Gemma certainly was delighted to see him, and Frau Lenore gave him a very friendly welcome; he had obviously made a good impression on both of them the evening before. Emil ran to see to getting lunch ready, after a preliminary whisper, ‘don’t forget!’ in Sanin’s ear.
‘I won’t forget,’ responded Sanin.
Frau Lenore was not quite well; she had a sick headache, and, half-lying down in an easy chair, she tried to keep perfectly still. Gemma wore a full yellow blouse, with a black leather belt round the waist; she too seemed exhausted, and was rather pale; there were dark rings round her eyes, but their lustre was not the less for it; it added something of charm and mystery to the classical lines of her face. Sanin was especially struck that day by the exquisite beauty of her hands; when she smoothed and put back her dark, glossy tresses he could not take his eyes off her long supple fingers, held slightly apart from one another like the hand of Raphael’s Fornarina.
It was very hot out-of-doors; after lunch Sanin was about to take leave, but they told him that on such a day the best thing was to stay where one was, and he agreed; he stayed. In the back room where he was sitting with the ladies of the household, coolness reigned supreme; the windows looked out upon a little garden overgrown with acacias. Multitudes of bees, wasps, and humming beetles kept up a steady, eager buzz in their thick branches, which were studded with golden blossoms; through the half-drawn curtains and the lowered blinds this never-ceasing hum made its way into the room, telling of the sultry heat in the air outside, and making the cool of the closed and snug abode seem the sweeter.
Sanin talked a great deal, as on the day before, but not of Russia, nor of Russian life. Being anxious to please his young friend, who had been sent off to Herr Klüber’s immediately after lunch, to acquire a knowledge of book-keeping, he turned the conversation on the comparative advantages and disadvantages of art and commerce. He was not surprised at Frau Lenore’s standing up for commerce — he had expected that; but Gemma too shared her opinion.
‘If one’s an artist, and especially a singer,’ she declared with a vigorous downward sweep of her hand, ‘one’s got to be first-rate! Second-rate’s worse than nothing; and who can tell if one will arrive at being first-rate?’ Pantaleone, who took part too in the conversation —(as an old servant and an old man he had the privilege of sitting down in the presence of the ladies of the house; Italians are not, as a rule, strict in matters of etiquette)— Pantaleone, as a matter of course, stood like a rock for art. To tell the truth, his arguments were somewhat feeble; he kept expatiating for the most part on the necessity, before all things, of possessing ‘un certo estro d’inspirazione’— a certain force of inspiration! Frau Lenore remarked to him that he had, to be sure, possessed such an ‘estro’— and yet . . . ‘I had enemies,’ Pantaleone observed gloomily. ‘And how do you know that Emil will not have enemies, even if this “estro” is found in him?’ ‘Very well, make a tradesman of him, then,’ retorted Pantaleone in vexation; ‘but Giovan’ Battista would never have done it, though he was a confectioner himself!’ ‘Giovan’ Battista, my husband, was a reasonable man, and even though he was in his youth led away . . . ’ But the old man would hear nothing more, and walked away, repeating reproachfully, ‘Ah! Giovan’ Battista! . . . ’ Gemma exclaimed that if Emil felt like a patriot, and wanted to devote all his powers to the liberation of Italy, then, of course, for such a high and holy cause he might sacrifice the security of the future — but not for the theatre! Thereupon Frau Lenore became much agitated, and began to implore her daughter to refrain at least from turning her brother’s head, and to content herself with being such a desperate republican herself! Frau Lenore groaned as she uttered these words, and began complaining of her head, which was ‘ready to split.’ (Frau Lenore, in deference to their guest, talked to her daughter in French.)
Gemma began at once to wait upon her; she moistened her forehead with eau-de-Cologne, gently blew on it, gently kissed her cheek, made her lay her head on a pillow, forbade her to speak, and kissed her again. Then, turning to Sanin, she began telling him in a half-joking, half-tender tone what a splendid mother she had, and what a beauty she had been. ‘“Had been,” did I say? she is charming now! Look, look, what eyes!’
Gemma instantly pulled a white handkerchief out of her pocket, covered her mother’s face with it, and slowly drawing it downwards, gradually uncovered Frau Lenore’s forehead, eyebrows, and eyes; she waited a moment and asked her to open them. Her mother obeyed; Gemma cried out in ecstasy (Frau Lenore’s eyes really were very beautiful), and rapidly sliding the handkerchief over the lower, less regular part of the face, fell to kissing her again. Frau Lenore laughed, and turning a little away, with a pretence of violence, pushed her daughter away. She too pretended to struggle with her mother, and lavished caresses on her — not like a cat, in the French manner, but with that special Italian grace in which is always felt the presence of power.
At last Frau Lenore declared she was tired out . . . Then Gemma at once advised her to have a little nap, where she was, in her chair, ‘and I and the Russian gentleman —“avec le monsieur russe”— will be as quiet, as quiet . . . as little mice . . . “comme des petites souris.”’ Frau Lenore smiled at her in reply, closed her eyes, and after a few sighs began to doze. Gemma quickly dropped down on a bench beside her and did not stir again, only from time to time she put a finger of one hand to her lips — with the other hand she was holding up a pillow behind her mother’s head — and said softly, ‘sh-sh!’ with a sidelong look at Sanin, if he permitted himself the smallest movement. In the end he too sank into a kind of dream, and sat motionless as though spell-bound, while all his faculties were absorbed in admiring the picture presented him by the half-dark room, here and there spotted with patches of light crimson, where fresh, luxuriant roses stood in the old-fashioned green glasses, and the sleeping woman with demurely folded hands and kind, weary face, framed in the snowy whiteness of the pillow, and the young, keenly-alert and also kind, clever, pure, and unspeakably beautiful creature with such black, deep, overshadowed, yet shining eyes. . . . What was it? A dream? a fairy tale? And how came he to be in it?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01