The sky was blue, with light clouds that looked like swans slowly sailing on the waters of a lake, and the atmosphere was so warm, so saturated with the subtle odors of the mimosas, that Madame de Viellemont ordered coffee to be served on the terrace which overlooked the sea.
And while the steam rose from the delicate china cups, one felt an almost inexpressible pleasure in looking at the sails, which were gradually becoming lost in the mysterious distance, and at the almost motionless sea, which had the sheen of jewels, which attracted the eyes like the looks of a dreamy woman.
Monsieur de Pardeillac, who had arrived from Paris, fresh from the remembrance of the last election there, from that Carnival of variegated posters, which for weeks had imparted the strange aspect of some Oriental bazaar to the whole city, had just been relating the victory of The General, and went on to say that those who had thought that the game was lost, were beginning to hope again.
After listening to him, old Count de Lancolme, who had spent his whole life in rummaging libraries, and who had certainly compiled more manuscripts than any Benedectine friar, shook his bald head, and exclaimed in his shrill, rather mocking voice:
“Will you allow me to tell you a very old story, which has just come into my head, while you were speaking, my dear friend, which I read formerly in an old Italian city, though I forget at this moment where it was?
“It happened in the fifteenth century, which is far removed from our epoch, but you shall judge for yourselves whether it might not have happened yesterday.
“Since the day, when mad with rage and rebellion, the town had made a bonfire of the Ducal palace, and had ignominiously expelled that patrician who had been their podestat1, as if he had been some vicious scoundrel, had thrust his lovely daughter into a convent, and had forced his sons, who might have claimed their parental heritage, and have again imposed the abhorred yoke upon them, into a monastery, the town had never known any prosperous times. One after another the shops closed, and money became as scarce as if there had been an invasion of barbarian hordes, who had emptied the State treasury, and stolen the last gold coin.
1 Venetian and Genoese magistrate. — TRANSLATOR.]
“The poor people were in abject misery, and in vain held out their hands to passers-by under the church porches, and in the squares, while only the watchmen disturbed the silence of the starlit nights, by their monotonous and melancholy call, which announced the flight of the hours as they passed.
“There were no more serenades; no longer did viols and flutes trouble the slumbers of the lovers’ choice; no longer were amorous arms thrown round women’s supple waists, nor were bottles of red wine put to cool in the fountains under the trees. There were no more love adventures, to the rhythm of laughter and of kisses; nothing but heavy, monotonous weariness, and the anxiety as to what the next day might bring forth, and ceaseless, unbridled ambitions and lusts.
“The palaces were deserted, one by one, as if the plague were raging, and the nobility had fled to Florence and to Rome. In the beginning, the common people, artisans and shop-keepers had installed themselves in power, as in a conquered city, and had seized posts of honor and well-paid offices, and had sacked the Treasury with their greedy and eager hands. After them, came the middle classes, and those solemn upstarts and hypocrites, like leathern bottles blown out with wind, acting the tyrant and lying without the least shame, disowned their former promises, and would soon have given the finishing stroke to the unfortunate city, which was already at its last shifts.
“Discontent was increasing, and the sbirri2 could scarcely find time to tear the seditious placards, which had been posted up by unknown hands, from the walls.
2 Italian police officers. — TRANSLATOR]
“But now that the old podestat had died in exile, worn out with grief, and that his children, who had been brought up under monastic rules, and were accustomed to nothing so much as to praying, thought only of their own salvation, there was nobody who could take his place.
“And so these kinglets profited by the occasion to strut about at their ease like great nobles, to cram themselves with luxurious meals, to increase their property by degrees, to put everything up for sale, and to get rid of those who, later on, could have called for accounts, and have nailed them to the pillory by their ears.
“Their arrogance knew no bounds, and when they were questioned about their acts, they only replied by menaces or raillery, and this state of affairs lasted for twenty years, when, as war was imminent with Lucca, the Council raised troops and enrolled mercenaries. Several battles were fought in which the enemy was beaten and was obliged to flee, abandoning their colors, their arms, prisoners, and all the booty in their camp.
“The man who had led the soldiers from battle, whom they had acclaimed as triumphant and laurel-crowned Caesar, around their campfires, was a poor condottiere3, who possessed nothing in the world except his clothes, his buff jerkin and his heavy sword.
3 Italian mercenary or free-lance, in the Middle Ages. — TRANSLATOR.]
“They called him Hercules, on account of his strong muscles, his imposing build, and his large head, and also Malavista, because in those butcheries he had no pity, no weakness, but seemed, with his great murderous arms, as if he had the long reach of death itself. He had neither title, deeds, fortune, nor relations, for he had been born one night in the tent of a female camp follower; for a long time, an old, broken drum had been his cradle, and he had grown up anyhow, without knowing those maternal kisses and endearments that warm the heart, or the pleasure of not always sleeping on a hard bed, or of always eating tough beef, or of being obliged to tighten his sword belt when luck had turned like a weathercock when the wind shifts, and a man would gladly give all his share of the next booty for a moldy crust of bread and a glass of water.
“He was a simple and a brave man, whose heart was as virgin as some virgin shore, on which no human foot has ever yet left its imprint.
“The Chiefs of the Council were imprudent enough to summon Hercules Malavista within the walls of the town, and to celebrate his arrival with almost imperial splendor, more, however, to deceive the people and to regain their waning popularity by means of some one else, by a ceremony copied from those of Pagan Rome, than to honor and recompense the services of a soldier whom they despised at the bottom of their hearts.
“The bells rang a full peal, and the archbishop and clergy and choir boys went to meet the Captain, singing psalms and hymns of joy, as if it might have been Easter. The streets and squares were strewn with branches of box roses and marjoram, while the meanest homes were decorated with flags, and hung with drapery and rich stuffs.
“The conqueror came in through Trajan’s gate, bare-headed, and with the symbolical golden laurel wreath on his head; and sitting on his horse, that was as black as a starless night, he appeared even taller, more vigorous and more masculine than he really was. He had a joyous and tranquil smile on his lips, and a hidden fire was burning in his eyes, and his soldiers bore the flags and the trophies that he had gained, before him, and behind him there was a noise of clashing partisans and cross-bows, and of loud voices shouting vivats in his honor.
“In this fashion he traversed all the quarters of the town, and even the suburbs. The women thought him handsome and proud, blew kisses to him, and held up their children so that they might see him, and he might touch them, and the men cheered him, and looked at him with emotion, and many of them reflected and dreamt about that bright, unknown man, who appeared to be surrounded by a halo of glory.
“The members of the Council began to perceive the extent of the almost irreparable fault that they had committed, and did not know what to do in order to ward off the danger by which they were menaced, and to rid themselves of a guest who was quite ready to become their master. They saw clearly that their hours were numbered, that they were approaching that fatal period at which rioting becomes imminent, when the leaders are carried away with it, like pieces of straw in a swift current.
“Hercules could not show himself in public without being received with shouts of acclamation and noisy greetings, and deputations from the nobility, as well as from the people, came repeatedly and told him that he had only to make a sign and to say a word, for his name to be in every mouth, and for his authority to be accepted. They begged him on their knees to accept the supreme authority, as though he would be conferring a favor on them, but the free-lance did not seem to understand them, and repelled their offers with the superb indifference of a soldier who has nothing to do with the people or a crown.
“At length, however, his resistance grew weaker; he felt the intoxication of power, and grew accustomed to the idea of holding the lives of thousands in his hands, of having a palace, arsenals full of arms, chests full of gold, ships which he could send on adventurous cruises wherever he pleased, and of governing that city, with all its houses and all its churches, and of being a leading figure at all grand functions in the cathedral.
“The shop-keepers and merchants were overcome by terror at this, and bowed before the shadow of that great sword, which might sweep them all away and upset their false weights and scales. So they assembled secretly in a monastery of the Carmelite friars outside the gates of the city, and a short time afterwards the weaver Marconelli, and the money-changer Rippone brought Giaconda, who was one of the most beautiful courtesans in Venice, and who knew every secret in the Art of Love, and whose kisses were a foretaste of Paradise, back with them from that city. She soon managed to touch the soldier with her delicate, fair skin, to make him inhale its bewitching odor in close proximity, and to dazzle him with her large, dark eyes, in which the reflection of stars seemed to shine, and when he had once tasted that feast of love, and that heavy wine of kisses, when he had clasped that pink and white body in his arms, and had listened to that voice which sounded as soft as music, and which promised him eternities of joy, and vowed to him eternities of pleasures, Hercules lost his head, and forgot his dreams and his oaths.
“Why lose precious hours in conspiring, in deluding himself with chimeras; why risk his life when he loved and was loved, and when the minutes were all too short, when he would have wished never to detach his lips from those of the woman he loved?
“And so he did whatever Gioconda demanded.
“They fled from the city, without even telling the sentinels who were on guard before his palace. They went far, far away, as they could not find any retreat that was sufficiently unknown and hidden, and at last they stopped at a small, quiet fishing village, where there were gardens full of lemon trees, where the deserted beach looked as if it were covered with gold, and where the sea was a deep blue until it was lost in the distance. And while the captain and the courtesan loved each other and wore themselves out with pleasure — with the enchantment of the sea close to them — the irritated citizens, whom he had left were clamoring for their idol, were indignant at his desertion, and tore up the paving stones in the streets, to stone the man who had betrayed their confidence and worship.
“And they pulled his statue down from its pedestal, amidst spiteful songs and jokes, and the members of the Council breathed again . . . as they were no longer afraid of the great sword.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58