From hence, being, perhaps, a little less inclined than formerly for very distant parts, and willing to keep within reach of that grave, I went no further than Mantua, where I engaged myself as an engine-driver on the line, then not long completed, between that city and Venice. Somehow, although I had been trained to the working engineering, I preferred in these days to earn my bread by driving. I liked the excitement of it, the sense of power, the rush of the air, the roar of the fire, the flitting of the landscape. Above all, I enjoyed to drive a night express. The worse the weather, the better it suited with my sullen temper. For I was as hard, and harder than ever. The years had done nothing to soften me. They had only confirmed all that was blackest and bitterest in my heart.
I continued pretty faithful to the Mantua line, and had been working on it steadily for more than seven months when that which I am now about to relate took place.
It was in the month of March. The weather had been unsettled for some days past, and the nights stormy; and at one point along the line, near Ponte di Brenta, the waters had risen and swept away some seventy yards of embankment. Since this accident, the trains had all been obliged to stop at a certain spot between Padua and Ponte di Brenta, and the passengers, with their luggage, had thence to be transported in all kinds of vehicles, by a circuitous country road, to the nearest station on the other side of the gap, where another train and engine awaited them. This, of course, caused great confusion and annoyance, put all our time-tables wrong, and subjected the public to a large amount of inconvenience. In the mean while an army of navvies was drafted to the spot, and worked day and night to repair the damage. At this time I was driving two through trains each day; namely, one from Mantua to Venice in the early morning, and a return train from Venice to Mantua in the afternoon - a tolerably full days' work, covering about one hundred and ninety miles of ground, and occupying between ten and eleven hours. I was therefore not best pleased when, on the third or fourth day after the accident, I was informed that, in addition to my regular allowance of work, I should that evening be required to drive a special train to Venice. This special train, consisting of an engine, a single carriage, and a break-van, was to leave the Mantua platform at eleven; at Padua the passengers were to alight and find post-chaises waiting to convey them to Ponte di Brenta; at Ponte di Brenta another engine, carriage, and break-van were to be in readiness, I was charged to accompany them throughout.
'Corpo di Bacco,' said the clerk who gave me my orders, 'you need not look so black, man. You are certain of a handsome gratuity. Do you know who goes with you?'
'Not you, indeed! Why, it's the Duca Loredano, the Neapolitan ambassador.'
'Loredano!' I stammered. 'What Loredano? There was a Marchese - - '
'Certo. He was the Marchese Loredano some years ago; but he has come into his dukedom since then.'
'He must be a very old man by this time.'
'Yes, he is old; but what of that? He is as hale, and bright, and stately as ever. You have seen him before?'
'Yes,' I said, turning away; 'I have seen him - years ago.'
'You have heard of his marriage?'
I shook my head.
The clerk chuckled, rubbed his hands, and shrugged his shoulders.
'An extraordinary affair,' he said. 'Made a tremendous esclandre at the time. He married his mistress - quite a common, vulgar girl - a Genoese - very handsome; but not received, of course. Nobody visits her.'
'Married her!' I exclaimed. 'Impossible.'
'True, I assure you.'
I put my hand to my head. I felt as if I had had a fall or a blow.
'Does she - does she go to-night?' I faltered.
'O dear, yes - goes everywhere with him - never lets him out of her sight. You'll see her - la bella Duchessa!'
With this my informant laughed, and rubbed his hands again, and went back to his office.