A strange and mysterious thing is the working of terror on the human mind. Some it renders incapable of thought or action, paralysing their limbs and stagnating the blood in their veins; such creatures die in anticipating death. Others under the stress of that grim passion have their wits preternaturally sharpened. The instinct of self-preservation assumes command of all their senses, and urges them to swift and feverish action.
I thank God with a full heart that to this latter class do I belong. After one gelid moment, spent with eyes and mouth agape, my hands fallen limp beside me and my hair bristling with affright, I became myself again and never calmer than in that dread moment. I went to work with superhuman swiftness. My cheeks may have been livid, my very lips bloodless; but my hands were steady and my wits under full control.
Concealment—concealment for myself and her—was the thing that now imported; and no sooner was the thought conceived than the means were devised. Slender means were they, yet Heaven knows I was in no case to be exacting, and since they were the best the place afforded I must trust to them without demurring, and pray God that Messer Ramiro might lack the wit to search. And with that fresh hope it came to me that I must find a way so to dispose as to make him believe that to search would be a futile waste of energy.
The odds against me lay in the little time at my disposal. Yet a little time there was. The door was stout, and Messer Ramiro might take no violent means of bursting it, lest the noise should arouse the street—and I well could guess how little he would relish having lights to shine upon this deed of night of his.
With what tools his sbirro was at work I could not say; but surely they must be such as would leave me a few moments. Already the fellow had begun. I could make out a soft crunching sound, as of steel biting into wood. To act, then!
With movements swift as a cat’s, and as silent, I went to work. Like a ghost I glided round the coffin to the other side, where the lid was lying. I took it up, and when for a moment I had deposited Madonna Paola on the ground, I mounted the bench and gently but quickly set back that lid as it had been. Next, I gathered up the cumbrous pall, and mounting the bench once more I spread it across the coffin. This way and that I pulled it, straightening it into the shape that it had worn when first I had entered, and casting its folds into regular lines that would lend it the appearance of having remained undisturbed.
And what time I toiled, the half of my mind intent upon my task, the other half was as intent upon the progress of the worker at the door.
At last it was done. I set the bench where first it had been, at the foot of the catafalque, and gathering up Madonna in my arms, as though her weight had been an infant’s, I bore her swiftly out of the circle of light of those four tapers into the black, impenetrable gloom beyond. On I sped towards the high-altar, flying now as men fly in evil dreams, with the sensation of an enemy upon them and their progress a mere standing-still.