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."
"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?"
"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?"
"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?"
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.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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!"