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   Chapter 29 No.29

Don Orsino By F. Marion Crawford Characters: 28567

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Orsino was free at last. The whole matter was incomprehensible to him, and almost mysterious, so that after he had at last received his legal release he spent his time in trying to discover the motives of Del Ferice's conduct. The simplest explanation seemed to be that Ugo had not derived as much profit from the last contract as he had hoped for, though it had been enough to justify him in keeping his informal engagement with Contini and Company, and that he feared a new and unfavourable change in business which made any further speculations of the kind dangerous. For some time Orsino believed this to have been the case, but events proved that he was mistaken. He dissolved his partnership with Contini, but Andrea Contini and Company still continued to exist. The new partner was no less a personage than Del Ferice himself, who was constantly represented in the firm by the confidential clerk who has been more than once mentioned in this history, and who was a friend of Contini's. What terms Contini made for himself, Orsino never knew, but it is certain that the architect prospered from that time and is still prosperous.

Late in the spring of that year 1890 Roman society was considerably surprised by the news of a most unexpected marriage. The engagement had been carefully kept a secret, the banns had been published in Palermo, the civil and religious ceremonies had taken place there, and the happy couple had already reached Paris before either of them thought of informing their friends and before any notice of the event appeared in the papers. Even then, society felt itself aggrieved by the laconic form in which the information was communicated.

The statement, indeed, left nothing to be desired on the score of plainness or conciseness of style. Count Del Ferice had married Maria Consuelo d'Aranjuez d'Aragona.

Two persons only received the intelligence a few days before it was generally made known. One was Orsino and the other was Spicca. The letters were characteristic and may be worth reproducing.

"MY FATHER" (Maria Consuelo wrote)-"I am married to Count Del

Ferice, with whom I think that you are acquainted. There is no

reason why I should enter into any explanation of my reasons for

taking this step. There are plenty which everybody can see. My

husband's present position and great wealth make him what the world

calls a good match, and my fortune places me above the suspicion of

having married him for his money. If his birth was not originally

of the highest, it was at least as good as mine, and society will

say that the marriage was appropriate in all its circumstances. You

are aware that I could not be married without informing my husband

and the municipal authorities of my parentage, by presenting copies

of the registers in Nice. Count Del Ferice was good enough to

overlook some little peculiarity in the relation between the dates

of my birth and your marriage. We will therefore say no more about

the matter. The object of this letter is to let you know that those

facts have been communicated to several persons, as a matter of

necessity. I do not expect you to congratulate me. I congratulate

myself, however, with all my heart. Within two years I have freed

myself from my worthy mother, I have placed myself beyond your

power to injure me, and I have escaped ruining a man I loved by

marrying him. I have laid the foundations of peace if not of

happiness.

"The Princess is very ill but hopes to reach Normandy before the

summer begins. My husband will be obliged to be often in Rome but

will come to me from time to time, as I cannot leave the Princess

at present. She is trying, however, to select among her

acquaintance another lady in waiting-the more willingly as she is

not pleased with my marriage. Is that a satisfaction to you? I

expect to spend the winter in Rome.

"MARIA CONSUELO DEL FERICE."

This was the letter by which Maria Consuelo announced her marriage to the father whom she so sincerely hated. For cruelty of language and expression it was not to be compared with the one she had written to him after parting with Orsino. But had she known how the news she now conveyed would affect the old man who was to learn it, her heart might have softened a little towards him, even after all she had suffered. Very different were the lines Orsino received from her at the same time.

"My dear Friend-When you read this letter, which I write on the

eve of my marriage, but shall not send till some days have passed,

you must think of me as the wife of Ugo Del Ferice. To-night, I am

still Maria Consuelo. I have something to say to you, and you must

read it patiently, for I shall never say it again-and after all,

it will not be much. Is it right of me to say it? I do not know.

Until to-morrow I have still time to refuse to be married.

Therefore I am still a free agent, and entitled to think freely.

After to-morrow it will be different.

"I wish, dear, that I could tell you all the truth. Perhaps you

would not be ashamed of having loved the daughter of Lucrezia

Ferris. But I cannot tell you all. There are reasons why you had

better never know it. But I will tell you this, for I must say it

once. I love you very dearly. I loved you long ago, I loved you

when I left you in Rome, I have loved you ever since, and I am

afraid that I shall love you until I die.

"It is not foolish of me to write the words, though it may be

wrong. If I love you, it is because I know you. We shall meet

before long, and then meet, perhaps, hundreds of times, and more,

for I am to live in Rome. I know that you will be all you should

be, or I would not speak now as I never spoke before, at the moment

when I am raising an impassable barrier between us by my own free

will. If you ever loved me-and you did-you will respect that

barrier in deed and word, and even in thought. You will remember

only that I loved you with all my heart on the day before my

marriage. You will forget even to think that I may love you still

to-morrow, and think tenderly of you on the day after that.

"You are free now, dear, and can begin your real life. How do I

know it? Del Ferice has told me that he has released you-for we

sometimes speak of you. He has even shown me a copy of the legal

act of release, which he chanced to find among the papers he had

brought. An accident, perhaps. Or, perhaps he knows that I loved

you. I do not care-I had a right to, then.

"So you are quite free. I like to think that you have come out of

all your troubles quite unscathed, young, your name untarnished,

your hands clean. I am glad that you answered the letter I wrote to

you from Egypt and told me all, and wrote so often afterwards. I

could not do much beyond give you my sympathy, and I gave it

all-to the uttermost. You will not need any more of it. You are

free now, thank God!

"If you think of me, wish me peace, dear-I do not ask for anything

nearer to happiness than that. But I wish you many things, the

least of which should make you happy. Most of all, I wish that you

may some day love well and truly, and win the reality of which you

once thought you held the shadow. Can I say more than that? No

loving woman can.

"And so, good-bye-good-bye, love of all my life, good-bye dear,

dear Orsino-I think this is the hardest good-bye of all-when we

are to meet so soon. I cannot write any more. Once again, the

last-the very last time, for ever-I love you.

"MARIA CONSUELO."

A strange sensation came over Orsino as he read this letter. He was not able at first to realise much beyond the fact that Maria Consuelo was actually married to Del Ferice-a match than which none imaginable could have been more unexpected. But he felt that there was more behind the facts than he was able to grasp, almost more than he dared to guess at. A mysterious horror filled his mind as he read and reread the lines. There was no doubting the sincerity of what she said. He doubted the survival of his own love much more. She could have no reason whatever for writing as she did, on the eve of her marriage, no reason beyond the irresistible desire to speak out all her heart once only and for the last time. Again and again he went over the passages which struck him as most strange. Then the truth flashed upon him. Maria Consuelo had sold herself to free him from his difficulties, to save him from the terrible alternatives of either wasting his life as Del Ferice's slave or of ruining his family.

With a smothered exclamation, between an oath and a groan of pain, Orsino threw himself upon the divan and buried his face in his hands. It is kinder to leave him there for a time, alone.

Poor Spicca broke down under this last blow. In vain old Santi got out the cordial from the press in the corner, and did his best to bring his master back to his natural self. In vain Spicca roused himself, forced himself to eat, went out, walked his hour, dragging his feet after him, and attempted to exchange a word with his friends at the club. He seemed to have got his death wound. His head sank lower on his breast, his long emaciated frame stooped more and more, the thin hands grew daily more colourless, and the deathly face daily more deathly pale. Days passed away, and weeks, and it was early June. He no longer tried to go out. Santi tried to prevail upon him to take a little air in a cab, on the Via Appia. It would be money well spent, he said, apologising for suggesting such extravagance. Spicca shook his head, and kept to his chair by the open window. Then, on a certain morning, he was worse and had not the strength to rise from his bed.

On that very morning a telegram came. He looked at it as though hardly understanding what he should do, as Santi held it before him. Then he opened it. His fingers did not tremble even now. The iron nerve of the great swordsman survived still.

"Ventnor-Rome. Count Spicca. The Princess is dead. I know the truth at last. God forgive me and bless you. I come to you at once.-Maria Consuelo."

Spicca read the few words printed on the white strip that was pasted to the yellow paper. Then his hands sank to his sides and he closed his eyes. Santi thought it was the end, and burst into tears as he fell to his knees by the bed.

Half an hour passed. Then Spicca raised his head, and made a gesture with his hand.

"Do not be a fool, Santi, I am not dead yet," he said, with kindly impatience. "Get up and send for Don Orsino Saracinesca, if he is still in Rome."

Santi left the room, drying his eyes and uttering incoherent exclamations of astonishment mingled with a singular cross fire of praise and prayer directed to the Saints and of imprecations upon himself for his own stupidity.

Before noon Orsino appeared. He was gaunt and pale, and more like San Giacinto than ever. There was a settled hardness in his face which was never again to disappear permanently. But he was horror-struck by Spicca's appearance. He had no idea that a man already so cadaverous could still change as the old man had changed. Spicca seemed little more than a grey shadow barely resting upon the white bed. He put the telegram into Orsino's hands. The young man read it twice and his face expressed his astonishment. Spicca smiled faintly, as he watched him.

"What does it mean?" asked Orsino. "Of what truth does she speak? She hated you, and now, all at once, she loves you. I do not understand."

"How should you?" The old man spoke in a clear, thin voice, very unlike his own. "You could not understand. But before I die, I will tell you."

"Do not talk of dying-"

"No. It is not necessary. I realise it enough, and you need not realise it at all. I have not much to tell you, but a little truth will sometimes destroy many falsehoods. You remember the story about Lucrezia Ferris? Maria Consuelo wrote it to you."

"Remember it! Could I forget it?"

"You may as well. There is not a word of truth in it. Lucrezia Ferris is not her mother."

"Not her mother!"

"No. I only wonder how you could ever have believed that a Piedmontese nurse could be the mother of Maria Consuelo. Nor am I Maria Consuelo's father. Perhaps that will not surprise you so much. She does not resemble me, thank Heaven!"

"What is she then? Who is she?" asked Orsino impatiently.

"To tell you that I must tell you the story. When I was young-very long before you were born-I travelled much, and I was well received. I was rich and of good family. At a certain court in Europe-I was at one time in the diplomacy-I loved a lady whom I could not have married, even had she been free. Her station was far above mine. She was also considerably older than I, and she paid very little attention to me, I confess. But I loved her. She is just dead. She was that princess mentioned in this telegram. Do you understand? Do you hear me? My voice is weak."

"Perfectly. Pray go on."

"Maria Consuelo is her grandchild-the granddaughter of the only woman I ever loved. Understand that, too. It happened in this way. My Princess had but one daughter, the Princess Marie, a mere child when I first saw her-not more than fourteen years old. We were all in Nice, one winter thirty years ago-some four years after I had first met the Princess. I travelled in order to see her, and she was always kind to me, though she did not love me. Perhaps I was useful, too, before that. People were always afraid of me, because I could handle the foils. It was thirty years ago, and the Princess Marie was eighteen. Poor child!"

Spicca paused a moment, and passed his transparent hand over his eyes.

"I think I understand," said Orsino.

"No you do not," answered Spicca, with unexpected sharpness. "You will not understand, until I have told you everything. The Princess Marie fell ill, or pretended to fall ill while we were at Nice. But she could not conceal the truth long-at least not from her mother. She had already taken into her confidence a little Piedmontese maid, scarcely older than herself-a certain Lucrezia Ferris-and she allowed no other woman to

come near her. Then she told her mother the truth. She loved a man of her own rank and not much older-not yet of age, in fact. Unfortunately, as happens with such people, a marriage was diplomatically impossible. He was not of her nationality and the relations were strained. But she had married him nevertheless, secretly and, as it turned out, without any legal formalities. It is questionable whether the marriage, even then, could have been proved to be valid, for she was a Catholic and he was not, and a Catholic priest had married them without proper authorisation or dispensation. But they were both in earnest, both young and both foolish. The husband-his name is of no importance-was very far away at the time we were in Nice, and was quite unable to come to her. She was about to be a mother and she turned to her own mother in her extremity, with a full confession of the truth."

"I see," said Orsino. "And you adopted-"

"You do not see yet. The Princess came to me for advice. The situation was an extremely delicate one from all points of view. To declare the marriage at that moment might have produced extraordinary complications, for the countries to which, the two young people belonged were on the verge of a war which was only retarded by the extraordinary genius of one man. To conceal it seemed equally dangerous, if not more so. The Princess Marie's reputation was at stake-the reputation of a young girl, as people supposed her to be, remember that. Various schemes suggested themselves. I cannot tell what would have been done, for fate decided the matter-tragically, as fate does. The young husband was killed while on a shooting expedition-at least so it was stated. I always believed that he shot himself. It was all very mysterious. We could not keep the news from the Princess Marie. That night Maria Consuelo was born. On the next day, her mother died. The shock had killed her. The secret was now known to the old Princess, to me, to Lucrezia Ferris and to the French doctor-a man of great skill and discretion. Maria Consuelo was the nameless orphan child of an unacknowledged marriage-of a marriage which was certainly not legal, and which the Church must hesitate to ratify. Again we saw that the complications, diplomatic and of other kinds, which would arise if the truth were published, would be enormous. The Prince himself was not yet in Nice and was quite ignorant of the true cause of his daughter's sudden death. But he would arrive in forty-eight hours, and it was necessary to decide upon some course. We could rely upon the doctor and upon our two selves-the Princess and I. Lucrezia Ferris seemed to be a sensible, quiet girl, and she certainly proved to be discreet for a long time. The Princess was distracted with grief and beside herself with anxiety. Remember that I loved her-that explains what I did. I proposed the plan which was carried out and with which you are acquainted. I took the child, declared it to be mine, and married Lucrezia. The only legal documents in existence concerning Maria Consuelo prove her to be my daughter. The priest who had married the poor Princess Marie could never be found. Terrified, perhaps, at what he had done, he disappeared-probably as a monk in an Austrian monastery. I hunted him for years. Lucrezia Ferris was discreet for two reasons. She received a large sum of money, and a large allowance afterwards, and later on it appears that she further enriched herself at Maria Consuelo's expense. Avarice was her chief fault, and by it we held her. Secondly, however, she was well aware, and knows to-day, that no one would believe her story if she told the truth. The proofs are all positive and legal for Maria Consuelo's supposed parentage, and there is not a trace of evidence in favour of the truth. You know the story now. I am glad I have been able to tell it to you. I will rest now, for I am very tired. If I am alive to-morrow, come and see me-good-bye, in case you should not find me."

Orsino pressed the wasted hand and went out silently, more affected than he owned by the dying man's words and looks. It was a painful story of well-meant mistakes, he thought, and it explained many things which he had not understood. Linking it with all he knew besides, he had the whole history of Spicca's mysterious, broken life, together with the explanation of some points in his own which had never been clear to him. The old cynic of a duellist had been a man of heart, after all, and had sacrificed his whole existence to keep a secret for a woman whom he loved but who did not care for him. That was all. She was dead and he was dying. The secret was already half buried in the past. If it were told now, no one would believe it.

Orsino returned on the following day. He had sent for news several times, and was told that Spicca still lingered. He saw him again but the old man seemed very weak and only spoke a few words during the hour Orsino spent with him. The doctor had said that he might possibly live, but that there was not much hope.

And again on the next day Orsino came back. He started as he entered the room. An old Franciscan, a Minorite, was by the bedside, speaking in low tones. Orsino made as though he would withdraw, but Spicca feebly beckoned to him to stay, and the monk rose.

"Good-bye," whispered Spicca, following him with his sunken eyes.

Orsino led the Franciscan out. At the outer door the latter turned to Orsino with a strange look and laid a hand upon his arm.

"Who are you, my son?" he asked.

"Orsino Saracinesca."

"A friend of his?"

"Yes."

"He has done terrible things in his long life. But he has done noble things, too, and has suffered much, and in silence. He has earned his rest, and God will forgive him."

The monk bowed his head and went out. Orsino re-entered the room and took the vacant chair beside the bed. He touched Spicca's hand almost affectionately, but the latter withdrew it with an effort. He had never liked sympathy, and liked it least when another would have needed it most. For a considerable time neither spoke. The pale hand lay peacefully upon the pillows, the long, shadowy frame was wrapped in a gown of dark woollen material.

"Do you think she will come to-day?" asked the old man at length.

"She may come to-day-I hope so," Orsino answered.

A long pause followed.

"I hope so, too," Spicca whispered. "I have not much strength left. I cannot wait much longer."

Again there was silence. Orsino knew that there was nothing to be said, nothing at least which he could say, to cheer the last hours of the lonely life. But Spicca seemed contented that he should sit there.

"Give me that photograph," he said, suddenly, a quarter of an hour later.

Orsino looked about him but could not see what Spicca wanted.

"Hers," said the feeble voice, "in the next room."

It was the photograph in the little chiselled frame-the same frame which had once excited Donna Tullia's scorn. Orsino brought it quickly from its place over the chimney-piece, and held it before his friend's eyes. Spicca gazed at it a long time in silence.

"Take it away," he said, at last. "It is not like her."

Orsino put it aside and sat down again. Presently Spicca turned a little on the pillow and looked at him.

"Do you remember that I once said I wished you might marry her?" he asked.

"Yes."

"It was quite true. You understand now? I could not tell you then."

"Yes. I understand everything now."

"But I am sorry I said it."

"Why?" "Perhaps it influenced you and has hurt your life. I am sorry. You must forgive me."

"For Heaven's sake, do not distress yourself about such trifles," said Orsino, earnestly. "There is nothing to forgive."

"Thank you."

Orsino looked at him, pondering on the peaceful ending of the strange life, and wondering what manner of heart and soul the man had really lived with. With the intuition which sometimes comes to dying persons, Spicca understood, though it was long before he spoke again. There was a faint touch of his old manner in his words.

"I am an awful example, Orsino," he said, with the ghost of a smile. "Do not imitate me. Do not sacrifice your life for the love of any woman. Try and appreciate sacrifices in others."

The smile died away again.

"And yet I am glad I did it," he added, a moment later. "Perhaps it was all a mistake-but I did my best."

"You did indeed," Orsino answered gravely.

He meant what he said, though he felt that it had indeed been all a mistake, as Spicca suggested. The young face was very thoughtful. Spicca little knew how hard his last cynicism hit the man beside him, for whose freedom and safety the woman of whom Spicca was thinking had sacrificed so very much. He would die without knowing that.

The door opened softly and a woman's light footstep was on the threshold. Maria Consuelo came silently and swiftly forward with outstretched hands that had clasped the dying man's almost before Orsino realised that it was she herself. She fell on her knees beside the bed and pressed the powerless cold fingers to her forehead.

Spicca started and for one moment raised his head from the pillow. It fell back almost instantly. A look of supreme happiness flashed over the deathly features, followed by an expression of pain.

"Why did you marry him?" he asked in tones so loud that Orsino started, and Maria Consuelo looked up with streaming eyes.

She did not answer, but tried to soothe him, rising and caressing his hand, and smoothing his pillows.

"Tell me why you married him!" he cried again. "I am dying-I must know!"

She bent down very low and whispered into his ear. He shook his head impatiently.

"Louder! I cannot hear! Louder!"

Again she whispered, more distinctly this time, and casting an imploring glance at Orsino, who was too much disturbed to understand.

"Louder!" gasped the dying man, struggling to sit up. "Louder! O my God! I shall die without hearing you-without knowing-"

It would have been inhuman to torture the departing soul any longer. Then Maria Consuelo made her last sacrifice. She spoke in calm, clear tones.

"I married to save the man I loved."

Spicca's expression changed. For fully twenty seconds his sunken eyes remained fixed, gazing into hers. Then the light began to flash in them for the last time, keen as the lightning.

"God have mercy on you! God reward you!" he cried.

The shadowy figure quivered throughout its length, was still, then quivered again, then sprang up suddenly with a leap, and Spicca was standing on the floor, clasping Maria Consuelo in his arms. All at once there was colour in his face and the fire grew bright in his glance.

"Oh, my darling, I have loved you so!" he cried.

He almost lifted her from the ground as he pressed his lips passionately upon her forehead. His long thin hands relaxed suddenly, and the light broke in his eyes as when a mirror is shivered by a blow. For an instant that seemed an age, he stood upright, dead already, and then fell back all his length across the bed with wide extended arms.

There was a short, sharp sob, and then a sound of passionate weeping filled the silent room. Strongly and tenderly Orsino laid his dead friend upon the couch as he had lain alive but two minutes earlier. He crossed the hands upon the breast and gently closed the staring eyes. He could not have had Maria Consuelo see him as he had fallen, when she next looked up.

A little later they stood side by side, gazing at the calm dead face, in a long silence. How long they stood, they never knew, for their hearts were very full. The sun was going down and the evening light filled the room.

"Did he tell you, before he died-about me?" asked Maria Consuelo in a low voice.

"Yes. He told me everything."

Maria Consuelo went forward and bent over the face and kissed the white forehead, and made the sign of the Cross upon it. Then she turned and took Orsino's hand in hers.

"I could not help your hearing what I said, Orsino. He was dying, you see. You know all, now."

Orsino's fingers pressed hers desperately. For a moment he could not speak. Then the agonised words came with a great effort, harshly but ringing from the heart.

"And I can give you nothing!"

He covered his face and turned away.

"Give me your friendship, dear-I never had your love," she said.

It was long before they talked together again.

This is what I know of young Orsino Saracinesca's life up to the present time. Maria Consuelo, Countess Del Ferice, was right. She never had his love as he had hers. Perhaps the power of loving so is not in him. He is, after all, more like San Giacinto than any other member of the family, cold, perhaps, and hard by nature. But these things which I have described have made a man of him at an age when many men are but boys, and he has learnt what many never learn at all-that there is more true devotion to be found in the world than most people will acknowledge. He may some day be heard of. He may some day fall under the great passion. Or he may never love at all and may never distinguish himself any more than his father has done. One or the other may happen, but not both, in all probability. The very greatest passion is rarely compatible with the very greatest success except in extraordinary good or bad natures. And Orsino Saracinesca is not extraordinary in any way. His character has been formed by the unusual circumstances in which he was placed when very young, rather than by anything like the self-development which we hear of in the lives of great men. From a somewhat foolish and affectedly cynical youth he has grown into a decidedly hard and cool-headed man. He is very much seen in society but talks little on the whole. If, hereafter, there should be anything in his life worth recording, another hand than mine may write it down for future readers.

If any one cares to ask why I have thought it worth the trouble to describe his early years so minutely, I answer that the young man of the Transition Period interests me. Perhaps I am singular in that. Orsino Saracinesca is a fair type, I think, of his class at his age. I have done my best to be just to him.

THE END.

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