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Chapter 23 THE DÉNOUEMENT

  • The morning sun poured over the hills, throwing huge shadows in the gorg_elow. The stream, swollen by the heavy rains of the past night, foamed an_narled along its ragged bed. The air was fresh and cool, and the statel_ypresses took on a deeper shade of green. Lizards scampered over the dam_tones about the porter's lodge or sought the patches of golden sunshine, an_nsects busied themselves with the daily harvest. O'Mally sniffed. As the win_eered intermittently there came to him the perfume of the locust trees, no_n full bloom, the flowers of which resembled miniature cascades hanging i_id-air. Pietro rocked, his legs crossed, his face blurred in the driftin_obacco smoke.
  • "No more tourists, Pietro."
  • "No." Pietro sighed, a ruminating light in his faded eyes.
  • "Did you ever see La Signorina before? Do you know anything about her?"
  • "Never! No!" answered Pietro, with the perfect candor of an accomplished liar.
  • "Have you ever seen her Highness?"
  • "When she so," indicating a height about two feet from the ground.
  • "You said that you had never seen her."
  • "Meestake."
  • "How old would she be?"
  • Pietro wrinkled his brow, "Oh,  _quaranta, cinquanta_ ; fifty-forty. Wh_nows?"
  • "Fifty! How old are you?" suspiciously.
  • " _Settanta_ ; seventy."
  • "Well, you look it. But why hasn't the princess ever been here, when it's s_eautiful?"
  • "Woman."
  • "What woman?"
  • "La Principessa. Many villas, much money."
  • O'Mally kicked at one of the lizards. "I thought she might be young."
  • "No. But La Signorina-bah! they ar-r-r-rest her.  _Patienza!_ "
  • "You think so?"
  • "Wait."
  • "But her friend the princess will come to her assistance."
  • Pietro laughed scornfully, which showed that he had some doubts.
  • "But you won't betray her?"
  • "Never!" puffing quickly.
  • "It's a bad business," admitted O'Mally. This old rascal of a gardener was a_ard to pump as a frozen well.
  • Pietro agreed that it was a bad business. "Eenspector, he come to-day, _domani_ —to-morrow. He come nex' day; watch, watch!" Pietro elevated hi_houlders slowly and dropped them sharply. "All ar-r-r-rest!"
  • "You think so?"
  • " _Si._ "
  • "But you wouldn't betray her for money, Pietro?"
  • "No!" energetically.
  • Pietro might be loyal; still, O'Mally had some shadow of doubt.
  • "La Signorina is very beautiful," irrelevantly. "Ah!" with a gesture towar_he heavens. "And if she isn't a princess, she ought to be one," slyly.
  • " _Zitto!_  She come!" Pietro got up with alacrity, pocketing his pipe, careful that the bowl was right side up.
  • She was as daintily fresh in her pink frock as a spring tulip; a frock, thought O'Mally, that would have passed successfully in any ball-room. She wa_s beautiful as the moon, and to this bit of Persian O'Mally added, consciou_f a deep intake of breath, the stars and the farther worlds and the rose_lose at hand. Her eyes were shining, but her color was thin. O'Mally, for al_is buffoonery, was a keen one to read a face. She was highly strung. Wher_ould they all land finally?
  • "I have been looking for you, Mr. O'Mally," she said.
  • "At your Highness' command!"
  • Pietro, hearing this title, looked from one to the other suspiciously.
  • "I have just received a telegram from her Highness."
  • An expression of relief flitted over Pietro's withered countenance.
  • "It wasn't necessary," said O'Mally gallantly.
  • "But I wish you to read it. I know that you will cease to dream of dungeon_nd shackles." There was a bit of a laugh in her voice. It was reassuring.
  • "All right." O'Mally accepted the yellow sheet which the government folds an_astes economically. There were fifty words or more. "I can make out a word o_wo," he said; "it's in Italian. Will you read it for me?"
  • "I forgot," apologetically.
  • Briefly, La Principessa di Monte Bianca gave Sonia Hilda Grosvenor ful_uthority to act as her proxy in giving the ball; that in case of an_ifficulty with the civil authorities to wire her at once and she would come.
  • As for the invitation, she knew absolutely nothing about it.
  • This last statement rather staggered the erstwhile concierge. If the princes_adn't issued the invitation, who the deuce had? "This leaves me confused, bu_t improves the scenery a whole lot. But who, then, has done this thing?"
  • "To solve that we must look nearer home."
  • "Have you any idea who did it?" he inquired anxiously.
  • "No."
  • "Have you another invitation?"
  • "I tore up the only one."
  • "That's too bad. A stationer's imprint might have helped us."
  • "I was angry and did not think. To-morrow a dozen temporary servants will b_dded to the household. We shall be very busy."
  • "Before and after," said O'Mally dryly. He wondered what she on her part ha_elegraphed the real princess. It was all very mystifying.
  • "Listen!" she said.
  • "Horses," declared O'Mally.
  • "Two," said Pietro, with a hand to his ear.
  • La Signorina's color deepened.
  • "Our friends," laughed O'Mally; "come up to see if we are still out of jail."
  • The dreamy, pleasurable days at the Villa Ariadne were no more. The spirit o_uspicion, of unrest, of doubt now stalked abroad, peering from veiled eyes, hovering on lips. And there was a coming and going of menials, a to-and-froin_f extra gardeners and carpenters, and the sound of many hammers. The ball- room and the dining-room were opened and aired, the beautiful floors polished, and the dust and cobwebs of twenty years were vanquished.
  • In Florence there was a deal of excitement over the coming affair, for th_illa Ariadne had once been the scene of many a splendid entertainment. Me_hatted about it in their cafés and the women chattered about it in thei_oudoirs. And there was here and there a mysterious smile, a knowing look, _hrug. There had always been a mystery regarding the Principessa di Mont_ianca; many doubted her actual existence. But the prince was known all ove_urope as a handsome spendthrift. And the fact that at this precise moment h_as quartered with the eighth corps in Florence added largely to the zest o_peculation. Oh, the nobility and the military, which are one and the sam_hing, would be present at the ball; they were altogether too inquisitive t_ecline.
  • Daily the inspector of seals made his solemn round, poking into the forbidde_hambers, into the lofts, into the cellars. He scrutinized every chest an_loset with all the provocative slowness of a physiologist viewing under th_icroscope the corpuscles of some unhappy frog. The information he ha_eceived from Rome had evidently quieted his larger doubts; but these people, from the princess down to the impossible concierge, were a new species to him, well worth watching. An American princess; this accounted for much. He ha_ven looked up the two Americans who rode up from Florence every day; but h_ound that they were outside the pale of his suspicions; one of them was _illionaire, known to the Italian ambassador in the United States; so h_ismissed them as negligible quantities. He had some pretty conflicts wit_ietro; but Pietro was also a Tuscan, which explains why the inspector neve_btained any usable information from this quarter.
  • Hillard and Merrihew eyed these noisy preparations broodingly. To the one i_as a damper to his rosal romance; to the other it was the beginning of th_nd: this woman, so brilliant, so charming, so lovely and human, could neve_e his. Well, indeed, he understood now why Mrs. Sandford had warned him; h_nderstood now what the great mistake was. Had fate sent her under his windo_nly for this? Bitterness charged his heart and often passed his lips. An_his other man, who, what, and where was he all this time?
  • He was always at her heels now, saving her a care here, doing a service there, but speaking no more of his love. She understood and was grateful. Once sh_lucked a young rose and gave it to him, and he was sure that her hand touche_is with pity, though she would not meet his eyes. And so Merrihew found bu_ittle difficulty in picking up the thread of his romance.
  • As for O'Mally, he spent most of his leisure studying time-tables.
  • At four o'clock on the afternoon of the day before the ball, now that th_oise had subsided and the servants were in their quarters, La Signorina wen_nto the gardens alone. An hour earlier she had seen Hillard mount and rid_way, the last time but once. There seemed to bear down upon her tha_ppression which one experiences in a nightmare, of being able to fly so high, to run madly and yet to move slowly, always pursued by terror. Strive as sh_ould, she could not throw off this sense. After all, it was a nightmare, fro_he day she landed in New York up to this very moment. But how to wake?
  • Verily, she was mad. Would any sane person do what she had done and was ye_bout to do? She might have lived quietly and peacefully till the end of he_ays. But no! And all her vows were like dried reeds in a tempest, broken an_eaten. Even now there was a single avenue of escape, but she knew that sh_ould not profit by it and leave these unfortunate derelicts to shift fo_hemselves. It was not fair that they should be made to suffer for her ma_aprices. She must play it out boldly to the final line, come evil or not… .
  • Love! She laughed brokenly and struck her hands in suppressed fury. A fittin_limax, this! All the world was mad and she was the maddest in it.
  • Some one was coming along the path. She wheeled impatiently. She wanted to b_lone. And of all men Worth was not the one she cared to see. But the sight o_is pale face and set jaws stayed the words she was inclined to speak. Sh_aited restlessly.
  • "I realize that my presence may be distasteful to you," he began, not withou_ome minor agitation. It was the first time in days that he had stood so nea_o her or had spoken while alone with her. "But I have something to say to yo_pon which your future welfare largely depends."
  • "I believed that we had settled that."
  • "I am not making any declaration of love, madame," he said.
  • "I am listening." This prelude did not strike her favorably.
  • "There has been a tremendous wonder, as I understand, about this ball."
  • "In what way?" guardedly.
  • "In regard to the strange manner in which the invitations were issued."
  • "Have you found out who did it?" she demanded.
  • "Yes." The light in his eyes was feverish despite the pallor of his face.
  • "Who was it?" fiercely. Oh, but she would have revenge for this miserabl_est!
  • "I issued those invitations—with a definite purpose."
  • "You?" Her eyes grew wide and her lips parted.
  • "I!" a set defiance in his tone.
  • "It is you who have done this thing?"
  • "Yes. I am the guilty man. I did the work well, considering the difficulties.
  • The list was the main obstacle, but I overcame that. I represented myself a_ecretary to her Highness, which, when all is said, was the very thing agree_pon in Venice. I am the guilty man;" but he spoke like a man who was enjoyin_ triumph.
  • "And you have the effrontery to confess your crime to me?" her fury blazin_orth.
  • "Call it what you please, the fact remains."
  • "What purpose had you in mind when you did this cowardly thing? And I ha_rusted you and treated you as an equal! And so it was you who perpetrate_his forgery, this miserable jest?"
  • "Forgery, yes; jest, no." Her anger did not alarm him; he had gone too far t_e alarmed at anything.
  • "Why did you do it?"
  • "I did it as a man who has but a single throw left. One chance in a thousand; I took that chance and won."
  • "I do not understand you at all." She was tired.
  • "As I said, I had a definite purpose. An imposture like this is a priso_ffense. I asked you to marry me. I do so again."
  • "You are hiding a threat!" The mental chaos cleared and left her thought kee_nd cold.
  • "I shall hide it no longer. Marry me, or I shall disclose the imposture to th_olice."
  • "Oh!" She shot him a glance, insolent and piercing. Then she laughed, bu_either hysterically nor mirthfully. It was the laughter of one in deadl_nger. "I had believed you to be a man of some reason, Mr. Worth. Do yo_uppose, even had I entertained some sentiment toward you, that it woul_urvive a circumstance like this?"
  • "I am waiting for your answer."
  • "You shall have it. Why, this is scarcely on the level with cheap melodrama.
  • Threats? How short-sighted you have been! Did you dream that any woman coul_e won in this absurd fashion? You thought nothing of your companions, either, or the trouble you were bringing about their heads."
  • "Yes or no?" His voice was not so full of assurance as it had been.
  • "No!"
  • "Take care!" advancing.
  • "I am perfectly capable of taking care. And heed what I have to say to you, Mr. Worth. You will leave this villa at once; and if you do not go quietly, _hall order the servants to put you forth. That is my answer."
  • "You speak as though you were the princess," he snarled.
  • "Till Thursday morning I  _am_!" La Signorina replied proudly.
  • "I shall inform the police."
  • "Do so. Now, as there is nothing more to be said, be gone!"
  • He saw that he had thrown and lost; and a man who loses his last throw i_enerally desperate. Regardless of consequences, he seized her roughly in hi_rms. She struck him across the eyes with full strength, and she was n_eakling. He gasped in pain and released her.
  • "If I were a man," she said quietly, but with lightning in her eyes, "yo_hould die for that!" She left him.
  • Worth, a hundred varied emotions rocking him, stared after her till she was n_onger in sight. There were tears in his eyes and a ringing in his head. Fool!
  • To play this kind of game against that kind of woman! Fool, fool! He ha_ritten the end himself. It was all over. He went to his room, got togethe_is things, found a cart, and drove secretly into Florence.
  • On the night of the ball there was a brilliant moon. Rosy Chinese lantern_tretched from tree to tree. The little god in the fountain gleamed wit_ilver on one side and there was a glow as of life on the other. From the lon_asement windows, opened to the mild air of the night, came the murmur o_usic. The orchestra was playing Strauss, the dreamy waltzes from  _Th_ueen's Lace Handkerchief_. Bright uniforms and handsome gowns flashed by th_pened windows. Sometimes a vagrant puff of air would find its way in, an_uddenly the ball-room dimmed and the dancers moved like phantoms. The flame_f the candles would struggle and, with many a flicker, right themselves, an_he radiant colors and jewels would renew their luster.
  • O'Mally, half hidden behind a tree, wondered if he had not fallen asleep ove_ome tale by Scheherazade and was not dreaming this. But here was old Pietr_tanding close by. It was all real. At odd whiles he had a vision of Kitty i_er simple white dress, of Merrihew's flushed face, of Hillard's frownin_allor, of La Signorina wholly in black, a rare necklace round her whit_hroat, a star of emeralds in her hair, her face calm and serene. Where woul_hey all be on the morrow?
  • "Pietro, she is more than beautiful!" sighed O'Mally.
  • "But wait," said Pietro. He alone among the men knew the cause of Worth'_isappearance. "Trouble."
  • Leaning against the door which gave entrance to the ball-room from the hal_ere two officers, negligently interested in the moving picture. "What do yo_ake of it?" asked one.
  • "Body of Bacchus, you have me there!"
  • "Shall we go?"
  • "No, no! The prince himself will be here at eleven. He was, singularly enough, not invited; and knowing the story as I do, I am curious to witness the scene.
  • The women are already picking her to pieces. To give a ball in this hurrie_anner, without ladies in attendance! These Americans! But she  _is_eautiful," with evident reluctance.
  • Hillard, peering gloomily over their shoulders, overheard. The prince! Oh, this must not be. There could be only one prince in a matter of this kind. H_ushed by the Italians without apology for his rudeness, edged around th_all-room till he reached La Signorina's side. He must save her at al_azards.
  • "A word," he whispered in German.
  • "What is it?" she asked in the same tongue.
  • "The prince himself will be here at eleven."
  • "What prince?"
  • "Di Monte Bianca. Come, there is no time to lose. I have been holding m_arriage ready ever since I came. Come."
  • "Thank you, but it is too late." She smiled, but it was a tired and lonel_ittle smile. "Wait near me, but fear nothing." She had long since armed he_erves against this moment.
  • "But—"
  • "Enough! Leave everything to me."
  • "In God's name, who and what are you that you show no alarm when such dange_hreatens?"
  • "I have told you to wait," she answered.
  • He stepped back, beaten, discouraged. He would wait, and woe to any wh_ouched her!
  • At precisely eleven the music ceased for intermission. There was a lull. Tw_carabinieri_  pushed their way into the ball-room. Tableau.
  • "Which among you is called the Principessa di Monte Bianca?" was aske_uthoritatively.
  • "I am she," said La Signorina, stepping forth.
  • The  _carabinieri_  crossed quickly to her side.
  • "What do you wish?" she asked distinctly.
  • "You are under arrest for imposture. You are not the Principessa di Mont_ianca; you are known as La Signorina, a singer."
  • Hillard, wild with despair, made as though to intervene.
  • "Remain where you are!" he was warned.
  • As the  _carabinieri_  were about to lay hands upon La Signorina, a loud voic_rom the hall stopped them.
  • "One moment!" An officer in riding breeches and dusty boots entered an_pproached the dramatic group. Hillard and Merrihew recognized him instantly.
  • It was the man with the scar. "What is the trouble?"
  • "This woman," explained one of the  _carabinieri_ , saluting respectfully, "i_osing as your wife, Highness. We are here to arrest her."
  • "Do not touch her!" said the prince. "She has the most perfect right in th_orld to do what she has done. She  _is_  the Principessa di Monte Bianca, m_ife!"