- CHAPTER XVI A Man from the Dark
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A Man from the Dark
As we drank our café double, tap, tap, came at the door; a message from the Contessa di Ravello asking if we would not take coffee with her and her friends in their private sitting-room.
I would have preferred to finish my talk with the Little Pal, which had reached an entertaining point in the announcement that he seemed to know me less well since he had heard my name--that names, and past histories, and circumstances were barriers between lives. But the Boy, reluctant a short time ago to be drawn into the Contessa's society, was now apparently willing to give up the tête-à-tête
We left our coffee, and went to drink the Contessa's, which reached our lips chilled by the silent enmity of her friends. But, whether because their example had been a warning, or because he had suffered a "change, into something new and strange," the Boy was no longer a wet blanket. He did not show the self which I had learned to know in some of its phases, but he was shyly conciliatory with the Contessa, the blue eyes hinting that, if she were persistent, his admiration might be won. Still, he often answered in monosyllables or briefly, when she spoke to him, a smile curving his short | | 187 upper lip. I could not understand what his manner meant, nor, I am sure, could she; but she was evidently bent on solving the puzzle.
"Do you play tennis?" she asked him.
"Ah, so do I, and well, too, though I'm not English. Lord Lane will tell you that. And you dance, I know."
"You love it? I do."
"I used to."
"That sounds as if you were a hundred, instead of--nineteen, is it not?"
"I'm not quite ninety-nine."
"I should like to dance with you. We are the right size for each other in the dance, are we not?"
"I'd try not to disappoint you."
"Oh, we must have a dance. You love music, I know. One sees it by your eyes. Once, when I asked Lord Lane if he sang or played, he said that he 'had no drawing-room tricks.' Rude of him, n'est-ce pas? But you? Is it that you play?"
"The violin will talk for me, if I coax it."
"Ah, I was sure. We are going to be congenial. But the singing? I see by your face that you sing, though you won't say so. Here is a piano. I will accompany you, if you like, and if we know the same things. Perhaps our voices would be well together."
I was surprised to see the Boy get up and go to the piano. "I will sing if you like; but I accompany myself, always," he said. "I don't sing things that many people know."
For a moment he sat at the piano, as if thinking. Then he, who had never told me that he sang, never even spoken of singing, turned into a young angel, | | 188 and gripped my heart with a voice as strangely haunting as his eyes and his little brown face. Had he been a girl, I suppose his voice would have been called a deep contralto. As he was a boy--I do not know how to classify it.
I can say only that, while the mellow music rippled from his parted lips, it seemed as if the gates of Paradise had fallen ajar. He sang an old ballad that I had never heard. It was all about "Douglas Gordon," whose story flowed with the tide of a plaintive accompaniment which I think he must have arranged himself: for somehow, it was like him. All the sadness, all the sweetness in this sweet, sad, old world seemed concentrated in the Boy's angel voice, and listening, I was Douglas Gordon, and he was putting my life-sorrow into words. He took my heart and broke it, yet I would not have had him stop. Then, suddenly, he did stop, and the Contessa was in tears. "Bravo! bravo!" she cried, diamonds raining over two spasmodic dimples. "Again; something else."
He sang Christina Rossetti's "Perchance you may remember, perchance you may forget," and the thrill of it was in the marrow of my bones. I had scarcely known before what music could do with me, and the voice off the little Gaetà, following the song, jarred on my ears as she praised the Boy, and pleaded for more.
"I can't sing again to-night," said he. "I'm sorry, but I can sing only when I feel in the mood."
"But you will come with Lord Lane, and stay at my villa, which I have taken at Aix--yes, if only for a few days? The Baron and Baronessa will be with me, too. You are going that way. Lord Lane has told me. Will you come?"| | 189
"Is he coming?"
"Lord Lane, tell him that you are."
"You are very good, Contessa--"
"There! You hear, it is settled."
"If--Lord Lane makes you a visit, I will also, as you are kind enough to want me."
Afterwards, when we had bidden the Contessa and her guardian dragons good-night, and it was arranged that we were to stay over to-morrow, on account of the lost bag, I said to the Boy on the way upstairs, "You've made a conquest of the Contessa."
He blushed furiously, looked angry, and then burst out laughing. "Are you jealous?" he asked.
I ought to be."
"But are you?"
"I haven't had time to analyse my emotions. Why did you never tell me you sang?"
"I wasn't ready--till to-night. Now--I sang for you."
"I thought it was for the Contessa."
"Did you? Well"--with sudden crossness--"you may go on thinking so, if you like. Can she sing?"
"As--better than I can?"
"You must judge for yourself when you hear her."
"You might tell me. But no! I don't want you to, now. It's spoiled. Good-night."
"Good-night. Dream of your conquest."
"Probably she's only trying to--to bring you to the point, by being nice to me. I wonder if you care?"
I would not give the little wretch any satisfaction. | | 190 I merely laughed, and an odd blue light flashed in his eyes. He was making up his mind to something, for the life of me I could not tell what.
The Contessa and her satellites should have gone on to Chamounix next day, but Gaetà, frankly announced her intention of waiting, so that we might make the journey together. They were driving over the Tête Noire, and we would go afoot, to be sure; still, said she, we could keep more or less together, exchanging impressions from time to time, and lunching at the same place. She made me promise, as a reward to her for this delay, that the Boy and I would not take the way of the Col de Balme, by which no carriage could pass. If we did this, our party and hers must part company early in the day, and she would be left to the tender mercies of the Baron and Baronessa for many a tristehour.
"But why should you be Imposed upon by them, if they don't amuse you?" I ventured to ask; for Gaetà was so frank about her affairs that one was sometimes led inadvertently to take liberties.
"Oh, it was the brother who amused me, and he amuses me still," replied she, with a moue, and a shrug of her pretty shoulders. "At least, I don't think I shall be tired of him, when I see him again. He is a whirlwind; he carries a woman off her feet, before she knows what is happening, and we like that in a man, we Italians. We adore temperament. I was nice to the Baron and Baronessa for Paolo's sake. He had to go away from Milan, Which is my real home, you know--(if I have a home anywhere)--to have a medal for his air-ship, and many honours and dinners given him in Paris; so, without stopping to think, I invited the Baron and Baronessa to visit me in Aix. Then they suggested | | 191 that we should have a little tour first; and we are having it--Dio mio, so much the worse for me, till I met you! And now they make me feel like a naughty child."
"Will Paolo come also to the villa?" I asked, smiling.
"He has engagements to last a fortnight still. Perhaps afterwards he may run out to Aix."
The Boy's face fell when I told him that I had promised the Contessa to walk along the highroad, over the Tête Noire.
"Innocentina and I--" he began. Then his eyes wandered to Gaetà, who stood with her friends at the other end of the hall. She was looking extremely pretty, and chose that instant to throw a quick glance at me, demanding sympathy for some ennui or other caused by the Baronessa. "Oh, very well," he finished, "it doesn't matter."
He was in suspense all day about his mysteriously important bag. Though handbills had been hastily printed and scattered over the country, there was no certainty as to when we should hear or whether we should hear at all. Late in the evening, however, as we were finishing dinner in the salle-à-manger, at the same table with Gaetà and her friends, a message came that a man desired to see the young monsieur who had advertised for a lost bag.
The Boy excused himself, and jumped up. I should have liked to go with him, but courtesy to the ladies forbade, and I sat still, feeling guilty of disloyalty somehow, nevertheless, because of a look he threw me. It seemed to say, "We were such friends, but a woman has come between. My affairs are nothing to you now."
I had thought that he would be back in time for | | 192 coffee, but he did not appear, and the curiosity of Gaetà, who had been restless since the Boy's departure, could no longer be kept within bounds.
"Do go and see if he has got that wonderful bag," she said. "He might come to tell us!"
I obeyed, nothing loth, but only to learn from the concierge that the young gentleman had gone away with the man who had called.
"Did he leave no message?" I asked.
"No, Monsieur. He talked with the man here in the hall for a few minutes; then he ran upstairs and soon came down again with a cap and coat. Immediately after, he and the man went out together."
"What sort of man was he?"
"An Italian, Monsieur; a very rough-looking peasant-fellow of middle age, poorly dressed in his working clothes. I have never seen him before."
I did not like this description, nor the news the concierge had given. It was nine o'clock, and very dark, for it had begun to rain towards evening, and a monotonous drip, drip mingled with the plash of the fountain in the garden. Grim fancies came knocking at the door of my brain. It was a mad thing for a boy, little more than a child, to go out alone in the night with a stranger, a "rough-looking peasant-fellow," who pretended to know something of the vanished bag; to go out, leaving no word of his intentions, nor the direction he would take. As like as not, the man was a villain who scented rich prey in a tourist offering a reward of five thousand francs for a lost piece of luggage.
As I thought of the brave, innocent little comrade walking unsuspectingly into some trap from which I | | 193 could have saved him had I been by his side, a sensation of physical sickness came over me.
"How long is it since they went out?" I asked quickly.
"Ten minutes, at most, Monsieur."
I could have shaken the concierge's hand for this good news, for there was hope of catching them up. I was in dinner jacket and pumps, but I did not wait to make a dash upstairs for hat or coat. I borrowed the blue, gold-banded cap of the concierge, not caring two pence for my comical appearance, which would have sent Gaetà into peals of silver laughter, and out into the rain I went, turning up the collar of my jacket.
I had forgotten the Contessa, and my promise to return immediately with tidings from the front. All I thought of was, which direction should I take to find the Boy. Ought I to turn towards the town or away from it?
Before I reached the garden gate, not many metres from the door, I had decided to try the town way; and lest I should be doing the wrong thing and have to rectify my mistake later, I ran as a lamp-lighter is popularly supposed to run, but doesn't and never did.
The Boy and his companion would be walking, and, if I were on the right track, I was almost sure to catch them up sooner or later at this pace, before they could reach the town and turn off into some side street.
I had not been galloping along through the fresh, grey mud for three hundred metres when I saw two figures moving slowly a few paces ahead. One was small and slender, the other of middle height and strongly built.| | 194
"Boy, is that you?" I shouted.
The slim figure turned, and I mumbled a "Thank goodness!"
"Little wretch!" I exclaimed heartily, as I joined the couple ahead. "How could you go off alone like this with a stranger, perhaps a rufian (he looks it), without leaving any word for me? You deserve to be shaken."
"You wouldn't say he looked a ruffian, if you could see his face. I'm sure he's honest. And as for sending word, I didn't care to disturb you and--your Contessa."
"Hang the--no, of course, I don't mean that. Luckily I was in time to catch you, and--"
"Did the Contessa send you after me, or did--"
"She doesn't know what's become of you. There was no time for politenesses. You gave me some bad moments, little brute. Now, tell me what you're about."
He explained that the peasant (who understood no word of English) was an Italian who had come to Martigny to find work as a road mender, that he had been taken ill and lost his job; that he had tramped back over the St. Bernard to Aosta, near which place he had once lived; that the work he had heard of there was already given to another; and that, walking back to rejoin his family near Martigny, he had found the bag on the Pass. He had brought it home, and had only just learned the address of the owner, as set forth in the handbills.
"Why didn't he bring the bag to you, and claim the reward?" I asked.
"It is at the house of the priest, and the priest has been away all day, visiting a relative in the country somewhere, who is ill, so this man, Andriolo Stefani, | | 195 couldn't get the bag. But he came to tell me that it was found, and where it was."
"And he pretends to be guiding you to the house of the priest now?"
"No. I'm going to his house--or rather, the room where he and his wife and children live."
"For goodness' sake, why?"
"Because he's refused to accept the reward for finding the bag."
"By Jove, he must have some deep game. What reason did he give, and what excuse did he make, for dragging you off to his lair? It sounds as if he meant to try and kidnap you for a ransom--(these things do happen, you know)--and there are probably others in it besides himself. I don't believe in the priest, nor the wife and children, nor even in his having found the bag."
"He didn't ask me to go to his house. When I spoke of the reward, he said that he couldn't take it, and though I questioned him, would not tell me why, but was evidently distressed and unhappy. Finally he admitted that it was his wife who would not allow him to accept a reward. She had made him promise that he wouldn't. Then I said that I'd like to talk to her, and might I go with him to his house. He tried to make excuses; he had no house, only one room, not fit for me to visit; and the place was a long way off, outside Martigny Bourg; but I insisted, so at last he gave in. Now, do you still think he's the leader of a band of kidnappers?"
"I don't know what to think. There's evidently something queer. I'll talk to him."
During our hurried conversation, the man had walked on a few steps in advance. I called him | | 196 back, speaking in Italian. He came at once, and now that we were in the town, where here and there a blur of light made darkness visible, I could see his face distinctly. I had to confess to myself at first glance that it was not the face of a cunning villain,--this worn, weather-beaten countenance, with its hollowed cheeks, and the sad dark eyes, out of which seemed to look all the sorrows of the world.
He had found the bag night before last, he said, between the Cantine de Proz and Bourg St. Pierre. It had been lying in the road, in the rücksack, and he judged by the strap that it had been attached to the back of a man, or a mule. While I questioned him further, trying to get some details of description not given in the handbills, he paused. "There is the priest's house," he said. "There is a light in the window now. Perhaps he has come back."
"We will stop and ask for the bag," said I, watching the face of the man. It did not blench, and I began to wonder if, after all, he might not be honest.
The priest, a delightful, white-haired old fellow, himself of the peasant class, had returned, and from a locked cupboard in his bare little dining-room study produced the much talked of bag, in its rücksack.
The Boy sprang at it eagerly. So secure had he believed it to be on the grey donkey's back, that he had not been in the habit of taking out the key. It was still in the lock, and, the bag standing on the priest's dinner table, the Boy opened it with visible excitement. Then he dived down into the contents, without bringing them into sight, and a bright colour flamed in his cheeks. "Everything is safe," he said, with a long sigh of relief. "I'm thankful."
He turned to the priest, speaking in French--and | | 197 his French was very good. "I have offered a large reward to the finder of this bag. But the man will not have it. Can you tell me why, mon père?"
"I cannot tell you, Monsieur. Doubtless he has a reason which seems to him good," answered the priest, who evidently knew that reason, but was pledged not to tell. "He and his family have not been in my parish long, but I believe them to be worthy people. I have been trying to get work for Andriolo, since he has been well again, and able to undertake it, but so far I have not been fortunate."
The Boy took a handful of gold from his pocket. "For the poor of your parish, mon père, if you will be good enough to accept it for them," said he, with great charm and simplicity of manner. The old priest flushed with pleasure, saying that he had many poor, and was constantly distressed because he could do so little. This would be a Godsend. I glanced at the Italian, and saw that his weary, dark eyes were fixed with a passionate wistfulness upon the gold. This look, his whole appearance, bespoke poverty, yet he had deliberately refused five thousand francs, a fortune to most men of his condition. Now that he was vouched for by the priest, extreme curiosity took the place of suspicion in my mind.
I hid the blue cap of the concierge behind my back, in the priest's house, but the Boy saw it, and saw that I was drenched with rain. I must have been a figure for laughter, but he did not laugh. "You see, I was in a hurry," I excused myself, under a long, comprehending gaze of his. "It's your fault if I look an ass."
"You didn't stop even to go and get a hat," he | | 198 said. "You came out in the rain just as you were, and you ran--I heard you running, behind me. But--but of course it's because you're kind-hearted. You would have done just the same for anybody. For--the Contessa--"
"Not for the Baronessa, anyhow," said I. "I should have stopped for a mackintosh and even goloshes, had her safety been hanging in the balance."
Then we both laughed, and Stefani, who by this time was showing us the way through the rain to his own home, looked over his shoulder, surprised and self-conscious, as if he feared that we were laughing at him.
On the outskirts of straggling Martigny Bourg, he stopped before a gloomy, grey stone house with four rows of closed wooden shutters, which meant four floors of packed humanity. Even Martigny has its tenements for poor workers, or those who would be workers if they could, and this was one of them.
We followed Andriolo Stefani up four flights of narrow stone stairs, picking our way by testing each step with a cautious foot, since light there was none. Arrived at the top floor, we groped along a passage to the back of the house, and our guide opened a door. There was a yellow haze, which meant one candle-flame fighting for its life in the dark, and we waited outside, while the Italian spoke for a moment to someone we could not see. There came a note of protest in a woman's voice, but the man's beat it down with some argument, and then Stefani returned to ask us in.
Two women sat in a room almost bare of furniture, and bat tried to rise on our entrance; but | | 199 one, who was young as years go, had her lap full of little worn shoes, and the other, who looked older than the allotted span, was nursing a wailing baby, half undressed.
I found myself strangely embarrassed with the coarse guilt of intrusion. I was suddenly oppressed with self-conscious awkwardness, wishing myself anywhere else, and not knowing what to do or say. In all probability I looked haughty and disagreeable, though I felt humble as a worm. How the Boy felt I have no means of knowing; I can only tell how he acted. One would have thought that he had known these poor people all his life. I lingered near the door, taking notes of the sad picture; the two rough wooden boxes, in which slept three little dark children, all apparently of exactly the same size; the mattress on the floor near by for the parents; the open door leading into a dark garret, where, no doubt, the grandmother crept to sleep; the shelves on the wall, bare save for a few dishes of peasant-made pottery; the pile of dried mud on the tiled floor, which the young mother had been carefully scraping with a knife from the little worn boots in her lap; the rickety, uncovered table, with a bunch of endives on a plate, and a candle guttering in a bottle. This was the picture, redeemed from squalor only by the lithograph of the Virgin on the wall, draped with fresh wild flowers, and its perfect cleanliness; this was the home of the supposed "kidnapper," the man who had refused to accept five thousand francs as a reward.
While I stood, stiff and uncomfortable, the Boy went forward quickly, begging the two women not to rise. "Poor, dear little baby!" he said in Italian, | | 200 looking down at the dark scrap of humanity in the grandmother's arms. "She is ill, isn't she?"
Now, how did he know that the creature was a "she"? If it were a guess, it was a lucky one, for both women replied together that the little girl had been ailing since yesterday. They could not tell what was the matter. They had hoped that she would be better to-day, but instead, she seemed worse; and with this, a glittering film which had been overspreading the mother's eyes, suddenly dissolved into silently falling rain. There were no sobs, no gaspings from this tired woman, too used to sorrow to rail against it, yet it was plain to see that her heart was breaking. Still, life must go on; and so, while she grieved for a little one she feared to lose, she cleaned the boots of those she hoped to keep.
"Have you called a doctor for her?" asked the Boy.
"The good priest is half a doctor. He came to see the bambina."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, Signor, we cannot give her all the things he said she should have, nor can he help us to them, for he has much to do for others, and little to do it with."
"Yet you would not let your husband take the reward I offered for finding my bag. He is out of work, and you are poor; you have four children to feed, and one of them is ill. Why will you not have the money? I have come to ask you that. You see, I want you to have it, for the bag is worth all I've offered and even more to me."
"Ah, Signor, how can I tell you? It was to save my baby I refused."| | 201
"Please tell. You need not mind saying anything to me--or to my friend. We are interested and want to help you."
Now the young woman's tears were falling fast, but silently still, as if she knew that her heart-break was unimportant in the great scheme of things, and she wished to make no noise about it. Her lips moved, but no words came.
"She will not speak against me," Stefani said suddenly, "nor will my poor mother. But I will tell you the story. I meant to steal your bag, and sell the gold things and all the valuables that were in it. It was a great temptation, for we had scarce a penny left, and there was no work anywhere. I was tired, tired all through to my heart, Signor, that night on the Pass, and then I found the bag. I brought it home, and charged Emilia and my mother to say nothing to anyone outside. The children were at school, so they did not see, or they might have lisped out something, and set people talking. The two women begged me to give up the bag, and try for a reward in case one should be offered, but I was desperate. I said that the gold was worth more than anything that would be offered--the gold, and some jewelry in a little box. I knew a man who would buy of me, and I had gone out to find him yesterday, when, as if Heaven had sent a curse upon us for my sin, thebambinawas struck down with this illness--a terrible aching of her little head, and a fever. When I came home to take away the things out of the bag, my wife begged me on her knees, for the child's sake, to change my mind; and at last I did, for who can hold out against the prayers of those he loves?
"Quickly, lest I should repent, I carried the bag | | 202 to our priest, and told him all. He thought as a penance for the sin which had been in my heart, I should take no reward if it were offered, though he did not lay this upon me as a command. Emilia was with him, for, said she, Our Lady will save the baby if we make this great sacrifice. Now you know all the truth."
"And I know that you are good people--better than I would have been in your places--better than anyone I know. There's no credit in keeping straight if one's not tempted to go wrong, is there? I won't offend you by begging that you'll take the reward. I offer you no reward, but I am going to give your children a present, and you are to use it for the comfort of your family. I have enough with me, because, you see, I had to get something ready to-day, in case the reward had to be paid. Now, it isn't needed for that, so I can use it in this other way. And you have done all that is right, and you would hurt me very much if you refused to let me do what I wish. It is always wrong to hurt people, you know. And you must send me word early to-morrow morning before I go, whether the baby is better. I feel sure, somehow, that she will be."
Then a roll of notes was thrust into one of the little boots, still caked with mud, which the mother kept mechanically in her hand. There was a pat on the shoulder, too, and an instant later the Boy's arm was hooked into mine; I was whisked away with him in as rapid a flight as if he had been a thief, and not a benefactor.
"How much did you give them, young Santa Claus?" I asked, when he had me out in the rain again.| | 203
"About one thousand three hundred dollars. I can't stop to calculate it for you in pounds or francs. I'm too excited. Oh, how wet you are, poor Man! And all for me! But wasn't it splendid! And I just know that baby '11 be better tomorrow. You see if she isn't."
She was. The news was brought to us early in the morning by a poor man half out of his wits with joy and gratitude.
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