She held out her hand, and he took it and kept it for a moment.
“God preserve you,” he repeated earnestly.
He turned just as Elettra opened the door. The woman recognized him at once, came forward and kissed his hand, he having long been her parish priest. Then she led the way out. Don Teodoro turned at the door and bowed again, and Veronica, standing by the fire, nodded and smiled kindly to him. She was sorry for him. She had never seen him before, and he seemed to be devoted to her, and yet she was sure that his mind was feeble and unsettled. No sane person could believe the monstrous things he had told her.
Outside, he made a few steps and then stopped Elettra, laying his emaciated hand upon her shoulder. He looked behind him and saw that they were alone in the passage.
“Take care of your mistress, my daughter,” he said. “Naples is not Muro, but it is no better. Let her eat what others eat, drink what others drink, and take no medicines except from you, and make her lock her door at night. This is not a good house.”
The dark woman looked at him fixedly for several seconds, and then nodded twice.
“It is well that you have told me, Father Curate,” she said in a low voice. “I understand.”
That was all, and she turned to lead him out.
After that, Elettra, unknown to Veronica, slept in the dressing-room every night. After her mistress had gone to bed in the inner chamber, the woman used to lock the outer door softly and then draw a short, light sofa across it; on this she lay as best she might. The nights were cold, after the fire had gone out, and she covered herself with a cloak of Veronica’s. In itself, it was no great hardship for a tough woman of the mountains, as she was. But she slept little, for she feared something. In the small hours she often thought she heard some one breathing on the other side of the door, close to the lock, and once she was quite sure that a single ray of light flashed through the keyhole, below the half-turned key. Yet this might have been her imagination. And as for the breathing, there was a large Maltese cat in the house that sometimes wandered about at night. It might be purring all alone outside, in the dark, and she might have taken the sound for that of human breathing. No people are more suspicious and imaginative than Italians, when they have been warned that there is danger; and this does not proceed from natural timidity, but from the enormous value they set upon life itself, as a good possession.