The Red Lily, by Anatole France

Chapter 20

What is Frankness?

In the square, where the spring sun scattered its yellow roses, the bells at noon dispersed the rustic crowd of grain-merchants assembled to sell their wares. At the foot of the Lanzi, before the statues, the venders of ices had placed, on tables covered with red cotton, small castles bearing the inscription: ‘Bibite ghiacciate’. And joy descended from heaven to earth. Therese and Jacques, returning from an early promenade in the Boboli Gardens, were passing before the illustrious loggia. Therese looked at the Sabine by John of Bologna with that interested curiosity of a woman examining another woman. But Dechartre looked at Therese only. He said to her:

“It is marvellous how the vivid light of day flatters your beauty, loves you, and caresses the mother-of-pearl on your cheeks.”

“Yes,” she said. “Candle-light hardens my features. I have observed this. I am not an evening woman, unfortunately. It is at night that women have a chance to show themselves and to please. At night, Princess Seniavine has a fine blond complexion; in the sun she is as yellow as a lemon. It must be owned that she does not care. She is not a coquette.”

“And you are?”

“Oh, yes. Formerly I was a coquette for myself, now I am a coquette for you.”

She looked at the Sabine woman, who with her waving arms, long and robust, tried to avoid the Roman’s embraces.

“To be beautiful, must a woman have that thin form and that length of limb? I am not shaped in that way.”

He took pains to reassure her. But she was not disturbed about it. She was looking now at the little castle of the ice-vender. A sudden desire had come to her to eat an ice standing there, as the working-girls of the city stood.

“Wait a moment,” said Dechartre.

He ran toward the street that follows the left side of the Lanzi, and disappeared.

After a moment he came back, and gave her a little gold spoon, the handle of which was finished in a lily of Florence, with its chalice enamelled in red.

“You must eat your ice with this. The man does not give a spoon with his ices. You would have had to put out your tongue. It would have been pretty, but you are not accustomed to it.”

She recognized the spoon, a jewel which she had remarked the day before in the showcase of an antiquarian.

They were happy; they disseminated their joy, which was full and simple, in light words which had no sense. And they laughed when the Florentine repeated to them passages of the old Italian writers. She enjoyed the play of his face, which was antique in style and jovial in expression. But she did not always understand what he said. She asked Jacques:

“What did he say?”

“Do you really wish to know?”

Yes, she wished to know.

“Well, he said he should be happy if the fleas in his bed were shaped like you!”

When she had eaten the ice, he asked her to return to San Michele. It was so near! They would cross the square and at once discover the masterpiece in stone. They went. They looked at the St. George and at the bronze St. Mark. Dechartre saw again on the wall the post-box, and he recalled with painful exactitude the little gloved hand that had dropped the letter. He thought it hideous, that copper mouth which had swallowed Therese’s secret. He could not turn his eyes away from it. All his gayety had fled. She admired the rude statue of the Evangelist.

“It is true that he looks honest and frank, and it seems that, if he spoke, nothing but words of truth would come out of his mouth.”

He replied bitterly:

“It is not a woman’s mouth.”

She understood his thought, and said, in her soft tone:

“My friend, why do you say this to me? I am frank.”

“What do you call frank? You know that a woman is obliged to lie.”

She hesitated. Then she said:

“A woman is frank when she does not lie uselessly.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06