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Chapter 8

Corbario reached Rome in the afternoon, and the footman who stood waiting for him on the platform was struck by the change in his appearance. His eyes were hollow and bright, his cheeks were sunken, his lips looked dry; moreover, he moved a little nervously and his foot slipped as he got out of the carriage, so that he nearly fell. In the crowd, the footman asked his valet questions. Was he ill? What had happened to him? Was he consuming himself with grief? No, the valet thought not. He had been much better in Paris and had seen some old friends there. What harm was there in that? A bereaved man needed diversion. The change had come suddenly, when he had decided to return to Rome, and he had eaten nothing for thirty-six hours. The valet asked if the youth at the hospital, of whom Corbario had told him, were really Marcello. The footman answered that none of the servants thought so, after they had all been taken to see him.

Having exchanged these confidences in the half-dumb language which servants command, they reached the gate. The footman rushed out to call the carriage, the valet delivered the tickets and followed the footman more slowly, carrying Corbario's bag and coat, and Corbario lighted a cigar and followed his man at a leisurely pace, absorbed in thought.

Until the moment of passing the gate he had meant to drive directly to the hospital, which is at some distance from the station in a direction almost opposite to that of the Janiculum. He could have driven there in ten minutes, whereas he must lose more than an hour by going home first and then coming back. But his courage failed him, he felt faint and sick, and quite unable to bear any great emotion until he had rested and refreshed himself a little. A long railway journey stupefies some men, but makes others nervous and inclined to exaggerate danger or trouble. During the last twelve hours Corbario had been forcing himself to decide that he would go to the hospital and know the worst at once, but now that the moment was come he could not do it.

He was walking slowly through the outer hall of the station when a large man came up with him and greeted him quietly. It was Professor Kalmon. Corbario started at the sound of his voice. They had not met since Kalmon had been at the cottage.

"I wish I had known that you were in the train," the Professor said.

"So do I," answered Corbario without enthusiasm. "Not that I am very good company," he added, looking sideways at the other's face and meeting a scrutinising glance.

"You look ill," Kalmon replied. "I don't wonder."

"I sometimes wish I had one of those tablets of yours that send people to sleep for ever," said Corbario, making a great effort to speak steadily.

But his voice shook, and a sudden terror seized him, the abject fright that takes hold of a man who has been accustomed to do something very dangerous and who suddenly finds that his nerve is gone at the very moment of doing it again.

The cold sweat stood on Folco's forehead under his hat; he stopped where he was and tried to draw a long breath, but something choked him. Kalmon's voice seemed to reach him from a great distance. Then he felt the Professor's strong arm under his own, supporting him and making him move forward.

"The weather is hot," Kalmon said, "and you are ill and tired. Come outside."

"It is nothing," Corbario tried to say. "I was dizzy for a moment."

Kalmon and the footman helped him into his low carriage, and raised the hood, for the afternoon sun was still very hot.

"Shall I go home with you?" Kalmon asked.

"No, no!" cried Corbario nervously. "You are very kind. I am quite well now. Good-bye. Home!" he added to the footman, as he settled himself back under the hood, quite out of sight.

The Professor stood still in the glaring heat, looking after the carriage, his travelling-bag in his hand, while the crowd poured out of the station, making for the cabs and omnibuses that were drawn up in rows, or crossing the burning pavement on foot to take the tram.

When the carriage was out of sight, Kalmon looked up at the hot sky and down at the flagstones, and then made up his mind what to do.

"To the hospital of San Giovanni," he said, as he got into a cab.

He seemed to be well informed, for he inquired at the door about a certain Marcello Botti, who was in a private room; and when he gave his name he was admitted without even asking permission of the Superintendent, and was at once led upstairs.

"Are you a friend of his, sir?" asked Regina, when he had looked a long time at the patient, who did not recognise him in the least.

"Are you?" Kalmon looked at her quietly across the bed.

"You see," she answered. "If I were not, why should I be here?"

"She has saved my life," said Marcello suddenly, and he caught her hand in his and held it fast. "As soon as I am quite well we shall be married."

"Certainly, my dear boy, certainly," replied Kalmon, as if it were quite a matter of course. "You must make haste and get well as soon as possible."

He glanced at Regina's face, and as her eyes met his she shook her head almost imperceptibly, and smiled. Kalmon was not quite sure what she meant. He made a sign to her to go with him to the window, which was at some distance from the bed.

"It may be long before he is well," he whispered. "There must be an operation."

She nodded, for she knew that.

"And do you expect to marry him when he is recovered?"

She shook her head and laughed, glancing at Marcello.

"He is a gentleman," she whispered, close to Kalmon's ear. "How could he marry me?"

"You love him," Kalmon answered.

Again she nodded, and laughed too.

"What would you do for him?" asked Kalmon, looking at her keenly.

"Die for him!"

She meant it, and he saw that she did. Her eyes shone as she spoke, and then the lids drooped a little and she looked at him almost fiercely. He turned from her and his fingers softly tapped the marble window-sill. He was asking himself whether he could swear to Marcello's identity, in case he should be called upon to give evidence. On what could he base his certainty? Was he himself certain, or was he merely moved by the strong resemblance he saw, in spite of long illness and consequent emaciation? Was the visiting surgeon right in believing that the little depression in the skull had caused a suspension of memory? Such things happened, no doubt, but it also happened that doctors were mistaken and that nothing came of such operations. Who could prove the truth? The boy and girl might have a secret to keep; she might have arranged to get him into the hospital because it was his only chance, but the rest of the story, such as it was, might be a pure invention; and when Marcello was discharged cured, they would disappear together. There was the coincidence of the baptismal name, but men of science know how deceptive coincidences can be. Besides, the girl was very intelligent. She might easily have heard about the real Marcello's disappearance, and she was clever enough to have given her lover the name in the hope that he might be taken for the lost boy at least long enough to ensure him a great deal more comfort and consideration in the hospital than he otherwise would have got; she was clever enough to have seen that it would be a mistake to say outright that he was Marcello Consalvi, if she was practising a deception. Kalmon did not know what to think, and he wished the operation could be performed before Corbario came; but that was impossible.

Regina stood beside him, waiting for him to speak again.

"Do you need money?" he asked abruptly, with a sharp look at her face.

"No, thank you, sir," she answered. "He has everything here."

"But for yourself?" He kept his eyes on her.

"I thank you, sir, I want nothing." Her look met his almost coldly as she spoke.

"But when he is well again, how shall you live?"

"I shall work for him, if it turns out that he has no friends. We shall soon know, for his memory will come back after the operation. The doctors say so. They know."

"And if he has friends after all? If he is really the man I think he is, what then? What will become of you?"

"I do not know. I am his. He can do what he likes with me."

The Professor did not remember to have met any one who took quite such an elementary view of life, but he could not help feeling a sort of sympathy for the girl's total indifference to consequences.

"I shall come to see him again," he said presently, turning back towards the bed and approaching Marcello. "Are you quite sure that you never saw me before?" he asked, taking the young man's hand.

"I don't remember," answered Marcello, wearily. "They all want me to remember," he added almost peevishly. "I would if I could, if it were only to please them!"

Kalmon went away, for he saw that his presence tired the patient. When he was gone Regina sat down beside the bed and stroked Marcello's hand, and talked soothingly to him, promising that no one should tease him to remember things. By and by, as she sat, she laid her head on the pillow beside him, and her sweet breath fanned his face, while a strange light played in her half-closed eyes.

"Heart of my heart," she sighed happily. "Love of my soul! Do you know that I am all yours, soul and body, and earrings too?" And she laughed low.

"You are the most beautiful woman in the world," Marcello answered. "I love you!"

She laughed again, and kissed him.

"You love me better than Aurora," she said suddenly.

"Aurora?"

"Yes, for you have forgotten her. But you will not forget Regina now, not even when you are very, very old, and your golden hair is all grey. You will never forget Regina, now!"

"Never!" echoed Marcello, like a child. "Never, never, never!"

"Not even when your friends try to take me away from you, love, not even if they try to kill me, because they want you to marry Aurora, who is a rich girl, all dressed with silk and covered with jewels, like the image of the Madonna at Genazzano. I am sure Aurora has yellow hair and blue eyes!"

"I don't want any one but you," answered Marcello, drawing her face nearer.

So the time passed, and it was to them as if there were no time. Then the door opened again, and a very pale man in deep mourning was brought in by the Superintendent himself. Regina rose and drew back a little, so that the shadow should not fall across Marcello's face, and she fixed her eyes on the gentleman in black.

"This is the patient," said the Superintendent in a low voice.

Corbario laid his hand nervously on his companion's arm, and stood still for a moment, holding his breath and leaning forward a little, his gaze riveted on Marcello's face. Regina had never before seen a man transfixed with fear.

He moved a step towards the bed, and then another, forcing himself to go on. Then Marcello turned his head and looked at him vacantly. Regina heard the long breath Corbario drew, and saw his body straighten, as if relieved from a great burden. He stood beside the bed, and put out his hand to take Marcello's.

"Do you know me?" he asked; but even then his voice was unsteady.

Instead of answering, Marcello turned away to Regina.

"You promised that they should not tease me any more," he said querulously. "Make them go away! I want to sleep."

Regina came to his side at once, and faced the two men across the bed.

"What is all this for?" she asked, with a little indignation. "You know that he cannot remember you, even if he ever saw you before. Cannot you leave him in peace? Come back after the operation. Then he will remember you, if you really know him."

"Who is this girl?" asked Corbario of the Superintendent.

"She took care of him when he had the fever, and she managed to get him here. She has undoubtedly saved his life."

At the words a beautiful blush coloured Regina's cheeks, and her eyes were full of triumphant light; but at the same words Corbario's still face darkened, and as if it had been a mask that suddenly became transparent, the girl saw another face through it, drawn into an expression of malignant and devilish hatred.

The vision only lasted a moment, and the impenetrable pale features were there once more, showing neither hate nor fear, nor any feeling or emotion whatever. Corbario was himself again, and turned quietly to the Superintendent.

"She is quite right," he said. "His memory is gone, and we shall only disturb him. You tell me that the doctors have found a very slight depression in his head, as if from a blow. Do you think--but it will annoy him--I had better not."

"What do you mean?" asked the other, as he hesitated.

"It is such a strange case that I should like to see just where it is, out of pure curiosity."

"It is here," said Regina, answering, and setting the tip of one straight finger against her own head to point out the place.

"Oh, at the back, on the right side? I see--yes--thank you. A little on one side, you say?"

"Here," repeated Regina, turning so that Corbario could see exactly where the end of her finger touched her hair.

"To think that so slight an injury may have permanently affected the young man's memory!" Corbario appeared much impressed. "Well," he continued, speaking to Regina, "if we ever find out who he is, his relations owe you a debt of gratitude quite beyond all payment."

"Do you think I want to be paid?" asked Regina, and in her indignation she turned away and walked to the window.

But Marcello called her back.

"Please, Regina--please tell them to go away!" he pleaded.

Corbario nodded to the Superintendent, and they left the room.

"There is certainly a strong resemblance," said Folco, when they were outside, "but it really cannot be my poor Marcello. I was almost too much affected by the thought of seeing him again to control myself when we first entered, but when I came near I felt nothing. It is not he, I am sure. I loved him as if he were my own son; I brought him up; we were always together. It is not possible that I should be mistaken."

"No," replied the Superintendent, "I should hardly think it possible. Besides, from what the girl has told me, I am quite sure that he lay ill near Tivoli. How is it possible that he should have got there, all the way from the Roman shore?"

"And with a fractured skull! It is absurd!" Corbario was glad to find that the Superintendent held such a strong opinion. "It is not Marcello. The nose is not the same, and the expression of the mouth is quite different."

He said these things with conviction, but he was not deceived. He knew that Marcello Consalvi was living and that he had seen him, risen from the dead, and apparently likely to remain among the living for some time. The first awful moment of anxiety was past, it was true, and Folco was able to think more connectedly than he had since he had received the telegram recalling him from Paris; but there was to be another. The doctors said that his memory would return--what would he remember? It would come back, beginning, most probably, at the very moment in which it had been interrupted. For one instant he would fancy that he saw again what he had seen then. What had he seen? That was the question. Had he seen anything but the sand, the scrubby bushes, and the trees round the cottage in the distance? Had he heard anything but the howling of the southwest gale and the thundering of the big surf over the bar and up the beach? The injury was at the back of his head, but it was a little on one side. Had he been in the act of turning? Had he turned far enough to see before the blow had extinguished memory? How far was the sudden going out of thought really instantaneous? What fraction of a second intervened between full life and what was so like death? How long did it take a man to look round quickly? Much less than a second, surely! Without effort or hurry a man could turn his head all the way from left to right, so as to look over each shoulder alternately, while a second pendulum swung once. A second was a much longer time than most people realised. Instruments made for scientific photography could be made to expose the plate not more than one-thousandth of a second. Corbario knew that, and wondered whether a man's eye could receive any impression in so short a time. He shuddered when he thought that it might be possible.

The question was to be answered sooner than he expected. The doctors had reported that a week must pass before Marcello would be strong enough to undergo the operation, but he improved so quickly after he reached the hospital that it seemed useless to wait. It was not considered to be a very dangerous operation, nor one which weakened the patient much.

Regina was not allowed to be present, and when Marcello had been wheeled out of his room, already under ether, she went and stood before the window, pressing down her clasped hands upon the marble sill with all her might, and resting her forehead against the green slats of the blind. She did not move from this position while the nurse made Marcello's bed ready to receive him on his return. It was long to wait. The great clock in the square struck eleven some time after he had been taken away, then the quarter, then half-past.

Regina felt the blood slowly sinking to her heart. She would have given anything to move now, but she could not stir hand or foot; she was cold, yet somehow she could not even shiver; that would have been a relief; any motion, any shock, any violent pain would have been a thousand times better than the marble stillness that was like a spell.

Far away on the Janiculum Folco Corbario sat in his splendid library alone, with strained eyes, waiting for the call of the telephone that stood on the polished table at his elbow. He, too, was motionless, and longed for release as he had never thought he could long for anything. A still unlighted cigar was almost bitten through by his sharp front teeth; every faculty was tense; and yet it was as if his brain had stopped thinking at the point where expectation had begun. He could not think now, he could only suffer. If the operation were successful there would be more suffering, doubt still more torturing, suspense more agonising still.

The great clock over the stables struck eleven, then the quarter, then half-past. The familiar chimes floated in through the open windows.

A wild hope came with the sound. Marcello, weak as he was, had died under ether, and that was the end. Corbario trembled from head to foot. The clock struck the third quarter, but no other sound broke the stillness of the near noon-tide. Yes, Marcello must be dead.

Suddenly, in the silence, came the sharp buzz of the instrument. He leapt in his seat as if something had struck him unawares, and then, instantly controlling himself, he grasped the receiver and held it to his ear.

"Signor Corbario?" came the question.

"Yes, himself."

"The hospital. The operation has been successful. Do you hear?"

"Yes. Go on."

"The patient has come to himself. He remembers everything."

"Everything!" Corbario's voice shook.

"He is Marcello Consalvi. He asks for his mother, and for you."

"How--in what way does he ask for me? Will my presence do him good--or excite him?"

The moment had come, and Folco's nerve was restored with the sense of danger. His face grew cold and expressionless as he waited for the answer.

"He speaks most affectionately of you. But you had better not come until this afternoon, and then you must not stay long. The doctors say he must rest quietly."

"I will come at four o'clock. Thank you. Good-bye."

"Good-bye."

The click of the instrument, as Folco hung the receiver on the hook, and it was over. He shut his eyes and leaned back in his chair, his arms hanging by his sides as if there were no strength in them, and his head falling forward till his chin rested on his chest. He remained so for a long time without moving.

But in the room at the hospital Marcello lay in bed with his head bound up, his cheek on the pillow, and his eyes fixed on Regina's face, as she knelt beside him and fanned him slowly, for it was hot.

"Sleep, heart of my heart," she said softly. "Sleep and rest!"

There was a sort of peaceful wonder in his look now. Nothing vacant, nothing that lacked meaning or understanding. But he did not answer her, he only gazed into her face, and gazed and gazed till his eyelids drooped and he fell asleep with a smile on his lips.


F. Marion Crawford

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