I touched the bell which summoned Vincenzo, and bade him wait on Signer Ferrari’s orders. Guido disappeared under his escort, giving me a laughing nod of salutation as he left the room. I watched his retiring figure with a strange pitifulness—the first emotion of the kind that had awakened in me for him since I learned his treachery. His allusion to that time when we had been students together—when we had walked with arms round each other’s necks “like school-girls,” as he said, had touched me more closely than I cared to realize. It was true, we had been happy then—two careless youths with all the world like an untrodden race-course before us. She had not then darkened the heaven of our confidence; she had not come with her false fair face to make of me a blind, doting madman, and to transform him into a liar and hypocrite. It was all her fault, all the misery and horror; she was the blight on our lives; she merited the heaviest punishment, and she would receive it. Yet, would to God we had neither of us ever seen her! Her beauty, like a sword, had severed the bonds of friendship that after all, when it does exist between two men, is better and braver than the love of woman. However, all regrets were unavailing now; the evil was done, and there was no undoing it. I had little time left me for reflection; each moment that passed brought me nearer to the end I had planned and foreseen.
At about a quarter to eight my guests began to arrive, and one by one they all came in save two—the brothers Respetti. While we were awaiting them, Ferrari entered in evening-dress, with the conscious air of a handsome man who knows he is looking his best. I readily admitted his charm of manner; had I not myself been subjugated and fascinated by it in the old happy, foolish days? He was enthusiastically greeted and welcomed back to Naples by all the gentlemen assembled, many of whom were his own particular friends. They embraced him in the impressionable style common to Italians, with the exception of the stately Duca di Marina, who merely bowed courteously, and inquired if certain families of distinction whom he named had yet arrived in Rome for the winter season. Ferrari was engaged in replying to these questions with his usual grace and ease and fluency, when a note was brought to me marked “Immediate.” It contained a profuse and elegantly worded apology from Carlo Respetti, who regretted deeply that an unforeseen matter of business would prevent himself and his brother from having the inestimable honor and delight of dining with me that evening. I thereupon rang my bell as a sign that the dinner need no longer be delayed; and, turning to those assembled, I announced to them the unavoidable absence of two of the party.
“A pity Francesco could not have come,” said Captain Freccia, twirling the ends of his long mustachios. “He loves good wine, and, better still, good company.”