When, in her Carmelite mantle, she came to the Lungarno Acciaoli, at about half-past six, Dechartre greeted her with a humble look that moved her. The setting sun made the Arno purple. They remained silent for a moment. While they were walking past the monotonous line of palaces to the old bridge, she was the first to speak.
"You see, I have come. I thought I ought to come. I do not think I am altogether innocent of what has happened. I know: I have done what was my fate in order that you should be to me what you are now. My attitude has put thoughts into your head which you would not have had otherwise."
He looked as if he did not understand. She continued:
"I was selfish, I was imprudent. You were agreeable to me; I liked your wit; I could not get along without you. I have done what I could to attract you, to retain you. I was a coquette--not coldly, nor perfidiously, but a coquette."
He shook his head, denying that he ever had seen a sign of this.
"Yes, I was a coquette. Yet it was not my habit. But I was a coquette with you. I do not say that you have tried to take advantage of it, as you had the right to do, nor that you are vain about it. I have not remarked vanity in you. It may be possible that you had not noticed. Superior men sometimes lack cleverness. But I know very well that I was not as I should have been, and I beg your pardon. That is the reason why I came. Let us be good friends, since there is yet time."
He repeated, with sombre softness, that he loved her. The first hours of that love had been easy and delightful. He had only desired to see her, and to see her again. But soon she had troubled him. The evil had come suddenly and violently one day on the terrace of Fiesole. And now he had not the courage to suffer and say nothing. He had not come with a fixed design. If he spoke of his passion he spoke by force and in spite of himself; in the strong necessity of talking of her to herself, since she was for him the only being in the world. His life was no longer in himself, it was in her. She should know it, then, that he was in love with her, not with vague tenderness, but with cruel ardor. Alas! his imagination was exact and precise. He saw her continually, and she tortured him.
And then it seemed to him that they might have joys which should make life worth living. Their existence might be a work of art, beautiful and hidden. They would think, comprehend, and feel together. It would be a marvellous world of emotions and ideas.
"We could make of life a delightful garden."
She feigned to think that the dream was innocent.
"You know very well that I am susceptible to the charm of your mind. It has become a necessity to see you and hear you. I have allowed this to be only too plain to you. Count upon my friendship and do not torment yourself." She extended her hand to him. He did not take it, but replied, brusquely:
"I do not desire your friendship. I will not have it. I must have you entirely or never see you again. You know that very well. Why do you extend your hand to me with derisive phrases? Whether you wished it or not, you have made me desperately in love with you. You have become my evil, my suffering, my torture, and you ask me to be an agreeable friend. Now you are coquettish and cruel. If you can not love me, let me go; I will go, I do not know where, to forget and hate you. For I have against you a latent feeling of hatred and anger. Oh, I love you, I love you!"
She believed what he was saying, feared that he might go, and feared the sadness of living without him. She replied:
"I found you in my path. I do not wish to lose you. No, I do not wish to lose you."
Timid yet violent, he stammered; the words were stifled in his throat. Twilight descended from the far-off mountains, and the last reflections of the sun became pallid in the east. She said:
"If you knew my life, if you had seen how empty it was before I knew you, you would know what you are to me, and would not think of abandoning me."
But, with the tranquil tone of her voice and with the rustle of her skirts on the pavement, she irritated him.
He told her how he suffered. He knew now the divine malady of love.
"The grace of your thoughts, your magnificent courage, your superb pride, I inhale them like a perfume. It seems to me when you speak that your mind is floating on your lips. Your mind is for me only the odor of your beauty. I have retained the instincts of a primitive man; you have reawakened them. I feel that I love you with savage simplicity."
She looked at him softly and said nothing. They saw the lights of evening, and heard lugubrious songs coming toward them. And then, like spectres chased by the wind, appeared the black penitents. The crucifix was before them. They were Brothers of Mercy, holding torches, singing psalms on the way to the cemetery. In accordance with the Italian custom, the cortege marched quickly. The crosses, the coffin, the banners, seemed to leap on the deserted quay. Jacques and Therese stood against the wall in order that the funeral train might pass.
The black avalanche had disappeared. There were women weeping behind the coffin carried by the black phantoms, who wore heavy shoes.
"What will be the use of having tormented ourselves in this world?"
He looked as if he had not heard, and said:
"Before I knew you I was not unhappy. I liked life. I was retained in it by dreams. I liked forms, and the mind in forms, the appearances that caress and flatter. I had the joy of seeing and of dreaming. I enjoyed everything and depended upon nothing. My desires, abundant and light, I gratified without fatigue. I was interested in everything and wished for nothing. One suffers only through the will. Without knowing it, I was happy. Oh, it was not much, it was only enough to live. Now I have no joy in life. My pleasures, the interest that I took in the images of life and of art, the vivid amusement of creating with my hands the figures of my dreams--you have made me lose everything and have not left me even regret. I do not want my liberty and tranquillity again. It seems to me that before I knew you I did not live; and now that I feel that I am living, I can not live either far from you or near you. I am more wretched than the beggars we saw on the road to Ema. They had air to breathe, and I can breathe only you, whom I have not. Yet I am glad to have known you. That alone counts in my existence. A moment ago I thought I hated you. I was wrong; I adore you, and I bless you for the harm you have done me. I love all that comes to me from you."
They were nearing the black trees at the entrance to San Niccola bridge. On the other side of the river the vague fields displayed their sadness, intensified by night. Seeing that he was calm and full of a soft languor, she thought that his love, all imagination, had fled in words, and that his desires had become only a reverie. She had not expected so prompt a resignation. It almost disappointed her to escape the danger she had feared.
She extended her hand to him, more boldly this time than before.
"Then, let us be friends. It is late. Let us return. Take me to my carriage. I shall be what I have been to you, an excellent friend. You have not displeased me."
But he led her to the fields, in the growing solitude of the shore.
"No, I will not let you go without having told you what I wish to say. But I know no longer how to speak; I can not find the words. I love you. I wish to know that you are mine. I swear to you that I will not live another night in the horror of doubting it."
He pressed her in his arms; and seeking the light of her eyes through the obscurity of her veil, said "You must love me. I desire you to love me, and it is your fault, for you have desired it too. Say that you are mine. Say it."
Having gently disengaged herself, she replied, faintly and slowly "I can not! I can not! You see I am acting frankly with you. I said to you a moment ago that you had not displeased me. But I can not do as you wish."
And recalling to her thought the absent one who was waiting for her, she repeated: "I can not!" Bending over her he anxiously questioned her eyes, the double stars that trembled and veiled themselves. "Why? You love me, I feel it, I see it. You love me. Why will you do me this wrong?"
He drew her to him, wishing to lay his soul, with his lips, on her veiled lips. She escaped him swiftly, saying: "I can not. Do not ask more. I can not be yours."
His lips trembled, his face was convulsed. He exclaimed "You have a lover, and you love him. Why do you mock me?"
"I swear to you I have no desire to mock you, and that if I loved any one in the world it would be you." But he was not listening to her.
"Leave me, leave me!" And he ran toward the dark fields. The Arno formed lagoons, upon which the moon, half veiled, shone fitfully. He walked through the water and the mud, with a step rapid, blind, like that of one intoxicated. She took fright and shouted. She called him. But he did not turn his head and made no answer. He fled with alarming recklessness. She ran after him. Her feet were hurt by the stones, and her skirt was heavy with water, but soon she overtook him.
"What were you about to do?"
He looked at her, and saw her fright in her eyes. "Do not be afraid," he said. "I did not see where I was going. I assure you I did not intend to kill myself. I am desperate, but I am calm. I was only trying to escape from you. I beg your pardon. But I could not see you any longer. Leave me, I pray you. Farewell!"
She replied, agitated and trembling: "Come! We shall do what we can."
He remained sombre and made no reply. She repeated "Come!"
She took his arm. The living warmth of her hand animated him. He said:
"Do you wish it?"
"I can not leave you."
And, in her anxiety and anguish, she almost smiled, in thinking that he had succeeded so quickly by his folly.
"To-morrow?" said he, inquiringly.
She replied quickly, with a defensive instinct:
"Oh, no; not to-morrow!"
"You do not love me; you regret that you have promised."
"No, I do not regret, but--"
He implored, he supplicated her. She looked at him for a moment, turned her head, hesitated, and said, in a low tone:
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