There was a knot in my throat and tears in my eyes—a matter at which I take no shame. Air seemed to fail me for a moment, and I almost thought that I should swoon, so overcome was I. Transport the blackest soul from among the damned of Hell, wash it white of its sins and seat it on one of the glorious thrones of Heaven, then ponder its emotions, and you may learn something of what I felt. At last, when I had mastered the exquisite torture of my joy—
“Madonna mia,” I cried, “bethink you of what you say. You are the noble lady of Santafior, and I—”
“No more of this,” she interrupted me. “You are Lazzaro Biancomonte, of patrician birth, no matter to what odd shifts a cruel fortune may have driven you. Will you take me?”
She had my face between her palms, and she forced my glance to meet her own saintly eyes.
“Will you take me, Lazaro?” she repeated.
“Holy Flower of the Quince!” was all that I could murmur, whereat she gently smiled. “Santo Fior di Cotogno!”
And then a great sadness overwhelmed me. A tide that neaped the frail bark of happiness high and dry upon the shores of black despair.
“To-morrow Madonna, comes the Lord Ignacio Borgia,” I groaned.
“I know, I know,” said she. “But I have thought of that. Paula Sforza di Santafior is dead. Requiescat! We must dispose that they will let her rest in peace.”
AN ILL ENCOUNTER
Speechless I stared at her a moment, so taken was I with the immensity of the thing that she suggested. Fear, amazement, and joy jostled one another for the possession of my mind.
“Why do you look so, Lazzaro?” she exclaimed at last. “What is it daunts you?
“How is the thing possible?” quoth I.
“What difficulty does it present?” she questioned back. “The Governor of Cesena has rendered very possible what I propose. We may look on him to-morrow as our best friend.”
“But Ramiro knows,” I reminded her.
“True, but do you think that he will dare to tell the world what he knows? He might be asked to say how he comes by his knowledge, and that should prove a difficult question to answer. Tell me, Lazzaro,” she continued, “if he had succeeded in carrying me away, what think you would have been said in Pesaro to-morrow when the coffin was found empty?”
“They would assume that your body had been stolen by some wizard or some daring student of anatomy.”
“Ah! And if we were quietly to quit the church and be clear of Pesaro before morning, would not the same be said?”
“Probably,” answered I.
“Then why hesitate? Is it that you do not love me enough, Lazzaro?”
I smiled, and my eyes must have told her more than any protestation could. Then I sighed. “I hesitate, Madonna, because I would not have you do now what you might come, hereafter, bitterly to repent. I would not let you be misled by the impulse of a moment into an act whose consequences must endure as long as life itself.”