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CHAPTER XXVI.
"SO, FULL CONTENT SHALL HENCEFORTH BE MY LOT."

Allegra was not inexorable. There, in the ruins of the Imperial baths, where Shelley dreamed the wonder-dream of his Prometheus, Captain Hulbert pleaded his cause. Could love resist the pleading of so fond a lover? Could art withstand the allurements of Venice—Titian and Tintoret, the cathedral of St. Mark and the Palace of the Doges, the birthplace of Desdemona and of Shylock, the home of Byron and of Browning?

She consented to a Roman marriage.

"I can't help wishing I could be a Papist just for that one day," she said lightly. "An Anglican marriage seems so dry and cold compared with the pomps and splendours of Rome."

"Dearest, the plainest Christian rites are enough, if they but make us one."

"I think we are that already, John," she answered shyly; and then, nestling by his side as they sat in the wide solitude of that stupendous pile, she took his hand and held it in both her own, looking down at it wonderingly—a well-formed hand, strong and muscular, broadened a little by seafaring.

"And you are to be my husband," she said. "Mine! I shall speak of you to people as my own peculiar property. 'My husband will do this or that.' 'My husband has gone out, but he will be home soon.' Home. Husband. How strange it sounds!"

"Strange and wonderful now, love. Sweet and familiar before our honeymoon is ended."

They went out of the broad spaces that were once populous with the teeming life of Imperial Rome, splendid with all that art could create of beauty and of grandeur—wrapt[Pg 283] in the glamour of their dream. They walked all the way to the Piazza di Spagna in the same happy dream, as unconscious of the ground they trod on as if they had been floating in the air.

They were a very cheerful party at dinner that evening. Father Rodwell dined with them, and was delighted at the idea of having to marry these happy lovers. He took the arrangement of the ceremony into his own hands. The English chaplain was his old friend, and would let him do what he liked in his church.

"It is to be a very quiet wedding," said the colonel, when the three men were smoking together in a loggia, looking on the little garden of orange trees and oleanders, in the grey dim beginning of night, when the thin crescent moon was shining in a sky still faintly flushed with sunset. "Isa could not stand anything like bustle or excitement. Luckily we have no friends in Rome. There is no one belonging to us who could be aggrieved at not being invited."

"And there is no one except Lostwithiel on my side who has the slightest claim to be present," said Hulbert. "I am almost as well off as the Flying Dutchman in that respect. I am not troubled with relations. All the kinsfolk I have are distant, and I allow them to remain so. My dear Disney, so far as I am concerned, our wedding cannot be too quiet a business. It is the bride I want, mark you, not the fuss and flowers, wedding-breakfast, and bridesmaids. Let us be married at half-past ten, and drive from the church to the railway station in time for the noonday train. I have given up my dream of taking Allegra round Southern Italy to the Adriatic. We shall go to Florence first, and spend a few days in the galleries, and thence to Venice, where we will have the Vendetta brought to us, and anchored near the arsenal, ready to carry us away directly we are tired of the city of old memories."

Father Rodwell left them and went into the drawing-room, where Isola and her sister-in-law were sitting in the[Pg 284] lamplight—Isola's hands occupied with that soft, fluffy knitting which seemed to exercise a soothing influence upon her nerves; Allegra leaning over the table, idly sketching random reminiscences of the Baths, the Tomb, the grave-eyed oxen, with their great curving horns and ponderous foreheads.

The priest was interested in watching Isola this evening. He saw a marked change in the expression of her countenance, a change which was perceptible to him even in her voice and manner—a brightness which might mean a lightened heart, or which might mean religious exaltation.

"Has she told him?" he wondered, studying her from his place in the shadow as the lamplight shone full upon her wasted features and hectic colouring. "Has she taken courage and confessed her sin to that loyal, loving husband, and is the burden lifted from her heart?"

No; he could not believe that she had lifted the veil from the sad secret of her past. Martin Disney's unclouded brow to-night was not that of a man who had lately discovered that the wife he loved had betrayed him. There might be pardon—there might be peace between husband and wife after such a revelation; but there could not be the serenity which marked Martin Disney's manner to his wife to-night. Such a thunder-clap must leave its brand upon the man who suffered it. No; her secret was still locked in her impenitent heart. Sorry—yes. She had drunk the cup of remorse in all its bitterness; but she knew not true penitence, the Christian's penitence, which means self-abasement and confession. And yet she seemed happier. There was a look of almost holy resignation upon the pale and placid brow, and in the too-lustrous eyes. Something had happened—some moral transformation which made her a new being.

Father Rodwell drew his chair nearer to her, and looked at her earnestly with his cordial, almost boyish smile. He was a remarkably young-looking man, a man upon whom[Pg 285] long years of toil in the dark places of the earth had exercised no wasting or withering influence. He had loved his work too well ever to feel the pressure of the burdens he carried. His gospel had been always a cheerful gospel, and he had helped to lighten sorrows, never to make them heavier. He was deeply interested in Isola, and had been watchful of all her changes of mood since their conversation in the shadow of the old Roman wall. He had seen her impressed by the history and traditions of the church, moved by the pathos of holy lives, touched almost to tears by sacred pictures, and he saw in her character and disposition a natural bent towards piety, exactly that receptive temperament which moves holy women to lives of self-abnegation and heroic endeavour. He had lent her some of those books which he loved best and read most himself, and he had talked with her of religion, careful not to say too much or with too strong an emphasis, and never by any word alluding to her revelation of past guilt. He wanted to win her to perfect trustfulness in him, to teach her to lean upon him in her helplessness; until the hour should come when she would let him lead her to her husband, in the self-abasement of the penitent sinner.

He knew that in this desire he exceeded the teaching of churchmen; that another priest in his place might have bade her keep her sad secret to the end, he down with it in her early grave, be remembered as a saint, yet die knowing herself a sinner. If he had thought of the husband's peace first, he would have counselled silence. But he thought most of this stricken soul, with wings that spread themselves towards heaven, held down to earth by the burden of an unpardoned sin.

He looked at her in the lamplight, and her eyes met his with a straighter outlook than he had seen in them for a long time. She looked actually happy, and that look of happiness in a face on which death has set its seal has always something which suggests a life beyond the grave.

[Pg 286]

"The excitement of this marriage question has brightened you wonderfully, Mrs. Disney," he said. "We shall have you in high health by the wedding-day."

"I am feeling better because I am so glad," Isola answered naively, putting her hand into Allegra's.

"I consider it positively insulting to me as a sister," exclaimed Allegra, bending down to kiss the too-transparent hand—such a hand as she had seen in many a picture of dying saint in the Roman galleries. "You are most unaffectionately rejoiced to get rid of me. I have evidently been a tyrannical nurse, and a dull companion, and you breathe more freely at the prospect of release."

"You have been all that is dear and good," Isola answered softly, "and I shall feel dreadfully lonely without you; but it won't be for long. And I shall be so comforted by the knowledge that nothing can come between you and your life's happiness."

The two men came in from the loggia, bringing with them the cool breath of night. Isola went to the piano and played one of those Adagios of Mozart's which came just within the limit of her modest powers, and which she played to perfection, all her soul in the long lingering phrases, the tender modulations, with their suggestions of shadowy cathedral aisles, and the smoke of incense in the deepening dusk of a vesper service. Those bits of Mozart, the slow movements from the Sonatas, an Agnus Dei, or an Ave Maria from one of the Masses, satisfied Captain Hulbert's highest ideas of music. He desired nothing grander or more scientific. The new learning of the Wagnerian school had no charm for him.

"If you ask me about modern composers, I am for Verdi and Gounod," he said. "For gaiety and charm, give me Auber, Rossini, and Boieldieu—for pathos, Weber—for everything, Mozart. There you have the whole of my musical education."

The question of settlements was opened seriously between Martin Disney and his future brother-in-law, early on the[Pg 287] following morning. Hulbert wanted to settle all the money he had in the world upon Allegra.

"She is ever so much wiser than I am," he said. "So she had better be my treasurer. My property is all in stocks and shares. My grandfather was fond of stock-jobbing, and made some very lucky investments which he settled upon my mother, with strict injunctions that they should not be meddled with by her trustees. My share of her fortune comes to a little over nine hundred a year. I came into possession of it when I came of age, and it is mine to dispose of as I like, trusts expired, trustees cleared off—in point of fact, both gone over to the majority, poor old souls, after having had many an anxious hour about those South American railway bonds, and Suez Canal shares, which turned up trumps after all. I've telegraphed to the family lawyer for a schedule of the property, and when that comes, just tie it all up in as tight a knot as the law can tie, and let it belong to Allegra and her children after her. Consider me paid off."

Martin Disney laughed at the lover's impetuosity—and told him that he should be allowed to bring so much and no more into settlement. Allegra's income was less than two hundred a year, a poor little income upon which she had fancied herself rich, so modest is woman's measure of independence as compared with man's. It would be for the lawyer to decide what proportion the husband's settlements should bear to the wife's income. Father Rodwell had given Colonel Disney an introduction to a solicitor of high character, a man who had occupied an excellent position in London until damaged lungs obliged him to seek a home in the south.

With this gentleman's aid, matters were soon put in train, and while the men were in the lawyer's office, the two women were choosing Allegra's wedding-gown.

The young lady had exhibited a rare indifference upon the great trousseau question. She was not one of those girls whose finery is all external, and who hide rags and tatters[Pg 288] under ?sthetic colouring and Raffaelle draperies. She was too much of an artist to endure anything unseemly in her belongings, and her everyday clothes, just as they were, might have been exhibited, like a Royal trousseau, without causing any other comment than, "How nice!" "What good taste!" "What exquisite needlework!"

The hands which painted such clever pictures were as skilful with the needle as with the brush, and Allegra had never considered that a vocation for art meant uselessness in every feminine industry. She had attended to her own wardrobe from the time she learnt plain sewing at her first school; and now, as she and Isola looked over the ample array of under-linen, the pretty cambric peignoirs, and neatly trimmed petticoats, they were both of one mind, that there was very little need of fuss or expenditure.

"I have plenty of summer frocks," said Allegra. "So really there is only my travelling gown to see about, that is to say, the gown I am to be married in."

"But you must have a real wedding-gown, all the same, a white satin gown, with lace and pearls," pleaded Isola. "When you go to dinner-parties, by-and-by, you will be expected to look like a bride."

"Dinner-parties! Oh, those are a long way off. We are not likely to be asked to any parties while we are wandering about Italy. I can get a gown when I go home."

Allegra's wedding-day had dawned—a glorious day—a day to make one drunken with the beauty of sky and earth; a day when the vetturini in the Piazza di Spagna sat and dreamt on their coach-boxes—narcotized by the sun—when the reds and blues in the garments of the flower-women were almost too dazzling for the eye to look upon, and when every garden in the city sent forth tropical odours of roses steeped in sunlight.

The church in which the lovers were to be made one was a very homely temple as compared with the basilicas yonder on the hills of Rome. But what did that matter to Allegra[Pg 289] this morning as she stood before the altar and spoke the words which gave her to the man she loved? A flood of sunshine streamed upon the two figures of bride and bridegroom, and touched the almost spectral face of the bride's sister-in-law, a face which attracted as much attention as the bride's fresh bloom and happy smile. It was a face marked for death, yet beautiful in decay. The large violet eyes were luminous with the light of worlds beyond the world we know. There was something loftier than happiness in that vivid look, something akin to exaltation—the smile of the martyr at the stake—the martyr for whom Heaven's miraculous intervention changes the flames of the death-pile into the soft fanning of seraphic wings; the martyr unconscious of earthly pains and earthly cruelties; who sees the skies opening and the glorious company of saints and angels gathered about the great white throne.

Father Rodwell saw that spiritual expression in the pale, wasted face, and he told himself that a lost soul could not look out of eyes like those. If death were near, as he feared, the true repentance for which he had prayed many an earnest prayer was not far off.

Bride and bridegroom were to leave Rome by the mid-day train. Colonel Disney was going to see the last of them at the station, but Isola and her sister-in-law were to say good-bye in the vestry, and to part at the church door. And now Father Rodwell's brief, but fervent, address had been spoken, the Wedding March pealed from the organ, and the small wedding-party went into the vestry to sign the registers.

Isola was called upon for her signature as one of the witnesses. She signed in a bold, clear hand, without one tremulous line, her husband looking over her shoulder as she wrote.

"That doesn't look like an invalid's autograph, does it, Hulbert?" he asked, snatching at every token of hope, unwilling to believe what his doctors and his own convictions told him—expecting a miracle.

[Pg 290]

They had warned him that he could not keep her long. They had advised him to humour her fancies, to let her be present at the wedding, even at the hazard of her suffering afterwards for that exertion and excitement. She would suffer more perhaps—physically as well as mentally—if she were thwarted in her natural wish to be by Allegra's side on that day.

All was finished. Neither Church nor law could do anything more towards making the lovers man and wife. The law might undo the bond for them in the time to come, but the part of the Church was done for ever. In the eye of the Church their union was indissoluble.

Isola clung with her arms round the bride's neck.

"Think of me sometimes, dearest, in the years to come. Think that I loved you fondly. Be sure that I was grateful for all your goodness to me," she said tearfully.

"My own love, I shall think of you every day till we meet again."

"And if we never meet again on earth—will you remember me kindly?"

"Isa, how can you?" cried Allegra, silencing the pale lips with kisses.

"You may be glad to think how much you did towards making my life happy—happier than it ought to have been." Isola went on in a low voice. "Dearest, I am more glad of your marriage than words can say; and, Allegra, love him with all your heart, and never let your lives be parted—remember, dearest, never, never let anything upon this earth part you from him."

Her voice was choked with sobs, and then came a worse fit of coughing than she had suffered for some time; a fit which left her exhausted and speechless. Her husband looked at her in an agony of apprehension.

"Let me take you home, Isa," he said. "You'll be better at home, lying down by your sunny window. This vestry is horribly cold. Hulbert, if you and Allegra will excuse me, I won't see you off at the station. Father Rodwell will[Pg 291] go with you, perhaps. He'll be of more use than I could be; and we shall see each other very soon again in Switzerland, please God."

"Yes, yes, There is no need for you to go," Hulbert answered, grasping his hand, distressed for another man's pain in the midst of his own happiness. There death, and the end of all joy—here the new life with its promises of gladness just opening before him. Such contrasts must needs seem hard.

They all went to the church door, where the carriages were waiting. Only a few idlers loitered about the pavement, faintly interested in so shabby a wedding—a poor array of one landau and one brougham, the brougham to take the travellers to the station, where their luggage had been sent by another conveyance.

The two women kissed each other once more before Allegra stepped into the carriage, Isola too weak for speech, and able only to clasp the hands that had waited on her in so many a weary hour; the clever hands, the gentle hands, to which womanly instinct and womanly love had given all the skilfulness of a trained nurse.

Disney lifted his wife into the landau, Father Rodwell helping him, full of sympathy.

"You'll dine with us to-night, I hope," said the colonel. "We shall be very low if we are left to ourselves."

"I've an engagement for this evening—but—yes, I'll get myself excused, and spend the evening with you, if you really want me."

"Indeed we do," answered Disney, heartily; but Isola was dumb. Her eyes were fixed upon the distant point at which the brougham had disappeared round a corner, on its way to the station.


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