Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Innocent Adventuress

Mary Hastings Bradley

  Produced by Steven desJardins and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at







  Copyright, 1920, by The McCall Co., Inc.PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA








  Maria Angelina was eavesdropping. Not upon her sister Lucia and PaoloTosti whom she had been assigned to chaperon by reading a book toherself in the adjoining room--no, they were safely busy with piano andviolin, and she was heartily bored, anyway, with their inanities. Voicesfrom another direction had pricked her to alertness.

  Maria Angelina was in the corner room of the Palazzo Santonini, a dimand beautiful old library with faded furnishings whose west arch ofdoorway looked into the pretentious reception room where the fianceswere amusing themselves with their music and their whisperings. It wasquite advanced, this allowing them to be so alone, but the ContessaSantonini was an American and, moreover, the wedding was not far off.

  One can be indulgent when the settlements are signed.

  So only Maria Angelina and her book were stationed for propriety, and,wanting another book, she had gone to the shelves and through the northdoor, ajar, caught the words that held her intent.

  "Three of them!" a masculine voice uttered explosively, and Maria knewthat Papa was speaking of his three daughters, Lucia, Julietta and MariaAngelina--and she knew, too, that Papa had just come from the lastinterview with the Tostis' lawyers.

  The Tostis had been stiff in their demands and Papa had been morecomplaisant than he should have been. Altogether that marriage wascosting him dear.

  He had been figuring now with Mamma for a pencil went clattering to thefloor.

  "And something especial," he proclaimed bitterly, "will have to be donefor Julietta!"

  At that the eavesdropper could smile, a faint little smile of shy prideand self-reliance.

  Nothing especial would have to be done for _her_! A decent dowry, ofcourse, as befitting a daughter of the house, but she would need nomore, for Maria was eighteen, as white as a lily and as slender as anaspen, with big, dark eyes like strange pools of night in her child'sface.

  Whereas poor Julietta----!

  "Madre Dio!" said Papa indignantly. "For what did we name her Julietta?And born in Verona! A pretty sentiment indeed. But it was of noinspiration to her--none!"

  Mamma did not laugh although Papa's sudden chuckle after his explosionwas most irresistible.

  "But if Fate went by names," he continued, "then would Maria Angelina befor the life of religion." And he chuckled again.

  Still Mamma did not laugh. Her pencil was scratching.

  "It's a pity," murmured Papa, "that you did not embrace the faith, mydear, for then we might arrange this matter. They used to manage thesethings in the old days."

  "Send Julietta into a convent?" cried Mamma in a voice of sudden energy.

  Maria could not see but she knew that the Count shrugged.

  "She appears built to coif Saint Catherine," he murmured.

  "Julietta is a dear girl," said the Contessa in a warm voice.

  "When one knows her excellencies."

  "She will do very well--with enough dowry."

  "Enough dowry--that is it! It will take all that is left for the two ofthem to push Julietta into a husband's arms!"

  When the Count was annoyed he dealt directly with facts--a proceeding hepreferred to avoid at other moments.

  Behind her curtains Maria drew a troubled breath. She, too, felt thefamily responsibility for Julietta--dear Julietta, with her dumpy figureand ugly face. Julietta was nineteen and now that Lucia was betrothed itwas Julietta's turn.

  If only it could be known that Julietta had a pretty dot!

  Maria stood motionless behind the curtains, her winged imaginationrushing to meet Julietta's future, fronting the indifference, theneglect, the ridicule before which Julietta's sensitive, shamed spiritwould suffer and bleed. She could see her partnerless at balls, luggedheavily about to teas and dinners, shrinking eagerly and hopelessly backinto the refuge of the paternal home. . . . Yet Julietta had oncewhispered to her that she wanted to die if she could never marry andhave an armful of _bambinos_!

  Maria Angelina's young heart contracted with sharp anxiety. Things werein a bad way with her family indeed. There had always beendifficulties, for Papa was extravagant and ever since brother Franciscohad been in the army, he, too, had his debts, but Mamma had alwaysmanaged so wonderfully! But the war had made things very difficult, andnow peace had made them more difficult still. There had been one awfultime when it had looked as if the carriages and horses would have to goand they would be reduced to sharing a barouche with some one else insecret, proud distress--like the Manzios and the Benedettos who tooktheir airings alternately, each with a different crested door upon theidentical vehicle--but Mamma had overcome that crisis and the socialrite of the daily drive upon the Pincian had been sacredly preserved.But apparently these settlements were too much, even for Mamma.

  Then her name upon her mother's lips brought the eavesdropper to swiftattention.

  It appeared that the Contessa had a plan.

  Maria Angelina could go to visit Mamma's cousins in America. They wererich--that is understood of Americans; even Mamma had once been richwhen she was a girl, Maria dimly remembered having heard--and they wouldgive Maria a chance to meet people. . . . Men did not ask settlements inAmerica. They earned great sums and could please themselves with apretty, penniless face. . . . And what was saved on Maria's dowry wouldplump out Julietta's.

  Thunderstruck, the Count objected. Maria was his favorite.

  "Send Julietta to America, then," he protested, but swallowed thatfoolishness at Mamma's calm, "To what good?"

  To what good, indeed! It would never do to risk the cost of a trip toAmerica upon Julietta.

  Sulkily Papa argued that the cost in any case was prohibitive. But Mammahad the figures.

  "One must invest to receive," she insisted; and when he grumbled, "Butto lose the child?" she broke out, "Am _I_ not losing her?" on a notethat silenced him.

  Then she added cheerfully, "But it will be for her own good."

  "You want her to marry an American? You are not satisfied, then, withItalians?" said Papa playfully leaning over to ruffle Mamma's soft,light hair and at his movement Maria Angelina fled swiftly from thosecurtains back to her post, and sat very still, a book in front of her, ahaze of romance swimming between it and her startled eyes.

  America. . . . A rich husband. . . . Travel. . . . Adventure. . . . Theunknown. . . .

  It was wonderful. It was unbelievable. . . . It was desperate.

  It was a hazard of the sharpest chance.

sp; That knowledge brought a chill of gravity into the hot currents of herbeating heart--a chill that was the cold breath of a terrificresponsibility. She felt herself the hope, the sole resource of herfamily. She was the die on which their throw of fortune was to be cast.

  Dropping her book she slid down from her chair and crossed to a longmirror in an old carved frame where a dove was struggling in a falcon'stalons while Cupids drew vain bows, and in the dimmed glass stared inpassionate searching.

  She was so childish, so slight looking. She was white--that was the skinfrom Mamma--and now she wondered if it were truly a charm. CertainlyLucia preferred her own olive tints.

  And her eyes were so big and dark, like caverns in her face, and herlips were mere scarlet threads. The beauties she had seen werewarm-colored, high-bosomed, full-lipped.

  Her distrust extended even to her coronet of black braids.

  Her uncertain youth had no vision of the purity and pride of thatbraid-bound head, of the brilliance of the dark eyes against the satinskin, of the troubling glamour of the red little mouth. In the cleardefinition of the delicate features, the arch of the high eyebrows, thesweep of the shadowy lashes, her childish hope had never dreamed of morethan mere prettiness and now she was torturingly questioning that.

  "Practicing your smiles, my dear?" said a voice from the threshold,Lucia's voice with the mockery of the successful, and Maria Angelinaturned from her dim glass with a flame of scarlet across her pallor, andjoined, with an angry heart, in the laugh which her sister and youngTosti raised against her.

  But Maria Angelina had a tongue.

  "But yes--for the better fish are yet uncaught," she retorted with aflash of the eyes toward the young man, and Paolo, all ardor as he wasfor Lucia's olive and rose, shot a glance of tickled humor at herimpudence.

  He promised himself some merry passes with the little sister-in-law.

  Lucia resented the glances.

  "Wait your turn, little one," she scoffed. "You will be in pinaforesuntil our poor Julietta is wed," and she laughed, unkindly.

  There were times, Maria felt furiously, when she hated Lucia.

  Her championing heart resolved that Julietta should not be left unwedand defenseless to that mockery. Julietta should have her chance atlife!

  Not a word of the great plan was breathed officially to the girl,although the mother's expectancy for mail revealed that a letter hadalready been sent, until that expectancy was rewarded by a letter withthe American postmark. Then the drama of revelation was exquisitelyenacted.

  It appeared that the Blairs of New York, Mamma's dear cousins, wereinsistent that one of Mamma's daughters should know Mamma's country andMamma's relatives. They had a daughter about Maria Angelina's age soMaria Angelina had been selected for the visit. The girls would have adelightful time together. . . . Maria would start in June.

  Vaguely Maria Angelina recalled the Blairs as she had seen them some sixyears ago in Rome--a kindly Cousin Jim who had given her sweets andlaughed bewilderingly at her and a Cousin Jane with beautiful blondehair and cool white gowns. Their daughter, Ruth, had not been with them,so Maria had no acquaintance at all with her, but only the recollectionof occasional postcards to keep the name in memory.

  She remembered once that there had been talk of this Cousin Ruth'scoming to school for a winter in Rome and that Mamma had bestirredherself to discover the correct schools, but nothing had ever come ofit. The war had intervened.

  And now she was to visit them. . . .

  "You are going to America just as I went to Italy at your age," criedMamma. "And--who knows?--you too, may meet your fate on the trip!"

  Mamma would overdo it, thought Maria Angelina nervously, her eyesdowncast for fear her mother would read their discomfort and herknowledge of the pitiful duplicity, and her cheeks a quick shamedscarlet.

  "She will have to--to repair the expense," flashed Lucia with a shrilllaugh. "Such expenditure, when you have just been preaching economy onmy trousseau!"

  "One must economize on the trousseau when the bridegroom has cost thefortune," Maria found her wicked little tongue to say and Lucia turnedsallow beneath her olive.

  Briskly Mamma intervened. "We are thinking not of one of you but all.Now no more words, my little ones. There is too much to be done."

  There was indeed, with this trip to be arranged for before the onrush ofLucia's preparation! Once committed to the great adventure it quicklytook on the outer aspects of reality. There were clothes to be made andclothes to be bought, there were discussions, decisions, debates andconjectures and consultations. A thousand preparations to be pushed inhaste, and at once the big bedroom of Mamma blossomed with delicatefabrics, with bright ribbons and frilly laces, and amid the blossoming,the whir of the machine and the feet and hands of the two-lire-a-dayseamstress went like mad clockwork, while in and out Mamma's friendscame hurrying, at the rumor, to hint of congratulation or suggest astyle, an advice.

  The contagion of excitement seized everyone, so that even Lucia wasinspired to lend her clever fingers from her own preparations forSeptember.

  "But not to be back by then! Not here for my wedding--that would be tooodd!" she complained with the persistent ill-will she had shown theexpedition.

  Shrewd enough to divine its purpose and practical enough to perceive thenecessity for it, the older girl cherished her instinctive objection toany pleasure that did not include her in its scope or that threatenedto overcast her own festivities.

  "That will depend," returned Mamma sedately, "upon the circumstance. Ourcousins may not easily find a suitable chaperon for your sister'sreturn. And they may have plans for her entertainment. We must leavethat to them."

  A little panic-stricken, Maria Angelina perceived that _she_ was beingleft to them--until otherwise disposed of!

  So fast had preparations whirled them on, that parting was upon the girlbefore she divined the coming pain of it. Then in the last hours herheart was wrung.

  She stared at the dear familiar rooms, the streets and the houses with alook of one already lost to her world, and her eyes clung to the figuresof her family as if to relinquish the sight of them would dissolve themfrom existence.

  They were tragic, those following, imploring eyes, but they were notwet. Maria understood it was too late to weep. It was necessary to go.The magnitude of the sums already invested in her affair staggered her.They were so many pledges, those sums!

  But America was so desolately far.

  She could not sleep, that last night. She lay in the big four-posterwhere once heavy draperies had shut in the slumbers of dead and goneContessas, and she watched the square of moonlight travel over thepainted cherubs on the ceiling. There was always a lump in her throat tobe swallowed, and often the tears soaked into the big feather pillows,but there were no sobs to rouse the household.

  Julietta, beside her, slept very comfortably.

  But the most terrible moment of all was that last look of Mamma and thatlast clasp of her hands upon the deck of the steamer.

  "You must tell me everything, little one," the Contessa Santonini keptsaying hurriedly. She was constrained and repetitious in the grip ofher emotion, as they stood together, just out of earshot of the Italianconsul's wife who was chaperoning the young girl upon her voyage.

  "Write me all about the people you meet and what they say to you, andwhat you do. Remember that I am still Mamma if I am across the ocean andI shall be waiting to hear. . . . And remember that but few of yourideas of America may be true. Americans are not all the types you haveread of or the tourists you have met. You must expect a greatdifference. . . . I should be strange, myself, now in America."

  Maria's quick sensitiveness divined a note of secret yearning.

  "Yes, Mamma," she said obediently, tightening her clasp upon hermother's hands.

  "You must be on guard against mistakes, Maria Angelina," said the otherinsistently--as if she had not said that a dozen times before! "BecauseAmerican girls do things it may be not be wise for you to do. You w
illbe of interest because you are different. Be very careful, my littleone."

  "Yes, Mamma," said the girl again.

  "As to your money--you understand it must last. There can be little topay when you are a guest. But send to Papa and me your accounts as Ihave told you."

  "Yes, Mamma."

  "You will not let the American freedom turn your head. You will bewise--Oh, I trust you, Maria Angelina, to be very wise!"

  How wise Maria Angelina thought herself! She lifted a face that shonewith confidence and understanding and for all her quivering lips shesmiled.

  "My baby!" said the mother suddenly in English and took that facebetween her hands and kissed it.

  "You will be careful," she began again abruptly, and then stopped.

  Too late for more cautions. And the child was so _sage_.

  But it was such a little figure that stood there, such young eyes thatsmiled so confidently into hers. . . . And America was a long, long wayoff.

  The bugles were blowing for visitors to be away. Just one more hurriedkiss and hasty clasp.

  An overwhelming fright seized upon the girl as the mother went down theship's ladder into the small boat that put out so quickly for the shore.

  Suppose she should fail them! After all she was _not_ so wise--and notso very pretty. And she had no experience--none!

  The sun, dancing on the bright waves, hurt Maria Angelina's eyes. Shehad to shut them, they watered so foolishly. And something in her youngbreast wanted to cry after that boat, "Take me back--take me back to myhome," but something else in her forbade and would have died of shamebefore it uttered such weakness.

  For poor Julietta, for dear anxious Mamma, she knew herself the onlyhope.

  So steadily she waved her handkerchief long after she had lost theresponding flutter from the boat.

  She was not crying now. She felt exalted. She pressed closer to the railand stared out very solemnly over the blue and gold bay to beautifulNaples. . . . Suddenly her heart quickened. Vesuvius was moving. Thefar-off shores of Italy were slipping by. Above her the black smoke thathad been coming faster and faster from the great funnels streamedbackward like long banners.

  Maria Angelina was on her way.