"What's the matter, Jack? Whenever you smoke, your cigar goes out; you read _ewspaper by staring over the top of it; you bump into people on the streets, when there is plenty of room for you to pass; you leave your watch under th_illow and have to hike back for it; you forget, you are absent-minded. Now, what's the matter?"
"I don't know, Dan," said Hillard, relighting his cigar.
"Or you won't tell."
"Perhaps that's more like it."
"It's that woman, though you will not acknowledge it. By George, I'd like t_eet her face to face; I'd give her a piece of my mind."
"Or a piece of your heart!"
"Bah!" cried Merrihew, flipping his cigar-ash to the walk below, careles_hether it struck any of the leisurely-going pedestrians or not.
"You have not seen her face, Dan; I have."
"Oh, she may be a queen and all that; but she has an evil influence over al_he people she meets. Here's Kitty, following her round, and the Lord knows i_hat kind of trouble. She has hooked you, and presently you'll be leaving m_o get back home the best way I can."
"It is quite possible, my boy." And Hillard did not smile.
"Come, Jack, have you really got it? If you have, why, we'll pack up and leav_y the next steamer. I don't care to wander about Italy with a sick man on m_ands."
"Don't be hard on me, Dan," pleaded Hillard, smiling now. "Think of all th_itty Killigrews you've poured into my uncomplaining ears!"
"I got over it each time." But Merrihew felt a warmth in his cheeks.
"Happy man! And, once you see the face of this adventuress, as you call her, Kitty Killigrew will pass with all the other lasses."
"I?" indignantly. "Rot! She won't hold a candle to Kitty."
"No, not a candle, but the most powerful light known to the human eye—perfec_eauty." Hillard sighed unconsciously.
"There you go again!" laughed Merrihew. "You tack that sigh to everything yo_ay; and that's what I've been complaining about."
Hillard was human; he might be deeply in love, but this had not destroyed hi_ealthy sense of humor. So he laughed at himself.
Then they mused silently for a while. On either side, from their window- balcony, the lights of Lungarno spread out in a brilliant half-circle, repeating themselves, after the fashion of women, in the mirror of the Arno.
On the hill across the river the statue of David was visible above the Piazz_ichelangelo.
"You never told me what she was like," said Merrihew finally.
"Haven't I? Perhaps you never asked. We went through the Pitti Palace to-day.
I couldn't drag you from Raphael's _Madonna of the Chair_. She is a_eautiful as that."
"Imagination is a wonderful thing," was Merrihew's solitary comment.
"Mine has not been unduly worked in this instance," Hillard declared wit_mphasis. "Beauty in women has always been to me something in the abstract, but it is so no longer. There is one thing which I wish to impress upon you, Dan. She is not an adventuress. She has made no effort to trap me. On th_ontrary, she has done all she could to keep out of my way."
"It's a curious business; the dinner, the mask, the veil, the mystery. I tel_ou frankly, Jack, something's wrong, and we shall both live to find it out."
"But what? Heaven on earth, what? Haven't I tried to figure it out till m_rain aches? I haven't gone forward a single inch. On the steps of the Formos_ told her that I loved her. There, you have it! I was in doubt till I looke_t her face, and then I knew that I had met the one woman, and that there wa_ barrier between us that was not self-imposed. Not even friendship, Dan; no_ven an ordinary thing like that. I have spoken to this woman on only tw_ccasions, and only once have I seen her face. I am not a disciple of th_heory of love at first sight. I never shall be. An educated, rational ma_ust have something besides physical beauty; there must be wit, intellect, accomplishments. Usually we recognize the beauty first, and then the othe_ttributes, one by one, as the acquaintance ripens. With me the things hav_een switched round. The accomplishments came first; I became fascinated by _oice and a mind. But when I saw her face… . Oh, well! Mrs. Sandford warned m_gainst her; the woman herself has warned me; the primal instinct of self- preservation has warned me; yet, here I am! I had not intended to bother you, Dan."
"It doesn't bother me, it worries me. If I have hurt you with any of m_areless jests, forgive me." Merrihew now realized that his friend was in _ad way. Still, there was a hidden gladness in his heart that Hillard, alway_ailing at his (Merrihew's) affairs, was in the same boat now, and rudderles_t that.
"You haven't hurt me, Dan. As a matter of fact, your gibes have been a tonic.
They have made me face the fact that I was on the highroad to imbecility."
"What shall you do?"
"Nothing. When we have seen Florence we'll drop down to Perugia and Rome, the_p to the Italian lakes; after that, home, if you say. The bass season will b_n then, and we've had some good sport on Lake Ontario."
"Bass!" Merrihew went through the pleasant foolery of casting a line, o_rawing the bait, of lifting the hook, and of reeling in. "Four pounds, Jack.
He fit hard, as old Joe used to say. Remember?"
And so naturally they fell to recounting the splendid catches of the gamies_ish in water. When the interest in this waned, Hillard looked at his watch.
"Only nine," he said. "Let's go over to Gambrinus' and hear the music."
"And drink a boot of beer. Better than moping here."
The Hotel Italie was but a few blocks from the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. The_ound the _Halle_ crowded, noisy and interesting. The music was good, as i_lways is in Italy, and the beer had the true German flavor, Münchener.
Handsome uniforms brightened the scene; and there was flirting and laughter, in which Merrihew found opportunity to join.
"If Kitty should see you!"
"Well, what if she did? When I'm married to her it will be mutually understoo_hat so long as I do not speak to them I may look at pretty women."
"You seem very sure of marrying her."
"It's only a matter of time. The man who hangs on wins finally." Merrihew ha_ost none of his confidence.
"I see; they marry you to get rid of you," said Hillard. "Yes, the man wh_angs on finally wins, in love or war or fortune. But I haven't anything t_ang on to."
"Who knows?" said Merrihew, wagging his head.
From the _Halle_ they went down-stairs to the billiard-room. The pockets i_he table bothered Merrihew; he did not care particularly for the Englis_ame; and the American table was occupied by a quartet of young Americans wh_ere drinking champagne like Pittsburg millionaires. The ventilation was s_ad that the two friends were forced to give up the game. Under the arcad_hey found a small table. It was cool and delightful here, and there was _econd boot of Munich beer.
Officers passed to and fro, in pairs or with women. Presently two officers, one in the resplendent uniform of a colonel, went past. Merrihew touche_illard with his foot excitedly. Hillard nodded, but his pulse was tuned to _uicker stroke.
"I hope he doesn't see us," he said, tipping his panama over his eyes.
Merrihew curled the ends of his juvenile mustache and scowled fiercely.
"This is his post evidently," he said. "What a smacking uniform! He must hav_ad a long furlough, to be wandering over Europe and America. If I get _hance I'm going to ask a waiter who he is."
"So long as he doesn't observe us," said Hillard, "I have no interest in hi_ffairs." Had he none? he wondered. "A lady? Grace of Mary, that is droll!"
The muscles in his jaws hardened.
"But you twisted his cuffs for him that night in Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo!"
reminiscently. "Eighteen hundred dollars, my boy, and a good fourteen still i_y inside pocket. Wasn't I lucky? But I'll never forgive Kitty for runnin_way from us. That's got to be explained fully some day."
"He is coming this way again, Dan," Hillard observed quietly.
They waited. Hillard changed his mind; he pushed back his hat and held up hi_hin. If the man with the scar saw him and spoke he would reply. The colonel, glancing at the pair casually, halted. At first he was not certain, but as h_et the steady eyes of Hillard he no longer doubted. It was true. He turne_nd spoke to his brother officer. Merrihew's throat grew full, but not fro_ear. The man with the scar stepped over to the table and leaned with hi_ands upon it. There was a savage humor in his dark eyes.
"Did I not tell you that we should meet again?" he said to Hillard. "This is _leasant moment." He stood back again.
"Are you speaking to me?" asked Hillard, not the least perturbed. He had no_tirred in his chair, though every muscle in his body was alert and ready at _oment's call.
"Certainly I am speaking to you. You understand Italian sufficiently well.
This is the fellow," speaking to his companion, at the same time drawing of_is gloves, "this is the fellow I spoke to you about."
"I object to the word fellow," said Hillard, smiling grimly. "Besides, I d_ot know you."
"Ah, discreet!" sneered the man with the scar.
"Be careful, Enrico," warned the brother officer. "There are many about, and _cene is not wise. Ask the American to take a walk. You could arrange wit_ore ease."
"Thank you," said Hillard, "but I am perfectly comfortable where I am. If thi_entleman has anything to say, he must say it here and now."
"Colonel!" cried the subaltern, as his senior smoothed the gloves and place_hem carefully in his left hand, closing his fingers over them.
"Oh, I am calm. But I have been dreaming of this moment. Now!" The colone_eaddressed Hillard. "You meddled with an affair that night in which you ha_o concern," he began truculently.
"Are you quite sure?"
Merrihew eyed Hillard nervously. He did not understand the words, worse luck, but the tone conveyed volumes. It was crisp and angry. Hillard possessed _emper which was backed by considerable strength, and only on rare occasion_id this temper slip from his control. Thoroughly angry, Hillard was not _appy man to antagonize.
"Yes, I am sure. And yet, as I think it over, as I recollect the woman," wen_n the colonel, with a smile which was evil and insinuating… . "Well, I shal_ot question you. The main thing is, you annoyed me. In Monte Carlo I wa_ractically alone. Here the scene is different; it is Florence. Doubtless yo_ill understand." He struck out with the gloves.
But they never touched Hillard's face. His hand, expectant of this ver_ovement, caught the assailant's wrist, and, with a quick jerk, brought hi_alf-way across the table. He bore down on the wrist so fiercely that th_talian cried faintly. Hillard, with his face but a span from the other's, spoke tensely, but in an undertone.
"Listen carefully to what I have to say, signore. I understand perfectly, bu_ shall fight no duel. It is an obsolete fashion, and proves nothing bu_echanical skill. I do not know what kind of blackguard you are, bu_lackguard I know you to be. If you ever address me again I promise on th_ord of a gentleman to give you a whipping which will have a more lastin_ffect upon your future actions than a dozen sermons. If that will not serve, I shall appeal to the police."
"As often as you please!" Hillard flung him off roughly.
A small but interested crowd had gathered by now, and Merrihew saw visions o_talian jails. Through the crowd the ever-present _carabinieri_ shouldere_heir way.
"It is nothing," said the colonel, motioning them to stand back, which the_id with a sign of respect. This sign gave Hillard some food for thought. Hi_ntagonist was evidently a personage of some importance.
"Figure of an American pig!"
Hillard laughed. "I might have broken your wrist, but did not. You are no_rateful."
The _carabinieri_ moved forward again.
"The affair is over," said Hillard amiably. "This officer has mistaken me fo_ome one he knows."
The scar was livid on the Italian's cheek. He stood undecided for a space. Hi_ompanion laid a restraining hand on his arm. He nodded, and the two made off.
What might in former days have been a tragedy was nothing more than a farce.
But it spoiled the night for Merrihew, and he was for going back to the hotel.
"At first I wanted you to give him a good stiff punch," said Merrihew, "but _m glad you didn't."
"We should have slept in the lockup over night if I had. The _carabinieri_ould not have understood my excuses. If our friend is left-handed, he'll b_nconvenienced for a day or two. I put some force into that grip. You see, Dan, the Italian still fights his duels. Dueling is not extinct in the arm_ere. An officer who refuses to accept a challenge for a good or bad cause i_ractically hounded out of the service. It would have been a fine joke if _ad been fool enough to accept his challenge. He would have put dayligh_hrough me at the first stroke."
"I don't know about that," replied Merrihew loyally. "You are the crack fence_n New York."
"But New York isn't Florence, my boy. I'll show you some fencing to-morrow. I_y old fencing master, Foresti Paoli, is yet in Florence, I'll have hi_rrange some matches. New York affairs will look tame to you then."
"But what has he to do with your vanishing lady?"
"I should like to know."
"I wish I had thought to ask a waiter who the duffer is. Did you notice ho_espectful the _carabinieri_ were?"
"It set me thinking. Oh, I've a premonition that we haven't seen the last o_his distinguished gentleman. Perhaps we'll find out who he is sooner than w_are to."
"When the time comes," said Merrihew with a laugh, "be sure you soak it t_im, and an extra one for me."
Early on the morrow they rode out to the Cascine, formerly a dairy-farm, bu_ow a splendid park. The bridle-paths are the finest in the world, no_xcepting those in the Bois de Bologne in Paris. They are not so long, perhaps, but they are infinitely more beautiful. Take, for instance, the lon_ath under a tunnel of enormous trees, a bridle-path where ten men may rid_breast with room to spare, and nearly half a mile in length; there is nothin_ike it.
"I tell you what it is, Jack; Italy may put a tax on salt and sea-water, bu_lways gives something in return; she puts up a picture-gallery or a museum, or a park like this. What do we get back in America? _Niente!_ "
For two hours they romped through the park, running races, hurdling, an_laying rough pranks upon each other, such as only expert riders dare attempt.
They were both hardened by the long ride down to Florence, a pair of animal_s healthy as their mounts. They had determined not to sell the horses til_he last moment. A riding-master in the Via Lorenzo ii Magnifico agreed t_oard them against the time of sale.
In the three days in Florence they had been through the galleries and th_useums; and Merrihew, to his great delight, began to find that he could tel_ Botticelli from a Lippi at first glance. He was beginning to understand wh_eople raved over this style or that. There was something so gentle, s_eaceful in a Botticelli that he really preferred it to some of the fame_olorists, always excepting Veronese, to whom he had given his firs_dmiration.
For luncheon this day Hillard took him to Paoli's in the Via dei Tavolini—th_ay of the little tables. Here Merrihew saw a tavern such as he had ofte_onjured up while reading his Dumas; sausages and hams and bacons and garli_nd cheeses and dried vegetables hanging from the ceiling, abrupt passages, rough tables and common chairs and strange dishes; oil, oil, oil, even on th_op of his coffee-cup, and magnums of red and white Chianti. Hillard informe_im that this was the most famous Bohemian place in the city, the rendezvou_f artists, sculptors, writers, physicians, and civil authorities. Th_ilitary seldom patronized it, because it was not showy enough. Merrihe_njoyed the scene, with its jabber-jabber and its clatter-clatter. And he wa_till hungry when he left, but he would not admit it to Hillard, who adapte_imself to the over-abundance of oil with all the zest of an expatriate_uscan.
At three o'clock they went to the fencing academy of Foresti Paoli, near th_ost-office. Foresti was a fine example of the military Italian of forme_ays. He was past sixty, but was as agile as any of his celebrated pupils. A_illard had written him the night before, he was expected. He had been a pupi_f Foresti's, and the veteran was glad to see him. Merrihew saw som_nteresting bouts, and at length Foresti prevailed upon Hillard to don th_ask against an old pupil, a physician who had formerly been amateur champio_f Italy. Hillard, having been in the saddle and the open air for two weeks, was in prime condition; and he gave the ex-champion a pretty handful. Bu_onstant practice told in the end, and Hillard was beaten. It was fine spor_o Merrihew; the quick pad-pad of the feet on the mat, the short triumphan_ries as the foil bent almost double, and the flash of the whites of thei_yes behind the mask. Merrihew knew that he should love Florence all the res_f his days.
They were entering the Via Tornabuoni, toward the Havana cigar-store, when _oung woman came out of the little millinery shop a few doors from th_obacconist's. Immediately Hillard stepped to one side of her and Merrihew t_he other.
"You can not run away this time, Kitty Killigrew!" cried Merrihew joyously.
Kitty closed her eyes for a second, and the neat little bandbox slipped to th_idewalk.