'Well, and you heard - - '
'The terms of a shameful bargain - beauty on the one side, gold on the other; so many thousand francs a year; a villa near Naples - - - Pah! it makes me sick to repeat it.'
And, with a shudder, he poured out another glass of wine and drank it at a draught.
'After that,' he said, presently, 'I made no effort to bring her away. The whole thing was so cold-blooded, so deliberate, so shameful, that I felt I had only to wipe her out of my memory, and leave her to her fate. I stole out of the cathedral, and walked about here by the sea for ever so long, trying to get my thoughts straight. Then I remembered you, Ben; and the recollection of how this wanton had come between us and broken up our lives drove me wild. So I went up to the station and waited for you. I felt you ought to know it all; and - and I thought, perhaps, that we might go back to England together.'
'The Marchese Loredano!'
It was all that I could say; all that I could think. As Mat had just said of himself, I felt 'like one stunned.'
'There is one other thing I may as well tell you,' he added, reluctantly, 'if only to show you how false a woman can be. We - we were to have been married next month.'
'We? Who? What do you mean?'
'I mean that we were to have been married - Gianetta and I.'
A sudden storm of rage, of scorn, of incredulity, swept over me at this, and seemed to carry my senses away.
'You!' I cried. 'Gianetta marry you! I don't believe it.'
'I wish I had not believed it,' he replied, looking up as if puzzled by my vehemence. 'But she promised me; and I thought, when she promised it, she meant it.'
'She told me, weeks ago, that she would never be your wife!'
His colour rose, his brow darkened; but when his answer came, it was as calm as the last.
'Indeed!' he said. 'Then it is only one baseness more. She told me that she had refused you; and that was why we kept our engagement secret.'
'Tell the truth, Mat Price,' I said, well-nigh beside myself with suspicion. 'Confess that every word of this is false! Confess that Gianetta will not listen to you, and that you are afraid I may succeed where you have failed. As perhaps I shall - as perhaps I shall, after all!'
'Are you mad?' he exclaimed. 'What do you mean?'
'That I believe it's just a trick to get me away to England - that I don't credit a syllable of your story. You're a liar, and I hate you!'
He rose, and, laying one hand on the back of his chair, looked me sternly in the face.
'If you were not Benjamin Hardy,' he said, deliberately, 'I would thrash you within an inch of your life.'
The words had no sooner passed his lips than I sprang at him. I have never been able distinctly to remember what followed. A curse - a blow - a struggle - a moment of blind fury - a cry - a confusion of tongues - a circle of strange faces. Then I see Mat lying back in the arms of a bystander; myself trembling and bewildered - the knife dropping from my grasp; blood upon the floor; blood upon my hands; blood upon his shirt. And then I hear those dreadful words:
'O, Ben, you have murdered me!'
He did not die - at least, not there and then. He was carried to the nearest hospital, and lay for some weeks between life and death. His case, they said, was difficult and dangerous. The knife had gone in just below the collar-bone, and pierced down into the lungs. He was not allowed to speak or turn - scarcely to breathe with freedom. He might not even lift his head to drink. I sat by him day and night all through that sorrowful time. I gave up my situation on the railway; I quitted my lodging in the Vicolo Balba; I tried to forget that such a woman as Gianetta Coneglia had ever drawn breath. I lived only for Mat; and he tried to live more, I believe, for my sake than his own. Thus, in the bitter silent hours of pain and penitence, when no hand but mine approached his lips or smoothed his pillow, the old friendship came back with even more than its old trust and faithfulness. He forgave me, fully and freely; and I would thankfully have given my life for him.
At length there came one bright spring morning, when, dismissed as convalescent, he tottered out through the hospital gates, leaning on my arm, and feeble as an infant. He was not cured; neither, as I then learned to my horror and anguish, was it possible that he ever could be cured. He might live, with care, for some years; but the lungs were injured beyond hope of remedy, and a strong or healthy man he could never be again. These, spoken aside to me, were the parting words of the chief physician, who advised me to take him further south without delay.
I took him to a little coast-town called Rocca, some thirty miles beyond Genoa - a sheltered lonely place along the Riviera, where the sea was even bluer than the sky, and the cliffs were green with strange tropical plants, cacti, and aloes, and Egyptian palms. Here we lodged in the house of a small tradesman; and Mat, to use his own words, 'set to work at getting well in good earnest.' But, alas! it was a work which no earnestness could forward. Day after day he went down to the beach, and sat for hours drinking the sea air and watching the sails that came and went in the offing. By-and-by he could go no further than the garden of the house in which we lived. A little later, and he spent his days on a couch beside the open window, waiting patiently for the end. Ay, for the end! It had come to that. He was fading fast, waning with the waning summer, and conscious that the Reaper was at hand. His whole aim now was to soften the agony of my remorse, and prepare me for what must shortly come.