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Her sweet lips relaxed slightly, but she shook her head, sighing as she answered--
"Please don't antic.i.p.ate anything of the kind. I only hope he may be old and very ugly."
"So that he will not arouse my jealousy--eh?" I laughed. "Really, Mabel, if our friendship were not upon such a well-defined basis, I should allow myself to act the part of lover. You know I--"
"Now don't be foolish," she interrupted, raising her small finger in mock reproval. "Remember what you said yesterday."
"I said what I meant."
"And so did I. To tell you the truth, I like to think of you as my big brother," she declared. "I suppose I shall never love," she added, reflectively, gazing into the blazing fire.
"No, no; don't say that, Mabel. You'll one day meet some man in your own station, love him, marry and be happy," I said, my hand upon her shoulder. "Recollect that with your wealth you can secure the pick of the matrimonial market."
"Some impoverished young aristocrat, you mean? No, thanks. I've already met a good many, but their disguise of affection has always been much too thin. Most of them wanted my money to pay off mortgages on their estates. No, I'd much prefer a poor man--although I shall _never_ marry--never."
I was silent for a moment, then I remarked quite bluntly--
"I always thought you would marry young Lord Newborough. You both seemed very good friends."
"So we were--until he proposed to me."
And she looked me straight in the face with that clear gaze and those splendid eyes wide open in wonderment, almost like a child's.
Her character was a strangely complex one. As a tall, willowy girl, in those early days of our acquaintance, I knew her to be high-minded and wilful, yet of that sweet affectionate disposition that endeared her to every one with whom she came into contact. Her nature was so calm and so sweet that in her love seemed an unconscious impulse. I had often thought she was surely too soft, too good, too fair to be cast among the briers of the world, and fall and bleed upon the thorns of life. The world is just as cold and pitiless and just as full of pitfalls for the young and unwary in Mayfair as in Mile End. Hence, to fulfil my promise to that man now silent in his grave, it was my duty to protect her from the thousand and one wiles of those who would endeavour to profit by s.e.x and inexperience.
Her early privations, her hard life in youth while her father was absent at sea, and those weary months of tramping the turnpikes of England, all had had their effect upon her. With her, love seemed to be scarcely a pa.s.sion or a sentiment, but a dreamy enchantment, a reverie which a fairy spell dissolved or riveted at pleasure. So exquisitely delicate was her character, just as was her countenance, that it seemed as if a touch would profane it. Like a strain of sad, sweet music which comes floating by on the wings of night and silence, and which we rather feel than hear, like the exhalation of the violet dying even upon the sense it charms, like the snow-flake dissolved in air before it has caught a stain of earth, like the light surf severed from the billow which a breath disperses--such was her nature, so full of that modesty, grace and tenderness without which a woman is no woman.
As she stood there before me, a frail, delicate figure in her plain black gown, and her hand in mine, thanking me for the investigation which I was undertaking in her behalf, and wishing me _bon voyage_, I shuddered to think of her thrown alone amid harsh and adverse destinies, and amid all the corruptions and sharks of society, perhaps without energy to resist, or will to act, or strength to endure. Alone in such a case, the end must inevitably be desolation.
I wished her farewell, turning from her with a feeling that, loving her as I admit I did, I was nevertheless unworthy of her. Yet surely I was playing a dangerous game!
I had entertained a strong and increasing affection for her ever since that winter's night down at Helpstone. Still, now that she was possessor of vast wealth, I felt that the difference in our ages and the fact that I was a poor man were both barriers to our marriage. Indeed, she had never exerted any of the feminine wiles of flirtation towards me; she had never once allowed me to think that I had captivated her.
She had spoken the truth. She regarded me as an elder brother--that was all.
That same night, as I paced the deck of the Channel steamer in the teeth of a wintry gale, watching the revolving light of Calais harbour growing more and more distinct, my thoughts were full of her. Love is the teacher, grief the tamer, and time the healer of the human heart. While the engines throbbed, the wind howled and the dark seas swirled past, I paced up and down puzzling over the playing-card in my pocket and reflecting upon all that had occurred. The rich fancies of unbowed youth, the visions of long-perished hopes, the shadows of unborn joys, the gay colourings of the dawn of existence--what ever my memory had treasured up, came before me in review, but lived no longer within my heart.
I recollected that truism of Rochefoucauld's: "Il est difficile de definer l'amour: ce qu'on en peut dire est que, dans l'ame, c'est un pa.s.sion de regner; dans les esprits, c'est une sympathie; et dans le corps, ce n'est qu'une envie cachee et delicate de posseder ce que l'on aime, apres beaucoup de mysteres." Yes, I loved her with all my heart, with all my soul, but to me I recognised that it was not permitted. My duty, the duty I had promised to fulfil to that dying man whose life-story had been a secret romance, was to act as Mabel's protector, and not to become her lover and thus profit by her wealth. Blair had left his secret to me, in order, no doubt, to place me beyond the necessity of fortune-hunting, and as it had been lost it was my duty to him and to myself to spare no effort to recover it.
With these sentiments firmly established within my heart I entered the _wagon-lit_ at Calais, and started on the first stage of my journey across Europe from the Channel to the Mediterranean.
Three days later I was strolling up the Via Tornabuoni, in Florence, that thoroughfare of mediaeval palaces, banks, consulates and chemists'
shops that had been so familiar to me each winter, until I had taken to hunting in England in preference to the sunshine of the Lung' Arno and the Cascine. Indeed, some of my early years had been spent in Italy, and I had grown to love it, as every Englishman does. In that bright February morning as I pa.s.sed up the long, crooked street, filled by the nonchalant Florentines and the wealthy foreigners out for an airing, I pa.s.sed many men and women of my acquaintance. Doney's and Giacosa's, the favourite lounges of the men, were agog with rich idlers sipping c.o.c.ktails or that seductive _pet.i.t verre_ known in the Via Tornabuoni as a _piccolo_, the baskets of the flower-sellers gave a welcome touch of colour to the grim grey of the colossal Palace of the Strozzi, while from the consulates the flags of various nations, most conspicuous of all being that of the ever-popular "Major," reminded me that it was the _festa_ of Santa Margherita.
In the old days, when I used to live _en pension_ with a couple of Italian artillery officers and a Dutch art-student in the top floor of one of those great old palaces in the Via dei Banchi, the Via Tornabuoni used to be my morning walk, for there one meets everybody, the ladies shopping or going to the libraries, and the men gossiping on the kerb--a habit quickly acquired by every Englishman who takes up his abode in Italy.
It was astonishing, too, what a crowd of well-known faces I pa.s.sed that morning--English peers and peeresses, Members of Parliament, financial magnates, City sharks, manufacturers, and tourists of every grade and of every nation.
His Highness the Count of Turin, returning from drill, rode by laughing with his aide-de-camp and saluting those he knew. The women mostly wore their smartest toilettes with fur, because a cold wind came up from the Arno, the scent of flowers was in the air, bright laughter and incessant chatter sounded everywhere, and the red-roofed old Lily City was alive with gaiety. Perhaps no city in all the world is so full of charm nor so full of contrasts as quaint old Florence, with her wonderful cathedral, her antique bridge with rows of jewellers' shops upon it, her magnificent churches, her ponderous palaces, and her dark, silent, mediaeval streets, little changed, some of them, since the days when they were trodden by Giotto and by Dante. Time has laid his hand lightly indeed upon the City of Flowers, but whenever he has done so he has altered it out of all recognition, and the garish modernity of certain streets and piazzas surely grates to-day upon those who, like myself, knew the old city before the Piazza Vittorio--always the Piazza Vittorio, synonym of vandalism--had been constructed, and the old Ghetto, picturesque if unclean, was still in existence.
Two men, both of them Italian, stopped to salute me as I walked, and to wish me _ben tomato_. One was an advocate whose wife was accredited one of the prettiest women in that city where, strangely enough, the most striking type of beauty is fair haired. The other was the Cavaliere Alinari, secretary to the British Consul-General, or the "Major," as everybody speaks of him.
I had only arrived in Florence two hours before, and, after a wash at the _Savoy_, had gone forth with the object of cashing a cheque at French's, prior to commencing my inquiries.
Meeting Alinari, however, caused me to halt for a moment, and after he had expressed pleasure at my return, I asked--
"Do you, by any chance, happen to know any one by the name of Melandrini--Paolo Melandrini? His address is given me as Via San Cristofano, number eight."
He looked at me rather strangely with his sharp eyes, stroked his dark beard a moment, and replied in English, with a slight accent--
"The address does not sound very inviting, Mr. Greenwood. I have not the pleasure of knowing the gentleman, but the Via San Cristofano is one of the poorest and worst streets in Florence, just behind Santa Croce from the Via Ghibellina. I should not advise you to enter that quarter at night. There are some very bad characters there."
"Well," I explained, "the fact is I have come down here expressly to ascertain some facts concerning this person."
"Then don't do it yourself," was my friend's strong advice. "Employ some one who is a Florentine. If it is a case of confidential inquiries, he will certainly be much more successful than you can ever be. The moment you set foot in that street it would be known in every tenement that an Inglese was asking questions. And," he added with a meaning smile, "they resent questions being asked in the Via San Cristofano."
THE MYSTERIOUS FOREIGNER.
I felt that his advice was good, and in further conversation over a _piccolo_ at Giacosa's he suggested that I should employ a very shrewd but ugly little old man named Carlini, who sometimes made confidential inquiries on behalf of the Consulate.
An hour later the old man called at the _Savoy_, a bent, shuffling, white-headed old fellow, shabbily dressed, with a grey soft felt rather greasy hat stuck jauntily on the side of his head--a typical Florentine of the people. They called him "Babbo Carlini" in the markets, I afterwards learned, and cooks and servant-girls were fond of playing pranks upon him. Believed by every one to be a little childish, he fostered the idea because it gave him greater facilities in his secret inquiries, for he was regularly employed by the police in serious cases, and through his shrewdness many a criminal had been brought to justice.
In the privacy of my bedroom I explained in Italian the mission I wished him to execute for me.
"Si, signore," was all he responded, and this at every pause I made.
His boots were sadly cracked and down at heel, and he was badly in want of clean linen, but from his handkerchief pocket there arose a small row of "toscani," those long, thin, penny cigars so dear to the Italian palate.
"Recollect," I impressed upon the old fellow, "you must, if possible, find a way of striking up an acquaintance with this individual, Paolo Melandrini, obtain from him all you can about himself, and arrange so that I have, as soon as possible, an opportunity of seeing him without being myself observed. This matter," I added, "is strictly confidential, and I engage you for one week in my service at a wage of two hundred and fifty lire. Here are one hundred to pay your current expenses."
He took the green banknotes in his claw-like hand, and with a muttered "Tanti grazie, signore," transferred it to the inner pocket of his shabby jacket.
"You must on no account allow the man to suspect that any inquiry is being made concerning him. Mind that he knows nothing of any Englishman in Florence asking about him, or it will arouse his suspicions at once.
Be very careful in all that you say and do, and report to me tonight.
At what time shall I meet you?"
"Late," the old fellow grunted. "He may be a working-man, and if so I shall not be able to see anything of him till evening. I'll call here at eleven o'clock to-night," and then he shuffled out, leaving an odour of stale garlic and strong tobacco.
I began to wonder what the hotel people would think of me entertaining such a visitor, for the _Savoy_ is one of the smartest in Florence, but my apprehensions were quickly dispelled, for as we pa.s.sed out I heard the uniformed hall-porter exclaim in Italian--
"Hulloa, Babbo! Got a fresh job?"
To which the old fellow only grinned in satisfaction, and with another grunt pa.s.sed out into the sunshine.
That day pa.s.sed long and anxiously. I idled on the Ponte Vecchio and in the dim religious gloom of the Santissima Anunziata, in the afternoon making several calls upon friends I had known, and in the evening dining at Doney's in preference to the crowded _table-d'hote_ of English and Americans at the _Savoy_.
At eleven I awaited old Carlini in the hall of the hotel, and on his arrival took him anxiously in the lift up to my room.