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Prince Padema sat desolately on his lofty balcony at Florence, and cursed things generally. Fate had indeed dealt hardly with the young man.
The Prince had been misled by the apparent reasonableness of the adage, that if you want a thing well done you should do it yourself. In committing a murder it is always advisable to have some one else to do it for you, but the Prince's plans had been several times interfered with by the cowardice or inefficiency of his emissaries, so on one unfortunate occasion he had determined to remove an objectionable man with his own hand, and realised then how easily mistakes may occur.
He had met the man face to face under a corner lamp in Venice. The recognition was mutual, and the man, fearing his noble enemy, had fled. The Prince pursued, and the man apparently tried to double upon him, and, with his cloak over his face, endeavoured to sneak past along the dark wall. When the Prince deftly ran the dagger into his vitals, he was surprised that the man made no resistance or outcry, made no effort to ward off the blow, but sunk lifeless at the Prince's feet with a groan.
Alarmed at this, the Prince bade his servant drag the body to a spot where a votive lamp set in the wall threw dim yellow rays to the pavement. Then his Highness was appalled to see that he had assassinated a scion of one of the noblest families of Venice, which was a very different thing from murdering a man of low degree whose life the law took little note of.
So the Prince had to flee from Venice, and he took up his residence in a narrow street in an obscure part of Florence.
Seldom had fate played a man so scurvy a trick, and the Prince was fully justified in his cursing, for the unfortunate episode had interrupted a most absorbing amour which, at that moment, was rapidly approaching an interesting climax.
Prince Padema had been several weeks in Florence, and those weeks had been deadly dull. "The women of Florence," he said to himself bitterly, "are not to be compared with those of Venice." But even if they had been, the necessity of keeping quiet, for a time at least, would have prevented the Prince from taking advantage of his enforced sojourn in the fair city.
On this particular evening, the Prince's sombre meditations were interrupted by a song. The song apparently came from the same building in which his suite of rooms were situated, and from an open window some distance below him. What caught his attention was the fact that the song was Venetian, and the voice that sang it was the rich mellow voice of Venice.
There were other exiles, then, beside himself. He peered over the edge of the balcony perched like an eagle's nest high above the narrow stone street, and endeavoured to locate the open window from which the song came, or, better still, to catch a glimpse of the singer.
For a time he was unsuccessful, but at last his patience was rewarded. On a balcony to the right, and some distance below his own, there appeared the most beautiful girl even he had ever seen. The dark, oval face was so distinctly Venetian that he almost persuaded himself he had met her in his native town.
She stood with her hands on the top rail of the balcony, her dark hair tumbled in rich confusion over her shapely shoulders. The golden light in the evening sky touched her face with glory, as she looked towards it, of that part of it that could be seen at the end of the narrow street.
The Prince's heart beat high as he gazed upon the face that was unconscious of his scrutiny. Instantly the thought flashed over him that exile in Florence might, after all, have its compensations.
"Pietro," he whispered softly through his own open windows to the servant who was moving silently about the room, "come here for a moment, quietly."
The servant came stealthily to the edge of the window.
"You see that girl on the lower balcony," said the Prince in a whisper.
"Find out for me who she is--why she is here--whether she has any friends. Do it silently, so as to arouse no suspicion."
Again his faithful servant nodded, and disappeared into the gloom of the room.
Next day Pietro brought to his eager master what information he had been able to glean. He had succeeded in forming the acquaintance of the Signorina's maid.
For some reason, which the maid either did not know or would not disclose, the Signorina was exiled for a time from Venice. She belonged to a good family there, but the name of the family the maid also refused to divulge. She dared not tell it, she said. They had been in Florence for several weeks, but had only taken the rooms below within the last two days. The Signorina received absolutely no one, and the maid had been cautioned to say nothing whatever about her to any person; but she had apparently succumbed in a measure to the blandishments of gallant Pietro.
The rooms had been taken because of their quiet and obscure position.
That evening the Prince was again upon his balcony, but his thoughts were not so bitter as they had been the day before. He had a bouquet of beautiful flowers beside him. He listened for the Venetian song, but was disappointed at not hearing it; and he hoped that Pietro had not been so injudicious as to arouse the suspicions of the maid, who might communicate them to her mistress. He held his breath eagerly as he heard the windows below open. The maid came out on the balcony and placed an easy-chair in the corner of it. She deftly arranged the cushions and the drapery of it, and presently the Signorina herself appeared, and with languid grace seated herself.
The Prince had now a full view of her lovely face, as the girl rested her elbow on the railing of the balcony, and her cheek upon her hand.
"You may go now, Pepita," said the girl.
The maid threw a lace shawl over the shoulders of her mistress, and departed.
The Prince leaned over the balcony and whispered, "Signorina."
The startled girl looked up and down the street, and then at the balcony which stood out against the opalescent sky, the tracery of ironwork showing like delicate etching on the luminous background.
She flushed and dropped her eyes, making no reply.
"Signorina," repeated the Prince, "I, too, am an exile. Pardon me. It is in remembrance of our lovely city;" and with that he lightly flung the bouquet, which fell at her feet on the floor of the balcony.
For a few moments the girl did not move nor raise her eyes; then she cast a quick glance through the open window into her room. After some slight hesitation she stooped gracefully and picked up the bouquet.
"Ah, beautiful Venice!" she murmured with a sigh, still not looking upwards.
The Prince was delighted with the success of his first advance, which is always the difficult step.
Evening after evening they sat there later and later. The acquaintance ripened to its inevitable conclusion--the conclusion the Prince had counted on from the first.
One evening she stood in the darkness with her cheek pressed against the wall at the corner of her balcony nearest to him; he looked over and downward at her.
"It cannot be. It cannot be," she said, with a frightened quaver in her voice, but a quaver which the Prince recognised, with his large experience, as the tone of yielding.
"It must be," he whispered down to her. "It was ordained from the first. It has to be."
The girl was weeping silently.
"It is impossible," she said at last. "My servant sleeps outside my door. Even if she did not know, your servant would, and there would be gossip--and scandal. It is impossible."
"Nothing is impossible," cried the Prince eagerly, "where true love exists. I shall lock my door, and Pietro shall know nothing about it. He never comes unless I call him. I will get a rope and throw it to your balcony. Lock you your door as I do mine. In the darkness nothing is seen."
"No, no," she murmured. "That would not do. You could not climb back again, and all would be lost."
"Oh, nonsense!" cried the young man eagerly. "It is nothing to climb back." He was about to add that he had done it frequently before, but he checked himself in time.
For a moment she was silent. Then she said: "I cannot risk your not getting back. It must be certain. If you get a rope--a strong rope--and put a loop in it for your foot, and pass the other end of the rope to me around the staunchest railing of your balcony, I will let you down to the level of my own. Then you can easily swing yourself within reach. If you find you cannot climb back, I can help you, by pulling on the rope and you will ascend as you came down."
The Prince laughed lightly.
"Do you think," he said, "that your frail hands are stronger than mine?"
"Four hands," she replied, "are stronger than two. Besides, I am not so weak as, perhaps, you think."
"Very well," he replied, not in a mood to cavil about trivialities. "When shall it be--to-night?"
"No; to-morrow night. You must get your rope to-morrow."
Again the Prince laughed quietly.
"I have the rope in my room now," he answered.
"You were very sure," she said softly.
"No, not sure. I was strong in hope. Is your door locked?"
"Yes," she replied in an agitated whisper. "But it is still early. Wait an hour or two."
"Ah!" cried the Prince, "it will never be darker than at this moment, and think, my darling, how long I have waited!"
There was no reply.
"Stand inside the window," whispered the Prince. As she did so a coil of rope fell on the balcony.
"Have you got it?" he asked.
"Yes," was the scarcely audible reply.
"Then don't trust to your own strength. Give it a turn around the balcony rail."
"I have done so," she whispered.
Although he could not see her because of the darkness, she saw him silhouetted against the night sky.
He tested the loop, putting his foot in it and pulling at the rope with both hands. Then he put the rope round the corner support of the balcony.
"Are you sure the rope is strong enough?" she asked. "Who bought it?"
"Pietro got it for me. It is strong enough to hold ten men."
His foot was in the loop, and he slung himself from his balcony, holding the rope with both hands.
"Let it go very gently," he said. "I will tell you when you have lowered enough."
Holding the end of the rope firmly, the girl let it out inch by inch.
"That is enough," the Prince said at last; and she held him where he was, leaning over the balcony towards him.
"Prince Padema," she said to him.
"Ah!" cried the man with a start. "How did you learn my name?"
"I have long known it. It is a name of sorrow to our family.
"Prince," she continued, "have you never seen anything in my face that brought recollection to you? Or is your memory so short that the grief you bring to others leaves no trace on your own mind?"
"God!" cried the Prince in alarm, seizing the rope above him as if to climb back. "What do you mean?"
The girl loosened the rope for an inch or two, and the Prince was lowered with a sickening feeling in his heart as he realised his position a hundred feet above the stone street.
"I can see you plainly," said the girl in hard and husky tones. "If you make an attempt to climb to your balcony, I will at once loosen the rope. Is it possible you have not suspected who I am, and why I am here?"
The Prince was dizzy. He had whirled gently around in one direction for some time, but now the motion ceased, and he began to revolve with equal gentleness in the other direction, like the body of a man who is hanged.
A sharp memory pierced his brain.
"Meela is dead," he cried, with a gasp in his breath. "She was drowned. You are flesh and blood. Tell me you are not her spirit?"
"I cannot tell you that," answered the girl. "My own spirit seemed to leave me when the body of my sister was brought from the canal at the foot of our garden. You know the place well; you know the gate and the steps. I think her spirit then took the place of my own. Ever since that day I have lived only for revenge, and now, Prince Padema, the hour I have waited for is come."
An agonising cry for help rang through the silent street, but there was no answer to the call.
"It is useless," said the girl calmly. "It will be accounted an accident. Your servant bought the rope that will be found with you. Any one who knows you will have an explanation ready for what has happened. No one will suspect me, and I want you to know that your death will be unavenged, prince though you are."
"You are a demon," he cried.
She watched him silently as he stealthily climbed up the rope. He did not appear sufficiently to realise how visible his body was against the still luminous sky. When he was within a foot of his balcony she loosened the rope, and again he sunk to where he had been before, and hung there exhausted by his futile effort.
"I will marry you," he said, "if you will let me reach my balcony again. I will, upon my honour. You shall be a princess."
She laughed lightly.
"We Venetians never forget nor forgive. Prince Padema, good-bye!"
She sunk fainting in her chair as she let go the rope, and clapped her hands to her ears, so that no sound came up from the stone street below. When she staggered into her room, all was silence.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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