Read CHAPTER IX of The Children of the King, free online book, by F. Marion Crawford, on ReadCentral.com.

After what had happened on the previous evening Ruggiero had expected that Beatrice would treat him very differently.  He had assuredly not foreseen that she would call him from his seat by the porter’s lodge, ask an important service of him, and then enter into conversation with him about the origin of his family and the story of his own life.  His slow but logical mind pondered on these things in spite of the disordered action of his heart, which had almost choked him while he had been talking with the young girl.  Instead of going back to his brother, he turned aside and entered the steep descending tunnel through the rock which leads down to the sea and the little harbour.

Two things were strongly impressed on his mind.  First, the nature of the service he had done Beatrice in making that enquiry at the telegraph office, and secondly her readiness to forget his own reckless conduct at Tragara.  Both these points suggested reflections which pleased him strangely.  It was quite clear to him that Beatrice distrusted San Miniato, though he had of course no idea of the nature of the telegram concerning which she had wanted information.  He only understood that she was watching San Miniato with suspicion, expecting some sort of foul play.  But there was an immense satisfaction in that thought, and Ruggiero’s eyes sparkled as he revolved it in his brain.

As for the other matter, he understood it less clearly.  He was quite conscious of the enormity of his misdeed in telling a lady, and a great lady, according to his view, that he loved her, and in daring to touch the sleeves of her dress with his rough hands.  He could not find it in him to regret what he had done, but he was prepared for very hard treatment as his just reward.  It would not have surprised him if Beatrice had then and there complained of him to her mother or to San Miniato himself, and the latter, Ruggiero supposed, would have had no difficulty in having him locked up in the town gaol for a few weeks on the rather serious ground of misdemeanour towards the visitors at the watering-place.  A certain amount of rather arbitrary power is placed in the hands of the local authorities in all great summer resorts, and it is quite right that it should be so ­nor is it as a rule unjustly used.

But Beatrice had acted very differently, very kindly and very generously.  That was because she was naturally so good and gentle, thought Ruggiero.  But the least he had expected was that she would never again speak to him save to give an order, nor say a kind word, no matter what service he rendered her, or what danger he ran for her sake.  And now, a moment ago, she had talked with him with more interest and kindly condescension than she had ever shown before.  He refused, and rightly, to believe that this was because she had needed his help in the matter of the telegram.  She could have called Bastianello, who was in her own service, and Bastianello would have done just as well.  But she had chosen to employ the man who had so rudely forgotten himself before her less than twenty-four hours earlier.  Why?  Ruggiero, little capable, by natural gifts or by experience, of dealing with such questions, found himself face to face with a great problem of the human self, and he knew at once that he could never solve it, try as he might.  His happiness was none the less great, nor his gratitude the less deep and sincere, and with both these grew up instantly in his heart the strong determination to serve her at every turn, so far as lay in his power.

It was not much that he could do, he reflected, unless she would show him the way as she had done this very morning.  But, considering the position of affairs, and her evident distrust of her betrothed, it was not impossible that similar situations might arise before long.  If they did, Ruggiero would be ready, as he had now shown himself, to do her bidding with startling directness and energy.  He was well aware of his physical superiority over every one else in Sorrento, and he was dimly conscious that a threat from him was something which would frighten most men, and which none could afford to overlook.  He remembered poor Don Gennaro’s face just now, when he had quietly told him what he might expect if he did not hold his tongue.  Ruggiero had never valued his life very highly, and since he had loved Beatrice he did not value it a straw.  This state of mind can make a man an exceedingly dangerous person, especially when he is so endowed that he can tear a new horse shoe in two with his hands, and break a five franc piece with his thumbs and forefingers as another man breaks a biscuit.

As Ruggiero came out of the tunnel and reached the platform of rock from which the last part of the descent goes down to the sea in the open air, he stood still a moment and expressed his determination in a low tone.  There was no one near to hear him.

“Whatever she asks,” he said.  “Truly it is of great importance what becomes of me!  If it is a little thing it costs nothing.  If it is a great thing ­well, I will do it if I can.  Then I will say, ’Excellency’ ­no ­’Signorina, here it is done.  And I beg to kiss your Excellency’s hand, because I am going to the galleys and you will not see me any more.’  And then they will put me in, and it will be finished, and I shall always have the satisfaction.”

Ruggiero produced a fragment of a cigar from his cap and a match from the same safe place and began to smoke, looking at the sea.  People not used to the peculiarities of southern thought would perhaps have been surprised at the desperate simplicity of Ruggiero’s statement to himself.  But those who have been long familiar with men of his country and class must all have heard exactly such words uttered more than once in their experience, and will remember that in some cases at least they were not empty threats, which were afterwards very exactly and conscientiously fulfilled by him who uttered them, and who now either wears a green cap at Ponza or Ischia, or is making a fortune in South America, having had the luck to escape as a stowaway on a foreign vessel.

Nor did it strike Ruggiero as at all improbable that Beatrice might some day wish to be rid of the Conte di San Miniato, and might express such a wish, ever so vaguely, within Ruggiero’s hearing.  He had the bad taste to judge her by himself, and of course if she really hated her betrothed she would wish him to die.  It was a sin, doubtless, to wish anybody dead, and it was a greater sin to put out one’s hands and kill the person in question.  But it was human nature, according to Ruggiero’s simple view, and of course Beatrice felt like other human beings in this matter and all the principal affairs of life.  He had made up his mind, and he never repeated the words he had spoken to himself.  He was a simple man, and he puffed at his stump of a black cigar and strolled down to the boat to find out whether the Cripple and the Son of the Fool had spliced that old spare mooring-rope which had done duty last night and had been found chafed this morning.

Meanwhile the human nature on which Ruggiero counted so naturally and confidently was going through a rather strange phase of development in the upper regions where the Marchesa’s terrace was situated.

Beatrice walked slowly back under the trees.  Ruggiero’s quaint talk had amused her and had momentarily diverted the current of her thoughts.  But the moment she left him, her mind reverted to her immediate trouble, and she felt a little stab of pain at the heart which was new to her.  The news that San Miniato had actually sent a telegram was unwelcome in the extreme.  He had, indeed, said in her presence that he had sent several.  But that might have been a careless inaccuracy, or he might have actually written the rest and given them to be despatched before coming upstairs.  To doubt that the one message already sent contained the news of his engagement, seemed gratuitous.  It was only too sure that he had looked upon what had passed at Tragara as a final decision on the part of Beatrice, and that henceforth she was his affianced bride.  Her mother had not even found great difficulty in persuading her of the fact, and after that one bitter struggle she had given up the battle.  It had been bitter indeed while it had lasted, and some of the bitterness returned upon her now.  But she would not again need to force the tears back, pressing her hands upon her eyes with desperate strength as she had done.  It was useless to cry over what could not be helped, and since she had made the great mistake of her life she must keep her word or lose her good name for ever, according to the ideas in which she had been brought up.  But it would be very hard to meet San Miniato now, within the next quarter of an hour, as she inevitably must.  Less hard, perhaps, than if she had convicted him of falsehood in the matter of the telegram, as she had fully expected that she could ­but painful enough, heaven knew.

There was an old trace of oriental fatalism in her nature, passed down to her, perhaps, from some Saracen ancestor in the unknown genealogy of her family.  It is common enough in the south, often profoundly leavened with superstition, sometimes existing side by side with the most absolute scepticism, but its influence is undeniable, and accounts for a certain resignation in hopeless cases which would be utterly foreign to the northern character.  Beatrice had it, and having got the worst of the first contest she conceived that further resistance would be wholly useless, and accepted the inevitable conclusion that she must marry San Miniato whether she liked him or not.  But this state of mind did not by any means imply that she would marry him with a good grace, or ever again return in her behaviour towards him to the point she had reached on the previous evening.  That, thought Beatrice, would be too much to expect, and was certainly more than she intended to give.  She would be quite willing to show that she had been deceived into consenting, and was only keeping her word as a matter of principle.  San Miniato might think what he pleased.  She knew that whatever she did, he would never think of breaking off the engagement, since what he wanted was not herself but her fortune.  She shut her parasol with a rather vicious snap as she went into the cool hall out of the sun, and the hard look in her face was more accentuated than before, as she slowly ascended the steps.

The conversation between her mother and San Miniato during her short absence had been characteristic.  They understood each other perfectly but neither would have betrayed to the other, by the merest hint, the certainty that the marriage was by no means agreeable to poor Beatrice herself.

“Dearest Marchesa,” said San Miniato, touching her hand with his lips, and then seating himself beside her, “tell me that you are not too much exhausted after your exertions last night?  Have you slept well?  Have you any appetite?”

“What a good doctor you would make, dear friend!” exclaimed the Marchesa with a little smile.

And so they exchanged the amenities usual at their first meeting in the day, as though they had not been buying and selling an innocent soul, and did not appreciate the fact in its startling reality.  Several more phrases of the same kind were spoken.

“And how is Donna Beatrice?” inquired San Miniato at last.

“Why not call her Beatrice?” asked the Marchesa carelessly.  “She is very well.  You just saw her.”

“I fancy it would seem a little premature, a little familiar to call her so,” answered the Count, who remembered his recent discomfiture.  “For the present, I believe she would prefer a little more ceremony.  I do not know whether I am right.  Pray give me your advice, Marchesa carissima.”

“Of course you are right ­you always are.  You were right about the moon yesterday ­though I did not notice that it was shining here when we came home,” she added thoughtfully, not by any means satisfied with the insufficient demonstration he had given her at first.

“No doubt,” replied San Miniato indifferently.  He took no further interest in the movements of the satellite since he had gained his point, and the Marchesa was far too lazy to revive the discussion.  “I am glad you agree with me about my behaviour,” he continued.  “It is of course most important to maintain as much as possible the good impression I was so fortunate as to make last night, and I have had enough experience of the world to know that it will not be an easy matter.”

“No, indeed ­and with Beatrice’s character, too!”

“The most charming character I ever met,” said San Miniato with sufficient warmth.  “But young, of course, as it should be and subject to the enchanting little caprices which belong to youth and beauty.”

“Yes, which always belong to youth and beauty,” assented the Marchesa.

“And I am quite prepared, for instance, to be treated coldly to-day and warmly to-morrow, if it so pleases the dear young lady.  She will always find me the same.”

“How good you are, dearest friend!” exclaimed the Marchesa, thoroughly understanding what he meant, and grateful to him for his tact, which was sometimes, indeed, of the highest order.

“It would be strange if I were not happy and satisfied,” he answered, “and ready to accept gratefully the smallest favour with which it may please Donna Beatrice to honor me.”

He was indeed both happy and satisfied, for he saw no reason to suppose that the Granmichele fortune could now slip from his grasp.  Moreover he had considerable confidence in himself and his powers, and he thought it quite probable that the scene of the previous evening might before long be renewed with more lasting effect.  Beatrice was young and capricious; there is nothing one may count on so surely as youth and caprice.  Caprice is sure to change, but who is sure that the faith kept for ten years will not?  In youth love is sure to come some day, but when that day is past is it ever sure that he will come again?  San Miniato knew these things and many more like them, and was wise in his generation as well as a man of the world, accustomed to its ways from his childhood and nourished with the sour milk of its wisdom from his earliest youth upward.

So he quietly conveyed to the Marchesa the information that he understood Beatrice’s present mood and that he would not attach more importance to it than it deserved.  They talked a little longer together, both for the present avoiding any reference to the important arrangements which must soon be discussed in connection with the marriage contract, but both taking it entirely for granted that the marriage itself was quite agreed upon and settled.

Then Beatrice returned and sat down silently by the table.

“Have you been for a little walk, my angel?” enquired her mother.

“Yes, mamma, I have been for a little walk.”

“You are not tired then, after our excursion, Donna Beatrice?” enquired San Miniato.

“Not in the least,” answered the young girl, taking up a book and beginning to read.

“Beatrice!” exclaimed her mother in amazement.  “My child!  What are you reading!  Maupassant!  Have you quite forgotten yourself?”

“I am trying to, mamma.  And since I am to be married ­what difference does it make?”

She spoke without laying down the volume.  San Miniato pretended to pay no attention to the incident, and slowly rolled a fat cigarette between his fingers to soften it before smoking.  The Marchesa made gestures to Beatrice with an unusual expenditure of energy, but with no effect.

“It seems very interesting,” said the latter.  “I had no idea he wrote so well.  It seems to be quite different from Telemaque ­more amusing in every way.”

Then the Marchesa did what she had not done in many years.  She asserted her parental authority.  Very lazily she put her feet to the ground, laid her fan, her handkerchief and her cigarette case together, and rose to her feet.  Coming round the table she took the forbidden book out of Beatrice’s hands, shut it up and put it back in its place.  Beatrice made no opposition, but raised her broad eyebrows wearily and folded her hands in her lap.

“Of course, if you insist, I have nothing to say,” she remarked, “any more than I have anything to do since you will not let me read.”

The Marchesa went back to her lounge and carefully arranged her belongings and settled herself comfortably before she spoke.

“I think you are a little out of temper, Beatrice dear, or perhaps you are hungry, my child.  You so often are.  San Miniato, what time is it?”

“A quarter before twelve,” answered the Count.

“Of course you will breakfast with us.  Ring the bell, dearest friend.  We will not wait any longer.”

San Miniato rose and touched the button.

“You are as hospitable as you are good,” he said.  “But if you will forgive me, I will not accept your invitation to-day.  An old friend of mine is at the other hotel for a few hours and I have promised to breakfast with him.  Will you excuse me?”

Beatrice made an almost imperceptible gesture of indifference with her hand.

“Who is your friend?” she asked.

“A Piedmontese,” answered San Miniato indifferently.  “You do not know him.”

“We are very sorry to lose you, especially to-day, San Miniato carissimo,” said the Marchesa.  “But if it cannot be helped ­well, good-bye.”

So San Miniato went out and left the mother and daughter together again as he had found them.  It is needless to say that the Piedmontese friend was a fiction, and that San Miniato had no engagement of that kind.  He had hastily resolved to keep one of a different nature because he guessed that in Beatrice’s present temper he would make matters more difficult by staying.  And in this he was right, for Beatrice had made up her mind to be thoroughly disagreeable and she possessed the elements of success requisite for that purpose ­a sharp tongue, a quick instinct and great presence of mind.

San Miniato descended the stairs and strolled out into the orange garden, looking at his watch as he left the door of the hotel.  It was very hot, but further away from the house the sea breeze was blowing through the trees.  He was still smoking the cigarette he had lighted upstairs, and he sat down on a bench in the shade, took out a pocket book and began to make notes.  From time to time he looked along the path in the direction of the hotel, which was hidden from view by the shrubbery.  Then the clock struck twelve and a few minutes later the church bells began to ring, as they do half a dozen times a day in Italy on small provocation.  Still San Miniato went on with his calculations.

Before many minutes more had passed, a trim young figure appeared in the path ­a young girl, with pink cheeks and bright dark eyes, no other than Teresina, the Marchesa’s maid.  She carried some sewing in her hand and looked nervously behind her and to the right and left as she walked.  But there was no one in the garden at that hour.  The guests of the hotel were all at breakfast, and the servants were either asleep or at work indoors.  The porter was at his dinner and the sailors were presumably eating their midday bread and cheese down by the boats, or dining at their homes if they lived near by.  The breeze blew pleasantly through the trees, making the broad polished leaves rustle and the little green oranges rock on the boughs.

As soon as San Miniato caught sight of Teresina he put his note-book into his pocket and rose to his feet.  His face betrayed neither pleasure nor surprise as he sauntered along the path, until he was close to her.  Then both stopped, and he smiled, bending down and looking into her eyes.

“For charity’s sake, Signor Conte!” cried the girl, drawing back, blushing and looking behind her quickly.  “I ought never to have come here.  Why did you make me come?”

“What an idea, Teresina!” laughed San Miniato softly.  “And if you ask me why I wanted you to come, here is the reason.  Now tell me, Teresinella, is it a good reason or not?”

Thereupon San Miniato produced from his waistcoat pocket a little limp parcel wrapped in white tissue paper and laid it in Teresina’s hand.  It was heavy, and she guessed that it contained something of gold.

“What is it?” she asked quickly.  “Am I to give it to the Signorina?”

“To the Signorina!” San Miniato laughed softly again and laid his hand very gently on the girl’s arm.  “Yes,” he whispered, bending down to her.  “To the Signorina Teresinella, who can have all she asks for if she will only care a little for me.”

“Heavens, Signor Conte!” cried Teresina.  “Was it to say this that you made me come?”

“This and a great deal more, Teresina bella.  Open your little parcel while I tell you the rest.  Who made you so pretty, carissima?  Nature knew what she was doing when she made those eyes of yours and those bright cheeks, and those little hands and this small waist ­per Dio ­if some one I know were as pretty as Teresinella, all Naples would be at her feet!”

He slipped his arm round her, there in the shade.  Still she held the package unopened in her hand.  She grew a little pale, as he touched her, and shrank away as though to avoid him, but evidently uncertain and deeply disturbed.  The poor girl’s good and evil angels were busy deciding her fate for her at that moment.

“Open your little gift and see whether you like the reason I give you for coming here,” said San Miniato, who was pleased with the turn of the phrase and thought it as well to repeat it.  “Open it, Teresinella, bella, bella ­the first of as many as you like ­and come and sit beside me on the bench there and let me talk a little.  I have so much to say to you, all pretty things which you will like, and the hour is short, you know.”

Poor girl!  He was a fine gentleman with a very great name, as Teresina knew, and he was young still and handsome, and had winning ways, and she loved gold and pretty speeches dearly.  She looked down, still shrinking away from him, till she stood with her back to a tree.  Her fresh young face was almost white now and her eyelids trembled from time to time, while her lips moved though she was not conscious of what she wanted to say.

“Ah, Teresina!” he exclaimed, with a nicely adjusted cadence of passion in the tone.  “What are you waiting for, my little angel?  It is time to love when one is young and the world is green, and your eyes are bright, carina!  When the heart beats and the blood is warm!  And you are made for love ­that mouth of yours ­like the red carnations ­one kiss Teresinella ­that is all I ask ­one kiss and no more, ­here in the shade while no one is looking ­one kiss, carina mia ­there is no sin in kissing ­”

And he tried to draw her to him.  But either Teresina was naturally a very good girl, or her good angel had demolished his evil adversary in the encounter which had taken place.  There is an odd sort of fierce loyalty very often to be found at the root of the Sicilian character.  She looked up suddenly and her eyes met his.  She held out the little package still unopened.

“You have made a mistake, Signor Conte,” she said, quietly enough.  “I am an honest girl, and though you are a great signore I will tell you that if you had any honour you would not be making love to me out here in the garden while you are paying court to the Signorina when you are in the house, and doing your best to marry her.  It is infamous enough, what you are doing, and I am not afraid to tell you so.  And take back your gold, for I do not want it, and it is not clean!  And so good-day, Signor Conte, and many thanks.  When you asked me to come here, I thought you had some private message for the Signorina.”

During Teresina’s speech San Miniato had not betrayed the slightest surprise or disappointment.  He quietly lighted a cigarette and smiled good-humouredly all the time.

“My dear Teresina,” he said, when she had finished, “what in the world do you think I wanted of you?  Not only am I paying court to your signorina, as you say, but I am already betrothed to her, since last night.  You did not know that?”

“The greater the shame!” exclaimed the girl, growing angry.

“Not at all, my dear child.  On the contrary, it explains everything in the most natural way.  Is it not really natural that on the occasion of my betrothal I should wish to give you a little remembrance, because you have always been so obliging, and have been with the Marchesa since you were a child?  I could not do anything else, I am sure, and I beg you to keep it and wear it.  And as for my telling you that you are pretty and young and fresh, I do not see why you need be so mortally offended at that.  However, Teresina, I am sorry if you misunderstood me.  You will keep the little chain?”

“No, Signor Conte.  Take it.  And I do not believe a word you say.”

She held out the parcel to him, but he, still smiling, shook his head and would not take it.  Then she let it drop at his feet, and turned quickly and left him.  He watched her a moment, and his annoyance at his discomfiture showed itself plainly enough, so soon as she was not there to see it.  Then he shrugged his shoulders, stooped and picked up the package, restored it to his waistcoat pocket and went back to his bench.

“It is a pity,” he muttered, as he took out his note-book again.  “It would have been such good practice!”

An hour later Bastianello was sitting alone in the boat, under the awning, enjoying the cool breeze and wishing that the ladies would go for a sail while it lasted, instead of waiting until late in the afternoon as they generally did, at which time there was usually not a breath of air on the water.  He was smoking a clay pipe with a cane stem, and he was thinking vaguely of Teresina, wondering whether Ruggiero would never speak to her, and if he never did, whether he, Bastianello, might not at last have his turn.

A number of small boys were bathing in the bright sunshine, diving off the stones of the breakwater and running along the short pier, brown urchins with lithe thin limbs, matted black hair and beady eyes.  Suddenly Bastianello was aware of a small dark face and two little hands holding upon the gunwale of his boat.  He knew the boy very well, for he was the son of the Son of the Fool.

“Let go, Nenne!” he said; “do you take us for a bathing house?”

“You have a beautiful pair of padroni, you and your brother,” observed Nenne, making a hideous face over the boat’s side.

Bastianello did not move, but stretched out his long arm to take up the boat-hook, which lay within his reach.

“If you had seen what I saw in the garden up there just now,” continued the small boy.  “Madonna mia, what a business!”

“Eh, you rascal? what did you see?” asked the sailor, turning the boat-hook round and holding it so that he could rap the boy’s knuckles with the butt end of it.

“There was the Count, who is Ruggiero’s padrone, trying to kiss your signora’s maid, and offering her the gold, and she ­yah!” Another hideous grimace, apparently of delight, interrupted the narrative.

“What did she do?” asked Bastianello quietly.  But he grew a shade paler.

“Eh? you want to know now, do you?  What will you give me?” inquired the urchin.

“Half a cigar,” said Bastianello, who knew the boy’s vicious tastes, and forthwith produced the bribe from his cap, holding it up for the other to see.

“What did she do?  She threw down the gold and called him an infamous liar to his face.  A nice padrone Ruggiero has, who is called a liar and an infamous one by serving maids.  Well, give me the cigar.”

“Take it,” said the sailor, rising and reaching out.

The urchin stuck it between his teeth, nodded his thanks, lowered himself gently into the water so as not to wet it, and swam cautiously to the breakwater, holding his head in the air.

Bastianello sat down again and continued to smoke his pipe.  There was a happy look in his bright blue eyes which had not been there before.