Where Angels Fear to Tread/Chapter 9
The details of Harriet's crime were never known. In her illness she spoke more of the inlaid box that she lent to Lilia--lent, not given--than of recent troubles. It was clear that she had gone prepared for an interview with Gino, and finding him out, she had yielded to a grotesque temptation. But how far this was the result of ill-temper, to what extent she had been fortified by her religion, when and how she had met the poor idiot--these questions were never answered, nor did they interest Philip greatly. Detection was certain: they would have been arrested by the police of Florence or Milan, or at the frontier. As it was, they had been stopped in a simpler manner a few miles out of the town.
As yet he could scarcely survey the thing. It was too great. Round the Italian baby who had died in the mud there centred deep passions and high hopes. People had been wicked or wrong in the matter; no one save himself had been trivial. Now the baby had gone, but there remained this vast apparatus of pride and pity and love. For the dead, who seemed to take away so much, really take with them nothing that is ours. The passion they have aroused lives after them, easy to transmute or to transfer, but well-nigh impossible to destroy. And Philip knew that he was still voyaging on the same magnificent, perilous sea, with the sun or the clouds above him, and the tides below.
The course of the moment--that, at all events, was certain. He and no one else must take the news to Gino. It was easy to talk of Harriet's crime--easy also to blame the negligent Perfetta or Mrs. Herriton at home. Every one had contributed--even Miss Abbott and Irma. If one chose, one might consider the catastrophe composite or the work of fate. But Philip did not so choose. It was his own fault, due to acknowledged weakness in his own character. Therefore he, and no one else, must take the news of it to Gino.
Nothing prevented him. Miss Abbott was engaged with Harriet, and people had sprung out of the darkness and were conducting them towards some cottage. Philip had only to get into the uninjured carriage and order the driver to return. He was back at Monteriano after a two hours' absence. Perfetta was in the house now, and greeted him cheerfully. Pain, physical and mental, had made him stupid. It was some time before he realized that she had never missed the child.
Gino was still out. The woman took him to the reception-room, just as she had taken Miss Abbott in the morning, and dusted a circle for him on one of the horsehair chairs. But it was dark now, so she left the guest a little lamp.
"I will be as quick as I can," she told him. "But there are many streets in Monteriano; he is sometimes difficult to find. I could not find him this morning."
"Go first to the Caffe Garibaldi," said Philip, remembering that this was the hour appointed by his friends of yesterday.
He occupied the time he was left alone not in thinking--there was nothing to think about; he simply had to tell a few facts--but in trying to make a sling for his broken arm. The trouble was in the elbow-joint, and as long as he kept this motionless he could go on as usual. But inflammation was beginning, and the slightest jar gave him agony. The sling was not fitted before Gino leapt up the stairs, crying--
"So you are back! How glad I am! We are all waiting--"
Philip had seen too much to be nervous. In low, even tones he told what had happened; and the other, also perfectly calm, heard him to the end. In the silence Perfetta called up that she had forgotten the baby's evening milk; she must fetch it. When she had gone Gino took up the lamp without a word, and they went into the other room.
"My sister is ill," said Philip, "and Miss Abbott is guiltless. I should be glad if you did not have to trouble them."
Gino had stooped down by the way, and was feeling the place where his son had lain. Now and then he frowned a little and glanced at Philip.
"It is through me," he continued. "It happened because I was cowardly and idle. I have come to know what you will do."
Gino had left the rug, and began to pat the table from the end, as if he was blind. The action was so uncanny that Philip was driven to intervene.
"Gently, man, gently; he is not here."
He went up and touched him on the shoulder.
He twitched away, and began to pass his hands over things more rapidly--over the table, the chairs, the entire floor, the walls as high as he could reach them. Philip had not presumed to comfort him. But now the tension was too great--he tried.
"Break down, Gino; you must break down. Scream and curse and give in for a little; you must break down."
There was no reply, and no cessation of the sweeping hands.
"It is time to be unhappy. Break down or you will be ill like my sister. You will go--"
The tour of the room was over. He had touched everything in it except Philip. Now he approached him. He face was that of a man who has lost his old reason for life and seeks a new one.
He stopped for a moment; then he came nearer. Philip stood his ground.
"You are to do what you like with me, Gino. Your son is dead, Gino. He died in my arms, remember. It does not excuse me; but he did die in my arms."
The left hand came forward, slowly this time. It hovered before Philip like an insect. Then it descended and gripped him by his broken elbow.
Philip struck out with all the strength of his other arm. Gino fell to the blow without a cry or a word.
"You brute!" exclaimed the Englishman. "Kill me if you like! But just you leave my broken arm alone."
Then he was seized with remorse, and knelt beside his adversary and tried to revive him. He managed to raise him up, and propped his body against his own. He passed his arm round him. Again he was filled with pity and tenderness. He awaited the revival without fear, sure that both of them were safe at last.
Gino recovered suddenly. His lips moved. For one blessed moment it seemed that he was going to speak. But he scrambled up in silence, remembering everything, and he made not towards Philip, but towards the lamp.
"Do what you like; but think first--"
The lamp was tossed across the room, out through the loggia. It broke against one of the trees below. Philip began to cry out in the dark.
Gino approached from behind and gave him a sharp pinch. Philip spun round with a yell. He had only been pinched on the back, but he knew what was in store for him. He struck out, exhorting the devil to fight him, to kill him, to do anything but this. Then he stumbled to the door. It was open. He lost his head, and, instead of turning down the stairs, he ran across the landing into the room opposite. There he lay down on the floor between the stove and the skirting-board.
His senses grew sharper. He could hear Gino coming in on tiptoe. He even knew what was passing in his mind, how now he was at fault, now he was hopeful, now he was wondering whether after all the victim had not escaped down the stairs. There was a quick swoop above him, and then a low growl like a dog's. Gino had broken his finger-nails against the stove.
Physical pain is almost too terrible to bear. We can just bear it when it comes by accident or for our good--as it generally does in modern life--except at school. But when it is caused by the malignity of a man, full grown, fashioned like ourselves, all our control disappears. Philip's one thought was to get away from that room at whatever sacrifice of nobility or pride.
Gino was now at the further end of the room, groping by the little tables. Suddenly the instinct came to him. He crawled quickly to where Philip lay and had him clean by the elbow.
The whole arm seemed red-hot, and the broken bone grated in the joint, sending out shoots of the essence of pain. His other arm was pinioned against the wall, and Gino had trampled in behind the stove and was kneeling on his legs. For the space of a minute he yelled and yelled with all the force of his lungs. Then this solace was denied him. The other hand, moist and strong, began to close round his throat.
At first he was glad, for here, he thought, was death at last. But it was only a new torture; perhaps Gino inherited the skill of his ancestors--and childlike ruffians who flung each other from the towers. Just as the windpipe closed, the hand fell off, and Philip was revived by the motion of his arm. And just as he was about to faint and gain at last one moment of oblivion, the motion stopped, and he would struggle instead against the pressure on his throat.
Vivid pictures were dancing through the pain--Lilia dying some months back in this very house, Miss Abbott bending over the baby, his mother at home, now reading evening prayers to the servants. He felt that he was growing weaker; his brain wandered; the agony did not seem so great. Not all Gino's care could indefinitely postpone the end. His yells and gurgles became mechanical--functions of the tortured flesh rather than true notes of indignation and despair. He was conscious of a horrid tumbling. Then his arm was pulled a little too roughly, and everything was quiet at last.
"But your son is dead, Gino. Your son is dead, dear Gino. Your son is dead."
The room was full of light, and Miss Abbott had Gino by the shoulders, holding him down in a chair. She was exhausted with the struggle, and her arms were trembling.
"What is the good of another death? What is the good of more pain?"
He too began to tremble. Then he turned and looked curiously at Philip, whose face, covered with dust and foam, was visible by the stove. Miss Abbott allowed him to get up, though she still held him firmly. He gave a loud and curious cry--a cry of interrogation it might be called. Below there was the noise of Perfetta returning with the baby's milk.
"Go to him," said Miss Abbott, indicating Philip. "Pick him up. Treat him kindly."
She released him, and he approached Philip slowly. His eyes were filling with trouble. He bent down, as if he would gently raise him up.
"Help! help!" moaned Philip. His body had suffered too much from Gino. It could not bear to be touched by him.
Gino seemed to understand. He stopped, crouched above him. Miss Abbott herself came forward and lifted her friend in her arms.
"Oh, the foul devil!" he murmured. "Kill him! Kill him for me."
Miss Abbott laid him tenderly on the couch and wiped his face. Then she said gravely to them both, "This thing stops here."
"Latte! latte!" cried Perfetta, hilariously ascending the stairs.
"Remember," she continued, "there is to be no revenge. I will have no more intentional evil. We are not to fight with each other any more."
"I shall never forgive him," sighed Philip.
"Latte! latte freschissima! bianca come neve!" Perfetta came in with another lamp and a little jug.
Gino spoke for the first time. "Put the milk on the table," he said. "It will not be wanted in the other room." The peril was over at last. A great sob shook the whole body, another followed, and then he gave a piercing cry of woe, and stumbled towards Miss Abbott like a child and clung to her.
All through the day Miss Abbott had seemed to Philip like a goddess, and more than ever did she seem so now. Many people look younger and more intimate during great emotion. But some there are who look older, and remote, and he could not think that there was little difference in years, and none in composition, between her and the man whose head was laid upon her breast. Her eyes were open, full of infinite pity and full of majesty, as if they discerned the boundaries of sorrow, and saw unimaginable tracts beyond. Such eyes he had seen in great pictures but never in a mortal. Her hands were folded round the sufferer, stroking him lightly, for even a goddess can do no more than that. And it seemed fitting, too, that she should bend her head and touch his forehead with her lips.
Philip looked away, as he sometimes looked away from the great pictures where visible forms suddenly become inadequate for the things they have shown to us. He was happy; he was assured that there was greatness in the world. There came to him an earnest desire to be good through the example of this good woman. He would try henceforward to be worthy of the things she had revealed. Quietly, without hysterical prayers or banging of drums, he underwent conversion. He was saved.
"That milk," said she, "need not be wasted. Take it, Signor Carella, and persuade Mr. Herriton to drink."
Gino obeyed her, and carried the child's milk to Philip. And Philip obeyed also and drank.
"Is there any left?"
"A little," answered Gino.
"Then finish it." For she was determined to use such remnants as lie about the world.
"Will you not have some?"
"I do not care for milk; finish it all."
"Philip, have you had enough milk?"
"Yes, thank you, Gino; finish it all."
He drank the milk, and then, either by accident or in some spasm of pain, broke the jug to pieces. Perfetta exclaimed in bewilderment. "It does not matter," he told her. "It does not matter. It will never be wanted any more."