“Twenty thousand’” Meschini came a little nearer.
“Not a single baiocco if you are exorbitant.”
“Twenty thousand hard, good scudi in cash, I tell you. No more, but no less either.” The librarian’s hands were clenched, and he breathed hard, while his red eyes stared in a way that began to frighten Montevarchi.
“No, no, be reasonable! My dear Meschini, pray do not behave in this manner. You almost make me believe that you are threatening me. I assure you that I desire to do what is just—”
“Give me the money at once—”
“But I have not so much—murder!! Ah—gh—gh”
Arnodo Meschini’s long arms had shot out and his hands had seized the prince’s throat in a grip from which there was no escape. There lurked a surprising strength in the librarian’s round shoulders, and his energy was doubled by a fit of anger that amounted to insanity. The old man rocked and swayed in his chair, and grasped at the green table-cover, but Meschini had got behind him and pressed his fingers tighter and tighter. His eye rested upon Faustina’s handkerchief that lay on the floor at his feet. His victim was almost at the last gasp, but the handkerchief would do the job better. Meschini kept his grip with one hand and with the other snatched up the bit of linen. He drew it tight round the neck and wrenched at the knot with his yellow teeth. There was a convulsive struggle, followed by a long interval of quiet. Then another movement, less violent this time, another and another, and then Meschini felt the body collapse in his grasp. It was over. Montevarchi was dead. Meschini drew back against the bookcases, trembling in every joint. He scarcely saw the objects in the room, for his head swam and his senses failed him, from horror and from the tremendous physical effort he had made. Then in an instant he realised what he had done, and the consequences of the deed suggested themselves.
He had not meant to kill the prince. So long as he had kept some control of his actions he had not even meant to lay violent hands upon him. But he had the nature of a criminal, by turns profoundly cunning and foolishly rash. A fatal influence had pushed him onward so soon as he had raised his arm, and before he was thoroughly conscious of his actions the deed was done. Then came the fear of consequences, then again the diabolical reasoning which intuitively foresees the immediate results of murder, and provides against them at once.
“Nobody knows that I have been here. Nothing is missing. No one knows about the forgery. No one will suspect me. There is no one in the library nor in the corridor. The handkerchief is not mine. If it was not his own it was Donna Faustina’s. No one will suspect her. It will remain a mystery.”
Meschini went towards the door through which he had entered and opened it. He looked back and held his breath. The prince’s head had fallen forward upon his hands as they lay on the table, and the attitude was that of a man overcome by despair, but not that of a dead body. The librarian glanced round the room. There was no trace of a struggle. The position of the furniture had not been changed, nor had anything fallen on the floor. Meschini went out and softly closed the door behind him, leaving the dead man alone.