Andrea Sperelli dined regularly every Wednesday with his cousin the Marchesa d'Ateleta.
The salons of the Marchesa in the Palazzo Roccagiovine were much frequented. She attracted specially by her sparkling wit and gaiety and her inextinguishable good humour. Her charming and expressive face recalled certain feminine profiles of the younger Moreau and in the vignettes of Gravelot. There was something Pompadouresque in her manner, her tastes, her style of dress, which she no doubt heightened purposely, tempted by her really striking resemblance to the favourite of Louis XV.
One Tuesday evening, in a box at the Valle Theatre, she said laughingly to her cousin, 'Be sure, you come to-morrow, Andrea. Among the guests there will be an interesting, not to say fatal, personage. Forewarned is forearmed—Beware of her spells—you are in a very weak frame of mind just now.'
He laughed. 'If you don't mind, I prefer to come unarmed,' he replied, 'or rather in the guise of a victim. It is a character I have assumed for many an evening lately, but alas, without result so far.'
'Well, the sacrifice will soon be consummated, cugino mio.'
'The victim is ready!'
The next evening, he arrived at the palace a few minutes earlier than usual, with a wonderful gardenia in his button-hole and a vague uneasiness in his mind. His coupe had to stop in front of the entrance, the portico being occupied by another carriage, from which a lady was alighting. The liveries, the horses, the ceremonial which accompanied her arrival all proclaimed a great position. The Count caught a glimpse of a tall and graceful figure, a scintillation of diamonds in dark hair and a slender foot on the step. As he went upstairs he had a back view of the lady.
She ascended in front of him with a slow and rhythmic movement; her cloak, lined with fur as white as swan's-down, was unclasped at the throat, and slipping back, revealed her shoulders, pale as polished ivory, the shoulder-blades disappearing into the lace of the corsage with an indescribably soft and fleeting curve as of wings. The neck rose slender and round, and the hair, twisted into a great knot on the crown of her head, was held in place by jewelled pins.
The harmonious gait of this unknown lady gave Andrea such sincere pleasure that he stopped a moment on the first landing to watch her. Her long train swept rustling over the stairs; behind her came a servant, not immediately in the wake of his mistress on the red carpet, but at the side along the wall with irreproachable gravity. The absurd contrast between the magnificent creature and the automaton following her brought a smile to Andrea's lips.
In the anteroom while the servant was relieving her of her cloak, the lady cast a rapid glance at the young man who entered.
The servant announced—'Her Excellency the Duchess of Scerni!' and immediately afterwards—'Count Sperelli-Fieschi d'Ugenta!' It pleased Andrea that his name should be coupled so closely with that of the lady in question.
In the drawing-room were already assembled the Marchese and Marchesa d'Ateleta, the Baron and Baroness d'Isola and Don Filippo del Monte. The fire burned cheerily on the hearth, and several low seats were invitingly disposed within range of its warmth, while large leaf plants spread their red-veined foliage over the low backs.
The Marchesa, advanced to meet the two new arrivals with her delightful ready laugh.
'Ah,' she said, 'a happy chance has forestalled me and made it unnecessary for me to tell you one another's names. Cousin Sperelli, make obeisance before the divine Elena.'
Andrea bowed profoundly. The Duchess held out her hand with a frank and graceful gesture.
'I am very glad to know you, Count,' she said, looking him full in the face. 'I heard so much about you last summer at Lucerne from one of your friends—Giulio Musellaro. I must confess I was rather curious—Besides, Musellaro lent me your exquisite "Story of the Hermaphrodite" and made me a present of your etching "Sleep"—a proof copy—a real gem. You have a most ardent admirer in me—please remember that.'
She spoke with little pauses in between. Her voice was so warm and insinuating in tone that it almost had the effect of a caress, and her glance had that unconsciously voluptuous and disturbing expression which instantly kindles the desire of every man on whom it rests.
'Cavaliere Sakumi!' announced the servant, as the eighth and last guest made his appearance.
He was one of the secretaries to the Japanese Legation, very small and yellow, with prominent cheek-bones and long, slanting, bloodshot eyes over which the lids blinked incessantly. His body was disproportionately large for his spindle legs, and he turned his toes in as he walked. The skirts of his coat were too wide, there was a multitude of wrinkles in his trousers, his necktie bore visible evidence of an unpractised hand. It was as if a daimio had been taken out of one of those cuirasses of iron and lacquer, so like the shell of some monstrous crustacean, and thrust into the clothes of a European waiter. And yet, with all his ungainliness and apparent stupidity there was a glint of malice in his slits of eyes and a sort of ironical cunning about the corners of his mouth.
Arrived in the middle of the room, he bowed low. His gibus slipped from his hand and rolled over the floor.
At this, the Baroness d'Isola, a tiny blonde with a cloud of fluffy curls all over her forehead, vivacious and grimacing as a young monkey, called to him in her piping voice:
'Come over here, Sakumi—here, beside me.'
The Japanese cavalier advanced with a succession of bows and smiles.
'Shall we see the Princess Isse this evening?' asked Donna Francesca d'Ateleta, who had a mania for gathering in her drawing-rooms all the most grotesque specimens of the exotic colonies of Rome, out of pure love of variety and the picturesque.
The Asiatic replied in a barbarous jargon, a scarcely intelligible compound of English, French, and Italian.
For a moment everybody was speaking at once—a chorus through which now and then the fresh laughter of the Marchesa rang like silver bells.
'I am sure I have seen you before—I cannot remember when and I cannot remember where, but I am certain I have seen you,' Andrea Sperelli was saying to the duchess as he stood before her. 'When I saw you going upstairs in front of me, a vague recollection rose up in my mind, something that took shape from the rhythm of your movements as a picture grows out of a melody. I did not succeed in making the recollection clear, but when you turned round, I felt that your profile answered incontestably to that picture. It could not have been a divination, therefore it must have been some obscure phenomenon of memory. I must have seen you somewhere before—who knows—perhaps in a dream—perhaps in another world, a previous existence—'
As he pronounced this last decidedly hackneyed, not to say silly remark, Andrea laughed frankly as if to forestall the lady's smile, whether of incredulity or irony. But Elena remained perfectly serious. Was she listening, or was she thinking of something else? Did she accept that kind of speech, or was she, by her gravity, amusing herself at his expense? Did she intend assisting him in the scheme of seduction he had begun with so much care, or was she going to shut herself up in indifference and silence? In short, was she or was she not the sort of woman to succumb to his attack? Perplexed, disconcerted, Andrea examined the mystery from all sides. Most men, especially those who adopt bold methods of warfare, are well acquainted with this perplexity which certain women excite by their silence.
A servant threw open the great doors leading to the dining-room.
The Marchesa took the arm of Don Filippo del Monte and led the way.
'Come,' said Elena, and it seemed to Andrea that she leaned upon his arm with a certain abandon—or was it merely an illusion of his desire?—perhaps. He continued in doubt and suspense, but every moment that passed drew him deeper within the sweet enchantment, and with every instant he became more desperately anxious to read the mystery of this woman's heart.
'Here, cousin,' said Francesca, pointing him to a place at one end of the oval table, between the Baron d'Isola and the Duchess of Scerni with the Cavaliere Sakumi as his vis-a-vis. Sakumi sat between the Baroness d'Isola and Filippo del Monte. The Marchesa and her husband occupied the two ends of the table, which glittered with rare china, silver, crystal and flowers.
Very few women could compete with the Marchesa d'Ateleta in the art of dinner giving. She expended more care and forethought in the preparation of a menu than of a toilette. Her exquisite taste was patent in every detail, and her word was law in the matter of elegant conviviality. Her fantasies and her fashions were imitated on every table of the Roman upper ten. This winter, for instance, she had introduced the fashion of hanging garlands of flowers from one end of the table to the other, on the branches of great candelabras, and also that of placing in front of each guest, among the group of wine glasses, a slender opalescent Murano vase with a single orchid in it.
'What a diabolical flower!' said Elena Muti, taking up the vase and examining the orchid which seemed all blood-stained.
Her voice was of such rich full timbre that even her most trivial remarks acquired a new significance, a mysterious grace, like that King of Phrygia whose touch turned everything to gold.
'A symbolical flower—in your hands,' murmured Andrea, gazing at his neighbour, whose beauty in that attitude was really amazing.
She was dressed in some delicate tissue of palest blue, spangled with silver dots which glittered through antique Burano lace of an indefinable tint of white inclining to yellow. The flower, like something evil generated by a malignant spell, rose quivering on its slender stalk out of the fragile tube which might have been blown by some skilful artificer from a liquid gem.
'Well, I prefer roses,' observed Elena, replacing the orchid with a gesture of repulsion, very different from her former one of curiosity. She then joined in the general conversation.
Donna Francesca was speaking of the last reception at the Austrian Embassy.
'Did you see Madame de Cahen?' asked Elena. 'She had on a dress of yellow tulle covered with humming birds with ruby eyes—a gorgeous dancing bird-cage. And Lady Ouless—did you notice her?—in a white gauze skirt draped with sea-weed and little red fishes, and under the sea-weed and fish another skirt of sea-green gauze—Did you see it?—a most effective aquarium!' and she laughed merrily.
Andrea was at a loss to understand this sudden volubility These frivolous and malicious things were uttered by the same voice which, but a few moments, ago had stirred his soul to its very depths; they came from the same lips which, in silence, had seemed to him like the mouth of the Medusa of Leonardo, that human flower of the soul rendered divine by the fire of passion and the anguish of death. What then was the true essence of this creature? Had she perception and consciousness of her manifold changes, or was she impenetrable to herself and shut from her own mystery? In her expression, her manifestation of herself, how much was artificial and how much spontaneous? The desire to fathom this secret pierced him even through the delight experienced by the proximity of the woman whom he was beginning to love. But his wretched habit of analysis for ever prevented him losing sight of himself, though every time he yielded to its temptation he was punished, like Psyche for her curiosity, by the swift withdrawal of love, the frowns of the beloved object and the cessation of all delights. Would it not be better to abandon oneself frankly to the first ineffable sweetness of new-born love? He saw Elena in the act of placing her lips to a glass of pale gold wine like liquid honey. He selected from among his own glasses the one the servant had filled with the same wine, and drank at the same moment that she did. They replaced their glasses on the table together. The similarity of the action made them turn to one another, and the glance they exchanged inflamed them far more than the wine.
'You are very silent,' said Elena, affecting a lightness of tone which somewhat disguised her voice. 'You have the reputation of being a brilliant conversationalist—exert yourself therefore a little!'
'Oh cousin! cousin!' exclaimed Donna Francesca with a comical air of commiseration, while Filippo del Monte whispered something in his ear.
Andrea burst out laughing.
'Cavaliere Sakumi; we are the silent members of this party—we must wake up!'
The long narrow eyes of the Asiatic—redder than ever now that the wine had kindled a deeper crimson on his high cheek-bones—glittered with malice. All this time he had done nothing but gaze at the Duchess of Scerni with the ecstatic look of a bonze in presence of the divinity. His broad flat face, which might have come straight out of a page of O-kou-sai, the great classical humorist, gleamed red among the chains of flowers like a harvest moon.
'Sakumi is in love,' said Andrea in a low voice, and leaning over towards Elena.
'With you—have you not observed it yet?'
'Well, look at him.'
Elena looked across at him. The amorous gaze of the disguised daimio suddenly affected her with such ill-disguised mirth that the Japanese felt deeply hurt and humiliated.
'See,' she said, and to console him she detached a white camellia and threw it across the table to the envoy of the Rising Sun,—'find some comparison in praise of me!'
The Oriental carried the flower to his lips with a ludicrous air of devotion.
'Ah—ah—Sakumi!' cried the little Baroness d'Isola, 'you are unfaithful to me!'
He stammered a few words while his face flamed. Everybody laughed unrestrainedly, as if the foreigner had been invited solely to provide entertainment for the other guests. Andrea turned laughing towards Elena.
Her head was raised and a little thrown back, and she was gazing furtively at the young man under her eyelashes with one of those indescribably feminine glances which seem to absorb—almost one would say drink in—all that is most desirable, most delectable in the man of their choice. The long lashes veiled the soft dark eyes which were looking at him a little side-long, and her lower lip had a scarcely perceptible tremor. The full ray of her glance seemed to rest upon his lips as the most attractive point about him.
And in truth his mouth was very attractive. Pure and youthful in outline and rich in colouring, a little cruel when firmly closed, it reminded one irresistibly of that portrait of an unknown gentleman in the Borghese gallery, that profound and mysterious work of art in which the fascinated imagination has sought to recognise the features of the divine Cesare Borgia depicted by the divine Sanzio. As soon as the lips parted in a smile the resemblance vanished, and the square, even dazzlingly white teeth lit up a mouth as fresh and jocund as a child's.
The moment Andrea turned, Elena withdrew her eyes, though not so quickly but that the young man caught the flash. His delight was so poignant that it sent the blood flaming to his face.
'She is attracted by me!' he thought to himself, inwardly exulting in the assurance of having found favour in the eyes of this rare creature. 'This is a joy I have never experienced before!' he said to himself.
There are certain glances from a woman's eye which a lover would not exchange for anything else she can offer him later. He who has not seen that first love-light kindle in a limpid eye has never touched the highest point of human bliss. No future moment can ever approach that one.
The conversation around them grew more animated, and Elena asked him—'Are you staying the winter in Rome?'
'The whole winter—and longer,' was Andrea's reply, to whom the simple question seemed to open up a promise.
'Ah, then you have set up a home here?'
'Yes, in the Casa Zuccari—domus aurea.'
'At the Trinita de' Monti?—Lucky being!'
'Because you live on a spot I have a great liking for.'
'You are quite right I always think—don't you?—that there the most perfect essence of Rome is concentrated as in a cup.'
'Quite true! I have hung up my heart—both Catholic and Pagan—as an ex-voto between the obelisk of the Trinita and the column of the Conception.'
She laughed as she spoke. A sonnet to this suspended heart rose instantly to his lips, but he did not give it utterance, for he was in no mood to continue their conversation in this light vein of false sentiment, which broke the sweet spell she had been weaving about him. He was silent therefore.
She, too, remained a moment pensive, and then threw herself with renewed vivacity into the general conversation, prodigal of wit and laughter, flashing her teeth and her bon mots at all in turn. Francesca was retailing spicily a piece of gossip about the Princess di Ferentino on the subject of a recent, and somewhat risky, adventure of hers with Giovanella Daddi.
'By the by—the Ferentino announces another charity bazaar for Epiphany,' said the Baroness d'Isola. 'Does anybody know anything about it yet?'
'I am one of the patronesses,' said Elena Muti.
'And you are a most valuable patroness,' broke in Don Filippo del Monte, a man of about forty, almost bald, a keen sharpener of epigrams, whose face seemed a sort of Socratic mask; the right eye was forever on the move, and flashed with a thousand changing expressions, while the left remained stationary and glazed behind the single eye-glass, as if he used the one for expressing himself and the other for seeing. 'At the May bazaar, you brought in a perfect shower of gold.'
'Oh, the May bazaar—what a mad affair that was!' exclaimed the Marchesa.
While the servants were filling the glasses with iced champagne, she added, 'Do you remember, Elena, our stalls were close together?'
'Five louis d'or a drink—five louis d'or a bite!' Don Filippo called, in the voice of a street-hawker. Elena and the Marchesa burst out laughing.
'Why yes, of course, Filippo, you cried the wares,' said Donna Francesca. 'Now what a pity you were not there, cugino mio! For five louis you might have eaten fruit out of which I had had the first bite, and have drunk champagne out of the hollow of Elena's hands for five more.'
'How scandalous!' broke in the Baroness d'Isola, with a horrified grimace.
'Ah, Mary, I like that! And did you not sell cigarettes that you lighted up first yourself for a louis?' cried Francesca through her laughter. Then she became suddenly grave. 'Every deed, with a charitable object in view, is sacred,' she observed sententiously. 'By merely biting into fruit, I collected at least two hundred louis.'
'And you?' Andrea Sperelli turned to Elena with as constrained smile—'With your human drinking-cup—how much did you get?'
'I?—oh, two hundred and seventy louis.'
Everybody was full of fun and laughter, excepting the Marchese d'Ateleta, who was old, and afflicted with incurable deafness; was padded and painted—in a word, artificial from head to foot. He was very like one of the figures one sees at a wax work show. From time to time—usually the wrong one—he would give vent to a little dry cackling laugh, like the rattle of some rusty mechanism inside him.
'However,' Elena resumed, 'you must know, that after a certain point in the evening, the price rose to ten louis, and at last, that lunatic of a Galeazzo Secinaro came and offered me a five hundred lire note, if I would dry my hands on his great golden beard!'
As was ever the case at the d'Ateletas', the dinner increased in splendour towards the end; for the true luxury of the table is shown in the dessert. A multitude of choice and exquisite things, delighting the eye no less than the palate, were disposed with consummate art in various crystal and silver-mounted dishes. Festoons of camellias and violets hung between the vine-wreathed eighteenth century candelabras, round which sported fairies and nymphs, and on the wall-hangings more fairies and nymphs, and all the charming figures of the pastoral mythology—the Corydons, the Phylises, the Rosalinds—animated with their sylvan loves one of those sunny Cytherean landscapes originated by the fanciful imagination of Antoine Watteau.
The slightly erotic excitement, which is apt to take hold upon the spirits at the end of a dinner graced by fair women and flowers, betrayed itself in the tone of the conversations, and the reminiscences of this bazaar, at which the ladies—urged on by a noble spirit of emulation in collecting the largest sums—employed the most unheard of audacities to attract buyers.
'And did you accept it?' asked Andrea of the Duchess.
'I sacrificed my hands on the altar of Benevolence,' she replied. 'Twenty-five louis more to my account!'
‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’ He laughed as he quoted Lady Macbeth's words, but, in reality, his heart was sore with a confused, ill-defined pain, that bore a strong resemblance to jealousy. And suddenly he became aware of something excessive, almost—it might be—a touch of the courtesan, defacing the manners of the great lady. Certain inflections of her voice, certain tones of her laughter, here a gesture, there an attitude, certain glances, exhaled a charm that was perhaps a trifle too Aphrodisiac. She was, besides, somewhat over-lavish with the visible favours of her graces, and the air she breathed was continually surcharged with the desire she herself excited.
Andrea's heart swelled with bitterness; he could not take his eyes off Elena's hands. Out of those hands, so delicately, ideally white and transparent, with their faint tracery of azure veins—from those rosy hollowed palms, wherein a chiromancer would have discovered many an intricate crossing of lines, ten, twenty different men had drunk at a price. He could see the heads of these unknown men bending over her and drinking the wine. But Secinaro was one of his friends—a great handsome jovial fellow, imperially bearded like a very Lucius Verus, and a most formidable rival to have. He felt as if the dinner would never come to an end.
'You are such an innovator,' Elena was saying to Donna Francesca, as she dipped her fingers into warm water in a pale blue finger-glass rimmed with silver, 'Why do you not revive the ancient fashion of having the water offered to one after dinner with a basin and ewer? The modern arrangement is very ugly, do you not think so, Sperelli?'
Donna Francesca rose. Every one followed her example. Andrea, with a bow, offered his arm to Elena and she looked at him without smiling as she slowly laid her hand on his arm. Her last words were gaily and lightly spoken, but her gaze was so grave and profound that the young man felt it sink into his very soul.
'Are you going to the French Embassy to-morrow evening?' she asked him.
'Are you?' Andrea asked in return.
'So am I.'
They smiled at one another like two lovers.
'Sit down,' she added as she sank into a seat.
The seat was far from the fire, with its back to the curve of a grand piano which was partially draped in some rich stuff. At one end of the divan, a tall bronze crane held in his beak a tray hanging by three chains like one side of a pair of scales, and on it lay a new book and a little Japanese scimitar—a waki-gashi—the scabbard and hilt encrusted with silver chrysanthemums.
Elena took up the book, which was only half cut, read the title, and then replaced it on the tray which swung to and fro. The scimitar fell to the ground. As both she and Andrea stooped to pick it up, their hands met. She straightened herself up and examined the beautiful weapon with some curiosity, retaining it in her hand while Andrea talked about the new novel, insinuating into his remarks general arguments upon love; and her fingers wandered absently over the chasing of the weapon, her polished nails seeming a repetition of the delicate gems that sparkled in her rings.
Presently, after a pause, Elena said without looking at him: 'You are very young—have you often been in love?'
He answered by another question—'Which do you consider the truest, noblest way of love—to imagine you have discovered every aspect of the eternal Feminine combined in one woman, or to run rapidly over the lips of woman as you run your fingers over the keys of a piano, till, at last, you find the sublime chord of harmony?'
'I really cannot say—and you?'
'Nor I either—I am unable to solve the great problem of sentiment. However, by personal instinct, I have followed the latter plan and have now, I fear, struck the grand chord—judging, at least, by an inward premonition.'
‘Je crains ce que j'espere.’
He instinctively employed this language of affected sentiment to cloak his really strong emotion, and Elena felt herself caught by his voice as in a golden net and drawn forcibly out of the life surrounding them.
'Her Excellency the Princess di Micigliano!' announced a footman.
'Count di Gissi!'
'The Marchese and the Marchesa Massa d'Alba!'
The rooms began to fill rapidly. Long shimmering trains swept over the deep red carpet, white shoulders emerged from bodices starred with diamonds, embroidered with pearls, covered with flowers, and in nearly every coiffure glittered those marvellous hereditary gems for which the Roman nobility are so much envied.
'Her Excellency the Princess of Ferentino!'
'His Excellency the Duke of Grimiti!'
The guests formed themselves in various groups, the rallying points of gossip and of flirtation. The chief group, composed exclusively of men, was in the vicinity of the piano, gathered round the Duchess of Scerni, who had risen to her feet, the better to hold her own against her besiegers. The Princess of Ferentino came over to greet her friend with a reproach.
'Why did you not come to Nini Santamarta's to-day? We all expected you.'
She was tall and thin with extraordinary green eyes sunk deep in their shadowy sockets. Her dress was black, the bodice open in a point back and front, and in her hair, which was blond cendre, she wore a great diamond crescent like Diana. She waved a huge fan of red feathers hastily to and fro as she spoke.
'Nini is at Madame Van Hueffel's this evening.'
'I am going there later on for a little while, so I shall see her,' answered the Duchess.
'Oh, Ugenta,' said the Princess turning to Andrea, 'I was looking for you to remind you of our appointment. To-morrow is Thursday and Cardinal Immenraet's sale begins at twelve. Will you fetch me at one?'
'I shall not fail, Princess.'
'I simply must have that rock crystal.'
'Then you must be prepared for competition.'
'My cousin for one.'
'And who else?'
'From me,' said Elena.
'You?—Well, we shall see.'
Several of the gentlemen asked for further enlightenment.
'It is a contest between ladies of the 19th century for a rock crystal vase which belonged to Niccolo Niccoli,' Andrea explained with solemnity; 'a vase, on which is engraved the Trojan Anchises untying one of the sandals of Venus Aphrodite. The entertainment will be given gratis, at one o'clock to-morrow afternoon, in the Public Sale-rooms of the Via Sistina. Contending parties—the Princess of Ferentino, the Duchess of Scerni and the Marchesa d'Ateleta.'
Everybody laughed, and Grimiti asked, 'Is betting permitted?'
'The odds! The odds!' yelled Don Filippo del Monte, imitating the strident voice of the bookmaker Stubbs.
The Princess gave him an admonitory tap on the arm with her red fan, but the joke seemed to amuse them hugely and the betting began at once. Hearing the bursts of laughter, other ladies and gentlemen joined the group in order to share the fun. The news of the approaching contest spread like lightning and soon assumed the proportions of a society event.
'Give me your arm and let us take a turn through the rooms,' said Elena to Andrea Sperelli.
As soon as they were in the west room, away from the noisy crowd, Andrea pressed her arm and murmured, 'Thanks.'
She leaned on him, stopping now and again to reply to some greeting. She seemed fatigued, and was as pale as the pearls of her necklace. Each gentleman addressed her with some hackneyed compliment.
'How stupid they all are! it makes me feel quite ill,' she said.
As they turned, she saw Sakumi was following them noiselessly, her camellia in his button-hole, his eyes full of yearning not daring to come nearer. She threw him a compassionate smile.
'Did you not notice him before?' asked Andrea.
'While we were sitting by the piano, he was in the recess of the window, and never took his eyes off your hands when you were playing with the weapon of his native country—now reduced to being a paper-cutter for a European novel.'
'Just now, do you mean?'
'Yes, just now. Perhaps he was thinking how sweet it would be to perform Hara-Kiri with that little scimitar, the chrysanthemums on which seemed to blossom out of the lacquer and steel under the touch of your fingers.'
She did not smile. A veil of sadness, almost of suffering, seemed to have fallen over her face; her eyes, faintly luminous under the white lids, seemed drowned in shadow, the corners of her mouth drooped wearily, her right arm hung straight and languid at her side. She no longer held out her hand to those who greeted her; she listened no longer to their speeches.
'What is the matter?' asked Andrea.
'Nothing—I must go to the Van Hueffels' now. Take me to Francesca to say good-bye, and then come with me down to my carriage.'
They returned to the first drawing-room, where Luigi Gulli, a young man, swarthy and curly-haired as an Arab, who had left his native Calabria in search of fortune, was executing, with much feeling, Beethoven's sonata in C# minor. The Marchesa d'Ateleta, a patroness of his, was standing near the piano, with her eyes fixed on the keys. By degrees, the sweet and grave music drew all these frivolous spirits within its magic circle, like a slow-moving but irresistible whirlpool.
'Beethoven!' exclaimed Elena in a tone of almost religious fervour, as she stood still and drew her arm from Andrea's.
She had halted beside one of the great palms and, extending her left hand, began very slowly to put on her glove. In that attitude her whole figure, continued by the train, seemed taller and more erect; the shadow of the palm veiled and, so to speak, spiritualised the pallor of her skin. Andrea gazed at her in a kind of rapture, increased by the pathos of the music.
As if drawn by the young man's impetuous desire, Elena turned her head a little, and smiled at him—a smile so subtle, so spiritual, that it seemed rather an emanation of the soul than a movement of the lips, while her eyes remained sad and as if lost in a far away dream. Thus overshadowed they were verily the eyes of the Night, such as Leonardo da Vinci might have imagined for an allegorical figure after having seen Lucrezia Crevelli at Milan.
During the second that the smile lasted, Andrea felt himself absolutely alone with her in the crowd. An immense wave of pride flooded his heart.
Elena now prepared to put on the other glove.
'No, not that one,' he entreated in a low voice.
She understood, and left her hand bare.
He was hoping to kiss that hand before she left. And suddenly he had a vision of the May Bazaar, and the men drinking champagne out of those hollowed palms, and for the second time that night he felt the keen stab of jealousy.
'We will go now,' she said, taking his arm once more.
The sonata over, conversation was resumed with fresh vigour. Three or four new names were announced, amongst them that of the Princess Isse, who entered smiling, with funny little tottering steps, in European dress, her oval face as white and tiny as a little netske figurine. A stir of curiosity ran round the room.
'Good-night, Francesca,' said Elena, taking leave of her hostess, 'I shall see you to-morrow.'
'Going so soon?'
'I am due at the Van Hueffels'. I promised to go.'
'What a pity! Mary Dyce is just going to sing.'
'I must go—good-bye!'
'Well, take this, and good-bye. Most amiable of cousins, please look after her.'
The Marchesa pressed a bunch of double violets into her hand and hurried away to receive the Princess Isse very graciously. Mary Dyce, in a red dress, slender and undulating as a tongue of fire, began to sing.
'I am so tired!' murmured Elena, leaning wearily on Andrea's arm. 'Please ask for my cloak.'
He took her cloak from the attendant, and in helping her to put it on, touched her shoulder with the tips of his fingers, and felt her shiver. The words of one of Schumann's songs was borne to them on Mary Dyce's passionate soprano, Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben!
They descended the stairs in silence. A footman preceded them to call the duchess's carriage. The stamping of the horses rang through the echoing portico. At every step, Andrea felt the pressure of Elena's arm grow heavier; she held her head high, and her eyes were half closed.
'As you ascended these stairs, my admiration followed you, unknown to you. Now, as you come down, my love accompanies you,' he said softly, almost humbly, faltering a little between the two last words.
She made no reply, but she lifted the bunch of violets to her face, and inhaled the perfume. In so doing, the wide sleeve of her evening cloak slipped back over her arm beyond her elbow, thrilling the young man's senses almost beyond control. His lips trembled, and he with difficulty restrained the burning words that rose to them.
The carriage was standing at the foot of the great stairway; a footman held open the door.
'To Madame Van Hueffel's,' said the duchess to him, while Andrea helped her in.
The man left the door and returned to his seat beside the coachman. The horses stamped, striking out sparks from the stones.
'Take care!' cried Elena, holding out her hand to the young man. Her eyes and her diamonds flashed through the gloom.
'Oh, to be in there with her in the shadow—to press my lips to her satin neck under the perfumed fur of her mantle!'
'Take me with you!' he would like to have cried.
But the horses plunged. 'Oh, take care!' Elena repeated.
He kissed her hand—pressing his lips to it as if to leave the mark of his burning passion. He closed the door and the carriage rolled rapidly away under the porch, and out to the Forum.
And thus ended Andrea Sperelli's first meeting with the Duchess of Scerni.