Every head was turned in his direction. “What do you mean?” “What inequality?” “Explain yourself!” chorused several voices.
“Really it is a mere nothing,” answered Freccia, lazily, as he surveyed with the admiring air of a gourmet the dainty portion of pheasant just placed before him. “I assure you, only the uneducated would care two scudi about such a circumstance. The excellent brothers Respetti are to blame—their absence to-night has caused— but why should I disturb your equanimity? I am not superstitious— ma, chi sa?—some of you may be.”
“I see what you mean!” interrupted Salustri, quickly. “We are thirteen at table!”
At this announcement my guests looked furtively at each other, and I could see they were counting up the fatal number for themselves. They were undeniably clever, cultivated men of the world, but the superstitious element was in their blood, and all, with the exception perhaps of Freccia and the ever-cool Marquis D’Avencourt, were evidently rendered uneasy by the fact now discovered. On Ferrari it had a curious effect—he started violently and his face flushed. “Diabolo!” he muttered, under his breath, and seizing his never-empty glass, he swallowed its contents thirstily and quickly at one gulp as though attacked by fever, and pushed away his plate with a hand that trembled nervously. I, meanwhile, raised my voice and addressed my guests cheerfully!
“Our distinguished friend Salustri is perfectly right, gentlemen. I myself noticed the discrepancy in our number some time ago—but I knew that you were all advanced thinkers, who had long since liberated yourselves from the trammels of superstitious observances, which are the result of priestcraft, and are now left solely to the vulgar. Therefore I said nothing. The silly notion of any misfortune attending the number thirteen arose, as you are aware, out of the story of the Last Supper, and children and women may possibly still give credence to the fancy that one out of thirteen at table must be a traitor and doomed to die. But we men know better. None of us here to-night have reason to put ourselves in the position of a Christ or a Judas—we are all good friends and boon companions, and I cannot suppose for a moment that this little cloud can possibly affect you seriously. Remember also that this is Christmas-eve, and that according to the world’s greatest poet, Shakespeare,
no planet strikes,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.’”
A murmur of applause and a hearty clapping of hands rewarded this little speech, and the Marchese Gualdro sprung to his feet—
“By Heaven!” he exclaimed, “we are not a party of terrified old women to shiver on the edge of a worn-out omen! Fill your glasses, signori! More wine, garcon! Per bacco! if Judas Iscariot himself had such a feast as ours before he hanged himself, he was not much to be pitied! Hola amici! To the health of our noble host, Conte Cesare Oliva!”