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Therese was dressed in sombre gray. The bushes on the border of the terrace were covered with silver stars and on the hillsides the laurel-trees threw their odoriferous flame. The cup of Florence was in bloom.
Vivian Bell walked, arrayed in white, in the fragrant garden.
"You see, darling, Florence is truly the city of flowers, and it is not inappropriate that she should have a red lily for her emblem. It is a festival to-day, darling."
"A festival, to-day?"
"Darling, do you not know this is the first day of May? You did not wake this morning in a charming fairy spectacle? Do you not celebrate the Festival of Flowers? Do you not feel joyful, you who love flowers? For you love them, my love, I know it: you are very good to them. You said to me that they feel joy and pain; that they suffer as we do."
"Ah! I said that they suffer as we do?"
"Yes, you said it. It is their festival to-day. We must celebrate it with the rites consecrated by old painters."
Therese heard without understanding. She was crumpling under her glove a letter which she had just received, bearing the Italian postage-stamp, and containing only these two lines:
"I am staying at the Great Britain Hotel, Lungarno Acciaoli. I shall expect you to-morrow morning. No. 18."
"Darling, do you not know it is the custom of Florence to celebrate spring on the first day of May every year? Then you did not understand the meaning of Botticelli's picture consecrated to the Festival of Flowers. Formerly, darling, on the first day of May the entire city gave itself up to joy. Young girls, crowned with sweetbrier and other flowers, made a long cortege through the Corso, under arches, and sang choruses on the new grass. We shall do as they did. We shall dance in the garden."
"Ah, we shall dance in the garden?"
"Yes, darling; and I will teach you Tuscan steps of the fifteenth century which have been found in a manuscript by Mr. Morrison, the oldest librarian in London. Come back soon, my love; we shall put on flower hats and dance."
"Yes, dear, we shall dance," said Therese.
And opening the gate, she ran through the little pathway that hid its stones under rose-bushes. She threw herself into the first carriage she found. The coachman wore forget-me-nots on his hat and on the handle of his whip:
"Great Britain Hotel, Lungarno Acciaoli."
She knew where that was, Lungarno Acciaoli. She had gone there at sunset, and she had seen the rays of the sun on the agitated surface of the river. Then night had come, the murmur of the waters in the silence, the words and the looks that had troubled her, the first kiss of her lover, the beginning of incomparable love. Oh, yes, she recalled Lungarno Acciaoli and the river-side beyond the old bridge--Great Britain Hotel--she knew: a big stone facade on the quay. It was fortunate, since he would come, that he had gone there. He might as easily have gone to the Hotel de la Ville, where Dechartre was. It was fortunate they were not side by side in the same corridor. Lungarno Acciaoli! The dead body which they had seen pass was at peace somewhere in the little flowery cemetery.
It was a bare hotel room, with a stove in the Italian fashion, a set of brushes displayed on the table, and a time-table. Not a book, not a journal. He was there; she saw suffering on his bony face, a look of fever. This produced on her a sad impression. He waited a moment for a word, a gesture; but she dared do nothing. He offered a chair. She refused it and remained standing.
"Therese, something has happened of which I do not know. Speak."
After a moment of silence, she replied, with painful slowness:
"My friend, when I was in Paris, why did you go away from me?"
By the sadness of her accent he believed, he wished to believe, in the expression of an affectionate reproach. His face colored. He replied, ardently:
"Ah, if I could have foreseen! That hunting party--I cared little for it, as you may think! But you--your letter, that of the twenty-seventh"--he had a gift for dates--"has thrown me into a horrible anxiety. Something has happened. Tell me everything."
"My friend, I believed you had ceased to love me."
"But now that you know the contrary?"
She paused, her arms fell before her and her hands were joined.
Then, with affected tranquillity, she continued:
"Well, my friend, we took each other without knowing. One never knows. You are young; younger than I, since we are of the same age. You have, doubtless, projects for the future."
He looked at her proudly. She continued:
"Your family, your mother, your aunts, your uncle the General, have projects for you. That is natural. I might have become an obstacle. It is better that I should disappear from your life. We shall keep a fond remembrance of each other."
She extended her gloved hand. He folded his arms:
"Then, you do not want me? You have made me happy, as no other man ever was, and you think now to brush me aside? Truly, you seem to think you have finished with me. What have you come to say to me? That it was a liaison, which is easily broken? That people take each other, quit each other--well, no! You are not a person whom one can easily quit."
"Yes," said Therese, "you had perhaps given me more of your heart than one does ordinarily in such 180 cases. I was more than an amusement for you. But, if I am not the woman you thought I was, if I have deceived you, if I am frivolous--you know people have said so--well, if I have not been to you what I should have been--"
She hesitated, and continued in a brave tone, contrasting with what she said:
"If, while I was yours, I have been led astray; if I have been curious; if I say to you that I was not made for serious sentiment--"
He interrupted her:
"You are not telling the truth."
"No, I am not telling the truth. And I do not know how to lie. I wished to spoil our past. I was wrong. It was--you know what it was. But--"
"I have always told you I was not sure of myself. There are women, it is said, who are sure of themselves. I warned you that I was not like them."
He shook his head violently, like an irritated animal.
"What do you mean? I do not understand. I understand nothing. Speak clearly. There is something between us. I do not know what. I demand to know what it is. What is it?"
"There is the fact that I am not a woman sure of herself, and that you should not rely on me. No, you should not rely on me. I had promised nothing--and then, if I had promised, what are words?"
"You do not love me. Oh, you love me no more! I can see it. But it is so much the worse for you! I love you. You should not have given yourself to me. Do not think that you can take yourself back. I love you and I shall keep you. So you thought you could get out of it very quietly? Listen a moment. You have done everything to make me love you, to attach me to you, to make it impossible for me to live without you.
"Six weeks ago you asked for nothing better. You were everything for me, I was everything for you. And now you desire suddenly that I should know you no longer; that you should be to me a stranger, a lady whom one meets in society. Ah, you have a fine audacity! Have I dreamed? All the past is a dream? I invented it all? Oh, there can be no doubt of it. You loved me. I feel it still. Well, I have not changed. I am what I was; you have nothing to complain of. I have not betrayed you for other women. It isn't credit that I claim. I could not have done it. When one has known you, one finds the prettiest women insipid. I never have had the idea of deceiving you. I have always acted well toward you. Why should you not love me? Answer! Speak! Say you love me still. Say it, since it is true. Come, Therese, you will feel at once that you love as you loved me formerly in the little nest where we were so happy. Come!"
He approached her ardently. She, her eyes full of fright, pushed him away with a kind of horror.
He understood, stopped, and said:
"You have a lover."
She bent her head, then lifted it, grave and dumb.
Then he made a gesture as if to strike her, and at once recoiled in shame. He lowered his eyes and was silent. His fingers to his lips, and biting his nails, he saw that his hand had been pricked by a pin on her waist, and bled. He threw himself in an armchair, drew his handkerchief to wipe off the blood, and remained indifferent and without thought.
She, with her back to the door, her face calm and pale, her look vague, arranged her hat with instinctive care. At the noise, formerly delicious, that the rustle of her skirts made, he started, looked at her, and asked furiously:
"Who is he? I will know."
She did not move. She replied with soft firmness:
"I have told you all I can. Do not ask more; it would be useless."
He looked at her with a cruel expression which she had never seen before.
"Oh, do not tell me his name. It will not be difficult for me to find it."
She said not a word, saddened for him, anxious for another, full of anguish and fear, and yet without regret, without bitterness, because her real soul was elsewhere.
He had a vague sensation of what passed in her mind. In his anger to see her so sweet and so serene, to find her beautiful, and beautiful for another, he felt a desire to kill her, and he shouted at her:
Then, weakened by this effort of hatred, which was not natural to him, he buried his head in his hands and sobbed.
His pain touched her, gave her the hope of quieting him. She thought she might perhaps console him for her loss. Amicably and comfortably she seated herself beside him.
"My friend, blame me. I am to blame, but more to be pitied. Disdain me, if you wish, if one can disdain an unfortunate creature who is the plaything of life. In fine, judge me as you wish. But keep for me a little friendship in your anger, a little bitter-sweet reminiscence, something like those days of autumn when there is sunlight and strong wind. That is what I deserve. Do not be harsh to the agreeable but frivolous visitor who passed through your life. Bid good-by to me as to a traveller who goes one knows not where, and who is sad. There is so much sadness in separation! You were irritated against me a moment ago. Oh, I do not reproach you for it. I only suffer for it. Reserve a little sympathy for me. Who knows? The future is always unknown. It is very gray and obscure before me. Let me say to myself that I have been kind, simple, frank with you, and that you have not forgotten it. In time you will understand, you will forgive; to-day have a little pity."
He was not listening to her words. He was appeased simply by the caress of her voice, of which the tone was limpid and clear. He exclaimed:
"You do not love him. I am the one whom you love. Then--"
"Ah, to say whom one loves or loves not is not an easy thing for a woman, or at least for me. I do not know how other women do. But life is not good to me. I am tossed to and fro by force of circumstances."
He looked at her calmly. An idea came to him. He had taken a resolution; he forgave, he forgot, provided she returned to him at once.
"Therese, you do not love him. It was an error, a moment of forgetfulness, a horrible and stupid thing that you did through weakness, through surprise, perhaps in spite. Swear to me that you never will see him again."
He took her arm:
"Swear to me!"
She said not a word, her teeth were set, her face was sombre. He wrenched her wrist. She exclaimed:
"You hurt me!"
However, he followed his idea; he led her to the table, on which, near the brushes, were an ink-stand, and several leaves of letter-paper ornamented with a large blue vignette, representing the facade of the hotel, with innumerable windows.
"Write what I am about to dictate to you. I will call somebody to take the letter."
And as she resisted, he made her fall on her knees. Proud and determined, she said:
"I can not, I will not."
"Because--do you wish to know?--because I love him."
Brusquely he released her. If he had had his revolver at hand, perhaps he would have killed her. But almost at once his anger was dampened by sadness; and now, desperate, he was the one who wished to die.
"Is what you say true? Is it possible?"
"How do I know? Can I say? Do I understand? Have I an idea, a sentiment, about anything?"
With an effort she added:
"Am I at this moment aware of anything except my sadness and your despair?"
"You love him, you love him! What is he, who is he, that you should love him?"
His surprise made him stupid; he was in an abyss of astonishment. But what she had said separated them. He dared not complain. He only repeated:
"You love him, you love him! But what has he done to you, what has he said, to make you love him? I know you. I have not told you every time your ideas shocked me. I would wager he is not even a man in society. And you believe he loves you? You believe it? Well, you are deceiving yourself. He does not love you. You flatter him, simply. He will quit you at the first opportunity. When he shall have compromised you, he will abandon you. Next year people will say of you: 'She is not at all exclusive.' I am sorry for your father; he is one of my friends, and will know of your behavior. You can not expect to deceive him."
She listened, humiliated but consoled, thinking how she would have suffered had she found him generous.
In his simplicity he sincerely disdained her. This disdain relieved him.
"How did the thing happen? You can tell me."
She shrugged her shoulders with so much pity that he dared not continue. He became contemptuous again.
"Do you imagine that I shall aid you in saving appearances, that I shall return to your house, that I shall continue to call on your husband?"
"I think you will continue to do what a gentleman should. I ask nothing of you. I should have liked to preserve of you the reminiscence of an excellent friend. I thought you might be indulgent and kind to, me, but it is not possible. I see that lovers never separate kindly. Later, you will judge me better. Farewell!"
He looked at her. Now his face expressed more pain than anger. She never had seen his eyes so dry and so black. It seemed as if he had grown old in an hour.
"I prefer to tell you in advance. It will be impossible for me to see you again. You are not a woman whom one may meet after one has been loved by her. You are not like others. You have a poison of your own, which you have given to me, and which I feel in me, in my veins. Why have I known you?"
She looked at him kindly.
"Farewell! Say to yourself that I am not worthy of being regretted so much."
Then, when he saw that she placed her hand on the latch of the door, when he felt at that gesture that he was to lose her, that he should never have her again, he shouted. He forgot everything. There remained in him only the dazed feeling of a great misfortune accomplished, of an irreparable calamity. And from the depth of his stupor a desire ascended. He desired to possess again the woman who was leaving him and who would never return. He drew her to him. He desired her, with all the strength of his animal nature. She resisted with all the force of her will, which was free and on the alert. She disengaged herself, crumpled, torn, without even having been afraid.
He understood that everything was useless; he realized she was no longer for him, because she belonged to another. As his suffering returned, he pushed her out of the door.
She remained a moment in the corridor, proudly waiting for a word.
But he shouted again, "Go!" and shut the door violently.
On the Via Alfieri, she saw again the pavilion in the rear of the courtyard where pale grasses grew. She found it silent and tranquil, faithful, with its goats and nymphs, to the lovers of the time of the Grand Duchess Eliza. She felt at once freed from the painful, brutal world, and transported to ages wherein she had not known the sadness of life. At the foot of the stairs, the steps of which were covered with roses, Dechartre was waiting. She threw herself in his arms. He carried her inert, like a precious trophy before which he had become pallid and trembling. She enjoyed, her eyelids half closed, the superb humiliation of being a beautiful prey. Her fatigue, her sadness, her disgust with the day, the reminiscence of violence, her regained liberty, the need of forgetting, remains of fright, everything vivified, awakened her tenderness. She threw her arms around the neck of her lover.
They were as gay as children. They laughed, said tender nothings, played, ate lemons, oranges, and other fruits piled up near-them on painted plates. Her lips, half-open, showed her brilliant teeth. She asked, with coquettish anxiety, if he were not disillusioned after the beautiful dream he had made of her.
In the caressing light of the day, for the enjoyment of which he had arranged, he contemplated her with youthful joy. He lavished praise and kisses upon her. They forgot themselves in caresses, in friendly quarrels, in happy glances.
He asked her how a little red mark on her temple had come there. She replied that she had forgotten; that it was nothing. She hardly lied; she had really forgotten.
They recalled to each other their short but beautiful history, all their life, which began upon the day when they had met.
"You know, on the terrace, the day after your arrival, you said vague things to me. I guessed that you loved me."
"I was afraid to seem stupid to you."
"You were, a little. It was my triumph. It made me impatient to see you so little troubled near me. I loved you before you loved me. Oh, I do not blush for it!"
He gave her a glass of Asti. But there was a bottle of Trasimene. She wished to taste it, in memory of the lake which she had seen silent and beautiful at night in its opal cup. That was when she had first visited Italy, six years before.
He chided her for having discovered the beauty of things without his aid.
"Without you, I did not know how to see anything. Why did you not come to me before?"
He closed her lips with a kiss. Then she said:
"Yes, I love you! Yes, I never have loved any one but you!"
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