A grave and meditative look softened the usually defiant brilliancy of his eyes.
“I saw my uncle die,” he continued, speaking in a low tone. “He was an old man and had very little strength left,—yet his battle with death was horrible—horrible! I see him yet—his yellow convulsed face—his twisted limbs—his claw-like hands tearing at the empty air—then the ghastly grim and dropped jaw—the wide-open glazed eyes—pshaw! it sickened me!”
“Well, well!” I said in a soothing way, still busying myself with the arrangement of my button-hole, and secretly wondering what new emotion was at work in the volatile mind of my victim. “No doubt it was distressing to witness—but you could not have been very sorry— he was an old man, and, though it is a platitude not worth repeating—we must all die.”
“Sorry!” exclaimed Ferrari, talking almost more to himself than to me. “I was glad! He was an old scoundrel, deeply dyed in every sort of social villainy. No—I was not sorry, only as I watched him in his frantic struggle, fighting furiously for each fresh gasp of breath—I thought—I know not why—of Fabio.”
Profoundly astonished, but concealing my astonishment under an air of indifference, I began to laugh.
“Upon my word, Ferrari—pardon me for saying so, but the air of Rome seems to have somewhat obscured your mind! I confess I cannot follow your meaning.”
He sighed uneasily. “I dare say not! I scarce can follow it myself. But if it was so hard for an old man to writhe himself out of life, what must it have been for Fabio! We were students together; we used to walk with our arms round each other’s necks like school-girls, and he was young and full of vitality—physically stronger, too, than I am. He must have battled for life with every nerve and sinew stretched to almost breaking.” He stopped and shuddered. “By Heaven! death should be made easier for us! It is a frightful thing!”
A contemptuous pity arose in me. Was he coward as well as traitor? I touched him lightly on the arm.
“Excuse me, my young friend, if I say frankly that your dismal conversation is slightly fatiguing. I cannot accept it as a suitable preparation for dinner! And permit me to remind you that you have still to dress.”
The gentle satire of my tone made him look up and smile. His face cleared, and he passed his hand over his forehead, as though he swept it free of some unpleasant thought.
“I believe I am nervous,” he said with a half laugh. “For the last few hours I have had all sorts of uncomfortable presentiments and forebodings.”
“No wonder!” I returned carelessly, “with such a spectacle as you have described before the eyes of your memory. The Eternal City savors somewhat disagreeably of graves. Shake the dust of the Caesars from your feet, and enjoy your life, while it lasts!”
“Excellent advice!” he said, smiling, “and not difficult to follow. Now to attire for the festival. Have I your permission?”