[Transcriber's note: although a number of obvious typographical errors in the printed work have been corrected, the original orthography of the book has been retained. This includes a number of compound words, normally hyphenated, which retain their hyphenlessness.]
The CHILD OF PLEASURE
TRANSLATED BY GEORGINA HARDING
VERSES TRANSLATED BY ARTHUR SYMONS
INTRODUCTION BY ERNEST BOYD THE MODERN LIBRARY PUBLISHERS :: :: NEW YORK Manufactured in the United States of America Bound for THE MODERN LIBRARY by H. Wolff
It is characteristic of the atmosphere of legend in which Gabriele d'Annunzio has lived that even the authenticity of his name has been disputed. It was said that his real name was Gaetano Rapagnetta, and the curious will find amongst the Letters of James Huneker the boast that he was the first person to reveal to America the fact that d'Annunzio's name was "Rapagnetto"—a purely personal contribution to the legend. Yet, the plain fact, as proven by his birth certificate, is that the author of "The Child of Pleasure" was born at Pescara, on the 12th of March, 1863, the son of Francesco Paolo d'Annunzio and Luisa de Benedictis. Il Piacere, to give this novel its Italian name, was published when d'Annunzio was only twenty-six years of age, and except for an unimportant and imitative volume of short stories, it was his first sustained prose work. It is the book which at once made the novelist famous in his own country and very soon afterwards in England and France, where it was the first of his works to be translated. In America d'Annunzio was already known as the author of a powerful realistic novelette, "Episcopo & Co.," which was published in Chicago in 1896, two years before "The Child of Pleasure" appeared in London. As has so often happened since, America led the way in introducing into the English language a writer who is one of the foremost figures in Continental European literature.
In order to realize the sensation which Gabriele d'Annunzio created, it is necessary to glance back at the opinions of some of his early champions in foreign countries. Ouida claims, I think rightly, that her article in the Fortnightly Review, which was reprinted in her "Critical Studies," was the first account in English of the author and his work. In the main, although besprinkled with moral asides, it is, with one exception, as good an essay as any that has since been written on the subject. Ouida was sure that the wickedness of d'Annunzio was such that the only work of his which will become known to the English public in general will be the Vergini delle Rocce, because "(as far as it has gone) it is not indecent. The other works could not be reproduced in English." In proof of her contentions Ouida disclosed the fact that the French versions of the trilogy, "The Child of Pleasure," "The Victim," and "The Triumph of Death," were bowdlerized. At the same time she obligingly referred her readers to some of the choicer passages in the original, such as Chapter X of "The Child of Pleasure," where she claimed that "ingenuities of indecency" had been gratuitously introduced. For the guidance of those interested in such matters I may explain that, by a coincidence, the "ingenuity" in question is almost identical with that which was cited in the earlier part of La Garconne as proof that Victor Margueritte was unworthy of the Legion of Honor.
After Ouida in England came the venerable Vicomte Melchior de Voguee in France, who is best known to readers in this country for his standard tome on the Russian novel. In the austere pages of the Revue des Deux Mondes he carefully explained to his readers that d'Annunzio's lewdness must not be confused with the obscenities of Zola, whereat Ouida protested that they were alike in their complacent preoccupation with mere filth. The Frenchman is the sounder critic, it must be said, for while d'Annunzio frequently parallels some of the most unclean—in the literal, not the moral sense—scenes and incidents in Zola, his attitude about sex is as unlike Zola's as that of the late W. D. Howells. Only in "Nana" did Zola describe the life and emotions of a woman whose whole life is given up to love, and then, as we know, he chose a singularly crude and professional person, using her career as a symbol of the Second Empire. D'Annunzio has never described women with any other reason for existence but love, yet none of his heroines has poor Nana's uninspiring motives. They are amateurs with a skill undreamed of in Nana's philosophy; they believe in love for art's sake. Consequently, the French critic was right in insisting that Zola and d'Annunzio are two very different persons, although confounded in an identical obloquy by the moralists. He is, however, not quite so subtle when he tries to argue from this that, in the conventional sense, d'Annunzio is more moral.
At this point I will cite an unexpectedly intelligent witness, one of the early admirers of d'Annunzio in English, and the author of an essay on him which is assuredly the best which has appeared in that language. This is what Henry James has to say of "The Child of Pleasure" in his "Notes on Novelists": "Count Andrea Sperelli is a young man who pays, pays heavily, as we take it we are to understand, for an unbridled surrender to the life of the senses; whereby it is primarily a picture of that life that the story gives us. He is represented as inordinately, as quite monstrously, endowed for the career that from the first absorbs and that finally is to be held, we suppose to engulf him; and it is a tribute to the truth with which his endowment is presented that we should scarce know where else to look for so complete and convincing an account of such adventures. Casanova de Seingalt is of course infinitely more copious, but his autobiography is cheap loose journalism compared with the directed, finely-condensed iridescent epic of Count Andrea."
It would be difficult to find, couched in such euphemistically appreciative language, so accurate a summary of the intention and quality of this book. Casanova is pale, diffuse, and unconvincing, indeed, beside the d'Annunzio who so early gave his full measure as the supreme novelist of sensual pleasure in this book. As Arthur Symons so well says, "Gabriele d'Annunzio comes to remind us, very definitely, as only an Italian can, of the reality and the beauty of sensation, of the primary sensations; the sensations of pain and pleasure as these come to us from our actual physical conditions; the sensation of beauty as it comes to us from the sight of our eyes and the tasting of our several senses; the sensation of love, which, to the Italian, comes up from a root in Boccaccio, through the stem of Petrarch, to the very flower of Dante. And so he becomes the idealist of material things, while seeming to materialize spiritual things. He accepts, as no one else of our time does, the whole physical basis of life, the spirit which can be known only through the body."
D'Annunzio has declared that the central male character in all three novels, Andrea Sperelli in "The Child of Pleasure," Tullio Hermil in "The Intruder" and Giorgio Aurispa in "The Triumph of Death," are projections of himself. They are as autobiographical as Stelio Effrena in "The Fire of Life," which is generally accepted as an elaboration of the poet's life with Eleonora Duse. His attitude, therefore, is clearly defined in the passage where he says: "In the tumult of contradictory impulses Sperelli had lost all sense of will power and all sense of morality. In abdicating, his will had surrendered the sceptre to his instincts; the aesthetic was substituted for the moral sense. This aesthetic sense, which was very subtle, very powerful and always active, maintained a certain equilibrium in the mind of Sperelli. Intellectuals such as he, brought up in the religion of Beauty, always preserve a certain kind of order, even in their worst depravities. The conception of Beauty is the axis of their inmost being: all their passions turn upon that axis." He is, in other words, the re-incarnation of Don Juan, pursuing in woman an elusive and impossible ideal.
If d'Annunzio had not gone into the adventure of the war, with its sequel at Fiume, we might have continued to enjoy the spectacle of the adventures of this restless soul amongst feminine masterpieces. As a soldier and a statesman his prestige in the English-speaking world is low, and we are apt to forget while reading the political bombast of the years of the war and the period after the Armistice that it differs in no respect from all other patriotic claptrap, except that it is the work of the greatest living master of Italian prose. Of this fact his early novels are a needed reminder to a generation which is making its acquaintance with Italian writers of to-day through the intermediary of a converted anti-clerical, who cannot even retell the story of Christ without branding himself a vulgarian. In the prim days when young d'Annunzio first flaunted his carnal delights and sorrows before a world not yet released from Victorian stuffiness, the word "vulgar" was a polite English epithet for "fleshly," an adjective much beloved by indignant gentlemen who were permitting their wrath to triumph over their desire to be respectable. It is a word which we apply nowadays to the writings of a vulgarian like Papini, whose name is now as familiar to the general public as d'Annunzio's was when "The Child of Pleasure" was first translated. That is a measure of progress in this connection which justifies the hope that the "idealist of material things" will find again an audience which can understand and appreciate his quest.
D'Annunzio has nothing to offer the sterile theorists of the new illiterate literature, who are as incapable of appreciating his refined and subtle perversities as they are of admiring the beautiful form in which his full-blooded and exuberant imagination clothes his conceptions. He is an aesthete, but his aestheticism has never expressed itself in barren theory, but has always turned to life itself. He realized at the outset of his career that life is a physical thing, which we must compel to surrender all that it can offer us, which the artist must bend and shape to his own creative purposes. It has been said that d'Annunzio had a philosophy and Nietzsche and Tolstoy were invoked as influences, but there is as little of Tolstoy's moralizing in "The Intruder" as of Nietzsche's pessimistic idealism in "The Child of Pleasure" or "The Triumph of Death." Whatever conclusions may be drawn from the problem of the Eternal Feminine as postulated in all his novels—and that is the only problem which he confronts—it is hardly to be dignified by the name of a philosophy. One gathers that men can be exalted and destroyed by the attraction of women, but the author remains to the end—as late certainly as 1910, when the last of the novels in the first mood, Forse che si, forse che no, appeared—of the opinion that they are the one legitimate preoccupation of the artist in living. Elena Muti in "The Child of Pleasure," Foscarina in "The Flame of Life," Ippolita in "The Triumph of Death" are superb incarnations of the one and ever varied problem which troubles the world in which d'Annunzio lives.
An American critic, Mr. Henry Dwight Sedgwick, once demanded in tones of passionate scorn that d'Annunzio be tried before a jury of "English-speaking men," and he called the tale: "Colonel Newcome! Adam Bede! Bailie Jarvie! Tom Brown! Sam Weller!"—notes of exclamation included, from which one was to conclude that the creator of Sperelli, Hermil and Aurispa would slink away discomfited at the very sound of those names. Yet, on the other hand, can one imagine Andrea and Elena, Giorgio and Ippolita arguing with our advanced thinkers of the moment: Is Monogamy Feasible? or Can Men and Women be Friends? D'Annunzio is not to be approached either in a mood of radical earnestness or of evangelical fervor. He must be regarded as an artist of sensations, an Italian of the Renaissance set down in the middle of a drab century. He began his life by a quest for perfect physical pleasure through all the senses, and inaugurated its last phase with a gesture of military courage which was not only a retort to those who, like Croce, had called him a dilettante, but an earnest of his conviction that he was a great artist of the lineage which bred men who were simultaneously great men of action.
Andrea Sperelli dined regularly every Wednesday with his cousin the Marchesa d'Ateleta.
The salons of the Marchesa in the Palazzo Roccagiovine were much frequented. She attracted specially by her sparkling wit and gaiety and her inextinguishable good humour. Her charming and expressive face recalled certain feminine profiles of the younger Moreau and in the vignettes of Gravelot. There was something Pompadouresque in her manner, her tastes, her style of dress, which she no doubt heightened purposely, tempted by her really striking resemblance to the favourite of Louis XV.
One Tuesday evening, in a box at the Valle Theatre, she said laughingly to her cousin, 'Be sure, you come to-morrow, Andrea. Among the guests there will be an interesting, not to say fatal, personage. Forewarned is forearmed—Beware of her spells—you are in a very weak frame of mind just now.'
He laughed. 'If you don't mind, I prefer to come unarmed,' he replied, 'or rather in the guise of a victim. It is a character I have assumed for many an evening lately, but alas, without result so far.'
'Well, the sacrifice will soon be consummated, cugino mio.'
'The victim is ready!'
The next evening, he arrived at the palace a few minutes earlier than usual, with a wonderful gardenia in his button-hole and a vague uneasiness in his mind. His coupe had to stop in front of the entrance, the portico being occupied by another carriage, from which a lady was alighting. The liveries, the horses, the ceremonial which accompanied her arrival all proclaimed a great position. The Count caught a glimpse of a tall and graceful figure, a scintillation of diamonds in dark hair and a slender foot on the step. As he went upstairs he had a back view of the lady.
She ascended in front of him with a slow and rhythmic movement; her cloak, lined with fur as white as swan's-down, was unclasped at the throat, and slipping back, revealed her shoulders, pale as polished ivory, the shoulder-blades disappearing into the lace of the corsage with an indescribably soft and fleeting curve as of wings. The neck rose slender and round, and the hair, twisted into a great knot on the crown of her head, was held in place by jewelled pins.
The harmonious gait of this unknown lady gave Andrea such sincere pleasure that he stopped a moment on the first landing to watch her. Her long train swept rustling over the stairs; behind her came a servant, not immediately in the wake of his mistress on the red carpet, but at the side along the wall with irreproachable gravity. The absurd contrast between the magnificent creature and the automaton following her brought a smile to Andrea's lips.
In the anteroom while the servant was relieving her of her cloak, the lady cast a rapid glance at the young man who entered.
The servant announced—'Her Excellency the Duchess of Scerni!' and immediately afterwards—'Count Sperelli-Fieschi d'Ugenta!' It pleased Andrea that his name should be coupled so closely with that of the lady in question.
In the drawing-room were already assembled the Marchese and Marchesa d'Ateleta, the Baron and Baroness d'Isola and Don Filippo del Monte. The fire burned cheerily on the hearth, and several low seats were invitingly disposed within range of its warmth, while large leaf plants spread their red-veined foliage over the low backs.
The Marchesa, advanced to meet the two new arrivals with her delightful ready laugh.
'Ah,' she said, 'a happy chance has forestalled me and made it unnecessary for me to tell you one another's names. Cousin Sperelli, make obeisance before the divine Elena.'
Andrea bowed profoundly. The Duchess held out her hand with a frank and graceful gesture.
'I am very glad to know you, Count,' she said, looking him full in the face. 'I heard so much about you last summer at Lucerne from one of your friends—Giulio Musellaro. I must confess I was rather curious—Besides, Musellaro lent me your exquisite "Story of the Hermaphrodite" and made me a present of your etching "Sleep"—a proof copy—a real gem. You have a most ardent admirer in me—please remember that.'
She spoke with little pauses in between. Her voice was so warm and insinuating in tone that it almost had the effect of a caress, and her glance had that unconsciously voluptuous and disturbing expression which instantly kindles the desire of every man on whom it rests.
'Cavaliere Sakumi!' announced the servant, as the eighth and last guest made his appearance.
He was one of the secretaries to the Japanese Legation, very small and yellow, with prominent cheek-bones and long, slanting, bloodshot eyes over which the lids blinked incessantly. His body was disproportionately large for his spindle legs, and he turned his toes in as he walked. The skirts of his coat were too wide, there was a multitude of wrinkles in his trousers, his necktie bore visible evidence of an unpractised hand. It was as if a daimio had been taken out of one of those cuirasses of iron and lacquer, so like the shell of some monstrous crustacean, and thrust into the clothes of a European waiter. And yet, with all his ungainliness and apparent stupidity there was a glint of malice in his slits of eyes and a sort of ironical cunning about the corners of his mouth.
Arrived in the middle of the room, he bowed low. His gibus slipped from his hand and rolled over the floor.
At this, the Baroness d'Isola, a tiny blonde with a cloud of fluffy curls all over her forehead, vivacious and grimacing as a young monkey, called to him in her piping voice:
'Come over here, Sakumi—here, beside me.'
The Japanese cavalier advanced with a succession of bows and smiles.
'Shall we see the Princess Isse this evening?' asked Donna Francesca d'Ateleta, who had a mania for gathering in her drawing-rooms all the most grotesque specimens of the exotic colonies of Rome, out of pure love of variety and the picturesque.
The Asiatic replied in a barbarous jargon, a scarcely intelligible compound of English, French, and Italian.
For a moment everybody was speaking at once—a chorus through which now and then the fresh laughter of the Marchesa rang like silver bells.
'I am sure I have seen you before—I cannot remember when and I cannot remember where, but I am certain I have seen you,' Andrea Sperelli was saying to the duchess as he stood before her. 'When I saw you going upstairs in front of me, a vague recollection rose up in my mind, something that took shape from the rhythm of your movements as a picture grows out of a melody. I did not succeed in making the recollection clear, but when you turned round, I felt that your profile answered incontestably to that picture. It could not have been a divination, therefore it must have been some obscure phenomenon of memory. I must have seen you somewhere before—who knows—perhaps in a dream—perhaps in another world, a previous existence—'
As he pronounced this last decidedly hackneyed, not to say silly remark, Andrea laughed frankly as if to forestall the lady's smile, whether of incredulity or irony. But Elena remained perfectly serious. Was she listening, or was she thinking of something else? Did she accept that kind of speech, or was she, by her gravity, amusing herself at his expense? Did she intend assisting him in the scheme of seduction he had begun with so much care, or was she going to shut herself up in indifference and silence? In short, was she or was she not the sort of woman to succumb to his attack? Perplexed, disconcerted, Andrea examined the mystery from all sides. Most men, especially those who adopt bold methods of warfare, are well acquainted with this perplexity which certain women excite by their silence.
A servant threw open the great doors leading to the dining-room.
The Marchesa took the arm of Don Filippo del Monte and led the way.
'Come,' said Elena, and it seemed to Andrea that she leaned upon his arm with a certain abandon—or was it merely an illusion of his desire?—perhaps. He continued in doubt and suspense, but every moment that passed drew him deeper within the sweet enchantment, and with every instant he became more desperately anxious to read the mystery of this woman's heart.
'Here, cousin,' said Francesca, pointing him to a place at one end of the oval table, between the Baron d'Isola and the Duchess of Scerni with the Cavaliere Sakumi as his vis-a-vis. Sakumi sat between the Baroness d'Isola and Filippo del Monte. The Marchesa and her husband occupied the two ends of the table, which glittered with rare china, silver, crystal and flowers.
Very few women could compete with the Marchesa d'Ateleta in the art of dinner giving. She expended more care and forethought in the preparation of a menu than of a toilette. Her exquisite taste was patent in every detail, and her word was law in the matter of elegant conviviality. Her fantasies and her fashions were imitated on every table of the Roman upper ten. This winter, for instance, she had introduced the fashion of hanging garlands of flowers from one end of the table to the other, on the branches of great candelabras, and also that of placing in front of each guest, among the group of wine glasses, a slender opalescent Murano vase with a single orchid in it.
'What a diabolical flower!' said Elena Muti, taking up the vase and examining the orchid which seemed all blood-stained.
Her voice was of such rich full timbre that even her most trivial remarks acquired a new significance, a mysterious grace, like that King of Phrygia whose touch turned everything to gold.
'A symbolical flower—in your hands,' murmured Andrea, gazing at his neighbour, whose beauty in that attitude was really amazing.
She was dressed in some delicate tissue of palest blue, spangled with silver dots which glittered through antique Burano lace of an indefinable tint of white inclining to yellow. The flower, like something evil generated by a malignant spell, rose quivering on its slender stalk out of the fragile tube which might have been blown by some skilful artificer from a liquid gem.
'Well, I prefer roses,' observed Elena, replacing the orchid with a gesture of repulsion, very different from her former one of curiosity. She then joined in the general conversation.
Donna Francesca was speaking of the last reception at the Austrian Embassy.
'Did you see Madame de Cahen?' asked Elena. 'She had on a dress of yellow tulle covered with humming birds with ruby eyes—a gorgeous dancing bird-cage. And Lady Ouless—did you notice her?—in a white gauze skirt draped with sea-weed and little red fishes, and under the sea-weed and fish another skirt of sea-green gauze—Did you see it?—a most effective aquarium!' and she laughed merrily.
Andrea was at a loss to understand this sudden volubility These frivolous and malicious things were uttered by the same voice which, but a few moments, ago had stirred his soul to its very depths; they came from the same lips which, in silence, had seemed to him like the mouth of the Medusa of Leonardo, that human flower of the soul rendered divine by the fire of passion and the anguish of death. What then was the true essence of this creature? Had she perception and consciousness of her manifold changes, or was she impenetrable to herself and shut from her own mystery? In her expression, her manifestation of herself, how much was artificial and how much spontaneous? The desire to fathom this secret pierced him even through the delight experienced by the proximity of the woman whom he was beginning to love. But his wretched habit of analysis for ever prevented him losing sight of himself, though every time he yielded to its temptation he was punished, like Psyche for her curiosity, by the swift withdrawal of love, the frowns of the beloved object and the cessation of all delights. Would it not be better to abandon oneself frankly to the first ineffable sweetness of new-born love? He saw Elena in the act of placing her lips to a glass of pale gold wine like liquid honey. He selected from among his own glasses the one the servant had filled with the same wine, and drank at the same moment that she did. They replaced their glasses on the table together. The similarity of the action made them turn to one another, and the glance they exchanged inflamed them far more than the wine.
'You are very silent,' said Elena, affecting a lightness of tone which somewhat disguised her voice. 'You have the reputation of being a brilliant conversationalist—exert yourself therefore a little!'
'Oh cousin! cousin!' exclaimed Donna Francesca with a comical air of commiseration, while Filippo del Monte whispered something in his ear.
Andrea burst out laughing.
'Cavaliere Sakumi; we are the silent members of this party—we must wake up!'
The long narrow eyes of the Asiatic—redder than ever now that the wine had kindled a deeper crimson on his high cheek-bones—glittered with malice. All this time he had done nothing but gaze at the Duchess of Scerni with the ecstatic look of a bonze in presence of the divinity. His broad flat face, which might have come straight out of a page of O-kou-sai, the great classical humorist, gleamed red among the chains of flowers like a harvest moon.
'Sakumi is in love,' said Andrea in a low voice, and leaning over towards Elena.
'With you—have you not observed it yet?'
'Well, look at him.'
Elena looked across at him. The amorous gaze of the disguised daimio suddenly affected her with such ill-disguised mirth that the Japanese felt deeply hurt and humiliated.
'See,' she said, and to console him she detached a white camellia and threw it across the table to the envoy of the Rising Sun,—'find some comparison in praise of me!'
The Oriental carried the flower to his lips with a ludicrous air of devotion.
'Ah—ah—Sakumi!' cried the little Baroness d'Isola, 'you are unfaithful to me!'
He stammered a few words while his face flamed. Everybody laughed unrestrainedly, as if the foreigner had been invited solely to provide entertainment for the other guests. Andrea turned laughing towards Elena.
Her head was raised and a little thrown back, and she was gazing furtively at the young man under her eyelashes with one of those indescribably feminine glances which seem to absorb—almost one would say drink in—all that is most desirable, most delectable in the man of their choice. The long lashes veiled the soft dark eyes which were looking at him a little side-long, and her lower lip had a scarcely perceptible tremor. The full ray of her glance seemed to rest upon his lips as the most attractive point about him.
And in truth his mouth was very attractive. Pure and youthful in outline and rich in colouring, a little cruel when firmly closed, it reminded one irresistibly of that portrait of an unknown gentleman in the Borghese gallery, that profound and mysterious work of art in which the fascinated imagination has sought to recognise the features of the divine Cesare Borgia depicted by the divine Sanzio. As soon as the lips parted in a smile the resemblance vanished, and the square, even dazzlingly white teeth lit up a mouth as fresh and jocund as a child's.
The moment Andrea turned, Elena withdrew her eyes, though not so quickly but that the young man caught the flash. His delight was so poignant that it sent the blood flaming to his face.
'She is attracted by me!' he thought to himself, inwardly exulting in the assurance of having found favour in the eyes of this rare creature. 'This is a joy I have never experienced before!' he said to himself.
There are certain glances from a woman's eye which a lover would not exchange for anything else she can offer him later. He who has not seen that first love-light kindle in a limpid eye has never touched the highest point of human bliss. No future moment can ever approach that one.
The conversation around them grew more animated, and Elena asked him—'Are you staying the winter in Rome?'
'The whole winter—and longer,' was Andrea's reply, to whom the simple question seemed to open up a promise.
'Ah, then you have set up a home here?'
'Yes, in the Casa Zuccari—domus aurea.'
'At the Trinita de' Monti?—Lucky being!'
'Because you live on a spot I have a great liking for.'
'You are quite right I always think—don't you?—that there the most perfect essence of Rome is concentrated as in a cup.'
'Quite true! I have hung up my heart—both Catholic and Pagan—as an ex-voto between the obelisk of the Trinita and the column of the Conception.'
She laughed as she spoke. A sonnet to this suspended heart rose instantly to his lips, but he did not give it utterance, for he was in no mood to continue their conversation in this light vein of false sentiment, which broke the sweet spell she had been weaving about him. He was silent therefore.
She, too, remained a moment pensive, and then threw herself with renewed vivacity into the general conversation, prodigal of wit and laughter, flashing her teeth and her bon mots at all in turn. Francesca was retailing spicily a piece of gossip about the Princess di Ferentino on the subject of a recent, and somewhat risky, adventure of hers with Giovanella Daddi.
'By the by—the Ferentino announces another charity bazaar for Epiphany,' said the Baroness d'Isola. 'Does anybody know anything about it yet?'
'I am one of the patronesses,' said Elena Muti.
'And you are a most valuable patroness,' broke in Don Filippo del Monte, a man of about forty, almost bald, a keen sharpener of epigrams, whose face seemed a sort of Socratic mask; the right eye was forever on the move, and flashed with a thousand changing expressions, while the left remained stationary and glazed behind the single eye-glass, as if he used the one for expressing himself and the other for seeing. 'At the May bazaar, you brought in a perfect shower of gold.'
'Oh, the May bazaar—what a mad affair that was!' exclaimed the Marchesa.
While the servants were filling the glasses with iced champagne, she added, 'Do you remember, Elena, our stalls were close together?'
'Five louis d'or a drink—five louis d'or a bite!' Don Filippo called, in the voice of a street-hawker. Elena and the Marchesa burst out laughing.
'Why yes, of course, Filippo, you cried the wares,' said Donna Francesca. 'Now what a pity you were not there, cugino mio! For five louis you might have eaten fruit out of which I had had the first bite, and have drunk champagne out of the hollow of Elena's hands for five more.'
'How scandalous!' broke in the Baroness d'Isola, with a horrified grimace.
'Ah, Mary, I like that! And did you not sell cigarettes that you lighted up first yourself for a louis?' cried Francesca through her laughter. Then she became suddenly grave. 'Every deed, with a charitable object in view, is sacred,' she observed sententiously. 'By merely biting into fruit, I collected at least two hundred louis.'
'And you?' Andrea Sperelli turned to Elena with as constrained smile—'With your human drinking-cup—how much did you get?'
'I?—oh, two hundred and seventy louis.'
Everybody was full of fun and laughter, excepting the Marchese d'Ateleta, who was old, and afflicted with incurable deafness; was padded and painted—in a word, artificial from head to foot. He was very like one of the figures one sees at a wax work show. From time to time—usually the wrong one—he would give vent to a little dry cackling laugh, like the rattle of some rusty mechanism inside him.
'However,' Elena resumed, 'you must know, that after a certain point in the evening, the price rose to ten louis, and at last, that lunatic of a Galeazzo Secinaro came and offered me a five hundred lire note, if I would dry my hands on his great golden beard!'
As was ever the case at the d'Ateletas', the dinner increased in splendour towards the end; for the true luxury of the table is shown in the dessert. A multitude of choice and exquisite things, delighting the eye no less than the palate, were disposed with consummate art in various crystal and silver-mounted dishes. Festoons of camellias and violets hung between the vine-wreathed eighteenth century candelabras, round which sported fairies and nymphs, and on the wall-hangings more fairies and nymphs, and all the charming figures of the pastoral mythology—the Corydons, the Phylises, the Rosalinds—animated with their sylvan loves one of those sunny Cytherean landscapes originated by the fanciful imagination of Antoine Watteau.
The slightly erotic excitement, which is apt to take hold upon the spirits at the end of a dinner graced by fair women and flowers, betrayed itself in the tone of the conversations, and the reminiscences of this bazaar, at which the ladies—urged on by a noble spirit of emulation in collecting the largest sums—employed the most unheard of audacities to attract buyers.
'And did you accept it?' asked Andrea of the Duchess.
'I sacrificed my hands on the altar of Benevolence,' she replied. 'Twenty-five louis more to my account!'
'All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.' He laughed as he quoted Lady Macbeth's words, but, in reality, his heart was sore with a confused, ill-defined pain, that bore a strong resemblance to jealousy. And suddenly he became aware of something excessive, almost—it might be—a touch of the courtesan, defacing the manners of the great lady. Certain inflections of her voice, certain tones of her laughter, here a gesture, there an attitude, certain glances, exhaled a charm that was perhaps a trifle too Aphrodisiac. She was, besides, somewhat over-lavish with the visible favours of her graces, and the air she breathed was continually surcharged with the desire she herself excited.
Andrea's heart swelled with bitterness; he could not take his eyes off Elena's hands. Out of those hands, so delicately, ideally white and transparent, with their faint tracery of azure veins—from those rosy hollowed palms, wherein a chiromancer would have discovered many an intricate crossing of lines, ten, twenty different men had drunk at a price. He could see the heads of these unknown men bending over her and drinking the wine. But Secinaro was one of his friends—a great handsome jovial fellow, imperially bearded like a very Lucius Verus, and a most formidable rival to have. He felt as if the dinner would never come to an end.
'You are such an innovator,' Elena was saying to Donna Francesca, as she dipped her fingers into warm water in a pale blue finger-glass rimmed with silver, 'Why do you not revive the ancient fashion of having the water offered to one after dinner with a basin and ewer? The modern arrangement is very ugly, do you not think so, Sperelli?'
Donna Francesca rose. Every one followed her example. Andrea, with a bow, offered his arm to Elena and she looked at him without smiling as she slowly laid her hand on his arm. Her last words were gaily and lightly spoken, but her gaze was so grave and profound that the young man felt it sink into his very soul.
'Are you going to the French Embassy to-morrow evening?' she asked him.
'Are you?' Andrea asked in return.
'So am I.'
They smiled at one another like two lovers.
'Sit down,' she added as she sank into a seat.
The seat was far from the fire, with its back to the curve of a grand piano which was partially draped in some rich stuff. At one end of the divan, a tall bronze crane held in his beak a tray hanging by three chains like one side of a pair of scales, and on it lay a new book and a little Japanese scimitar—a waki-gashi—the scabbard and hilt encrusted with silver chrysanthemums.
Elena took up the book, which was only half cut, read the title, and then replaced it on the tray which swung to and fro. The scimitar fell to the ground. As both she and Andrea stooped to pick it up, their hands met. She straightened herself up and examined the beautiful weapon with some curiosity, retaining it in her hand while Andrea talked about the new novel, insinuating into his remarks general arguments upon love; and her fingers wandered absently over the chasing of the weapon, her polished nails seeming a repetition of the delicate gems that sparkled in her rings.
Presently, after a pause, Elena said without looking at him: 'You are very young—have you often been in love?'
He answered by another question—'Which do you consider the truest, noblest way of love—to imagine you have discovered every aspect of the eternal Feminine combined in one woman, or to run rapidly over the lips of woman as you run your fingers over the keys of a piano, till, at last, you find the sublime chord of harmony?'
'I really cannot say—and you?'
'Nor I either—I am unable to solve the great problem of sentiment. However, by personal instinct, I have followed the latter plan and have now, I fear, struck the grand chord—judging, at least, by an inward premonition.'
'Je crains ce que j'espere.'
He instinctively employed this language of affected sentiment to cloak his really strong emotion, and Elena felt herself caught by his voice as in a golden net and drawn forcibly out of the life surrounding them.
'Her Excellency the Princess di Micigliano!' announced a footman.
'Count di Gissi!'
'The Marchese and the Marchesa Massa d'Alba!'
The rooms began to fill rapidly. Long shimmering trains swept over the deep red carpet, white shoulders emerged from bodices starred with diamonds, embroidered with pearls, covered with flowers, and in nearly every coiffure glittered those marvellous hereditary gems for which the Roman nobility are so much envied.
'Her Excellency the Princess of Ferentino!'
'His Excellency the Duke of Grimiti!'
The guests formed themselves in various groups, the rallying points of gossip and of flirtation. The chief group, composed exclusively of men, was in the vicinity of the piano, gathered round the Duchess of Scerni, who had risen to her feet, the better to hold her own against her besiegers. The Princess of Ferentino came over to greet her friend with a reproach.
'Why did you not come to Nini Santamarta's to-day? We all expected you.'
She was tall and thin with extraordinary green eyes sunk deep in their shadowy sockets. Her dress was black, the bodice open in a point back and front, and in her hair, which was blond cendre, she wore a great diamond crescent like Diana. She waved a huge fan of red feathers hastily to and fro as she spoke.
'Nini is at Madame Van Hueffel's this evening.'
'I am going there later on for a little while, so I shall see her,' answered the Duchess.
'Oh, Ugenta,' said the Princess turning to Andrea, 'I was looking for you to remind you of our appointment. To-morrow is Thursday and Cardinal Immenraet's sale begins at twelve. Will you fetch me at one?'
'I shall not fail, Princess.'
'I simply must have that rock crystal.'
'Then you must be prepared for competition.'
'My cousin for one.'
'And who else?'
'From me,' said Elena.
'You?—Well, we shall see.'
Several of the gentlemen asked for further enlightenment.
'It is a contest between ladies of the 19th century for a rock crystal vase which belonged to Niccolo Niccoli,' Andrea explained with solemnity; 'a vase, on which is engraved the Trojan Anchises untying one of the sandals of Venus Aphrodite. The entertainment will be given gratis, at one o'clock to-morrow afternoon, in the Public Sale-rooms of the Via Sistina. Contending parties—the Princess of Ferentino, the Duchess of Scerni and the Marchesa d'Ateleta.'
Everybody laughed, and Grimiti asked, 'Is betting permitted?'
'The odds! The odds!' yelled Don Filippo del Monte, imitating the strident voice of the bookmaker Stubbs.
The Princess gave him an admonitory tap on the arm with her red fan, but the joke seemed to amuse them hugely and the betting began at once. Hearing the bursts of laughter, other ladies and gentlemen joined the group in order to share the fun. The news of the approaching contest spread like lightning and soon assumed the proportions of a society event.
'Give me your arm and let us take a turn through the rooms,' said Elena to Andrea Sperelli.
As soon as they were in the west room, away from the noisy crowd, Andrea pressed her arm and murmured, 'Thanks.'
She leaned on him, stopping now and again to reply to some greeting. She seemed fatigued, and was as pale as the pearls of her necklace. Each gentleman addressed her with some hackneyed compliment.
'How stupid they all are! it makes me feel quite ill,' she said.
As they turned, she saw Sakumi was following them noiselessly, her camellia in his button-hole, his eyes full of yearning not daring to come nearer. She threw him a compassionate smile.
'Did you not notice him before?' asked Andrea.
'While we were sitting by the piano, he was in the recess of the window, and never took his eyes off your hands when you were playing with the weapon of his native country—now reduced to being a paper-cutter for a European novel.'
'Just now, do you mean?'
'Yes, just now. Perhaps he was thinking how sweet it would be to perform Hara-Kiri with that little scimitar, the chrysanthemums on which seemed to blossom out of the lacquer and steel under the touch of your fingers.'
She did not smile. A veil of sadness, almost of suffering, seemed to have fallen over her face; her eyes, faintly luminous under the white lids, seemed drowned in shadow, the corners of her mouth drooped wearily, her right arm hung straight and languid at her side. She no longer held out her hand to those who greeted her; she listened no longer to their speeches.
'What is the matter?' asked Andrea.
'Nothing—I must go to the Van Hueffels' now. Take me to Francesca to say good-bye, and then come with me down to my carriage.'
They returned to the first drawing-room, where Luigi Gulli, a young man, swarthy and curly-haired as an Arab, who had left his native Calabria in search of fortune, was executing, with much feeling, Beethoven's sonata in C# minor. The Marchesa d'Ateleta, a patroness of his, was standing near the piano, with her eyes fixed on the keys. By degrees, the sweet and grave music drew all these frivolous spirits within its magic circle, like a slow-moving but irresistible whirlpool.
'Beethoven!' exclaimed Elena in a tone of almost religious fervour, as she stood still and drew her arm from Andrea's.
She had halted beside one of the great palms and, extending her left hand, began very slowly to put on her glove. In that attitude her whole figure, continued by the train, seemed taller and more erect; the shadow of the palm veiled and, so to speak, spiritualised the pallor of her skin. Andrea gazed at her in a kind of rapture, increased by the pathos of the music.
As if drawn by the young man's impetuous desire, Elena turned her head a little, and smiled at him—a smile so subtle, so spiritual, that it seemed rather an emanation of the soul than a movement of the lips, while her eyes remained sad and as if lost in a far away dream. Thus overshadowed they were verily the eyes of the Night, such as Leonardo da Vinci might have imagined for an allegorical figure after having seen Lucrezia Crevelli at Milan.
During the second that the smile lasted, Andrea felt himself absolutely alone with her in the crowd. An immense wave of pride flooded his heart.
Elena now prepared to put on the other glove.
'No, not that one,' he entreated in a low voice.
She understood, and left her hand bare.
He was hoping to kiss that hand before she left. And suddenly he had a vision of the May Bazaar, and the men drinking champagne out of those hollowed palms, and for the second time that night he felt the keen stab of jealousy.
'We will go now,' she said, taking his arm once more.
The sonata over, conversation was resumed with fresh vigour. Three or four new names were announced, amongst them that of the Princess Isse, who entered smiling, with funny little tottering steps, in European dress, her oval face as white and tiny as a little netske figurine. A stir of curiosity ran round the room.
'Good-night, Francesca,' said Elena, taking leave of her hostess, 'I shall see you to-morrow.'
'Going so soon?'
'I am due at the Van Hueffels'. I promised to go.'
'What a pity! Mary Dyce is just going to sing.'
'I must go—good-bye!'
'Well, take this, and good-bye. Most amiable of cousins, please look after her.'
The Marchesa pressed a bunch of double violets into her hand and hurried away to receive the Princess Isse very graciously. Mary Dyce, in a red dress, slender and undulating as a tongue of fire, began to sing.
'I am so tired!' murmured Elena, leaning wearily on Andrea's arm. 'Please ask for my cloak.'
He took her cloak from the attendant, and in helping her to put it on, touched her shoulder with the tips of his fingers, and felt her shiver. The words of one of Schumann's songs was borne to them on Mary Dyce's passionate soprano, Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben!
They descended the stairs in silence. A footman preceded them to call the duchess's carriage. The stamping of the horses rang through the echoing portico. At every step, Andrea felt the pressure of Elena's arm grow heavier; she held her head high, and her eyes were half closed.
'As you ascended these stairs, my admiration followed you, unknown to you. Now, as you come down, my love accompanies you,' he said softly, almost humbly, faltering a little between the two last words.
She made no reply, but she lifted the bunch of violets to her face, and inhaled the perfume. In so doing, the wide sleeve of her evening cloak slipped back over her arm beyond her elbow, thrilling the young man's senses almost beyond control. His lips trembled, and he with difficulty restrained the burning words that rose to them.
The carriage was standing at the foot of the great stairway; a footman held open the door.
'To Madame Van Hueffel's,' said the duchess to him, while Andrea helped her in.
The man left the door and returned to his seat beside the coachman. The horses stamped, striking out sparks from the stones.
'Take care!' cried Elena, holding out her hand to the young man. Her eyes and her diamonds flashed through the gloom.
'Oh, to be in there with her in the shadow—to press my lips to her satin neck under the perfumed fur of her mantle!'
'Take me with you!' he would like to have cried.
But the horses plunged. 'Oh, take care!' Elena repeated.
He kissed her hand—pressing his lips to it as if to leave the mark of his burning passion. He closed the door and the carriage rolled rapidly away under the porch, and out to the Forum.
And thus ended Andrea Sperelli's first meeting with the Duchess of Scerni.
The gray deluge of democratic mud, which swallows up so many beautiful and rare things, is likewise gradually engulfing that particular class of the old Italian nobility in which from generation to generation were kept alive certain family traditions of eminent culture, refinement and art.
To this class, which I should be inclined to denominate Arcadian because it shone with greatest splendour in the charming atmosphere of the eighteenth century life, belonged the Sperelli. Urbanity, hellenism, love of all that was exquisite, a predilection for out-of-the-way studies, an aesthetic curiosity, a passion for archaeology, and an epicurean taste in gallantry were hereditary qualities of the house of Sperelli. An Alessandro Sperelli brought in 1466 to Frederic of Aragon, son of Ferdinand King of Naples, and brother to Alfonso Duke of Calabria, a manuscript in folio containing the 'less rude' poems of the old Tuscan writers which Lorenzo de Medici had promised him at Pisa in 1465; and in concert with the most erudite scholars of his time, that same Alessandro wrote a Latin elegy on the death of the divine Simonetta—sad and melting numbers after the manner of Tibullus. Another Sperelli—Stefano,—was during the same century in Flanders, in the midst of all the pomp, the extravagant elegance, the almost fabulous magnificence of the court of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, where he remained, having allied himself with a Flemish family. A son of his, named Giusto, learned painting under the direction of Gossaert, in whose company he came to Italy in the suite of Philip of Burgundy, the ambassador of the Emperor Maximilian to Pope Julius II. in 1508. He settled in Florence, where the chief branch of his family continued to flourish, and had for his second master Piero di Cosimo, that jocund and facile painter and vivid and harmonious colourist, under whose brush the pagan deities came to life again. This Giusto was by no means a mediocre artist, but he consumed all his forces in the vain effort to reconcile his primary Gothic education with the newly awakened spirit of the Renaissance. Towards the middle of the seventeenth century the Sperelli family migrated to Naples. There a Bartolomeo Sperelli published in 1679 an astrological treatise: De Nativitatibus; in 1720 a Giovanni Sperelli wrote for the theatre an opera bouffe entitled La Faustina and also a lyrical tragedy entitled Progne; 1756 a Carlo Sperelli brought out a book of amatory verses in which much licentious persiflage was expressed with the Horatian elegance so much affected at that period. A better poet, and moreover a man of exquisite gallantry, was Luigi Sperelli, attached to the court of the lazzaroni king of Naples and his queen Caroline. His Muse was very charming, and affected a certain epicurean melancholy. He loved much and with a fine discrimination, and had innumerable adventures—some of them famous—as, for instance, that with the Marchesa di Bugnano who poisoned herself out of jealousy, and with the Countess of Chesterfield who died of consumption, and whom he mourned in a series of odes, sonnets and elegies—very moving, if perhaps somewhat overladen with metaphor.
Count Andrea Sperelli-Fieschi d'Ugenta, sole heir to the family, carried on its traditions. He was, in truth, the ideal type of the young Italian nobleman of the nineteenth century, a true representative of a race of chivalrous gentlemen and graceful artists, the last scion of an intellectual line.
He was, so to speak, thoroughly impregnated with art. His early youth, nourished as it was by the most varied and profound studies, promised wonders. Up to his twentieth year, he alternated between severe study and long journeys, in company with his father, and could thus complete his extraordinary aesthetic education under paternal direction, without the restrictions and constraints imposed by tutors. And it was to his father that he owed his taste for everything pertaining to art, his passionate cult of the Beautiful, his paradoxical disdain of prejudice, and his keen appetite for the sensuous.
That father, who had grown up in the midst of the last expiring splendours of the Bourbon court of Naples, understood life on a large scale, was profoundly initiated into all the arts of the voluptuary, combined with a certain Byronic leaning towards fantastic romanticism. His marriage had occurred under quasi tragic circumstances, the finale of a mad passion; then, after disturbing and undermining the conjugal peace in every possible fashion, he had separated from his wife, and, keeping his son always with him, had travelled about the whole of Europe.
Andrea's education had thus been a living one; that is to say, derived less from books than from the study of life as he had seen it. His mind was corrupted not only by over-refined culture, but also by actual experiments, and in him curiosity grew keener in proportion as his knowledge grew wider. From the beginning, he had ever been prodigal of his powers, for the great nervous force with which nature had endowed him was inexhaustible in providing him with the treasures he dispensed so lavishly. But the expansion of that energy caused in him the destruction of another force: the moral one, which his own father had not scrupled to repress in him. And he never perceived that his whole life was a steady retrogression of all his faculties, of his hopes, his joys—a species of gradual renunciation—and that the circle was slowly but inexorably narrowing round him.
Among other fundamental maxims his father had given him the following: You must make your own life as you would any other work of art. The life of a man of intellect should be of his own designing. Herein lies the only true superiority.
Again: Never, let it cost what it may, lose the mastery over yourself even in the most intoxicating rapture of the senses. Habere non haberi is the rule from which the man of intellect should never swerve.
And again—Regret is the idle pastime of an unoccupied mind. The best method, therefore, to avoid regret is to keep the mind constantly occupied with new fancies, fresh sensations.
Unfortunately, however, these voluntary axioms, which from their ambiguity might just as easily be interpreted as lofty moral rules, fell upon an involuntary nature; that is to say, one in which the will power was extremely feeble.
Another seed sown by the paternal hand had borne evil fruit in Andrea's spirit—the seed of sophistry. Sophistry, said this imprudent teacher, is at the bottom of all human pleasure or pain. Therefore, quicken and multiply your sophisms and you quicken and multiply your own pleasure or your own pain. It is possible that the whole science of life consists in obscuring the truth. The word is a very profound matter in which inexhaustible treasure is concealed for the man who knows how to use it. The Greeks, who were artists in words, were the most refined voluptuaries of antiquity. The sophists flourished in the greatest number during the age of Pericles, the Golden Age of pleasure.
This germ had found a favourable soil in the unhealthy culture of the young man's mind. By degrees, insincerity—rather towards himself than towards others—became such a habit of Andrea's mind, that finally he was incapable of being wholly sincere or of regaining dominion over himself.
The death of his father left him alone at the age of twenty, master of a considerable fortune, separated from his mother, and at the mercy of his passions and his tastes. He spent fifteen months in England. His mother married again, and he returned to Rome from choice.
Rome was his passion—not the Rome of the Caesars, but the Rome of the Popes—not the Rome of the Triumphal Arches, the Forums, the Baths, but the Rome of the Villas, the Fountains, the Churches. He would have given all the Colosseums in the world for the Villa Medici, the Campo Vaccino for the Piazza di Spagna, the Arch of Titus for the Fountain of the Tortoises. The princely magnificence of the Colonnas, the Dorias, the Barberinis, attracted him far more than the ruins of imperial grandeur. It was his dream to possess a palace crowned by a cornice of Michael Angelo's, and with frescos by the Carracci like the Farnese palace—a gallery of Raphaels, Titians and Domenichini like the Borghese; a villa like that of Alessandro Albani, where deep shadowy groves, red granite of the East, white marble from Luni, Greek statues and Renaissance pictures should weave an enchantment round some sumptuous amour of his. In an album of 'Confessions' at his cousin's, the Marchesa d'Ateleta, against the question—'What would you most like to be?' he had written, 'A Roman prince.'
Arriving in Rome about the end of September, he set up his 'home' in the Palazzo Zuccari, near the Trinita de' Monti, where the obelisk of Pius VI. marks with its shadow the passing hours. The whole of October was devoted to furnishing them. When the rooms were all finished and decorated to his taste, he passed some days of invincible melancholy and loneliness in his new abode. It was a St. Martin's summer, a 'Springtime of the Dead,' calmly sad and sweet, in which Rome lay all golden, like a city of the Far East, under a milk-white sky, diaphanous as the firmament reflected in Southern seas.
All this languor of atmosphere and light, in which things seemed to lose their substance and reality, oppressed the young man with an infinite weariness, an inexpressible sense of discontent, of discomfort, of solitude, emptiness and home-sickness, mostly, no doubt, the result of the change of climate and customs.
It was just this, that he was entering upon a new phase of life. Would he find therein the woman and the work capable of dominating his heart and becoming an object in life to him? Within himself he felt neither the conviction of power nor the presage of fame or happiness. Though penetrated, impregnated with art, as yet he had not produced anything remarkable. Eager in the pursuit of pleasure and of love, he had never yet really loved or really enjoyed whole-heartedly. Tortured by aspirations after an Ideal, and abhorring pain both by nature and education, he was vulnerable on every side, accessible to pain at every point.
In the tumult of his conflicting inclinations, he had lost all guiding will-power and moral perception. Will, in abdicating had yielded the sceptre to instinct and the aesthetic sense was substituted for the moral. But, it was nevertheless precisely to his aesthetic sense—in him most subtle and powerful—that he owed a certain strength and equilibrium of mind, so that one might say his existence was a perpetual struggle between contrary forces, enclosed within the limits of that equilibrium. Men of intellect, educated in the cult of the beautiful, preserve a certain sense of order even in their worst depravities. The conception of the beautiful is, so to speak, the axis of their being, round which all their passions revolve.
Over this sadness, the recollection of Constance Landbrooke still floated like a faded perfume. His love for Conny had been a very delicate affair, for she was a very sweet little creature. She was like one of Lawrence's creations, with all the dainty feminine graces so dear to that painter of furbelows and laces and velvets, of lustrous eyes and pouting lips, a very re-incarnation of the little Countess of Shaftesbury. Lively, chattering, never still, lavish of infantile diminutives and silvery peals of laughter, easily moved to sudden caresses and as sudden melancholies and quick bursts of anger, she contributed to her share of love a vast amount of movement, much variety and many caprices. But Conny Landbrooke's melodious twitterings had left no more mark on Andrea's heart than the light musical echo left in one's ear for a time by some gay ritornella. More than once in some pensive hour of twilight melancholy, she had said to him with a mist of tears before her eyes—'I know you do not love me.' And in truth he did not love her, she did not by any means satisfy his longings. His ideal was less northern in character. Ideally he felt himself attracted by those courtesans of the sixteenth century, over whose faces there would appear to be drawn some indefinable veil of sorcery, some transparent mask of enchantment, some divine nocturnal spell.
The moment Andrea set eyes on the Duchess of Scerni, he said to himself—'This is my Ideal Woman!' and his whole soul went out to her in a transport of joy, in the presentiment of the future.
The next day the public sale-room of the Via Sistina was thronged with fashionable people, come to look on at the famous contest.
It was raining hard; the light in the low-roofed damp rooms was dull and gray. Along the walls were ranged various pieces of carved furniture, several large diptychs and triptychs of the Tuscan school of the fourteenth century; four pieces of Flemish tapestry representing the Story of Narcissus hung from ceiling to floor; Metaurensian majolicas occupied two long shelves; stuffs—for the most part ecclesiastical—lay spread out on chairs or heaped up on tables; antiquities of the rarest kind—ivories, enamels, crystals, engraved gems, medals, coins, breviaries, illuminated manuscripts, silver of delicate workmanship were massed together in high cabinets behind the auctioneer's table. A peculiar musty odour, arising from the clamminess of the atmosphere and this collection of ancient things, pervaded the air.
When Andrea Sperelli entered the room with the Princess di Ferentino, he looked about him rapidly with a secret tremor—Is she here? he said to himself.
She was there, seated at the table between the Cavaliere Davila and Don Filippo del Monte. Before her on the table lay her gloves and her muff, to which a little bunch of violets was fastened. She held in her hand a little bas-relief in silver, attributed to Caradosso Foppa, which she was examining with great attention. Each article passed from hand to hand along the table while the auctioneer proclaimed its merits in a loud voice, those standing behind the line of chairs leaning over to look.
The sale began.
'Make your bids, gentlemen! make your bids!' cried the auctioneer from time to time.
Some amateur encouraged by this cry bid a higher sum with his eye on his competitors. The auctioneer raised his hammer.
He rapped the table. The article fell to the last bidder. A murmur went round the assemblage, then the bidding recommenced. The Cavaliere Davila, a Neapolitan gentleman of gigantic stature and almost femininely gentle manners, a noted collector and connoisseur of majolica, gave his opinion on each article of importance. Three lots in this sale of the Cardinal's effects were really of 'superior' quality: the Story of Narcissus, the rock-crystal goblet, and an embossed silver helmet by Antonio del Pollajuolo presented by the City of Florence to the Count of Urbino in 1472 for services rendered during the taking of Volterra.
'Here is the Princess,' said Filippo del Monte to the Duchess.
Elena rose and shook hands with her friend.
'Already in the field!' exclaimed the Princess.
'She has not come yet.'
Four or five young men—the Duke of Grimiti, Roberto Casteldieri, Ludovico Barbarisi, Gianetto Rutolo—drew up round them. Others joined them. The rattle of the rain against the windows almost drowned their voices.
Elena held out her hand frankly to Sperelli as to everybody else, but somehow he felt that that handshake set him at a distance from her. Elena seemed to him cold and grave. That instant sufficed to freeze and destroy all his dreams; his memories of the preceding evening grew confused and dim, the torch of hope was extinguished. What had happened to her?—She was not the same woman. She was wrapped in the folds of a long otter-skin coat, and wore a toque of the same fur on her head. There was something hard, almost contemptuous, in the expression of her face.
'The goblet will not come on for some time yet,' she observed to the Princess, as she resumed her seat.
Every object passed through her hands. She was much tempted by a centaur cut in a sardonyx, a very exquisite piece of workmanship, part, perhaps, of the scattered collection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. She took part in the bidding, communicating her offers to the auctioneer in a low voice without raising her eyes to him. Presently the competition stopped; she obtained the intaglio for a good price.
'A most admirable acquisition,' observed Andrea Sperelli from behind her chair.
Elena could not repress a slight start. She took up the sardonyx and handed it to him to look at over her shoulder without turning round. It was really a very beautiful thing.
'It might be the centaur copied by Donatello,' Andrea added.
And in his heart, with his admiration for the work of art, there rose up also a sincere admiration for the noble taste of the lady who now filled all his thoughts. 'What a rare creature both in mind and body!' he thought. But the higher she rose in his imagination, the further she seemed removed from him in reality. All the security of the preceding evening was transformed into uneasiness, and his first doubts re-awoke. He had dreamed too much last night with waking eyes, bathed in a felicity that knew no bounds, while the memory of a gesture, a smile, a turn of the head, a fold of her raiment held him captive as in a net. Now all this imaginary world had tumbled miserably about his ears at the touch of reality. In Elena's eyes there had been no sign of that special greeting to which he had so ardently looked forward; she had in no wise singled him out from the crowd, had offered him no mark of favour. Why not? He felt himself slighted, humiliated. All these fatuous people irritated him, he was exasperated by the things which seemed to engross Elena's attention, and more particularly by Filippo del Monte, who leaned towards her every now and then to whisper something to her—scandal no doubt. The Marchesa d'Ateleta now arrived, cheerful as ever. Her laugh, out of the centre of the circle of men who hastened to surround her, caused Don Filippo to turn round.
'Ah—so the trinity is complete!' he exclaimed, rising from his seat.
Andrea instantly slipped into it at Elena Muti's side. As the subtle perfume of the violets reached him, he murmured—
'These are not those of last night, are they?'
'No,' she answered coldly.
In all her varying moods, changeful and caressing as the waves of the sea, there always lay a hidden menace of rebuff. She was often taken with fits of cold restraint. Andrea held his tongue, bewildered.
'Make your bids, gentlemen,' cried the auctioneer.
The bids rose higher. Antonio del Pollajuolo's silver helmet was being hotly contested. Even the Cavaliere Davila entered the lists. The very air seemed gradually to become hotter; the feverish desire to possess so beautiful an object seemed to spread like a contagion.
In that year the craze for bibelots and bric-a-brac reached the point of madness. The drawing-rooms of the nobility and the upper middle classes were crammed with curios; every lady must needs cover the cushions of her sofas and chairs with some piece of church vestment, and put her roses into an Umbrian ointment pot, or a chalcedony jar. The sale-rooms were the favourite meeting-places, and every sale crowded. It was the fashion for the ladies when they dropped in anywhere for tea in the afternoon, to enter with some such remark as—'I have just come from the sale of the painter Campos' things. Tremendous bidding! Such Hispano-Moresque plaques! I secured a jewel belonging to Maria Leczinska. Look!'
The bidding continued. Fashionable purchasers crowded round the table, vieing with each other in artistic and critical comparisons between the Giottoesque Nativities and Annunciations. Into this atmosphere of mustiness and antiquity the ladies brought the perfume of their furs, and more especially of the violets which each one wore on her muff, according to the then prevailing charming fashion, and their presence diffused a delicious air of warmth and fragrance. Outside, the rain continued to fall, and the light to fade. Here and there a little flame of gas struggled feebly with such daylight as remained.
'Going—going—gone!' The stroke of the hammer put Lord Humphrey Heathfield in possession of the Florentine helmet. The bidding then began for smaller articles, which passed in turn from hand to hand down the long table. Elena handled them carefully, examined them, and placed them in front of Andrea without remark. There were enamels, ivories, eighteenth century watches, Milanese goldsmiths' work of the time of Ludovico the Moor, Books of Hours inscribed in gold letters on pale blue vellum. These precious things seemed to increase in value under the touch of Elena's fingers; her little hands had a faint tremor of eagerness when they came in contact with some specially desirable object. Andrea watched them intently, and his imagination transformed every movement of her hands into a caress. 'But why did she place each thing upon the table instead of passing it to him?'
He forestalled her next time by holding out his hand. And from thenceforth the ivories, the enamels, the ornaments passed from the hands of the lady to those of her lover, to whom they communicated an ineffable thrill of delight. He felt that thus some particle of the charm of the beloved woman entered into these objects, just as a portion of the virtue of the magnet enters into the iron. It was, in truth, the magnetic sense of love—one of those acute and profound sensations which are rarely felt but at love's beginning, and which, differing essentially from all others, seem to have no physical or moral seat, but to exist in some neutral element of our being—an element that is intermediate, and the nature of which is unknown.
'Here again is a rapture I have never felt before,' thought Andrea.
A kind of torpor seemed creeping over him. Little by little, he was losing consciousness of time and place.
'I recommend this clock to your notice,' Elena was saying to him, with a look the full significance of which he did not for the first moment understand.
It was a small Death's-head, carved in ivory with extraordinary power and anatomical skill. Each jaw was furnished with a row of diamonds, and two rubies flashed from the deep eye-sockets. On the forehead was engraved, Ruit Hora; and on the occiput Tibi, Hippolyta. It opened like a box, the hinging being almost imperceptible, and the ticking inside lent an indescribable air of life to the diminutive skull. This sepulchral jewel, the offering of some unknown artist to his mistress, had doubtless marked many an hour of rapture, and served as a warning symbol to their amorous souls.
Could a lover wish for anything more exquisite and more suggestive? 'Has she any special reason for recommending this to me?' thought Andrea, all his hopes reviving on the instant. He threw himself into the bidding with a sort of fury. Two or three others bid against him, notably Giannetto Rutolo, who, being in love with Donna Ippolita Albonico, was attracted by the dedication: Tibi, Hippolyta.
Presently Rutolo and Sperelli were left alone in the contest. The bidding rose higher than the actual value of the article, which forced a smile from the auctioneer. At last, vanquished by his adversary's determination, Giannetto Rutolo was silent.
Donna Ippolita's lover, a little pale, cried one last sum. Sperelli named a higher—there was a moment's silence. The auctioneer looked from one to the other, then he raised his hammer and slowly, still looking at the two—'Going—going—gone!'
The Death's-head fell to the Conte d'Ugenta. A murmur ran round the room. A sudden flood of light burst through the windows, lit up the gleaming gold backgrounds of the triptychs, and played over the sorrowfully patient brow of the Siennese Madonna and the glittering steel scales on the Princess di Ferentino's little grey hat.
'When is the goblet coming on?' asked the princess impatiently.
Her friends consulted the catalogue. There was no hope of the goblet for that day. The unusual amount of competition made the sale go slowly. There was still a long list of smaller articles—cameos, medallions, coins. Several antiquaries and Prince Stroganow disputed each piece hotly. The rest felt considerably disappointed. The Duchess of Scerni rose to go.
'Good-bye, Sperelli,' she said. 'I shall see you again this evening—perhaps.'
'I do not feel well.'
'What is the matter?'
She turned away without replying, and took leave of the others. Many of them followed her example and left with her. The young men were making fun of the 'spectacle manque.' The Marchesa d'Ateleta laughed, but the princess was evidently thoroughly out of temper. The footmen waiting in the hall called for the carriages as if at the door of a theatre or concert hall.
'Are you not coming on to Laura Miano's?' Francesca asked the duchess.
'No, I am going home.'
She waited on the pavement for her brougham to come up. The rain was passing over; patches of blue were beginning to appear between the great banks of white cloud; a shaft of sunshine made the wet flags glitter. Flooded by this pale rose splendour, her magnificent furs falling in straight symmetrical folds to her feet, Elena was very beautiful. As Andrea caught a glimpse of the inside of her brougham, all cosily lined with white satin like a little boudoir, with its shining silver foot-warmer for the comfort of her small feet, his dream of the preceding evening came back to him—'Oh, to be there with her alone, and feel the warm perfume of her breath mingling with the violets—behind the mist-dimmed windows through which one hardly sees the muddy streets, the gray houses, the dull crowd!'
But she only bowed slightly to him at the door, without even a smile, and the next moment the carriage had flashed away in the direction of the Palazzo Barberini, leaving the young man with a dim sense of depression and heartache.
She only said 'perhaps,' so it was quite possible that she would not be at the Palazzo Farnese that evening. What should he do then? The thought that he might not see her was intolerable; already every hour he passed far from her weighed heavily on his spirits. 'Am I then so deeply in love with her already?' he asked himself. His spirit seemed imprisoned within a circle in which the phantoms of all his sensations in presence of this woman surged and wheeled around him. Suddenly there would emerge from this tangle of memory, with singular precision, some phrase of hers, an inflection of her voice, an attitude, a glance, the seat where they had sat, the finale of the Beethoven sonata, a burst of melody from Mary Dyce, the face of the footman who had held back the portiere—anything that happened to have caught his attention at the moment—and these images obscured by their extreme vividness the actual life around him. He pleaded with her; said to her in thought what he would say to her in reality by and by.
Arrived in his own rooms, he ordered tea of his man-servant, installed himself in front of the fire and gave himself up to the fictions of his hope and his desire. He took the little jewelled skull out of its case and examined it carefully. The tiny diamond teeth flashed back at him in the firelight, and the rubies lit up the shadowy orbits. Behind the smooth ivory brow time pulsed unceasingly—Ruit Hora. Who was the artist who had contrived for his Hippolyta so superb and bold a fantasy of Death, at a period too when the masters of enamelling had been wont to ornament with tender idylls the little watches destined to warn Coquette of the time of the rendezvous in the parks of Watteau? The modelling gave evidence of a masterly hand—vigorous and full of admirable style; altogether it was worthy of a fifteenth century artist as forcible as Verrocchio.
'I recommend this clock to your consideration.' Andrea could not help smiling a little at Elena's words uttered in so peculiar a tone after so cold a silence. He was assured that she intended him to put the construction upon her words which he had afterwards done, but then why retire into impenetrable reserve again—why take no further notice of him—what ailed her? Andrea lost himself in a maze of conjecture. Nevertheless, the warm atmosphere of the room, the luxurious chair, the shaded lamp, the fitful gleams of firelight, the aroma of the tea—all these soothing influences combined to mitigate his pain. He went on dreamingly, aimlessly, as if wandering through a fantastic labyrinth. With him reverie sometimes had the effect of opium—it intoxicated him.
'May I take the liberty of reminding the Signor Conte that he is expected at the Casa Doria at seven o'clock,' observed his valet in a subdued and discreet murmur, one of his offices being to jog his master's memory. 'Everything is ready.'
He went into an adjoining octagonal room to dress, the most luxurious and comfortable dressing-room any young man of fashion could possibly desire. On a great Roman sarcophagus, transformed with much taste into a toilet table, were ranged a selection of cambric handkerchiefs, evening gloves, card and cigarette cases, bottles of scent, and five or six fresh gardenias in separate little pale blue china vases—all these frivolous and fragile things on this mass of stone, on which a funeral cortege was sculptured by a masterly hand!
At the Casa Doria, speaking of one thing and another, the Duchess Angelieri remarked—'It seems that Laura Miano and Elena Muti have quarrelled.'
'About Giorgio perhaps?' returned another lady laughing.
'So they say. The story began this summer at Lucerne—'
'But Laura was not at Lucerne,'
'Exactly—but her husband was—'
'I believe it is a pure invention,' broke in the Florentine countess Donna Bianca Dolcebuono—'Giorgio is in Paris now.'
Andrea heard it all in spite of the chattering of the little Contessa Starnina, who sat at his right hand, and never gave him a moment's peace. Bianca Dolcebuono's words did little to ease the smart of his wound. At least, he would have liked to know the whole story. But the Duchess Angelieri did not resume the thread of her discourse, and other conversations crossed and recrossed the table under the great gorgeous roses from the Villa Pamfili.
Who was this Giorgio? A former lover? Elena had spent part of the summer at Lucerne,—she had just come from Paris. After the sale she had refused to go to Laura Miano's. A fierce desire assailed him to see her, to speak to her again. The invitation at the Palazzo Farnese was for ten o'clock—half past ten found him there waiting anxiously.
He waited long. The rooms filled rapidly; the dancing began. In the Carracci gallery the divinities of fashionable Rome vied in beauty with the Ariadnes, the Galateas, the Auroras, the Dianas of the frescos; couples whirled past; heads glittering with jewels drooped or raised themselves, bosoms panted, the breath came fast through parted crimson lips.
'You are not dancing, Sperelli?' asked Gabriella Barbarisi, a girl brown as the oliva speciosa, as she passed him on the arm of her partner, fanning herself and smiling to show a dimple she had at the corner of her mouth.
'Yes—later on,' Andrea responded hastily—'later on.'
Heedless of introductions or greetings, his torment increased with every moment of this fruitless expectation, and he roamed aimlessly from room to room. That 'perhaps' made him sadly afraid that Elena would not come. And supposing she really did not? When was he likely to see her again? Donna Bianca Dolcebuono passed, and, almost without knowing why, he attached himself to her side, saying a thousand agreeable things to her, feeling some slight comfort in her society. He had the greatest desire to speak to her about Elena, to question her, to reassure himself; but the orchestra struck up a languorous mazurka and the Florentine countess was carried off by her partner.
Thereupon, Andrea joined a group of young men near one of the doors—Ludovico Barbarisi, the Duke di Beffi, Filippo del Gallo and Gino Bomminaco. They were watching the couples, and exchanging observations not over refined in quality. One of them turned to Andrea as he came up.
'Why, what has become of you this evening? Your cousin was looking for you a moment ago. There she is dancing with my brother now.'
'Look!' exclaimed Filippo del Gallo—'the Albonico has come back, she is dancing with Giannetto.'
'The Duchess of Scerni came back last week,' said Ludovico; 'what a lovely creature!'
'Is she here?'
'I have not seen her yet,'
Andrea's heart stopped beating for a moment, fearing that something would be said against her by one or other of these malicious tongues. But the passing of the Princess Isse on the arm of the Danish Minister diverted their attention. Nevertheless, his desire for further knowledge was so intense, that it almost drove him to lead back the conversation to the name of his lady-love. But he was not quite bold enough. The mazurka was over; the group broke up. 'She is not coming! She is not coming!' His secret anxiety rose to such a pitch that he half thought of leaving the place altogether; the contact of this laughing, careless throng was intolerable.
As he turned away, he saw the Duchess of Scerni entering the gallery on the arm of the French ambassador. For one instant their eyes met, but that one glance seemed to draw them to each other, to penetrate to the very depths of their souls. Both knew that each had only been looking for the other, and at that moment there seemed to fall a silence upon both hearts, even in the midst of the babel of voices, and all their surroundings to vanish and be swept away by the force of their own absorbing thought.
She advanced along the frescoed gallery where the crowd was thinnest, her long white train rippling like a wave over the floor behind her. All white and simple, she passed slowly along, turning from side to side in answer to the numerous greetings, with an air of manifest fatigue and a somewhat strained smile which drew down the corners of her mouth, while her eyes looked larger than ever under the low white brow, her extreme pallor imparting to her whole face a look so ethereal and delicate as to be almost ghostly. This was not the same woman who had sat beside him at the Ateleta's table, nor the one of the Sale Rooms, nor the one standing waiting for a moment on the pavement of the Via Sistina. Her beauty at this moment was of ideal nobility, and shone with additional splendour among all these women heated with the dance, over-excited and restless in their manner. The men looked at her and grew thoughtful; no mind was so obtuse or empty that she did not exercise a disturbing influence upon it, inspire some vague and indefinable hope. He whose heart was free imagined with a thrill what such a woman's love would be; he who loved already conceived a vague regret, and dreamed of raptures hitherto unknown; he who bore a wound dealt by some woman's jealousy or faithlessness suddenly felt that he might easily recover.
Thus she advanced amid the homage of the men, enveloped by their gaze. Arrived at the end of the gallery, she joined a group of ladies who were talking and fanning themselves excitedly under the fresco of Perseus turning Phineus to stone. They were the Princess di Ferentino, Hortensa Massa d'Alba, the Marchesa Daddi-Tosinghi and Bianca Dolcebuono.
'Why so late?' asked the latter.
'I hesitated very much whether to come at all—I don't feel well.'
'Yes, you look very pale.'
'I believe I am going to have neuralgia badly again, like last year.'
'Elena, do look at Madame de la Boissiere,' exclaimed Giovanella Daddi in her queer husky voice; 'doesn't she look like a camel with a yellow wig!'
'Mademoiselle Vanloo is losing her head over your cousin,' said Hortensa Massa d'Alba to the Princess as Sophie Vanloo passed on Ludovico Barbarisi's arm. 'I heard her say just now when they passed me in the mazurka—Ludovic, ne faites plus ca en dansant; je frissonne toute—'
The ladies laughed in chorus, fluttering their fans. The first notes of a Hungarian waltz floated in from the next room. The gentlemen came to claim their partners. At last Andrea was able to offer Elena his arm and carry her off.
'I thought I should have died waiting for you! If you had not come I should have gone to find you—anywhere. When I saw you come in I could scarcely repress a cry. This is only the second evening I have met you, and yet I feel as if I had loved you for years. The thought of you and you alone is now the life of my life.'
He uttered his burning words of love in a low voice, looking straight before him, and she listened in a similar attitude, apparently quite impassive, almost stony. Only a sprinkling of people remained in the gallery. Between the busts of the Caesars along the walls, lamps with milky globes shaped like lilies shed an even, tempered light. The profusion of palms and flowering plants gave the whole place the look of a sumptuous conservatory. The music floated through the warm-scented air under the vaulted roof and over all this mythology like a breeze though an enchanted garden.
'Can you love me?' he asked: 'tell me if you think you can ever love me.'
'I came only for you,' she returned slowly.
'Tell me that you will love me,' he repeated, while every drop of blood seemed to rush in a tumult of joy to his heart.
'Perhaps——' she answered, and she looked into his face with that same look which, on the preceding evening, had seemed to hold a divine promise, that ineffable gaze which acts like the velvet touch of a loving hand. Neither of them spoke; they listened to the sweet and fitful strains of the music, now slow and faint as a zephyr, now loud and rushing like a sudden tempest.
'Shall we dance?' he asked with a secret tremor of delight at the prospect of encircling her with his arm.
She hesitated a moment before replying. 'No; I would rather not.'
Then, seeing the Duchess of Bugnare, her aunt, entering the gallery with the Princess Alberoni and the French ambassadress, she added hurriedly, 'Now—be prudent, and leave me.'
She held out her gloved hand to him and advanced alone to meet the ladies with a light firm step. Her long white train lent an additional grace to her figure, the wide and heavy folds of brocade serving to accentuate the slenderness of her waist. Andrea, as he followed her with his eyes, kept repeating her words to himself, 'I came for you alone—I came for you alone!' The orchestra suddenly took up the waltz measure with a fresh impetus. And never, through all his life, did he forget that music, nor the attitude of the woman he loved, nor the sumptuous folds of the brocade trailing over the floor, nor the faintest shadow on the rich material, nor one single detail of that supreme moment.
Elena left the Farnese palace very soon after this, almost stealthily, without taking leave of Andrea or of any one else. She had therefore not stayed more than half an hour at the ball. Her lover searched for her through all the rooms in vain. The next morning, he sent a servant to the Palazzo Barberini to inquire after the duchess, and learned from him that she was ill. In the evening he went in person, hoping to be received; but a maid informed him that her mistress was in great pain and could see no one. On the Saturday, towards five o'clock, he came back once more, still hoping for better luck.
He left his house on foot. The evening was chill and gray, and a heavy leaden twilight was settling over the city. The lamps were already lighted round the fountain in the Piazza Barberini like pale tapers round a funeral bier, and the Triton, whether being under repair or for some other reason, had ceased to spout water. Down the sloping roadway came a line of carts drawn by two or three horses harnessed in single file, and bands of workmen returning home from the new buildings. A group of these came swaying along arm in arm, singing a lewd song at the pitch of their voices.
Andrea stopped to let them pass. Two or three of the debased, weather-beaten faces impressed themselves on his memory. He noticed that a carter had his hand wrapped in a blood-stained bandage, and that another, who was kneeling in his cart, had the livid complexion, deep sunken eyes and convulsively contracted mouth of a man who has been poisoned. The words of the song were mingled with guttural cries, the cracking of whips, the grinding of wheels, the jingling of horse bells and shrill discordant laughter.
His mental depression increased. He found himself in a very curious mood. The sensibility of his nerves was so acute that the most trivial impression conveyed to them by external means assumed the gravity of a wound. While one fixed thought occupied and tormented his spirit, the rest of his being was left exposed to the rude jostling of surrounding circumstances. Groups of sensations rushed with lightning rapidity across his mental field of vision, like the phantasmagoria of a magic lantern, startling and alarming him. The banked-up clouds of evening, the form of the Triton surrounded by the cadaverous lights, this sudden descent of savage looking men and huge animals, these shouts and songs and curses aggravated his condition, arousing a vague terror in his heart, a foreboding of disaster.
A closed carriage drove out of the palace garden. He caught a glimpse of a lady bowing to him, but he failed to recognise her. The palace rose up before him, vast as some royal residence. The windows of the first floor gleamed with violet reflections, a pale strip of sunset sky rested just above it; a brougham was turning away from the door.
'If I could but see her!' he thought to himself, standing still for a moment. He lingered, purposely to prolong his uncertainty and his hope. Shut up in this immense edifice she seemed to him immeasurably far away—lost to him.
The brougham stopped, and a gentleman put his head out of the window and called—'Andrea!'
It was the Duke of Grimiti, a near relative of his.
'Going to call on the Scerni?' asked the duke with a significant smile.
'Yes,' answered Andrea, 'to inquire after her—she is ill, you know.'
'Yes, I know—I have just come from there. She is better.'
'Does she receive?'
'Me—no. But she may perhaps receive you.' And Grimiti laughed maliciously through the smoke of his cigarette.
'I don't understand,' Andrea answered coldly.
'Bah!' said the duke. 'Report says you are high in favour. I heard it last night at the Pallavicinis', from a lady, a great friend of yours—give you my word!'
Andrea turned on his heel with a gesture of impatience.
'Bonne chance!' cried the duke.
Andrea entered the portico. In reality he was delighted and flattered that such a report should be circulated already. Grimiti's words had suddenly revived his courage like a draught of some cordial. As he mounted the steps, his hopes rose high. He waited for a moment at the door to allow his excitement to calm down a little. Then he rang.
The servant recognised him and said at once: 'If the Signor Conte will have the kindness to wait a moment I will go and inform Mademoiselle.'
He nodded assent, and began pacing the vast ante-chamber, which seemed to echo the violent beating of his heart. Hanging lamps of wrought iron shed an uncertain light over the stamped leather panelling of the walls, the carved oak chests, the antique busts on pedestals. Under a magnificently embroidered baldachin blazed the ducal arms: a unicorn on a field gules. A bronze card-tray, heaped with cards, stood in the middle of a table, and happening to cast his eye over them, Andrea noticed the one which Grimiti had just left lying on the top—Bonne chance!—The ironical augury still rang in his ears.
Mademoiselle now made her appearance. 'The duchess is feeling a little better,' she said. 'I think the Signor Conte might see her for a moment. This way, if you please.'