“My dear Belgioso, nothing more natural. He desired a box at San Carlo; but I need not tell you that the expectation of a new opera (ah, how superb it is,—that poor devil, Pisani; who would have thought it?) and a new singer (what a face,—what a voice!—ah!) had engaged every corner of the house. I heard of Zanoni’s desire to honour the talent of Naples, and, with my usual courtesy to distinguished strangers, I sent to place my box at his disposal. He accepts it,—I wait on him between the acts; he is most charming; he invites me to supper. Cospetto, what a retinue! We sit late,—I tell him all the news of Naples; we grow bosom friends; he presses on me this diamond before we part,—is a trifle, he tells me: the jewellers value it at 5000 pistoles!—the merriest evening I have passed these ten years.”
The cavaliers crowded round to admire the diamond.
“Signor Count Cetoxa,” said one grave-looking sombre man, who had crossed himself two or three times during the Neapolitan’s narrative, “are you not aware of the strange reports about this person; and are you not afraid to receive from him a gift which may carry with it the most fatal consequences? Do you not know that he is said to be a sorcerer; to possess the mal-occhio; to—”
“Prithee, spare us your antiquated superstitions,” interrupted Cetoxa, contemptuously. “They are out of fashion; nothing now goes down but scepticism and philosophy. And what, after all, do these rumours, when sifted, amount to? They have no origin but this,—a silly old man of eighty-six, quite in his dotage, solemnly avers that he saw this same Zanoni seventy years ago (he himself, the narrator, then a mere boy) at Milan; when this very Zanoni, as you all see, is at least as young as you or I, Belgioso.”
“But that,” said the grave gentleman,—“That is the mystery. Old Avelli declares that Zanoni does not seem a day older than when they met at Milan. He says that even then at Milan—mark this—where, though under another name, this Zanoni appeared in the same splendour, he was attended also by the same mystery. And that an old man there remembered to have seen him sixty years before, in Sweden.”
“Tush,” returned Cetoxa, “the same thing has been said of the quack Cagliostro,—mere fables. I will believe them when I see this diamond turn to a wisp of hay. For the rest,” he added gravely, “I consider this illustrious gentleman my friend; and a whisper against his honour and repute will in future be equivalent to an affront to myself.”
Cetoxa was a redoubted swordsman, and excelled in a peculiarly awkward manoeuvre, which he himself had added to the variations of the stoccata. The grave gentleman, however anxious for the spiritual weal of the count, had an equal regard for his own corporeal safety. He contented himself with a look of compassion, and, turning through the gateway, ascended the stairs to the gaming-tables.