“Why must you leave so soon?”
The voice, low and a little tired but caressing, came from the bed. Mark Stanton looked towards the first rays of sunshine coming through the open windows and replied,
“I dislike arriving back at my lodgings in full evening dress when the sun is up.”
“The Neapolitans think it proves their virility!”
There was a soft laugh.
“But you, my Man of the Sea, have no need to prove yours.”
Mark Stanton turned to smile at the speaker, his strong athletic body silhouetted against the mirrors on the dressing table with its profusion of lotions, creams and salves glittering on its painted surface.
From her pillows Princess Gianetta di Sapuano watched him with smouldering velvet black eyes that no man as experienced in women as Mark Stanton could mistake.
Her hair, which was like silk to his touch, held strange purple lights in its darkness as it fell over the lace-edged pillows.
Her parted lips were red and inviting in an oval face that poets had written odes to and which artists had tried vainly to reproduce on canvas.
At twenty-six Princess Gianetta was at the height of her beauty.
There was no one in the whole of Naples who could rival either her sensational attractions or the position she held in that snob-ridden class-conscious society.
Widowed before she was twenty-one, the Princess had refused all further offers of marriage and preferred to choose her lovers with discrimination while enjoying the freedom that her late husband’s enormous fortune ensured for her.
Mark Stanton visited her every time he came to Naples and he was well aware that he was regarded by her other admirers with a jealousy that at times was almost murderous.
“I was hoping you would not be away for long,” the Princess said now, “and it was like an answer to prayer when I saw you at the British Embassy this evening.”
“I knew you would be there,” Mark Stanton replied.
He fastened his fine linen shirt deftly and with the ease of a man who was used to dressing himself without the help of a valet.
There was silence in the bedroom scented with a fragrance that all the Princess’s lovers associated only with her.
It was distinctive, unusual and had a persistent haunting aroma that remained on their hands, their bodies and in their nostrils long after they had left her bed.
There were great bowls of flowers on the balcony outside the window and the huge carved headboard of the bed and its draped curtains of jade green silk were a perfect frame for its owner’s exotic beauty.
The Princess raised herself a little on the pillows regardless of the fact that the action revealed even more of her perfectly proportioned body and that her pink-tipped breasts were an invitation to the man watching her.
“Have you ever thought, Mark, of marriage?”
He picked up his well-cut evening-coat from the chair where he had thrown it before he answered,
“Am I to take this, Gianetta, as a proposal?”
His eyes were twinkling and there was a note of amusement in his voice.
“Suppose it was one?”
The reply from the bed astonished him and he paused in the, act of putting his arm into his coat sleeve.
“If you are serious you know the answer.”
There was a little sigh.
“Yes, I know the answer. You want to be free to roam about the world committing reckless acts of piracy that one day may prove fatal!”
“The alternative to being enclosed in a gilded cage. My dear Gianetta, you cannot confine a wild animal.”
“Even the wildest, I am told, can be tamed.”
Mark Stanton laughed.
“That is debatable, a Fairytale made up to instruct children in kindness towards dumb beasts.”
The Princess suddenly put out her arms towards him.
“I want you, Mark! I want you!”
Now there was a note of passion in her voice that was unmistakable.
“Stay with me,” she went on. “Stay with me at least as long as you are here in Naples. And when you leave, you will take my heart with you.”
Mark Stanton pulled the lapels of his coat into place. Then he walked towards the bed to stand looking down at its alluring and very lovely occupant.
Gianetta was, he thought, one of the most beautiful women he had ever known. She was also one of the most passionate.
He lifted her hand from the sheet where it lay and raised it to his lips.
“Thank you,” he said gently, “for the happiness you have given me tonight and at other times.”
She knew without words that he refused what she suggested. Yet because like all women she wished to have her own way, her fingers tightened on his.
“I said that I wanted you.”
“You are insatiable!”
“Where you are concerned that is true. With other men I am the one who tires.”
He released her hand and touched the shadows beneath her eyes.
“Go to sleep, Gianetta.”
“I shall only dream of you.”
“That is true and it would be much more satisfying if you were here when I woke.”
She threw back her head in a passionate gesture of surrender.
“No, Gianetta, I am leaving. I have a ship, which is waiting for me.”
His eyes were laughing, but the Princess held on to him when he would have moved.
“Don’t go yet,” she begged. “We have not had time to talk and there is so much I want to ask you and so much I wish to hear.”
“At this time in the morning?”
“Why not?” she enquired. “And if you will not talk of love, let’s talk about the political situation.”
Her fingers caressed his as she asked,
“With how many ships is Admiral Nelson blockading the French Fleet in Toulon?”
“You are interested?” Mark Stanton enquired.
“But of course! I have no wish to see the French in Naples again.”
“And yet the French Resident would be extremely interested in the answer I might give to your question.”
He felt her stiffen. Then, as she peeped up at him a little apprehensively from under her long dark eyelashes, he laughed.
“Gianetta, my sweet,” he said affectionately, “you will never make a good spy and you have so many other much more alluring talents.”
Her eyes met his.
“The French Resident is so grateful for even a tiny piece of information.”
“And I would, of course, be equally grateful for anything you might be able to tell me.”
The Princess hesitated for a moment and then she replied,
“Napoleon Bonaparte has been told that the Russians are interested in acquiring Malta.”
Mark Stanton sat down on the bed.
“Talleyrand informed Bonaparte last year that Malta was a hive of Austrian, Russian and English spies.”
“It’s no secret that he himself provided two more, one Maltese, one French!”
Mark Stanton saw that the Princess was listening and went on,
“The Czar Paul has founded a Russian Priory of the Order of St. John. The only use he has for Malta is that the Grand Master should send him Knights to teach seamanship to his Russian Officers.”
His eyes were watching the expression on the Princess’s face as he continued,
“I can assure you that the fortifications of Malta are impregnable if adequately defended. And that is something you can tell the French Resident, so that he can pass it on to Bonaparte with all possible speed!”
There was something contemptuous in his tone and in reply the Princess put her arms around his neck and drew his lips down on hers.
“Forgive me,” she breathed, “I should not have tried such an old trick to keep you interested and with me for a little while longer.”
Her arms tightened as she whispered,
“Because you are English my sympathies are with your countrymen and not with the French, but really I am interested in only one person – you!”
Her lips were pressed against his and Mark Stanton felt the passion in them.
He kissed her and then resolutely he unfastened her arms from around his neck and rose to his feet.
“Goodbye, most beguiling and unforgettable Gianetta.”
“I shall see you again?”
It was both a plea and a question.
“I am not certain when I will be leaving,” he replied evasively.
“I love you! Oh, Mark, remember that I love you!”
He smiled at her from the doorway. Then, as her arms went out to him despairingly, he was gone and the door closed behind him.
The Princess gave a little cry and threw herself back against the pillows, her face hidden in their soft silk.
Outside the Palazzo the air was fresh and there was that lucidity of light that was peculiar to Naples and had a brilliance that Mark Stanton had found nowhere else in the world.
Although it was still very early, the streets were full of people going to work, to Church and to the quay! The majority of the women wore red skirts and white aprons, the men striped shirts, black caps and bright sashes.
There were the cheerful insolent lazzaroni, the idle, jolly and picturesque fishermen, the tradespeople and the loungers who formed a large part of the population, all yawning after a night of insufficient sleep.
The bells were beginning to toll in the belfries and towers of the innumerable Churches and women with lace veils over their heads were hurrying up the steps to Mass. There were monks, nuns and Priests appearing from every direction.
Mark Stanton sauntered along with an air of superiority that made those he met invariably step out of his way to let him pass.
But he was thinking not of...