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Donna Francesca had put off her mourning, and went into the world again during that winter. The world said that she might marry if she so pleased, and was somewhat inclined to wonder that she did not. She could have made a brilliant match if she had chosen. But instead, though she appeared everywhere where society was congregated together, she showed a tendency to religion which surprised her friends.
A tendency to religion existed in the Braccio family, together with various other tendencies not at all in harmony with it, nor otherwise edifying. Those other tendencies seemed to be absent in Francesca, and little by little her acquaintances began to speak of her as a devout person. The Prince of Gerano even hinted that she might some day be an abbess in the Carmelite Convent at Subiaco, as many a lady of the great house had been before her. But Francesca was not prepared to withdraw from the world altogether, though at the present time she was very unhappy.
She suspected herself of a great sin, besides reproaching herself bitterly with many of her deeds which deserved no blame at all. Yet she was by no means morbid, nor naturally inclined to perpetual self-examination. On the contrary, she had always been willing to accept life as a simple affair which could not offer any difficulties provided that one were what she meant by "good"—that is, honest in word and deed, and scrupulous in doing thoroughly and with right intention those things which her religion required of her, but in which only she herself could judge of her own sincerity.
Of late, however, she had felt that there was something very wrong in all her recent life. The certainty of it dawned by degrees, and then burst upon her suddenly one day when she was with Reanda.
She had long ago noticed the change in his manner, the harassed look, and the sad ring in his voice, and for a time his suffering was her sorrow, and there was a painful pleasure in being able to feel for him with all her heart. He had gone through a phase which had lasted many months, and the change was great between his former and his present self. He had suffered, but indifference was creeping upon him. It was clear enough. Nothing interested him but his art, and perhaps her own conversation, though even that seemed doubtful to her.
They were alone together on a winter's afternoon in the great hall. The work was almost done, and they had been talking of the more mechanical decorations, and of the style of the furniture.
"It is a big place," said Francesca, "but I mean to fill it. I like large rooms, and when it is finished, I will take up my quarters here, and call it my boudoir."
She smiled at the idea. The hall was at least fifty feet long by thirty wide.
"All the women I know have wretched little sitting-rooms in which they can hardly turn round," she said. "I will have all the space I like, and all the air and all the light. Besides, I shall always have the dear Cupid and Psyche, to remind me of you."
She spoke the last words with the simplicity of absolute innocence.
"And me?" he asked, as innocently and simply as she. "What will you do with me?"
"Whatever you like," she said, taking it quite for granted, as he did, that he was to work for her all his life. "You can have a studio in the house, just as it used to be, if you please. And you can paint the great canvas for the ceiling of the dining-room. Or shall I restore the old chapel? Which should you rather do—oil-painting, or fresco?"
"You would not want the altar piece which I should paint," he said, with sudden sadness.
"Santa Francesca?" she asked. "It would have to be Santa Francesca. The chapel is dedicated to her. You could make a beautiful picture of her—a portrait, perhaps—" she stopped.
"Of yourself? Yes, I could do that," he answered quickly.
"No," she said, and hesitated. "Of your wife," she added rather abruptly.
He started and looked at her, and she was sorry that she had spoken. Gloria's beautiful face had risen in her mind, and it had seemed generous to suggest the idea. Finding a difficulty in telling him, she had thought it her duty to be frank.
He laughed harshly before he answered her.
"No," he said. "Certainly not a portrait of my wife. Not even to please you. And that is saying much."
He spoke very bitterly. In the few words, he poured out the pent-up suffering of many months. Francesca turned pale.
"I know, and it is my fault," she said in a low voice.
"Your fault? No! But it is not mine."
His hands trembled violently as he took up his palette and brushes and began to mix some colours, not knowing what he was doing.
"It is my fault," said Francesca, still very white, and staring at the brick floor. "I have seen it. I could not speak of it. You are unhappy—miserable. Your life is ruined, and I have done it. I!"
She bit her lip almost before the last word was uttered; for it was stronger and louder than she had expected it to be, and the syllable rang with a despairing echo in the empty hall.
Reanda shook his head, and bent over his colours with shaking hands, but said nothing.
"I was so happy when you were married," said Francesca, forcing herself to speak calmly. "She seemed such a good wife for you—so young, so beautiful. And she loves you—"
"No." He shook his head energetically. "She does not love me. Do not say that, for it is not true. One does not love in that way—to-day a kiss, to-morrow a sting—to-day honey, to-morrow snake-poison. Do not say that it is love, for it is not true. The heart tells the truth, all alone in the breast. A thousand words cannot make it tell one lie. But for me—it is finished. Let us speak no more of love. Let us talk of our good friendship. It is better."
"Eh, let us speak of it, of this friendship! It has cost tears of blood!"
Francesca, in the sincerity of what she felt, relapsed into the Roman dialect. Almost all Romans do, under any emotion.
"Everything passes," answered Reanda, laying his palette aside, and beginning to walk up and down, his hands in his pockets. "This also will pass," he added, as he turned. "We are men. We shall forget."
"But not I. For I did it. Your sadness cuts my heart, because I did it. I—I alone. But for me, you would be free."
"Would to Heaven!" exclaimed the artist, almost under his breath. "But I will not have you say that it is your fault!" he cried, stopping before her. "I was the fool that believed. A man of my age—oh, a serious man—to marry a child! I should have known. At first, I do not say. I was the first. She thought she had paradise in her arms. A husband! They all want it, the husband. But I, who had lived and seen, I should have known. Fool, fool! Ignorant fool!"
The words came out vehemently in the strong dialect, and the nervous, heart-wrung man struck his breast with his clenched fist, and his eyes looked upward.
"Reanda, Reanda! What are you saying? When I tell you that I made you marry her! It was here,—I was in this very chair,—and I told you about her. And I asked her here with intention, that you might see how beautiful she was. And then, neither one nor two, she fell in love with you! It would have been a miracle if you had not married her. And her father, he was satisfied. May that day be accursed when I brought them here to torment you!"
She spoke excitedly, and her lip quivered. He began to walk again with rapid, uncertain strides.
"For that—yes!" he said. "Let the day bear the blame. But I was the madman. Who leaves the old way and follows the new knows what he leaves, but not what he may find. I might have been contented. I was so happy! God knows how happy I was!"
"And I!" exclaimed Francesca, involuntarily; but he did not hear her.
She felt a curious sense of elation, though she was so truly sorry for him, and it disturbed her strangely. She looked at him and smiled, and then wondered why the smile came. There is a ruthless cruelty in the half-unconscious impulses of the purest innocence, of which vice itself might be ashamed in its heart. It is simple humanity's assertion of its prior right to be happy. She smiled spontaneously because she knew that Reanda no longer loved Gloria, and she felt that he could not love her again; and for a while she was too simply natural to quarrel with herself for it, or to realize what it meant.
He was nervous, melancholy, and unstrung, and he began to talk about himself and his married life for the first time, pouring out his sufferings and thoughtless of what Francesca might think and feel. He, too, was natural. Unlike his wife, he detested emotion. To be angry was almost an illness to his over-finely organized temperament. In a way, Griggs had been right in saying that Reanda seemed to paint as an agent in the power of an unseen, directing influence. Beauty made him feel itself, and feel for it in his turn with his brush. The conception was before him, guiding his hand, before a stroke of the work was done. There was the lightning-like co-respondence and mutual reaction between thought and execution, which has been explained by some to be the simultaneous action of two minds in man, the subjective and the objective. In doing certain things he had the patience and the delicacy of one for whom time has no meaning. He could not have told whether his hand followed his eye, or his eye followed his hand. His whole being was of excessively sensitive construction, and emotion of any kind, even pleasure, jarred upon its hair-fine sensibilities. And yet, behind all this, there was the tenacity of the great artist and the phenomenal power of endurance, in certain directions, which is essential to prize-winning in the fight for fame. There was the quality of nerve which can endure great tension in one way, but can bear nothing in other ways.
He went on, giving vent to all he felt, talking to himself rather than to Francesca. He could not reproach his wife with any one action of importance. She was fond of Paul Griggs. But it was only Griggs! He smiled. In his eyes, the cold-faced man was no more than a stone. In their excursions into society she had met men whom he considered far more dangerous, men young, handsome, rich, having great names. They admired her and said so to her in the best language they had, which was no doubt often very eloquent. Had she ever looked twice at one of them? No. He could not reproach her with that. The Duchess of Astrardente was not more cold to her admirers than Gloria was. It was not that. There were little things, little nothings, but in thousands. He tried to please her with something, and she laughed in his face, or found fault. She had small hardnesses and little vulgarities of manner that drove him mad.
"I had thought her like you," he said suddenly, turning to Francesca. "She is not. She is coarse-grained. She has the soul of a peasant, with the face of a Madonna. What would you have? It is too much. Love is an illusion. I will have no more of it. Besides, love is dead. It would be easier to wake a corpse. I shall live. I may forget. Meanwhile there is our friendship. That is of gold."
Francesca listened in silence, thoughtful and with downcast eyes, as the short, disjointed sentences broke vehemently from his lips, each one accusing her in her own heart of having wrought the misery of two lives, one of which was very dear to her. Too dear, as she knew at last. The scarlet shame would have burned her face, if she had owned to herself that she loved this man, whom she had married to another, believing that she was making his happiness. She would not own it. Had she admitted it then, she would have been capable of leaving him within the hour, and of shutting herself up forever in the Convent at Subiaco to expiate the sin of the thought. It was monstrous in her eyes, and she would still refuse to see it.
But she owned that there was the suspicion, and that Angelo Reanda was far dearer to her than anything else on earth. Her innocence was so strong and spotless that it had a right to its one and only satisfaction. But what she felt for Reanda was either love, or it was blasphemy against the holy thing in whose place he stood in her temple. It must not be love, and therefore, as anything else, it was too much. And the strange joy she felt because Gloria was nothing to him, still filled her heart, though it began to torment her with the knowledge of evil which she had never understood.
There was much else against him, too, in her pride of race, and it helped her just then, for it told her how impossible it was that she, a princess of the house of Braccio, should love a mere artist, the son of a steward, whose forefathers had been bondsmen to her ancestors from time immemorial. It was out of the question, and she would not believe it of herself. Yet, as she looked into his delicate, spiritual face and watched the shades of expression that crossed it, she felt that it made little difference whence he came, since she understood him and he understood her.
She became confused by her own thoughts and grasped at the idea of a true and perfect friendship, with a somewhat desperate determination to see it and nothing else in it, for the rest of her life, rather than part with Angelo Reanda.
"Friends," she said thoughtfully. "Yes—always friends, you and I. But as a friend, Reanda, what can I do? I cannot help you."
"The time for help is past, if it ever came. You are a saint—pray for me. You can do that."
"But there is more than that to be done," she said, ready to sacrifice anything or everything just then. "Do not tell me it is hopeless. I will see your wife often and I will talk to her. I am older than she, and I can make her understand many things."
"Do not try it," said Reanda, in an altered tone. "I advise you not to try it. You can do no good there, and you might find trouble."
"Find trouble?" repeated Francesca, not understanding him. "What do you mean? Does she dislike me?"
"Have you not seen it?" he asked, with a bitter smile.
Francesca did not answer him at once, but bent her head again. Once or twice she looked up as though she were about to speak.
"It is as I tell you," said Reanda, nodding his head slowly.
Francesca made up her mind, but the scarlet blood rose in her face.
"It is better to be honest and frank," she said. "Is Gloria jealous of me?" She was so much ashamed that she could hardly look at him just then.
"Jealous! She would kill you!" he cried, and there was anger in his voice at the thought. "Do not go to her. Something might happen."
The blush in Francesca's face deepened and then subsided, and she grew very pale again.
"But if she is jealous, she loves you," she said earnestly and anxiously.
He shrugged his high thin shoulders, and the bitter smile came back to his face.
"It is a stage jealousy," he said cruelly. "How could she pass the time without something to divert her? She is always acting."
"But what is she jealous of?" asked Francesca. "How can she be jealous of me? Because you work here? She is free to come if she likes, and to stay all day. I do not understand."
"Who can understand her? God, who made her, understands her. I am only a man. I know only one thing, that I loved her and do not love her. And she makes a scene for every day. One day it is you, and another day it is the walls she does not like. You will forgive me, Princess. I speak frankly what comes to my mouth from my heart. The whole story is this. She makes my life intolerable. I am not an idle man, the first you may meet in society, to spend my time from morning to night in studying my wife's caprices. I am an artist. When I have worked I must have peace. I do not ask for intelligent conversation like yours. But I must have peace. One of these days I shall strangle her with my hands. The Lord will forgive me and understand. I am full of nerves. Is it my fault? She twists them as the women wring out clothes at the fountain. It is not a life; it is a hell."
"Poor Reanda! Poor Reanda!" repeated Francesca, softly.
"I do not pity myself," he said scornfully. "I have deserved it, and much more. But I am human. If it goes on a little longer, you may take me to Santo Spirito, for I am going mad. At least I should be there in holy peace. After her, the madmen would all seem doctors of wisdom. Do you know what will happen this evening? I go home. 'Where have you been?' she will ask. 'At the Palazzetto.' 'What have you been doing?' 'Painting—it is my trade.' 'Was Donna Francesca there?' 'Of course. She is mistress in her own house.' 'And what did you talk of?' 'How should I remember? We talked.' Then it will begin. It will be an inferno, as it always is. 'Leave hope behind, all ye that enter here!' I can say it, if ever man could! You are right to pity me. Before it is finished you will have reason to pity me still more. Let us hope it may finish soon. Either San Lorenzo, or Santo Spirito—with the mad or with the dead."
"Yes—poor Reanda, if you like. People envy me, they say I am a great artist. If they think so, let them say it. It seems to them that I am somebody." He laughed, almost hysterically. "Somebody! Stuff for Santo Spirito! That is all she has left me in two years—not yet two years."
"Do not talk of Santo Spirito," said Francesca. "You shall not go mad. When you are unhappy, think of our friendship and of all the hours you have here every day." She hesitated and seemed to make an effort over herself. "But it is impossible that it should be all over, so hopelessly and so soon. She is nervous, perhaps. The climate does not suit her—"
Reanda laughed wildly, for he was rapidly losing all control of himself.
"Therefore I should take her away and go and live somewhere else!" he cried. "That would be the end! I should tear her to pieces with my hands—"
"Hush, hush! You are talking madly—"
"I know it. There is reason. It will end badly, one of these days, unless I end first, and that may happen also. Without you it would have happened long ago. You are the good angel in my life, the one friend God has sent me in my tormented existence, the one star in my black sky. Be my friend still, always, for ever and ever, and I shall live forever only to be your friend. As for love—the devil and his demons will know what to do with it—they will find their account in it. They have lent it, and they will take their payment in blood and tears of those who believe them."
"But there is love in the world, somewhere," said Francesca, gently.
"Yes—and in hell! But not in heaven—where you will be."
Francesca sighed unconsciously, and looked long away towards the great windows at the end of the hall. Reanda gathered up his palette and brushes with a steadier hand. His anger had not spent itself, but it made him suddenly strong, and the outburst had relieved him, though it was certain that it would be followed by a reaction of profound despondency.
All at once he came close to Francesca. She looked up, half startled by his sudden movement.
"At least it is true—this one thing," he said. "I can count upon you."
"Yes. You can count upon me," she answered, gazing into his eyes.
He did not move. The one hand held his palette, the other hung free by his side. All at once she took it in hers, still looking up into his eyes.
"I am very fond of you," she said earnestly. "You can count upon me as long as we two live."
"God bless you," he said, more quietly than he had spoken yet, and his hand pressed hers a little.
There could be no harm in saying as much as that, she thought, when it was so true and so simply said. It was all she could ever say to him, or to herself, and there was no reason why she should not say it. He would not misunderstand her. No man could have mistaken the innocence that was the life and light of her clear eyes. She was glad she had said it, and she was glad long afterwards that she had said it on that day, quietly, when no one could hear them in the great still hall.
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