“Mamma! Mamma!” he cried, in a thin tone of distress, almost as if he were going to cry.
He was nearly thirty years old, though he looked younger. He was thin, and pale, with a muddy and spotted complexion, and his scanty black hair grew far back on his poorly developed forehead. His eyes had a look that was half startled, half false. Though he was carefully dressed he had not shaved, because he could not shave himself and his valet had departed with the rest of the servants. He was the Princess’s only son, himself the present Prince, and the heir of all the Conti since the year eleven hundred.
“What is the matter, sweetheart?” asked the Princess, with ready sympathy. “Your hands are quite cold! Are you ill?”
“The child! Something has happened to it—we do not know—it looks so strange—its eyes are turned in and it is such a dreadful colour—do come—”
But the Princess was already on her way, and he spoke the last words as he ran after her. She turned her head as she went on.
“For heaven’s sake send a doctor!” she cried to the Baroness, and in a moment she was gone, with the weak young man close at her side.
The Baroness nodded quickly, and when all three reached the door she left the two to go upstairs and ran down, with a tremendous puffing of the invisible silk bellows.
“The Prince’s little girl is very ill,” she said, as she passed the porter, who was now polishing the panes of glass in the door of his lodge, because he had done the same thing every morning for twenty years.
He almost dropped the dingy leather he was using, but before he could answer, the cab passed out, bearing the Baroness on her errand.
Signor Pompeo Sassi sat in his dingy office and tore his hair, in the good old literal Italian sense. His elbows rested on the shabby black oilcloth glued to the table, and his long knotted fingers twisted his few remaining locks, on each side of his head, in a way that was painful to see. From time to time he desisted for an instant, and held up his open hands, the fingers quivering with emotion, and his watery eyes were turned upwards, too, as if directing an unspoken prayer to the dusty rafters of the ceiling. The furrows had deepened of late in his respectable, trust-inspiring face, and he was as thin as a skeleton in leather.
His heart was broken. On the big sheet of thick hand-made paper, that lay on the desk, scribbled over with rough calculations in violet ink, there were a number of trial impressions of the old stamp he had once been so proud to use. It bore a rough representation of the Conti eagle, encircled by the legend: “Eccellentissima Casa Conti.” When his eyes fell upon it, they filled with tears. The Most Excellent House of Conti had come to a pitiful end, and it had been Pompeo Sassi’s unhappy fate to see its fall. Judging from his looks, he was not to survive the catastrophe very long.