We had reached that stage of the banquet when the game was about to be served—the invisible choir of boys’ voices had just completed an enchanting stornello with an accompaniment of mandolines—when a stillness, strange and unaccountable, fell upon the company—a pause—an ominous hush, as though some person supreme in authority had suddenly entered the room and commanded “Silence!” No one seemed disposed to speak or to move, the very footsteps of the waiters were muffled in the velvet pile of the carpets—no sound was heard but the measured plash of the fountain that played among the ferns and flowers. The moon, shining frostily white through the one uncurtained window, cast a long pale green ray, like the extended arm of an appealing ghost, against one side of the velvet hangings— a spectral effect which was heightened by the contrast of the garish glitter of the waxen tapers. Each man looked at the other with a sort of uncomfortable embarrassment, and somehow, though I moved my lips in an endeavor to speak and thus break the spell, I was at a loss, and could find no language suitable to the moment. Ferrari toyed with his wine-glass mechanically—the duke appeared absorbed in arranging the crumbs beside his plate into little methodical patterns; the stillness seemed to last so long that it was like a suffocating heaviness in the air. Suddenly Vincenzo, in his office of chief butler, drew the cork of a champagne-bottle with a loud-sounding pop! We all started as though a pistol had been fired in our ears, and the Marchese Gualdro burst out laughing.
“Corpo di Baceo!” he cried. “At last you have awakened from sleep! Were you all struck dumb, amici, that you stared at the table-cloth so persistently and with such admirable gravity? May Saint Anthony and his pig preserve me, but for the time I fancied I was attending a banquet on the wrong side of the Styx, and that you, my present companions, were all dead men!”
“And that idea made you also hold your tongue, which is quite an unaccountable miracle in its way,” laughed Luziano Salustri. “Have you never heard the pretty legend that attaches to such an occurrence as a sudden silence in the midst of high festivity? An angel enters, bestowing his benediction as he passes through.”
“That story is more ancient than the church,” said Chevalier Mancini. “It is an exploded theory—for we have ceased to believe in angels—we call them women instead.”
“Bravo, mon vieux gaillard!” cried Captain de Hamal. “Your sentiments are the same as mine, with a very trifling difference. You believe women to be angels—I know them to be devils—mas il n’y agu’un pas entre es deux? We will not quarrel over a word—a votre sante, mon cher!”
And he drained his glass, nodding to Mancini, who followed his example.
“Perhaps,” said the smooth, slow voice of Captain Freccia, “our silence was caused by the instinctive consciousness of something wrong with our party—a little inequality—which I dare say our noble host has not thought it worth while to mention.”