Two years had passed since Marcello had been brought home from the hospital, very feeble still, but himself again and master of his memory and thoughts.
In his recollection, however, there was a blank. He had left Aurora standing in the gap, where the storm swept inland from the sea; then the light had gone out suddenly, in something violent which he could not understand, and after that he could remember nothing except that he had wandered in lonely places, trying to find out which way he was going, and terrified by the certainty that he had lost all sense of direction; so he had wandered on by day and night, as in a dark dream, and had at last fallen asleep, to wake in the wretched garret of the inn on the Frascati road, with Regina kneeling beside him and moistening his lips from a glass of water.
He remembered that and other things, which came back to him uncertainly, like the little incidents of his early childhood, like the first words he could remember hearing and answering, like the sensation of being on his mother's knee and resting his head upon her shoulder, like the smell of the roses and the bitter-orange blossoms in the villa, like the first sensation of being set upon a pony's back in San Domenico, while Corbario held him up in the saddle, and tried to make his little hands hold the bridle. The inn was quite as far away as all that, and but for Regina he might have forgotten it altogether.
She was "Consalvi's Regina" now; half Rome called her that, and she was famous. Naples and Florence and Milan had heard of her; she had been seen at Monte Carlo, and even in Paris and London her name was not unknown in places where young men congregate to discuss the wicked world, and where young women meet to compare husbands, over the secret and sacrificial teapot which represents virtue, or the less sacred bridge-table which represents vice. Smart young dandies who had never exchanged a word with her spoke of her familiarly as "Regina "; smarter and older men, who knew her a little, talked of her as "the Spalletta," not without a certain respect; their mothers branded her as "that creature," and their wives, who envied her, called her "Consalvi's Regina."
When people remonstrated with Folco Corbario for allowing his stepson too much liberty, he shook his head gravely and answered that he did what he could to keep Marcello in the right way, but that the boy's intellect had been shaken by the terrible accident, and that he had undoubtedly developed vicious tendencies--probably atavistic, Folco added. Why did Folco allow him to have so much money? The answer was that he was of age and the fortune was his. But why had Folco let him have it before he was twenty-one, ever since he was found and brought home? He had not had much, was the reply; at least it had not been much compared with the whole income he now enjoyed one could not bring up the heir of a great estate like a pauper, could one? So the questioners desisted from questioning, but they said among themselves that, although Folco had been an admirable husband and stepfather while his wife had lived, he had not shown as much good sense after her death as they had been led to expect. Meanwhile, no one had any right to interfere, and Marcello did as he pleased.
Children instinctively attach themselves to whichever of their parents gives them the most liberty. It is sheer nonsense to deny it. Marcello had loved his mother dearly, but she had always been the one to hinder him from doing what he wished to do, because she had been excessively anxious about his bodily health, and over-desirous of bringing him up to manhood in a state of ideal moral perfection. Folco, on the other hand, had been associated with all the boy's sports and pleasures, and had always encouraged him to amuse himself, giving as a reason that there was no medicine like healthy happiness for a boy of delicate constitution. Corbario, like Satan, knew the uses of truth, which are numerous and not all good. Though Marcello would not have acknowledged it to himself, his stepfather had been nearer to him, and more necessary to him, than his mother, during several years; and besides, it was less hard to bear the loss of which he learned when he recovered, because it had befallen him during that dark and uncertain period of his illness that now seemed as if it had lasted for years, and whereby everything that had been before it belonged to a remote past.
Moreover, there was Regina, and there was youth, and there was liberty; and Corbario was at hand, always ready to encourage and satisfy his slightest whim, on the plea that a convalescent must be humoured at any cost, and that there would be time enough to consider what should be done with Regina after Marcello was completely recovered. After all, Corbario told him, the girl had saved his life, and it was only right to be grateful, and she should be amply rewarded for all the trouble she had taken. It would have been sheer cruelty to have sent her away to the country; and what was the cost of a quiet lodging for her in Trastevere, and of a few decent clothes, and of a respectable middle-aged woman-servant to take care of her? Nothing at all; only a few francs, and Marcello was so rich! Regina, also, was so very unusually well-behaved, and so perfectly docile, so long as she was allowed to see Marcello every day! She did not care for dress at all, and was quite contented to wear black, with just a touch of some tender colour. Corbario made it all very easy, and saw to everything, and he seemed to know just how such things were arranged. He was so fortunate as to find a little house that had a quiet garden with an entrance on another street, all in very good condition because it had lately been used by a famous foreign painter who preferred to live in Trastevere, away from the interruptions and distractions of the growing city; and by a very simple transaction the house became the property of the minor, Marcello Consalvi, to do with as he thought fit. This was much more convenient than paying rent to a tiresome landlord who might at any time turn his tenant out. Corbario thought of everything. Twice a week a gardener came, early in the morning, and soon the garden was really pretty; and the respectable woman-servant watered the flowers every evening just before sunset. There was a comfortable Calcutta chair for Marcello in a shady corner, the very first time he came there, and Regina had learned how to make tea for him; for the respectable woman-servant knew how to do all sorts of things belonging to civilised life. She was so intensely respectable and quiet that Marcello was almost afraid of her, until it occurred to him that as she took so much trouble, he ought to give her a present of money; and when he had done this twice, he somehow became aware that she was his devoted slave--middle-aged and excessively respectable. Folco was really a very good judge of character, Marcello thought, since he could at once pick out such a person from the great horde of the unemployed.
Her name was Settimia, and it was wonderful to see how she quietly transformed Regina into a civilised creature, who must attract attention by her beauty and carriage, but who might have belonged to a middle-class Roman family so far as manners and dress were concerned. It is true that the girl possessed by nature the innate dignity of the Roman peasant, with such a figure and such grace as any aristocrat might have envied, and that she spoke with the Roman accent which almost all other Italians admire; but though her manners had a certain repose, they were often of an extremely unexpected nature, and she had an astonishingly simple way of calling things by their names which sometimes disconcerted Marcello and sometimes amused him. Settimia civilised her, almost without letting her know it, for she was quick to learn, like all naturally clever people who have had no education, and she was imitative, as all womanly women are when they are obliged to adapt themselves quickly to new surroundings. She was stimulated, too, by the wish to appear well before Marcello, lest he should ever be ashamed of her. That was all. She never had the least illusion about herself, nor any hope of raising herself to his social level. She was far too much the real peasant girl for that, the descendant of thirty or more generations of serfs, the offspring of men and women who had felt that they belonged body and soul to the feudal lord of the land on which they were born, and had never been disturbed by tempting dreams of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the violent destruction of ladies and gentlemen.
So she lived, and so she learned many things of Settimia, and looked upon herself as the absolute property of the man she loved and had saved; and she was perfectly happy, if not perfectly good.
"When I am of age," Marcello used to say, "I shall buy a beautiful little palace near the Tiber, and you shall live in it."
"Why?" she always asked. "Are we not happy here? Is it not cool in summer, and sunny in winter? Have we not all we want? When you marry, your wife will live in the splendid villa on the Janiculum, and when you are tired of her, you will come and see Regina here. I hope you will always be tired of her. Then I shall be happy."
Marcello would laugh a little, and then he would look grave and thoughtful, for he had not forgotten Aurora, and sometimes wondered what she was doing, as a young man does who is losing his hold upon himself, and on the things in which he has always believed. He who has never lived through such times and outlived them, knows neither the world nor himself.
Marcello wondered whether Aurora would ever meet Regina face to face, and what would happen if he were called upon to choose between the two. He would choose Regina, he said to himself, when he was going down the steep way from the villa to the little house, eager for her touch, her voice, her breath, and feeling in his pocket the key that opened the garden gate. But when the hours had passed, and he slowly walked up the road under the great plane-trees, in the cool of the late evening, glancing at the distant lights of Rome beyond the Tiber, and dimly conscious that something was still unsatisfied, then he hesitated and he remembered his boyish love, and fancied that if he met Aurora in the way they would stand still, each finding the other in the other's eyes, and silently kiss, as they had kissed long ago. Yet, with the thought, he felt shame, and he blushed, alone there under the plane-trees.
But Aurora had never come back to Rome, and the small apartment that overlooked the Forum of Trajan had other tenants. It was strange that the Contessa and her daughter should not have returned, and sometimes Marcello felt a great longing to see them. He said "them" to himself at such times, but he knew what he meant.
So time went on. Corbario said that he himself must really go to San Domenico, to look after the Calabrian property, but added that it would be quite useless for Marcello to go with him. Marcello could stay in Rome and amuse himself as he pleased, or he might make a little journey to the north, to Switzerland, to the Tyrol--there were so many places. Settimia would take care of Regina, and perhaps Regina herself had better make a little trip for a change. Yes, Settimia had travelled a good deal; she even knew enough French to travel in a foreign country, if necessary. Corbario said that he did not know where she had learned French, but he was quite sure she knew it tolerably well. Regina would be safe under her care, in some quiet place where the air would do her good.
Thereupon Corbario went off to the south, leaving Marcello plentifully supplied with money and promising to write to him. They parted affectionately.
"If you wish to go away," Corbario said, as he was leaving, "it might be as well to leave your next address, so that you may get letters. But please don't fancy that I want to know everything you do, my dear boy. You are quite old enough to take care of yourself, and quite sensible enough, too. The only thing you had better avoid for a few years is marriage!"
Folco laughed softly as he delivered this piece of advice, and lit a cigar. Then he looked critically at Marcello.
"You are still very pale," he observed thoughtfully. "You have not got back all your strength yet. Drink plenty of champagne at luncheon and dinner. There is nothing like it when a man is run down. And don't sit up all night smoking cigarettes more than three times a week!"
He laughed again as he shook hands and got into the carriage, and Marcello was glad when he was gone, though he was so fond of him. It was a bore to be told that he was not strong, because it certainly was true, and, besides, even Folco was sometimes a little in the way.
In a week Marcello and Regina were in Venice; a month later they were in Paris. The invaluable Settimia knew her way about, and spoke French with a fluency that amazed Marcello; she even taught Regina a few of those phrases which are particularly useful at a dressmaker's and quite incomprehensible anywhere else. Marcello told her to see that Regina was perfectly dressed, and Settimia carried out his instructions with taste and wisdom. Regina had arrived in Paris with one box of modest dimensions; she left with four more, of a size that made the railway porters stagger.
One day Marcello brought home a string of pearls in his pocket, and tried to fasten it round her throat; but she would not let him do it. She was angry.
"Keep those things for your wife!" she said, with flashing eyes and standing back from him. "I will wear the clothes you buy for me, because you like me to be pretty and I don't want you to be ashamed of me. But I will not take jewels, for jewels are money, just as gold is! You can buy a wife with that stuff, not a woman who loves you!"
Her brows were level and stern, her face grew whiter as she spoke, and Marcello was suddenly aware, for the first time in his life, that he did not understand women. That knowledge comes sooner or later to almost every man, but many are spared it until they are much older than he was.
"I did not mean to offend you," he said, in a rather injured tone, as he slipped the pearls into his pocket.
"Of course not," she answered. "But you do not understand. If I thought you did, I would go back to the inn and never see you again. I should die, but it would not matter, for I should still respect myself!"
"I only wished to please you," said Marcello apologetically.
"You wish to please me? Love me! That is what I want. Love me as much as you can, it will always be less than I love you, and as long as you can, it will always be less long than I shall love you, for that will be always. And when you are tired of me, tell me so, heart of my heart, and I will go away, for that is better than to hang like a chain on a young man's neck. I will go away, and God will forgive me, for to love you is all I know."
His kisses closed her flashing eyes, and her lips parted in a faint, expectant smile, that was not disappointed.
So time passed, and Marcello heard occasionally from Corbario, and wrote to him once or twice, when he needed money. Folco never alluded to Regina, and Marcello wondered whether he guessed that she had left Rome. He was never quite sure how much Folco knew of his life, and Folco was careful never to ask questions.
But the existence Marcello was leading was not calculated to restore his strength, which had never been great, even before his illness. Though Regina did not understand the language, she grew very fond of the theatre, for Marcello translated and explained everything; and it was such a pleasure to give her pleasure, that he forgot the stifling air and the late hours. Moreover, he met in Paris a couple of acquaintances a little older than himself, who were only too glad to see something of the beautiful Regina, so that there were often supper-parties after the play, and trips in motorcars in the morning, horse races in the afternoon, and all manner of amusements, with a general tendency to look upon sleep as a disease to be avoided and the wish to rest as a foolish weakness. It was true that Marcello never coughed, but he was very thin, and his delicate face had grown perfectly colourless, though he followed Corbario's advice and drank a good deal of champagne, not to mention other less harmless things, because the quick stimulant was as pleasant as a nap and did not involve such a waste of time.
As for Regina, the life suited her, at least for a while, and her beauty was refined rather than marred by a little bodily weariness. The splendid blush of pleasure rarely rose in her cheeks now, but the clear pallor of her matchless complexion was quite as lovely. The constitution of a healthy Roman peasant girl does not break down easily under a course of pleasure and amusement, and it might never have occurred to Regina that Marcello was almost exhausted already, if her eyes had not been opened to his condition by some one else.
They were leaving the Théâtre Français one evening, intending to go home on foot as the night was fine and warm. They had seen Hernani, and Regina had naturally found it hard to understand the story, even with Marcello's explanations; the more so as he himself had never seen the play before, and had come to the theatre quite sure that it must be easily comprehensible from the opera founded on it, which he had heard. Regina's arm was passed through his, and as they made their way through the crowd, under the not very brilliant lights in the portico, Marcello was doing his best to make the plot of the piece clear, and Regina was looking earnestly into his face, trying to follow what he said. Suddenly he heard an Italian voice very near to him, calling him by name, in a tone of surprise.
He started, straightened himself, turned his head, and faced the Contessa dell' Armi. Close beside her was Aurora, leaning forward a little, with an expression of cold curiosity; she had already seen Regina, who did not withdraw her hand from Marcello's arm.
"You here?" he cried, recovering himself quickly.
As he spoke, the Contessa realised the situation, and at the same moment Marcello met Aurora's eyes. Regina felt his arm drop by his side, as if he were disowning her in the presence of these two smart women who were friends of his. She forgave him, for she was strangely humble in some ways, but she hated them forthwith.
The Contessa, who was a woman of the world, nodded quietly and smiled as if she had seen nothing, but she at once began to steer her daughter in a divergent direction.
"You are looking very ill," she said, turning her head back as she moved away. "Come and see us."
"Where?" asked Marcello, making half a step to follow, and looking at the back of Aurora's head and at the pretty hat she wore.
The Contessa named a quiet hotel in the Rue Saint Honoré, and was gone in the crowd. Marcello stood quite still for a moment, staring after the two. Then he felt Regina's hand slipping through his arm.
"Come," she said softly, and she led him away to the left.
He did not speak for a long time. They turned under the arches into the Palais Royal, and followed the long portico in silence, out to the Rue Vivienne and the narrow Rue des Petits Champs. Still Marcello did not speak, and without a word they reached the Avenue de l'Opéra. The light was very bright there, and Regina looked long at Marcello's face, and saw how white it was.
"She said you were looking very ill," said she, in a voice that shook a little.
"Nonsense!" cried Marcello, rousing himself. "Shall we have supper at Henry's or at the Café de Paris? We are near both."
"We will go home," Regina answered. "I do not want any supper to-night."
They reached their hotel. Regina tossed her hat upon a chair in the sitting-room and drew Marcello to the light, holding him before her, and scrutinising his face with extraordinary intensity. Suddenly her hands dropped from his shoulders.
"She was right; you are ill. Who is this lady that knows your face better than I?"
She asked the question in a tone of bitterness and self-reproach.
"The Contessa dell' Armi," Marcello answered, with a shade of reluctance.
"And the girl?" asked Regina, in a flash of intuition.
"Her daughter Aurora." He turned away, lit a cigarette, and rang the bell.
Regina bit her lip until it hurt her, for she remembered how often he had pronounced that name in his delirium, many months ago. She could not speak for a moment. A waiter came in answer to the bell, and Marcello ordered something, and then sat down. Regina went to her room and did not return until the servant had come back and was gone again, leaving a tray on the table.
"What is the matter?" asked Marcello in surprise, as he caught sight of her face.
She sat down at a little distance, her eyes fixed on him.
"I am a very wicked woman," she said, in a dull voice.
"You?" Marcello laughed and filled the glasses.
"I am letting you kill yourself to amuse me," Regina said. "I am a very, very wicked woman. But you shall not do it any more. We will go away at once."
"I am perfectly well," Marcello answered, holding out a glass to her; but she would not take it.
"I do not want wine to-night," she said. "It is good when one has a light heart, but my heart is as heavy as a stone. What am I good for? Kill me. It will be better. Then you will live."
"I should have died without you long ago. You saved my life."
"To take it again! To let you consume yourself, so that I may see the world! What do I care for the world, if you are not well? Let us go away quickly."
"Next week, if you like."
"Without waiting to hear Melba?"
"Or Sarah Bernhardt in Sardou's new play?"
"To-morrow! To-morrow morning, early! What is anything compared with your getting well?"
"And your new summer costume that Doucet has not finished? How about that?"
Marcello laughed gaily and emptied his glass. But Regina rose and knelt down beside him, laying her hands on his.
"We must go to-morrow," she said. "You shall say where, for you know what countries are near Paris, and where there are hills, and trees, and waterfalls, and birds that sing, where the earth smells sweet when it rains, and it is quiet when the sun is high. We will go there, but you know where it is, and how far."
"I have no doubt Settimia knows," laughed Marcello. "She knows everything."
But Regina's face was grave, and she shook her head slowly.
"What is the use of laughing?" she asked. "You cannot deceive me, you know you cannot! I deceived myself and was blind, but my eyes are open now, and I can only see the truth. Do you love me, Marcello?"
His eyes looked tired a moment ago, even when he laughed, but the light came into them now. He breathed a little faster and bent forward to kiss her. She could feel the rising pulse in his thin hands. But she leaned back as she knelt, and pressed her lips together tightly.
"Not that," she said, after they had both been motionless ten seconds. "I don't mean that! Love is not all kisses. There is more. There are tears, but there is more too. There is pain, there is doubting, there is jealousy, and more than that! There is avarice also, for a woman who loves is a miser, counting her treasure when others sleep. And she would kill any one who robbed her, and that is murder. Yet there is more, there are all the mortal sins in love, and even then there is worse. For there is this. She will not count her own soul for him she loves, no, not if the saints in Paradise came down weeping and begging her to think of her salvation. And that is a great sin, I suppose."
Marcello looked at her, thinking that she was beautiful, and he said nothing.
"But perhaps a man cannot love like that," she added presently. "So what is the use of my asking you whether you love me? You love Aurora too, I daresay! Such as your man's love is, and of its kind, you have enough for two!"
"I do not love Aurora now," he said.
"But you have, for you talked to her in your fever, and perhaps you will again, or perhaps you wish to marry her. How can I tell what you think? She is prettier than I, for she has fair hair. I knew she had. I hate fair women, but they are prettier than we dark things ever are. All men think so. What does it matter? It was I that saved your life when you were dying, and the people meant you to die. I shall always have that satisfaction, even when you are tired of me."
"Say never, then!"
"Never? Yes, if I let you stay here, you will not have time to be tired of me, for you will grow thinner and whiter, and one day you will be breathing, and not breathing, and breathing a little again, and then not breathing at all, and you will be lying dead with your head on my arm. I can see how it will be, for I thought more than once that you were dead, just like that, when you had the fever. No! If I let that happen you will never be tired of me while you are alive, and when you are dead Aurora cannot have you. Perhaps that would be better. I would almost rather have it so."
"Then why should we go away?" asked Marcello, smiling a little.
"Because to let you die would be a great sin, much worse than losing my soul for you, or killing some one to keep you. Don't you see that?"
"Why would it be worse?"
"I do not know, but I am sure it would. Perhaps because it would be losing your soul instead of mine. Who knows? It is not in the catechism. The catechism has nothing about love, and I never learned anything else. But I know things that I never learned. Every woman does. How? The heart says them, and they are true. Where shall we go to-morrow?"
"Do you really want to leave Paris?"
To impress upon him that she was in earnest Regina squeezed his hands together in hers with such energy that she really hurt him.
"What else have I been saying for half an hour?" she asked impatiently. "Do you think I am playing a comedy?" She laughed. "Remember that I have carried you up and down stairs in my arms," she added, "and I could do it again!"
"If you insist on going away, I will walk," Marcello answered with a laugh.
She laughed too, as she rose to her feet. He put out his hand to fill his glass again, but she stopped him.
"No," she said, "the wine keeps you awake, and makes you think you are stronger than you are. You shall sleep to-night, and to-morrow we will go. I am so glad it is settled!"
She could do what she would with him, and so it turned out that Marcello left Paris without going to see the Contessa and Aurora; and when he was fairly away he felt that it was a relief not to be able to see them, since it would have been his duty to do so if he had stayed another day. Maddalena dell' Armi had not believed that he would come, but she stopped at home that afternoon on the bare possibility. Aurora made up her mind that if he came she would shut herself up in her own room. She expected that he would certainly call before the evening, and was strangely disappointed because he did not.
"Who was that lady with him last night?" she asked of her mother.
"I do not know that--lady," answered the Contessa, with a very slight hesitation before pronouncing the last word.
But they had both heard of Regina already.