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PART I Chapter I.
Motionless under the white coverlet of her bed, Anna appeared to have been sleeping soundly for the past two hours.

Her sister Laura, who occupied a little cot at the other end of the big room, had that evening much prolonged her customary reading, which followed the last gossip of the day between the girls. But no sooner had she put out her candle than Anna opened her eyes and fixed them upon Laura's bed, which glimmered vaguely white in the distance.

Anna was wide awake.

She dared not move, she dared not even sigh; and all her life was in her gaze, trying to penetrate the secret of the dusk—trying to see whether really her sister was asleep. It was a winter's night, and as the hour advanced the room became colder and colder; but Anna did not feel it.

The moment the light had been extinguished a flame had leapt from her heart to her brain, diffusing itself through all her members, scalding her veins, scorching her flesh, quickening the beating of her pulses. As in the height of fever, she felt herself burning up; her tongue was dry, her head was hot; and the icy air that entered her lungs could not quench the fire in her, could not subdue the tumultuous irruption of her young blood.

Often, to relieve herself, she had longed to cry out, to moan; but the fear of waking Laura held her silent. It was not, however, so much from the great heat throbbing at her temples that she suffered, as from her inability to know for certain whether her sister was asleep.

Sometimes she thought of moving noisily, so that her bed should creak; then if Laura was awake, she would move in hers, and thus Anna could make sure. But the fear of thereby still further lengthening this time of waiting, kept her from letting the thought become an action. She lay as motionless as if her limbs were bound down by a thousand chains.

She had lost all track of time, too; she had forgotten to count the last strokes of the clock—the clock that could be heard from the sitting-room adjoining. It seemed to her that she had been lying like this for years, that she had been waiting for years, burning with this maddening fire for years, that she had spent years trying to pierce the darkness with her eyes.

And then the horrible thought crossed her mind—What if the hour had passed? Perhaps it had passed without her noticing it; she who had waited for it so impatiently had let it escape.

But no. Presently, deadened by the distance and the doors closed between, she heard the clock ring out.

The hour had come.

Thereupon, with an infinite caution, born of infinite fear, slowly, trembling, holding her breath at every sound, pausing, starting back, going on, she sat up in bed, and at last slipped out of it.

That vague spot of whiteness in the distance, where her sister lay, still fascinated her; she kept her head turned in its direction, while with her hands she felt for her shoes and stockings and clothes. They were all there, placed conveniently near; but every little difficulty she had to overcome in dressing, so as not to make the slightest noise, represented a world of precautions, of pauses, and of paralysing fears.

When at last she had got on her frock of white serge, which shone out in the darkness, "Perhaps Laura sees me," she thought.

But she had made ready a big heavy black shawl, and in this she now wrapped herself from head to foot, and the whiteness of her frock was hidden.

Then, having accomplished the miracle of dressing herself, she stood still at her bedside; she had not dared to take a step as yet, sure that by doing so she would wake Laura.

"A little strength—Heaven send me a little strength," she prayed inwardly.

Then she set forth stealthily across the room. In the middle of it, seized by a sudden audacious impulse, she called her sister's name, in a whisper, "Laura, Laura," listening intensely.

No answer. She went on, past the door, through the sitting-room, the drawing-room, feeling her way amidst the chairs and tables. She struck her shoulder against the frame of the door between the sitting-room and the drawing-room, and halted for a moment, with a beating heart.

"Madonna mia! Madonna mia!" she murmured in an agony of terror.

Then she had to pass before the room of her governess, Stella Martini; but the poor, good lady was a sound sleeper, and Anna knew it.

When she reached the dining-room, it seemed to her that she must have traversed a hundred separate chambers, a hundred entire apartments, an endless chain of chambers and apartments.

At last she opened the door that gave upon the terrace, and ran out into the night, the cold, the blackness. She crossed the terrace to the low dividing-wall between it and the next.

"Giustino—Giustino," she called.

Suddenly the shadow of a man appeared on the other terrace, very near, very close to the wall of division.

A voice answered: "Here I am, Anna."

But she, taking his hand, drew him towards her, saying: "Come, come."

He leapt over the little wall.

Covered by her black mantle, without speaking, Anna bent her head and broke into sobs.

"What is it? What is wrong?" he asked, trying to see her face.

Anna wept without answering.

"Don't cry, don't cry. Tell me what's troubling you," he murmured earnestly, with a caress in his words and in his voice.

"Nothing, nothing. I was so frightened," she stammered.

"Dearest, dearest, dearest!" he whispered.

"Oh, I'm a poor creature—a poor thing," said she, with a desolate gesture.

"I love you so," said Giustino, simply, in a low voice.

"Oh, say that again," she begged, ceasing to weep.

"I love you so, Anna."

"I adore you—my soul, my darling."

"If you love me, you must be calm."

"I adore you, my dearest one."

"Promise me that you won't cry any more, then."

"I adore you, I adore you, I adore you!" she repeated, her voice heavy with emotion.

He did not speak. It seemed as if he could find no words fit for responding to such a passion. A cold gust of wind swept over them.

"Are you cold?" he asked.

"No: feel." And she gave him her hand.

Her little hand, between those of Giustino, was indeed not cold; it was burning.

"That is love," said she.

He lifted the hand gently to his lips, and kissed it lightly. And thereupon, her eyes glowed in the darkness, like human stars of passion.

"My love is consuming me," she went on, as if speaking to herself. "I can feel nothing else; neither cold, nor night, nor danger—nothing. I can only feel you. I want nothing but your love. I only want to live near you always—till death, and after death—always with you—always, always."

"Ah me!" sighed he, under his breath.

"What did you say?" she cried, eagerly.

"It was a sigh, dear one; a sigh over our dream."

"Don't talk like that; don't say that," she exclaimed.

"Why shouldn't I say it, Anna? The sweet dream that we have been dreaming together—any day we may have to wake from it. They aren't willing that we should live together."

"Who—they?"

"He who can dispose of you as he wishes, Cesare Dias."

"Have you seen him?"

"Yes; to-day."

"And he won't consent?"

"He won't consent."

"Why not?"

"Because you have money, and I have none. Because you are noble, and I'm not."

"But I adore you, Giustino."

"That matters little to your guardian."

"He's a bad man."

"He's a man," said Giustino, shortly.

"But it's an act of cruelty that he's committing," she cried, lifting her hands towards heaven.

Giustino did not speak.

"What did you answer? What did you plead? Didn't you tell him again that you love me, that I adore you, that I shall die if we are separated? Didn't you describe our despair to him?"

"It was useless," replied Giustino, sadly.

"Oh, dear! Oh, dear! You didn't tell him of our love, of our happiness? You didn't implore him, weeping? You didn't try to move his hard old heart? But what sort of man are you; what sort of soul have you, that you let them sentence us to death like this? O Lord! O Lord!—what man have I been loving?"

"Anna, Anna!" he said, softly.

"Why didn't you defy him? Why didn't you rebel? You're young; you're brave. How could Cesare Dias, almost an old man, with ice in his veins, how could he frighten you?"

"Because Cesare Dias was right, Anna," he answered quietly.

"Oh, horror! Horrible sacrilege of love!" cried Anna, starting back.

In her despair she had unconsciously allowed her shawl to drop from her shoulders; it had fallen to the ground, at her feet. And now she stood up before him like a white, desolate phantom, impelled by sorrow to wander the earth on a quest that can never have an end.

But he had a desperate courage, though it forced him to break with the only woman he had ever loved.

"Cesare Dias was right, my dearest Anna. I couldn't answer him. I'm a poor young fellow, without a farthing."

"Love is stronger than money."

"I am a commoner, I have no title to give you."

"Love is stronger than a title."

"Everything is against our union, Anna."

"Love is stronger than everything; stronger even than death."

After this there befell a silence. But he felt that he must go to the bottom of the subject. He saw his duty, and overcame his pain.

"Think a little, Anna. Our souls were made for each other; but our persons are placed in such different circumstances, separated by so many things, such great distances, that not even a miracle could unite them. You accuse me of being a traitor to our love, which is our strength; but is it unworthy of us to conquer ourselves in such a pass? Anna, Anna, it is I who lose everything; and yet I advise you to forget this youthful fancy. You are young; you are beautiful; you are rich; you are noble, and you love me; yet it is my duty to say to you, forget me—forget me. Consider how great the sacrifice is, and see if it is not our duty, as two good people, to make it courageously. Anna, you will be loved again, better still, by a better man. You deserve the purest and the noblest love. You won't be unhappy long. Life is still sweet for you. You weep, yes; you suffer; because you love me, because you are a dear, loving woman. But afterwards, afterwards you will find your path broad and flowery. It is I who will have nothing left; the light of my life will go out, the fire in my heart. But what does it matter? You will forget me, Anna."

Anna, motionless, listened to him, uttering no word.

"Speak," he said, anxiously.

"I can't forget you," she answered.

"Try—make the effort. Let us try not to see each other."

"No, no; it's useless," she said, her voice dying on her lips.

"What do you wish us to do?"

"I don't know. I don't know."

A great impulse of pity, greater than his own sorrow, assailed him. He took her hands; they were cold now.

"What is the matter with you? Are you ill?"

She did not answer. She leant her head on his shoulder, and he caressed her rich, brown hair.

"Anna, what is it?" he whispered, thrilled by a wild emotion.

"You don't love me."

"How can you doubt it?"

"If you loved me," she began, sobbing, "you would not propose our separation. If you loved me you would not think such a separation possible. If you loved me it would be like death to you to forget and be forgotten. Giustino, you don't love me."

"Anna, Anna!"

"Judge by me," she went on, softly. "I'm a poor, weak woman; yet I resist, I struggle. And we would conquer, we would conquer, if you loved me."

"Anna!"

"Ah, don't call my name; don't speak my name. All this tenderness—what's the use of it? It is good; it is wise; it is comforting. But it is only tenderness; it isn't love. You can think, reflect, determine. That isn't love. You speak of duty, of being worthy—worthy of her who adores you, who sees nothing but you in the whole wide world. I know nothing of all that. I love you. I know nothing. And only now I realise that your love isn't love. You are silent. I don't understand you. You can't understand me. Good-bye, love!"

She turned away from him, to move off. But he detained her.

"What do you want to do?" he whispered.

"If I can't live with you, I must die," she said, quietly, with her eyes closed, as if she were thus awaiting death.

"Don't speak of dying, Anna. Don't make my regret worse than it is. It's I who have spoiled your life."

"It doesn't matter."

"It's I who have put bitterness into your sweet youth."

"It doesn't matter."

"It's I who have stirred you up to rebel against Cesare Dias, against your sister Laura, against the wish of your parents and all your friends."

"It doesn't matter."

"It is I who have called you from your sleep, who have exposed you to a thousand dangers. Think, if you were discovered here you would be lost."

"It doesn't matter. Take me away."

And Giustino, in spite of the darkness, could see her fond eyes glowing.

"If you would only take me away," she sighed.

"But where?"

"Anywhere—to any country. You will be my country."

"Elope? A noble young girl—elope like an adventuress?"

"Love will secure my pardon."

"I will pardon you; no others will."

"You will be my family, my all. Take me away."

"Anna, Anna, where should we find refuge? Without means, without friends, having committed a great fault, our life would be most unhappy."

"No, no, no! Take me away. We'll have a little time of poverty, after which I shall get possession of my fortune. Take me away."

"And I shall be accused of having made a good speculation. No, no, Anna, it's impossible. I couldn't bear such a shame."

She started away from him, pushing him back with a movement of horror.

"What?" she cried. "What? You would be ashamed? It's your shame that preoccupies you? And mine? Honoured, esteemed, loved, I care nothing for this honour, this love, and am willing to lose all, the respect of people, the affection of my relations—and you think of yourself! I could have chosen any one of a multitude of young men of my own rank, my own set, and I have chosen you because you were good and honest and clever. And you are ashamed of what bad people and stupid people may say of you! I—I brave everything. I lie, I deceive. I leave my bed at the dead of night, steal out during my sister's sleep—out of my room, out of my house, like a guilty servant, so that they might call me the lowest of the low. I do all this to come to you; and you are thinking of speculations, of what the world will say about you. Oh, how strong you are, you men! How well you know your way; how straight you march, never listening to the voices that call to you, never feeling the hands that try to stop you—nothing, nothing, nothing! You are men, and have your honour to look after, your dignity to preserve, your delicate reputation to safeguard. You are right, you are reasonable. And so we are fools; we are mad, who step out of the path of honour and dignity for the love of you—we poor silly creatures of our hearts!"

Giustino had not attempted to protest against this outburst of violent language; but every word of it, hot with wrath, vibrant with sorrowful anger, stirred him to the quick, held him silenced, frightened, shaken by her voice, by the tumult of her passion. Now the fire which he had rashly kindled burnt up the whole beautiful, simple, stable edifice of his planning, and all he could see left of it was a smoking ruin. He loved her—she loved him; and though he knew it was wild and unreasonable. "Forgive me," he said; "let us go away."

She put her hand upon his head, and he heard her murmur, under her voice, "O God!"

They both felt that their life was decided, that they had played the grand stake of their existence.

There was a long pause; she was the first to break it.

"Listen, Giustino. Before we fly let me make one last attempt. You have spoken to Cesare Dias; you have told him that you love me, that I adore you; but he didn't believe you——"

"It is true. He smiled incredulously."

"He is a man who has seen a great deal of the world, who has been loved, who has loved; but of all that nothing is left to him. He is cold and solitary. He never speaks of his scepticism, but he believes in nothing. He's a miserable, arid creature. I know that he despises me, thinking me silly and enthusiastic. I pity him as I pity every one who has no love in his heart. And yet—I will speak to Cesare Dias. The truth will well up from me with such impetus that he cannot refuse to believe me. I'll tell him everything. In spite of his forty years, in spite of the corruption of his mind, in spite of all his scorn, all his irony, true love will find convincing words. He'll give his consent."

"Can't you first persuade your sister? There we'd have an affectionate ally," said Giustino, tentatively.

"My sister is worse than Cesare Dias," she answered, with a slight tremor of the voice; "I should never dare to depend on her."

"You are afraid of her?"

"Pray don't speak of her, don't speak of her. It's a subject which pains me."

"And yet——"

"No, no. Laura knows nothing; she must know nothing; it would be dreadful if she knew. I'd a thousand times rather speak to him. He will remember his past; Laura has no past—she has nothing—she's a dead soul. I will speak with him; he will believe me."

"And if he shouldn't believe you?"

"He will believe me."

"But, Anna, Anna, if he shouldn't?"

"Then—we will elope. But I ought to make this last attempt. Heaven will give me strength. Afterwards—I will write to you, I will tell you everything. I daren't come here any more. It's too dangerous. If any one should see me it would be the ruin of all our hopes. I'll write to you. You'll arrange your own affairs in the meantime—as if you were at the point of death, as if you were going to leave this country never to return. You must be ready at any instant."

"I'll be ready."

"Surely?"

"Surely."

"Without a regret?"

"Without a regret." But his voice died on his lips.

"Thank you; you love me. We shall be so happy! You will see. Happier than any one in the world!"

"So happy!" murmured Giustino, faithful but sad.

"And may Heaven help us," she concluded, fervently, putting out her hand to leave him.

He took her hand, and his pressure of it was a silent vow; but it was the vow of a friend, of a brother, simple and austere.

She moved slowly away, as if tired. He remained where he was, waiting a little before returning to his own terrace. Not until some ten minutes had passed, during which he heard no sound, no movement, could he feel satisfied that Anna had safely reached her room.

Once at home, he found himself used up, exhausted, without ideas, without emotions. And speedily he fell asleep.

She also was exhausted by the great moral crisis through which she had passed. An immense burden seemed to bow her down, to make heavy her footsteps, as she groped her way through the silent house.

When she reached the sitting-room she stopped with sudden terror. A light was burning in the bedroom. Laura would be awake, would have remarked her absence, would be waiting for her.

She stood still a long while. She could hear a sound as of the pages of a book being turned. Laura was reading.

At last she pushed open the door, and crossed the threshold.

Laura looked at her, smiled haughtily, and did not speak.

Anna fell on her knees before her, crying, "Forgive me. For pity's sake, Laura, forgive me. Laura, Laura, Laura!"

But the child remained silent, white and cold and virginal, never ceasing to smile scornfully.

Anna lay on the floor, weeping. And the winter dawn found her there, weeping, weeping; while her sister slept peacefully.
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