The time was exciting, and the signora spoke excitedly. Messing and Reggio were in arms. South Italy had given the open signal. It was near upon the hour of the unmasking of the great Lombard conspiracy, and Vittoria, standing there, was the beacon-light of it. Her presence filled Laura with transports of exultation; and shy of displaying it, and of the theme itself, she let her tongue run on, and satisfied herself by smoothing the hand of the brave girl on her chin, and plucking with little loving tugs at her skirts. In doing this she suddenly gave a cry, as if stung.
‘You carry pins,’ she said. And inspecting the skirts more closely, ’You have a careless maid in that creature Giacinta; she lets paper stick to your dress. What is this?’
Vittoria turned her head, and gathered up her dress to see.
‘Pinned with the butterfly!’ Laura spoke under her breath.
Vittoria asked what it meant.
‘Nothing—nothing,’ said her friend, and rose, pulling her eagerly toward the lamp.
A small bronze butterfly secured a square piece of paper with clipped corners to her dress. Two words were written on it:—
THE BRONZE BUTTERFLY
The two women were facing one another in a painful silence when Carlo Ammiani was announced to them. He entered with a rapid stride, and struck his hands together gladly at sight of Vittoria.
Laura met his salutation by lifting the accusing butterfly attached to Vittoria’s dress.
‘Yes; I expected it,’ he said, breathing quick from recent exertion. ’They are kind—they give her a personal warning. Sometimes the dagger heads the butterfly. I have seen the mark on the Play-bills affixed to the signorina’s name.’
‘What does it mean?’ said Laura, speaking huskily, with her head bent over the bronze insect. ‘What can it mean?’ she asked again, and looked up to meet a covert answer.
‘Unpin it.’ Vittoria raised her arms as if she felt the thing to be enveloping her.
The signora loosened the pin from its hold; but dreading lest she thereby sacrificed some possible clue to the mystery, she hesitated in her action, and sent an intolerable shiver of spite through Vittoria’s frame, at whom she gazed in a cold and cruel way, saying, ‘Don’t tremble.’ And again, ’Is it the doing of that ‘garritrice magrezza,’ whom you call ’la Lazzeruola?’ Speak. Can you trace it to her hand? Who put the plague-mark upon you?’
Vittoria looked steadily away from her.
‘It means just this,’ Carlo interposed; ’there! now it ’s off; and, signorina, I entreat you to think nothing of it,—it means that any one who takes a chief part in the game we play, shall and must provoke all fools, knaves, and idiots to think and do their worst. They can’t imagine a pure devotion. Yes, I see—“Sei sospetta.” They would write their ’Sei sospetta’ upon St. Catherine in the Wheel. Put it out of your mind. Pass it.’