Half an hour later Giovanni was seated at dinner at his father’s table. The old gentleman greeted him with a half-savage growl of satisfaction.
“The prodigal has returned to get a meal while there is one to be had,” he remarked. “I thought you had gone to Paris to leave the agreeable settlement of our affairs to Corona and me. Where the devil have you been?”
“I have been indulging in the luxury of a retreat in a religious house,” answered Giovanni with perfect truth.
Corona glanced at him and both laughed happily, as they had not laughed for many days and weeks. Saracinesca looked incredulously across the table at his son.
“You chose a singular moment for your devotional exercises,” he said. “Where will piety hide herself next, I wonder? As long as Corona is satisfied, I am. It is her business.”
“I am perfectly satisfied, I assure you,” said Corona, whose black eyes were full of light. Giovanni raised his glass, looked at her and smiled lovingly. Then he emptied it to the last drop and set it down without a word.
“Some secret, I suppose,” said the old gentleman gruffly.
Arnoldo Meschini was not, perhaps, insane in the ordinary sense of the word; that is to say, he would probably have recovered the normal balance of his faculties if he could have been kept from narcotics and stimulants, and if he could have been relieved from the distracting fear of discovery which tormented him when he was not under the influence of one or the other. But the latter condition was impossible, and it was the extremity of his terror which almost forced him to keep his brain in a clouded state. People have been driven mad by sudden fright, and have gradually lost their intellect through the constant presence of a fear from which there is no escape. A man who is perpetually producing an unnatural state of his mind by swallowing doses of brandy and opium may not be insane in theory; in actual fact, he may be a dangerous madman. As one day followed another Meschini found it more and more impossible to exist without his two comforters. The least approach to lucidity made him almost frantic. He fancied every man a spy, every indifferent glance a look full of meaning. Before long the belief took possession of him that he was to be made the victim of some horrible private vengeance. San Giacinto was not the man, he thought, to be contented with sending him to the galleys for life. Few murderers were executed in those days, and it would be a small satisfaction to the Montevarchi to know that Arnoldo had merely been transferred from his study of the library catalogue to the breaking of stones with a chain gang at Civitavecchia. It was more likely that they would revenge themselves more effectually. His disordered imagination saw horrible visions. San Giacinto might lay a trap for him, might simply come at dead of night and take