THE PLOT OF THE SIGNOR ANTONIO
There was no concealment as to Laura’s object in making request for the services of Beppo. She herself knew it to be obvious that she intended to probe and cross-examine the man, and in her wilfulness she chose to be obtuse to opinion. She did not even blush to lean a secret ear above the stairs that she might judge, by the tones of Vittoria’s voice upon her giving Beppo the order to wait, whether she was at the same time conveying a hint for guardedness. But Vittoria said not a word: it was Ammiani who gave the order. ’I am despicable in distrusting her for a single second,’ said Laura. That did not the less encourage her to question Beppo rigorously forthwith; and as she was not to be deceived by an Italian’s affectation of simplicity, she let him answer two or three times like a plain fool, and then abruptly accused him of standing prepared with these answers. Beppo, within his own bosom, immediately ascribed to his sagacious instinct the mere spirit of opposition and dislike to serve any one save his own young mistress which had caused him to irritate the signora and be on his guard. He proffered a candid admission of the truth of the charge; adding, that he stood likewise prepared with an unlimited number of statements. ’Questions, illustrious signora, invariably put me on the defensive, and seem to cry for a return thrust; and this I account for by the fact that my mother—the blessed little woman now among the Saints!—was questioned, brows and heels, by a ferruginously—faced old judge at the momentous period when she carried me. So that, a question—and I show point; but ask me for a statement, and, ah, signora!’ Beppo delivered a sweep of the arm, as to indicate the spontaneous flow of his tongue.
‘I think,’ said Laura, ‘you have been a soldier, and a serving-man.’
‘And a scene-shifter, most noble signora, at La Scala.’
‘You accompanied the Signor Mertyrio to England when he was wounded?’
’And there you beheld the Signorina Vittoria, who was then bearing the name of Emilia Belloni?’
’Which name she changed on her arrival in Italy, illustrious signora, for that of Vittoria Campa—“sull’ campo dells gloria”—ah! ah!—her own name being an attraction to the blow-flies in her own country. All this is true.’
‘It should be a comfort to you! The Signor Mertyrio . . .’
Beppo writhed his person at the continuance of the questionings, and obtaining a pause, he rushed into his statement: ’The Signor Mertyrio was well, and on the point of visiting Italy, and quitting the wave-embraced island of fog, of beer, of moist winds, and much money, and much kindness, where great hearts grew. The signorina corresponded with him, and with him only.’
‘You know that, and will swear to it?’ Laura exclaimed.