The Viccolo of Madam Lucrezia
The Viccolo of Madam Lucrezia
(First version written in 1846, likely revised in 1869, published posthumously)
Transcribed from The Works of Prosper Mérimée. Vol. 5. Trans Emily Mary Waller and Louise Paul. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1906. For educational use only.
I was twenty-three years old when I set out for Rome. My father gave me a dozen letters of introduction, one of which, four pages long, was sealed. It was addressed: “To the Marquise Aldobrandi.”
“You must write and tell me if the Marquise is still beautiful,” said my father.
Now, from my earliest childhood, I had seen over the mantelpiece in his study a miniature of a very lovely woman, with powdered hair, crowned with ivy, and a tiger skin over her shoulder. Underneath was the inscription, “Roma 18-.” The dress struck me as so strange that I had many times asked who the lady was.
“It is a bacchante,” was the only answer given me.
But this reply hardly satisfied me. I even suspected a secret beneath it, for, at this simple question, my mother would press her lips together and my father looked very serious.
This time, when giving me the sealed letter, he looked stealthily at the portrait; involuntarily I did the same, and the idea came into my head that the powdered bacchante might perhaps be the Marquise Aldobrandi. As I had begun to understand the world I drew all kinds of conclusions from my mother’s expression and my father’s looks.
When I reached Rome, the first letter I delivered was the one to the Marquise. She lived in a beautiful palace close to the square of Saint-Mark.
I gave my letter and my card to a servant in yellow livery, who showed me into a vast room, dark and gloomy, and badly furnished. But in all Roman palaces there are pictures by the old masters. This room contained a great number of them, and several were very remarkable.
The first one I examined was a portrait of a woman which I thought was a Leonardo da Vinci. By the magnificence of the frame, and the rosewood easel on which it rested, there was no doubt it was the chief gem of the collection. As the Marquise was long in coming I had plenty of time to look at it. I even carried it to a window to see it in a more favourable light. It was evidently a portrait and not a fancy study, for such a face could not have been imagined: she was a beautiful woman, with rather thick lips, eyebrows nearly joined, and an expression that was both haughty and endearing. Underneath was her coat of arms, surmounted by a ducal coronet. But what struck me most was the dress, which even to the powder was like that of my father’s bacchante.
I was holding the portrait in my hand when the Marquise entered.
“Exactly like his father!” she cried, coming towards me. “Ah, you French! you French! Hardly arrived before he seizes upon ‘Madam Lucrezia.'”
I hastened to make excuses for my impertinence, and began to praise at random the chef d’œuvre of Leonardo, which I had been so bold as to lift out of its place.
“It is indeed a Leonardo,” said the Marquise, “and it is the portrait of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Of all my pictures it was the one your father admired most… But, good heavens! what a resemblance! I think I see your father as he was twenty-five years ago. How is he? What is he doing? And will he not come to see us at Rome some time?”
Although the Marquise did not wear either tiger skin or powdered hair, at the first glance, and with my natural quickness of perception, I recognized in her my father’s bacchante. Some twenty-five years had not been able entirely to efface the traces of great beauty. Her expression only had changed, even as her grooming. She was dressed completely in black, and her treble chin, her grave smile and her manner, serious and yet radiant, apprised me that she had become religious.
No one could have given me a warmer welcome; in a few words she offered me her home, her purse and her friends, among whom she mentioned several cardinals.
“Look upon me,” she said, “as your mother.”
She lowered her eyes modestly.
“Your father has charged me to look after you and to advise you.”
And to show me that she did not intend her office to be a sinecure she began at once to put me on my guard against the dangers Rome had for young men of my age, and exhorted me earnestly to avoid them. I must shun bad company, artists especially, and only associate with people that she chose for me. In fact, I received a lengthy sermon. I replied respectfully, and with conventional hypocrisy.
“I regret that my son the Marquis should be away on our property at Romagna,” she said, as I rose to go, “but I will introduce you to my second son, Don Ottavio, who will soon become a Monsignor. I hope you will like him, and that you will make friends with each other as you ought to…”
She broke off precipitately –
“For you are nearly the same age, and he is a nice steady boy like yourself.”
She sent immediately for Don Ottavio, and I was presented to a tall, pale young man, whose downcast, melancholy eyes seemed already conscious of his hypocrisy.
Without giving him time to speak, the Marquise offered me in his name the most ready services. He assented by bowing low at all his mother’s suggestions, and it was arranged that he should take me to see the sights of the town on the following day and bring me back to dinner en famille at the Aldobrandi palace.
I had hardly gone twenty steps down the road when an imperious voice exclaimed behind me –
“Where are you going alone at this hour, Don Ottavio?”
I turned round and saw a fat priest, who looked me up and down from head to foot with eyes wide open.
“I am not Don Ottavio,” I said.
The priest bowed down to the ground, profuse in apologies, and a moment after I saw him go into the Aldobrandi palace. I continued on my way, not much flattered at being taken for a budding Monsignor.
In spite of the Marquise’s warnings, perhaps even because of them, my next most pressing concern was to find out the lodging of a painter I knew, and I spent an hour with him at his studio talking over the legitimate or dubious ways of enjoying oneself that Rome could provide. I led him to the subject of the Aldobrandi.
The Marquise, he said, after being excessively frivolous became highly devotional when she recognized that she was too old for further conquests. Her eldest son was a fool, who spent his time hunting and receiving the rents of the farms on his vast estates. They were going the right way to make an idiot of the second son, Don Ottavio; he was going to be a cardinal some day. Until then he was given up to the Jesuits. He never went out alone; he was forbidden to look at a woman, or to take a single step without a priest at his heels, who had educated him for God’s service, and who, after having been the Marquise’s last amico, now ruled her house with almost despotic authority.
The next day Don Ottavio, followed by the Abbé Negroni, he who had taken me for his pupil the previous evening, came to take me out in a carriage and to offer his services as cicerone.
The first public building we stopped at was a church. Following the priest’s example, Don Ottavio knelt down, beat his breast, and made endless signs of the cross. After her had got up he showed me the frescoes and statues, and talked like a man of sense and taste. This was an agreeable surprise to me; we began to talk, and his conversation pleased me. For some time we conversed in Italian, but suddenly he said to me in French –
“My director does not understand a word of your language; let us talk French, and we shall feel freer.”
It might be said that the change of idiom transformed the young man. There was nothing that smacked of the priest in his talk. I could have imagined him one of our own liberal-minded men. I noticed that he said everything in an even, monotonous tone of voice, which often contrasted strangely with the vivacity of his sentiments. It was, apparently, a ruse to put Negroni off the scent, who from time to time asked us to explain what we were talking about. I need hardly say that our translation was extremely free.
A young man in violet stockings passed us.
“That is one of our modern patricians,” said Don Ottavio. “Wretched livery! and it will be mine in a few months! What happiness,” he added after a moment’s silence – “what happiness to live in a country like yours! If I were French I might perhaps one day have become a deputy.”
This high ambition made me feel strongly inclined to laugh, and as the Abbé noticed it, I had to explain that we were talking of the error of an archæologist who mistook a statue by Bernini for an antique.
We dined at the Aldobrandi palace. Directly after the coffee the Marquise asked me to excuse her son, who was obliged to retire to his room to fulfil certain pious duties. I remained alone with her, and the Abbé Negroni leant back in his chair and slept the sleep of the just.
In the meantime the Marquise interrogated me minutely about my father, about Paris, as to my past life, and on my future plans. She seemed to me a good and amiable woman, but rather too inquisitive and overly concerned about my salvation. But she spoke Italian perfectly, and I took a lesson in pronunciation from her which I promised myself I would repeat.
I often came to see her. Nearly every morning I visited the antiquities with her son and the ever-present Negroni, and in the evenings I dined with them at the Aldobrandi palace. The Marquise entertained very rarely, and then nearly always ecclesiastics.
Once, however, she introduced me to a German lady, who was a recent convert and her intimate friend. She was a certain Madam de Strahlenheim, a very handsome woman who had lived a long while in Rome. Whilst these ladies talked together about a celebrated preacher, I studied, by the lamplight, the portrait of Lucrezia, until I felt it my duty to put in a word.
“What eyes!” I exclaimed, “her eyelids almost seem to move!”
At this somewhat pretentious figure of speech which I ventured on to show myself to Madam de Strahlenheim in the light of a connoisseur, she trembled with fear and hid her face in her handkerchief.
“What is the matter, my dear?” said the Marquise.
“Oh! nothing but what Monsieur said just now! …”
We pressed her with questions, and when she said that my phrase had recalled a horrible story we compelled her to relate it.
Here it is in a few words –
Madam de Strahlenheim had a sister-in-law called Wilhelmina, who was betrothed to a young man from Westphalia, Julius de Katzenellenbogen, a volunteer in General Kleist’s division. I am very sorry to have to repeat so many barbarous names, but extraordinary episodes never happen except to people with names which are difficult to pronounce.
Julius was a charming fellow, full of patriotic feeling and love of metaphysics. He gave his portrait to Wilhelmina when he entered the army and she gave him hers, which he wore next his heart. They do this sort of thing in Germany.
On the 13th of September 1813, Wilhelmina was at Cassel. She was sitting in a room, about five o’clock in the afternoon, busy knitting with her mother and sister-in-law. While she worked she looked at her fiancé’s portrait, which was standing on a little table opposite to her. Suddenly she uttered a terrible cry, put her hand on her heart and fainted. They had the greatest difficulty in the world to bring her back to consciousness, and, as soon as she could speak, she said –
“Julius is dead! He has been killed!”
She insisted that she had seen the portrait shut its eyes, and at the same instant that she had felt a terrible pain as though a red-hot iron had pierced her heart: her horror-struck countenance gave credence to her words.
Everybody tried to show her that her vision was unreal and that she ought to pay no attention to it. It was of no use. The poor child was inconsolable; she spent the night in tears and wanted to go into mourning the next day, as though quite convinced of the affliction which had been revealed to her. Two days after news came of the bloody battle of Leipzig. Julius wrote to his fiancée a letter dated at three o’clock p.m. on the 13th. He had not been wounded, but had distinguished himself, and was just going into Leipzig, where he expected to pass the night in the general’s quarters, which were, of course, out of the range of danger. This reassuring letter did not calm Wilhelmina, who noticed that it had been written at three o’clock, and persisted in believing that her beloved had died at five o’clock.
The unhappy girl was not mistaken. It was known that Julius had been sent out of Leipzig with a despatch at half-past four, and that three-quarters of a league from town, beyond the Elster, a straggler from the enemy’s army, concealed in a trench, had fired and killed him. The bullet pierced his heart and broke the portrait of Wilhelmina.
“And what became of the poor girl?” I asked Madam de Strahlenheim.
“Oh! she has been very ill. She is married now to a gentleman who is a barrister in Werner, and if you went to Dessau, she would show you Julius’s portrait.”
“All that was done by the interposition of the devil,” the Abbé broke in, for he had only been half asleep during Madam de Strahlenheim’s story. “He who could make the heathen oracles speak could easily make the eyes of a portrait move if he thought fit. Not twenty years ago an Englishman was strangled by a statue at Tivoli.”
“By a statue!” I exclaimed. “How did that come about?”
“He was a wealthy man who had been making excavations at Tivoli, and had discovered a statue of the Empress Agrippina Messalina… it matters little which. Whoever it was he had it taken to his house, and by dint of gazing at it and admiring it he became crazy. All Protestants are more than half mad. He called it his wife, his lady, and kissed it, marble as it was. He said that the statue came to life every evening for his benefit. So true was this that one morning they found milord stone dead in his bead. Well, would you believe it? – there was another Englishman quite ready to purchase the statue. Now I would have had it made into lime.”
When once stories of the supernatural are let loose there is no stopping them. Everybody contributed his share, and I took part in this collection of fearful tales; to such purpose that when we broke up we were all pretty well scared and full of respect for the devil’s power.
I walked back to my lodgings, and, to get into the Corso, I took a little winding lane, down which I had not yet been. It was quite deserted. I could see nothing but long garden walls, or some mean-looking houses, none of which were lighted up. It had just struck midnight, and the weather was threateningly dark. I was in the middle of the street, walking very quickly, when I heard a slight noise above my head, a st! and just at the same time a rose fell at my feet. I raised my eyes and, in spite of the darkness, I saw a woman clothed in white, at a window, with one arm stretched out towards me. Now we French show to great advantage in a strange land, for our forefathers, the conquerors of Europe, have cradled us in the traditions flattering to natural pride. I believed religiously in the susceptibility of all German, Spanish, and Italian ladies at the mere look of a Frenchman. In short, at that period I was still very much of a Frenchman, and, besides, did not the rose tell its own tale plainly enough?
“Madam,” I said in a low voice, as I picked up the rose, “you have dropped your nosegay…”
But the lady had already vanished, and the window had been closed noiselessly. I did what every other man would have done in my position: I looked for the nearest door, which was two steps from the window; I found it, and I waited to have it opened for me. Five minutes passed in a profound silence; then I coughed, then I scratched softly, but the door did not open. I examined it more carefully, hoping to find a lock or latch; to my great surprise I found it padlocked.
“The jealous lover has not gone in yet, then,” I said to myself.
I picked up a small stone and threw it against the window; it hit a wooden outside shutter and fell at my feet.
“The devil!” I thought; “Roman ladies must be accustomed to lovers who carry ladders in their pockets; no one told me of the custom.”
I waited a few more moments, but fruitlessly. I though once or twice I saw the shutter shake lightly from the inside, as though someone wanted to draw it aside to look into the street, but that was all. My patience was exhausted at the end of a quarter of an hour. I lit a cigar and went on my way, but not until I had carefully taken stock of the position occupied by the padlocked house.
The next day, in thinking over this adventure, I arrived at the following conclusions: A young Roman lady, probably a great beauty, had noticed me in my expeditions about the town, and had been attracted by my feeble charms. If she had declared her passion only by the gift of a mysterious flower, it was because she was restrained by a becoming sense of modesty, or perhaps she had been disturbed in her plans by the presence of some duenna, maybe some cursed guardian like Bartolo de Rosina. I decided to lay siege to the house which was inhabited by this infanta.
With this fine idea in my head I left my rooms when I had first given my hair a finishing touch and had put on my new coat and yellow gloves. In this get-up, with my hat tilted over my ear and the faded rose in my buttonhole, I turned my steps toward the street whose name I did not yet know, but which I had no difficulty in discovering. A notice stuck on a Madonna told me it was called “Il viccolo di Madama Lucrezia.”
I was struck by this name at once, and recollected Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, together with the stories of presentiments and witchcraft that I had heard the evening before at the Marquise’s. Then I remembered that some matches are made in heaven. Why should not my love be named Lucrezia? Why should she not be like the Lucrezia of the Aldobrandi collection?
It was dawn. I was within two steps of a ravishing young lady, and no sinister thoughts mingled with the emotion I felt.
I came to the house. It was No. 13. What an unlucky omen! … Alas! it hardly answered to the idea of it that I had conceived by night. It was certainly no palace, whatever else it might be. The walls surrounding it were blackened with age and covered with lichen, and behind these were some fruit trees badly eaten by caterpillars. In one corner of the efnclosure was a pavilion one story high, with two windows looking on to the street; both were closed by old shutters furnished outside with a number of iron bars. The door was low, and over it was an old coat of arms almost worn away; it was shut, as on the previous night, by a large padlock which was attached to a chain. Over the door was a notice written in chalk, which read, “House to Let or to be Sold.”
However, I had not made a mistake. The houses were too few for confusion to be possible. It was indeed my padlock, and, furthermore, two rose leaves on the pavement, near the door, indicated the exact spot where I had received the evidences of love from my well-beloved, and they also proved that the pavement in front of the house was rarely swept.
I asked several poor people in the neighbourhood if they could tell me where the keeper of this mysterious house lived.
“Not anywhere here,” they replied curtly.
My question seemed to displease those to whom I put it; and this piqued my curiosity still further. Going from door to door I finished by going into a kind of dark cave, where was an old woman, who might have been suspected of witchcraft, for she had a black cat and was cooking some mysterious decoction in a cauldron.
“You want to see over the house of Madam Lucrezia?” she said. “I have the key of it.”
“All right. Show me over.”
“Do you wish to take it?” she asked, smiling with a dubious air.
“Yes, if it suits me.”
“It will not suit you; but, see, will you give me a paul if I show it you?”
Upon this assurance she rose slowly from her stool, unhooked a very rusty key from the wall, and led me to No. 13.
“Why,” I said, “do they call this the house of Lucrezia?”
“Why are you called a foreigner?” retorted the old woman, chuckling. “Is it not because youare a foreigner?”
“Certainly. But who was this Madam Lucrezia? Was she a Roman lady?”
“What! You come to Rome without knowing Madam Lucrezia? I will tell you her history when we are inside. But here is another devilish trick! I do not know what has come to this key – it will not turn. You try it.”
Indeed, the padlock and the key had not seen each other for a long time. Nevertheless, by means of three or four oaths and much grinding of my teeth, I succeeded in turning the lock; but I tore my yellow gloves and strained the palm of my hand. We entered upon a dark passage, which led to several low rooms.
The curiously decorated ceilings were covered with cobwebs, under which traces of gilding could dimly be seen. By the damp smell which pervaded every room it was evident they had not been occupied for a long time. There was not a single stick of furniture in them, only some strips of old leather hung down the saltpetred walls. From the carving of some consoles and the shape of the chimney-pieces I concluded that the house dated from the fifteenth century, and it is probable that at one time it had been tastefully decorated. The windows had little square panes of glass, most of which were broken; they looked into the garden, where I noticed a rose tree in flower, some fruit trees, and a quantity of broccoli.
When I had wandered through all the rooms on the ground floor, I went upstairs to the story from where I had seen my mysterious being. The old woman tried to keep me back by telling me there was nothing to see and that the staircase was in a very bad state. Seeing I was headstrong, she followed me, but with marked aversion. The rooms on this floor were very much like the others, only they were not so damp, and the floors and windows also were in a better state. In the last room that I entered I saw a large armchair covered with black leather, which, strangely enough, was not covered with dust. I sat down in it, and finding it comfortable enough in which to hear a story, I asked the old woman to tell me the history of Madam Lucrezia; but, in order to refresh her memory, I first gave her a present of severalpauls. She cleared her throat, blew her nose, and began the following story: –
“In heathen times, when Alexander was Emperor, he had a daughter, who was as beautiful as the day. She was called Madam Lucrezia. Stop – there she is! …”
I turned round quickly. The old woman was pointing to a carved console which upheld the chief beam of the room. It was a very roughly carved siren.
“Goodness!” went on the old woman, “how she loved to enjoy herself! And, as her father found fault with her, she had this house built.
“Every night she left the Quirinal and came here to amuse herself. She stood at that window, and when a fine cavalier, such as yourself, Monsieur, passed by in the street, she called to him, and I leave you to guess if he was well received. But most men are chattering magpies, and they could have done her great harm by their babbling, so she took care to guard herself. When she had made her adieu to her lover, her armed attendants filled the staircase by which you came up. They despatched you, and then buried you among the cabbages! Yes, many of their bones are found in the garden!
“This establishment went on for a long time, but one evening her brother, Sisto Tarquino, passed under the window. She did not recognise him, and she called to him. He came up. In the dark all cats look gray, and he was treated like all the others. But he had left his handkerchief behind, and his name was upon it.
“Despair seized her as soon as she saw the mischief she had done. She immediately unwound her garter and hung herself from that beam up there. What an example for young people!”
While the old woman was thus confusing the ages, mixing up the Tarquins with the Borgias, I had my eyes fixed on the flooring. I had discovered several rose petals still quite fresh, which gave me plenty to think of.
“Who attends to this garden?” I asked the old woman.
“My son, Monsieur, gardener to M. Vanozzi, who has the next garden. M. Vanozzi is always away in the Maremma; and he hardly ever comes to Rome. That is why the garden is not very nicely kept. My son goes with him, and I am afraid they will not come back for a very long time,” she added, with a sigh.
“He is busily employed, then, with M. Vanozzi.”
“Oh, he is a strange man – busy over too many things. I am afraid he spends his time in a bad way… Ah, my poor boy!”
She took a step towards the door as though she wanted to change the conversation.
“No one lives here, then?” I resumed, stopping her.
“Not a single creature.”
“And why is that?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Listen to me,” I said, as I gave her a piastre. “Tell me the truth. A woman comes here.”
“A woman? Good Lord!”
“Yes; I saw her yesterday evening and I spoke to her.”
“Holy Mother!” cried the old dame, and she rushed to the staircase; “it must be Madam Lucrezia! Let us go! let us go, Monsieur! They certainly told me she walked here by night, but I did not wish to tell it you for fear of injuring the landlord, because I thought you wished to rent it.
It was out of the question to keep her there; she hurried out of the house, anxious, she said, “to light a candle in the nearest church.”
I went out too, and let her go, hopeless of learning anything more from her.
You will readily guess that I did not relate my adventures at the Aldobrandi palace; the Marquise was too prudish, and Don Ottavio too much taken up with politics to be a useful adviser in a love affair. But I went to my artist friend, who knew Rome from end to end, and asked him what he thought of it.
“I think you have seen the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia,” he said. “What a danger you have run into! She was dangerous enough when she was alive; imagine how much more she must be now she is dead! It makes me shudder to think of it.”
“You are surely half joking?”
“So Monsieur is an atheist and a philosopher and does not believe in the most orthodox explanations. Very well, then. What do you say to another hypothesis? Suppose the old woman lets the house to women who are equal to accosting men who pass by in the street; there are old women sufficiently depraved to drive such a trade.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “Then I must look like a saint, for the old dame never suggested any such offers. You insult me. Besides, my friend, remember the furnishing of the house: a man must be possessed by the devil to be satisfied with it.”
“Then it is a ghost, there can be no doubt about it. But wait a bit, I have still another idea. You have mistaken the house – ah! that is it; near a garden? With a little low door to it… Why, that is my dear friend Rosina’s! Eighteen months ago she was the ornament of that street. It is true she has become blind in one eye, but that is a trifle… She still has a very lovely profile.”
None of these explanations satisfied me. When evening came I walked slowly past the house of Lucrezia, but I did not see anything. I went up and down past it with no further result. Three or four evenings followed, and I danced attendance under her windows as I went home from the Aldobrandi palace, with ever the same want of success. I had begun to forget the mysterious occupant of No. 13, when, passing towards midnight through the land, I distinctly heard a woman’s light laugh behind the shutter of the window at which the giver of the flowers had appeared to me. Twice I heard that little laugh, and I could not prevent feeling slightly afraid, when just at that moment I saw come out at the other end of the street a group of penitents, closely hooded, with tapers in hand, bearing a corpse to burial. When they had gone I took up my stand once more under the window; but this time I did not hear anything. I tried to throw pebbles; and I even called out more or less loudly; but still no one appeared; and, a heavy shower coming on, I was obliged to beat a retreat.
I am ashamed to tell how many times I stood before that accursed house without succeeding in solving the riddle that tormented me. Once only did I pass along the Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia with Don Ottavio and his ubiquitous Abbé.
“That is the house of Lucrezia,” I said.
I saw him change colour. “Yes,” he replied; “a very dubious popular tradition asserts that Lucrezia Borgia’s little house was here. If those walls could speak, what horrors they could reveal to us! Nevertheless, my friend, when I compare those times with our own I am seized with regrets. Under Alexander VI there were still Romans. Now there are none. Cæsar Borgia was a monster; but he was a great man. He tried to turn the barbarians out of Italy, and perhaps, if his father had lived, he might have accomplished his great design. Oh! if only Heaven would send us a tyrant like Borgia to deliver us from these human despots who are degrading us!”
When Don Ottavio threw himself into the realms of politics it was impossible to stop him. We were at the Piazza del Popolo before his panegyric in favour of enlightened despotism was concluded; but we were a thousand miles from the subject of my Lucrezia.
One night, when I was very late in paying my respects to the Marquise, she told me her son was unwell, and begged me to go up to his room. I found him lying on his bed, still dressed, reading a French journal which I had sent him that morning concealed between the leaves of a volume of the Fathers. An edition of the Holy Fathers had for some time served us for those communications which he had to conceal from the Abbé and the Marquise. On the day when the Courier de France appeared I received a folio Father. I returned another, in which I slipped a newspaper, lent me by the ambassador’s secretary. This gave the marquise an exalted notion of my piety; and also his director, who often wanted to make me discuss theology with him.
When I had talked for some time with Don Ottavio, and had noticed that he seemed so much upset that not even politics could attract his attention. I recommended him to undress, and I bade him adieu. It was cold, and I had no coat with me; Don Ottavio pressed me to take his, and in accepting it I received a lesson in the difficult art of wearing a cloak in the proper Roman fashion.
I left the Aldobrandi palace muffled up to the eyes. I had gone but a few steps on the pavement of the Square of Saint-Mark when a peasant, whom I had noticed seated on a bench by the gate of the palace, came up to me and held out a crumpled bit of paper.
“Read it, for the love of God!” he said, and quickly disappeared, running at top speed.
I took the paper, and looked round for a light by which to read it. By the light of a lamp which was burning before a Madonna I saw it was a pencilled note, and written apparently in a trembling hand. I had much difficulty in making out the following words: –
“Do not come tonight or we are lost! All is known except your name. Nothing can sever us. – Your LUCREZIA.”
“Lucrezia!” I cried, “Lucrezia again! What devilish mystification underlies all this? ‘Do not come.’ But, my good lady, what road must I take to find you out?”
When I was cogitating over the contents of this note I mechanically took the road to the Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia, and soon found myself in front of No. 13.
The street was deserted as usual, and only the sound of my footsteps disturbed the profound silence which reigned all round. I stopped and looked up at the well-known window. This time I was not mistaken: the shutter was pushed back and the window was wide open.
I thought I saw a human shape standing out from the dark background of the room.
“Lucrezia, is it you?” I said in a low voice.
At the same instant I received a sharp blow in the chest, followed by the sound of a report, and down I went on the pavement.
“Take that from the Signora Lucrezia!” cried out a hoarse voice, and the shutter was noiselessly closed.
I soon staggered to my feet, and the first thing I did was to feel myself all over, as I expected to find a big hole in my body. The cloak and my coat were both pierced, but the ball had been blunted by the folds of the cloth, and I had escaped with nothing worse than a nasty bruise.
The idea that a second shot might not be long in coming made me drag myself close up to the side of this inhospitable house, and I squeezed close to the walls, so that I could not be seen.
I took myself off as quickly as I could, still panting, when a man whom I had not noticed behind me took my arm and asked me anxiously if I were hurt.
By the voice I recognised Don Ottavio. It was not the moment to question him, however surprised I was to see him alone and in the street at that time of night. I told him briefly that I had just been fired at from a window, but that I was only grazed.
“It is a mistake!” he cried. “But I hear people coming. Can you walk? If we are seen together I shall be lost; but I will not abandon you.”
He took my arm and led me along at a rapid pace. We walked, or rather ran, as fast as I could manage; but I was soon obliged to sit down on a stump to get my breath.
Happily we were by that time not far from a large house where a ball was being given; there were numbers of carriages in front of the door, and Don Ottavio went to find one, then he put me inside and conducted me to my hotel. After a good drink of water I felt quite restored and related to him minutely all that had happened in front of that fatal house, from the gift of the rose to that of the bullet.
He listened with his head bent down, half hidden behind one of his hands. When I showed him the note that I had received, he seized it and read it eagerly.
“It is a mistake! A wretched mistake!” he exclaimed again.
“You will admit, my dear fellow,” I said to him, “that it is extremely disagreeable for both of us. I might have been killed, and there are about a dozen holes in your fine cloak. Good gracious! how jealous your fellow-countrymen are!”
Don Ottavio shook hands with me, looking the picture of woe, and re-read the note without answering.
“Do try,” I said, “to offer me some explanation of this affair. Devil take it if I can make anything of it!”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“At least tell me what I ought to do,” I said; “to whom I should address my grievances in this pious town of yours, in order to see justice done to this gentleman who peppers passers-by without even asking them their names. I confess I should love to see him hanged.”
“Be very careful,” he cried. “You do not know this country. Do not say a word to anyone of what has happened, or you will expose yourself too much.”
“What shall I expose myself to? Damn it! I mean to have my revenge. If I had offended the scoundrel there might be some excuse; but, because I picked up a rose… In all conscience, surely I did not deserve to be shot.”
“Let me act in the matter,” said Don Ottavio; “perhaps I shall succeed in clearing up the mystery. But I ask you as a special favour, as a signal proof of your friendship for me, not to mention this to a single soul. Will you promise me?’
He looked so sad as he entreated that I had not the heart to resist him, and I promised him all he asked. He thanked me effusively, and, when he had himself applied a compress of eau de Cologne to my chest, he shook hands and bade me adieu.
“By the way,” I asked him, as I opened the door to let him go out, “tell me how it happened that you were there just in the nick of time to help me.”
“I heard the gunshot,” he replied in an embarrassed tone, “and I came out at once, fearing some mischance had happened to you.”
He left me hastily, after he had again sworn me to secrecy.
In the morning a surgeon same to see me, sent no doubt by Don Ottavio. He prescribed a poultice, but asked no questions about the cause that had added violet marks to my white skin. People are very discreet in Rome, and I desired to conform to the customs of the country.
Several days passed by without my being able to talk freely with Don Ottavio. He was preoccupied and even more gloomy than usual; besides, he seemed to try to avoid my questionings. During the rare moments that I was alone with him he did not say a word about the strange inhabitants of the Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia. The day fixed for the ceremony of his ordination drew near, and I attributed his melancholy to his repugnance to the profession he was being forced to adopt.
I prepared to leave Rome for Florence. When I announced my departure to the Marquise Aldobrandi, Don Ottavio made some excuse to take me up to his room. When we reached it he took both my hands in his –
“My dear friend,” he said, “if you will not grant me the favour I am going to ask you I shall certainly blow out my brains, for I see no other way out of my difficulties. I have quite made up my mind never to wear the wretched dress they want me to adopt. I want to escape out of this country. I ask you to take me with you, and to let me pass as your servant; it will only need one word added to your passport to facilitate my flight.”
At first I tried to turn him from his design by speaking of the grief it would cause his mother; but, finding his resolution was firmly fixed, I ended by promising to take him with me, and to have my passport altered accordingly.
“That is not all,” he said. “My departure still depends on the success of an enterprise on which I am engaged. You must set out the day after to-morrow; by then I may have succeeded, and then I shall be completely at your service.”
“Are you so foolish,” I asked uneasily, “as to get yourself entangled in some conspiracy?”
“No,” he replied; “the matter is not quite of such grave importance as the fate of my country, but grave enough for my life and happiness to depend on the success of my undertaking. I cannot tell you any more now. In a couple of days you shall know everything.”
I had begun to get used to mysteries, so I resigned myself to yet another. It was arranged that we should start at three o’clock in the morning, and that we should not break our journey until we reached Tuscan territory.
As I knew it would be useless to go to bed with such an early start in prospect, I employed the last evening of my stay in Rome in paying calls at all the houses where I had received hospitality. I went to take leave of the Marquise, and for form’s sake I shook hands ceremoniously with her son. I felt his hands tremble in mine.
“At this moment my life is a game of pitch and toss,” he whispered. “You will find a letter at your hotel from me. If I am not with you punctually at three o’clock, do not wait for me.”
I was struck by the alteration in his features, but I attributed it to a very natural emotion on his part at leaving his family possibly forever.
It was nearly one o’clock when I regained my lodgings. I felt a desire to walk along the Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia once more. Something white hung from the window which had been the scene of two such different visions. I approached it cautiously, and saw that it was a knotted rope. Was it an invitation to bid farewell to the Signora? It looked like it, and the temptation was strong. I did not yield to it, however, but recollected my promise to Don Ottavio; and also, it must be confessed, the disagreeable reception I had brought on myself some days ago by an act that was nothing like as bold.
I continued on my way slowly, for I was sorry to lose the last opportunity of penetrating the mysteries of No. 13. I turned my head at each step that I took, expecting every time to see some human being climb up or descend the cord. Nothing appeared, and at length I got to the far end of the lane which led into the Corso.
“Farewell, Madam Lucrezia,” I said, and I took off my hat to the house which I could still see. “Find out someone else, I beg you, to help you to avenge yourself on the jealous lover who keeps you imprisoned there.”
It was striking two o’clock when I entered my hotel. A carriage loaded with luggage stood waiting in the yard. One of the hotel waiters gave me a letter; it was from Don Ottavio, and, as it looked a long one, I thought I had better take it up to my room to read, so I asked the waiter to light me upstairs.
“Monsieur,” he said, “your servant, whom you told us was going to travel with you…”
“Well? Has he come?”
“He is at the inn, and will come with the horses.”
“Monsieur, a lady came a little while ago and asked to speak to your servant. She absolutely insisted on going up to your room, Monsieur, and told me to tell your servant as soon as he came that Madam Lucrezia was in your room.”
“In my room!” I cried, clutching hold of the bannister rail.
“Yes, Monsieur; and it looks as though she were going too, for she gave me a small box to put in the boot.”
My heart beat loudly, and superstitious terror and curiosity possessed me in turn. I went up the stairs step by step. When I reached the first landing (my rooms were on the second floor), the waiter, who was in front of me, tripped, and the candle which he held in his hand was extinguished. He begged pardon profoundly, and went downstairs to relight it. I still climbed on.
I had my hand on the key of my room, but I hesitated. What fresh vision should I see? More than once, in the darkness the story of the bleeding nun had returned to me. Was I possessed by a demon, even as was Don Alonso? The waiter seemed a terribly long time in coming.
I opened the door. Heaven have mercy on us! there was a light in my bedroom. I rapidly crossed the little sitting-room which came first and a single glance sufficed to show me no one was in my bedroom; but immediately I heard light steps behind me, and the rustle of skirts. I believe my hair stood on end as I turned round suddenly.
A woman, dressed in white, her head covered with a black mantilla, rushed to me with outstretched arms.
“Here you are at last, my beloved!” she cried, as she seized my hands.
Hers were as cold as ice, and her features were as pale as death. I started back against the wall.
“Holy Mother!It is not he! … Oh, Monsieur, are you Don Ottavio’s friend?”
At that name all was made clear. In spite of her pallor the young lady did not look like a ghost, she lowered her eyes, a thing ghosts never do, and held her hands clasped in a modest attitude before her girdle, which made me think that my friend Don Ottavio was not so much of a politician as I had imagined. In short, it was high time to take Lucrezia away; and, unfortunately, the role of confidant was the only deputed to me in this adventure.
A moment after Don Ottavio arrived, disguised. The horses came too; and we set off. Lucrezia had no passport; but a woman, especially a pretty one, raises no suspicions. One gendarme, however, raised difficulties. I told him he was a hero, and had assuredly served under the great Napoleon. He acknowledged the fact, and I offered him a portrait of that great man on a golden coin, telling him that it was my habit to travel with a lady friend to keep me company; and that, as I very frequently changed them, I did not think it any use to put their names on my passport.
“This one,” I added, “leaves me at the next town. I am told that I shall find many others there who could take her place.”
“You would do wrong to change her,” said the gendarme, as he respectfully shut the carriage door.
To tell you the truth, Madam, this rascal of a Don Ottavio had entered upon terms of friendship with a lovely young lady. She was the sister of a certain wealthy planter named Vanozzi, who earned a bad name for himself for being very stingy, and carrying on illicit trade. Don Ottavio knew very well that, even if his family had not intended him for the Chruch, they would never have consented to let him marry a girl so much lower in social position than himself.
Love is ingenious. The Abbé Negroni’s pupil succeeded in holding a secret correspondence with his beloved. Every night he escaped from the Aldobrandi palace, and, as he had not dared to scale the walls of Vanozzi’s house, the two lovers arranged to meet in Madam Lucrezia’s house, which was protected by its ill-repute. A little door hidden by a fig tree communicated between the two gardens. They were young and in love, and Lucrezia and Ottavio did not complain of the paucity of furnishing, which consisted, as I think I have already pointed out, of an old leather-covered armchair.
One night, when waiting for Don Ottavio, Lucrezia mistook me for him, and made me the present which I received in his place. There was certainly some resemblance between Don Ottavio’s figure and appearance and my own, and some scandal-mongers, who knew my father in Rome, maintained that there were reasons for this likeness. In course of time the accursed brother discovered their meetings; but his threats did not make Lucrezia reveal her seducer’s name. We know how he took vengeance and how I was to pay their debt. It is needless to tell you how the two lovers took steps respectively to set themselves free.
To conclude. We all three arrived at Florence. Don Ottavio married Lucrezia, and they left immediately for Paris. My father gave him as warm a welcome as I had received at the hands of the Marquise. He took upon him to bring about a reconciliation, and after a good deal of trouble he succeeded. The Marquis Aldobrandi was opportunely taken with Roman fever and died; so Ottavio inherited his title and fortune, and I became godfather to his firstborn.
27th April, 1846.