap and stood still a little while, and his dog sat bolt upright beside him.
"Nino," he said at last, in a rather regretful tone, "I gave you a good character. What could I say before those gentlemen? But I tell you this, you are growing old. And don't answer that I am getting old too, for that is my business. If your nose were what it was once, we should know the truth by this time. Smell that!"
Ercole produced a small green morocco pocket-book, of the sort made to hold a few visiting cards and a little paper money, and held it to Nino's muzzle.
Nino smelt it, looked up to his master's face inquiringly, smelt it again, and then, as if to explain that it did not interest him, lay down in the sand with his head on his forepaws.
"You see!" growled Ercole. "You cannot even tell whether it belonged to the boy or to Corbario. An apoplexy on you! You understand nothing! Ill befall the souls of your dead, you ignorant beast!"
Nino growled, but did not lift his head.
"You understand that," said Ercole, discontentedly. "If you were a Christian you would stick a knife into me for insulting your dead! Yet you cannot tell whose pocket-book this is! And if I knew, I should know something worth knowing."
The pocket-book disappeared in the interior recesses of Ercole's waistcoat. It was empty and bore no initial, and he could not remember to have seen it in Corbario's or Marcello's hands, but he was quite sure that it belonged to one of them. He was equally sure that if he showed it to Corbario the latter would at once say that it was Marcello's, and would take it away from him, so he said nothing about it. He had found it in the sand, a little way up the bank, during his first search after Marcello's disappearance.
Ercole's confidence in the good intentions of his fellow-men was not great; he was quite lacking in the sort of charity which believeth all things, and had a large capacity for suspicion of everybody and everything; he held all men to be liars and most women to be something worse.
"Men are at least Christians," he would say to Nino, "but a female is always a female."
If he took a liking for any one, as for Marcello, he excused himself for the weakness on the ground that he was only human after all, and in his heart he respected his dog for snarling at everybody without discrimination. There was no doubt, however, that he felt a sort of attachment for the boy, and he admitted the failing while he deplored it. Besides, he detested Corbario, and had felt that his own common sense was insulted by the fact that Folco seemed devoted to Marcello. The suspicion that Folco had got rid of his stepson in order to get his fortune was therefore positively delightful, accompanied as it was by the conviction that he should one day prove his enemy a murderer. Perhaps if he could have known what Folco Corbario was suffering, he might have been almost satisfied, but he had no means of guessing that. In his opinion the man knew what had become of Marcello, and could be made to tell if proper means were used. At night Ercole put himself to sleep by devising the most horrible tortures for his master, such as no fortitude could resist, and by trying to guess what the wretched man would say when his agony forced him to confess the truth.
He was almost sure by this time that Marcello was dead, though how Folco could have killed him, carried off his body to a great distance and buried him, without ever absenting himself from the cottage, was more than Ercole could imagine. He paid Corbario's skill the compliment of believing that he had not employed any accomplice, but had done the deed alone.
How? That was the question. Ercole knew his dog well enough, and was perfectly sure that if the body had been concealed anywhere within a mile of the cottage Nino would have found it out, for the dog and his master had quartered every foot of the ground within three days after Marcello had been lost. It was utterly, entirely impossible that Folco, without help, could have dragged the dead boy farther. When he had gone on his pretended search he had not been alone; one of the men had ridden with him, and had never lost sight of him, as Ercole easily ascertained without seeming to ask questions. Ercole had obtained a pretty fair knowledge of Corbario's movements on that day, and it appeared that he had not been absent from the cottage more than half an hour at any time before he went to look for Marcello.
"If Corbario himself had disappeared in that way," said Ercole to himself and Nino, "it would be easy to understand. We should know that the devil had carried him off."
But no such supernatural intervention of the infernal powers could be supposed in Marcello's case, and Ercole racked his brains to no purpose, and pondered mad schemes for carrying Corbario off out of Rome to a quiet place where he would extract the truth from him, and he growled at the impossibility of such a thing, and fell to guessing again.
In the magnificent library of the villa on the Janiculum, Folco was guessing, too, and with no better result. But because he could not guess right, and could get no news of Marcello, his eyes were growing hollow and his cheeks wan.
The lawyers came and talked about the will, and explained to him that all the great property was his, unless Marcello came back, and that in any case he was to administer it. They said that if no news of the boy were obtained within a limited time, the law must take it for granted that he had perished in some unaccountable way. Folco shook his head.
"He must be found," he said. "I have good nerves, but if I do not find out what has become of him I shall go mad."
The lawyers spoke of courage and patience, but a sickly smile twisted Folco's lips.
"Put yourself in my place, if you can," he answered.
The lawyers, who knew the value of the property to a farthing, wished they could, though if they had known also what was passing in his mind they might have hesitated to exchange their lot for his.
"He was like your own son," they said sympathetically. "A wife and a son gone on the same day! It is a tragedy. It is more than a man can bear."
"It is indeed!" answered Corbario in a low voice and looking away.
Almost the same phrases were exchanged each time that the two men came to the villa about the business, and when they left they never failed to look at each other gravely and to remark that Folco was a person of the deepest feeling, to whom such an awful trial was almost worse than death; and the elder lawyer, who was of a religious turn of mind, said that if such a calamity befell him he would retire from the world, but the younger answered that, for his part, he would travel and see the world and try to divert his thoughts. In their different ways they were hard-headed, experienced men; yet neither of them suspected for a moment that there was anything wrong. Both were honestly convinced that Folco had been a model husband to his dead wife, and a model father to her lost son. What they could not understand was that he should not find consolation in possessing their millions, and they could only account for the fact by calling him a person of the deepest feeling--a feeling, indeed, quite past their comprehension.
Even the Contessa dell' Armi was impressed by the unmistakable signs of suffering in his face. She went twice to see him within three weeks after her friend's death, and she came away convinced that she had misjudged him. Aurora did not go with her, and Corbario barely asked after her. He led Maddalena to his dead wife's room and begged her to take some object that had belonged to the Signora, in memory of their long friendship. He pressed her to accept a necklace, or a bracelet, or some other valuable ornament, but Maddalena would only take a simple little gold chain which she herself had given long ago.
Her own sorrow for her friend was profound but undemonstrative, as her nature had grown to be. Aurora saw it, and never referred to it, speaking only now and then of Marcello, to ask if there were any news of him.
"He is not dead," the girl said one day. "I know he will come back. He went away because I called him a baby."
Her mother smiled sadly and shook her head.
"Did you love him, dear?" she asked softly.
"We were children then," Aurora answered. "How do I know? I shall know when he comes back."
It was true that the girl had changed within a few weeks, and her mother saw it. Her smile was not the same, and her eyes were deeper. She had begun to gather her hair in a knot, closer to her head, and that altered her expression a little and made her look much older; but there was more than that, there was something very hard to describe, something one might call conviction--the conviction that the world is real, which comes upon girlhood as suddenly as waking on sleep, or sleep on waking. She had crossed the narrow borderland between play and earnest, and she had crossed it very soon.
"He will come back," she said. "He went away on that little ship that was tossing in the storm. I know it, though I cannot tell how he got out to it through the breaking waves."
"That is perfectly impossible, child," said Maddalena with certainty.
"Never mind. If we knew what ship that was, and where she is now, we could find Marcello. I am as sure of it as I am sure of seeing you at this moment. You know you often say that my presentiments come true. As soon as we knew he was gone I thought of the little ship."
It was natural, perhaps. The picture of the small brigantine, fighting for existence, had graved itself in her memory. With its crew so near death, it had been the only thing within sight that suggested human life after Marcello was gone. The utter impossibility of a man's swimming out through the raging sea that broke upon the bar was nothing compared with Aurora's inward conviction that the little vessel had borne away the secret of his disappearance. And she had not been wrecked: Aurora knew that, for a wreck anywhere on the Roman shore would have been spoken of at once. They are unfortunately common enough, and since her childhood Aurora had more than once seen a schooner's masts sticking up out of the treacherous water a cable's length from the shore. The brigantine had got away, for the gale had moderated very suddenly, as spring gales do in the Mediterranean, just when the captain was making up his mind to let go both anchors and make a desperate attempt to save his vessel by riding out the storm--a forlorn hope with such ground tackle as he had in his chain lockers. And then he had stood out, and had sailed away, one danger more behind him in his hard life, and one less ahead. He had sailed away--whither? No one could tell. Those little vessels, built in the south of Italy, often enough take salt to South America, and are sold there, cargo and all; and some of the crew stay there, and some get other ships, but almost all are dispersed. The keeper of the San Lorenzo tower, who had been a deep-water man, had told Aurora about it. He himself had once gone out in a Sicilian brigantine from Trapani, and had stayed away three years, knocking about the world in all sorts of craft.
Yet this one might have been on a coastwise trip to Genoa and Marseilles. That was quite possible. If one could only find out her name. And yet, if she had put into a near port Marcello would have come back; for Aurora was quite sure that he had got on board her somehow. It was all a mystery, all but the certainty she felt that he was still alive, and which nothing could shake, even when every one else had given him up. Aurora begged her mother to speak to Corbario about it. With his experience and knowledge of things he would know what to do; he could find some way of tracing the vessel, wherever she might be.
The Contessa was convinced that the girl's theory was utterly untenable, and it was only to please her that she promised to speak of it if she saw Corbario again. Soon afterward she decided to leave Rome for the summer, and before going away she went once more to the villa. It was now late in June, and she found Folco in the garden late in the afternoon.
He looked ill and tired, but she thought him a little less thin than when she had seen him last. He said that he, too, meant to leave Rome within a few days, that he intended to go northward first to see an old friend of his who had recently returned from South America, and that he should afterwards go down to Calabria, to San Domenico, and spend the autumn there. He had no news of Marcello. He looked thoughtfully down at his hands as he said this in a tone of profound sorrow.
"Aurora has a fixed idea," said Maddalena. "While she was talking with Marcello at the gap in the bank there was a small ship tossing about not far from the shore."
"Well?" asked Corbario. "What of it?"
As he looked up from the contemplation of his hands Maddalena was struck by his extreme pallor and the terrible hollowness of his eyes.
"How ill you look!" she exclaimed, almost involuntarily. "The sooner you go away the better."
"What did Aurora say about the brigantine?" he asked earnestly, by way of answer.
Maddalena knew too little about the sea to understand that he must have noticed the vessel's rig to name it correctly, as he did, and without hesitation.
"She is convinced that Marcello got on board of her," she answered.
Corbario's face relaxed a little, and he laughed harshly.
"That is utterly absurd!" he answered. "No swimmer that ever lived could have got to her, nor any boat either! There was a terrific surf on the bar."
"Of course not," assented Maddalena. "But you saw the ship, too?"
"Yes. Aurora was looking at her when I reached the gap. That is why I noticed the vessel," Corbario added, as if by an afterthought. "She was a Sicilian brigantine, and was carrying hardly any sail. If the gale had lasted she would probably have been driven ashore. Her only chance would have been to drop anchor."
"You know all about ships and the sea, don't you?" asked Maddalena, with a very little curiosity, but without any particular intention.
"Oh, no!" cried Corbario, as if he were protesting against something. "I have made several long voyages, and I have a knack of remembering the names of things, nothing more."
"I did not mean to suggest that you had been a sailor," Maddalena answered.
"What an idea! I, a sailor!"
He seemed vaguely amused at the idea. The Contessa took leave of him, after giving him her address in the north of Italy, and begging him to write if he found any clue to Marcello's disappearance. He promised this, and they parted, not expecting to meet again until the autumn.
In a few days they had left Rome for different destinations. The little apartment near the Forum of Trajan where the Contessa and her daughter lived was shut up, and at the great villa on the Janiculum the solemn porter put off his mourning livery and dressed himself in brown linen, and smoked endless pipes within the closed gates when it was not too hot to be out of doors. The horses were turned out to grass, and the coachman and grooms departed to the country. The servants opened the windows in the early morning, shut them at ten o'clock against the heat, and dozed the rest of the time, or went down into the city to gossip with their friends in the afternoon. It was high summer, and Rome went to sleep.