The Vendetta/Chapter III
When the painter and Ginevra thought themselves alone, Servin rapped in a peculiar manner on the door of the dark garret, which turned at once on its rusty and creaking hinges. Ginevra then saw a tall and well-made young man, whose Imperial uniform set her heart to beating. The officer had one arm in a sling, and the pallor of his face revealed sharp suffering. Seeing an unknown woman, he recoiled.
Amelie, who was unable to look into the room, the door being closed, was afraid to stay longer; she was satisfied with having heard the opening of the garret door, and departed noiselessly.
"Fear nothing," said the painter to the officer. "Mademoiselle is the daughter of a most faithful friend of the Emperor, the Baron di Piombo."
The young soldier retained no doubts as to Ginevra's patriotism as soon as he saw her.
"You are wounded," she said.
"Oh! it is nothing, mademoiselle," he replied; "the wound is healing."
Just at this moment the loud cries of the vendors of newspapers came up from the street: "Condemned to death!" They all trembled, and the soldier was the first to hear a name that turned him pale.
"Labedoyere!" he cried, falling on a stool.
They looked at each other in silence. Drops gathered on the livid forehead of the young man; he seized the black tufts of his hair in one hand with a gesture of despair, and rested his elbow on Ginevra's easel.
"After all," he said, rising abruptly, "Labedoyere and I knew what we were doing. We were certain of the fate that awaited us, whether from triumph or defeat. He dies for the Cause, and here am I, hiding myself!"
He rushed toward the door of the studio; but, quicker than he, Ginevra reached it, and barred his way.
"Can you restore the Emperor?" she said. "Do you expect to raise that giant who could not maintain himself?"
"But what can I do?" said the young man, addressing the two friends whom chance had sent to him. "I have not a relation in the world. Labedoyere was my protector and my friend; without him, I am alone. To-morrow I myself may be condemned; my only fortune was my pay. I spent my last penny to come here and try to snatch Labedoyere from his fate; death is, therefore, a necessity for me. When a man decides to die he ought to know how to sell his life to the executioner. I was thinking just now that the life of an honest man is worth that of two traitors, and the blow of a dagger well placed may give immortality."
This spasm of despair alarmed the painter, and even Ginevra, whose own nature comprehended that of the young man. She admired his handsome face and his delightful voice, the sweetness of which was scarcely lessened by its tones of fury. Then, all of a sudden, she poured a balm upon the wounds of the unfortunate man:—
"Monsieur," she said, "as for your pecuniary distress, permit me to offer you my savings. My father is rich; I am his only child; he loves me, and I am sure he will never blame me. Have no scruple in accepting my offer; our property is derived from the Emperor; we do not own a penny that is not the result of his munificence. Is it not gratitude to him to assist his faithful soldiers? Take the sums you need as indifferently as I offer them. It is only money!" she added, in a tone of contempt. "Now, as for friends,—those you shall have."
She raised her head proudly, and her eyes shone with dazzling brilliancy.
"The head which falls to-morrow before a dozen muskets will save yours," she went on. "Wait till the storm is over; you can then escape and take service in foreign countries if you are not forgotten here; or in the French army, if you are."
In the comfort that women give there is always a delicacy which has something maternal, foreseeing, and complete about it. But when the words of hope and peace are said with grace of gesture and that eloquence of tone which comes from the heart, and when, above all, the benefactress is beautiful, a young man does not resist. The prisoner breathed in love through all his senses. A rosy tinge colored his white cheeks; his eyes lost something of the sadness that dulled them, and he said, in a peculiar tone of voice:—
"You are an angle of goodness— But Labedoyere!" he added. "Oh, Labedoyere!"
At this cry they all three looked at one another in silence, each comprehending the others' thoughts. No longer friends of twenty minutes only, they were friends of twenty years.
"Dear friend," said Servin, "can you save him?"
"I can avenge him."
Ginevra quivered. Though the stranger was handsome, his appearance had not influenced her; the soft pity in a woman's heart for miseries that are not ignoble had stifled in Ginevra all other emotions; but to hear a cry of vengeance, to find in that proscribed being an Italian soul, devotion to Napoleon, Corsican generosity!—ah! that was, indeed, too much for her. She looked at the officer with a respectful emotion which shook his heart. For the first time in her life a man had caused her a keen emotion. She now, like other women, put the soul of the stranger on a par with the noble beauty of his features and the happy proportions of his figure, which she admired as an artist. Led by accidental curiosity to pity, from pity to a powerful interest, she came, through that interest, to such profound sensations that she felt she was in danger if she stayed there longer.
"Until to-morrow, then," she said, giving the officer a gentle smile by way of a parting consolation.
Seeing that smile, which threw a new light on Ginevra's features, the stranger forgot all else for an instant.
"To-morrow," he said, sadly; "but to-morrow, Labedoyere—"
Ginevra turned, put a finger on her lips, and looked at him, as if to say: "Be calm, be prudent."
And the young man cried out in his own language:
"Ah! Dio! che non vorrei vivere dopo averla veduta?—who would not wish to live after seeing her?"
The peculiar accent with which he pronounced the words made Ginevra quiver.
"Are you Corsican?" she cried, returning toward him with a beating heart.
"I was born in Corsica," he replied; "but I was brought, while very young, to Genoa, and as soon as I was old enough for military service I enlisted."
The beauty of the young man, the mighty charm lent to him by his attachment to the Emperor, his wound, his misfortunes, his danger, all disappeared to Ginevra's mind, or, rather, all were blended in one sentiment,—a new and delightful sentiment. This persecuted man was a child of Corsica; he spoke its cherished language! She stood, for a moment, motionless; held by a magical sensation; before her eyes was a living picture, to which all human sentiments, united by chance, gave vivid colors. By Servin's invitation, the officer had seated himself on a divan, and the painter, after removing the sling which supported the arm of his guest, was undoing the bandages in order to dress the wound. Ginevra shuddered when she saw the long, broad gash made by the blade of a sabre on the young man's forearm, and a moan escaped her. The stranger raised his head and smiled to her. There was something touching which went to the soul, in the care with which Servin lifted the lint and touched the lacerated flesh, while the face of the wounded man, though pale and sickly, expressed, as he looked at the girl, more pleasure than suffering. An artist would have admired, involuntarily, this opposition of sentiments, together with the contrasts produced by the whiteness of the linen and the bared arm to the red and blue uniform of the officer.
At this moment a soft half-light pervaded the studio; but a parting ray of the evening sunlight suddenly illuminated the spot where the soldier sat, so that his noble, blanched face, his black hair, and his clothes were bathed in its glow. The effect was simple enough, but to the girl's Italian imagination it was a happy omen. The stranger seemed to her a celestial messenger, speaking the language of her own country. He thus unconsciously put her under the spell of childhood's memories, while in her heart there dawned another feeling as fresh, as pure as her own innocence. For a short, very short moment, she was motionless and dreamy, as though she were plunged in boundless thought. Then she blushed at having allowed her absorption to be noticed, exchanged one soft and rapid glance with the wounded man, and fled with the vision of him still before her eyes.
The next day was not a class-day, but Ginevra came to the studio, and the prisoner was free to sit beside her easel. Servin, who had a sketch to finish, played the part of mentor to the two young people, who talked to each other chiefly in Corsican. The soldier related the sufferings of the retreat from Moscow; for, at nineteen years of age, he had made the passage of the Beresins, and was almost the last man left of his regiment. He described, in words of fire, the great disaster of Waterloo. His voice was music itself to the Italian girl. Brought up as a Corsican, Ginevra was, in some sense, a child of Nature; falseness was a thing unknown to her; she gave herself up without reserve to her impressions; she acknowledged them, or, rather, allowed them to be seen without the affectations of petty and calculating coquetry, characteristic of Parisian girlhood. During this day she sat more than once with her palette in one hand, her brushes in another, without touching a color. With her eyes fastened on the officer, and her lips slightly apart, she listened, in the attitude of painting a stroke which was never painted. She was not surprised to see such softness in the eyes of the young man, for she felt that her own were soft in spite of her will to keep them stern and calm. After periods like this she painted diligently, without raising her head, for he was there, near her, watching her work. The first time he sat down beside her to contemplate her silently, she said, in a voice of some emotion, after a long pause:—
"Does it amuse you to see me paint?"
That day she learned that his name was Luigi. Before separating, it was agreed between them that if, on class-days when they could not see each other, any important political event occurred, Ginevra was to inform him by singing certain Corsican melodies then agreed upon.
The following day Mademoiselle Thirion informed all the members of the class, under pledge of secrecy that Ginevra di Piombo had a lover, a young man who came during the hours for the lesson, and concealed himself in the garret beyond the studio.
"You, who take her part," she said to Mademoiselle Roguin, "watch her carefully, and you will see how she spends her time."
Ginevra was, therefore, observed with diabolical attention. They listened to her songs, they watched her glances. At times, when she supposed that no one saw her, a dozen pairs of eyes were furtively upon her. Thus enlightened, the girls were able to interpret truly the emotions that crossed the features of the beautiful Italian,—her gestures, the peculiar tones in which she hummed a tune, and the attention with which they saw her listen to sounds which only she could hear through the partition.
By the end of a week, Laure was the only one of Servin's fifteen pupils who had resisted the temptation of looking at Luigi through the crevice of the partition; and she, through an instinct of weakness, still defended her beautiful friend. Mademoiselle Roguin endeavored to make her wait on the staircase after the class dispersed, that she might prove to her the intimacy of Ginevra and the young man by entering the studio and surprising them together. But Laure refused to condescend to an act of espial which no curiosity could justify, and she consequently became the object of much reprobation.
Before long Mademoiselle Thirion made known that she thought it improper to attend the classes of a painter whose opinions were tainted with patriotism and Bonapartism (in those days the terms were synonymous), and she ceased her attendance at the studio. But, although she herself forgot Ginevra, the harm she had planted bore fruit. Little by little, the other young girls revealed to their mothers the strange events which were happening at the studio. One day Matilde Roguin did not come; the next day another girl was missing, and so on, till the last three or four who were left came no more. Ginevra and Laure, her little friend, were the sole occupants of the deserted studio for three or four days.
Ginevra did not observe this falling off, nor ask the cause of her companions' absence. As soon as she had invented means of communication with Luigi she lived in the studio in a delightful solitude, alone amid her own world, thinking only of the officer and the dangers that threatened him. Though a sincere admirer of noble characters that never betray their political faiths, she nevertheless urged Luigi to submit himself to the royal authority, that he might be released from his present life and remain in France. But to this he would not consent. If passions are born and nourished, as they say, under the influence of romantic causes, never did so many circumstances of that kind concur in uniting two young souls by one and the same sentiment. The friendship of Ginevra for Luigi and that of Luigi for Ginevra made more progress in a month than a friendship in society would make in ten years. Adversity is the touchstone of character. Ginevra was able, therefore, to study Luigi, to know him; and before long they mutually esteemed each other. The girl, who was older than Luigi, found a charm in being courted by a youth already so grand, so tried by fate,—a youth who joined to the experience of a man the graces of adolescence. Luigi, on his side, felt an unspeakable pleasure in allowing himself to be apparently protected by a woman, now twenty-five years of age. Was it not a proof of love? The union of gentleness and pride, strength and weakness in Ginevra were, to him, irresistible attractions, and he was utterly subjugated by her. In short, before long, they loved each other so profoundly that they felt no need of denying to each other their love, nor yet of telling it.
One day, towards evening, Ginevra heard the accustomed signal. Luigi scratched with a pin on the woodwork in a manner that produced no more noise than a spider might make as he fastened his thread. The signal meant that he wished to come out of his retreat.
Ginevra glanced around the studio, and not seeing Laure, opened the door; but as she did so Luigi caught sight of the little pupil and abruptly retired. Surprised at his action, Ginevra looked round, saw Laure, and said, as she went up to the girl's easel:—
"You are staying late, my dear. That head seems to me finished; you only want a high-light,—see! on that knot of hair."
"You would do me a great kindness," said Laure, in a trembling voice, "if you would give this copy a few touches; for then I could carry away with me something to remind me of you."
"Willingly," said Ginevra, painting a few strokes on the picture. "But I thought it was a long way from your home to the studio, and it is late."
"Oh! Ginevra, I am going away, never to return," cried the poor girl, sadly.
"You mean to leave Monsieur Servin!" exclaimed Ginevra, less affected, however, by this news than she would have been a month earlier.
"Haven't you noticed, Ginevra, that for some days past you and I have been alone in the studio?"
"True," said Ginevra, as if struck by a sudden recollection. "Are all those young ladies ill, or going to be married, or are their fathers on duty at court?"
"They have left Monsieur Servin," replied Laure.
"On your account, Ginevra."
"My account!" repeated the Corsican, springing up, with a threatening brow and her eyes flashing.
"Oh! don't be angry, my kind Ginevra," cried Laure, in deep distress. "My mother insists on my leaving the studio. The young ladies say that you have some intrigue, and that Monsieur Servin allows the young man whom you love to stay in the dark attic. I have never believed these calumnies nor said a word to my mother about them. But last night Madame Roguin met her at a ball and asked her if she still sent me here. When my mother answered yes, Madame Roguin told her the falsehoods of those young ladies. Mamma scolded me severely; she said I must have known it all, and that I had failed in proper confidence between mother and daughter by not telling her. Oh! my dear Ginevra! I, who took you for my model, oh! how grieved I am that I can't be your companion any longer."
"We shall meet again in life; girls marry—" said Ginevra.
"When they are rich," signed Laure.
"Come and see me; my father has a fortune—"
"Ginevra," continued Laure, tenderly. "Madame Roguin and my mother are coming to see Monsieur Servin to-morrow and reproach him; hadn't you better warn him."
A thunderbolt falling at Ginevra's feet could not have astonished her more than this revelation.
"What matter is it to them?" she asked, naively.
"Everybody thinks it very wrong. Mamma says it is immoral."
"And you, Laure, what do you say?"
The young girl looked up at Ginevra, and their thoughts united. Laure could no longer keep back her tears; she flung herself on her friend's breast and sobbed. At this moment Servin came into the studio.
"Mademoiselle Ginevra," he cried, with enthusiasm, "I have finished my picture! it is now being varnished. What have you been doing, meanwhile? Where are the young ladies; are they taking a holiday, or are they in the country?"
Laure dried her tears, bowed to Monsieur Servin, and went away.
"The studio has been deserted for some days," replied Ginevra, "and the young ladies are not coming back."
"Oh! don't laugh," said Ginevra. "Listen: I am the involuntary cause of the loss of your reputation—"
The artist smiled, and said, interrupting his pupil:—
"My reputation? Why, in a few days my picture will make it at the Exposition."
"That relates to your talent," replied the girl. "I am speaking of your morality. Those young ladies have told their mothers that Luigi was shut up here, and that you lent yourself—to—our love."
"There is some truth in that, mademoiselle," replied the professor. "The mothers of those young ladies are foolish women; if they had come straight to me I should have explained the matter. But I don't care a straw about it! Life is short, anyhow."
And the painter snapped his fingers above his head. Luigi, who had heard part of the conversation, came in.
"You have lost all your scholars," he cried. "I have ruined you!"
The artist took Luigi's hand and that of Ginevra, and joined them.
"Marry one another, my children," he said, with fatherly kindness.
They both dropped their eyes, and their silence was the first avowal they had made to each other of their love.
"You will surely be happy," said Servin. "There is nothing in life to equal the happiness of two beings like yourselves when bound together in love."
Luigi pressed the hand of his protector without at first being able to utter a word; but presently he said, in a voice of emotion:—
"To you I owe it all."
"Be happy! I bless and wed you," said the painter, with comic unction, laying his hands upon the heads of the lovers.
This little jest put an end to their strained emotion. All three looked at one another and laughed merrily. Ginevra pressed Luigi's hand in a strong clasp, with a simplicity of action worthy of the customs of her native land.
"Ah ca, my dear children," resumed Servin, "you think that all will go right now, but you are much mistaken."
The lovers looked at him in astonishment.
"Don't be anxious. I'm the only one that your romance will harm. But the fact is, Madame Servin is a little straitlaced; and I don't really see how we are to settle it with her."
"Heavens! and I forgot to tell you," exclaimed Ginevra, "that Madame Roguin and Laure's mother are coming here to-morrow to—"
"I understand," said the painter.
"But you can easily justify yourself," continued the girl, with a proud movement of her head. "Monsieur Luigi," she added, turning to him with an arch look, "will no longer object to entering the royal service. Well, then," after receiving a smile from the young man, "to-morrow morning I will send a petition to one of the most influential persons at the ministry of War,—a man who will refuse nothing to the daughter of the Baron di Piombo. We shall obtain a 'tacit' pardon for Captain Luigi, for, of course, they will not allow him the rank of major. And then," she added, addressing Servin, "you can confound the mothers of my charitable companions by telling them the truth."
"You are an angel!" cried Servin.
While this scene was passing at the studio the father and mother of Ginevra were becoming impatient at her non-return.
"It is six o'clock, and Ginevra not yet home!" cried Bartolomeo.
"She was never so late before," said his wife.
The two old people looked at each other with an anxiety that was not usual with them. Too anxious to remain in one place, Bartolomeo rose and walked about the salon with an active step for a man who was over seventy-seven years of age. Thanks to his robust constitution, he had changed but little since the day of his arrival in Paris, and, despite his tall figure, he walked erect. His hair, now white and sparse, left uncovered a broad and protuberant skull, which gave a strong idea of his character and firmness. His face, seamed with deep wrinkles, had taken, with age, a nobler expression, preserving the pallid tones which inspire veneration. The ardor of passions still lived in the fire of his eyes, while the eyebrows, which were not wholly whitened, retained their terrible mobility. The aspect of the head was stern, but it conveyed the impression that Piombo had a right to be so. His kindness, his gentleness were known only to his wife and daughter. In his functions, or in presence of strangers, he never laid aside the majesty that time had impressed upon his person; and the habit of frowning with his heavy eyebrows, contracting the wrinkles of his face, and giving to his eyes a Napoleonic fixity, made his manner of accosting others icy.
During the course of his political life he had been so generally feared that he was thought unsocial, and it is not difficult to explain the causes of that opinion. The life, morals, and fidelity of Piombo made him obnoxious to most courtiers. In spite of the fact that delicate missions were constantly entrusted to his discretion which to any other man about the court would have proved lucrative, he possessed an income of not more than thirty thousand francs from an investment in the Grand Livre. If we recall the cheapness of government securities under the Empire, and the liberality of Napoleon towards those of his faithful servants who knew how to ask for it, we can readily see that the Baron di Piombo must have been a man of stern integrity. He owed his plumage as baron to the necessity Napoleon felt of giving him a title before sending him on missions to foreign courts.
Bartolomeo had always professed a hatred to the traitors with whom Napoleon surrounded himself, expecting to bind them to his cause by dint of victories. It was he of whom it is told that he made three steps to the door of the Emperor's cabinet after advising him to get rid of three men in France on the eve of Napoleon's departure for his celebrated and admirable campaign of 1814. After the second return of the Bourbons Bartolomeo ceased to wear the decoration of the Legion of honor. No man offered a finer image of those old Republicans, incorruptible friends to the Empire, who remained the living relics of the two most energetic governments the world has ever seen. Though the Baron di Piombo displeased mere courtiers, he had the Darus, Drouots, and Carnots with him as friends. As for the rest of the politicians, he cared not a whiff of his cigar's smoke for them, especially since Waterloo.
Bartolomeo di Piombo had bought, for the very moderate sum which Madame Mere, the Emperor's mother, had paid him for his estates in Corsica, the old mansion of the Portenduere family, in which he had made no changes. Lodged, usually, at the cost of the government, he did not occupy this house until after the catastrophe of Fontainebleau. Following the habits of simple persons of strict virtue, the baron and his wife gave no heed to external splendor; their furniture was that which they bought with the mansion. The grand apartments, lofty, sombre, and bare, the wide mirrors in gilded frames that were almost black, the furniture of the period of Louis XIV. were in keeping with Bartolomeo and his wife, personages worthy of antiquity.
Under the Empire, and during the Hundred Days, while exercising functions that were liberally rewarded, the old Corsican had maintained a great establishment, more for the purpose of doing honor to his office than from any desire to shine himself. His life and that of his wife were so frugal, so tranquil, that their modest fortune sufficed for all their wants. To them, their daughter Ginevra was more precious than the wealth of the whole world. When, therefore, in May, 1814, the Baron di Piombo resigned his office, dismissed his crowd of servants, and closed his stable door, Ginevra, quiet, simple and unpretending like her parents, saw nothing to regret in the change. Like all great souls, she found her luxury in strength of feeling, and derived her happiness from quietness and work. These three beings loved each other too well for the externals of existence to be of value in their eyes.
Often, and especially after the second dreadful fall of Napoleon, Bartolomeo and his wife passed delightful evenings alone with their daughter, listening while she sang and played. To them there was a vast secret pleasure in the presence, in the slightest word of that child; their eyes followed her with tender anxiety; they heard her step in the court-yard, lightly as she trod. Like lovers, the three would often sit silently together, understanding thus, better than by speech, the eloquence of their souls. This profound sentiment, the life itself of the two old people, animated their every thought. Here were not three existences, but one,—one only, which, like the flame on the hearth, divided itself into three tongues of fire. If, occasionally, some memory of Napoleon's benefits and misfortunes, if the public events of the moment distracted the minds of the old people from this source of their constant solicitude, they could always talk of those interests without affecting their community of thought, for Ginevra shared their political passions. What more natural, therefore, than the ardor with which they found a refuge in the heart of their only child?
Until now the occupations of public life had absorbed the energy of the Baron di Piombo; but after leaving those employments he felt the need of casting that energy into the last sentiment that remained to him. Apart from the ties of parentage, there may have been, unknown to these three despotic souls, another powerful reason for the intensity of their reciprocal love: it was love undivided. Ginevra's whole heart belonged to her father, as Piombo's whole heart belonged to his child; and if it be true that we are bound to one another more by our defects than by our virtues, Ginevra echoed in a marvellous manner the passions of her father. There lay the sole imperfection of this triple life. Ginevra was born unyielding of will, vindictive, and passionate, like her father in his youth.
The Corsican had taken pleasure in developing these savage sentiments in the heart of his daughter, precisely as a lion teaches the lion-cubs to spring upon their prey. But this apprenticeship to vengeance having no means of action in their family life, it came to pass that Ginevra turned the principle against her father; as a child she forgave him nothing, and he was forced to yield to her. Piombo saw nothing more than childish nonsense in these fictitious quarrels, but the child was all the while acquiring a habit of ruling her parents. In the midst, however, of the tempests which the father was fond of exciting, a look, a word of tenderness, sufficed to pacify their angry souls, and often they were never so near to a kiss as when they were threatening each other vehemently.
Nevertheless, for the last five years, Ginevra, grown wiser than her father, avoided such scenes. Her faithfulness, her devotion, the love which filled her every thought, and her admirable good sense had got the better of her temper. And yet, for all that, a very great evil had resulted from her training; Ginevra lived with her father and mother on the footing of an equality which is always dangerous.
Piombo and his wife, persons without education, had allowed Ginevra to study as she pleased. Following her caprices as a young girl, she had studied all things for a time, and then abandoned them,—taking up and leaving each train of thought at will, until, at last, painting had proved to be her dominant passion. Ginevra would have made a noble woman had her mother been capable of guiding her studies, of enlightening her mind, and bringing into harmony her gifts of nature; her defects came from the fatal education which the old Corsican had found delight in giving her.
After marching up and down the room for some time, Piombo rang the bell; a servant entered.
"Go and meet Mademoiselle Ginevra," said his master.
"I always regret our carriage on her account," remarked the baroness.
"She said she did not want one," replied Piombo, looking at his wife, who, accustomed for forty years to habits of obedience, lowered her eyes and said no more.
Already a septuagenarian, tall, withered, pale, and wrinkled, the baroness exactly resembled those old women whom Schnetz puts into the Italian scenes of his "genre" pictures. She was so habitually silent that she might have been taken for another Mrs. Shandy; but, occasionally, a word, look, or gesture betrayed that her feelings still retained all the vigor and the freshness of their youth. Her dress, devoid of coquetry, was often in bad taste. She usually sat passive, buried in a low sofa, like a Sultana Valide, awaiting or admiring her Ginevra, her pride, her life. The beauty, toilet, and grace of her daughter seemed to have become her own. All was well with her if Ginevra was happy. Her hair was white, and a few strands only were seen above her white and wrinkled forehead, or beside her hollow cheeks.
"It is now fifteen days," she said, "since Ginevra made a practice of being late."
"Jean is so slow!" cried the impatient old man, buttoning up his blue coat and seizing his hat, which he dashed upon his head as he took his cane and departed.
"You will not get far," said his wife, calling after him.
As she spoke, the porte-cochere was opened and shut, and the old mother heard the steps of her Ginevra in the court-yard. Bartolomeo almost instantly reappeared, carrying his daughter, who struggled in his arms.