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The Turquoise Cup, and, the Desert

Arthur Cosslett Smith

  The Turquoise Cup, and, The Desert


  Arthur Cosslett Smith




  I The Turquoise Cup

  II The Desert


  The Cardinal Archbishop sat on his shaded balcony, his well-kept handsclasped upon his breast, his feet stretched out so straight before himthat the pigeon, perched on the rail of the balcony, might have seenfully six inches of scarlet silk stocking.

  The cardinal was a small man, but very neatly made. His hair was aswhite as spun glass. Perhaps he was sixty; perhaps he was seventy;perhaps he was fifty. His red biretta lay upon a near-by chair. His headbore no tonsure. The razor of the barber and the scythe of Time hadpassed him by. There was that faint tinge upon his cheeks that comes tothose who, having once had black beards, shave twice daily. His featureswere clearly cut. His skin would have been pallid had it not been olive.A rebellious lock of hair curved upon his forehead. He resembled thefirst Napoleon, before the latter became famous and fat.

  The pigeon's mate came floating through the blue sky that silhouettedthe trees in the garden. She made a pretence of alighting upon thebalcony railing, sheered off, coquetted among the treetops, came backagain, retreated so far that she was merely a white speck against theblue vault, and then, true to her sex, having proved her liberty only totire of it, with a flight so swift that the eye could scarcely followher, she came back again and rested upon the farther end of the balcony,where she immediately began to preen herself and to affect an air ofnonchalance and virtue.

  Her mate lazily opened one eye, which regarded her for a moment, andthen closed with a wink.

  "Ah, my friends," said the cardinal, "there are days when you make meregret that I am not of the world, but this is not one of them. You havequarrelled, I perceive. When you build your nest down yonder in thecote, I envy you. When you are giving up your lives to feeding yourchildren, I envy you. I watch your flights for food for them. I say tomyself, 'I, too, would struggle to keep a child, if I had one. Commerce,invention, speculation--why could I not succeed in one of these? I havearrived in the most intricate profession of all. I am a cardinalarchbishop. Could I not have been a stockbroker?' Ah, signore andsignora," and he bowed to the pigeons, "you get nearer heaven than wepoor mortals. Have you learned nothing--have you heard no whisper--haveyou no message for me?"

  "Your eminence," said a servant who came upon the balcony, a silver trayin his hand, "a visitor."

  The cardinal took the card and read it aloud--"The Earl of Vauxhall."

  He sat silent a moment, thinking. "I do not know him," he said atlength; "but show him up."

  He put on his biretta, assumed a more erect attitude, and then turned tothe pigeons.

  "Adieu," he said; "commercialism approaches in the person of anEnglishman. He comes either to buy or to sell. You have nothing incommon with him. Fly away to the Piazza, but come back tomorrow. If youdo not, I shall miss you sorely."

  The curtains parted, and the servant announced, "The Earl of Vauxhall."

  The cardinal rose from his chair.

  A young man stepped upon the balcony. He was tall and lithe and blond,and six-and-twenty.

  "Your grace," he said, "I have come because I am in deep trouble."

  "In that event," said the cardinal, "you do me much honor. My vocationis to seek out those who are in trouble. When _they_ seek _me_ it arguesthat I am not unknown. You are an Englishman. You may speak your ownlanguage. It is not the most flexible, but it is an excellent vehiclefor the truth."

  "Thank you," said the young man; "that gives me a better chance, sincemy Italian is of the gondolier type. I speak it mostly with my arms,"and he began to gesticulate.

  "I understand," said the cardinal, smiling, "and I fear that my Englishis open to some criticism. I picked it up in the University of Oxford.My friends in the Vatican tell me that it is a patois."

  "I dare say," said the young man. "I was at Cambridge."

  "Ah," said the cardinal, "how unfortunate. Still, we may be able tounderstand one another. Will you have some tea? It is a habit Icontracted in England, and I find it to be a good one. I sit here atfive o'clock, drink my cup of tea, feed the pigeons that light upon therailing, and have a half-hour in which to remember how great is England,and"--with a bow--"how much the rest of the world owes to her."

  "A decent sort of chap, for an Italian," thought the earl. The cardinalbusied himself with the tea-pot.

  "Your grace," said the earl, finally, "I came here in trouble."

  "It cannot be of long standing," said the cardinal. "You do not looklike one who has passed through the fire."

  "No," said the earl, "but I scarcely know what to say to you. I amembarrassed."

  "My son," said the cardinal, "when an Englishman is embarrassed he istruly penitent. You may begin as abruptly as you choose. Are you aCatholic?"

  "No," replied the earl, "I am of the Church of England."

  The cardinal shrugged his shoulders the least bit. "I never cease toadmire your countrymen," he said, "On Sundays they say, 'I believe inthe Holy Catholic Church,' and, on work-days, they say, 'I believe inthe Holy Anglican Church.' You are admirably trained. You adaptyourselves to circumstances."

  "Yes," said the earl, a trifle nettled, "I believe we do, but at presentI find myself as maladroit as though I had been born on theContinent--in Italy, for example."

  "Good," laughed the cardinal; "I am getting to be a garrulous old man. Ilove to air my English speech, and, in my effort to speak it freely, Isometimes speak it beyond license. Can you forgive me, my lord, and willyou tell me how I can serve you?"

  "I came," said the Earl of Vauxhall, "to ask you if there is any way inwhich I can buy the turquoise cup."

  "I do not understand," said the cardinal.

  "The turquoise cup," repeated the earl. "The one in the treasury of St.Mark's."

  The cardinal began to laugh--then he suddenly ceased, looked hard at theearl and asked, "Are you serious, my lord?"

  "Very," replied the earl.

  "Are you quite well?" asked the cardinal.

  "Yes," said the earl, "but I am very uncomfortable."

  The cardinal began to pace up and down the balcony.

  "My lord," he asked, finally, "have you ever negotiated for the HolyCoat at Treves; for the breastplate of Charlemagne in the Louvre; forthe Crown Jewels in the Tower?"

  "No," said the earl; "I have no use for them, but I very much need theturquoise cup."

  "Are you a professional or an amateur?" asked the cardinal, his eyesflashing, his lips twitching.

  "As I understand it," said the earl, slowly, a faint blush stealing intohis cheeks, "an 'amateur' is a lover. If that is right, perhaps you hadbetter put me down as an 'amateur.'"

  The cardinal saw the blush and his anger vanished.

  "Ah," he said, softly, "there is a woman, is there?"

  "Yes," replied the earl, "there is a woman."

  "Well," said the cardinal, "I am listening."

  "It won't bore you?" asked the earl. "If I begin about her I sha'n'tknow when to stop."

  "My lord," said the cardinal, "if there were no women there would be nopriests. Our occupation would be gone. There was a time when _men_ builtchurches, beautified them, and went to them. How is it now; even here inVenice, where art still exists, and where there is no bourse? I wasspeaking with a man only to-day--a man of affairs, one who buys andsells, who has agents in foreign lands and ships on the seas; a man who,in the old religious days, would have given a tenth of all his goods tothe Church and would have found honor and contentment in the remainder;but he is bitte
n with this new-fangled belief of disbelief. He has asneaking fear that Christianity has been supplanted by electricity andhe worships Huxley rather than Christ crucified--Huxley!" and thecardinal threw up his hands. "Did ever a man die the easier because hehad grovelled at the knees of Huxley? What did Huxley preach? Thedoctrine of despair. He was the Pope of protoplasm. He beat his wingsagainst the bars of the unknowable. He set his finite mind the task ofsolving the infinite. A mere creature, he sought to fathom the mind ofhis creator. Read the lines upon his tomb, written by his wife--what dothey teach? Nothing but 'let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.' Ifa man follows Huxley, then is he a fool if he does not give to this poorsqueezed-lemon of a world another twist. If I believed there was nothingafter this life, do you think I should be sitting here, feeding thepigeons? Do you think--but there, I have aired my English speech andhave had my fling at Huxley. Let me fill your cup and then tell me ofthis woman whom I have kept waiting all this time by my vanity and myill manners. Is she English, French, Spanish, or American? There aremany Americans nowadays."

  "No," said the earl, "she is Irish."

  "The most dangerous of all," remarked the cardinal.

  "It is plain that you know women," said the earl.

  "I?" exclaimed the cardinal. "No; nor any living man."

  "Her father." resumed the earl, "was a great brewer in Dublin. He maderipping stout. Perhaps you use it. It has a green label, with a bull'shead. He kept straight all through the home-rule troubles, and hechipped in a lot for the Jubilee fund, and they made him Lord Vatsmore.He died two years ago and left one child. She is Lady Nora Daly. She iswaiting for me now in the Piazza."

  "Perhaps I am detaining you?" said the cardinal.

  "By no means," replied the earl. "I don't dare to go back just yet. Imet her first at home, last season. I've followed her about like aspaniel ever since. I started in for a lark, and now I'm in for keeps.She has a peculiar way with her," continued the earl, smoothing his hat;"one minute you think you are great chums and, the next, you wonder ifyou have ever been presented."

  "I recognize the Irish variety," said the cardinal.

  "She is here with her yacht," continued the earl. "Her aunt is with her.The aunt is a good sort. I am sure you would like her."

  "Doubtless," said the cardinal, with a shrug; "but have you nothing moreto say about the niece?"

  "I followed her here," continued the earl, his hands still busy with hishat, "and I've done my best. Just now, in the Piazza, I asked her tomarry me, and she laughed. We went into St. Mark's, and the lights andthe music and the pictures and the perfume seemed to soften her. 'Didyou mean it?' she said to me. I told her I did. 'Don't speak to me for alittle while,' she said, 'I want to think.' That was strange, wasn'tit?"

  "No," said the cardinal, "I don't think that was strange. I think it wasmerely feminine."

  "We came out of the church," continued the earl, "and I felt sure ofher; but when we came into the Piazza and she saw the life of the place,the fountain playing, the banners flying, the pigeons wheeling, andheard the band, she began to laugh and chaff. 'Bobby,' she said,suddenly, 'did you mean it?'

  "'Yes,' I said, 'I meant it.' She looked at me for a moment so fixedlythat I began to think of the things I had done and which she had notdone, of the gulf there was between us--you understand?"

  "Yes," said the cardinal, "I understand--that is, I can imagine."

  "And then," continued the earl, "I ventured to look into her eyes, andshe was laughing at me.

  "'Bobby,' she said, 'I believe I've landed you. I know you 're afortune-hunter, but what blame? I dare say I should be one, but for thebeer. I'm throwing myself away. With my fortune and my figure I think Icould get a duke, an elderly duke, perhaps, and a little over on hisknees, but still a duke. A well-brought-up young woman would take theduke, but I am nothing but a wild Irish girl. Bobby, you are jolly andwholesome, and auntie likes you, and I'll take you--hold hard,' shesaid, as I moved up--'I'll take you, if you'll give me the turquoisecup.' 'What's that?' I asked. 'The turquoise cup,' she said; 'the one inthe treasury of St. Mark's. Give me that and Nora Daly is yours.' 'Allright,' I said, 'I'll trot off and buy it.'

  "Here I am, your grace, an impecunious but determined man. I have fourthousand pounds at Coutts's, all I have in the world; will it lift thecup?"

  The cardinal rubbed his white hands together, uncrossed and recrossedhis legs, struck the arm of his chair, and burst into a laugh so merryand so prolonged that the earl, perforce, joined him.

  "It's funny," said the latter, finally, "but, all the same, it'sserious."

  "Oh, Love!" exclaimed the cardinal; "you little naked boy with wings anda bow! You give us more trouble than all the rest of the heathen deitiescombined--you fly about so--you appear in such strange places--youcompel mortals to do such remarkable things--you debauch my pigeons,and, when the ill is done, you send your victims to me, or anotherpriest, and ask for absolution, so that they may begin all over again."

  "Do I get the cup?" asked the earl, with some impatience.

  "My lord," said the cardinal, "if the cup were mine, I have a fancy thatI would give it to you, with my blessing and my best wishes; but whenyou ask me to sell it to you, it is as though you asked your queen tosell you the Kohinoor. She dare not, if she could. She could not, if shedare. Both the diamond and the cup were, doubtless, stolen. The diamondwas taken in this century; the cup was looted so long ago that no oneknows. A sad attribute of crime is that time softens it. There is amental statute of limitations that converts possession into ownership.'We stole the Kohinoor so long ago,' says the Englishman, 'that we ownit now.' So it is with the cup. Where did it come from? It is doubtlessByzantine, but where did its maker live; in Byzantium or here, inVenice? We used to kidnap Oriental artists in the good old days when artwas a religion. This cup was made by one whom God befriended; by a brainsteeped in the love of the beautiful; by a hand so cunning that when itdied art languished; by a power so compelling that the treasuries of theworld were opened to it. Its bowl is a turquoise, the size and shape ofan ostrich's egg, sawn through its longer diameter, and resting on itsside. Four gold arms clasp the bowl and meet under it. These arms areset with rubies en cabochon, except one, which is cut in facets. Thearms are welded beneath the bowl and form the stem. Midway of the stem,and pierced by it, is a diamond, as large"--the cardinal picked up histeaspoon and looked at it--"yes," he said, "as large as the bowl of thisspoon. The foot of the cup is an emerald, flat on the bottom and joinedto the stem by a ferrule of transparent enamel. If this treasure wereoffered for sale the wealth of the world would fight for it. No, no, mylord, you cannot have the cup. Take your four thousand pounds toTestolini, the jeweller, and buy a string of pearls. Very few good womencan resist pearls."

  "Your grace," said the earl, rising, "I appreciate fully the absurdityof my errand and the kindness of your forbearance. I fear, however, thatyou scarcely grasp the situation. I am going to marry Lady Nora. Icannot marry her without the cup. You perceive the conclusion--I shallhave the cup. Good-by, your grace; I thank you for your patience."

  "Good-by," said the cardinal, ringing for a servant. "I wish that Imight serve you; but, when children cry for the moon, what is to bedone? Come and see me again; I am nearly always at home about thishour."

  "I repeat, your grace," said the earl, "that I shall have the cup. Allis fair in love and war, is it not?"

  There was a certain quality in the earl's voice--that quiet, even noteof sincerity which quells riots, which quiets horses, which leadsforlorn hopes, and the well-trained ear of the cardinal recognized it.

  "Pietro," he said to the servant who answered the bell, "I am going out.My hat and stick. I will go a little way with you, my lord."

  They went down the broad stairs together, and the earl noticed, for thefirst time, that his companion limped.

  "Gout?" he asked.

  "No," said the cardinal; "the indiscretion of youth. I was withGaribaldi and caught a bullet."

my arm," said the earl.

  "Willingly," said the cardinal, "since I know that you will bring meinto the presence of a woman worth seeing; a woman who can compel a peerof England to meditate a theft."

  "How do you know that?" exclaimed the earl; and he stopped so abruptlythat the cardinal put his free hand against his companion's breast toright himself.

  "Because," said the cardinal, "I saw your face when you said good-by tome. It was not a pleasant face."