I. THE SMELLING-BOTTLE
COUNT AUGUSTUS VON SCHIMMELMANN, a young Danish nobleman of a melancholy disposition, who would have been very good-looking if he had not been a little too fat, was writing a letter on a table made out of a millstone in the garden of an osteria near Pisa on a fine May evening of 1823. He could not get it finished, so he got up and went for a stroll down the highroad while the people of the inn were getting his supper ready inside. The sun was nearly down. Its golden rays fell in between the tall poplars along the road. The air was warm and pure and filled with the sweet smell of grass and trees, and innumerable swallows were cruising about high and low, as if wanting to make the most of the last half-hour of daylight.
Count Augustus’s thoughts were still with his letter. It was addressed to a friend in Germany, a schoolfellow of his happy student days in Ingolstadt, and the only person to whom he could open his heart. But have I been, he thought, really truthful in my letter to him? I would give a year of my life to be able to talk to him tonight and, while talking, to watch his face. How difficult it is to know the truth. I wonder if it is really possible to be absolutely truthful when you are alone. Truth, like time, is an idea arising from, and dependent upon, human intercourse. What is the truth about a mountain in Africa that has no name and not even a footpath across it? The truth about this road is that it leads to Pisa, and the truth about Pisa can be found within books written and read by human beings. What is the truth about a man on a desert island? And I, I am like a man on a desert island. When I was a student my friends used to laugh at me because I was in the habit of looking at myself in the looking-glasses, and had my own rooms decorated with mirrors. They attributed this to personal vanity. But it was not really so. I looked into the glasses to see what I was like. A glass tells you the truth about yourself. With a shudder of disgust he remembered how he had been taken, as a child, to see the mirror-room of the Panoptikon, in Copenhagen, where you see yourself reflected, to the right and the left, in the ceiling and even on the floor, in a hundred glasses each of which distorts and perverts your face and figure in a different way—shortening, lengthening, broadening, compressing their shape, and still keeping some sort of likeness—and thought how much this was like real life. So your own self, your personality and existence are reflected within the mind of each of the people whom you meet and live with, into a likeness, a caricature of yourself, which still lives on and pretends to be, in some way, the truth about you. Even a flattering picture is a caricature and a lie. A friendly and sympathetic mind, like Karl’s, he thought, is like a true mirror to the soul, and that is what made his friendship so precious to me. Love ought to be even more so. It ought to mean, along the roads of life, the companionship of another mind, reflecting your own fortune and misfortunes, and proving to you that all is not a dream. The idea of marriage has been to me the presence in my life of a person with whom I could talk, tomorrow, of the things that happened yesterday.
He sighed, and his thoughts returned to his letter. There he had tried to explain to his friend the reasons that had driven him from his home. He had the misfortune to have a very jealous wife. It is not, he thought, that she is jealous of other women. In fact she is that least of all, and the reason is, first, that she knows that she can hold her own with most of them, being the most charming and accomplished of them all; secondly, that she feels how little they mean to me. Karl himself will remember that the little adventures which I had at Ingolstadt meant less to me than the opera, when a company of singers came along and gave us Alceste or Don Giovanni—less even than my studies. But she is jealous of my friends, of my dogs, of the forests of Lindenburg, of my guns and books. She is jealous of the most absurd things.
He remembered something that had happened some six months after his wedding. He had come into his wife’s room to bring her a pair of eardrops which he had made a friend in Paris buy for him from the estate of the Duke of Berri. He had always been fond of jewels himself, and had good knowledge of their quality and cut. It had even at times annoyed him that men should not be free to wear them, and after his marriage it had given him pleasure to make them set off the beauty of his young wife, who wore them so well. These were very fine, and he had been so pleased to have got them that he had fastened them in her ears himself, and held up the mirror for her to see them. She watched him, and was aware that his eyes were on the diamonds and not on her face. She quickly took them off and handed them to him. “I am afraid,” she said, with dry eyes more tragic than if they had been filled with tears, “that I have not your taste for pretty things.” From that day she had given up wearing jewels, and had adopted a style of dress as severe as that of a nun, and she was so elegant and graceful that she had created a sensation and made a whole school of imitators.
Can I make Karl understand, Augustus thought, that she is indeed jealous of her own jewels? Surely nobody can understand such folly. I know that I do not understand her myself, and I often think that I make her as unhappy as she makes me. I had hoped to find, in my wife, somebody to whom I could be perfectly truthful, with whom I could share every motion of my mind. But with Malvina that is the most impossible thing of all. She has made me lie to her twenty times a day, and deceive her even in looks and voice. No, I am certain that it could not go on, and that I have been right in leaving her, for while I was with her it would have been the same thing always.
But what will happen to me now? I do not know what to do with myself or my life. Can I trust to fate to hold out a helping hand to me just for once?
He took a small object from his waistcoat pocket and looked at it. It was a smelling-bottle, such as ladies of an earlier generation had been wont to use, made in the shape of a heart. It had painted on it a landscape with large trees and a bridge across a river. In the background, on a high hill or rock, was a pink castle with a tower, and on a ribbon below it all was written Amitié sincère.
He smiled as he thought that this little bottle had played its part in making him go to Italy. It had belonged to a maiden aunt of his father’s, who had been the beauty of her time, and to whom he had been devoted. As a girl she had traveled in Italy, and had been a guest in that same rose-colored palace, and every dream of romance and adventure was in her mind attached to it. She had faith in her little smelling-bottle, thinking that it would cure any ache of the teeth or the heart. When he had been a little boy he had shared these fancies of hers, and had himself made up tales of the beautiful things to be found in the house and the happy life to be led there. Now that she was many years dead, nobody would know where it was to be found. Perhaps, he thought, some day I shall come across the bridge under the trees and see the rock and the castle before me.
How mysterious and difficult it is to live, he thought, and what does it all mean? Why does my life seem to me so terribly important, more important than anything that has ever happened? Perhaps in a hundred years people will be reading about me, and about my sadness tonight, and think it only entertaining, if even that.
II. THE ACCIDENT
At that moment he was interrupted in his thoughts by a terrible noise behind him. He turned around and the sinking sun shone straight into his eyes so that he was blinded and for a few seconds saw the world as all silver, gold and flames. In a cloud of dust a large coach was coming toward him at a terrifying speed, the horses running in a wild gallop and hurling the carriage from one side of the road to the other. While he was looking at it he seemed to see two human forms being whirled down and out. They were, in fact, the coachman and lackey who were thrown from their seats to the road. For a moment Augustus thought of throwing himself in the way of the horses to stop them, but before the carriage reached him something gave way; first one and then the other of the horses detached itself from the carriage and came galloping past him. The carriage was thrown to one side of the road, stopping dead there, with one of the back wheels off. He ran toward it.
Leaning against the seat of the smashed carriage now lying in the dust was a bald old man with a refined face and a large nose. He stared straight at Augustus, but was so deadly pale and kept so still that Augustus wondered if he had not really been killed after all. “Allow me to help you, Sir,” Augustus said. “You have had a horrible accident, but I hope you are not badly hurt.” The old man looked at him as before, with bewildered eyes.
A broad young woman who had sat in the opposite seat and had been thrown down on her hands and knees between cushions and boxes, now began disentangling herself with loud lamentations. The old man turned his eyes upon her. “Put on my bonnet,” he said. The maid, as Augustus found her to be, after some struggle got hold of a large bonnet with ostrich feathers, and managed to get it fixed on the old bald head. Fastened inside the bonnet was an abundance of silvery curls, and in a moment the old man was transformed into a fine old lady of imposing appearance. The bonnet seemed to set her at ease. She even found the shadow of a sweet and thankful smile for Augustus.
The coachman now came running up, all covered with dust, while the lackey was still lying in a dead faint in the middle of the road. Also the people of the osteria had come out with uplifted arms and loud exclamations of sympathy. One of them brought one of the horses back, and at a distance two peasants were seen trying to get hold of the other. Between them they carried the old lady out of the wreckage of the coach and into the best bedroom of the inn, which was adorned with an enormous bed with red curtains. She was still pale as a corpse, and breathed with difficulty. Her right arm seemed to have been broken above the wrist, but what other injuries she had received they could not tell. The maid, who had large round eyes like big black buttons, turned toward Augustus and asked: “Are you a doctor?”
“No,” said the old lady from the bed, in a very faint voice, hoarse with pain. “No, he is neither a doctor nor a priest, of which I want none. He is a nobleman, and that is the only person I need. Leave the room, all of you, and let me speak to him alone.”
When they were alone her face changed and she shut her eyes; then she told him to come nearer and asked his name. “Count,” she said, after a short silence, “do you believe in God?”
Such a direct question threw Augustus into confusion, but as he found her pale old eyes fixed on him, he answered: “That was in fact the very question which I was asking myself at the moment when your horses ran away. I cannot tell.”
“There is a God,” she said, “and even very young people will realize it some day. I am going to die,” she went on, “but I cannot, I will not, die till I have seen my granddaughter once more. Will you, as a man of noble birth and high mind, undertake to find her and bring her here?” She paused, and a strange series of expressions passed over her face. “Tell her,” she said, “that I cannot lift my right hand, and that I will bless her.”
Augustus, after wondering a moment, asked her where the young lady could be found. “She is in Pisa,” said the grandmother, “and her name is Donna Rosina di Gampocorta. If you had been in the country nine months ago you would have known her name, for then nobody talked of anything else.” She spoke so feebly that he had to keep his head close to her pillow, and for a moment he thought that all was over. Then she seemed to collect her strength. Her voice changed and became at times very high and clear, but he was not sure that she saw him or knew where she was. A faint color rose into her cheeks; her eyelids, like thick crape, trembled slightly. Strange and deep emotions seemed to shake her whole being. “I will tell you my whole story,” she said, “so that you will understand what I want you to do for me.”
III. THE OLD LADY’S STORY
“I am an old woman,” she said, “and I know the world. I do not cling to it, for I know enough about it to realize that whatever you cling to will either patronize you or get tired of you. I do not even cling to God, for that same reason. Do not pretend to be sorry for me because I am going to die, for I feel that it is really more comme il faut to be dead than alive.
“I have had lovers, a husband, hundreds of friends and admirers. I have myself in my life loved three people, and of those I have now only one left, this girl Rosina.
“Her mother was not my own child—I was her stepmother. But we were more devoted to each other than any mother and daughter ever have been. It was all meant to be so, for from my girlhood I have had the greatest terror of childbearing, and when I was demanded in marriage by a widower, whose first wife had died in childbirth, I made it a condition that I should never bear him any children myself, and because of my beauty and wealth he agreed. The girl Anna was so lovely that I have with my own eyes seen the statue of St. Joseph at the Basilica turn his head to look at her, remembering the appearance of the Virgin at the time that they were betrothed. Her feet were like swan’s bills, and the shoemaker made us our shoes over the same last. I brought her up to know that a woman’s beauty is the crowning masterpiece of God, and is not to be given away, but when she was seventeen years old she fell in love with a man, a soldier, at that—for this was the time of the wars of the French and their dreadful Emperor. She married him and followed him, and a year later she died in great agonies, like her mother.
“Though I have never had it in me really to care for any male, I had hoped that the child would be a boy. But it was a girl, and she was given into my care, for her father could not stand the sight of her, and in fact he died of a broken heart only a few months later, leaving her the heiress of his great riches, of which most was booty of war.
“Now as my granddaughter grew up, you will understand that I was all the time thinking of how I could best arrange the future for her. Did I say that her mother’s beauty was the Almighty’s highest work? No, it proved to be but his probation work, Rosina herself being the masterpiece of his craft. She was so fair that it was said in Pisa that when she drank red wine you could follow its course as it ran down her throat and chest. I did not want her to marry, so I was for a long time well pleased to see the hardness and contempt that the child showed toward all men, and especially toward the brilliant young swains who surrounded her with their adoration. But I was getting old, and I did not want to die and leave her alone in the world, either. Upon the morning of her seventeenth birthday I took to the Church of Santa Maria della Spina a great treasure that had been in my mother’s family for many hundred years, a belt of chastity that one of her ancestors had had made in Spain when he went to fight the infidels. And because his wife was a niece of St. Ferdinand of Castile, it was set with crosses of rubies. This I gave so that the saints should help me to think of what to do.
“That same evening I gave a great ball, at which the Prince Pozentiani saw Rosina, and applied for her hand. Now I will ask you, Count, was this not an answer to my prayer? For the Prince was a magnificent match. He is today the richest man in the province, for it is well known that his family can never keep their hands from making money in one way or another. Although he is a little advanced in years he is the most charming person, a Mæcenas, a man of refined tastes and many talents, and an old friend of mine. And I knew also that a caprice of nature had made him, although an admirer of our sex, incapable of being a lover or a husband. It was his vanity or his weakness not to like this to be known, and he used to keep the most expensive courtesans with him, and people were afraid of him, so that the secret did not get out. But I happened to know, because he had at a time many years ago been one of my greatest admirers, and I had liked him very much. I was so happy and thankful that I saw my own face smile to me in the mirror, like the face of a blessed spirit.
“The child Rosina herself was pleased with the Prince’s proposal, and for a time she liked him very much because of his wit and charming manners and the rich gifts which he showered upon her. The betrothal had been announced when one night, after I had already retired to bed, Rosina came into my room in her frock of high-red satin. She stood in the light of the candles, as lovely as the young St. Michele himself commanding the heavenly hosts, and told me, as if it might have been welcome news to me, that she had fallen in love with her cousin Mario, and would never marry anybody but him. Already at that moment I felt my heart faint within me. But I controlled my face, and only reminded her that the Prince was a deadly shot, and that, whatever she thought of her cousin, she had better keep him out of his way if she really liked him. She only answered as if she had been in love with death itself.
“I did not dislike Mario for I have always had a curious weakness for my husband’s family, although they have all in them a sort of eccentricity, which has in this boy come out in a passion for astronomy. But as a husband he could not be compared to the Prince, and moreover I had only to see Rosina and him together to realize that any weakness of mine here would, within nine months, lead her straight into her mother’s tomb. Rosina had had her head turned by the Prince’s flatteries. She imagined that should she want the moon, she was to have it, much more her young cousin. When I saw her holding on to her fancy I took her before me and explained to her the facts of life. But God alone knows what has come over the generation of women who have been born after the Revolution of the French and the novels of that woman de Staël—wealth, position and a tolerant husband are not enough to them, they want to make love as we took the Sacrament.”
Here the old lady interrupted her tale. “Are you married?” she asked.
“Yes, I am married,” the young man answered her.
“I need not then,” she went on, as if satisfied with the accent of his reply, “develop to you the folly of these ideas. Rosina was so obstinate that I could not reason with her. If in the end she had told me that what she wanted was to have nine children, I should not have been surprised.
“I have arrived at an age when I cannot very well stand to be crossed. I got furious with her, as furious as I would have been with a brigand whom I had seen slinging her over his horse to carry her off to wild mountains. I told the Prince that we must hurry with the wedding, and I kept Rosina shut up in the house. I lived through these months in such a state of deadly worry that I hardly ever slept, and each night was like a journey around the world.
“Rosina had a friend, Agnese della Gherardesci, whom all her life she had loved next to me. Once, when the girls were doing needlework together, they had pricked their fingers, mixed their blood, and vowed sisterhood. This girl had been allowed to grow up wild and had become a real child of the age. She got into her head the notion that she looked like the Milord Byron, of whom so much is talked, and she used to dress and ride as a man, and to write poetry. To make Rosina happier I made Agnese come and stay with her the last week before the wedding. But there is a demon in girls when they believe a love affair to be at stake, and I think that she managed somehow to bring letters to Mario.
“On the morning before the wedding, when the Prince and I thought that all was safe, Agnese got hold of a hackney coach, Rosina slipped out of the house and got into it, and they started on the road to Pisa. A faithful maid gave them away to me, and I got into my own coach and followed them at once. By midday I overtook the miserable little carriage on the road, Agnese driving it, dressed in a coachman’s cloak, and the horses ready to drop, while mine were as fresh as ever.
“When Rosina saw me approaching at full speed she got out, and I also, when I came up to her, descended on the road, but neither of us spoke a word. I took her into my coach, paying no attention whatever to her friend, and told my coachman to turn back. On that road there is a little chapel amongst some trees. As we came up to it Rosina asked me for permission to stop the coach and enter it for a moment. I said to myself, ‘She is going to make a vow of some sort,’ and I got out and went with her into the little church. But in that dark room, smelling from the cold incense, I felt with despair that the heart of a maid is a dark church, a place of mystery, and that it is no use for an old woman to try to find her way in it. Rosina went straight to the altar and dropped on her knees. She looked into the face of the Virgin and then walked up, as if I had been an old peasant woman praying in the chapel on my own. I was in great pain, since for the life of me I could not make up a prayer. It was as if I had been informed that the Virgin and the saints had gone deaf. When I came out and saw her standing beside the coach looking toward Pisa, I spoke to her. ‘I know, if you do not,’ I said, ‘what madness it is to let the thought of any man come between you and me. Now, I can make a vow as well as you can. As I hope that we shall some day walk together in paradise, I swear that as long as I can lift my right hand I am not going to give my blessing to any marriage of yours, except with the Prince.’ Rosina looked at me and courtesied as when she was a child, and never spoke. The next day the marriage was celebrated with much splendor.
“A month after the wedding Rosina petitioned the Pope for an annulment of her marriage on the ground that it had not been consummated.
“This was a very great scandal. The Prince had mighty friends and she was all alone to begin with, and quite young and inexperienced; but she held out with a wonderful strength till in the end it was the only thing that anybody talked about, and she got the whole people with her. The Prince was not popular, mostly on account of his unhappy passion for money; and romance, you will know, appeals to the lower classes. They ended by looking upon her as some sort of saint, and when she had at last been assisted to get to Rome, the population there surrounded her in the streets and applauded her as if she had been a prima donna of the opera. The Prince behaved like a fool and used his influence to chase Mario out of Pisa, which under the circumstances was probably the most stupid thing he could have done, and he mocked the church and shocked the people.
“Rosina threw herself at the feet of the Holy Father with her certificates from all the doctors and midwives of Rome. The Prince fell down like dead when he was told about it, and for three days could not speak. He had to shut the windows so as not to hear them sing in the streets about the Virgin of Pisa, and would keep on biting his fingers while imagining the happiness of the young people—at which I think that he would be good—for as soon as she had the Pope’s letter of annulment they were married.
“During all this time, while I had heard the very air around me humming with her name, I had refused to see her, and had tried not to think of her. But what is there left in the world to take an old woman’s mind off the things she has thought about for seventeen years, when she does not want to think about them any longer?
“Two months ago I was told that my granddaughter was to have a child. Although I had of course been prepared for this, it was like the last blow to me. It nearly killed me. I thought of her mother and of my vow. I failed to believe in the saints any longer. Rosina’s picture was before me day and night as she had looked in the chapel, and my heart was filled with such bitterness as it is not right that a woman shall endure at my time of life. In the end I gave up thinking of paradise, for I thought that a hundred years there would not be worth a week within her house in Italy. For a long time I have been too ill to travel, but yesterday I set out for Pisa.
“Now, my friend, you have heard all my story, and I leave it to you to make your reflections upon the ways of providence.”
Here she made a long pause. When, frightened by it, he looked up at her face, he saw that it had fallen. She seemed to have shrunk, but beneath her waxen eyelids her clear eyes were still fixed upon his face.
“I am ready to leave this world,” she said. “It must by now know me by heart as I know it. We have nothing more to say to each other. It seems curious to me myself that I should still feel so much affection for, and take so much interest in, this old Carlotta de Gampocorta, who will soon have disappeared altogether, that I cannot let her go out without giving her the chance of assembling, and forgiving, those who have trespassed against her. But what will you—habits are not easily changed at my age. Will you go and find her for me?”
Her left arm moved on the sheet as if trying to reach his hand. Augustus touched the cold fingers. “I am at your service, Madame,” he said. She drew a deep sigh and closed her eyes. He hastened to get hold of the doctor, who had been sent for from the village.
He ordered his servants to have everything ready for an early start in the morning, and as he wanted to get his letter off before leaving, he took it up again to finish it. On reading through his reflections on life, he thought that their sadness might upset his good Karl, so he took his pen and added two lines out of Goethe’s Faust, a favorite quotation of his friend’s, by which he had many times, in Ingolstadt, closed one of their discussions:
A good man, through obscurest aspirations,
Has still the instinct of the one true way.…
And half smiling, he sealed the letter.
IV. THE YOUNG LADY’S SORROWS
At the next inn to which he came—which was the last before Pisa, and had more houses, carts and people around it, so that one felt already in the air the nearness of a great town—a phaëton drove up just in front of Augustus, from which descended a slim young man in a large dark cloak and an old major-domo who looked like Pantalone. It was getting dark. A few stars had sprung out upon the deep blue sky, and there was a slight breeze in the air. Augustus had that feeling of being really on the road in which lies so much of the happiness of all true travelers. He had passed so many wayfarers in the course of the day—riders on horses and donkeys, coaches, oxcarts and mule carts—that there seemed to be a direction in life, and it would be strange if there should be none for him. The lamplight, the noise, and the smell of wood-smoke, grease and cheese from the house pleased him. The air of Italy seemed to have come down from mountains and across rivers to lay itself gently against his face.
The osteria had at one time been the lodge of a great villa; it had a large fine room with frescoes on the walls. Entering it, he found the old landlord with two attendants laying the table at the open window, and at the same time having a heated discussion, from which the old man tore himself away to welcome the guest and assure him that he would do anything to make him happy. But all these honored guests arriving at the same moment, unexpected, to a house so keen to maintain its renommé nearly overwhelmed him. For Prince Pozentiani was arriving within half an hour, and with him his young friend, the Prince Giovanni Gastone. These were people who could judge a meal, and they had ordered quails, but the cook had made a mistake in the cooking. Augustus asked if the boy whom he had just seen arrive would be the Prince Giovanni. Ah, no, said the old man, that undoubtedly was another rich and fastidious customer. But was it possible that the Milord had never heard of Prince Nino? He was such a young man the like of whom one would not find outside of Tuscany. When he was a baby his beauty had made him the model of the infant Jesus on the painting in the cathedral. Wherever he went the people loved him. For he was a patriot, a true son of Tuscany. Though he had been sent by his ambitious mother to the courts of both Vienna and St. Petersburg, he had come back unwilling to speak any language but that of the great poets. His palazzi were run in the old Tuscan manner: he kept an orchestra to play Italian music only; he ran his horses in the classical races; and when his vintage was finished, the festivals—at which the old dances were performed, the virgins of the villages pressed the grapes, naked, and the improvvisatori recited in the old way—called back the ancient happy days.
With a greasy towel under his arm and his little black eyes upon every movement of the servants, the old man had still sufficient vivacity of spirit to entertain his foreign guest with great charm. Had not Prince Nino, when a German singer had the audacity to appear in Cimarosa’s opera, Ballerina Amante, chased him off the stage and himself sung the entire part to an enraptured audience? As to the fair sex—here the broad face of the landlord seemed to draw itself together actually into a point, so concentrated did it become in the communication—the Milord must know for himself, if they choose to throw themselves in the way of a man, what is it possible for him to do? And even there he had shown himself a true son of his country. For he might have married an archduchess, and the sister of the Czar of Russia herself had gone mad with love of him when he had been at the Court of St. Petersburg, but he had quoted the exquisite Redi in his Bacco in Tuscany, saying that only the barrels of the wine of Tuscany should come to groan under his caresses. Also it was said that the husbands of Tuscany did not always mind his invincibility as much as one would have thought, for a woman who had belonged to Prince Nino would never afterward condescend to take another lover, and more than one coquettish lady had, when he had left her, settled down to her husband and her memories. It was a great pity that the way in which he had scattered the riches of his house, and even of his mother, had delivered him to the mercy of the old Prince Pozentiani, who lent out money. It was said that of late he had changed. He had been known to say that a miracle had crossed his way and made him believe in miracles. Some people thought that the sainted Queen Mathilda, of his own house, had shown herself to him in a dream and turned his heart from this world. Here one of the waiters made such a grave mistake in the laying of the table that the old man, as in a terrific spiritual bound, flew off from the conversation. He came back a little later, smiling but silent, with the wine that Augustus had ordered, and left him to it with a deep bow.
Two old priests sat over their wine near the glowing coals on the fireplace, which shone on their greasy black frocks, and the boy who had driven the phaëton was thoughtfully drinking coffee out of a glass which his old servant brought him, on a low seat under a picture of the angels visiting Abraham. His young figure there was so graceful that Augustus, always an admirer of beauty, and finding in his pure pensive face a likeness to his friend Karl’s as a boy, found his eyes wandering back to it. When the old major-domo, returning, reported on a quarrel between the young man’s groom and his own over the best stabling places, Augustus profited by the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the road to Pisa, and prayed him to have a glass of wine with him. The boy very courteously declined, saying that he never drank wine, but finding that Augustus was a foreigner and ignorant of the road, he sat down with him for a moment to give him the information he wanted. While talking, the youth rested his left arm on the table, and Augustus, looking at it, thought how plainly one must realize, in meeting the people of this country, that they had been living in marble palaces and writing about philosophy while his own ancestors in the large forests had been making themselves weapons of stone and had dressed in the furs of the bears whose warm blood they drank. To form a hand and wrist like these must surely take a thousand years, he reflected. In Denmark everybody has thick ankles and wrists, and the higher up you go, the thicker they are.
The boy colored with pleasure on learning that Augustus came from Denmark, and told him that he was the first person from the country of Prince Hamlet that he had ever met. He appeared to know the English tragedy very well, and talked as if Augustus must have come straight from the court of King Claudius. His Italian courtesy kept him from dwelling upon the tragic happenings, as if Ophelia might have been the recently lost cousin of the other young man, but he quoted the soliloquy with great charm, and said that he had often in his thoughts stood at Elsinore, upon the dreadful summit of the cliff that beetles o’er his base into the sea. Augustus did not want to tell him that Elsinore is quite flat, so asked him instead if he did not write poetry himself.
“Ah, no,” said the boy, shaking his soft brown curls, “I used to, but I gave it up a year ago.”
“You were wrong, I think,” said Augustus, smiling. “Surely poetry is one of the delights of life, and helps us to endure the monotony of the world.”
The boy seemed to feel that he had here met a brother or friend of the unhappy Danish Prince, and to open his heart to the stranger on this account.
“Something happened to me,” he said after a short silence, “that I could not turn into poetry. I have written both comedies and tragedies, but I could not fit it into either.” Again after a short pause he added: “I am now going to Pisa to study astronomy.”
He had a grave and friendly manner that attracted Augustus, who had himself at Ingolstadt given much time to the study of the stars. They talked for some time of them, and he told the boy how the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had ordered at Augsburg the construction of a nineteen-foot quadrant and of a celestial globe five feet in diameter.
“I want to study astronomy,” said the boy, “because I can no longer stand the thought of time. It feels like a prison to me, and if I could only get away from it altogether I think I should be happy.”
“I have thought that myself,” Augustus said pensively, “and still I have reflected that if at any single moment of our lives, even such as we ourselves call the happiest, we were told that it was to go on forever, we would conclude that we had been brought, not to eternal bliss, but to everlasting suffering.” He remembered with sadness how this old reflection of his had come back to him even on a certain moment of his wedding night. The young man seemed to follow the train of his thought with sympathy.
“I have had the misfortune, Signore,” he said after a moment, his young face looking somehow paler and his eyes darker than before, “to have always on my mind the recollection of one single hour of my life. Up to that hour I used to think with pleasure of both the past and the future, as well as of the present itself, and time was like a road through a pleasant landscape on which I could wander to and fro as I fancied. But now I cannot get my thoughts away from that one hour. Every second of it seems bigger than whole years of the rest of my life. I must escape from it to where there is no time. I know,” he said, “that some people would recommend the idea of moral infinity, as given to us in religion, as the right refuge, but I have already tried it and it is of no use to me—on the contrary, the thought of the omnipotence of God, man’s free will, heaven and hell, all bring back to me the thoughts from which I want to get away. I want to turn to the infinity of space, and from what I have heard it seems to me that the roads of the planets and stars, their elipses and circles within the infinite space, must have the power to turn the mind into new ways. Do you not think so, Signore?”
Augustus thought of the time, not many years ago, when he had himself felt the spheres his right home. “I think,” he said sadly, “that life has its law of gravitation spiritually as well as physically. Landed property, women—” He looked out through the window. On the blue sky of the spring evening Venus stood, radiant as a diamond.
The boy turned toward him. “You do not,” he said, “really think that I am a man? I am not, and under your favor, I am happy not to be. I know, of course, that great work has been achieved by men, but still I think that the world would be a more tranquil place if men did not come in to break up, very often, the things that we cherish.”
Augustus became confused to find that he had been treating a young lady as a boy, but he could not apologize for it, as it was not his fault. He made haste to introduce himself and to ask if he could be of any assistance to her on her journey. The girl, however, did not alter her manner toward him in the least, and seemed quite indifferent to any change in his attitude toward her which her information might have caused. She sat in the same position, with her slender knees crossed under her cloak and her hands folded around one knee. Augustus thought that he had hardly ever talked to a young woman whose chief interest in the conversation had not been the impression that she herself was making on him, and he reflected that this must be what generally made converse with women awkward and dull to him. The way in which this young woman seemed to take a friendly and confident interest in him, without apparently giving any thought to what he thought of her, seemed to him new and sweet, as if he suddenly realized that he had all his life been looking for such an attitude in a woman. He wished that he could now himself keep away from the conventional accent of male and female conversation.
“It is very sad,” he said thoughtfully, “that you should think so little of us, for I am sure that all men that you have met have tried to please you. Will you not tell me why it should be so? For it has happened to me many times that a lady has told me that I was making her unhappy, and that she wished that she and I were dead, at a time when I have tried hardest to make her happy. It is so many years now since Adam and Eve”—he looked across the room to a picture of them—“were first together in the garden, that it seems a great pity that we have not learned better how to please one another.”
“And did you not ask her?” said the girl.
“Yes,” he answered, “but it seemed to be our fate that we should never take up these questions in cold blood. For myself, I think that women, for some reason, will not let us know. They do not want an understanding. They want to mobilize for war. But I wish that once, in all the time of men and women, two ambassadors could meet in a friendly mind and come to understand each other. It is true,” he added after a moment, “that I did once meet, in Paris, a woman, a great courtesan, who might have been such an ambassador. But you would hardly have given her your letters of credence or have submitted to her decisions. I do not even know if you would not have considered her a traitor to your sex.”
The girl thought for a time of what he had said. “I suppose,” she then said, “that even in your country you have parties, balls and conversazione?”
“Yes,” he said, “we have those.”
“Then you will know,” she went on slowly, “that the part of a guest is different from that of a host or hostess, and that people do not want or expect the same things in the two different capacities?”
“I think you are right,” said Augustus.
“Now God,” she said, “when he created Adam and Eve”—she also looked at them across the room—“arranged it so that man takes, in these matters, the part of a guest, and woman that of a hostess. Therefore man takes love lightly, for the honor and dignity of his house is not involved therein. And you can also, surely, be a guest to many people to whom you would never want to be a host. Now, tell me, Count, what does a guest want?”
“I believe,” said Augustus when he had thought for a moment, “that if we do, as I think we ought to here, leave out the crude guest, who comes to be regaled, takes what he can get and goes away, a guest wants first of all to be diverted, to get out of his daily monotony or worry. Secondly the decent guest wants to shine, to expand himself and impress his own personality upon his surroundings. And thirdly, perhaps, he wants to find some justification for his existence altogether. But since you put it so charmingly, Signora, please tell me now: What does a hostess want?”
“The hostess,” said the young lady, “wants to be thanked.”
Here loud voices outside put an end to their conversation.
V. THE STORY OF THE BRAVO
The landlord of the osteria came in first, walking backwards with a three-armed candlestick in each hand, with surprising grace and lightness for an old man. Following him came the party of three gentlemen for whom the table had been laid, the first two walking arm in arm. Their arrival changed the whole room in a moment, they brought with them so much light, loud talk and color—even so much plain matter, for two of them were very big men.
The one who attracted Augustus’s attention, as he would always attract the attention of anybody near him, was a man of about fifty, very tall and broad, and enormously fat. He was dressed very elegantly in black, his white linen shining, and wore some heavy rings and in his large stock a brilliantly sparkling diamond. His hair was dyed jet black, and his face was painted and powdered. In spite of his fatness and his stays, he moved with a peculiar grace, as if he had in him a rhythm of his own. Altogether, Augustus thought, if one could get quite away from the conventional idea of how a human being ought to look, he would be a very handsome object and a fine ornament in any place, and would have made, for instance, a most powerful and impressive idol. It was he who spoke, in a high and piercing, and at the same time strangely pleasing, voice.
“Oh, charming, charming, my Nino,” he said, “to be together again. But I have heard about you last week only, and how you have bought a Danaë by Correggio, and sixteen piebald horses from Cascine, to drive with your coach.”
The young man to whom he spoke and whose arm he was holding seemed to pay very little attention to him. On looking at him Augustus understood that the people of the country should think highly of his beauty. He had been looking over many galleries of paintings lately, and reflected that any young St. Sebastian or John the Baptist, living on wild honey and locust, or even a young angel from the opened sepulcher, might have come down from his frame, dressed in modern clothes with elegance and carelessness, and looked like that. He even had in the pronounced brown color-tones of his hair, face and eyes something of the patina of old paintings, and he had withal the appearance of thinking of nothing at all which must be natural in paradise where there is no need of thought.
The third of the party was a tall young man, also very richly dressed, with fair curly hair and a pink face like a sheep’s, which continued down into his fat throat without any sign of a jawbone. He was absorbed in listening to the old man and never took his eyes off him. All three sat down to their meal, with the light of the candles on them.
The young lady looked at the newly arrived party for a few seconds, then got up and, draping her cloak around her, left the room. Augustus followed her out, where her old servant was waiting for her with a candle.
As he came back his own supper was being brought in, and he sat down to a capon and a cake decorated with pink whipped cream. The supper party at the larger table was so noisy that he was disturbed in his thoughts and from time to time had his eyes drawn toward them. He noticed that the old man, while all the time making his guests drink, drank himself only lemonade, but nevertheless kept pace with them in their rising spirits, as if he had within him a sort of natural intoxication upon which he could draw without outward assistance. Once his voice, talking for a long time, caught Augustus’s ear as he was telling the others a story.
“At Pisa,” he said, “I was, many years ago, present when our glorious Monti, the poet, drew out his pistol and shot down Monsignor Talbot. It happened at a supper party, just like ours here with only the three of us present. And it all arose from an argument on eternal damnation.
“Monti, who had then just finished his Don Giovanni, had for some time been sunk in a deep melancholy, and would neither drink nor talk, and Monsignor Talbot asked him what was the matter with him, and wondered that he was not happy after having achieved so great a success. So Monti asked him whether he did not think that it might weigh upon the mind of a man to have created a human being who was to burn through eternity in hell. Talbot smiled at him and declared that this could only happen to real people. Whereupon the poet cried out and asked him if his Don Giovanni were not real, and the monsignore, still smiling at him for taking it so seriously, and leaning back in his chair, explained that he meant beings who had really been in the flesh. ‘The flesh!’ the poet cried. ‘Can you doubt that he was in the flesh when in Spain alone there can be found one thousand and three ladies to give evidence to that effect?’ Monsignor Talbot asked him if he did really believe himself a creator in the same sense as God.
“ ‘God!’ Monti cried, ‘God! Do you not know that what God really wants to create is my Don Giovanni, and the Odysseus of Homer, and Cervantes’s knight? Very likely those are the only people for whom heaven and hell have ever been made, for you cannot imagine that an Almighty God would go on forever and ever, world without end, with my mother-in-law and the Emperor of Austria? Humanity, the men and women of this earth, are only the plaster of God, and we, the artists, are his tools, and when the statue is finished in marble or bronze, he breaks us all up. When you die you will probably go out like a candle, with nothing left, but in the mansions of eternity will walk Orlando, the Misanthrope and my Donna Elvira. Such is God’s plan of work, and if we find it somehow slow, who are we that we should criticize him, seeing that we know nothing whatever of time or eternity?’
“Monsignor Talbot, although himself a great admirer of the arts, began to feel uncomfortable about such heretical views, and took the poet to task over them. ‘Oh, go and find out for yourself then!’ Monti cried, and resting the barrel of the pistol, with which he had been playing, upon the edge of the table, he fired straight at the monsignore, who sat opposite him, so that he fell down in his blood. It was a serious affair, for Monsignor Talbot had to have a grave operation, and hovered for a long time between life and death.”
The young men, who had by this time had a good deal to drink, began to make jests over this idea, holding up to the narrator the various forms of immortality which he might obtain under the hands of different poets. In this they used many names and expressions unknown to Augustus; also their voices were less distinct than that of the old man, so he only began to give their conversation his attention when the latter was again talking alone.
“No, no, my children,” he said, “I have other hopes than that. But as it may be good for you to occupy yourselves a little with the idea of the other world, and may even dissipate that new melancholy of our sweet Nino, about which the whole province grieves, I will tell you another story.”
He leaned back in his chair, and throughout his narrative he did not again touch food or drink. Augustus noticed that as he proceeded his dark young neighbor, whom he had called his Nino, took to the same manner, so that of the three it was only the fair young man with the sheep’s face who went on enjoying the pleasures of the table.
“In Pisa lived, my dear friends,” the old man began, “at the time of my grandfather, a nobleman of high rank and great wealth, who had the sad experience of having a young friend, on whom he had bestowed every benefaction, turn upon him with the common ingratitude of youth and inflict upon him a deadly insult, one which, moreover, turned him into an object of ridicule in the eyes of the world. The nobleman was a philosopher, and valued beyond everything in life his peace of mind. When he realized that this matter was about to spoil his sleep, and that he would not get any pleasure, or recover his balance, till he had had the blood of his young enemy, he decided to have it. Now because of his position and other circumstances he did not see his way to do it himself, so addressed himself to a young bravo of the town. In those days such people were still to be found. This young man was of an extravagant disposition, and thereby had got himself into heavy debt and such a miserable position that he could hardly see any way out of it but marriage. My grandfather’s friend said to him: ‘I want everybody to come out of this affair perfectly satisfied. I will pay you for my peace of soul what I think it worth, which is a great deal. Do me this service, and I will have your debts wiped out, even down to your grandmother’s little rosary of coral beads, which you had pawned.’ Upon this the bravo agreed, and everything was arranged between them.”
A big cat that had been walking about the room, here sprang up on the knee of the old man who was telling the story. Without looking at it he kept on stroking it while he continued his tale.
“The clock struck midnight when the bravo left him, and as he knew that he should not be able to sleep until he had made sure that the business had been settled, he kept awake in his room, waiting for the young man’s return, and had a very dainty supper prepared for him there. Just as the clock struck the hour of one the young man entered, looking like death. ‘Is my enemy dead?’ the nobleman asked. ‘Yes,’ said the bravo. ‘And is it sure?’ said his employer, whose heart began to dance within his breast. ‘Yes,’ said the bravo, ‘if a man be dead who has had my stiletto in his heart three times, up to the hilt. Everybody ought, as you have said, to come out of this affair perfectly satisfied. Now I will have a bottle of champagne with you.’ So the two had a very pleasant supper together. ‘Do you know,’ said the bravo, ‘what I think a great pity? It is this: that we have all become such skeptics that we hardly believe what our pious grandmothers told us. For it would give me great pleasure to think that both you and I shall be eternally damned.’
“The nobleman was surprised, and sorry for the young man, for he looked as if he were out of his senses. He also felt very kindly disposed toward him, so he tried to comfort him. ‘This has been too much for you,’ he said. ‘I took you for a stronger man. As to this business of damnation, I see what you mean, and believe that very likely you are right. The murder that you have committed tonight I have myself committed many times already in my heart, and the Scripture has it that it is then as good as done. Sophistical thinkers may even prove your part in it to be entirely illusory, and you may very well still wash your robes in the blood of the Lamb and make them white. Still, I must say that what I paid you, I paid for the trouble which you had to take and for the risk you are running with regard to the law of Pisa and the relations of my dead enemy. Of your soul I had not thought. Against this risk, small as I consider it to be, I will give you, in addition to what you have already, this ring of mine.’ With these words he took from his hand a ring with a large ruby in it, a very valuable stone, and handed it to the young man, who laughed at him as if they had never been talking of sacred things, and went away. Our nobleman went to bed, and slept well for the first time in many months, in the consciousness of having had his wish fulfilled at last, and also of having behaved with great generosity toward his bravo.”
At this point in the tale the cat walked across the table and jumped into the lap of the young Prince. As if he had been the reflection, within a looking-glass, of his neighbor, he began to stroke the beast softly while leaning back in his chair and listening.
“But it was his fate,” the old man went on, “to have his faith in human beings shaken. It was only a few weeks later, and while he was still enjoying, as in a second youth, the society of his friends, music, and the beauty of the scenery around Pisa, that he had a letter from a friend in Rome who wrote to tell him that his enemy, for whose death he had paid so high a price, was there, fresher than ever, and highly admired in Roman society and at the papal court.
“This last proof of human perfidy, and of the foolishness of having faith in friends or employees, hit the unsuspecting man hard. He fell ill and suffered for a long time from pains in his eyes and his right arm, so that he had to go to the baths of Pyrmont to recover. But I will pass over this sad period. Only, as he was a man given to thinking, he began to speculate upon the future of himself and his bravo as they had discussed it over their supper table. Is it really, he thought, the intention only which weighs down the scale, and saves us or condemns us, and has the action nothing to do with it all? The more he thought of this the more he realized that it must be so. Probably even, he thought, the intention only carries this weight in so far as it remains an intention and nothing else. For the action wipes out the desire. The surest way to leave off coveting your neighbor’s wife is, without doubt, to have her, and we can love our enemies and pray for them which despitefully use us, if only they be dead. He remembered how kindly he had thought of his young enemy during that short period when he believed him to have been killed.
“Therefore, he thought, hell is very likely filled with people who have not carried out what they had meant to do. Theirs is the worm that never dies. And so,” said the old man, his voice suddenly becoming very slow and gentle as a caress, “having lost his faith in bravoes, he decided, in the future, to carry out his intentions himself. But there was one thing,” he went on in the same soft voice, “which he thought he should have liked to know, before he put the whole tragedy out of his mind: How much, he wondered, did this bravo of his, who had been so handsomely paid by him, make out of the affair from the other side?
“This, my sweet Nino, is my story, and I hope that I have not bored you with it. You would do me a great service if you would tell me what you think of it.”
There was a silence. The dark young Prince leaned forward, put his arm upon the table and his chin in his hand, and looked at the old man. This movement had in it so much of the cat which he was holding that it gave Augustus quite a shock.
“Yes, under your favor,” he said, “I have been a little bored, for I think that as a story yours was too long, and even yet it has had no end. Let us make an end tonight.”
He refilled his glass with his left hand and half emptied it Then, with a gentle movement, as if he had drunk too much to make a more violent effort, he tossed the glass across the table into the old man’s face. The wine ran down the scarlet mouth and powdered chin. The glass rolled onto his lap and from there fell to the floor and was broken.
The young man with the fair curly hair gave a scream. He jumped up and, producing a small lace handkerchief, tried to wipe the wine from the other’s face as if it had been blood. But the fat old man pushed him away. His face remained for a moment quite immovable, like a mask. Then it began to glow, as if from inside, with a strange triumphant brightness. It would have been impossible to say whether his face really colored under the paint, but it showed suddenly the same effect of heightened primitive vitality. He had looked old while he was telling his tale. Now he gave the impression of youth or childhood. Augustus now saw who he was really like: he had the soft fullness, and the great power behind it, of the ancient statues of Bacchus. The atmosphere of the room became resplendent with his rays, as if the old god had suddenly revealed himself, vine-crowned, to mortals. He took up a handkerchief and carefully dabbed his mouth with it, then, looking at it, he spoke in a low and sweet voice, such as a god would use in speaking to human beings, aware that his natural strength is too much for them.
“It is a tradition of your family, Nino, I know,” he said, “this exquisite savoir-mourir.” He sipped a little of his lemonade to take away the taste of the wine which had touched his mouth. “What an excellent critic you are,” he went on, “not only of your own Tuscan songs, but of modern prose as well. That exactly was the fault of my story: that it had no end. A charming thing, an end. Will you come tomorrow at sunrise to the terrace at the back of this house? I know the place; it is a very good spot.”
“Yes,” said Nino, still in the same position, with his chin in his hand. “Thank you,” said the old man, “thank you, my dear. And now,” he went on with quiet dignity, “with your permission I shall retire. I cannot,” he said, with a glance downward at his soiled shirt, “remain in your company in these clothes. Arture, give me your arm. I will send him back to arrange with you, Nino. Good night, sleep you well!”
When he had gone away on the arm of the fair young man, who was now deadly pale and seemed stricken with panic, the other young man sat for a time without moving, as if he had fallen asleep over the table. Then, turning, he looked straight at Augustus, of whose presence he had not before seemed to be aware, got up, came over to him, and greeted him very politely. He was not quite steady on his feet, but nevertheless looked as if he would, mentally, be able to take a part in any ballet.
“Signore,” he said, “you have been the witness of a quarrel between myself and my friend, the Prince Pozentiani, whom I shall have to give satisfaction. Will you, as a nobleman, show me the favor of acting as my second tomorrow morning? I am Giovanni Gastone, of Tuscany, at your service.” Augustus told the Prince that he had never had anything to do with a duel and the idea now made him uneasy.
“I should be glad to be of assistance to you,” he said, “but I cannot help thinking that it would be better to settle such a quarrel, between friends and over a supper table, in a friendly way, and that you cannot have any wish to fight a man so much older than yourself over nothing.”
Giovanni smiled very sweetly at him. “Set your conscience at rest, Count,” he said, “the Prince is the affronted party and will choose the weapons. If you had lived in Tuscany you would have heard something of his shooting. As to his being old, it is true that he has lived for twice as many years as either you or I, but for all that he is in himself a child compared to any of us. It will be as natural to him to live for two hundred years as for us to live sixty. The things that wear us down do not touch him. He is very wonderful.”
“What you have said,” Augustus replied, “does not seem to me to make your duel more reasonable. Might he not then kill you?”
“No, no,” said the young man, “but he has been my best friend for many years. We want to find out which of us does really stand best with God.”
The low and clear cry of a bird sounded from the garden, like the voice of the night itself. “Do you hear the aziola cry?” asked Giovanni. “That used to mean that something fortunate was going to happen to me. I do not know,” he added after a while, “what it would be now, unless God has very much more power of imagination than I myself have—that is, unless he is very much more like my friend the Prince than he is like me. But that, of course, I trust him to be.” He sat in thought for some time. “Those horses which I bought—” he said, “I have not yet given them names. The Prince, now, could so easily have found names for them. Can you think of any?”
VI. THE MARIONETTES
As the young Prince had, with repeated thanks, said good night to his second and left him, the old servant whom he had seen in the phaeton came up behind Augustus, noiseless as a cat, and touched his sleeve. His mistress, he said, had been disturbed by the noises in the house and wished the Count to tell her what was happening. She was, in fact, waiting for him at the end of the house, where the light from a window fell out upon a stone seat. The old servant remained in attendance, near a large tree a little way off.
Augustus hesitated to inform the young lady of the duel, but he found that she knew all about it already, her old major-domo having, with the host of the inn, been listening outside the door. What she wanted to know, and seemed in a highly excited state about, was how the quarrel had arisen. Augustus thought that he might as well tell her, in case there should be an inquest later on, so declaring that he was himself quite unable to see how it could have brought on a fight of life and death, he repeated to her as much of the conversation of the supper party as he could remember. She listened to him without a word, standing as still and erect as a statue, but in the midst of the narrative she took hold of his arm and led him into the circle of light. When he had finished she begged him to tell her the old Prince’s story of the bravo all over again, and stopped him to have certain words and figures repeated to her.
As he came to the end the second time she suddenly turned toward the light, and he was startled to see in her face, as if reflected within a mirror, the expression in the face of the old Prince when he had been so deeply insulted. She did not use either powder or paint, so that he could follow the course of her blood as it slowly rose to her forehead until her whole face glowed as from violent exercise or strong wine. In a lighter manner—since she did not carry any of his weight, either physically or morally—she partook at this moment of his divine metamorphosis, and might well have passed, in the train of that old Dionysus, for a young bacchante, or possibly, with the light in her big eyes, for one of his panthers.
She drew her breath deeply. “From the moment I first saw you, Signore,” she said, “I knew that something fortunate was going to happen to me. Please tell me now: Is it possible, if they both fire at the same moment, and both take good aim, that the two bullets would hit their hearts at the same instant and that they would both be killed?”
Augustus thought this young lady to be, for a student of the stars and of philosophy, of a sanguinary turn of mind. “I have never heard of such a thing happening,” he said, “though I cannot say that it would not be possible. I am myself uneasy about the result of this duel, and it is a strange coincidence that I should have been told, only yesterday, of this old Prince being such a deadly shot.”
“Everybody knows that,” she said, “if he cannot frighten people in any other way, he frightens them with his pistols. But kindly tell me, Signore,” she went on, “who is the young man whom the old Prince is going to kill? You did not tell me his name.” Augustus told her. Again she stood silent and very quiet. “Giovanni Gastone,” she repeated slowly, “then I have myself seen him. On the day of my first communion, five years ago, he accompanied his grandmother to the basilica, and held his umbrella over her from her carriage to the porch, for it was raining heavily.”
“Let them go to bed,” she said after a little while. “If this is to be the last night he will ever go to bed, let him sleep. But we, Signore, cannot possibly sleep, and what are we to do? My servant tells me that there is a marionette company at the inn, and as the wagoners from Pisa come back late, they are giving a performance within this hour. Let us go and see them.”
Augustus felt himself that he was not likely to sleep. In fact, he had not often been more wide awake or more pleasantly so. He felt his own body lighter, as when he had been a boy. With the happy wonder of a searcher for gold who strikes a vein of the metal in the rock, he reflected that he had come upon a vein of events in life. The company of the girl also pleased him in a particular way, and he was thinking whether it might not be, partly, because she was dressed like himself in those long black trousers which seemed to him the normal costume for a human being. The fluffs and trains with which women in general accentuate their femininity are bound, he thought, to make talking with them much like conversation with officers in uniform or clergymen in their robes, neither of which you are likely to get much out of. He followed her into the large whitewashed barn where the theater had been erected and the play had just started.
The air in there was hot and stifling, though high up in the roof a window had been opened to the powder-blue nocturnal sky. The building was half filled with people and very dimly lighted by some old lanterns which hung from the ceiling. Around the stage itself the candles of the footlights were creating a magic oasis of light, and making the crimson, orange and bright green of the puppets’ little costumes, probably faded and dull in the daylight, shine and glow like jewels. Their shadows, much larger than themselves, reflected all their movements upon the white cloth of the back-curtain.
The performer stopped his speech upon the arrival of the distinguished spectators, and brought them two armchairs to sit in near the stage, in front of the audience. Then he took up the thread where he had interrupted it, speaking loudly in the various voices of his characters.
The play which was being acted was the immortal Revenge of Truth, that most charming of marionette comedies. Everybody will remember how the plot is created by a witch pronouncing, upon the house wherein all the characters are collected, a curse to the effect that any lie told within it will become true. Thus the mercenary young woman who tries to catch a rich husband by making him believe that she loves him, does fall in love with him; the braggart becomes a hero; the hypocrites finish by becoming really virtuous; the old miser who tells people that he is poor loses all his money. When the women are alone they speak in verse, but the language of the men is very coarse in parts; only a young boy, the one innocent person in the comedy, has some very fine songs which are accompanied by a mandolin behind the stage.
The moral of the play pleased the audience, and their tired, dusty faces lighted up as they laughed at Mopsus, the clown. The girl followed the development of the plot in the spirit of a fellow author. Augustus felt, in his present mood, some of the speeches go strangely to his heart. When the lover says to his mistress that a piece of dry bread satiates one’s hunger better than a whole cookery book, he took it, somehow, as advice to himself. The unsuspecting victim discourses to his intended murderer upon the loveliness of the moonlight, and the villain answers by lecturing on the absurdity of the power of God to make us delight in things which are of no advantage whatever to us, which may even be quite the contrary; and he goes on saying that God therefore likes us in the same way as we like our dogs: because when he is in high spirits, we are in high spirits; and when he is depressed, we are depressed; and when he, in a romantic mood, makes the moonlight night, we trot at his heels as well as we can. This made Augustus smile. He thought that he would like to feel once more, as when he was a child, like one of the dogs of God.
At the end the witch appears again, and on being asked what is really the truth, answers: “The truth, my children, is that we are, all of us, acting in a marionette comedy. What is important more than anything else in a marionette comedy, is keeping the ideas of the author clear. This is the real happiness of life, and now that I have at last come into a marionette play, I will never go out of it again. But you, my fellow actors, keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences.” This speech seemed to him suddenly to hold a lot of truth. Yes, he thought, if my life were only a marionette comedy in which I had my part and knew it well, then it might be very easy and sweet. The people of this country seemed, somehow, to be practicing this ideal. They were as immune to the terrors, the crimes and miracles of the life in which they took part as were the little actors upon the old player’s stage. To the people of the North the strong agitations of the soul come each time as a strange thing, and when they are in a state of excitement their speech comes by fits and starts. But these people spoke fluently under the wildest passions, as if life were, in any of her whims, a comedy which they had already rehearsed. If I have now at last, he thought, come into a marionette play, I will not go out of it again.
During the last scene, when all the puppets were on the stage to receive the applause of the house, Augustus heard a door open at the back of the room, and on turning saw the Prince Giovanni and his servant come in and look around the audience as if searching for somebody. As he thought that they might be looking for him, he went up to them, a little away from the noise of the theater. He felt somehow shy for having gone away to amuse himself on what might be the last night of this young man’s life, but Giovanni did not appear to be surprised, and asked if the play had been good. “An unfortunate thing has happened,” he said. “The young friend of the Prince, who was to have been his second, has been taken with fits. He is very sick and cannot stop crying. I remembered having seen you, in the evening, in the company of a boy whom I took, from your manner toward him, to be a young gentleman of high rank, perhaps from your own country. I came to beg you to make him take the part of second tomorrow morning, for neither the Prince nor I wish the affair delayed.”
The speech of the Prince brought Augustus into a dilemma. He did not want to give away the young lady’s secret, and reflected that he had perhaps better let Giovanni remain in the belief that she was really a boy of his own country, of whom he was somehow in charge. “This young gentleman,” he said, “seems to me to be very young to take part in so sinister an affair. But as he is here with me, if you will wait I will go and speak with him.”
As he came back to the young lady she was still looking at the stage, but just then the curtain went down for the last time. He repeated to her his conversation with the Prince and suggested that they should find some excuse which would enable her to get away early in the morning, so that she might keep out of the affair. She thought this over for a moment, and got up and looked at Giovanni, who was himself, from the other end of the room, looking at her and Augustus.
“Signore,” she said slowly and gravely, “I wish to meet your friend the Prince Nino, and nothing could give me greater pleasure than to be a second at this duel. Our families have never been friendly to one another, but in an affair of honor it is a duty to disregard any matters of the past. Have the goodness to tell him that my name is Daniele delle Gherardesci, and that I am at his service.”
Prince Giovanni, seeing them looking at him, came up to them, and as Augustus introduced them to each other the young people exchanged a greeting of extreme politeness. She was standing with her back to the stage, and the footlights of the theater made a halo around her head, so that in her easy and arrogant attitude she looked like a young saint masquerading as a dandy. The people in the audience, who had been getting up, on recognizing the Prince stopped to look at him, holding back a little from the group.
The Prince expressed his gratitude for the courtesy shown to him. “Sir,” said the girl, “in Egypt, when she was an old lady and he prime minister, Potiphar’s wife once obtained an audience with Joseph to ask him for the high order, the star of paradise, for her son-in-law. ‘I much dislike being exacting,’ she said, ‘still, I feel that it is now such a long time since I asked Your Excellency for anything that I hope that you will lend me a favorable ear.’
“ ‘Madame,’ said the Prime Minister, ‘once upon a time I happened to be in a prison. There I could not see the stars, but I used to dream about them. I dreamed that because I could not watch them they were running wild all over heaven, and the shepherds and the camelherds driving their flocks at night would lose their way. I even once dreamed about you, Madame, and that when I found the star Aldebaran fallen from the sky, I picked it up and gave it to you. You pinned it in your fichu and said: “A thousand thanks, Joseph.” I am glad that my dream has more or less come true. The order which you want for your son-in-law is already his.’ “
Soon after they parted.
VII. THE DUEL
The sun was not up as yet, but there was a wonderful promise of light in the air, and not a cloud in the sky. The stone pavement of the terrace was still wet with dew; a bird, and then another, started singing within the trees of the garden, and from the road came the shouts of the wagon drivers, who were afoot early, walking beside their long-horned bullocks.
Augustus was the first to come out of the house. The coolness of the morning air, pure as a glass of water, made him draw his breath deeply, slowly taking in the smell of smoke, flowering trees, and the dust of the road. It seemed strange to him that there should be death in this air, and yet he could not doubt that the adversaries were in dead earnest; and from the rules of the duel, as they had made them up the previous night, he thought it very likely that one of them would not be alive to see the sun high up upon this cloudless sky.
The thought of death grew stronger in him as he walked slowly up to the end of the long terrace. From there he had a wide view of the road with its rows of trees, winding up and down through the landscape. On the horizon he distinguished a low, broken, blue line over which a little cloud was hovering in the air. He thought that when the sun came up this would prove to be Pisa. So here was the first station on his journey, for he had letters of introduction to people there. But these people were hurrying to the last station of their entire journey, and he reflected that they must have traveled, in a way, much farther than himself, and have seen more on the road, to be prepared to make an end to it in this way.
As he turned again he saw Giovanni come out, accompanied by his valet, and stop to look at the sky just as he himself had done. On seeing the young Dane, he came up and bade him good morning, and they walked up and down the terrace together, talking of indifferent matters. If the duelist was nervous, this was deep down in him and showed itself only in a new softness and playfulness of manner. At the same time Augustus had the feeling that he was clinging to the fatefulness of the coming hour with a passionate tenderness, so that he would not have allowed anything in the world to take it away from him.
Two of the old Prince’s servants came out, carrying a large armchair. The Prince was too fat to stand up for his duel, and was accustomed to do his shooting practice sitting down. They asked Augustus where to put the chair, and they all began to look for a perfectly level place on the ground. There was to be ten paces between the combatants, and they measured the distance out carefully, and marked the place where Giovanni was to stand. The old Prince’s servants also brought out a pair of pistols in a very elegant case, and placed it, together with a glass of lemonade and a silk handkerchief, on a small table near the old man’s chair. Then they went back into the house. While they were arranging this, the girl and her old servant came up the long terrace. She looked pale in her large cloak, and kept a little away from the others. The doctor, who had been sent for from the village—an old man who smelled of peppermint and still wore the pigtail and bag of the last generation—arrived at the same time, and kept standing close to her, entertaining her with tales of duels of which he had heard and read, and which had all ended with death. The young Prince, at a distance, looked at them from time to time. The air seemed to be slowly filling with light; the song of the birds was suddenly very clear In a moment, it was felt, something would happen. Upon the road a large flock of sheep passed in a cloud of dust which was already tinged with gold.
They were looking toward the door of the osteria when it was opened and the old Prince walked out, leaning upon his servant’s arm. He was very elegantly dressed in a bottle-green coat, and made up with great care, and he carried himself with the utmost grace and dignity. It was plain that he was deeply moved. The sun rose at this moment above the horizon, but it did not change or dominate the scene any more than did his arrival. All the others were in some way repressing or disguising their real feelings, whereas he showed his distress with the simplicity of an unspoiled child, perfectly confident of the sympathy of his surroundings. His dark eyes were moist, but frank and gentle, as if everything in life were natural and sweet to him, and he gave the same impression of assurance and mastery as a great virtuoso who on his violin runs up and down all the scales, even to the devil’s own thrill, as if it were child’s play. This equilibrium of his mind was as striking and surprising as the balance of his great body upon his extraordinarily small and elegant feet. The moment Augustus met his eyes, on that morning on the terrace, he felt convinced that the shot of this old man would be deadly. Jupiter himself, with his thunderbolt within the pocket of his coat-tail, could not have given a stronger impression of insuperability.
He spoke with courtesy and friendliness to them all, and seemed to make the doctor his slave from the first instant. The fish-like eyes of the latter followed the great man’s slightest movement. He was in no hurry, but obviously did not want to draw things out, either. It was clear, from the moment when he came in, that everything would proceed with the measure and grace of a perfectly performed minuet.
After a few remarks on the weather and the surroundings, and and on his gratitude to the two seconds, he offered, still standing, the choice of pistols to his friend, and as Giovanni, with one of them in his hand, withdrew a little to the place marked for him, he freed himself of his servant’s arm, made a deep bow to his adversary and a sort of great movement of relief, as if he had now happily come to the end of everyday existence and the beginning of real life, and, holding the other pistol, he seated himself in the large armchair, resting, for a moment, the weapon on his knee. Augustus took up his position at an equal distance from both duelists, so that each of them should be able to hear his signal. A faint breeze at this moment ran through the leaves of the trees in the garden, shaking down the blossoms and spreading their fragrance.
At the moment when Augustus was clearing his throat to pronounce the one—two—three of the moment, the slim figure of the girl, who stood with her face toward him, stepped up to the old Prince, and, lifting one hand to her hip, she spoke to him in a clear low voice, as if a bird of the garden had descended on his shoulder to sing to him.
“Allow me, Prince,” she said, “to speak to you before you shoot. I have something to tell you. If I were quite sure about the issue of your duel I would wait till you have killed your friend, but nobody can know certainly the ways of providence, and I do not wish you to die before you have heard what I have to say.” All faces had turned toward her, but she looked only into the still and sorrowful face of the old man. She looked very young and small, but her deep gravity and great self-possession gave her figure a terrible importance, as if a young destroying angel had rushed from the blue sky above them onto the stone terrace, to stand in judgment there.
“A year ago,” she said, “Rosina, your wife, went in the middle of the night to see her cousin Mario, who was to leave Pisa in the morning, at the house of her old nurse near the harbor. It was necessary to those two to meet and decide what they were to do, and Rosina also felt that her strength was giving way, and that she must see her lover again or she thought that she might die.
“Rosina, as you know, always had a night lamp burning in her bedroom, and she dared not put it out on this night for fear that you yourself might walk through the room, or that one of your spies, her maids, might look in, and, on finding the room empty, might wake up all the house. So she asked her best friend, a virgin like herself, one who, by virtue of a sacred vow, would always be ready to serve her, to take her place in the bed for this one hour. Between them they bribed your negro servant, Baba, with twelve yards of crimson velvet and a little Bologna dog belonging to Rosina’s friend—which was all that they possessed in the world to give away—to let them in and out of the house. They came and went away dressed like the apothecary’s assistant, who would sometimes be called for to give a clyster to your old housekeeper. Rosina went to her nurse’s house and talked to Mario in the old woman’s presence, for so it had to be. They pledged eternal fidelity and she gave him a letter to her great-uncle in Rome, and she came back to the palazzo a little after one o’clock. This, Prince, was my tale, which I wanted you to know.”
They all stood perfectly immobile, like a party of little wooden dolls placed on that terrace of the inn, in the middle of the great landscape—Augustus and the old doctor, because they did not know what this speech meant; the old Prince and Giovanni, because they were too deeply impressed to move.
At last the old man spoke. “Who,” said he, “has sent you to tell me this today, my pretty young signore?” The girl looked him straight in the eyes.
“Do you not recognize me, Prince?” she asked. “I am that girl, Agnese della Gherardesci, who did your wife this service. You have seen me at your wedding, where I was a bridesmaid, dressed in yellow. Also at one time you came into Rosina’s rooms, and I was playing chess with the Professor Pacchiani, whom you had sent to talk to her about her duties. She stood at the window so as not to show that she was crying.” After she had spoken these words the Prince Giovanni never took his eyes off her face; during all that happened later he kept quite still, like one of the trees in the garden.
The old Prince sat in the large chair, looking more than ever like a beautiful and severe old idol made in a mosaic of gold, ivory and ebony. He looked with interest at the young girl. “I am extremely sorry, Signora,” he said with a deep courtesy. Then again he sat silent.
“And so,” he said very slowly after a time, “if Baba had been faithful to me I should have found the two together at that house near the harbor, in the night, and I should have had them in my hand?”
“Yes, that you would,” said the girl. “But they would not have minded being killed by you if they had died together.”
“No, no, no,” said the old Prince, “by no means. How can you imagine that I would have killed either of them? But I would have taken their clothes away and told them that I was going to have them killed in a terrible way, in the morning, and I would have had them shut up together alone, over the night. When she was frightened or angry her face, her whole body, blushed like an oleander flower.” This gave him stuff for thought for a long time. He seemed to stiffen more and more into something inanimate, until suddenly a great wave of high color spread over his old face.
“And,” he exclaimed with deep emotion, “I should have had her, my lovely child, to play with still!”
There was a long silence; nobody dared to speak in the presence of so great a pain.
Suddenly he smiled at them all, a very gentle and sweet smile. “Always,” he said in a high and clear voice, “we fail because we are too small. I grudged the boy Mario that, in a petty grudge. And in my vanity I thought that I should prefer an heir to my name, if it was to be, out of a ducal house. Too small I have been, too small for the ways of God.”
“Nino,” he said after a minute, “Nino, my friend, forgive me. Give me your hand.” Deeply moved, Giovanni put away his pistol and took the hand of his old friend. But the old Prince, after having squeezed the young man’s fingers, again took hold of his pistol, as if on guard against a greater enemy.
His deep dark eyes looked straight in front of him. His mouth was slightly open, as if he were going to sing. “Carlotta,” he said.
Then, with a strange, as if weary, movement, he turned to the right and fell, with the chair, sideways onto the ground, his heavy weight striking the stone pavement with a dull thud. The chair lay with its two legs in the air as he rolled out of it onto the pavement and remained still. At that moment his pistol, which he was still holding in his hand, went off, the bullet, taking a wild line up in the air, passed so close to Augustus’s head that he heard its whistle as it passed, like a bird’s singing. It stunned him for a second, and brought back the image of his wife. When he felt steady on his feet again he saw the doctor, kneeling beside the old Prince, lifting both arms toward heaven. The face of the old man slowly took on an ashen color. The paint on his cheeks and mouth looked like rose and crimson enamel upon silver.
The doctor dropped his arms and put one hand on the breast of the still figure. After a minute he turned his head and looked back at the people behind him, his face so terrified that it had no expression in it at all. Meeting their eyes, it changed. He got up and solemnly declared to them, “All is over.”
They remained quite still around him. The figure of the old Prince, lying immovably on the ground, still held the center of the picture as much as if he had been slowly ascending to heaven, and they his disciples, left behind, gazing up toward him. Only Nino, like one of those figures which were put into sacred pictures as the portrait of the man on whose order they were painted, kept somehow his own direction.
The sun, rising in the blue morning sky, lent a misty bloom to the green broadcloth covering the heavy curves of the old man’s body upon the stone terrace.
VIII. THE FREED CAPTIVE
When the old Prince’s servants had lifted him up and carried him into the house, Giovanni and Agnese found themselves face to face on the deserted terrace. Their dark eyes met, and as if this were the most fatal of her missions on this spring morning, she looked straight at him for as long a time as it took the landlady’s cock—which was a descendant of the cock in the house of the high priest Caiaphas, and whose ancestors had been brought to Pisa by the Crusaders—to raise and finish a long crow. Then she turned to follow the others into the house. At that he spoke, standing quite still. “Do not go away,” he said. She stood for a moment, waiting, but did not speak to him. “Do not go away,” he said again, “before you have let me speak to you.”
“I cannot think,” said she, “that you can have anything to say to me.” He stood for a long time, very pale, as if making a great effort to collect his voice, then he spoke in a changed and low voice:
Lo spirito mio, che giá cotanto
tempo era stato ch’alia sua presenza
non era di stupor tremando affranto
sanza degli occhi aver più conoscenza,
per occulta virtù che da lei mosse
d’antico amor senti la gran potenza.
There was a long and deep silence. She might have been a little statue in the garden, except for the light morning wind playing with and lifting her soft locks.
“I had left you,” he said, speaking altogether like a person in a dream, “and was going away, but I turned back at the door. You were sitting up in the bed. Your face was in the shadow, but the lamp shone on your shoulders and your back. You were naked, for I had torn off your clothes. The bed had green and golden curtains, like my forests in the mountains, and you were like my picture of Daphne, who turns away and is changed into a laurel. And I was standing in the dark. Then the clock struck one. For a year,” he cried, “I have thought of nothing but that one moment.”
Again the two young people stood quite still. Like the marionettes of the night before, they were within stronger hands than their own, and had no idea what was going to happen to them. He spoke again:
Di penter sì mi punse ivi l’ortica
che di tutt’altre cose, qual mi torse
più nel suo amor, più mi si fe’ nemica.
Tanta riconoscenza il cuor mi morse
eh’ io caddi vinto.…
He stopped because, though he had repeated these lines to himself many times, at the moment he could not remember any more. It was as if he might have dropped down dead, like his old adversary.
She turned again and looked at him, very severely, and yet her face expressed the clearness and calm which the sound of poetry produces in the people who love it. She spoke very slowly to him, in her clear and sweet voice, like a bird’s:
… da tema e da vergogna
voglio che tu omai ti disviluppe
e che non parli più com’ uom che sogna.
She looked away for a moment, drew a deep breath, and her voice took on more force.
Sappi che il vaso che il serpente ruppe
fu e non è, ma chi n’ha colpa creda
che vendetta di Dio non teme suppe.
With these words she walked away, and though she passed so near to him that he might have held her back by stretching out his hand, he did not move or try to touch her, but stood upon the same spot as if he intended to remain there forever, and followed her with his eyes as she walked up to the house.
Augustus came out of the door at that same moment, and walked up to meet her. Though he was deeply affected by the happenings of the morning, and last of all by the sight of the old Prince, now lying in peace and dignity on a large bed within the inn, his conscience told him that he ought to make an effort to get the message of the old lady to Pisa, and he wanted the girl to help him and guide him there. At the same time he was, now that he understood more of the whole affair which had brought on the morning’s tragedy, shy of approaching her, as one of the principal figures in it, and talking to her of such trivial matters as roads and coaches. She met him, however, as if he had been an old friend whom she was happy to meet again. She took his hand and looked at him. She was changed, like a statute come to life, he thought.
She listened with great interest to all he had to tell her, and was naturally eager to bring the message to her friend as soon as possible. She suggested that they travel together in her phaëton, which would be quicker than his coach. She told him that she would drive it herself.
“My friend,” she said, “let us go away. Let us go to Pisa as quickly as we can. For I am free. I can choose where I will go, I can think of tomorrow. I think that tomorrow is going to be lovely. I can remember that I am seventeen, and that by the mercy of God I have sixty years more to live. I am no more shut up within one hour. God!” she said with a sudden deep shudder, “I cannot remember it now if I try.”
She looked like a young charioteer who is confident of winning his race. It was clear that the idea of speed was at this moment the most attractive of all ideas to her. As they were going into the house she looked back at the terrace.
“We have all been wrong,” she said. “That old man was great and might well have been loved. While he was alive we wished for his death, but now that he is dead I think that we all wish that he were back.”
“That,” said Augustus, who had been reflecting upon his own life, “may make us realize that every human being whom we meet and get to know is, after all, something in our minds, like a tree planted in our gardens or a piece of furniture within our house. It may be better to keep them and try to put them to some use, than to cast them away and have nothing at all there in the end.” She thought of this for a little while. “Then the old Prince shall be,” said she, “within the garden of my mind a great fountain, made of black marble, near which it is always cool and fresh, and from which great cascades of water are rushing and playing. I shall go and sit there sometimes, when I have much to think of. If I had been Rosina I would not have tried to get away from him. I would have made him happy. It would have been good if he had been happy; it is hard to make anybody unhappy.”
Augustus, who thought he heard the note of a late regret in her voice, said in order to console her: “Remember now that you have saved the other’s life.” She changed color and was silent for a moment. Then she turned and looked at him with deep serenity. “Who,” she said, “would have stood by and heard a man so unjustly accused?”
As soon as her carriage was ready they started for Pisa and went at a great speed. The day was beginning to get warm, the road was dusty, and the shadows of the trees were keeping close underneath them. Augustus had left his address with the old doctor in case there would have to be an inquest, but after all the old Prince had died a natural death.
IX. THE PARTING GIFT
Count Augustus von Schimmelmann had been staying in Pisa for more than three weeks and had come to like the place. He had had a love affair with a Swedish lady, some years older than himself, who lived in Pisa to keep away from her husband, and had a small opera stage on which she appeared to her friends. She was a disciple of Swedenborg, and told Augustus that she had had a vision of herself and him in the next world. What really interested him more were the attempts of two priests, one old and one young, to convert him to the Church of Rome. He had no intention of joining it, but it surprised and pleased him that anyone should chose to occupy himself so much with his soul, and he took much trouble in explaining to the churchmen his ideas and states of mind. He could, however, foresee that this affair of spiritual seduction could not go on forever, but would, like, worse luck, all affairs of seduction, have to come to an end one way or another, and he had begun to give much of his time to a secret political society to which he had been introduced as coming from a freer country. At their séances he had met one of the genuine old Jacobins, an exile, a former member of the Mountain, who had been a friend of Robespierre. Augustus often visited him in a little dark and dirty room high up in an old house, and discussed tyranny and freedom with him. He was also taking painting lessons, and had begun to copy an old picture in the gallery.
One day he received a letter from the old Countess di Gampocorta, who was at the time in residence at her villa close to Pisa and asked him to come and see her. She wrote with great friendliness and gratitude and gave him her news. On being informed, at the same moment, of her grandmother’s accident and the death of her former husband, the young Rosina had been brought to bed of a boy, who had been christened Carlo after his great grandmother, and whom she described as a very wonderful baby. Both the old and the young woman were well again, though the old Countess wrote that she had given up all hope of getting back the use of her right hand, and they were longing to express to him their thanks for the service that he had done them in their hour of need.
Augustus drove out to the old lady’s villa on the afternoon of an extremely hot day. As he was nearing the place a thunderstorm which had hung over Pisa for three days broke loose. A strange sulphurous color and smell filled the air, and the large dark trees near the road on which they were driving were bent down by the violent gusts of wind. A few tremendous flashings of lightning seemed to strike quite close to the carriage, and were followed by long wild roarings of thunder. Then came the rain in heavy warm drops, and in a moment the whole landscape was veiled to him, within his covered carriage, behind streaks of gray and luminous water. As they drove over a stone bridge with a low balustrade he saw the rain strike the dark river like many hundred arrowheads. They climbed up a road along a steep and rocky hill, now slippery with the rain, and as they came to a stop at the bottom of a long stone stair in front of the house, a servant with a large umbrella came running down to protect the visitor on his ascent to the house.
In the very large room opening onto a long stone terrace with a view over the river, the quick drumming of heavy raindrops upon the stones was as distinct as if it had been in the room itself. With it came, through the tall open windows, the smell of the sudden freshness and moisture of the air, and of hot stones cooling under water. The room itself smelled of roses. At the other end of it an old abbate had been giving a little girl a lesson on the piano, but they had stopped because the noise of the thunder and rain interfered with their counting their measures, and they were now looking out over the valley and the river.
The old Countess and the young mother, on a sofa, had had the baby brought in to look at. He was in the arms of his nurse, a very large magnificent young woman in pink and red, like an oleander flower, and there looked fantastically small, like a little roasted apple to which had been attached a great stream of lace and ribbons. Their attention was divided between the child and the storm, and the two had brought them into a state of exultation, as if their lives had at this hour reached their zenith.
The old lady, who had meant to get up to meet him, was so overcome with her feelings at the sight of Augustus that she could not move. Her eyes, under the old eyelids that were like crape, filled with tears, which from time to time during their conversation rolled down her face. She kissed him on both cheeks, and introduced him with deep emotion to her granddaughter, who was in reality as lovely as any Madonna he had seen in Italy, and to the baby. Augustus had never been able to feel anything but fear in the presence of very young children—though they might, he thought, be of some interest as a kind of promise—and he was surprised to realize that the women were all of the opinion that the baby at this stage had reached its very acme of perfection, and that it was a tragic thing that it should ever have to change. This view, that the human race culminates at birth to decline ever after, impressed him as being easier to live up to than his own.
The old lady had changed since the day when he had met her on the road. The love for a male creature, which she had told him that she had thus far been unable to feel, had rounded out her life in a great and sweet harmony. She told him so herself in the course of their talk. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “I was told never to show a fool a thing half finished. But what else does the Lord himself do to us during all our lives? If I had been shown this child from the beginning I should have been docile and have let the Lord ride me in any direction he wanted. Life is a mosaic work of the Lord’s, which he keeps filling in bit by bit. If I had seen this little bit of bright color as the centerpiece, I would have understood the pattern, and would not have shaken it all to pieces so many times, and given the good Lord so much trouble in putting it together again.” Otherwise she talked mostly about her accident and the afternoon that they had spent together at the inn. She talked with that great delight in remembering which gives value to any occurrence of the past, however insignificant it may have been at the moment.
A servant brought wine and some very beautiful peaches, and the young father came in and was introduced to the guest; but he played no greater part in the picture than the youngest Magus of the adoration, the old Countess having taken for herself the part of Joseph.
When the rain had eased off the old lady took Augustus to the window to see the view. “My friend,” she said, while they were standing there together, a little away from the others, “I can never rightly express my gratitude to you, but I want to give you a small token of it to remember me by, when you are far away, and I hope that you will give me the pleasure of accepting it.”
Augustus was looking out at the landscape below. A vaguely familiar note within it struck him and made him feel slightly giddy.
“When we first met,” she went on, “I told you that I had loved three persons in the course of my life. About the two you know. The third and first was a girl of my own age, a friend from a far country, whom I knew for a short time only and then lost. But we had promised to remember each other forever, and the memory of her has given me strength many times in the vicissitudes of life. When we parted, with many tears, we gave each other a gift of remembrance. Because this thing is precious to me and a token of a real friendship, I want you to take it with you.”
With these words she took from her pocket a small object and handed it to him.
Augustus looked at it, and unconsciously his hand went up to his breast. It was a small smelling-bottle in the shape of a heart. On it was painted a landscape with trees, and in the background a white house. As he gazed at it he realized that the house was his own place in Denmark. He recognized the high roof of Lindenburg, even the two old oaks in front of the gate, and the long line of the lime-tree avenue behind the house. The stone seat under the oaks had been painted with great care. Underneath, on a painted ribbon, were the words Amitié sincère.
He could feel his own little bottle in his waistcoat pocket, and came near to taking it out and showing it to the old lady. He felt that this would have made a tale which she would forever have cherished and repeated; that it might even come to be her last thought on her deathbed. But he was held back by the feeling that there was, in this decision of fate, something which was meant for him only—a value, a depth, a resort even, in life which belonged to him alone, and which he could not share with anybody else any more than he would be able to share his dreams.
He thanked the old lady with much feeling, and as she realized how much her gift was being appreciated she answered him back with pride and dignity.
He parted from his old friend and the young couple with all the expressions of sincere friendship and took the road to Pisa.
The rain had stopped. The afternoon air was almost cold. Golden sunlight and deep quiet blue shadows divided the landscape between them. A rainbow stood low in the sky.
Augustus took a small mirror from his pocket. Holding it in the flat of his hand, he looked thoughtfully into it.