MEANWHILE, the woman of his vision let her people unclothe her, and she lay down in her white soft bed, and thought: the storm might beat without, she paid no heed to it; it might wreck boats, flood fields, kill birds and beasts and butterflies, send men and women homeless over ravaged farms — but her it could not hurt. Why should she think of it?
She was amused, and yet there was disquiet at her heart.
She hated all the old dead time; hated the bare memory of it:— of its hunger, of its cold, of its hardship, of her little naked feet, of her dirty, merry, kindly father, of her bed of hay, of her platter of wood. She hated it all; and it had sprung up before her suddenly till it all seemed alive.
She liked never to think of it — never. It was for this that in Venice, seeing her old playmate the hero of the hour, she had left the city whilst still unknown to him.
And yet she had wanted to show herself to him.
“Chance shall choose,” she said to herself, and when she had recognised him in the moonlight among the orange‐leaves she had walked straight to him.
She was glad upon the whole; though ruffled, and disturbed, and angered, too, because of his strange way of taking things.
It made her lie awake and think of the old years, and the skill with which she, a little hungry ragged child, one amongst many, had got to have her beauty known all over many cities, and to have those big pearls — big as linnets’ eggs — about her throat, when she was tired of her diamonds. But pearls best became her; that she knew. Older women have need of diameters to lend new lustre to dimmed charms; but she was fresh as any rose. And she was known as “Innocence.” So she wore oftenest her big pearls, that no empress could have beaten; as her sister peasants away in Tuscany wore their little seed‐pearls on feast‐days amongst the brown hillfields.
Lying awake now, with the blue of her eyes just gleaming under her curled lashes, she thought of that fair day in Prato, and of the sunny tamarisk trees by the shore, and of her struggle from the window, and her hurry across the wharves, and her escape in the brown‐sailed fishing‐smack that her captor had bribed to take them over the open sea.
She thought of how she had laughed and danced and clapped her hands as the rough old boat spread its wet sail, and rocked and tore before the wind that rose as the day declined, and blew hot and hard from the south‐east, while the man said to her, “No more black bread, my pretty pet: all cakes and fruit in the future.”
It had not been all cakes and fruit at first.
When he was sure of her he beat her. She bit his hand through. He tumbled her amongst a score of other children, older and younger, and took them to northern cities, and sent them about, some on stilts and in spangles, some with white mice and music, some with little statues — all thrashed, and starved, and made to do his bidding.
Her fate was what the Lastra fancied that it was, knowing how many children of this sort there are kidnapped, to shiver in the wet sad north.
But this endured only a very little while, with her.
She was so pretty. He knew her value. He would not leave her too hungry, or send her out in too cold weather. He knew that she was like a good wine, and would pay well for keeping.
One day, however, once more he beat her.
She darted into the street, and showed her little shoulders, and all the bruises, and sobbing drew a crowd grieved and indignant round her.
The crowd set on the man, and hounded him out of the town under a rain of stones; a good old woman took her home, weeping over her, and gave her a home.
That was three months after the fair at Prato, and took place in the town of Mechlin.
She lived there a few years like a little mouse in a sugar closet; the woman was aged, childless, and well off, keeping a lace shop in the midst of the beautiful, grave, quaint, grey little city.
She was petted, pampered, fed on dainties; she teased all the girls, and made all the boys slaves for her; she learned to read; she stole anything she wished for and could not get without stealing, and was either never found out, or else always forgiven; people said she had a face like the little Jesus.
Then she got tired. At Kermesse there came into the place a troop of players.
She went to see them.
The chief of them said to himself, “What a beautiful child!” and spoke to her a little later as she trotted to mass.
He tempted her to join them. She was too young to act, but she could sing a little. He said he would make pieces on purpose for her. She should just show herself; he said that would be enough. He painted the world and his wandering life in bright colours.
She pondered well, and weighed the matter, as her wont was, with solid sense, and no idle misleadings of fancy. She never dreamed. She only said to herself, “What is best for me?” and what she saw was best she chose.
If any one suffered by her doing, she said to them, as the ploughman to the flower, “Is it my fault that you grow in my way?”
Born in a little hut in the green leafy solitudes of a garden, she had been gifted at birth with the fine sense which leads straight to success: the sense of the paramount claims of self.
She pondered awhile till the players were on the wing; then she took a pretty quantity of the oldest and most delicate lace, some gold out of the till in the little shop, and all her clothes, and went with them, slipping out of the house at night whilst the old woman was sleeping.
“I can always go back if I want,” she thought. “She will always forgive me anything.”
And she ran out of the city to join her new friends outside the gates, with a heavy bundle but a light heart.
She was then thirteen.
The old woman who loved her, waking to her loss, would not believe that the child was to blame; and when people told her that the child had been seen going out of her own free will to the north, she would not credit them: robbers had taken the lace and the gold, and killed the child — that was her certainty. And being old, and all alone, and taking it too much to heart, she was never able to leave her bed again, and in a few weeks died of it.
Meanwhile the child throve.
The people she had joined were gay and good‐natured. and merry if not wise; and in their way well to do. They adored her. She did as she liked. For the lace she had taken no one molested her. She showed herself nightly in little bright laughter‐loving towns and cities. She had little to do, still less to say; they looked at her: that was quite enough.
She had not talent of any kind; but she had a shrewd sense that to let her lovely baby face look like a little angel‐s was enough: and it was so.
When she was nearly sixteen, the people went to play in the city of Paris. She said to herself, “Now!”
She refused to play with a true foresight — she would not cheapen herself. She put her old white Flemish lace all about her like a cloud; she looked half like a cherub, half like a nun. She went and strayed by herself through gilded gates into the first public gardens that she saw.
It was summer, and the alleys were full of people; they all looked after her; she thought how good a thing it was to live.
The painter Istriel met her.
He was rich.
The players saw her no more.
After three months he painted her as “Innocence” looking with wondering eyes upon the world.
Nature gave her loveliness; Istriel gave her fashion.
Three years later he painted her as the sister of the Seven Dancers.
But by that time he had had many rivals.
He professed content. He cherished bitterest remembrance.
She had only used him. He had loved her.
To others he seemed to have passed from her lover to her friend indifferently; himself he knew that jealousy would never die in him whilst she had life.
She knew it too. It diverted her.
It never prevented her from smiling on whosoever most pleased her caprices and most lavished upon her the wealth she loved.
For the rest, she was at the height of her supremacy, and she never let it make her dizzy; she kept the calm, wise, steady judgment of her own advantage that she had possessed even when a little child; and she cherished her loveliness, studied her health, moderated her follies, and garnered her riches with a wisdom most rare in her world of pleasure.
Many lost fortune, many their senses, some few their lives for her.
Nothing of that kind stirred her for a moment.
The vainest could not flatter himself that he owed her smile to anything except his jewels and his gold; the vainest could not deceive himself that she had ever loved him.
She loved herself; just as much now that she had the world at her feet, as when she had been a little child, eating the white currants and green almonds in her nest of hay.
Love, though the highest selfish ecstasy, must yet have self‐forgetfulness.
She had none.
She could enjoy. But she could not suffer.
“How much shall I tell him?” she thought, lying with half‐closed eyes watching the lights flicker over the ivory and silver of her mirror.
Why should she tell him anything? Why should she see him? She did not want him. To her he would never be anything but Signa; the little, silly, dreaming fellow that had run about for her, and given up his fruit for her, and fallen into fault uncomplainingly for her sake. She had made him her stepping‐stone to fortune; then had done with him: why not?
And yet now she had seen him, she did not choose to let him go.
He condemned her; he sorrowed over her; he rebuked her; — he! — who had been her little slave, running where she would, and doing her will in the summer dust of the Lastra.
With noon she was ready for him.
She was alone in the little lake palace.
It belonged to the painter Istriel.
When she wanted rest and seclusion she went to it, knowing how to keep her beauty fresh and render her favour more precious.
He was content that men should think his old ties with her not wholly broken.
He was now in the steppes of the North. He had visited her passing by. She always smiled on him. She was a little afraid of him.
Besides, she never turned any man against her; she only would have her own way always — that was all. She wore her lovers as she did her jewels: some had their turn often, some seldom, some for ever waited for a day that never came — but all were hers; she could shut them in the hollow of her rosy hand, as in the gardens of Giovoli she had held the butterflies.
She was never swept away on any strong tide; not even of caprice.
She kept her brain clear always.
She was not clever; but she had far sight.
She got all the best the world could give her, and was as calm amidst it all as a dormouse in its nest of wool. No one could quote a folly against her.
She walked wisely.
With noon they told her Signa had come there. She let him wait. She always let them wait. Waiting heightened the imagination and spurred expectancy. Besides she was never in any haste herself.
He had been shown into a little cabinet, which had statues in it and one great window looking on the lake.
He was standing when she entered.
He was very pale; he had been all daybreak on the shore, rendering what help he could against the storm which now had passed away entirely, and had gone southward.
They looked at one another a moment in silence; these two who had run together over the stony road, and ventured their little fortunes into the noisy press of Prato Fair.
Their fates had divided there, and yet the link of union never could be quite broken.
They looked at one another, remembering that hot, toilsome day when they had eaten their figs under the trees of the dead Medici; and when, in the tumult and the merriment of Fra Lippo’s town, she had laughed at his tears, and pulled him by his curls and whispered, “I am hungry — play — get me some cakes so. Do you hear me? Play!” And he had played.
She looked at him and thought, “He is not changed one whit; he is the same; only a boy still.”
He looked at her and thought, “Can she be Gemma? It is some goddess, dreamt of in the night.”
They had run hand in hand across the plain to Prato. But there were worlds, centuries, all the heights of heaven, all the depths of hell, between them now.
She put her hands out to him.
“Signa — dear Signa — sit by me.”
He took her hands and let them go.
“No. Tell me first.”
She sighed a little.
“You used to love me, Signa.”
“I loved a little child called Gemma — yes!”
“And I am Gemma.”
He was silent.
He would not sit by her. He was confused and blinded. Her loveliness lost nothing by the morning light.
But he felt to recognise her less than he had done in the dim shifting shadows of the night. She had no more in common with the little, sturdy, ragged, mischievous baby he had kissed in her bed of hay, than the butterfly seems to have to do with the chrysalis. He felt still that he must be in a dream; when he had fallen asleep over his score, in his half‐starving student days, such dreams had come to him.
“If you are Gemma, indeed,” he said with effort; “have you nothing to say of your own home; of your father, who died thinking of you; of your brothers, of Palma? Is that all forgotten? Do you never think?”
She would not let him see the anger in her.
“I was so young,” she murmured. “Children do not think.”
“No? Palma thinks. She said, ‘Gemma is dead. Else she never would be silent all these years.’ She prays for you”
“Is she in want of anything?”
“She wants everything. She works like a mule. But she would never take anything. Palma would be ashamed.”
Gemma put out her under lip with the sullen contemptuous gesture of her infancy. But she answered him gently.
“Palma was always good. Yes — I remember that. Poor Palma!”
“Gemma. — if you be Gemma — need Palma, for all your glory, be ashamed of you? Tell me: you said that you would tell me now?”
“Sit by me, and I will.”
“No! not till I know whose roof I find you under, and why you are — like this.”
“What is it to you?”
“Nothing. Only, if you are a base woman I want to see your face no more. I loved you when we were two little children. It would hurt me like a sister’s shame.”
He spoke simply and directly the thing he felt; he was calmer than he had been in the sultry, moonlit night; he was cooled as the air was; he felt oppressed and pained, but it was with sorrow for the little child that had run with him in the dust and heat, not for the woman that faced him with her shining eyes.
Over Gemma’s face rose a quick flush of anger and amaze; all her world envied her.
She had no sense of shame. Shame, like remorse, only visits women that are left alone.
Gemma played with all the glories of life, as a child with a ball of flowers.
She repressed the rage and wonder that she felt. She could assume what shape she would.
“If I were base,” she muttered, “might I not need more tenderness? You are two narrow, Signa; and too harsh.”
“I think so. You only love your music. You see nothing outside that.”
He was silent.
Was he harsh? He did not mean to be so. He had said what he had felt. If she were no longer innocent, he wished to go away and see her face no more. He had meant no bitterness.
“You do not understand,” he said, at last. “I blame no living thing; I am not wise enough. Only there are straight, simple things one feels about women like an instinct — just as when one keeps one’s honour clean — do you not know? You see — I have always thought about you; and reproached myself; and dreamed so much of finding you and taking you back to your own people; and when Bruno said, seeing the picture of a wanton dancer, ‘That is what your Gemma is now, if she be living,’ I almost hated him; it seemed to hurt me so; because, though you were wilful and liked your own way too well, yet I was sure you were too true and brave for that — and would have thought of Palma. Dear, if your life is honest — take my hand. If you be any man’s wife, and come by all this luxury‐and riches justly — dear, I will beg for your forgiveness on my knees. But else — what can I think?”
She was silent; a certain darkness fell upon her life. She was like the Syrian king; all the fairness and richness of her Palestine grew nought to her, because she was shut out from one little, narrow, lonely vineyard.
“What shall I say to him,” she thought. “What shall I say, to keep him?”
She wanted to keep him, and yet her heart was hard and sullen with rage against him. He had lifted the golden apples in her basket of silver, and had scorned them; she was astonished and dully angered.
But she was never swept away on any impulse, not even on that of anger, which was the strongest with her.
She looked up at last, and saw his eyes watch her with a piteous tender eagerness, and he held out his hands to her.
“I cannot take your hands,” she said; “no, not in fairness. And yet I am not to blame; not in the way you think. Signa, I owe you nothing. I need tell you nothing. Yet, because we were children together, as you say, I will tell you all the truth.”
And then she built him up a tale of lies — such as would touch him most. Poor Signa! whose face had paled if she had trapped a bird, whose heart had sorrowed for each kid that went to slaughter in the old times, when the Lastra and its green vine‐ways had been the only world to both of them.
To Bruno and his people he was changed utterly. They looked up at him from the twilight of their ignorance and obscurity. To her he was changed in nothing. She looked down on him from the broad noon day on the heights of her prosperity.
For five full years, she had studied the full world of men; to her he was only a boy, a peasant, a dreamer, a fool — inspired, perhaps; but only the greater fool for that.
Outside there was the shining beauty of lake, and wood, and mountain; within, the softly‐ shaded room, filled with paintings, statues, flowers. Gemma in her white robes of morning, dead white, such as made the fairness of her look like a rose set amongst lilies, turned a little from him, half lying amongst her cushions, and told him the story of her life from that day of the fair in Prato.
“Dear Signa, I was a little wilful selfish thing. I wanted to see a bigger brighter life than any we had upon our hills. The man persuaded me. He promised me all sorts of golden toys, and never‐ending feast‐days. Yes. He took me with him in that fishing smack. We were hidden in Genoa little while, then we went northward. We were treated like beaten dogs, once in his power. There were many other children. He sent us out in rain, and wind, and snow. To him it did not matter what we suffered. We sold images, or tumbled in the streets, or hawked flowers, or went with an organ. We wandered from town to town; all over the world sometimes, I think; we crossed seas often, and mountains; where I do not know; I was a little stupid thing. I was made black and blue with thrashing. Dear — I was punished for my selfish fault; punished beyond all telling. Night after night I cried myself asleep, longing for you, and Palma, and green Giovoli. In a few years the man sold me to a set of player people, low comedians, who went about with a travelling theatre, and dressed me up in spangles, and whipped me to make me dance. Nay, dear! how pale you look. Oh, it is all over — long ago. I had no talent. You know I never had talent as you had. Nature has made me so good to look at; it does not matter for the rest. I did not act well; I was just looked at, and of course I could jump and dance — you will remember that. You recollect old Maro from the Marches teaching us the salterello, and you and I dancing it every minute that we could? And at the fair, how pleased they were, and you, with the great tears running down your cheeks all the while you danced it. Ah, yes, yes, yes! Signa — it seems like yesterday.”
She paused a little while; and turned her head away still further; his heart ached for her; he longed to take her bands, and kiss her lips, and say, “We will forget that any time has passed;” but a dark wall seemed to him between them. He could not think of her, of this lovely woman in her wealth, as Gemma; little ragged rosy Gemma, pouting and laughing in his face in the Giovoli garden, because Tista had swung her so high, so high.
And even if she were indeed Gemma, as she said, and as her remembrance proved, what could he say to her — until he knew?
The sense around him of her golden shame stifled him, and kept him mute. He felt as Palma would have felt. It was not this woman that he cared for; it was his little playmate lost on the sands of the Mediterranean sea.
“I was sold to these players,” she said; “sold just as a monkey might be, or a goat that knew some tricks. They sold me in their turn to others. I was made into little Loves, and had wings, and looked pretty; or else danced in pretty costumes; we went here, and there, and everywhere; they treated me well, and I liked it. I knew no better. I had sweetmeats, and fruit, and fine words. It was all good enough, and merry enough, I thought. You know of old, if all went well, I did not want to look further; and indeed, what did I know? or what could I have done? A child all alone, and a thousand miles, they said, away from home! Amongst them I learned to read, and learned some few other things. I do not know much, except the world. That is so big a book, you know; one does not want another. Signa, try and understand. Do not be harsh; I was not great of heart, and near to heaven, as you were when you were a child; nor plodding, and honest, and loving the saints, like Palma. I loved — myself. And wanted to enjoy. God made me such a weak and selfish thing. You know he makes bees and butterflies. Dear, I was in so bad an air; it reeked with shamelessness; if you had anything to sell, your body or your soul, you sold it, and spent the money; why not? they said. When I was sixteen they betrayed me; we were in Vienna, then; there was a woman that I trusted. Oh, it is a common thing; quite common. When I knew the thing that they had made me, I grew blind and reckless; I was turned to stone, only stone that shut a devil in it, as the marble shuts a toad sometimes, they say. He who had bought me, bought me stupefied, like any moth you kill with sulphur smoke; was rich and a great man in his way. He covered his new toy with diamonds and gold. I grew the fashion. You have fame. That is another thing. Fame is a comet burning itself with its own fire as it travels. Fashion is the wax‐light in a ball‐room. I like the ball‐room best. You see space, and all the worlds set round about what men will call the throne of God, no doubt. But I—”
She laughed a little: she had forgotten for the moment that she did not mean to let him see the truth of her — not then; whatever afterwards might come.
He listened; his breath came brokenly; his lips were dry. He raised his head, and gazed at her, almost blankly.
“You can jest!”
The words recalled to her the thing she wished to seem to him.
“Yes. I jest; if you call that jesting. I saw a man once watch his house burn, the fire took his children, and made him a beggar; he laughed. So I laugh. Oh, my dear! they have not left me any heart — to laugh or cry. I would say, I pray they have not; if I were you or Palma. But then I never had much. I loved myself, you will remember that. Such love is punished. So your priests say. Well, you see now how it was with me: sixteen years old; a chattel purchased; a decked slave; a ruined thing made glorious with gilding. I am not meek, I am not good. Signa, you knew me when we were both babies. You knew I had no mercy nor gentleness to others, even then. I saw myself base, by no fault of my own. I saw myself marked out with a brand, proscribed, outcast, whilst I was myself as innocent as any yearling lamb we ever played with on the hill at home. Well I did not drown myself. I was too full of life. I looked at my own face in the mirror, and I loved it. I could not give it to the water‐rats to gnaw. You love your music. I love my loveliness. Why is one love, one vanity, worse than the other? Can you tell me? Nature put the rhythm into your brain. It put the beauty in my body. Well, why should the love of one be holiness in you, the other sin in me? But sin or not, I have it. If disease made me hideous, or accident, then I would kill myself with smoke or opiates, or some easy gentle means of death. Not otherwise. No; I did not kill myself when I knew the thing I was. Your women of romance do; but, for me, I shrink from being hurt; I hate the thought of lying underground and leaving all the rest to laughter in the sunshine. To cease to be— it is horrible! Oh, not for you who think that death will set your spirit free and carry it straight to some great world where all your dreams made true are waiting you; aye, but for us? We have only our bodies, and we dread the worms. No; I did not kill myself. I took my vengeance, I made myself the loveliest thing the world has seen for ages. They all say so. Then I melted their hearts and broke them. I slew them with a hair of the dog that had torn me. Dear, do not judge me harshly. I took solace in the strength I had; such strength as women like me have; we share it with the snake and with the panther. Your God made snakes and panthers.”
She paused; the boy was quiet; his chest rose and fell with painful breathing; his lips were cold and white; he was saying always to himself:
“Who was the man — at first?”
For he felt as if for Palma, and for poor dead merry Toto, and for his own honour’s sake, the avenging of her ought to be his own work and no other’s; had he not let her go with him that day, a little thoughtless child, over the hill and plain to Prato?
He pitied her from the bottom of his heart.
He believed the tale she told.
“And is there faith in heaven and is there love?”
because he was so very sure of both.
And now he was sure of nothing.
“God makes snakes and panthers.”
Yes; and God had let Gemma be made vile, with no fault in her, no sin or seeking of her own; — so he thought.
He grew dizzy. He, who had said to Palma, for her sister’s sake:
“Dear, pray always. Prayers are heard,”
“Oh, my dear! oh, my poor lost love!” he murmured, and bowed his young head upon her knees; his frame shook with pain and the shock of the first burning rage that had ever touched him.
He was bewildered. Horror possessed him. The simple, innocent affection he had kept for her shuddered and grieved for her, as a brother’s would have done. He had kept Gemma in his fancy and his hope so pure, and safe, and strong. The darkness of this irreversible fate spread over her, and made her terrible to him. Signa had all the childlike belief in heaven that a child has in its father; this struck his belief at the roots. God was good, and yet let such things be! God was great, and yet would be for ever powerless to make this horror as though it had never been! There were things then that even God could not do? Signa stared helpless at this wreck of all his faiths.
She watched him, reading him as easily as she would have read gold letters on a white page.
By years their ages were the same, but she, in the world’s knowledge, already was so old — so old; and he in his unworldliness and ignorance, was yet so young.
She knew the ways of men at their worst, their wisest, their best, their basest, and turned them over in her head as a child does the wooden letters of a mastered alphabet.
He of woman, knew hardly anything.
“You hear my story now,” she said, with a soft sigh, at last. “Signa, you loathe me?”
He shuddered a little.
“From my soul — I pity you.”
A sort of loathing was in him for her, but how could he say that? Whatever she had become, she had once been the little Gemma that he had kissed in her rough bed of hay.
Her eyelids were cast down; he did not see the cold blue flame of anger burn in her eyes a moment as she heard.
She to be pitied! she who, in her arrogance and her loveliness, thought she had the world to play with as a ball under her foot!
She turned her eyes upon him.
“So, you will leave me? You mean that?”
He coloured to his throat.
“You live still, by choice — in shame?”
She could have laughed aloud. She could have dashed her hand against his mouth. She could have killed him — almost; but she said, turning her thee from him, like one in pain of which she is ashamed:
“What other life was left me? Fling wool in mud; do you blame the fleece that it grows black? I told you I took my vengeance. There was no other thing to do. You do not understand the world. I was so young, and men so cruel. Wrong made me all that I have been, but I am tired; oh, so tired, Signa; if you only knew! A world of lovers and not one single friend. The loneliest woman is not so desolate as I. Dear, I am vile, perhaps, and cold, and love luxury too well; and if I were born with any heart in me, have killed it. That is what they say. I think it is quite true. There is no love anywhere for me. Love for me is the imperial beast that kissed and slew. Love: I laugh at the word, I dance on it, I spit at it. Judas loved; — and that great empress who wallowed in the mire with her guards and slaves!. What did they call her? I never loved a living thing. How should I? The only love that I have ever seen is a devouring beast with fire in his entrails and slime upon his mouth. That is the only love that over comes to me. Dear, I am tired. When I saw your face last night, I said in my own thoughts, I will tell him all the truth; he is not as the others are; he was a baby with me in the old green garden ways; he will understand; he will have sorrow for me; he will be true to me, when all are false; he will be my saint, when all others are my swine; he will despise me, lament for me, rebuke me; yes, no doubt; but he will not leave me utterly — for the sake of the old days when we were children. That is what I thought. Oh dear! I was unwise and you are wise. Fly from me, There is no common ground between us. You cannot see in me the thing you used to play with. I am only a base light wanton woman, without charm for you and without pardon either from you and from your God. Dear, you are right. To see more of me could only bring you pain or get you evil names. Pure dreams are your fair portion. Foul facts are mine. Leave me. I would not have you stay, though you are all of home or heaven that I shall ever see in life. Go and tell Palma not to plead to Christ for me. Her words are wasted. I am in hell, though living; let me be.”
She rose as she spoke and pushed him from her with a gesture of farewell.
The consummate art of her took every hue and grace of nature; her face was pale and cold; down her cheeks tears rolled and dropped upon the laces on her breast.
She knew the chords to touch in him; she played on him as he could play on any lute or violin.
She stung the generous sweetness of his nature; she stirred all his tenderness of pity.
Had he been cruel and self‐righteous in his instincts of disgust? Had he been unmanly and unfeeling; wounding a dishonoured woman, whose truthfulness had laid her open to his scorn?
A confused sense of being wrong to her oppressed him, and struggled with the natural impulse of his aversions, with his instinct never to look on her or be touched by her or hear the sound of her voice again.
A nature, generous and yielding, accused of meanness or selfishness, flew at a rebound to the unwisdom of self‐sacrifice.
“I had no thought of myself,” he murmured, pierced to the quick. “But between us there is such a gulf: what can I do? what can I say? I cannot see you lead this life, and come to you, and be in fellowship with the men who ruined you, or the men you fool? To me you are — Gemma; it is as if you were my sister. It is horrible. I do not know what to say to you. It seems to me we cannot be together now.”
“I said that you were right in saying so. Right — for yourself. Go; who keeps you, Signa? Not I. Go.”
She spoke coldly, sadly; he thought he heard in her the heart‐sick resignation of a woman from whom all good is banished, yet who cleaves to it.
The tender, unthinking, unwise ardour of his nature carried him away; he dropped before her on his knees as if she had been any saint or queen. His sweet and passionate voice thrilled with emotion.
“If I can serve, I will not leave, you,” he said. “Gemma, listen to me. You are heart sick of the wretched glories of your life. All the better nature in you is in rebellion at it. Leave it. Come home. You shall be to me as a sister. This horror shall be buried in our hearts. Throw your gold away; it brings the plague with it; strip your jewels off; keep nothing but the beauty that God gave you, and that you defile. Come back to the old hills, to the fresh air, to the green country ways, to the peaceful days and nights. Come back. Palma is there; she will love you still. Her arms are strong enough, her faith is firm enough, to lift you out of hell. Dear, fling this horror from you and trample on it, and leave men, and cling to God. I have some great‐ ness. I can make enough to keep you safe from want. You shall be to me ever as if you were a sister — lost and found. This beast you talk of, and that in your madness you call Love, shall never reach you, nor hurt you there. Come home. Palma is poor and ignorant, working for a crust, but she is strong in courage, and wiser than us all. She will suffer, but she will help you always. I look at you; you blind me: I do not know you. You seem to me one of those lovely lying things that Satan made and sent into the wilderness to tempt the saints. But if you are not that — if indeed you ever were the little Gemma that ran with me in the summer dust that day‐come home. Oh, Gemma, Gemma! if indeed you are the little child I played with, joy there never can be for you, dear, nor hope on earth, nor any love of any honest man, I know; but Palma will not turn from you, nor I. It is too late to save your beauty from the lepers — it is plague‐stricken. God himself cannot change that — but, Gemma, there is life beyond this life. I seem to speak so poorly, I cannot plead with you — not as I would. But, Gemma, the soul in you is not dead. Cast off these riches that are viler than all rags, and lead a straight and simple life, and trust the rest to God. Come home!”
He spoke in all his innocence, knowing no better.
A stray sunbeam shot across the shadow of the room, and fell on his fair upturned forehead and the misty radiance of his supplicating eyes. To him she was terrible; to him she was plague‐stricken; — almost he thought her, as he said, one of those beautiful accursed things the devil loosed on earth to tempt the minds of men in deserts, and sting their senses, and destroy their lives, and level them with the beasts that perish. Still — if he could save her? He prayed with her for herself, as in his childhood he had prayed for Satan to the angels, watching the sun shine beyond the Certosa towers.
She listened, her beautiful golden head bent down, her colour changing; do what she would, she could not keep the blood quite steady in her cheek. She was so deeply angered. Yet some pain smote her through all the jewelled armour of her tranquil self‐content.
Had she lost something after all that poor dull women, plodding for their bread, lived with and died with? — had she missed something in all her plenteous harvest, were it only a vain vague fancy, worth the having?
She had princes and heroes, all greatness, at her feet, and all the soft ease and peace and triumph that she craved; — yet for one instant the whole world seemed to grow as nothing to her if she had this boy’s scorn, this boy who had run with her over the brown fields of the hills through the autumn weather, when the crocus‐cup and the dragon‐weed had been the only gold they owned.
He was a fool; yet — some fools stand near to heaven.
The tears scorched her cheeks. Not such tears as she had summoned at her will a moment earlier, fair tricks of studied arts; but quick, salt, bitter drops, that burned her as they fell.
They angered her. The rage in her grew as much against herself as him.
“He shall know no heaven but me,” she said in her own heart. “He shall live on my kiss, and die because he loses it. He is a fool — a fool!”
And yet — were she but such a fool!
For the moment she would have given all her empire to have been no wiser and no guiltier than he.
He did not know. He only saw her cheek grow pale, her proud mouth tremble.
“You hear me?” he murmured; “you will come?”
She was silent mastering the rage within her and the new strange pain. The pain passed — the rage lived. She said to herself:
“There is no honesty upon my lips. Well, he shall find some sweeter thing there, and get drunk on it.”
She had meant to have sport with him. Well, sport with vengeance in it, was the finer pastime. It was his fault. Why should he speak of her as of a thing he scorned? To bring his babyish, monkish, womanish fancies here, of honour and shame, and heaven and sins:— sick phantasies from dying peasants’ psalters and priests’ penance‐tales in Lent!
She gazed down on him with serious eyes.
“No; I cannot come, Signa. You are good to me, but the things you dream of are not possible — for me, at least. You do not understand. I should make Palma mad; she me. I could no more go back to the old ways of life than you to a herdboy’s empty days. Things cannot be undone. When a tree is grown, you may cut it down and burn it, but you cannot make it back into the acorn or the chestnut that it sprang from first. Palma thinks me safe with the saints; — so let her. For you — you have your art, your fame, your certain growth of greatness. You can soon forget me. Dear, I fretted you and flouted you when we were children. That was all, I think, ever. It is but little to regret.”
“It is because I have no words to move you, to awake your soul —”
“If you were an angel from heaven you would say nothing that could change me. And do not think of any soul in me, Signa; I have none. Has the butterfly any? You are mad, Signa! I was an idle child — I am an idle woman. I love ease, luxury, riches, beauty. I toil! I hunger and thirst, and spin and sew! I plod after the oxen in the furrows! I! You are mad! You are mad, I say!”
His colour rose.
“There would be no need to toil. It would be a poor and simple life — yes; that is true. But I could make enough — I shall make more each year. All that I have should be for you. And it is honest money. Gemma — see, dear — I have always thought of you, and dreamed of you, and meant to seek you out and take you back, and set you in the midst of every greatness I could get. When the great ladies courted me, I did not care for them. I thought, somewhere there is a little girl with golden curls I used to kiss; — for I forgot that you grew old as I did. When men talked of love to me I would say nothing, but I used to think —“when I find Gemma.” Dear, that is over now. I cannot love you. You are a thing lost to me now for ever. Men do not love such women as you are. You are divided from me for ever. But you still are dear to me as if you were my sister. I would not touch your mouth with any kiss, for you have sold its kisses; I would not take your hand in mine, for you have perjured it; I would not, starving, break a crust of yours, for you are sold for it. But I will labour for you all my life; I will set away each coin I get for you; I will never have any joy, or mirth, or love in all my years, that I may work the better for you, and the oftener give you more. Dear, do not think it will be hard for me. You know I was reared hardly. I can live on nothing; and I can pass by woman’s love and all that delights and leads away men most, because, in truth, the only thing I love is my great art. In this I have been given so much, that I can easily renounce the rest. Dear, do not think that it will be anything to me. Men have lived so in monasteries — lived and died happily. Gemma, if you will come back — listen — I swear to you I will dedicate all my life to yours. There is the shame of you between us two for ever like a grave. But since you never can be anything to me more than the dead are, no other creature shall be anything — that I swear, too. Dear, listen! After God and my music, you are most dear to me — yes, even as you are. Let me work for you. Say you have no soul, as the rose has none; yet when a rose has blossomed with us who can throw it in the sewer? And you are wrong: a soul you have, for I have seen your tears. Oh, heaven! What word can I find to tell you how utterly I mean the thing I say? Gemma — if I had done right, and had refused to let you go with me that day to Prato, you would be living with your sister still — an innocent, frank, happy, stainless thing; and I should love you, and you would be all my own. This misery is of my act. I let you go that day. Your shame has come of it; and I can never even kiss you, dear, because there is no honesty upon your lips. But take you out of your dishonour and save your soul, I can — I will. Gemma, come back; and let me give my life for yours. On earth you will not be happy, dear — nay, never. But hereafter — What can I say to make you trust me and believe?”
The words poured from his lips swill, eager, breathless, unconsidered, in all their unreason, their unwisdom, their nobility, their ignorance, their folly, their sublimity. All the narrow sim‐ plicity of the peasant, and all the boundless vision of the poet, met in him as he spoke. He meant, to their very uttermost, every syllable he uttered.
She was gone from him; she was to him a thing terrible and almost loathsome. He burned with shame for her shame. Yet she was dear to him. He was ready to give his life to ransom hers. To him sin was real, and hell and heaven. What he dreamed of was impossible; but in his sight it was possible. It seemed to him that the faith to do it was so strong in him, that it could not fail to work its own fulfilment.
As far as she could be touched by anything, she was moved by his suffering. It was strange to her; it even amused her; but it touched her. Poor boy! He had always seen living things in lonely, wayside stones; and lamented for the birds and beasts, because the priests said there was no eternity for them; and heard so many voices, that none else could ever hear, in the silent marshalling of the clouds by night, and the low whimper of the autumn ruffled brooks. She remembered all those things. He had been always so foolish — always.
It amused her. Yet it hurt her a little — ever so little — very, very little — too.
“Who would have thought he would have taken it to heart — like that?” she thought. And she felt a sort of sullen jealousy in her. It was not for her that he suffered so much. Not for the real woman, as she knew herself. Not for the’ beautiful cold wanton whom Paris had called Innocence. It was for the playmate that had run with him that summer day over the plains to Prato: it was for the imaginary thing, which she had built up before him with her words, and dressed in her apparel of soft lies.
She was almost jealous: as astrologists were of shapes their magic conjured.
“Signa, do not be so full of pain,” she murmured. “It is no fault of yours.”
“Yes: it is mine. I let you go with me that day,” he muttered. “Oh, poor Palma! — thinking of you night and morning — thinking of you safe with Christ!”
His head was bent down upon her knees, otherwise he would have seen her petulant proud mouth curve in a little smile.
She stretched her hand out, and musingly touched the soft curls of his hair.
He shrank, as if the touch had burnt him. She saw the gesture of aversion. It set her heart harder on the thing she meant to do.
“You shudder from me,” she said, sadly. “Well, that is natural, no doubt. But it is better to lose you from the truth, than keep you by a lie. I tell a million lies. All women do. But there is something in your eyes that will not let one lie. What is it?”
Lying all the while, she kept her hand upon his curls, stroking them gently, till, magnetised by the contact, he no longer moved away or strove to resist that touch, but looked down with his cheeks on fire and his pulse beating.
“I do not understand,” he muttered. “I see two simple ways — one right, one wrong. I would save you with my life; — I say, with my soul; — only you laugh at that.”
“Nay, I do not laugh; for you — you are of the things God makes to live for ever — if he makes anything. I laugh when you talk of soul or mind in me. A woman has a body and a face; no. more. She has ten years’ grace with them and glory; then she is withered up and shoved aside, and there is an end of all. I would make the most of my ten years. What harm?”
He looked at her in a blank despair. How could he give sight to what was blind? — how make her shamed for what she did not see?
“Leave me alone,” she said. “What matter? It is but such a little while a woman lives. With the first wrinkle on her skin, she dies. As well fret for each rose that falls each time it rains, I tell you. Signa — why stay to pain yourself and me? You cannot change me. Go back to your own hills, and dream your music there, and pray to all the saints with Palma — if it please you.”
“Palma! What is she to me!”
He rose and stood irresolute, impatient, bewildered. Go‐and leave her! He felt as he had felt in the garden of Giovoli, hearing her laughter on the other side of the wall as she was swung by other hands than his up in the golden fruit‐boughs. His face was burning; his heart was beating; his brain was giddy; he had spoken in all the earnestness of pain and truth. It seemed to him that she must loathe her life. It seemed to him that she must hate herself. He had spoken in full faith. He would have surrendered up his future years to hers, and served her faithfully for ever parted from her.
But then she did not seem to see —
The passion of his sorrow fell back from her as hot tears may fall back from the red smoothness of a rose‐leaf.
She leaned backwards on the cushions of her couch; her hands were tightly clasped behind her head; her wide sleeves fell back from her arms to the shoulder; her face was turned upward, with her blue eyes watching him through half‐closed lids; her small scarlet mouth was but half shut, her breath came through it evenly as a child’s; she smiled a little.
It maddened him to look on her.
He could not stir one pulse of shame in her.
He could only — leave her.
So she said.
Had he been older, harder, wiser, he would have left her then, without an effort to change the unchangeable, to pierce the impenetrable; or he would have tossed her away from him with such scorn, such force, such loathing, that, finding her master in him, the cowardice which sleeps in every woman would have awakened in her, and brought her trembling to his feet. But he was not old, nor hard, nor wise; his heart was weak with all the innocent affection of his childhood, and for the first time the loveliness of a woman made him blind and stupid. She was so much to him: she was Gemma, whom he had kissed a thousand times in babyhood, tumbling in the flower‐filled grasses of the green hillsides; and she was also the first woman whose look sent fire through his veins. She was near to him by a host of sinless memories; and she was sundered from him so utterly by sins so vile.
The world held nothing for him but herself.
To cleanse her from her golden corruption, to shake her conscience from its drugged apathy, to tear her away from the companions of her life — to do all this and save her for the eternity that he believed in, the boy would have given up his own life and his own soul.
All in a moment his art perished.
When a human love wakes it crushes fame like a dead leaf, and all the spirits and ministers of the mind shrink away before it, and can no more allure, no more console, but, sighing, pass into silence and are dumb.
She, lying back with her golden head on her clasped hands, watched him.
She knew all he felt.
“Leave me,” she said, with a slow soft smile. “You have your music, and the saints that you believe in, and Palma, who will pray with you. Why do you stay here? Go.”
“I cannot go — not so.”
She stung him with Palma’s name; poor, stupid, unlearned, bare‐foot Palma, treading the earth as the ox did and the mule.
“Gemma! have you no conscience in you; no pain, no sorrow, no revolt against your fate?” he said, suddenly. “Oh, my dear! have I spoken to the winds? Is it because my words are weak that what I plead for seems so too? Gemma! — I cannot leave you to your fate. It is to leave you to drink poison as the very water of life, and to die a dog’s death at the end of all — a street dog’s, kicked and cursed. You speak of Palma. How can I look in Palma’s face, leaving her sister lost as you are lost? The very hills there would rebuke me. The very stones at home cry out. Oh, God! What shall I say? If He put no soul in you, how shall I?”
She listened to the generous, foolish, noble, senseless words. Some of them stung her like thorns; some of moved her with wonder. He seemed to her such a fool — ah, heaven! such a fool. He spoke as children dream. Yet, innocently, he lashed her with a scourge of nettles; for he rejected her with all his infinite tenderness; for he spoke of her as of a lost, degraded, alien thing; for he would not see his kiss upon her lips.
She rose on an impulse of rage to send him from her for ever; — he would not touch her! She, who saw princes sue and lords in feud for her, could have thrust her foot and spurned him from her presence in her fury at his innocently uttered scorn.
When the heart is fullest of pain and the mouth purest with truth, there is a cruel destiny in things which often makes the words worst‐chosen and surest to defeat the end they seek.
Each added word of his hardened more and more her will upon the course that she had set herself; stung all her warmest pride, and made more sure his doom with her.
No angel from heaven, no miracle of light shining as in the steps of Paul, could ever have changed her much; but he, in all his innocence, struck the iron of her wilful vanity and beat it into sharpest steel.
She rose erect on to her feet and thrust back the white wooden shutters before the casement nearest her, and let the dazzling effulgence of the intense noonlight pour on her, and bathe her in it, and turn the fairness of her hair to molten gold, the whiteness of her flesh to ivory, the flush of her cheeks to opal fires; her beautiful limbs shone in it like marble, her hair streamed against it till it was like an aureola of heaven, the ruthless light glanced on her and searched her everywhere, and found no flaw. Flowers droop in it; children pale in it; birds flee from it; but she bore it in all its intensity, and was but the more glorious in it.
He gazed at her. She stood erect, golden and white against the burning sun.
“Look at me!” she cried to him. “Look! — the light that kills all other things and pales all other beauties, does but make mine the greater. Look at me! The sun may shine on me, search me, pierce me, it can find no fault anywhere. Look — look — look! There is no blemish anywhere, I say — no flaw the sun can find. And you talk to me of penitence and pain! You talk to me of poverty and shame! You talk to me of going back to penance in a peasant’s hut, and letting rains and winds and snows beat on my body! Look at me! While I am this, you think I care for heaven? You are mad! Unlovely, loveless women may cling to priestly tales of it, as hungry curs hope, shivering, for a bone. I give it with an hour of myself. Gods — if there be gods — can do no more than!”
The mighty blasphemy of her superb vanity seemed to him to burn through the golden light she stood in, as lightning through the sunbeams.
With her arms uplifted in the exultation of her measureless arrogance, and her eyes with contemptuous challenge glancing through their amorous drooped lids, a sudden memory struck him.
He cried aloud, as if some mortal hurt were done him in the flesh.
“You were the dancer of Istriel! You are the creature they call Innocence”
She looked him in the eyes straightly and serenely, her golden head erect under the nimbus of the noonday light.
“Yes. Well, then? — what of that?”
He gazed at her breathless; a great tearless sob choked him: then he fell down senseless at her feet.
When he came to himself he was alone upon a bed in a darkened chamber. The wind was blowing over him; he heard birds singing.
Long fasting, sleeplessness, and violent emotion — all had made him lose his consciousness for awhile; his brain was giddy still, the light swam before his eyes; he rose and staggered to the glass doors which stood open, and put the outer shutters aside and out into the air.
An old negress stopped him; was he not too ill? Would he not wait? Her mistress — At the last word he put her hurriedly aside and hastened farther out; it was the house of this woman whom her world called, as the emperor his desert beast — Innocence. He could not stay in it; the air of it seemed to stifle him.
Without well knowing what he did, he traversed the gardens with unsteady steps, the sunshine reeling and dancing before his half‐blind eyes; then, his limbs growing stronger and his sight clearer as the wind blew on him from the water, he pushed his way through the maze of flowering shrubs and thick‐set orange‐trees out of the gardens down on to the shore. He sat down stupidly in the shadow of a boat and leaned his forehead on his hands, and, do what he would, saw only her — standing against the light.
She was the dancer of Istriel.
“Well, what of that?” she had asked him.
What of it, indeed. It made her neither better and no worse. It changed nothing. To have been the nude model of a painter was not more than to have been the willing wanton of the world.
Yet it seemed more hideous to him.
It brought her vileness home to him.
It seemed to write her shame on earth and sky as on a scroll for every eye to read.
This was a fancy; but the fancies of poets are their hell, when they cease to be their heaven. And they cease so soon.
The dancer of Istriel had been seen by all the nations of the globe; that lovely, voluptuous, smiling thing, with her red blossom and her floating feet, had looked all mankind in the face and made them wish for her; to the boy she seemed sold to the whole earth — made harlot for all the peoples of the world.
Istriel’s gold had bought his Rusignuolo. Istriel’s gold had purchased Gemma.
He owed his fame — she, her ruin — to the same hand. So he thought. He exaggerated his own debt, and he shut his eyes against her lie, as such natures as his will ever do, to hurt themselves and keep their faith in their false gods.
Where was Istriel?
In an aimless, hopeless passion, he longed to find this man — this man who had taken her in her youngest youth and drawn every curve and coloured every hue of her fair frame so cruelly, and sent it out to let the eyes of all men gloat on it in public as they would. The crime of the painter against her seemed to him viler than all seduction. It seemed to him the very brutality of license; the very crown of outrage. The seducer fed but his own eyes with the beauty he unveiled; this man had fed ten million ravishers’ eyes with hers.
It was the first passionate agony of his life. He had suffered before; but then with hope underneath him, bearing him up like the wings of some strong bird. He suffered now as those do who suffer without hope.
All these years gone and Palma praying there in an undoubting faith, and all the while nothing on earth or heaven heeding; but all this vileness done beyond recall — beyond repair.
Do what he would he could not change this thing the years had made her.
Cry as he would to fate, no means could undo what had been done.
Nothing could give him back Gemma — little fair Gemma, with unstained soul, sleeping as the lambs sleep in the bed of hay. And yet the loveliness of her burned him like so much flame.
He hid his face in his hands and saw her always as he had seen her come cut from the waters in the dark night amongst the red roses.
“Go, write a romance on me,” she had said to him. But he could no more have done it than he could have flown to the sun with the eagles.
His brain seemed dead in him.
He heard no longer sweet concord in the waters, and lisped numbers in the murmurs of the winds; he looked back at his self of yesterday and wondered where the power in him had gone; all in a moment his art and his fame and all his high desires seemed to grow as nothing to him.
He shut his eyes and saw the fair limbs of a woman slowly moving through the shadows; a mouth that smiled a little, a bough of dark leaves and ruby buds, against a snow, white breast:— that was all he saw.
His art:— where was it?
It seemed to him like a dead thing. A sudden sense of vast immeasurable loss fell on him.
He was terrified; he did not know what ailed him.
In most men and women Love waking wakes, with itself, the soul.
In poets Love waking kills it.
Nature had been always to the boy so full of sympathy and solace. Beaten and hungry and overtasked in his childhood, he had been happy the moment that he had escaped alone into the open air on the breeze‐blown hillpaths, with the sighing of the pines above his head; nay, happy even if he could but be by any little narrow casement and see the line of the old town wall with the lichens and vetches clear against the sky and in their crevices the shining lizards sitting. But now mountain and lake and the autumnal glories of the woods could bring no consolation; they only seemed to him cruel; they had no heart in them, they did not care.
The hideous universal sentence of corruption for the first time seemed to him written over all the things of earth and air.
For she was vile.
How the day passed he never knew.
It rolled away somehow; the sky seemed like a sheet of fire; the sun for the first time burned him and hurt him; he saw nothing but the form of a woman.
The man who had his opera at the town sought him and said:
“Only think! — they will play your Lamia at the Apollo in Rome in Carnival. Only think! — and at San Carlo too. Here are your letters.”
He stared at the speaker and thrust the papers away, and did not answer.
He hardly understood.
It had been his religion. He was dead to it now. All in a day his innocent spiritual joys were withered up in him. What use was it? It could not alter her.
In proportion to the absorption of any life in any art, so is the violence of its dethronement and oblivion of art when love has entered.
It seemed to him that every note in all the world might be for ever mute, and he not care.
It seemed to him that if they said he was a fool and let him die nameless and despised, it would be no matter to him.
For he loved this fair foul thing; only he did not know it.
After awhile mechanically he found his way into his own chamber.
It was late in the day. The little room was filled with flowers that the village women, proud of having the young genius in their midst, had placed everywhere about. He did not notice them. But at the intense odour he shuddered a little; they made him think of the garden ways of Giovoli.
Without knowing what he did he sat down to the piano which stood there.
He began to play.
A torrent of passion, a passion of tears, were in the music that he made with no sense of what he did; the abruptest changes from pain to rap‐ ture; the strongest and greatest harmonies; the most capricious transitions, the most bitter woe were in the sounds he drew; never in all his creations had he reached so great a height as now, when he created what he did not care to preserve, what he had no brain left to measure.
By sheer instinct his nature cried aloud against its pain in the art that was inborn in him as its song in a bird.
Then all at once he ceased and loathed it: what use was it? it was only a mockery; it could not alter her.
Some of those who followed him and worshipped him — for he was never now without some of these parasites of success — standing outside his door, listened breathless in ecstasy; one or two, when the melody ceased, ventured in and kissed his hands, and cried to him:
“You never were so great!”
He looked at them dully.
“What good is it?” he said to them; and he went into his inner room and barred the door against them.
What good was it?
He was scarcely more than twenty years old; he had a great future; he had put his name in all the mouths of men; he had all that, dreaming under the pines above Bruno’s house the night when the violin was broken, he had thought would be worth purchase by a whole long life of toil and poverty and renunciation and neglect.
And all was unreal and useless to him now. It seemed as if his hands grasped ashes and his ears were full of the sound of empty winds mourning through desolate places.
He went out in the air again.
He could not rest indoors.
He shook himself free, with impatience, of his disciples who would fain have accompanied him, and spoken to him of the coming reception of his operas down in Rome. He got away by himself to the shore of the lake; to the still and sombre shadows of a long‐deserted garden that had been his haunt in happier hours.
There are times when the weakness of humanity falls back broken and heartsick before the iron wall of unchangeable circumstance, as a beaten seabird falls back from the stone face of the cliffs.
It was so with him now.
“If only I could save her!” he cried in his heart: and in his heart knew that he could not; not though he were to give his soul up for her own. Legends tell of such barters. Life does not know them.
Gemma had been her own destiny. But such destiny was as immutable as though the gods of old had shaped it.
She had stained her white marble red. Signa knew that though the stone should be washed seventy times seven and bruised into a million fragments, the dust would be never white again, but blood red always — always.
He had uttered his real thoughts to Gemma: to him she was like one leprous‐stricken. Her story had filled him with pity, but with horror.
Bruno had taught him to hold wanton women accursed. Bruno, who again and again had fallen in their snares, had always bade him hold them like the deadly mushrooms that men gather for bread and find are death. Bruno, fearing the softness of the boy’s nature, had said always to him, “Poverty is bad, and hunger and sickness and sorrow and labour that has no end — these are all bad — but worse than any of these is it to be the slave of a woman who is unchaste.”
He wandered all the day. It seemed to him as if it would never end. He saw nothing but the face of Gemma. The world which had seemed to him so beautiful was changed; heaven was cruel. It created loveliness only to pollute it and deform it afterwards.
Out of his dreams he was brought face to face with facts that sickened him. All the old landmarks of his faith were gone. All the happy hopefulness of his nature was crushed. He was bewildered and sick at heart. And through it all he could not thrust away the personal beauty of the woman. Her gaze, her form, her breath, her smile, her sigh:— he could think of no other thing. It seemed to him as if she were in the air, in the clouds, in the water; her voice rang in his ears; she was so lovely — and yet she was so vile; — she was so much more than a woman and so much less. —“If only I could save her!” he said to himself, and then could have flung his forehead on the rock remembering that there was no way to make her other than she was; remembering that to be torn from shame is not to become innocent.
“Oh, dear God — all Palma’s prayers!” he thought. They had been all in vain, like so much futile breath spent on the empty air to unresponding space.
The mockery of it stung him, as if God himself were jeering as a man might do.
He looked up stupidly at the broad noonday skies. There was the same sun, the same earth, the same water; beyond the plains, on the hills that he knew best, men and women were leading the same life, drawing the wine from the presses, driving the oxen over the green sods, gathering up the ripe olives, with the bells ringing over their quiet world. It seemed to him so strange. Everything was unchanged except himself, and he seemed to have become old and tired, and full of pain.
Only one night before, there had been no happier living thing in all the human world than he; and now — he wondered that the sun did not stay in its course, that the waters did not rise and cover the land, that all the flowers were not withered off the ground — since sin so cursed the earth.
The hours rolled by; he did not count them. The long hot day burnt itself out as passing passions do. The boats came and went; the sun sank and the moon rose. His own stars — the stars of the Winged Horse — shone down in the first faint darkness of the early night.
He sat lonely on the solitary shore, watching the breeze‐blown water without sense of what he saw.
He could not understand the anguish that blotted out for him all colours of earth and heaven.
All life had been to him as the divining rod of Aaron, blooming ever afresh with magic flowers. Now that the flame of pain and passion burned it up, and left a bare sear brittle bough, he could not understand.
Love is cruel as the grave.
The poet has embraced the universe in his visions; and heard harmony in every sound, from deep calling through the darkest storm to deep, as from the lightest leaf dancing in the summer wind; he has found joy in the simplest things, in the nest of a bird, in the wayside grass, in the yellow sand, in the rods of the willow; the lowliest creeping life has held its homily and solace, and in the hush of night he has lifted his face to the stars, and thought that he communed with their Creator and his own. Then — all in a moment — Love claims him, and there is no melody anywhere save in one single human voice, there is no heaven for him save on one human breast; when one face is turned from him there is darkness on all the earth; when one life is lost — let the stars reel from their courses and the world whirl and burn and perish like the moon; nothing matters; when Love is dead there is no God.
Signa sat by the wind‐tossed lake waters.
He did not know what had killed his soul in him. He only knew that his music was no more to him than the sound of stones shaken in a shrivelled bladder by an idiot’s hand.
Bruno was avenged.
“Give me to the worms; let only my music live!” he had said again and again in his one prayer to Fate. Now — what use were his fame or his art to him? They could not undo what was done.
Achievement holds its mockery, no less than failure.
The evening deepened; the stars of Pegasus grew clearer; a lovely silvered radiance spread over the face of the waters and the sides of the mountains. He had no sight for it and no care. He sat where he had wandered; the hill thyme under his feet; gold‐fruited boughs above his head; the lake before him.
Through the soft gloom a white form stole towards him, a rose against her lips, as silence has, to hide her smiles.
She came and watched him a moment, and then laid her hands on his bent head.
“You went away without a word to me,” she said. “I have looked for you since sunset, Signa.”
He trembled from head to foot and sprang erect, and stood and gazed at her.
She waited a little while, then sank on the rough stone seat hewn out of a fallen rock where he had sat.
“Well?” she said, softly. “Have you nothing to say to me? — nothing?”
“What can I say?” he muttered. “I wound you, I hurt you — or I seem a fool.”
“A noble fool,” she said. “Such fools as heaven is peopled with, if the saints’ tales be true.”
His face flushed with the joy of her praise,
Yet what was any praise of hers worth? — what value any word?
Her words were as the tinkling cymbals of brass which lead men to destruction. Her beauty was bare to all the world as Phryne’s on the canvas of Gerome.
He had been reared in the stern judgments of the old Dante temper which still lived in the recesses of the hills; the temper which flung the nude marble and the voluptuous image in the flames at Savonarola’s bidding.
“Why did you go away — so?” she said to him. “I left you for a moment with my women, and when I went back you had fled, no one knew where.”
“Knowing what I know, your house stifles me.”
“That is how you repay me for the truth. I should have lied to you.”
“You have let him paint the truth in scarlet letters for all the world to read.”
“Istriel? Oh, that is so long ago!”
“He was your betrayer?”
“What does it matter?”
“What does it matter, I tell you; I have forgotten him. He is far away painting in the Ukraine, waiting for the great snows, they say, to draw the forests and the wolves. Perhaps the wolves will eat him. Let him be. He painted me in a hundred ways. The first thing he did was of me standing like a little saint holding a dove and with those white roses that we call of the Madonna; he named the picture Innocence; that is how I had the name.”
“He is in the snow‐fields you say — now?”
“I heard so — yes. What does it matter? What would you do if he were here?”
He only looked at her. His face was very pale; his great eyes had an answer in them that she understood.
She laughed a little to herself.
“You would kill him? Poor Istriel! Why? Since did not?”
“You would have done if —”
“If I had been Palma?”
She laughed again; aloud this time.
“If you had been — a woman — as God made them.”
“How is that? God made Eve — if He made anything, Do not use phrases, Signa. You learned that of your priests. You will die in a monk’s robes, after all?”
He turned from her with an inexpressible pain.
“Oh, my God! You can jest!”
“Why not, dear? All my life is a jest. It goes merrily like bells. You will not understand.”
“I will not believe! You cannot be so base.”
“In a man it were philosophy! why in a woman is baseness?”
“You play with words! if you be happy why say a few hours since you were in hell?”
A faint smile broke across her face. She banished it before he saw it there.
“You know women so little if you ask that. We are in hell one hour and in heaven the next. ‘Flower of an Hour.’ That is a woman. I am happy — very happy — when you will not make me think.”
He looked up at her again.
“Ah I if you would but think; — but let your conscience wake.”
“We said enough of that,” she interrupted him, with coldness. “To‐day I answered you, once and for all. If you want conscience, and terror of the saints, and all you call true womanhood, you have it all in Palma — whom you leave! As for me — I told the truth to you, judging you other than you are. I thought that you were fair enough, tender enough, sinless enough yourself to stay with me a little for our childhood’s sake, without reproach. I have lovers where I will. I have no friend. Because I am no hypocrite, and will not take up at a moment’s bidding sackcloth and ashes, and say the seven psalms of penitence, you shudder and leave me to my fate. You have no patience, no reason, no compassion. You cast me off because I am not ready to go back to the old, hateful, bitter, famished life, and say my mea culpa at the feet of Palma. You are mad. And do not speak to me of sorrow. If you had sorrow for me you would say ‘this woman is alone in all her wealth, desolate in all her power, without a heart to trust amidst a troop of lovers.’ You would say:—‘there is a gulf between us, yes, and any word of love from her to me, or me to her, is now impossible; but I will serve her still. I will not forsake her because she does not pile the cinders of a false repentance on her head; I will have more faith in the latent strength of patient purpose to win her back from error.’ That is what you would say — were you, indeed, the gentle boy I thought you. But you are like all the rest who imitate the saints. Tenderness with you means flattered vanity; you speak of your gods and act but for yourselves; you think you arm yourself with virtue, but your strength is only your own self‐love sharp‐wounded and irate. You preach to me; you bid me leave my world: you say you best had never see my face again — and why! Because you hate my sins? Ah, no! Because you hate my lovers!”
His face flushed scarlet; he sprang to his feet.
The brutal truth, which yet was only half a truth, and bore rankest injustice with it, pierced him to the quick.
There were honour, fair faith, and purity of intent in him, which flung off the words, in honest rage, as calumny. Yet, like all words that lay bare any truth, they had the electric shock of lightning in them. Passionate repudiation sprang to his lips; then paused there; he was silent.
Was it less her sins he loathed than those who shared them?
He searched his heart in vain; all seemed dark there. He stood indignant, yet abased. He knew her words a lie, yet were his own all truth? He did not know. He was a mystery to himself.
To himself; but not to her. She watched him, knowing each pang that moved him, knowing each doubt that stunned him and confused him. The lovers of her world, though often their passion was high and their emotions violent, could give her no such sport as this young soul which had dwelt in solitude with art and God, and was bewildered in the maze of passions that she dragged it to, as any antelope caught in the hunter’s toils, when the forest is ablaze with torches and alive with steel.
“You do me cruel wrong — God knows,” he said, simply; and so turned and would have left her then for ever.
He knew she wronged him; but how much — how little — that he could not tell; he was sure no longer of himself; nor of anything human or divine.
“What!” she said slowly. “You cannot even forgive me, then?”
He sighed from the depths of his heart
“I do forgive you — everything. But who is to know the thing you really are? You seem so vile and soulless, all one moment, and the next — Ah, let me go! It kills me to be here. Perhaps I hate your lovers, as you say. Perhaps. Your brothers would.”
A dark scorn gathered in her eyes. He — who had felt her hand amongst his hair, and on his drooping brow — could speak so!
“My brothers! they would be glad enough if I gave them gold to spend at loto, and new wine to drink, as far as I remember them, which is but little. They bit and pinched me; and I stole figs and nuts to bribe them with, if ever I wanted them. If you have no better thing to say, than quote my brothers! —”
“Say what I will you quarrel with it. Gemma — if you be Gemma; sometimes still I think you cannot be — let me go.”
“I am not Gemma. Gemma was a little stupid child, fed on black bread and tumbling with the pig. I am Innocence. The Innocence of Paris.”
And she laughed.
The laughter was like ice; and made him shiver, flesh and bone.
What had she not known, what had she not done, what brutalities of license had not she bent to in willing bondage, what cruelties and luxuries of vice had she not tasted, invented, been prodigal of — what memories had she not, what horrors must she not have steeped her fair white beauty in — he thought of all that, hotly, dully, as a drunken man will think of things that for ever pursue him, and yet are always vague to him.
The moonlight was about her; the crimson amaranthus flung its tall feathers around her: some marble sculptures shone behind her in the dark leaves of olive and of orange. She was so perfect to look upon; no sculptor ever made a fairer Clytie for the God of Song; and what had her life been; what were her memories; what was her foul knowledge? She was like the casket of silver that held the ashes of death.
It broke his heart to look on her.
To others she might be only one fair false woman the more, gone the way that all loose women take. But to him she was the very ruin of earth, the very mockery of heaven.
He clasped her hands with a great cry: “Oh, Gemma! — have you no pity!”
Had she any?
She looked at him, thinking for the moment that she would be pitiful, and let him go — go, whilst there was yet time; while she could still become to him a thing seen in a trance, a phantom soon forgotten, a mere name; go, whilst the horror in him was stronger than the love.
He was only a score of years old; he heard beautiful things in his dreams; he was loved by the people and cherished; his future would be greater than his present; he had the semi‐divinity of genius; he had the virgin gold of an unworn heart; he had the fond mad faiths of a poet: if she let him go there was still time:— time for him to leave in peace, forgetting her, in his art, as a feverish dream of the night is forgotten in the breaking of morning.
Would she have pity? it was but one plaything forborne; one leaf of the laurel ungathered. But she had said to herself, “Palma shall die of want of him, and I will be his god.”
She said it again in her heart.
As much of warmth as she could know, stirred in her towards him.
His beauty, his youth, his very innocence, had a charm for her, such as sated Faustina or wearied Messalina might have found in some fair boy captive from Judea, with the simple asceticism of the Galilean fishers in his soul. And then he rebuked her, shrank from her, condemned her: it was enough.
In the day of their infancy she had done with him as she chose; should he be stronger than she was now?
He cleaved to his art and his faith; well, he should forswear both.
He was a little shell off the seashore that Hermes had taken out of millions like it that the waves washed up, and had breathed into, and had strung with fine chords, and had made into a syrinx sweet for every human ear.
Why not break the simple shell for sport? She did not care for music. Did the gods care — they could make another.
“Have I no pity?” she murmured. “Nay, you only dream — dreams are pale, cold things at best — learn with me to live!”— and she drew her hands from him and passed them round his throat and inclined his head towards her breast, and brought his lips to hers.
“Have I no pity?” she said.
His life passed into her life. His soul went from him and became her own.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12