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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 11

Chapter XXIII

page 288

Chapter XXIII.

An obvious effect of the kindness which had been interchanged between Signor Onofrio and Vincenzo during their respective illnesses, was a fresh growth of friendship and intimacy, which made each more desirous of the company of the other—a desire, however, not so easily realized, considering the unintermiting occupations of both, which left than but little leisure for visits. Onofrio had more than once urged Vincenzo, since the latter's return to Turin, to come and live with him; a very tempting proposal to the student, which he had, however, bravely withstood, out of good will, or, we might say, compassion to Signor Francesco and Co., whose circumstances were just then at the lowest ebb.

But, when Signor Francesco's establishment went to the dogs—which it did in the beginning of that year 1853, owing, of course, to the unjust denial of the indemnity he was entitled to from the Jesuits—well, when the concern was finally given up, Vincenzo willingly accepted of his friend's hospitality, and went to live with him on the same pecuniary terms on which he had lived at the boarding-house. Signor Onofrio's apartment consisted of four clean and airy rooms on the fourth storey, having a fine prospect of the Po, and the smiling hills that look over the river from the south. The elderly gentleman allowed himself the luxury of an old female servant, who cooked and arranged the rooms, spending the rest of her time in sorting and combining numbers for the lottery.

Vincenzo had not been quite two months with Signor Onofrio, when he received a letter which set his head working like a windmill. It was from the Signor Avvocato, and said briefly:—

"If not absolutely impossible, pray start on the receipt of this, and come to me. I have something particular to say; I require advice and help. I shall not detain thee longer than four-and-twenty hours. If you leave Turin immediately on getting my letter, you will arrive at Ibella by the five o'clock train, p.m. Giuseppe shall be waiting at the station with the chaise.

"Thy affectionate Godfather.

"P.S.—No one is ill."

Vincenzo left word for Signor Onofrio where he had gone, and put himself immediately en route. It was the first time he was thus summoned from his studies. The business which called for this innovation must be important and pressing indeed. What could it be? A proposal of marriage for Miss Rose from Del Palmetto? But if so, even admitting that his advice was wished for, which was going almost beyond the limits of probability, what help could he be expected to give, what help could he give in such a matter? No, it could not be that. Some difference with the Marquis perhaps? Most unlikely. Del Palmetto was far too solicitous to please father and daughter to admit of that conjecture. Some quarrel with Barnaby? ah, that must be it. With that absurd head of his, no telling what scrape the old man might not have floundered into himself, dragging his master after him—and to get out of this scrape something had to be done or undone, towards the doing or undoing of which Vincenzo's assistance was in some manner needed—probably by using his influence with the obstinate old fellow to do or undo. But no; neither could that be. Rose's ascendancy over Barnaby was far more potent than that of Vincenzo; and what was the use page 289 of sending for him when she was on the spot?

The revolving of these and other hypotheses, no sooner accepted than rejected, served at least to beguile the way. Giuseppe was at the station with the chaise, and drove off at a smart pace. Vincenzo was too discreet to ask the driver any questions beyond the usual ones as to the health of the family, and Giuseppe was too prudent and little talkative by his nature to volunteer any information or guesses of his own, supposing he had any, on private matters. The day was on the wane when Vincenzo alighted at the gate of the palace. There was some one crouching on the terrace wall opposite. Taking it for granted that it was Barnaby, Vincenzo was going to call to him, though unable to identify him at that distance, when he heard his own name pronounced from above. "Is that you, Vincenzo?" The young man rushed up stairs like lightning, and met his godfather on the landing.

"How do you do?" said the Signor Avvocato, as Vincenzo kissed his hand, as he had been used to do from childhood; "very kind of you to set off directly; I knew you would; come in, my boy," and he led the way to his sanctum sanctorum, his musical retreat. "We shall be more private here; sit down—not there, take the easy chair; you must be tired—no? so much the better, wish I could say as much for myself; and yet I have scarcely set foot out of doors these two days; walking up stairs puts me so much out of breath. I am breaking, my boy, I am."

This assumption was not new in the Signor Avvocato's mouth, any more than Vincenzo's mode of meeting it with a sonorous laugh of incredulity.

"If all breaking constitutions were like yours, physicians and apothecaries would have to seek a new trade. Come, come, my dear sir, you feel a little nervous and weak; who does not occasionally? If I am not mistaken, you have had of late some cause of uneasiness."

"You may say so," cried the elderly gentleman, with an emphatic burst of self-commiseration, "and from the very quarter upon which I had relied for support and consolation. But I am very selfish;—you must be hungry, I am sure."

Vincenzo protested he was not.

"Have a crust of bread and a glass of wine in the meantime till supper is ready."

Vincenzo again protested he was not hungry, and preferred waiting for supper. He was on thorns to know what had gone wrong at the palace.

"Well, then," resumed the Signor Avvocato, "I may as well tell you the doleful story at once. Here it is in two words;" and, dropping his bulky form at ease into the capacious arm-chair, he went on in a more business-like tone, "You know, as indeed everybody knows—lippis et tonsoribus—that for some time past, especially ever since his father's death, young Del Palmetto has been paying—how shall I say?—a good deal of attention to my daughter." (Vincenzo's heart started off at full gallop.) "Nor has it, I dare say, escaped your penetration, that for the last year I have rather encouraged than not, the young man's suit. Yes, the match met all my views and wishes. Federico has all the qualities for making a good son-in-law to me, and an excellent husband to Rose—he has an agreeable exterior, an unimpeachable character, an easy temper, and a most honourable position in the world. I am too much of a philosopher, besides being the son of a self-made man, to lay more stress than it deserves upon a title—still a title spoils nothing. Then he has known her from her cradle, so to say—he has been brought up with her, is familiar with her ways of thinking. He is not rich, to be sure, but that is not his fault—and then, what do I care for a fortune? Rose will have enough for two, thank God. Well, then, to come to the point. Federico, like the honourable man he is, proposed to Rose at the expiration of his mourning; and what did the silly minx do?—refused him flat."

Had not the zone of shadow projected by the screen round the lamp, extended page 290 a friendly protection to Vincenzo's face, even Rose's pre-occupied father might have drawn some inferences from its sudden ashy paleness when Del Palmetto's proposal was mentioned, and the rush of blood that turned it scarlet on the hearing of Rose's refusal.

"Refused him flat!" repeated the old gentleman with increasing animation; "and for what? on grounds too nonsensical for any rational being to listen to vith patience; first, because he is an officer in the army—as if the profession of arms was not, next to the bar, the most honourable—and secondly, that he had boxed her ears when she was a child. Risum teneatis."

'Miss Rose's prejudice against the army," said Vincenzo, in order to say something, "is one of old standing. I remember, as far back as 1848, speaking to ler of the career of a soldier as one suitable for me, and the positive horror with which she dissuaded me from any such project. This prejudice, as far as I cm judge, is connected with, and has its root, I may say, in her religious vices—a special reason for dealing with it [unclear: carefully] and gently."

'Then, I am not the man for that wok," quoth Rose's father; "I have los all patience with the girl. She is so opinionated—has a quiet impermebility to reason quite her own, which [unclear: prookes] me beyond measure. You wil soon find it out, when you come to [unclear: argle] the point with her—yes, you mut do so for my sake," the speaker [unclear: hasened] to add in answer to a possible [unclear: objection] conveyed by a wave of Vincenzo's hand. "It is a service I have a right to demand from your gratitude, but which I shall be glad to owe to your friendship. For this, and this alone, have I summoned you from Turin. Ya are my anchor of hope in this affir. Rose has for you the affection an deference of a younger sister. You posess both gentleness of manner and [unclear: strngency] of logic—your very [unclear: disintenstedness] in the matter will add [unclear: strngth] to your arguments. In one wed, I entrust Del Palmetto's cause an mine to you. Win Rose's consent to this match, and you will have laid me under obligations for life."

Vincenzo's contention of thoughts and feelings during this earnest appeal challenges description. To undertake the mission, and perform it, whatever it might cost him, was a piece of heroic folly, quite unwarranted by the circumstances—to undertake it, and, while acting up to the letter, fall short of the spirit, was, for one so upright, a moral impossibility. To decline it, and give no special plea for so doing, was to lay himself open to the charge of ingratitude in the present, and to that of equivocation in the future. There remained for him, as the young man conceived, only one honest, though dangerous course, whereby to reconcile his duty to his godfather with the claims of truth—that was to explain his refusal by laying bare his heart Accordingly, he met the sentence with which the Signor Avvocato had ended—"win Rose's consent to this match, and you will have laid me under obligations for life!"—with a passionate, "I cannot—I will not—it is impossible."

"What do you mean? why impossible?" asked the other sternly.

"Because," faltered Vincenzo—"I would a thousand times rather incur your anger than play false with you—because," he wound up firmly, "I love your daughter."

The Signor Avvocato was struck dumb by this announcement. All other feelings for the nonce were swallowed up by one of immense surprise. Had Vincenzo, instead of the handsome, rather abundantly whiskered young fellow of two-and-twenty that he was, had he been a girl, the notion of his loving beautiful Rose could not have taken her father more unawares.

"You love my daughter, sir!" at last gasped the amazed sire, dropping the familiar thou for the more formal you.

Vincenzo bowed his head humbly.

"You are an aspiring youth, by Jove; more aspiring than wise. And so, you have availed yourself of the intimacy I allowed you in my fatherly blindness, page 291 to make love to my daughter for God knows how many years!"

"You wrong me without cause," said Vincenzo steadily, yet respectfully. "I owned to you that I loved your daughter, not that I had made love to her—the word 'Love' has never passed my lips to her since I knew what love was. Ask her; she will tell you."

"Thank you—it only needs that I should set on foot a public inquiry as to what you have done or not done. I believe you. I will do you the justice to say you have always behaved honourably—played fair-with me. I will be above board with you, and tell you in so many words that I have other views for my daughter. I am sorry that you love her, but you shall not have her. You have had your way with me so long, and in every thing, that no aim, it seems, is too high for your hopes."

"My hopes?" repeated Vincenzo dejectedly. "Have I expressed any, sir? Do you know if I ever entertained any? Bear in mind, sir, if you please, that the avowal I have made was not of my own choice. It has been forced from me by an entanglement of perfectly unforeseen circumstances. After what you have told me, could I, with the feelings I have, keep back the truth without duplicity? Put yourself for an instant in my place, sir, and say, would you have acted otherwise?"

"Eh, dear me!" said the Signor Avvocato, fretfully, as he rose from his chair; "you stick to it just as if the admission of its necessity was a cure for every evil. When you have demonstrated mathematically that, by falling in a certain manner, I could not but break my leg, will that remove the smart or the injury? Disappointment upon disappointment in the present, discomfort upon discomfort in the future, that is the consolatory vista your disclosure has opened before me. Discomfort of all kinds for me and for you—because, to begin with, you surely don't expect, things being as they are, I can allow my house to be your home, as I have done up to this day."

"On that, as on all other points, I shall abide by your orders, sir." The words were rather gasped than spoken, and so mournfully, so forlornly, that the Signor Avvocato had a glimmering of the immense sacrifice they implied, and accordingly said, much softened, "I don't give you orders. I am not angry. I only suggest what seems to me best for all parties. It is especially for your sake—to spare your feelings—that I advise a separation, a temporary one of course, only until—at the most, one vacation or two. We'll find some reason—some pretext, I mean—to account for your not coming here as usual. Nobody must suspect, you know—"

"God forbid!" said Vincenzo, energetically; "not for me, but—"

"Of course, of course, I catch your meaning," interrupted the godfather; and this will be the only alteration in our intercourse; as to the rest, nothing is changed; I shall be for you to the last what I have been to this day. Pursue your studies steadily; make yourself a man. The hand which has supported you from a boy will not be withdrawn until you are in a fair way of acting and providing for yourself, and not even then."

Vincenzo's tears were flowing fast. The door burst open, and Barnaby announced supper in as sepulchral a voice as if he had been announcing Doomsday instead. "We are coming," said the master. Barnaby, stiff as a poker, stood rolling his goggle eyes. "We are coming," again said the Signor Padrone. Barnaby did not budge. "You may go," added the master of the house. Barnaby lingered another moment, then turned sharply round and banged the door after him. The Signor Avvocato, his right hand raised in the direction of the door, stood listening to the sound of the retreating steps, and, only when they could no longer be heard, said in a whisper, "For God's sake, not a word to Barnaby!" The accent and look betrayed a real terror.

"Not a word to any living soul!" replied Vincenzo. "Rely on me."

"When do you go back to Turin?' asked the Signor Avvocato.

page 292

"To-morrow. I shall be off by break of day."

Rose's greeting of Vincenzo was most cordial, though not unmixed with surprise. She hoped he had come to make some stay. Vincenzo said he much regretted that it was out of his power to do so. He had come on business, and on business he must return. He was not ill, was he; he looked so pale. Vincenzo said he was very well, only he had felt a little chilly on the road. March winds were rather biting. The poor young man strove manfully to look natural, nay, cheerful, a task in which he succeeded tolerably well, save when the thought intruded upon him that this was possibly the last time he should set eyes upon her for God knew how long. Then his face fell, and a knot in his throat made utterance impossible. Rose's father took no pains to conceal his intense preoccupation. He scarcely spoke during the meal, and as soon as it was over left the table. Vincenzo, pleading his dullness, did the same, and took leave of Miss Rose for the night. Godfather and godson exchanged a few parting words and good wishes for the night on the landing; then the former entered his apartment, and Vincenzo went up to the third storey, locked himself into his room, put out the candle, dropped into a chair, and fell into thought—if thought could be called the perpetual revolving of one fixed idea, "Separated for ever."

Anticipating a visit from Barnaby, which he would willingly avoid, Vincenzo had locked himself in, and extinguished the candle, in order to make believe that he was sleeping. Not long after, in fact, there was an attempt from the outside to lift the latch, followed by cautious taps at the door. Vincenzo did not stir—indeed, scarcely dared to breathe. The tapping was renewed with intermissions for nearly half an hour, then it entirely ceased, and Vincenzo, left to himself, jogged on once more on his mental treadmill.

Towards midnight the paroxysm of passon abated a little, and he could think—oh! with what fondness—think on the many happy hours he had spent in that happy Eden, from which he was now expelled; and along with that thought came a gush of passionate thankfulness towards him, to whom, after God, he owed all that blessed time, to whom, in fact, he owed all that he was; and then followed a qualm of remorse at his own late unfeelingness, and a yearning to go and make amends, and pray for pardon. Acting upon this irresistible impulse, the young man lighted his candle, opened the door softly, and stole down to his godfather's apartment. He must be still awake, for there was a light in the bed-room, visible from beneath the door. Vincenzo knocked gently. "Who is that?" called a voice from within.

"It is I," said Vincenzo, opening the door. The Signor Avvocato was sitting up in his bed, his arms crossed over his chest. "What do you want?" said he, somewhat sternly. For all answer Vincenzo threw himself on his knees by the side of the bed, and, burying his head in the coverlid, cried in a voice convulsed with sobs, "Your pity, your forgiveness, your blessing."

There was no resisting the passion of this appeal. The old gentleman put both his arms round the aching head, saying, "I do pity thee; I do forgive thee; do bless thee with all my heart."

"To think that I should give you pain," continued the young man, almost frantic with grief; "I who would willingly die for you, it is too hard, too hard, too hard;" and he swayed his head to and fro without raising it from the bed. Then, suddenly lifting himself up, and staring at his godfather through his tears, "Do you believe me when I say that I would willingly die for you? Do you believe that I do love you with all my heart and soul?"

"I do, I do," answered his godfather, soothingly.

"Indeed, indeed, it has not been my fault; it has grown up with me like a part of my being."

"What, my dear boy?" asked the Signor Avvocato.

"This love, this love," cried the page 293 youth; "she was so kind, so gentle to me, and then she was your daughter; how could I do otherwise than love her?"

"Well, well," interrupted the old gentleman, with some embarrassment; "no more of that; better avoid the subject, both for your sake and mine. It is painful and exciting; I am agitated enough as it is. Calm yourself, my dear boy; go and try and sleep. I will do as much on my side; I feel far from well. Let us say no more, and part in the faith of our mutual attachment. Go; good night."

Vincenzo was struck by the worn out expression of the speaker's countenance, and more than that by his look of age. There was no mistaking the fact, the Signor Avvocato had grown quite an old man. The bloom of his once florid complexion was all gone, and there were wrinkles on each side of his mouth, round his eyes, on his forehead, everywhere. Vincenzo was scared by the discovery, and rose to obey. The old face and the young one were once more pressed together in a long and fond embrace, and Vincenzo departed.

He stole quietly to his garret, put the light on the table, and found himself face to face with Barnaby, standing on the other side of it. "So thou art skulking, art thou?" said Barnaby, in his bitterest tones. This was Vincenzo's finishing stroke—the poor fellow, faint already with emotion, dropped into a chair with a groan.

"Why didst thou lock thyself in?" pursued the old man with the look of an inquisitor.

"Some water. I am fainting," faltered Vincenzo. Barnaby pounced on a jug full of water, and kneeling by the youth's side so as to support him, made him drink out of the jug, and bathed his temples. "Poor dear, how white he looks! No wonder; all right in a twinkling; poor clear!" the old man kept murmuring to himself, while with the right hand, now free from the jug, he fondly parted the hair glued to Vincenzo's brow by a cold sweat

"Thank you. I feel much better, thank you," said Vincenzo, reviving.

"Another sip of water," suggested Barnaby in the sweetest of voices, "it will do you good."

"I am now quite well," said Vincenzo, swallowing some more water; "thank you, my good friend, I don't know what has been the matter with me."

"I do," said Barnaby, emphatically.

"Do you?" said Vincenzo, perplexed.

"Yes, I do;" and the old man added in a suppressed shout, "I know everything."

Vincenzo started to his feet in a new terror, grasped Barnaby by the arm, and cried, "If you do, promise that no living soul"—

"Del Palmetto shall not have her," interrupted Barnaby.


"You shall; that's what I promise."

"Promise," urged Vincenzo.

"She loves you."

Vincenzo wrung his hands. Barnaby, thus set at liberty, jumped to the door, repeated, "She loves you," and vanished into the dark corridor. Vincenzo reached it with the light just in time to hear the click of the lock inside Barnaby's room, and, well knowing the old man's obstinacy, and afraid of being overheard by the Signor Avvocato, who might misinterpret a mysterious-looking communication with Barnaby at that hour, gave up a hopeless and dangerous chase.

Vincenzo spent the rest of the night in a state of agitation, bordering on delirium; stole out of the house at dawn, walked to Ibella, took the earliest train for Turin; and when, by eleven in the morning, he found himself seated in his own room, opposite to the hills overhanging the Po, he wondered whether he had been the sport of a bad dream.