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    The Letter

    by Edith Wharton
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    I

    For many years he had lived withdrawn from the world in which he had
    once played so active and even turbulent a part. The study of Tuscan
    art was his only pursuit, and it was to help him in the
    classification of his notes and documents that I was first called to
    his villa. Colonel Alingdon had then the look of a very old man,
    though his age can hardly have exceeded seventy. He was small and
    bent, with a finely wrinkled face which still wore the tan of
    youthful exposure. But for this dusky redness it would have been
    hard to reconstruct from the shrunken recluse, with his low
    fastidious voice and carefully tended hands, an image of that young
    knight of adventure whose sword had been at the service of every
    uprising which stirred the uneasy soil of Italy in the first half of
    the nineteenth century.

    Though I was more of a proficient in Colonel Alingdon's later than
    his earlier pursuits, the thought of his soldiering days was always
    coming between me and the pacific work of his old age. As we sat
    collating papers and comparing photographs, I had the feeling that
    this dry and quiet old man had seen even stranger things than people
    said: that he knew more of the inner history of Europe than half the
    diplomatists of his day.

    I was not alone in this conviction; and the friend who had engaged
    me for Colonel Alingdon had appended to his instructions the
    injunction to "get him to talk." But this was what no one could do.
    Colonel Alingdon was ready to discuss by the hour the date of a
    Giottesque triptych, or the attribution of a disputed master; but on
    the history of his early life he was habitually silent.

    It was perhaps because I recognized this silence and respected it
    that it afterward came to be broken for me. Or it was perhaps merely
    because, as the failure of Colonel Alingdon's sight cut him off from
    his work, he felt the natural inclination of age to revert from the
    empty present to the crowded past. For one cause or another he _did_
    talk to me in the last year of his life; and I felt myself mingled,
    to an extent inconceivable to the mere reader of history, with the
    passionate scenes of the Italian struggle for liberty. Colonel
    Alingdon had been mixed with it in all its phases: he had known the
    last Carbonari and the Young Italy of Mazzini; he had been in
    Perugia when the mercenaries of a liberal Pope slaughtered women and
    children in the streets; he had been in Sicily with the Thousand,
    and in Milan during the _Cinque Giornate_.

    "They say the Italians didn't know how to fight," he said one day,
    musingly--"that the French had to come down and do their work for
    them. People forget how long it was since they had had any fighting
    to do. But they hadn't forgotten how to suffer and hold their
    tongues; how to die and take their secrets with them. The Italian
    war of independence was really carried on underground: it was one of
    those awful silent struggles which are so much more terrible than
    the roar of a battle. It's a deuced sight easier to charge with your
    regiment than to lie rotting in an Austrian prison and know that if
    you give up the name of a friend or two you can go back scot-free to
    your wife and children. And thousands and thousands of Italians had
    the choice given them--and hardly one went back."

    He sat silent, his meditative fingertips laid together, his eyes
    fixed on the past which was the now only thing clearly visible to
    them.

    "And the women?" I said. "Were they as brave as the men?"

    I had not spoken quite at random. I had always heard that there had
    been as much of love as of war in Colonel Alingdon's early career,
    and I hoped that my question might give a personal turn to his
    reminiscences.

    "The women?" he repeated. "They were braver--for they had more to
    bear and less to do. Italy could never have been saved without
    them."

    His eye had kindled and I detected in it the reflection of some
    vivid memory. It was then that I asked him what was the bravest
    thing he had ever known of a woman's doing.

    The question was such a vague one that I hardly knew why I had put
    it, but to my surprise he answered almost at once, as though I had
    touched on a subject of frequent meditation.

    "The bravest thing I ever saw done by a woman," he said, "was
    brought about by an act of my own--and one of which I am not
    particularly proud. For that reason I have never spoken of it
    before--there was a time when I didn't even care to think of it--but
    all that is past now. She died years ago, and so did the Jack
    Alingdon she knew, and in telling you the story I am no more than
    the mouthpiece of an old tradition which some ancestor might have
    handed down to me."

    He leaned back, his clear blind gaze fixed smilingly on me, and I
    had the feeling that, in groping through the labyrinth of his young
    adventures, I had come unawares upon their central point.

    II

    When I was in Milan in 'forty-seven an unlucky thing happened to me.

    I had been sent there to look over the ground by some of my Italian
    friends in England. As an English officer I had no difficulty in
    getting into Milanese society, for England had for years been the
    refuge of the Italian fugitives, and I was known to be working in
    their interests. It was just the kind of job I liked, and I never
    enjoyed life more than I did in those days. There was a great deal
    going on--good music, balls and theatres. Milan kept up her gayety
    to the last. The English were shocked by the _insouciance_ of a race
    who could dance under the very nose of the usurper; but those who
    understood the situation knew that Milan was playing Brutus, and
    playing it uncommonly well.

    I was in the thick of it all--it was just the atmosphere to suit a
    young fellow of nine-and-twenty, with a healthy passion for waltzing
    and fighting. But, as I said, an unlucky thing happened to me. I was
    fool enough to fall in love with Donna Candida Falco. You have heard
    of her, of course: you know the share she had in the great work. In
    a different way she was what the terrible Princess Belgioioso had
    been to an earlier generation. But Donna Candida was not terrible.
    She was quiet, discreet and charming. When I knew her she was a
    widow of thirty, her husband, Andrea Falco, having died ten years
    previously, soon after their marriage. The marriage had been
    notoriously unhappy, and his death was a release to Donna Candida.
    Her family were of Modena, but they had come to live in Milan soon
    after the execution of Ciro Menotti and his companions. You remember
    the details of that business? The Duke of Modena, one of the most
    adroit villains in Europe, had been bitten with the hope of uniting
    the Italian states under his rule. It was a vision of Italian
    liberation--of a sort. A few madmen were dazzled by it, and Ciro
    Menotti was one of them. You know the end. The Duke of Modena, who
    had counted on Louis Philippe's backing, found that that astute
    sovereign had betrayed him to Austria. Instantly, he saw that his
    first business was to get rid of the conspirators he had created.
    There was nothing easier than for a Hapsburg Este to turn on a
    friend. Ciro Menotti had staked his life for the Duke--and the Duke
    took it. You may remember that, on the night when seven hundred men
    and a cannon attacked Menotti's house, the Duke was seen looking on
    at the slaughter from an arcade across the square.

    Well, among the lesser fry taken that night was a lad of eighteen,
    Emilio Verna, who was the only brother of Donna Candida. The Verna
    family was one of the most respected in Modena. It consisted, at
    that time, of the mother, Countess Verna, of young Emilio and his
    sister. Count Verna had been in Spielberg in the twenties. He had
    never recovered from his sufferings there, and died in exile,
    without seeing his wife and children again. Countess Verna had been
    an ardent patriot in her youth, but the failure of the first
    attempts against Austria had discouraged her. She thought that in
    losing her husband she had sacrificed enough for her country, and
    her one idea was to keep Emilio on good terms with the government.
    But the Verna blood was not tractable, and his father's death was
    not likely to make Emilio a good subject of the Estes. Not that he
    had as yet taken any active share in the work of the conspirators:
    he simply hadn't had time. At his trial there was nothing to show
    that he had been in Menotti's confidence; but he had been seen once
    or twice coming out of what the ducal police called "suspicious"
    houses, and in his desk were found some verses to Italy. That was
    enough to hang a man in Modena, and Emilio Verna was hanged.

    The Countess never recovered from the blow. The circumstances of her
    son's death were too abominable, to unendurable. If he had risked
    his life in the conspiracy, she might have been reconciled to his
    losing it. But he was a mere child, who had sat at home, chafing but
    powerless, while his seniors plotted and fought. He had been
    sacrificed to the Duke's insane fear, to his savage greed for
    victims, and the Countess Verna was not to be consoled.

    As soon as possible, the mother and daughter left Modena for Milan.
    There they lived in seclusion till Candida's marriage. During her
    girlhood she had had to accept her mother's view of life: to shut
    herself up in the tomb in which the poor woman brooded over her
    martyrs. But that was not the girl's way of honoring the dead. At
    the moment when the first shot was fired on Menotti's house she had
    been reading Petrarch's Ode to the Lords of Italy, and the lines
    _l'antico valor Ne Vitalici cor non e ancor morto_ had lodged like a
    bullet in her brain. From the day of her marriage she began to take
    a share in the silent work which was going on throughout Italy.
    Milan was at that time the centre of the movement, and Candida Falco
    threw herself into it with all the passion which her unhappy
    marriage left unsatisfied. At first she had to act with great
    reserve, for her husband was a prudent man, who did not care to have
    his habits disturbed by political complications; but after his death
    there was nothing to restrain her, except the exquisite tact which
    enabled her to work night and day in the Italian cause without
    giving the Austrian authorities a pretext for interference.

    When I first knew Donna Candida, her mother was still living: a
    tragic woman, prematurely bowed, like an image of death in the
    background of the daughter's brilliant life. The Countess, since her
    son's death, had become a patriot again, though in a narrower sense
    than Candida. The mother's first thought was that her dead must be
    avenged, the daughter's that Italy must be saved; but from different
    motives they worked for the same end. Candida felt for the Countess
    that protecting tenderness with which Italian children so often
    regard their parents, a feeling heightened by the reverence which
    the mother's sufferings inspired. Countess Verna, as the wife and
    mother of martyrs, had done what Candida longed to do: she had given
    her utmost to Italy. There must have been moments when the
    self-absorption of her grief chilled her daughter's ardent spirit;
    but Candida revered in her mother the image of their afflicted
    country.

    "It was too terrible," she said, speaking of what the Countess had
    suffered after Emilio's death. "All the circumstances were too
    unmerciful. It seemed as if God had turned His face from my mother;
    as if she had been singled out to suffer more than any of the
    others. All the other families received some message or token of
    farewell from the prisoners. One of them bribed the gaoler to carry
    a letter--another sent a lock of hair by the chaplain. But Emilio
    made no sign, sent no word. My mother felt as though he had turned
    his back on us. She used to sit for hours, saying again and again,
    'Why was he the only one to forget his mother?' I tried to comfort
    her, but it was useless: she had suffered too much. Now I never
    reason with her; I listen, and let her ease her poor heart. Do you
    know, she still asks me sometimes if I think he may have left a
    letter--if there is no way of finding out if he left one? She
    forgets that I have tried again and again: that I have sent bribes
    and messages to the gaoler, the chaplain, to every one who came near
    him. The answer is always the same--no one has ever heard of a
    letter. I suppose the poor boy was stunned, and did not think of
    writing. Who knows what was passing through his poor bewildered
    brain? But it would have been a great help to my mother to have a
    word from him. If I had known how to imitate his writing I should
    have forged a letter."

    I knew enough of the Italians to understand how her boy's silence
    must have aggravated the Countess's grief. Precious as a message
    from a dying son would be to any mother, such signs of tenderness
    have to the Italians a peculiar significance. The Latin race is
    rhetorical: it possesses the gift of death-bed eloquence, the knack
    of saying the effective thing on momentous occasions. The letters
    which the Italian patriots sent home from their prisons or from the
    scaffold are not the halting farewells that anguish would have wrung
    from a less expressive race: they are veritable "compositions,"
    saved from affectation only by the fact that fluency and sonority
    are a part of the Latin inheritance. Such letters, passed from hand
    to hand among the bereaved families, were not only a comfort to the
    survivors but an incentive to fresh sacrifices. They were the "seed
    of the martyrs" with which Italy was being sown; and I knew what it
    meant to the Countess Verna to have no such treasure in her bosom,
    to sit silent while other mothers quoted their sons' last words.

    I said just now that it was an unlucky day for me when I fell in
    love with Donna Candida; and no doubt you have guessed the reason.
    She was in love with some one else. It was the old situation of
    Heine's song. That other loved another--loved Italy, and with an
    undivided passion. His name was Fernando Briga, and at that time he
    was one of the foremost liberals in Italy. He came of a middle-class
    Modenese family. His father was a doctor, a prudent man, engrossed
    in his profession and unwilling to compromise it by meddling in
    politics. His irreproachable attitude won the confidence of the
    government, and the Duke conferred on him the sinister office of
    physician to the prisons of Modena. It was this Briga who attended
    Emilio Falco, and several of the other prisoners who were executed
    at the same time.

    Under shelter of his father's loyalty young Fernando conspired in
    safety. He was studying medicine, and every one supposed him to be
    absorbed in his work; but as a matter of fact he was fast ripening
    into one of Mazzini's ablest lieutenants. His career belongs to
    history, so I need not enlarge on it here. In 1847 he was in Milan,
    and had become one of the leading figures in the liberal group which
    was working for a coalition with Piedmont. Like all the ablest men
    of his day, he had cast off Mazziniism and pinned his faith to the
    house of Savoy. The Austrian government had an eye on him, but he
    had inherited his father's prudence, though he used it for nobler
    ends, and his discretion enabled him to do far more for the cause
    than a dozen enthusiasts could have accomplished. No one understood
    this better than Donna Candida. She had a share of his caution, and
    he trusted her with secrets which he would not have confided to many
    men. Her drawing-room was the centre of the Piedmontese party, yet
    so clever was she in averting suspicion that more than one hunted
    conspirator hid in her house, and was helped across the Alps by her
    agents.

    Briga relied on her as he did on no one else; but he did not love
    her, and she knew it. Still, she was young, she was handsome, and he
    loved no one else: how could she give up hoping? From her intimate
    friends she made no secret of her feelings: Italian women are not
    reticent in such matters, and Donna Candida was proud of loving a
    hero. You will see at once that I had no chance; but if she could
    not give up hope, neither could I. Perhaps in her desire to secure
    my services for the cause she may have shown herself overkind; or
    perhaps I was still young enough to set down to my own charms a
    success due to quite different causes. At any rate, I persuaded
    myself that if I could manage to do something conspicuous for Italy
    I might yet make her care for me. With such an incentive you will
    not wonder that I worked hard; but though Donna Candida was full of
    gratitude she continued to adore my rival.

    One day we had a hot scene. I began, I believe, by reproaching her
    with having led me on; and when she defended herself, I retaliated
    by taunting her with Briga's indifference. She grew pale at that,
    and said it was enough to love a hero, even without hope of return;
    and as she said it she herself looked so heroic, so radiant, so
    unattainably the woman I wanted, that a sneer may have escaped
    me:--was she so sure then that Briga was a hero? I remember her
    proud silence and our wretched parting. I went away feeling that at
    last I had really lost her; and the thought made me savage and
    vindictive.

    Soon after, as it happened, came the _Five Days_, and Milan was
    free. I caught a distant glimpse of Donna Candida in the hospital to
    which I was carried after the fight; but my wound was a slight one
    and in twenty-four hours I was about again on crutches. I hoped she
    might send for me, but she did not, and I was too sulky to make the
    first advance. A day or two later I heard there had been a commotion
    in Modena, and not being in fighting trim I got leave to go over
    there with one or two men whom the Modenese liberals had called in
    to help them. When we arrived the precious Duke had been swept out
    and a provisional government set up. One of my companions, who was a
    Modenese, was made a member, and knowing that I wanted something to
    do, he commissioned me to look up some papers in the ducal archives.
    It was fascinating work, for in the pursuit of my documents I
    uncovered the hidden springs of his late Highness's paternal
    administration. The principal papers relative to the civil and
    criminal administration of Modena have since been published, and the
    world knows how that estimable sovereign cared for the material and
    spiritual welfare of his subjects.

    Well--in the course of my search, I came across a file of old papers
    marked: "Taken from political prisoners. A.D. 1831." It was the year
    of Menotti's conspiracy, and everything connected with that date was
    thrilling. I loosened the band and ran over the letters. Suddenly I
    came across one which was docketed: "Given by Doctor Briga's son to
    the warder of His Highness's prisons." _Doctor Briga's son?_ That
    could be no other than Fernando: I knew he was an only child. But
    how came such a paper into his hands, and how had it passed from
    them into those of the Duke's warder? My own hands shook as I opened
    the letter--I felt the man suddenly in my power.

    Then I began to read. "My adored mother, even in this lowest circle
    of hell all hearts are not closed to pity, and I have been given the
    hope that these last words of farewell may reach you...." My eyes
    ran on over pages of plaintive rhetoric. "Embrace for me my adored
    Candida...let her never forget the cause for which her father
    and brother perished...let her keep alive in her breast the
    thought of Spielberg and Reggio. Do not grieve that I die so young...
    though not with those heroes in deed I was with them in spirit,
    and am worthy to be enrolled in the sacred phalanx..." and so on.
    Before I reached the signature I knew the letter was from Emilio
    Verna.

    I put it in my pocket, finished my work and started immediately for
    Milan. I didn't quite know what I meant to do--my head was in a
    whirl. I saw at once what must have happened. Fernando Briga, then a
    lad of fifteen or sixteen, had attended his father in prison during
    Emilio Verna's last hours, and the latter, perhaps aware of the
    lad's liberal sympathies, had found an opportunity of giving him the
    letter. But why had Briga given it up to the warder? That was the
    puzzling question. The docket said: "_ Given by_ Doctor Briga's
    son"--but it might mean "taken from." Fernando might have been seen
    to receive the letter and might have been searched on leaving the
    prison. But that would not account for his silence afterward. How
    was it that, if he knew of the letter, he had never told Emilio's
    family of it? There was only one explanation. If the letter had been
    taken from him by force he would have had no reason for concealing
    its existence; and his silence was clear proof that he had given it
    up voluntarily, no doubt in the hope of standing well with the
    authorities. But then he was a traitor and a coward; the patriot of
    'forty-eight had begun life as an informer! But does innate
    character ever change so radically that the lad who has committed a
    base act at fifteen may grow up into an honorable man? A good man
    may be corrupted by life, but can the years turn a born sneak into a
    hero?

    You may fancy how I answered my own questions....If Briga had
    been false and cowardly then, was he not sure to be false and
    cowardly still? In those days there were traitors under every coat,
    and more than one brave fellow had been sold to the police by his
    best friend....You will say that Briga's record was unblemished,
    that he had exposed himself to danger too frequently, had stood by
    his friends too steadfastly, to permit of a rational doubt of his
    good faith. So reason might have told me in a calmer moment, but she
    was not allowed to make herself heard just then. I was young, I was
    angry, I chose to think I had been unfairly treated, and perhaps at
    my rival's instigation. It was not unlikely that Briga knew of my
    love for Donna Candida, and had encouraged her to use it in the good
    cause. Was she not always at his bidding? My blood boiled at the
    thought, and reaching Milan in a rage I went straight to Donna
    Candida.

    I had measured the exact force of the blow I was going to deal. The
    triumph of the liberals in Modena had revived public interest in the
    unsuccessful struggle of their predecessors, the men who, sixteen
    years earlier, had paid for the same attempt with their lives. The
    victors of 'forty-eight wished to honor the vanquished of
    'thirty-two. All the families exiled by the ducal government were
    hastening back to recover possession of their confiscated property
    and of the graves of their dead. Already it had been decided to
    raise a monument to Menotti and his companions. There were to be
    speeches, garlands, a public holiday: the thrill of the
    commemoration would run through Europe. You see what it would have
    meant to the poor Countess to appear on the scene with her boy's
    letter in her hand; and you see also what the memorandum on the back
    of the letter would have meant to Donna Candida. Poor Emilio's
    farewell would be published in all the journals of Europe: the
    finding of the letter would be on every one's lips. And how conceal
    those fatal words on the back? At the moment, it seemed to me that
    fortune could not have given me a handsomer chance of destroying my
    rival than in letting me find the letter which he stood convicted of
    having suppressed.

    My sentiment was perhaps not a strictly honorable one; yet what
    could I do but give the letter to Donna Candida? To keep it back was
    out of the question; and with the best will in the world I could not
    have erased Briga's name from the back. The mistake I made was in
    thinking it lucky that the paper had fallen into my hands.

    Donna Candida was alone when I entered. We had parted in anger, but
    she held out her hand with a smile of pardon, and asked what news I
    brought from Modena. The smile exasperated me: I felt as though she
    were trying to get me into her power again.

    "I bring you a letter from your brother," I said, and handed it to
    her. I had purposely turned the superscription downward, so that she
    should not see it.

    She uttered an incredulous cry and tore the letter open. A light
    struck up from it into her face as she read--a radiance that smote
    me to the soul. For a moment I longed to snatch the paper from her
    and efface the name on the back. It hurt me to think how short-lived
    her happiness must be.

    Then she did a fatal thing. She came up to me, caught my two hands
    and kissed them. "Oh, thank you--bless you a thousand times! He died
    thinking of us--he died loving Italy!"

    I put her from me gently: it was not the kiss I wanted, and the
    touch of her lips hardened me.

    She shone on me through her happy tears. "What happiness--what
    consolation you have brought my poor mother! This will take the
    bitterness from her grief. And that it should come to her now! Do
    you know, she had a presentiment of it? When we heard of the Duke's
    flight her first word was: 'Now we may find Emilio's letter.' At
    heart she was always sure that he had written--I suppose some
    blessed instinct told her so." She dropped her face on her hands,
    and I saw her tears fall on the wretched letter.

    In a moment she looked up again, with eyes that blessed and trusted
    me. "Tell me where you found it," she said.

    I told her.

    "Oh, the savages! They took it from him--"

    My opportunity had come. "No," I said, "it appears they did _not_
    take it from him."

    "Then how--"

    I waited a moment. "The letter," I said, looking full at her, "was
    given up to the warder of the prison by the son of Doctor Briga."

    She stared, repeating the words slowly. "The son of Doctor Briga?
    But that is--Fernando," she said.

    "I have always understood," I replied, "that your friend was an only
    son."

    I had expected an outcry of horror; if she had uttered it I could
    have forgiven her anything. But I heard, instead, an incredulous
    exclamation: my statement was really too preposterous! I saw that
    her mind had flashed back to our last talk, and that she charged me
    with something too nearly true to be endurable.

    "My brother's letter? Given to the prison warder by Fernando Briga?
    My dear Captain Alingdon--on what authority do you expect me to
    believe such a tale?"

    Her incredulity had in it an evident implication of bad faith, and I
    was stung to a quick reply.

    "If you will turn over the letter you will see."

    She continued to gaze at me a moment: then she obeyed. I don't think
    I ever admired her more than I did then. As she read the name a
    tremor crossed her face; and that was all. Her mind must have
    reached out instantly to the farthest consequences of the discovery,
    but the long habit of self-command enabled her to steady her muscles
    at once. If I had not been on the alert I should have seen no hint
    of emotion.

    For a while she looked fixedly at the back of the letter; then she
    raised her eyes to mine.

    "Can you tell me who wrote this?" she asked.

    Her composure irritated me. She had rallied all her forces to
    Briga's defence, and I felt as though my triumph were slipping from
    me.

    "Probably one of the clerks of the archives," I answered. "It is
    written in the same hand as all the other memoranda relating to the
    political prisoners of that year."

    "But it is a lie!" she exclaimed. "He was never admitted to the
    prisons."

    "Are you sure?"

    "How should he have been?"

    "He might have gone as his father's assistant."

    "But if he had seen my poor brother he would have told me long ago."

    "Not if he had really given up this letter," I retorted.

    I supposed her quick intelligence had seized this from the first;
    but I saw now that it came to her as a shock. She stood motionless,
    clenching the letter in her hands, and I could guess the rapid
    travel of her thoughts.

    Suddenly she came up to me. "Colonel Alingdon," she said, "you have
    been a good friend of mine, though I think you have not liked me
    lately. But whether you like me or not, I know you will not deceive
    me. On your honor, do you think this memorandum may have been
    written later than the letter?"

    I hesitated. If she had cried out once against Briga I should have
    wished myself out of the business; but she was too sure of him.

    "On my honor," I said, "I think it hardly possible. The ink has
    faded to the same degree."

    She made a rapid comparison and folded the letter with a gesture of
    assent.

    "It may have been written by an enemy," I went on, wishing to clear
    myself of any appearance of malice.

    She shook her head. "He was barely fifteen--and his father was on
    the side of the government. Besides, this would have served him with
    the government, and the liberals would never have known of it."

    This was unanswerable--and still not a word of revolt against the
    man whose condemnation she was pronouncing!

    "Then--" I said with a vague gesture.

    She caught me up. "Then--?"

    "You have answered my objections," I returned.

    "Your objections?"

    "To thinking that Signor Briga could have begun his career as a
    patriot by betraying a friend."

    I had brought her to the test at last, but my eyes shrank from her
    face as I spoke. There was a dead silence, which I broke by adding
    lamely: "But no doubt Signor Briga could explain."

    She lifted her head, and I saw that my triumph was to be short. She
    stood erect, a few paces from me, resting her hand on a table, but
    not for support.

    "Of course he can explain," she said; "do you suppose I ever doubted
    it? But--" she paused a moment, fronting me nobly--"he need not, for
    I understand it all now."

    "Ah," I murmured with a last flicker of irony.

    "I understand," she repeated. It was she, now, who sought my eyes
    and held them. "It is quite simple--he could not have done
    otherwise."

    This was a little too oracular to be received with equanimity. I
    suppose I smiled.

    "He could not have done otherwise," she repeated with tranquil
    emphasis. "He merely did what is every Italian's duty--he put Italy
    before himself and his friends." She waited a moment, and then went
    on with growing passion: "Surely you must see what I mean? He was
    evidently in the prison with his father at the time of my poor
    brother's death. Emilio perhaps guessed that he was a friend--or
    perhaps appealed to him because he was young and looked kind. But
    don't you see how dangerous it would have been for Briga to bring
    this letter to us, or even to hide it in his father's house? It is
    true that he was not yet suspected of liberalism, but he was already
    connected with Young Italy, and it is just because he managed to
    keep himself so free of suspicion that he was able to do such good
    work for the cause." She paused, and then went on with a firmer
    voice. "You don't know the danger we all lived in. The government
    spies were everywhere. The laws were set aside as the Duke
    pleased--was not Emilio hanged for having an ode to Italy in his
    desk? After Menotti's conspiracy the Duke grew mad with fear--he was
    haunted by the dread of assassination. The police, to prove their
    zeal, had to trump up false charges and arrest innocent persons--you
    remember the case of poor Ricci? Incriminating papers were smuggled
    into people's houses--they were condemned to death on the paid
    evidence of brigands and galley-slaves. The families of the
    revolutionists were under the closest observation and were shunned
    by all who wished to stand well with the government. If Briga had
    been seen going into our house he would at once have been suspected.
    If he had hidden Emilio's letter at home, its discovery might have
    ruined his family as well as himself. It was his duty to consider
    all these things. In those days no man could serve two masters, and
    he had to choose between endangering the cause and failing to serve
    a friend. He chose the latter--and he was right."

    I stood listening, fascinated by the rapidity and skill with which
    she had built up the hypothesis of Briga's defence. But before she
    ended a strange thing happened--her argument had convinced me. It
    seemed to me quite likely that Briga had in fact been actuated by
    the motives she suggested.

    I suppose she read the admission in my face, for hers lit up
    victoriously.

    "You see?" she exclaimed. "Ah, it takes one brave man to understand
    another."

    Perhaps I winced a little at being thus coupled with her hero; at
    any rate, some last impulse of resistance made me say: "I should be
    quite convinced, if Briga had only spoken of the letter afterward.
    If brave people understand each other, I cannot see why he should
    have been afraid of telling you the truth."

    She colored deeply, and perhaps not quite resentfully.

    "You are right," she said; "he need not have been afraid. But he
    does not know me as I know him. I was useful to Italy, and he may
    have feared to risk my friendship."

    "You are the most generous woman I ever knew!" I exclaimed.

    She looked at me intently. "You also are generous," she said.

    I stiffened instantly, suspecting a purpose behind her praise. "I
    have given you small proof of it!" I said.

    She seemed surprised. "In bringing me this letter? What else could
    you do?" She sighed deeply. "You can give me proof enough now."

    She had dropped into a chair, and I saw that we had reached the most
    difficult point in our interview.

    "Captain Alingdon," she said, "does any one else know of this
    letter?"

    "No. I was alone in the archives when I found it."

    "And you spoke of it to no one?"

    "To no one."

    "Then no one must know."

    I bowed. "It is for you to decide."

    She paused. "Not even my mother," she continued, with a painful
    blush.

    I looked at her in amazement. "Not even--?"

    She shook her head sadly. "You think me a cruel daughter? Well--_he_
    was a cruel friend. What he did was done for Italy: shall I allow
    myself to be surpassed?"

    I felt a pang of commiseration for the mother. "But you will at
    least tell the Countess--"

    Her eyes filled with tears. "My poor mother--don't make it more
    difficult for me!"

    "But I don't understand--"

    "Don't you see that she might find it impossible to forgive him? She
    has suffered so much! And I can't risk that--for in her anger she
    might speak. And even if she forgave him, she might be tempted to
    show the letter. Don't you see that, even now, a word of this might
    ruin him? I will trust his fate to no one. If Italy needed him then
    she needs him far more to-day."

    She stood before me magnificently, in the splendor of her great
    refusal; then she turned to the writing-table at which she had been
    seated when I came in. Her sealing-taper was still alight, and she
    held her brother's letter to the flame.

    I watched her in silence while it burned; but one more question rose
    to my lips.

    "You will tell _him_, then, what you have done for him?" I cried.

    And at that the heroine turned woman, melted and pressed unhappy
    hands in mine.

    "Don't you see that I can never tell him what I do for him? That is
    my gift to Italy," she said.

    The Dilettante.

    IT was on an impulse hardly needing the arguments he found himself
    advancing in its favor, that Thursdale, on his way to the club,
    turned as usual into Mrs. Vervain's street.

    The "as usual" was his own qualification of the act; a convenient
    way of bridging the interval--in days and other sequences--that lay
    between this visit and the last. It was characteristic of him that
    he instinctively excluded his call two days earlier, with Ruth
    Gaynor, from the list of his visits to Mrs. Vervain: the special
    conditions attending it had made it no more like a visit to Mrs.
    Vervain than an engraved dinner invitation is like a personal
    letter. Yet it was to talk over his call with Miss Gaynor that he
    was now returning to the scene of that episode; and it was because
    Mrs. Vervain could be trusted to handle the talking over as
    skilfully as the interview itself that, at her corner, he had felt
    the dilettante's irresistible craving to take a last look at a work
    of art that was passing out of his possession.

    On the whole, he knew no one better fitted to deal with the
    unexpected than Mrs. Vervain. She excelled in the rare art of taking
    things for granted, and Thursdale felt a pardonable pride in the
    thought that she owed her excellence to his training. Early in his
    career Thursdale had made the mistake, at the outset of his
    acquaintance with a lady, of telling her that he loved her and
    exacting the same avowal in return. The latter part of that episode
    had been like the long walk back from a picnic, when one has to
    carry all the crockery one has finished using: it was the last time
    Thursdale ever allowed himself to be encumbered with the debris of a
    feast. He thus incidentally learned that the privilege of loving her
    is one of the least favors that a charming woman can accord; and in
    seeking to avoid the pitfalls of sentiment he had developed a
    science of evasion in which the woman of the moment became a mere
    implement of the game. He owed a great deal of delicate enjoyment to
    the cultivation of this art. The perils from which it had been his
    refuge became naively harmless: was it possible that he who now took
    his easy way along the levels had once preferred to gasp on the raw
    heights of emotion? Youth is a high-colored season; but he had the
    satisfaction of feeling that he had entered earlier than most into
    that chiar'oscuro of sensation where every half-tone has its value.

    As a promoter of this pleasure no one he had known was comparable to
    Mrs. Vervain. He had taught a good many women not to betray their
    feelings, but he had never before had such fine material to work in.
    She had been surprisingly crude when he first knew her; capable of
    making the most awkward inferences, of plunging through thin ice, of
    recklessly undressing her emotions; but she had acquired, under the
    discipline of his reticences and evasions, a skill almost equal to
    his own, and perhaps more remarkable in that it involved keeping
    time with any tune he played and reading at sight some uncommonly
    difficult passages.

    It had taken Thursdale seven years to form this fine talent; but the
    result justified the effort. At the crucial moment she had been
    perfect: her way of greeting Miss Gaynor had made him regret that he
    had announced his engagement by letter. it was an evasion that
    confessed a difficulty; a deviation implying an obstacle, where, by
    common consent, it was agreed to see none; it betrayed, in short, a
    lack of confidence in the completeness of his method. It had been
    his pride never to put himself in a position which had to be
    quitted, as it were, by the back door; but here, as he perceived,
    the main portals would have opened for him of their own accord. All
    this, and much more, he read in the finished naturalness with which
    Mrs. Vervain had met Miss Gaynor. He had never seen a better piece
    of work: there was no over-eagerness, no suspicious warmth, above
    all (and this gave her art the grace of a natural quality) there
    were none of those damnable implications whereby a woman, in
    welcoming her friend's betrothed, may keep him on pins and needles
    while she laps the lady in complacency. So masterly a performance,
    indeed, hardly needed the offset of Miss Gaynor's door-step
    words--"To be so kind to me, how she must have liked you!"--though
    he caught himself wishing it lay within the bounds of fitness to
    transmit them, as a final tribute, to the one woman he knew who was
    unfailingly certain to enjoy a good thing. It was perhaps the one
    drawback to his new situation that it might develop good things
    which it would be impossible to hand on to Margaret Vervain.

    The fact that he had made the mistake of underrating his friend's
    powers, the consciousness that his writing must have betrayed his
    distrust of her efficiency, seemed an added reason for turning down
    her street instead of going on to the club. He would show her that
    he knew how to value her; he would ask her to achieve with him a
    feat infinitely rarer and more delicate than the one he had appeared
    to avoid. Incidentally, he would also dispose of the interval of
    time before dinner: ever since he had seen Miss Gaynor off, an hour
    earlier, on her return journey to Buffalo, he had been wondering how
    he should put in the rest of the afternoon. It was absurd, how he
    missed the girl....Yes, that was it; the desire to talk about
    her was, after all, at the bottom of his impulse to call on Mrs.
    Vervain! It was absurd, if you like--but it was delightfully
    rejuvenating. He could recall the time when he had been afraid of
    being obvious: now he felt that this return to the primitive
    emotions might be as restorative as a holiday in the Canadian woods.
    And it was precisely by the girl's candor, her directness, her lack
    of complications, that he was taken. The sense that she might say
    something rash at any moment was positively exhilarating: if she had
    thrown her arms about him at the station he would not have given a
    thought to his crumpled dignity. It surprised Thursdale to find what
    freshness of heart he brought to the adventure; and though his sense
    of irony prevented his ascribing his intactness to any conscious
    purpose, he could but rejoice in the fact that his sentimental
    economies had left him such a large surplus to draw upon.

    Mrs. Vervain was at home--as usual. When one visits the cemetery one
    expects to find the angel on the tombstone, and it struck Thursdale
    as another proof of his friend's good taste that she had been in no
    undue haste to change her habits. The whole house appeared to count
    on his coming; the footman took his hat and overcoat as naturally as
    though there had been no lapse in his visits; and the drawing-room
    at once enveloped him in that atmosphere of tacit intelligence which
    Mrs. Vervain imparted to her very furniture.

    It was a surprise that, in this general harmony of circumstances,
    Mrs. Vervain should herself sound the first false note.

    "You?" she exclaimed; and the book she held slipped from her hand.

    It was crude, certainly; unless it were a touch of the finest art.
    The difficulty of classifying it disturbed Thursdale's balance.

    "Why not?" he said, restoring the book. "Isn't it my hour?" And as
    she made no answer, he added gently, "Unless it's some one else's?"

    She laid the book aside and sank back into her chair. "Mine,
    merely," she said.

    "I hope that doesn't mean that you're unwilling to share it?"

    "With you? By no means. You're welcome to my last crust."

    He looked at her reproachfully. "Do you call this the last?"

    She smiled as he dropped into the seat across the hearth. "It's a
    way of giving it more flavor!"

    He returned the smile. "A visit to you doesn't need such
    condiments."

    She took this with just the right measure of retrospective
    amusement.

    "Ah, but I want to put into this one a very special taste," she
    confessed.

    Her smile was so confident, so reassuring, that it lulled him into
    the imprudence of saying, "Why should you want it to be different
    from what was always so perfectly right?"

    She hesitated. "Doesn't the fact that it's the last constitute a
    difference?"

    "The last--my last visit to you?"

    "Oh, metaphorically, I mean--there's a break in the continuity."

    Decidedly, she was pressing too hard: unlearning his arts already!

    "I don't recognize it," he said. "Unless you make me--" he added,
    with a note that slightly stirred her attitude of languid attention.

    She turned to him with grave eyes. "You recognize no difference
    whatever?"

    "None--except an added link in the chain."

    "An added link?"

    "In having one more thing to like you for--your letting Miss Gaynor
    see why I had already so many." He flattered himself that this turn
    had taken the least hint of fatuity from the phrase.

    Mrs. Vervain sank into her former easy pose. "Was it that you came
    for?" she asked, almost gaily.

    "If it is necessary to have a reason--that was one."

    "To talk to me about Miss Gaynor?"

    "To tell you how she talks about you."

    "That will be very interesting--especially if you have seen her
    since her second visit to me."

    "Her second visit?" Thursdale pushed his chair back with a start and
    moved to another. "She came to see you again?"

    "This morning, yes--by appointment."

    He continued to look at her blankly. "You sent for her?"

    "I didn't have to--she wrote and asked me last night. But no doubt
    you have seen her since."

    Thursdale sat silent. He was trying to separate his words from his
    thoughts, but they still clung together inextricably. "I saw her off
    just now at the station."

    "And she didn't tell you that she had been here again?"

    "There was hardly time, I suppose--there were people about--" he
    floundered.

    "Ah, she'll write, then."

    He regained his composure. "Of course she'll write: very often, I
    hope. You know I'm absurdly in love," he cried audaciously.

    She tilted her head back, looking up at him as he leaned against the
    chimney-piece. He had leaned there so often that the attitude
    touched a pulse which set up a throbbing in her throat. "Oh, my poor
    Thursdale!" she murmured.

    "I suppose it's rather ridiculous," he owned; and as she remained
    silent, he added, with a sudden break--"Or have you another reason
    for pitying me?"

    Her answer was another question. "Have you been back to your rooms
    since you left her?"

    "Since I left her at the station? I came straight here."

    "Ah, yes--you _could:_ there was no reason--" Her words passed into
    a silent musing.

    Thursdale moved nervously nearer. "You said you had something to
    tell me?"

    "Perhaps I had better let her do so. There may be a letter at your
    rooms."

    "A letter? What do you mean? A letter from _her?_ What has
    happened?"

    His paleness shook her, and she raised a hand of reassurance.
    "Nothing has happened--perhaps that is just the worst of it. You
    always _hated_, you know," she added incoherently, "to have things
    happen: you never would let them."

    "And now--?"

    "Well, that was what she came here for: I supposed you had guessed.
    To know if anything had happened."

    "Had happened?" He gazed at her slowly. "Between you and me?" he
    said with a rush of light.

    The words were so much cruder than any that had ever passed between
    them that the color rose to her face; but she held his startled
    gaze.

    "You know girls are not quite as unsophisticated as they used to be.
    Are you surprised that such an idea should occur to her?"

    His own color answered hers: it was the only reply that came to him.

    Mrs. Vervain went on, smoothly: "I supposed it might have struck you
    that there were times when we presented that appearance."

    He made an impatient gesture. "A man's past is his own!"

    "Perhaps--it certainly never belongs to the woman who has shared it.
    But one learns such truths only by experience; and Miss Gaynor is
    naturally inexperienced."

    "Of course--but--supposing her act a natural one--" he floundered
    lamentably among his innuendoes--"I still don't see--how there was
    anything--"

    "Anything to take hold of? There wasn't--"

    "Well, then--?" escaped him, in crude satisfaction; but as she did
    not complete the sentence he went on with a faltering laugh: "She
    can hardly object to the existence of a mere friendship between us!"

    "But she does," said Mrs. Vervain.

    Thursdale stood perplexed. He had seen, on the previous day, no
    trace of jealousy or resentment in his betrothed: he could still
    hear the candid ring of the girl's praise of Mrs. Vervain. If she
    were such an abyss of insincerity as to dissemble distrust under
    such frankness, she must at least be more subtle than to bring her
    doubts to her rival for solution. The situation seemed one through
    which one could no longer move in a penumbra, and he let in a burst
    of light with the direct query: "Won't you explain what you mean?"

    Mrs. Vervain sat silent, not provokingly, as though to prolong his
    distress, but as if, in the attenuated phraseology he had taught
    her, it was difficult to find words robust enough to meet his
    challenge. It was the first time he had ever asked her to explain
    anything; and she had lived so long in dread of offering
    elucidations which were not wanted, that she seemed unable to
    produce one on the spot.

    At last she said slowly: "She came to find out if you were really
    free."

    Thursdale colored again. "Free?" he stammered, with a sense of
    physical disgust at contact with such crassness.

    "Yes--if I had quite done with you." She smiled in recovered
    security. "It seems she likes clear outlines; she has a passion for
    definitions."

    "Yes--well?" he said, wincing at the echo of his own subtlety.

    "Well--and when I told her that you had never belonged to me, she
    wanted me to define _my_ status--to know exactly where I had stood
    all along."

    Thursdale sat gazing at her intently; his hand was not yet on the
    clue. "And even when you had told her that--"

    "Even when I had told her that I had _had_ no status--that I had
    never stood anywhere, in any sense she meant," said Mrs. Vervain,
    slowly--"even then she wasn't satisfied, it seems."

    He uttered an uneasy exclamation. "She didn't believe you, you
    mean?"

    "I mean that she _did_ believe me: too thoroughly."

    "Well, then--in God's name, what did she want?"

    "Something more--those were the words she used."

    "Something more? Between--between you and me? Is it a conundrum?" He
    laughed awkwardly.

    "Girls are not what they were in my day; they are no longer
    forbidden to contemplate the relation of the sexes."

    "So it seems!" he commented. "But since, in this case, there wasn't
    any--" he broke off, catching the dawn of a revelation in her gaze.

    "That's just it. The unpardonable offence has been--in our not
    offending."

    He flung himself down despairingly. "I give it up!--What did you
    tell her?" he burst out with sudden crudeness.

    "The exact truth. If I had only known," she broke off with a
    beseeching tenderness, "won't you believe that I would still have
    lied for you?"

    "Lied for me? Why on earth should you have lied for either of us?"

    "To save you--to hide you from her to the last! As I've hidden you
    from myself all these years!" She stood up with a sudden tragic
    import in her movement. "You believe me capable of that, don't you?
    If I had only guessed--but I have never known a girl like her; she
    had the truth out of me with a spring."

    "The truth that you and I had never--"

    "Had never--never in all these years! Oh, she knew why--she measured
    us both in a flash. She didn't suspect me of having haggled with
    you--her words pelted me like hail. 'He just took what he
    wanted--sifted and sorted you to suit his taste. Burnt out the gold
    and left a heap of cinders. And you let him--you let yourself be cut
    in bits'--she mixed her metaphors a little--'be cut in bits, and
    used or discarded, while all the while every drop of blood in you
    belonged to him! But he's Shylock--and you have bled to death of the
    pound of flesh he has cut out of you.' But she despises me the most,
    you know--far the most--" Mrs. Vervain ended.

    The words fell strangely on the scented stillness of the room: they
    seemed out of harmony with its setting of afternoon intimacy, the
    kind of intimacy on which at any moment, a visitor might intrude
    without perceptibly lowering the atmosphere. It was as though a
    grand opera-singer had strained the acoustics of a private
    music-room.

    Thursdale stood up, facing his hostess. Half the room was between
    them, but they seemed to stare close at each other now that the
    veils of reticence and ambiguity had fallen.

    His first words were characteristic. "She _does_ despise me, then?"
    he exclaimed.

    "She thinks the pound of flesh you took was a little too near the
    heart."

    He was excessively pale. "Please tell me exactly what she said of
    me."

    "She did not speak much of you: she is proud. But I gather that
    while she understands love or indifference, her eyes have never been
    opened to the many intermediate shades of feeling. At any rate, she
    expressed an unwillingness to be taken with reservations--she thinks
    you would have loved her better if you had loved some one else
    first. The point of view is original--she insists on a man with a
    past!"

    "Oh, a past--if she's serious--I could rake up a past!" he said with
    a laugh.

    "So I suggested: but she has her eyes on his particular portion of
    it. She insists on making it a test case. She wanted to know what
    you had done to me; and before I could guess her drift I blundered
    into telling her."

    Thursdale drew a difficult breath. "I never supposed--your revenge
    is complete," he said slowly.

    He heard a little gasp in her throat. "My revenge? When I sent for
    you to warn you--to save you from being surprised as _I_ was
    surprised?"

    "You're very good--but it's rather late to talk of saving me." He
    held out his hand in the mechanical gesture of leave-taking.

    "How you must care!--for I never saw you so dull," was her answer.
    "Don't you see that it's not too late for me to help you?" And as he
    continued to stare, she brought out sublimely: "Take the rest--in
    imagination! Let it at least be of that much use to you. Tell her I
    lied to her--she's too ready to believe it! And so, after all, in a
    sense, I sha'n't have been wasted."

    His stare hung on her, widening to a kind of wonder. She gave the
    look back brightly, unblushingly, as though the expedient were too
    simple to need oblique approaches. It was extraordinary how a few
    words had swept them from an atmosphere of the most complex
    dissimulations to this contact of naked souls.

    It was not in Thursdale to expand with the pressure of fate; but
    something in him cracked with it, and the rift let in new light. He
    went up to his friend and took her hand.

    "You would do it--you would do it!"

    She looked at him, smiling, but her hand shook.

    "Good-by," he said, kissing it.

    "Good-by? You are going--?"

    "To get my letter."

    "Your letter? The letter won't matter, if you will only do what I
    ask."

    He returned her gaze. "I might, I suppose, without being out of
    character. Only, don't you see that if your plan helped me it could
    only harm her?"

    "Harm _her?_"

    "To sacrifice you wouldn't make me different. I shall go on being
    what I have always been--sifting and sorting, as she calls it. Do
    you want my punishment to fall on _her?_"

    She looked at him long and deeply. "Ah, if I had to choose between
    you--!"

    "You would let her take her chance? But I can't, you see. I must
    take my punishment alone."

    She drew her hand away, sighing. "Oh, there will be no punishment
    for either of you."

    "For either of us? There will be the reading of her letter for me."

    She shook her head with a slight laugh. "There will be no letter."

    Thursdale faced about from the threshold with fresh life in his
    look. "No letter? You don't mean--"

    "I mean that she's been with you since I saw her--she's seen you and
    heard your voice. If there _is_ a letter, she has recalled it--from
    the first station, by telegraph."

    He turned back to the door, forcing an answer to her smile. "But in
    the mean while I shall have read it," he said.

    The door closed on him, and she hid her eyes from the dreadful
    emptiness of the room.
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