Giovanni made a last effort to prevent her from fulfilling her intention. He was too much excited to see how hopeless the situation really was, and his sense of justice was revolted at the thought of the indignity.
“Donna Faustina, I implore you!” he exclaimed. “I can still prevent this outrage—you must not go. I will find the cardinal and explain the mistake—he will send an order at once.”
“You are mistaken,” answered the prefect. “He will do nothing of the kind. Besides, you cannot leave this house without my permission. The doors are all guarded.”
“But you cannot refuse that request,” objected Corona, who had not spoken during the altercation. “It will not take half an hour for my husband to see his Eminence and get the order—”
“Nevertheless I refuse,” replied the official firmly. Donna Faustina must go with me at once. You are interfering uselessly and making a useless scandal. My mind is made up.”
“Then I will go with her,” said Corona, pressing the girl to her side and bestowing a contemptuous glance on the cowering figures around her.
By this time her sisters-in-law had fallen into their respective husband’s arms, and it was hard to say whether the men or the women were more hopelessly hysterical. Giovanni relinquished the contest reluctantly, seeing that he was altogether overmatched by the prefect’s soldiers.
“I will go too,” he said. “You cannot object to our taking Donna Faustina in our carriage.”
“I do not object to that. But male visitors are not allowed inside the Termini prison after dark. The Signora Principessa may spend the night there if it is her pleasure. I will put a gendarme in your carriage to avoid informality.”
“I presume you will accept my promise to conduct Donna Faustina to the place,” observed Giovanni. The prefect hesitated.
“It is informal,” he said at last, “but to oblige you I will do it. You give your word?”
“Yes—since you are able to use force. We act under protest. You will remember that.”
Faustina’s courage did not forsake her at the last moment. She kissed each of her brothers and each of her sisters-in-law as affectionately as though they had offered to bear her company. There were many loud cries and sobs and protestations of devotion, but not one proposed to go with her. The only one who would have been bold enough was Flavia, and even if she had been present she would not have had the heart to perform such an act of unselfishness. Faustina and Corona, Giovanni and the prefect, left the room together.
“I will have you in prison before morning,” said Sant’ Ilario fiercely, in the ear of the official, as they reached the outer hall.
The prefect made no reply, but raised his shoulders almost imperceptibly and smiled for the first time, as he pointed silently to the gendarmes. The latter formed into an even rank and tramped down the stairs after the four persons whom they accompanied. In a few minutes the whole party were on their way to the Termini, Faustina with her friends in Sant’ Ilario’s carriage, the prefect in his little brougham, the soldiers on their horses, trotting steadily along in a close squad.