The Child of Pleasure/Book I/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

The next day the public sale-room of the Via Sistina was thronged with fashionable people, come to look on at the famous contest.

It was raining hard; the light in the low-roofed damp rooms was dull and gray. Along the walls were ranged various pieces of carved furniture, several large diptychs and triptychs of the Tuscan school of the fourteenth century; four pieces of Flemish tapestry representing the Story of Narcissus hung from ceiling to floor; Metaurensian majolicas occupied two long shelves; stuffs--for the most part ecclesiastical--lay spread out on chairs or heaped up on tables; antiquities of the rarest kind--ivories, enamels, crystals, engraved gems, medals, coins, breviaries, illuminated manuscripts, silver of delicate workmanship were massed together in high cabinets behind the auctioneer's table. A peculiar musty odour, arising from the clamminess of the atmosphere and this collection of ancient things, pervaded the air.

When Andrea Sperelli entered the room with the Princess di Ferentino, he looked about him rapidly with a secret tremor--Is _she_ here? he said to himself.

She was there, seated at the table between the Cavaliere Davila and Don Filippo del Monte. Before her on the table lay her gloves and her muff, to which a little bunch of violets was fastened. She held in her hand a little bas-relief in silver, attributed to Caradosso Foppa, which she was examining with great attention. Each article passed from hand to hand along the table while the auctioneer proclaimed its merits in a loud voice, those standing behind the line of chairs leaning over to look.

The sale began.

'Make your bids, gentlemen! make your bids!' cried the auctioneer from time to time.

Some amateur encouraged by this cry bid a higher sum with his eye on his competitors. The auctioneer raised his hammer.

'Going--Going--Gone!'

He rapped the table. The article fell to the last bidder. A murmur went round the assemblage, then the bidding recommenced. The Cavaliere Davila, a Neapolitan gentleman of gigantic stature and almost femininely gentle manners, a noted collector and connoisseur of majolica, gave his opinion on each article of importance. Three lots in this sale of the Cardinal's effects were really of 'superior' quality: the Story of Narcissus, the rock-crystal goblet, and an embossed silver helmet by Antonio del Pollajuolo presented by the City of Florence to the Count of Urbino in 1472 for services rendered during the taking of Volterra.

'Here is the Princess,' said Filippo del Monte to the Duchess.

Elena rose and shook hands with her friend.

'Already in the field!' exclaimed the Princess.

'Already.'

'And Francesca?'

'She has not come yet.'

Four or five young men--the Duke of Grimiti, Roberto Casteldieri, Ludovico Barbarisi, Gianetto Rutolo--drew up round them. Others joined them. The rattle of the rain against the windows almost drowned their voices.

Elena held out her hand frankly to Sperelli as to everybody else, but somehow he felt that that handshake set him at a distance from her. Elena seemed to him cold and grave. That instant sufficed to freeze and destroy all his dreams; his memories of the preceding evening grew confused and dim, the torch of hope was extinguished. What had happened to her?--She was not the same woman. She was wrapped in the folds of a long otter-skin coat, and wore a toque of the same fur on her head. There was something hard, almost contemptuous, in the expression of her face.

'The goblet will not come on for some time yet,' she observed to the Princess, as she resumed her seat.

Every object passed through her hands. She was much tempted by a centaur cut in a sardonyx, a very exquisite piece of workmanship, part, perhaps, of the scattered collection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. She took part in the bidding, communicating her offers to the auctioneer in a low voice without raising her eyes to him. Presently the competition stopped; she obtained the intaglio for a good price.

'A most admirable acquisition,' observed Andrea Sperelli from behind her chair.

Elena could not repress a slight start. She took up the sardonyx and handed it to him to look at over her shoulder without turning round. It was really a very beautiful thing.

'It might be the centaur copied by Donatello,' Andrea added.

And in his heart, with his admiration for the work of art, there rose up also a sincere admiration for the noble taste of the lady who now filled all his thoughts. 'What a rare creature both in mind and body!' he thought. But the higher she rose in his imagination, the further she seemed removed from him in reality. All the security of the preceding evening was transformed into uneasiness, and his first doubts re-awoke. He had dreamed too much last night with waking eyes, bathed in a felicity that knew no bounds, while the memory of a gesture, a smile, a turn of the head, a fold of her raiment held him captive as in a net. Now all this imaginary world had tumbled miserably about his ears at the touch of reality. In Elena's eyes there had been no sign of that special greeting to which he had so ardently looked forward; she had in no wise singled him out from the crowd, had offered him no mark of favour. Why not? He felt himself slighted, humiliated. All these fatuous people irritated him, he was exasperated by the things which seemed to engross Elena's attention, and more particularly by Filippo del Monte, who leaned towards her every now and then to whisper something to her--scandal no doubt. The Marchesa d'Ateleta now arrived, cheerful as ever. Her laugh, out of the centre of the circle of men who hastened to surround her, caused Don Filippo to turn round.

'Ah--so the trinity is complete!' he exclaimed, rising from his seat.

Andrea instantly slipped into it at Elena Muti's side. As the subtle perfume of the violets reached him, he murmured--

'These are not those of last night, are they?'

'No,' she answered coldly.

In all her varying moods, changeful and caressing as the waves of the sea, there always lay a hidden menace of rebuff. She was often taken with fits of cold restraint. Andrea held his tongue, bewildered.

'Make your bids, gentlemen,' cried the auctioneer.

The bids rose higher. Antonio del Pollajuolo's silver helmet was being hotly contested. Even the Cavaliere Davila entered the lists. The very air seemed gradually to become hotter; the feverish desire to possess so beautiful an object seemed to spread like a contagion.

In that year the craze for _bibelots_ and _bric-a-brac_ reached the point of madness. The drawing-rooms of the nobility and the upper middle classes were crammed with curios; every lady must needs cover the cushions of her sofas and chairs with some piece of church vestment, and put her roses into an Umbrian ointment pot, or a chalcedony jar. The sale-rooms were the favourite meeting-places, and every sale crowded. It was the fashion for the ladies when they dropped in anywhere for tea in the afternoon, to enter with some such remark as--'I have just come from the sale of the painter Campos' things. Tremendous bidding! Such Hispano-Moresque plaques! I secured a jewel belonging to Maria Leczinska. Look!'

The bidding continued. Fashionable purchasers crowded round the table, vieing with each other in artistic and critical comparisons between the Giottoesque Nativities and Annunciations. Into this atmosphere of mustiness and antiquity the ladies brought the perfume of their furs, and more especially of the violets which each one wore on her muff, according to the then prevailing charming fashion, and their presence diffused a delicious air of warmth and fragrance. Outside, the rain continued to fall, and the light to fade. Here and there a little flame of gas struggled feebly with such daylight as remained.

'Going--going--gone!' The stroke of the hammer put Lord Humphrey Heathfield in possession of the Florentine helmet. The bidding then began for smaller articles, which passed in turn from hand to hand down the long table. Elena handled them carefully, examined them, and placed them in front of Andrea without remark. There were enamels, ivories, eighteenth century watches, Milanese goldsmiths' work of the time of Ludovico the Moor, Books of Hours inscribed in gold letters on pale blue vellum. These precious things seemed to increase in value under the touch of Elena's fingers; her little hands had a faint tremor of eagerness when they came in contact with some specially desirable object. Andrea watched them intently, and his imagination transformed every movement of her hands into a caress. 'But why did she place each thing upon the table instead of passing it to him?'

He forestalled her next time by holding out his hand. And from thenceforth the ivories, the enamels, the ornaments passed from the hands of the lady to those of her lover, to whom they communicated an ineffable thrill of delight. He felt that thus some particle of the charm of the beloved woman entered into these objects, just as a portion of the virtue of the magnet enters into the iron. It was, in truth, the magnetic sense of love--one of those acute and profound sensations which are rarely felt but at love's beginning, and which, differing essentially from all others, seem to have no physical or moral seat, but to exist in some neutral element of our being--an element that is intermediate, and the nature of which is unknown.

'Here again is a rapture I have never felt before,' thought Andrea.

A kind of torpor seemed creeping over him. Little by little, he was losing consciousness of time and place.

'I recommend this clock to your notice,' Elena was saying to him, with a look the full significance of which he did not for the first moment understand.

It was a small Death's-head, carved in ivory with extraordinary power and anatomical skill. Each jaw was furnished with a row of diamonds, and two rubies flashed from the deep eye-sockets. On the forehead was engraved, _Ruit Hora_; and on the occiput _Tibi_, _Hippolyta_. It opened like a box, the hinging being almost imperceptible, and the ticking inside lent an indescribable air of life to the diminutive skull. This sepulchral jewel, the offering of some unknown artist to his mistress, had doubtless marked many an hour of rapture, and served as a warning symbol to their amorous souls.

Could a lover wish for anything more exquisite and more suggestive? 'Has she any special reason for recommending this to me?' thought Andrea, all his hopes reviving on the instant. He threw himself into the bidding with a sort of fury. Two or three others bid against him, notably Giannetto Rutolo, who, being in love with Donna Ippolita Albonico, was attracted by the dedication: _Tibi, Hippolyta_.

Presently Rutolo and Sperelli were left alone in the contest. The bidding rose higher than the actual value of the article, which forced a smile from the auctioneer. At last, vanquished by his adversary's determination, Giannetto Rutolo was silent.

'Going--going--!'

Donna Ippolita's lover, a little pale, cried one last sum. Sperelli named a higher--there was a moment's silence. The auctioneer looked from one to the other, then he raised his hammer and slowly, still looking at the two--'Going--going--gone!'

The Death's-head fell to the Conte d'Ugenta. A murmur ran round the room. A sudden flood of light burst through the windows, lit up the gleaming gold backgrounds of the triptychs, and played over the sorrowfully patient brow of the Siennese Madonna and the glittering steel scales on the Princess di Ferentino's little grey hat.

'When is the goblet coming on?' asked the princess impatiently.

Her friends consulted the catalogue. There was no hope of the goblet for that day. The unusual amount of competition made the sale go slowly. There was still a long list of smaller articles--cameos, medallions, coins. Several antiquaries and Prince Stroganow disputed each piece hotly. The rest felt considerably disappointed. The Duchess of Scerni rose to go.

'Good-bye, Sperelli,' she said. 'I shall see you again this evening--perhaps.'

'Why perhaps?'

'I do not feel well.'

'What is the matter?'

She turned away without replying, and took leave of the others. Many of them followed her example and left with her. The young men were making fun of the 'spectacle manque.' The Marchesa d'Ateleta laughed, but the princess was evidently thoroughly out of temper. The footmen waiting in the hall called for the carriages as if at the door of a theatre or concert hall.

'Are you not coming on to Laura Miano's?' Francesca asked the duchess.

'No, I am going home.'

She waited on the pavement for her brougham to come up. The rain was passing over; patches of blue were beginning to appear between the great banks of white cloud; a shaft of sunshine made the wet flags glitter. Flooded by this pale rose splendour, her magnificent furs falling in straight symmetrical folds to her feet, Elena was very beautiful. As Andrea caught a glimpse of the inside of her brougham, all cosily lined with white satin like a little boudoir, with its shining silver foot-warmer for the comfort of her small feet, his dream of the preceding evening came back to him--'Oh, to be there with her alone, and feel the warm perfume of her breath mingling with the violets--behind the mist-dimmed windows through which one hardly sees the muddy streets, the gray houses, the dull crowd!'

But she only bowed slightly to him at the door, without even a smile, and the next moment the carriage had flashed away in the direction of the Palazzo Barberini, leaving the young man with a dim sense of depression and heartache.

She only said 'perhaps,' so it was quite possible that she would not be at the Palazzo Farnese that evening. What should he do then? The thought that he might not see her was intolerable; already every hour he passed far from her weighed heavily on his spirits. 'Am I then so deeply in love with her already?' he asked himself. His spirit seemed imprisoned within a circle in which the phantoms of all his sensations in presence of this woman surged and wheeled around him. Suddenly there would emerge from this tangle of memory, with singular precision, some phrase of hers, an inflection of her voice, an attitude, a glance, the seat where they had sat, the finale of the Beethoven sonata, a burst of melody from Mary Dyce, the face of the footman who had held back the _portiere_--anything that happened to have caught his attention at the moment--and these images obscured by their extreme vividness the actual life around him. He pleaded with her; said to her in thought what he would say to her in reality by and by.

Arrived in his own rooms, he ordered tea of his man-servant, installed himself in front of the fire and gave himself up to the fictions of his hope and his desire. He took the little jewelled skull out of its case and examined it carefully. The tiny diamond teeth flashed back at him in the firelight, and the rubies lit up the shadowy orbits. Behind the smooth ivory brow time pulsed unceasingly--_Ruit Hora_. Who was the artist who had contrived for his Hippolyta so superb and bold a fantasy of Death, at a period too when the masters of enamelling had been wont to ornament with tender idylls the little watches destined to warn Coquette of the time of the rendezvous in the parks of Watteau? The modelling gave evidence of a masterly hand--vigorous and full of admirable style; altogether it was worthy of a fifteenth century artist as forcible as Verrocchio.

'I recommend this clock to your consideration.' Andrea could not help smiling a little at Elena's words uttered in so peculiar a tone after so cold a silence. He was assured that she intended him to put the construction upon her words which he had afterwards done, but then why retire into impenetrable reserve again--why take no further notice of him--what ailed her? Andrea lost himself in a maze of conjecture. Nevertheless, the warm atmosphere of the room, the luxurious chair, the shaded lamp, the fitful gleams of firelight, the aroma of the tea--all these soothing influences combined to mitigate his pain. He went on dreamingly, aimlessly, as if wandering through a fantastic labyrinth. With him reverie sometimes had the effect of opium--it intoxicated him.

'May I take the liberty of reminding the Signor Conte that he is expected at the Casa Doria at seven o'clock,' observed his valet in a subdued and discreet murmur, one of his offices being to jog his master's memory. 'Everything is ready.'

He went into an adjoining octagonal room to dress, the most luxurious and comfortable dressing-room any young man of fashion could possibly desire. On a great Roman sarcophagus, transformed with much taste into a toilet table, were ranged a selection of cambric handkerchiefs, evening gloves, card and cigarette cases, bottles of scent, and five or six fresh gardenias in separate little pale blue china vases--all these frivolous and fragile things on this mass of stone, on which a funeral _cortege_ was sculptured by a masterly hand!