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CHAPTER XXV.
"WE'LL BIND YOU FAST IN SILKEN CORDS."

Captain Hulbert was not selfish enough to plead for his personal happiness in the midst of a household shadowed by the foreboding of a great sorrow. Martin Disney's face, as he looked at his wife in those moments which too plainly marked the progress of decay, was in itself enough to put a check upon a lover's impatience. How could any man plead for his own pleasure—for the roses and sunshine of life—in the presence of that deep despair?

"He knows that he is doomed to lose her," thought Hulbert; "knows it, and yet tries to hope. I never saw such intense, unquestioning love. One asks one's self involuntarily about any woman—Is she worth it?"

And then he thought of Allegra, truthful and impulsive, strong as steel, transparent as crystal. Yes, such a woman as that was worth the whole of a man's heart—worthy that a man should live or die for her. But it seemed to him that to compare Isola with Allegra was to liken an ash sapling to an oak.

He resigned himself to his disappointment, talked no more of Venice and the starlit lagunes, the summer nights on the Lido, and quoted no more of Buskin's rhapsodies; but he came meekly day after day to join in the family excursion, whatever it might be. He had enough and to spare of ecclesiastical architecture and of the old masters during those summer-like mornings and afternoons. He heard more than enough of the mad C?sars and the bad C?sars, of wicked Empresses and of low-born favourites, of despotism throned in the palace and murder waiting at the gate, of tyranny drunken with power long abused, and treason on the watch for the golden opportunity to change one profligate master for another, ready to toss up for the new[Pg 274] C?sar, and to accept the basest slave for master, would be but open the Imperial treasury wide enough to the Pr?torian's rapacious hands.

"People gloat over these hoary old walls as if they would like to have lived under Caligula," said the sailor, with a touch of impatience, when Father Rodwell had been expatiating upon a little bit of moulding which decorated an imperial staircase.

"It would have been at least a picturesque time to have lived in," said Allegra. "Existence must have been a series of pictures by Alma Tadema."

Captain Hulbert was startled out of his state of placid submission by the intervention of a most unexpected ally.

It was one of the hottest days there had been since they came to Rome. To cross the Piazza in front of St. Peter's was like plunging into a bath of molten gold; while to enter the great Basilica itself was like going into an ice-house. Father Rodwell was not with them upon this particular morning. They were a party of four, and a roomy landau had been engaged to take them to the Church of St. Paul beyond the walls, and thence to the tomb of Cecilia Metella. Isola and Allegra had made pilgrimages to the spot before to-day. It was a drive they both loved, a glimpse of the pastoral life outside the gates of the city, and a place for ever associated with the poet whose verse was written in their hearts.

They dawdled over a light luncheon of macaroni and Roman wine at a café near the great cold white church, and then they drove through the sandy lanes in the heat of the afternoon, languid all of them, and Isola paler and more weary-looking than she had been for some time. Her husband watched her anxiously, and wanted to go back to Rome, lest the drive should be too exhausting for her.

"No, no, I am not tired," she answered impatiently. "I would much rather go on. I want to see that grim old tower[Pg 275] again," and then she quoted the familiar lines, dreamily, with a faint pleasure in their music—

"Perchance she died in youth: it may be bowed
With woes far heavier than the ponderous tomb
That weighed upon her gentle dust."

"Besides," she added confusedly, "I want to have a little private talk with Captain Hulbert, while Allegra is busy with her everlasting memoranda in that dirty little sketchbook which is stuffed with the pictures of the future. May I?"

She looked from her husband to Captain Hulbert pleadingly. The latter was first to answer.

"I am at your service, Mrs. Disney; ready to be interrogated, or lectured, or advised, whichever you like."

"I am not going to do either of the three. I am going to ask you a favour."

"Consider that to ask is to be obeyed."

They alighted in the road by the tomb a few minutes afterwards. Allegra's note-book was out immediately, a true artist's book, crammed with every conceivable form of artistic reminiscence.

"Go and talk," she said, waving her hand to Isola and Hulbert; and then she clambered up a bank opposite that tower of other days to get a vantage ground for her sketch.

She had made a score of sketches on the same spot, but there were always new details to jot down, new effects and ideas, on that vast level which frames the grandeur of Rome. Yonder the long line of the aqueduct; here the living beauty of broad-fronted oxen moving with stately paces along the dusty way, the incarnation of strength and majesty, patience and labour.

"Stay here and smoke your cigar, Martin," said Isola, "while Captain Hulbert and I go for a stroll."

Her husband smiled at her tenderly, cheered by her unwonted cheerfulness. His days and hours alternated between hope and despair. This was a moment of hope.

[Pg 276]

"My dearest, you are full of mystery to-day," he said, "and I am as full of curiosity. But I can wait. Consider me a statue of patience standing by the way-side, and take your time."

She put her hand through Hulbert's arm, and led him away from the other two, sauntering slowly along beside the grassy bank.

"I want to talk about your wedding," she said, as soon as they were out of hearing. "When are you and Allegra going to be married?"

"My dear Mrs. Disney, you know that I pledged myself to wait a year from the time of our engagement—a year from last Christmas—you must remember. That was to be my probation."

"Yes, I remember; but that is all foolishness—idle romance. Allegra knows that you love her. I don't think she could know it any better after another half-year's devotion on your part."

"I don't think she could know it better after another half century. I know I could never love her more than I do now. I know I shall never love her less."

"I believe that you are good and true," said Isola. "As true and—almost—as good as he is"—with a backward glance at her husband. "If I did not believe that I should not have thought of saying what I am going to say."

"I am honoured by your confidence in me."

"I love Allegra too well to hazard her happiness. I know she loves you—has never cared for any one else. She was heart-whole till she saw you. She had no more thought of love, or lovers, than a child. I want you to marry her soon, Captain Hulbert—very soon, before we leave Rome. Would you not like to be married in Rome?"

"I would like to be married in Kamtchatka, or Nova Zembla—or the worst of those places whose very names suggest uncomfortableness. There is no dismallest corner of the earth which Allegra could not glorify and make dear.[Pg 277] But, as you suggest, Rome is classic—Rome is medi?val—Rome is Roman Catholic. It would be a new sensation for a plain man like me to be married in Rome. I suppose it could not be managed in St. Peter's?"

"Oh, Captain Hulbert, I want you to be serious."

"I am serious. Why, this is a matter of life or death to me. But I pleaded so hard for a June wedding—and to no purpose. I talked with the artfulness of the first Tempter—I tried to play upon her vanities as an artist. All in vain!"

"Tell her that I have set my heart upon seeing her married," said Isola, in a low voice.

"Why, of course, you will see her married, whether she be married in Rome or at Trelasco. That is no argument."

"But it is; indeed it is. Tell her that, if I am to be at her wedding, it must be soon, very soon. Life is so uncertain at best—and, although I feel well and strong, sometimes—to-day, for instance—there are other times when I think the end is nearer than even my doctor suspects. And I know by his face that he does not give me a long lease of life."

"My dear Mrs. Disney, this is morbid. I am grieved to hear you talk in such a strain."

"Don't notice that. Don't say anything depressing to Allegra. I want her to go off to her Venetian honeymoon very happily—with not one cloud in her sky. She has been so good and dear to me. It would be hard if I could not rejoice in her happiness. I have rejoiced in it always; I shall take pleasure in it to the end of my life. It is the one unclouded spot——." She stopped with a troubled air. "Yes, it is a happy fate—to have cared for one, and one only, and to be loved again. Will you do what I ask you, Captain Hulbert? will you hurry on the wedding—for my sake?"

"I would do anything difficult and unwelcome for your sake—how much more will I hasten my own happiness—if I[Pg 278] can. But Allegra is a difficult personage—as firm as rock when she has once made up her mind. And she has made up her mind to stay with you till you are quite well and strong again."

"She need not leave me for ever, because she marries. She can come back to me after a long honeymoon. We can all meet in Switzerland in August—if—if I go there with Martin, as he proposes."

"Well, I will try to bend that stubborn will."

"And you don't mind having a quiet wedding, if she consents to a much earlier date?"

"Mind? The quieter the better for me! I think a smart wedding is a preventive of matrimony. That sounds like a bull. I will say I think there are many wretched bachelors living in dismal chambers, and preyed upon by landladies, who might have been happily married, but for the fear of a smart wedding. We will have as quiet a wedding as you and Disney can desire; but I should like Lostwithiel to be present. He is my only near relation, and I don't want to cut him on the happiest day of my life. Why, Mrs. Disney, you are trembling! You have agitated yourself about this business; you have talked too much for your strength. Let me take you back to the carriage."

"Presently—yes, yes. The heat overcame me for a moment, that's all. Would you mind not waiting for Lord Lostwithiel? I want the marriage to be at once—directly—as soon as Father Rodwell can get it arranged. And you don't know where a telegram would reach your brother?"

"Indeed, I do not; but by speculating a few messages of inquiry I could soon find out the whereabouts of the Eurydice."

"Don't wait for that. There would be delay. There must be delay if you have to consult any distant person's convenience. We are all here—you and Allegra, and Martin and I—and Father Rodwell would like to marry you. What do you want with anybody else?"

"Upon my word, I think you are right! Allegra is a[Pg 279] creature of impulse—where principle is not at stake. If I asked her to marry me six weeks hence she would parley and make terms. If I ask her to marry me in a few days—before we leave Rome—she may consent. Have you talked to your husband? Is he of your opinion?"

"I have said nothing to him; but I know he would be pleased to see you and Allegra bound together for life."

"I will talk to him this afternoon. One can get everything one wants in Rome, I believe, from a papal dispensation down to an English solicitor. If we can but rattle through some kind of marriage settlement to your husband's satisfaction we can be married on the earliest day to which my darling will consent. God bless you, Mrs. Disney, for your unselfish thought of other people's happiness! You are not like most invalids, who would let a sister languish in lifelong spinsterhood rather than lose her as a nurse. God grant that your unselfishness may be recompensed by speedy recovery!"

"There will be a weight off my mind when you and Allegra are married," said Isola, gravely.

They walked slowly back to the spot where they had left their companions. A pair of oxen, with an empty cart, were standing in the road below the tomb, their driver lounging across the rough vehicle—man and beasts motionless as marble. Allegra sat on a hillock opposite, sketching the group. She had bribed the man to draw up for a brief halt while she made her sketch. The massive heads were drooping under the afternoon sun; the tawny and cream-hued coats were stained with dust and purpled with the sweat of patient labour. The creatures looked as gracious and as wise as if they had been gods in disguise.

"Now, Allegra," said her brother, emptying the ashes out of his pipe, "are you ready to go home?"

"Yes, I have just jotted down what will serve to remind me of those splendid beasts; but I should like to have them standing there all day, so that I could paint them seriously.[Pg 280] They are the finest models I have seen in Rome. Have you two quite finished your secrets and mysteries?" she asked, smiling at Isola, who was looking brighter than usual.

"Yes; I have said all I had to say, and have been answered as I wished to be answered. I shall go home very happy."

"That's a good hearing," said Disney, as he helped her into the landau.

Allegra had talked of wanting to revisit Caracalla's Baths, a wish of which Isola reminded her as they drove back to the city, along the Appian Way: whereupon Captain Hulbert suggested that he and his sweetheart should stop to explore the ruins, while Disney and Isola went home.

Allegra blushed and consented, always a little shy at being alone with her lover, especially since he had pleaded go earnestly for a summer honeymoon.

"Mrs. Disney, your right place in Rome would be the Embassy," murmured Hulbert as he shut the carriage door; "you are a born diplomatist."

"What makes my dearest look so pleased and happy this afternoon?" asked Disney, as he changed to the seat beside his wife.

"I am glad because I think Captain Hulbert will persuade Allegra to marry him before we leave Rome. I begged him to hasten their marriage. That was my mystery, Martin. That was what he and I were talking about."

"But why wish to hasten matters, dear? They are very happy as it is—and a year is not a long engagement."

"Too long for me, Martin. I want to see her happy—I want to see them married before——"

"Before what, dear love?" he asked tenderly.

"Before we leave Rome."

"That would be very short work. We leave in a fortnight. The weather will be growing too hot for you if we linger later."

[Pg 281]

"Yes, but everything can be settled in less time than that. Ask Father Rodwell. He knows Rome so well that he can help you to arrange all details."

"I thought that every young woman required at least six months for the preparation of her trousseau?"

"Not such a girl as Allegra. She is always well dressed, and her wardrobe is the perfection of neatness—but she is not the kind of girl to make a fuss about her clothes. I don't think the trousseau will create any difficulty."

"And when she is gone, what will you do without your devoted companion? Who will nurse you and take care of you?"

"L?ttchen, or any other servant," she answered, with a kind of weary indifference. "It would be very hard if my bad health should stand in the way of Allegra's happiness. So long as you will stay with me and be kind to me, Martin, I need no one else."

Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she turned from him, pretending to be interested in the convent walls on the edge of the hill below which they were driving.

"So long as I stay with you! My darling, do you think business or pleasure, or any claim in this world, will ever take me from you any more? All your hours are precious to me, Isola. I hardly live when I am away from you. Wherever your doctor may send you, or your own fancy may lead you, I shall go with you, unhesitatingly—without one regret for anything I leave behind."

"Don't say these things," she cried suddenly, with a choking sob; "you are too good to me. There are times when I can't bear it."


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