The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 64

In an apartment richly furnished, the floor covered with striped and spotted skins of animals, a lady sat with her arms extended before her, and her hands half clenched. The agitation of her face corresponded with this attitude; she was pale and red by turns; and her foot restless.

Presently the curtain was drawn by a domestic.

The lady’s brow flushed.

The maid said, in an awe-struck whisper: “Altezza, the man is here.”

The lady bade her admit him, and snatched up a little black mask and put it on; and in a moment her colour was gone, and the contrast between her black mask and her marble cheeks was strange and fearful.

A man entered bowing and scraping. It was such a figure as crowds seem made of; short hair, roundish head, plain, but decent clothes; features neither comely not forbidding. Nothing to remark in him but a singularly restless eye.

After a profusion of bows he stood opposite the lady, and awaited her pleasure.

“They have told you for what you are wanted?”

“Yes, Signora.”

“Did those who spoke to you agree as to what you are to receive?”

“Yes, Signora. ’Tis the full price; and purchases the greater vendetta: unless of your benevolence you choose to content yourself with the lesser.”

“I understand you not,” said the lady.

“Ah; this is the Signora’s first. The lesser vendetta, lady, is the death of the body only. We watch our man come out of a church; or take him in an innocent hour; and so deal with him. In the greater vendetta we watch him, and catch him hot from some unrepented sin, and so slay his soul as well as his body. But this vendetta is not so run upon now as it was a few years ago.”

“Man, silence me his tongue, and let his treasonable heart beat no more. But his soul I have no feud with.”

“So be it, signora. He who spoke to me knew not the man, nor his name, nor his abode. From whom shall I learn these?”

“From myself.”

At this the man, with the first symptoms of anxiety he had shown, entreated her to be cautious, and particular, in this part of the business.

“Fear me not,” said she. “Listen. It is a young man, tall of stature, and auburn hair, and dark blue eyes, and an honest face, would deceive a saint. He lives in the Via Claudia, at the corner house; the glover’s. In that house there lodge but three males: he; and a painter short of stature and dark visaged, and a young, slim boy. He that hath betrayed me is a stranger, fair, and taller than thou art.”

The bravo listened with all his ears. “It is enough,” said he.

“Stay, Signora; haunteth he any secret place where I may deal with him?”

“My spy doth report me he hath of late frequented the banks of Tiber after dusk; doubtless to meet his light o’ love, who calls me her rival; even there slay him! and let my rival come and find him; the smooth, heartless, insolent traitor.”

“Be calm, signora. He will betray no more ladies.”

“I know not that. He weareth a sword, and can use it. He is young and resolute.”

“Neither will avail him.”

“Are ye so sure of your hand? What are your weapons?”

The bravo showed her a steel gauntlet. “We strike with such force we need must guard our hand. This is our mallet.” He then undid his doublet, and gave her a glimpse of a coat of mail beneath, and finally laid his glittering stiletto on the table with a flourish.

The lady shuddered at first, but presently took it up in her white hand and tried its point against her finger.

“Beware, madam,” said the bravo.

“What, is it poisoned?”

“Saints forbid! We steal no lives. We take them with steel point, not drugs. But ’tis newly ground, and I feared for the Signora’s white skin.”

“His skin is as white as mine,” said she, with a sudden gleam of pity. It lasted but a moment. “But his heart is black as soot. Say, do I not well to remove a traitor that slanders me?”

“The signora will settle that with her confessor. I am but a tool in noble hands; like my stiletto.”

The princess appeared not to hear the speaker. “Oh, how I could have loved him; to the death; as now I hate him. Fool! he will learn to trifle with princes; to spurn them and fawn on them, and prefer the scum of the town to them, and make them a by-word.” She looked up. “Why loiter’st thou here? haste thee, revenge me.”

“It is customary to pay half the price beforehand, Signora.”

“Ah I forgot; thy revenge is bought. Here is more than half,” and she pushed a bag across the table to him. “When the blow is struck, come for the rest.”

“You will soon see me again, signora.”

And he retired bowing and scraping.

The princess, burning with jealousy, mortified pride, and dread of exposure (for till she knew Gerard no public stain had fallen on her), sat where he left her, masked, with her arms straight out before her, and the nails of her clenched hand nipping the table.

So sat the fabled sphynx: so sits a tigress.

Yet there crept a chill upon her now that the assassin was gone. And moody misgivings heaved within her, precursors of vain remorse. Gerard and Margaret were before their age. This was your true mediaeval. Proud, amorous, vindictive, generous, foolish, cunning, impulsive, unprincipled: and ignorant as dirt.

Power is the curse of such a creature.

Forced to do her own crimes, the weakness of her nerves would have balanced the violence of her passions, and her bark been worse than her bite. But power gives a feeble, furious woman, male instruments. And the effect is as terrible as the combination is unnatural.

In this instance it whetted an assassin’s dagger for a poor forlorn wretch just meditating suicide.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33