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Fri May 14, 2010 4:29 pm

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< 16 >
He held out his hand with a smile to Count Ottaviano.
"I won't deprive you any longer," he said, "of the pleasure of reading your letter."
"Oh, sir, a thousand thanks! And when you return to the casa Lombard, you will take a message from me -- the letter she expected this afternoon?"
"The letter she expected?" Wyant paused. "No, thank you. I thought you understood that where I come from we don't do that kind of thing -- knowingly."
"But, sir, to serve a young lady!"
"I'm sorry for the young lady, if what you tell me is true" -- the Count's expressive hands resented the doubt --"but remember that if I am under obligations to any one in this matter, it is to her father, who has admitted me to his house and has allowed me to see his picture."
"His picture? Hers!"
"Well, the house is his, at all events."
"Unhappily -- since to her it is a dungeon!"
"Why doesn't she leave it, then?" exclaimed Wyant impatiently.
The Count clasped his hands. "Ah, how you say that -- with what force, with what virility! If you would but say it to her in that tone -- you, her countryman! She has no one to advise her; the mother is an idiot; the father is terrible; she is in his power; it is my belief that he would kill her if she resisted him. Mr. Wyant, I tremble for her life while she remains in that house!"
"Oh, come," said Wyant lightly, "they seem to understand each other well enough. But in any case, you must see that I can't interfere -- at least you would if you were an Englishman," he added with an escape of contempt.


III
Wyant's affiliations in Siena being restricted to an acquaintance with his land-lady, he was forced to apply to her for the verification of Count Ottaviano's story.
The young nobleman had, it appeared, given a perfectly correct account of his situation. His father, Count Celsi-Mongirone, was a man of distinguished family and some wealth. He was syndic of Orvieto, and lived either in that town or on his neighboring estate of Mongirone. His wife owned a large property near Siena, and Count Ottaviano, who was the second son, came there from time to time to look into its management. The eldest son was in the army, the youngest in the Church; and an aunt of Count Ottaviano's was Mother Superior of the Visitandine convent in Siena. At one time it had been said that Count Ottaviano, who was a most amiable and accomplished young man, was to marry the daughter of the strange Englishman, Doctor Lombard, but difficulties having arisen as to the adjustment of the young lady's dower, Count Celsi-Mongirone had very properly broken off the match. It was sad for the young man, however, who was said to be deeply in love, and to find frequent excuses for coming to Siena to inspect his mother's estate.

< 17 >
Viewed in the light of Count Ottaviano's personality the story had a tinge of opera bouffe; but the next morning, as Wyant mounted the stairs of the House of the Dead Hand, the situation insensibly assumed another aspect. It was impossible to take Doctor Lombard lightly; and there was a suggestion of fatality in the appearance of his gaunt dwelling. Who could tell amid what tragic records of domestic tyranny and fluttering broken purposes the little drama of Miss Lombard's fate was being played out? Might not the accumulated influences of such a house modify the lives within it in a manner unguessed by the inmates of a suburban villa with sanitary plumbing and a telephone?
One person, at least, remained unperturbed by such fanciful problems; and that was Mrs. Lombard, who, at Wyant's entrance, raised a placidly wrinkled brow from her knitting. The morning was mild, and her chair had been wheeled into a bar of sunshine near the window, so that she made a cheerful spot of prose in the poetic gloom of her surroundings.
"What a nice morning!" she said; "it must be delightful weather at Bonchurch."
Her dull blue glance wandered across the narrow street with its threatening house fronts, and fluttered back baffled, like a bird with clipped wings. It was evident, poor lady, that she had never seen beyond the opposite houses.
Wyant was not sorry to find her alone. Seeing that she was surprised at his reappearance he said at once: "I have come back to study Miss Lombard's picture."
"Oh, the picture --" Mrs. Lombard's face expressed a gentle disappointment, which might have been boredom in a person of acuter sensibilities. "It's an original Leonardo, you know," she said mechanically.
"And Miss Lombard is very proud of it, I suppose? She seems to have inherited her father's love for art."
Mrs. Lombard counted her stitches, and he went on: "It's unusual in so young a girl. Such tastes generally develop later."
Mrs. Lombard looked up eagerly. "That's what I say! I was quite different at her age, you know. I liked dancing, and doing a pretty bit of fancy-work. Not that I couldn't sketch, too; I had a master down from London. My aunts have some of my crayons hung up in their drawing-room now -- I did a view of Kenilworth which was thought pleasing. But I liked a picnic, too, or a pretty walk through the woods with young people of my own age. I say it's more natural, Mr. Wyant; one may have a feeling for art, and do crayons that are worth framing, and yet not give up everything else. I was taught that there were other things."

< 18 >
Wyant, half-ashamed of provoking these innocent confidences, could not resist another question. "And Miss Lombard cares for nothing else?"
Her mother looked troubled.
"Sybilla is so clever -- she says I don't understand. You know how self-confident young people are! My husband never said that of me, now -- he knows I had an excellent education. My aunts were very particular; I was brought up to have opinions, and my husband has always respected them. He says himself that he wouldn't for the world miss hearing my opinion on any subject; you may have noticed that he often refers to my tastes. He has always respected my preference for living in England; he likes to hear me give my reasons for it. He is so much interested in my ideas that he often says he knows just what I am going to say before I speak. But Sybilla does not care for what I think --"
At this point Doctor Lombard entered. He glanced sharply at Wyant. "The servant is a fool; she didn't tell me you were here." His eye turned to his wife. "Well, my dear, what have you been telling Mr. Wyant? About the aunts at Bonchurch, I'll be bound!"
Mrs. Lombard looked triumphantly at Wyant, and her husband rubbed his hooked fingers, with a smile.
"Mrs. Lombard's aunts are very superior women. They subscribe to the circulating library, and borrow Good Words and the Monthly Packet from the curate's wife across the way. They have the rector to tea twice a year, and keep a page-boy, and are visited by two baronets' wives. They devoted themselves to the education of their orphan niece, and I think I may say without boasting that Mrs. Lombard's conversation shows marked traces of the advantages she enjoyed."
Mrs. Lombard colored with pleasure.
"I was telling Mr. Wyant that my aunts were very particular."
"Quite so, my dear; and did you mention that they never sleep in anything but linen, and that Miss Sophia puts away the furs and blankets every spring with her own hands? Both those facts are interesting to the student of human nature." Doctor Lombard glanced at his watch. "But we are missing an incomparable moment; the light is perfect at this hour."
Wyant rose, and the doctor led him through the tapestried door and down the passageway.

< 19 >
The light was, in fact, perfect, and the picture shone with an inner radiancy, as though a lamp burned behind the soft screen of the lady's flesh. Every detail of the foreground detached itself with jewel-like precision. Wyant noticed a dozen accessories which had escaped him on the previous day.
He drew out his note-book, and the doctor, who had dropped his sardonic grin for a look of devout contemplation, pushed a chair forward, and seated himself on a carved settle against the wall.
"Now, then," he said, "tell Clyde what you can; but the letter killeth."
He sank down, his hands hanging on the arm of the settle like the claws of a dead bird, his eyes fixed on Wyant's notebook with the obvious intention of detecting any attempt at a surreptitious sketch.
Wyant, nettled at this surveillance, and disturbed by the speculations which Doctor Lombard's strange household excited, sat motionless for a few minutes, staring first at the picture and then at the blank pages of the note-book. The thought that Doctor Lombard was enjoying his discomfiture at length roused him, and he began to write.
He was interrupted by a knock on the iron door. Doctor Lombard rose to unlock it, and his daughter entered.
She bowed hurriedly to Wyant, without looking at him.
"Father, had you forgotten that the man from Monte Amiato was to come back this morning with an answer about the bas-relief? He is here now; he says he can't wait."
"The devil!" cried her father impatiently. "Didn't you tell him --"
"Yes; but he says he can't come back. If you want to see him you must come now."
"Then you think there's a chance? --"
She nodded.
He turned and looked at Wyant, who was writing assiduously.
"You will stay here, Sybilla; I shall be back in a moment."
He hurried out, locking the door behind him.
Wyant had looked up, wondering if Miss Lombard would show any surprise at being locked in with him; but it was his turn to be surprised, for hardly had they heard the key withdrawn when she moved close to him, her small face pale and tumultuous.
"I arranged it -- I must speak to you," she gasped. "He'll be back in five minutes."
Her courage seemed to fail, and she looked at him helplessly.

< 20 >
Wyant had a sense of stepping among explosives. He glanced about him at the dusky vaulted room, at the haunting smile of the strange picture overhead, and at the pink-and-white girl whispering of conspiracies in a voice meant to exchange platitudes with a curate.
"How can I help you?" he said with a rush of compassion.
"Oh, if you would! I never have a chance to speak to any one; it's so difficult -- he watches me -- he'll be back immediately."
"Try to tell me what I can do."
"I don't dare; I feel as if he were behind me." She turned away, fixing her eyes on the picture. A sound startled her. "There he comes, and I haven't spoken! It was my only chance; but it bewilders me so to be hurried."
"I don't hear any one," said Wyant, listening. "Try to tell me."
"How can I make you understand? It would take so long to explain." She drew a deep breath, and then with a plunge --"Will you come here again this afternoon -- at about five?" she whispered.
"Come here again?"
"Yes -- you can ask to see the picture, -- make some excuse. He will come with you, of course; I will open the door for you -- and -- and lock you both in" -- she gasped.
"Lock us in?"
"You see? You understand? It's the only way for me to leave the house -- if I am ever to do it" -- She drew another difficult breath. "The key will be returned -- by a safe person -- in half an hour, -- perhaps sooner --"
She trembled so much that she was obliged to lean against the settle for support.
"Wyant looked at her steadily; he was very sorry for her.
"I can't, Miss Lombard," he said at length.
"You can't?"
"I'm sorry; I must seem cruel; but consider --"
He was stopped by the futility of the word: as well ask a hunted rabbit to pause in its dash for a hole!
Wyant took her hand; it was cold and nerveless.
"I will serve you in any way I can; but you must see that this way is impossible. Can't I talk to you again? Perhaps --"
"Oh," she cried, starting up, "there he comes!"
Doctor Lombard's step sounded in the passage.

< 21 >
Wyant held her fast. "Tell me one thing: he won't let you sell the picture?"
"No -- hush!"
"Make no pledges for the future, then; promise me that."
"The future?"
"In case he should die: your father is an old man. You haven't promised?"
She shook her head.
"Don't, then; remember that."
She made no answer, and the key turned in the lock.
As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish.
Wyant turned away impatiently.
"Rubbish!" he said to himself. "She isn't walled in; she can get out if she wants to."


IV
Wyant had any number of plans for coming to Miss Lombard's aid: he was elaborating the twentieth when, on the same afternoon, he stepped into the express train for Florence. By the time the train reached Certaldo he was convinced that, in thus hastening his departure, he had followed the only reasonable course; at Empoli, he began to reflect that the priest and the Levite had probably justified themselves in much the same manner.
A month later, after his return to England, he was unexpectedly relieved from these alternatives of extenuation and approval. A paragraph in the morning paper announced the sudden death of Doctor Lombard, the distinguished English dilettante who had long resided in Siena. Wyant's justification was complete. Our blindest impulses become evidence of perspicacity when they fall in with the course of events.
Wyant could now comfortably speculate on the particular complications from which his foresight had probably saved him. The climax was unexpectedly dramatic. Miss Lombard, on the brink of a step which, whatever its issue, would have burdened her with retrospective compunction, had been set free before her suitor's ardor could have had time to cool, and was now doubtless planning a life of domestic felicity on the proceeds of the Leonardo. One thing, however, struck Wyant as odd -- he saw no mention of the sale of the picture. He had scanned the papers for an immediate announcement of its transfer to one of the great museums; but presently concluding that Miss Lombard, out of filial piety, had wished to avoid an appearance of unseemly haste in the disposal of her treasure, he dismissed the matter from his mind. Other affairs happened to engage him; the months slipped by, and gradually the lady and the picture dwelt less vividly in his mind.

< 22 >
It was not till five or six years later, when chance took him again to Siena, that the recollection started from some inner fold of memory. He found himself, as it happened, at the head of Doctor Lombard's street, and glancing down that grim thoroughfare, caught an oblique glimpse of the doctor's house front, with the Dead Hand projecting above its threshold. The sight revived his interest, and that evening, over an admirable frittata, he questioned his landlady about Miss Lombard's marriage.
"The daughter of the English doctor? But she has never married, signore."
"Never married? What, then, became of Count Ottaviano?"
"For a long time he waited; but last year he married a noble lady of the Maremma."
"But what happened -- why was the marriage broken?"
The landlady enacted a pantomime of baffled interrogation.
"And Miss Lombard still lives in her father's house?"
"Yes, signore; she is still there."
"And the Leonardo --"
"The Leonardo, also, is still there."
The next day, as Wyant entered the House of the Dead Hand, he remembered Count Ottaviano's injunction to ring twice, and smiled mournfully to think that so much subtlety had been vain. But what could have prevented the marriage? If Doctor Lombard's death had been long delayed, time might have acted as a dissolvent, or the young lady's resolve have failed; but it seemed impossible that the white heat of ardor in which Wyant had left the lovers should have cooled in a few short weeks.
As he ascended the vaulted stairway the atmosphere of the place seemed a reply to his conjectures. The same numbing air fell on him, like an emanation from some persistent will-power, a something fierce and imminent which might reduce to impotence every impulse within its range. Wyant could almost fancy a hand on his shoulder, guiding him upward with the ironical intent of confronting him with the evidence of its work.
A strange servant opened the door, and he was presently introduced to the tapestried room, where, from their usual seats in the window, Mrs. Lombard and her daughter advanced to welcome him with faint ejaculations of surprise.
Both had grown oddly old, but in a dry, smooth way, as fruits might shrivel on a shelf instead of ripening on the tree. Mrs. Lombard was still knitting, and pausing now and then to warm her swollen hands above the brazier; and Miss Lombard, in rising, had laid aside a strip of needle-work which might have been the same on which Wyant had first seen her engaged.

< 23 >
Their visitor inquired discreetly how they had fared in the interval, and learned that they had thought of returning to England, but had somehow never done so.
"I am sorry not to see my aunts again," Mrs. Lombard said resignedly; "but Sybilla thinks it best that we should not go this year."
"Next year, perhaps," murmured Miss Lombard, in a voice which seemed to suggest that they had a great waste of time to fill.
She had returned to her seat, and sat bending over her work. Her hair enveloped her head in the same thick braids, but the rose color of her cheeks had turned to blotches of dull red, like some pigment which has darkened in drying.
"And Professor Clyde -- is he well?" Mrs. Lombard asked affably; continuing, as her daughter raised a startled eye: "Surely, Sybilla, Mr. Wyant was the gentleman who was sent by Professor Clyde to see the Leonardo?"
Miss Lombard was silent, but Wyant hastened to assure the elder lady of his friend's well-being.
"Ah -- perhaps, then, he will come back some day to Siena," she said, sighing. Wyant declared that it was more than likely; and there ensued a pause, which he presently broke by saying to Miss Lombard: "And you still have the picture?"
She raised her eyes and looked at him. "Should you like to see it?" she asked.
On his assenting, she rose, and extracting the same key from the same secret drawer, unlocked the door beneath the tapestry. They walked down the passage in silence, and she stood aside with a grave gesture, making Wyant pass before her into the room. Then she crossed over and drew the curtain back from the picture.
The light of the early afternoon poured full on it: its surface appeared to ripple and heave with a fluid splendor. The colors had lost none of their warmth, the outlines none of their pure precision; it seemed to Wyant like some magical flower which had burst suddenly from the mould of darkness and oblivion.
He turned to Miss Lombard with a movement of comprehension.
"Ah, I understand -- you couldn't part with it, after all!" he cried.
"No -- I couldn't part with it," she answered.
"It's too beautiful, -- too beautiful," -- he assented.
"Too beautiful?" She turned on him with a curious stare. "I have never thought it beautiful, you know."

< 24 >
He gave back the stare. "You have never --"
She shook her head. "It's not that. I hate it; I've always hated it. But he wouldn't let me -- he will never let me now."
Wyant was startled by her use of the present tense. Her look surprised him, too: there was a strange fixity of resentment in her innocuous eye. Was it possible that she was laboring under some delusion? Or did the pronoun not refer to her father?
"You mean that Doctor Lombard did not wish you to part with the picture?"
"No -- he prevented me; he will always prevent me."
There was another pause. "You promised him, then, before his death --"
"No; I promised nothing. He died too suddenly to make me." Her voice sank to a whisper. "I was free -- perfectly free -- or I thought I was till I tried."
"Till you tried?"
"To disobey him -- to sell the picture. Then I found it was impossible. I tried again and again; but he was always in the room with me."
She glanced over her shoulder as though she had heard a step; and to Wyant, too, for a moment, the room seemed full of a third presence.
"And you can't" -- he faltered, unconsciously dropping his voice to the pitch of hers.
She shook her head, gazing at him mystically. "I can't lock him out; I can never lock him out now. I told you I should never have another chance."
Wyant felt the chill of her words like a cold breath in his hair.
"Oh" -- he groaned; but she cut him off with a grave gesture.
"It is too late," she said; "but you ought to have helped me that day."


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