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CHAPTER 4
At the opening of the San Carlo theatre on Christmas night the opera was "The Huguenots."

A first night at the San Carlo is always an event for the Neapolitan public, no matter what opera, old or new, is given; but when the work happens to be a favourite the excitement becomes tremendous.

The two thousand persons, male and female, who constitute society in that town of half a million inhabitants, go about for a week beforehand, from house to house, from café to café, predicting that the evening will be a success. The chief r?les in "The Huguenots" were to be taken by De Giuli Borsi and Roberto Stagno, r?les in which the public was to hear these artists for the first time, though they were already known to everybody, either by reputation or from having been heard in other operas.

So, on that Christmas Day, the two thousand members of Neapolitan society put aside their usual occupations and arranged their time in such wise as to be ready promptly at eight o'clock, the men in their dress-suits, the women in rich and beautiful evening toilets. Everybody gave up something—a walk, a call, a luncheon, a nap—for the sake of getting betimes to the theatre.

By half-past seven the approaches to San Carlo, its portico, its big and little entrances, all brilliantly lighted by gas, were swarming like an ant-hill with eager people. Some came on foot, the collars of their overcoats turned up, showing freshly shaven faces under their tall silk opera-hats, or freshly waxed moustaches and beards newly pointed; others came in cabs; and before the central door, under the portico, which was draped with flags, passed a constant stream of private carriages, depositing ladies muffled in opera-cloaks of red velvet or white embroidery.

By a quarter past eight the house was full.

Anna and Laura Acquaviva, dressed in white silk, and accompanied by Stella Martini, occupied Box No. 19 of the second tier.

Cesare Dias had a place in Box No. 4 of the first tier.

Anna kept her eyes fixed upon him. He glanced up at her, but did not bow. He only turned and spoke a few words to the young man next to him, who thereupon aimed his opera-glass, at the girls' box; he was a young gentleman of medium height, with a blonde beard, and blonde hair brushed straight back from his forehead. His brown eyes had an expression of great kindness.

Anna kept her gaze fixed upon Cesare Dias; if now and then she turned it towards the stage it would only be for a brief moment.

"That is Luigi Caracciolo," said Laura.

"Who?" asked Anna.

"Luigi Caracciolo, the man next to Dias."

"Ah."

And again, Anna turned her face towards Box No. 4, where Cesare Dias sat with Luigi Caracciolo. The rest of the theatre hung round her in a sort of coloured mist; the only thing she clearly saw was the narrow space where those two men sat together.

Did they feel the magnetism of her gaze?

Cesare Dias, leaning forward, with his arm on the red velvet of the railing, was listening to the music of Meyerbeer; now and then he cast an absent-minded glance round the audience, the glance of a man who knows beforehand that he will find the usual people in the usual places.

Luigi Caracciolo appeared to give little heed to the music. He was pulling his blonde beard, and studying the ladies in the house through his opera-glass, while a slight smile played upon his lips. Presently he fixed his glass on Anna's box. Had he felt that magnetism? At any rate, he kept his glass fixed upon Anna's box.

The curtain fell on the first act.

Cesare Dias spoke a word or two to Luigi, and the two men rose and left their places.

Suddenly it seemed to Anna as if all the lights in the theatre had been put out.

"Stagno sang divinely," said Stella Martini.

"Yes," responded Laura. "But didn't it strike you that he rather exaggerated?"

"No, I can't say it did."

Anna did not hear; her eyes were closed.

There was a rumour in the house of moving people; there was a sound of opening and closing doors. Fans fluttered, men changed their seats, people went and came, many of the stalls were empty. The round of visits had begun. Husbands and brothers left their boxes to make place for other men beside their wives and sisters; to pay their respects to other men's wives and sisters. There was a babble of many voices idly chatting. It began in the first and second tiers, and it rose to the galleries, the stronghold of students, workmen, and clerks.

Anna gazed sadly at that deserted box below her.

All at once she heard Laura say, "Luigi Caracciolo and Cesare Dias are with the Contessa d'Alemagna."

Anna turned round, and raised her opera-glass.

They were there indeed, visiting the beautiful Countess; Anna could see the pale and noble face of Cesare Dias, the youthful face of Caracciolo. The Contessa d'Alemagna was an Austrian, very clever, very witty. She wore a costume of red silk, and kept waving a fan of red feathers, as she talked vivaciously with the two men. She must have been saying something extremely interesting, to judge by the close attention with which they listened to her and by the smiles with which they responded.

When Anna put down her opera-glass, her face had become deathly pale.

"Are you feeling ill?" asked Stella Martini.

"No," the child replied, paler than ever.

"Perhaps it's too hot here for you. Shall I open the door of the box?" suggested the governess.

"Laura, will you change seats with me?" said Anna.

Laura took Anna's place, and Anna retired to the back of the box, where she closed her eyes.

"Do you feel better, dear?"

"Thanks. Much better. It was the heat."

And she made as if to return to the front of the box, but Stella detained her, fearing that the heat there might again disturb her. So Anna stopped where she was, breathing the fresh air that came through the open door.

"Do you like 'The Huguenots,' Stella?" she asked, for the sake of saying something, in the hope, perhaps, of thus forgetting her desire to see what was going on in the box of the Contessa d'Alemagna.

"Very much. And you?"

"I like it immensely."

"I am afraid—I am afraid that later on you may find it too exciting. You know the fourth act is very terrible. Don't you dread the impression it may make upon you?"

"It won't matter, Stella," she said, with a faint smile.

"Perhaps you would like to go home before the fourth act begins. If you feel nervous about it——"

"I am not nervous," she murmured, as if speaking to herself. "Or, if I am, I'd rather suffer this way than otherwise."

"We were wrong to come," said Stella, shaking her head.

"No, no, Stella. Let us stay. I am all right; I am enjoying it. Don't take me home yet."

And she went back to the front of the box, to the seat next to Laura's.

"Cesare Dias and Luigi Caracciolo have left the Contessa d'Alemagna," said Laura.

"Already?"

"Perhaps they will come here," suggested Stella Martini.

"I don't think so. There won't be time," said Laura.

"There won't be time," assented Anna.

The house had become silent again, in anticipation of the second act. Here and there some one who had delayed too long in a box where he was visiting, would say good-bye quietly, and return to his place. A few such visitors, better acquainted with their hosts, remained seated, determined not to move. Among the latter were, of course, the lovers of the ladies, the intimate friends of the husbands.

From her present station Anna Acquaviva could not look so directly down upon Box No. 4 of the first tier as from her former; she had to turn round a little in order to see it, and thus her interest in it was made manifest. Cesare Dias and Luigi Caracciolo, after their visit to the Contessa d'Alemagna, had taken a turn in the corridor to smoke a cigarette, and had then returned to their places. Anna, the creature of her hopes and her desires, could not resist the temptation to gaze steadily at her guardian, though she felt that thereby she was drawing upon herself the attention of all observers, and exposing her deepest feelings to ridicule and misconstruction.

And now the divine music of Meyerbeer surged up and filled the hall, and Anna was conscious of nothing else—of nothing but the music and the face of Cesare Dias shining through it, like a star through the mist. How much time passed? She did not know. Twice her sister spoke to her; she neither heard nor answered.

When the curtain fell again, and Anna issued from her trance, Laura said, "There is Giustino Morelli."

"Ah!" cried Anna, unable to control a contraction of her features.

But she had self-constraint enough not to ask "where?" Falling suddenly from a heaven of rapture to the hard reality of her life, where traces of her old folly still lingered; hating her past, and wishing to obliterate it from her memory, as the motives for it were already obliterated from her heart, she did not ask where he was. She covered her face with her fan, and two big tears rolled slowly down her cheeks.

Stella Martini looked at her, desiring to speak, but fearing lest thereby she might only make matters worse.

At last: "We were wrong to come here, Anna," she said.

"No, no," responded Anna. "I am very well—I am very happy," she added, enigmatically.

The door of the box was slowly pushed open. Cesare Dias and Luigi Caracciolo entered. With a word or two their guardian presented the young man to the sisters. The men sat down, Cesare Dias next to Anna, Luigi Caracciolo next to Laura. They began at once to talk in a light vein about the performance. Overcoming the tumult of her heart, Anna alone answered them. Stella Martini was silent, and Laura, with her eyes half shut, listened without speaking.

"Stagno is a great artist; he is immensely talented," observed Luigi Caracciolo, with a bland smile, passing his fingers slowly through his blonde beard.

"And so much feeling—so much sentiment," added Anna.

"To say that he is talented, that he is an artist, is enough," replied Cesare Dias, with an accent in which severity was tempered by politeness.

Anna assented, bowing her head.

"For the rest, the number of decent opera singers on the modern stage is becoming less and less. We have a multitude of mediocrities, with here and there a star," continued Luigi Caracciolo.

"Ah, I have heard the great ones," sighed Cesare Dias.

"Yes, yes. You must have heard Fraschini, Negrini, and Nourrit in their time," Luigi Caracciolo said, smiling with the fatuity of a fellow of twenty who imagines that his youth will last for ever.

"You were a boy when I heard them, that's a fact—which doesn't prevent my being an old man now," rejoined Cesare Dias, with that shadow of melancholy in his voice which seemed so inconsistent with his character.

"What do years matter?" asked Anna, suddenly. "Other things matter much more; other things affect us more profoundly, more intimately, than years. Years are mere external, insignificant facts."

"Thanks for that kindly defence, my dear," Cesare Dias exclaimed, laughing; "but it only springs from the goodness of your heart."

"From the radiance of youth," said Luigi Caracciolo, bowing, to underline his compliment.

Anna was silent and agitated. Nothing so easily upset her equilibrium as light wordly conversation, based upon personalities and frivolous gallantry.

"Not enough, not enough," said Cesare Dias, wishing to cap the compliment, and at the same time to bring his own philosophy into relief. "As often as I find myself in the presence of these two girls, Luigi, who are two flowers of youthfulness, I seem to feel older than ever. I feel that I must be a hundred at least. How many changes of Government have I seen? Eight or nine, perhaps. Yes, I'm certainly more than a hundred, dear Anna."

And he turned towards her with a light ironical smile.

"Why do you say such things—such sad things?" murmured Anna.

"Indeed they are sad—indeed they are. Youth is the only treasure whose loss one may weep for the whole of one's life."

"But don't feel badly about it, dear Cesare. Consider. Isn't knowledge better than ignorance? Isn't the calm of autumn better than the storms of spring? You are our master—the master of us all. We all revere him, don't we, Signorina?" said Luigi, turning to Anna.

A shadow crossed Anna's face, and she let the conversation drop.

"And you, who say nothing, reasonable and placid Laura?" asked Cesare Dias. "Which is better—youth or age? Which is better—knowledge or ignorance? Here are knotty problems submitted to your wisdom, dear Minerva. You are a young girl, but you are also Minerva. Illuminate us. Who should be the happier—I, the master, or Caracciolo, my pupil?"

Laura thought for a moment, with an intent expression in her beautiful eyes, and then answered:

"It is best to combine the two—to have youth and wisdom together."

"The problem is solved!" cried Cesare Dias.

"And the entr'acte is over; everything in its time. Good evening, good evening; good-bye, Cesare," said Luigi.

So Caracciolo took his leave, very correctly, without shaking hands with Dias. Dias had risen, but Luigi seemed to understand that he meant to stay in the girls' box.

Anna, who had been looking up anxiously, waiting, looked down again now, reassured. The door closed noiselessly upon the young man.

"A pleasant fellow," observed Cesare Dias.

"Very pleasant," agreed Stella Martini, for politeness' sake, or perhaps because she desired to state her opinion.

"In my quality of centenarian I feel at liberty to stop where I am," said Cesare Dias, reseating himself behind Anna, while beside him, behind Laura, sat Stella Martini.

"You won't get a good view of the stage from there," said Stella.

"I don't care to see. It will be enough to hear it, this fourth act."

Anna said nothing. Courtesy forbade her looking directly at the scene, for thus she must have turned her back upon Cesare Dias. It embarrassed her a little to feel him there behind her. She did not move. Their two chairs were close together; and their two costumes made a striking contrast: his black dress-suit, the modern and elegant uniform of the man of the world, so austere and so handsome in its soberness; and her gown of white silk, the ceremonial robe of a young girl in society.

She was afraid her arm might touch Cesare's. He held his opera-hat in his hand. She forbore to fan herself, lest he might have to change his position. Now and then she raised her handkerchief to her lips, as if to refresh them with the cool linen.

While Saint-Bris, stirred by fanaticism, was telling the Catholic lords of the excesses of the Huguenots, and exciting them by his eloquence to share his fury; while the noble Nevers, the husband of Valentina, was protesting against the massacre; while, through the silence of the theatre, the grand musical poem of hatred, of wrath, of generosity, of love, and of piety, was surging up to the fascinated audience, Anna was thrilling at the thought that Cesare Dias was looking at her, at her hair, at her lips, at her person; she felt that she was badly dressed, pale, awkward, stupid. Wasn't the Contessa d'Alemagna a thousand times more beautiful than she? The Contessa d'Alemagna, with her dark complexion and her blue eyes, and her expression of girlish ingenuousness deliciously contrasted with womanly charm; the Contessa d'Alemagna, whom Cesare Dias had visited before coming to his ward's box. Weren't there a hundred women of their set present in the theatre this evening, each of them lovelier than she? Young girls, smiling brides, and ladies to whom maturity lent a richer attraction, all of them acquaintances of Cesare Dias, who, from time to time, looked at them through his opera-glass. And, indeed, her own sister, the wise Minerva, was she not more beautiful, more maidenly, more poetical than Anna? Was it not because of her beauty, her pure profile, her calm smile, that Cesare had called her by that gracious name, Minerva?

Anna bowed her head, as if oppressed by the heat and by the music, but really from a sense of self-contempt and humiliation. There was a looking-glass behind her. She was sorry now that she hadn't made an inspection of herself in it, on entering the box. She had forgotten her own face. Fantastically, she imagined it as brown and scarred, and hideously pallid. Her white frock made it worse. She registered a silent vow that she would always hereafter wear black. Only blonde women could afford to dress in white.

"You have dropped your fan," said Cesare Dias, stooping to recover it.

He smiled as he handed it to her.

"Thank you," said she, taking the fan.

Presently she put it down on an empty chair next to her. Cesare Dias picked it up, and began to fan himself. Then he pressed it to his face.

"What is it perfumed with?" he asked.

"Heliotrope."

"I like it," he said, and put the fan down.

She was burning with a desire to take it, to touch what he had touched, but she dared not.

Cesare Dias leaned forward a little, to look at the stage. He was so close to her, it seemed to Anna that she could hear him breathe.

For her own part, a sort of intoxication, due no doubt in some measure to the passionate art of the great composer, whose music surged like a flood about her, had mounted from her heart to her brain; she was conscious of nothing save a great world of love, save the near presence of Cesare Dias. Her soul held a new and precious treasure, a new joy. She delighted herself with the illusion that the beating of her own heart was the beating of Cesare's. She forgot everything—the place, the time, the future, youth, age, beauty, everything; motionless, with her eyes cast down, she seemed to float in a wave of soft warm light, aware of one single sweet sensation, his nearness to her. She had forgotten the stage, the people round her, Stella Martini, her sister Laura; the music itself was only a distant echo; her whole being was concentrated in an ecstasy, which she hoped might never end. She did not dare to move or speak, lest she might thereby wake from her heavenly dream. She had again entered anew into the land of passion. She was one of those natures which, having ceased to love, begin again to love.

"I could die like this," she thought.

She felt that she could die thus, in a divine moment, when new love, young and strong, has not yet learned the lessons of sorrow, of shame, of worldly wickedness, that await it; it would be sweet to die with one's illusions undisturbed, to die in the fulness of youth, before one's ideals have begun to decay; to die loving, rather than to live to see love die.

So, on the stage, Raoul and Valentina, victims of an irrepressible but impossible passion, were calling upon Heaven for death, praying to be allowed to die in their divine moment of love. Anna, recoiling from the thought of the future, with its inevitable vicissitudes, struggles, tears, and disappointments, realised the fascination of death. Involuntarily, she looked at Cesare. He smiled upon her, and thereat she too smiled, like his faithful image in a mirror. And her sublime longing to die, disappeared before the reality of his smile.

She looked at him again, but this time he was intent upon the scene. Anna felt that her love was being sung for her by the artists there, by Raoul and Valentina.

Cesare said to her, "How beautiful it is!"

"It is beautiful," she murmured, bowing her head.

It seemed to her that his voice had been unusually soft. What was the reason? What commotion was taking place in his heart? She asked herself these questions, but could not answer them. She loved him. That was enough. She loved him; she could not hope to be loved by him.

The music ceased. The curtain fell.

"Have you ordered the carriage?" Cesare Dias asked of Stella Martini.

"Yes, for twelve o clock.

"If you'll wait for me a moment I'll go and get my overcoat."

The ladies were putting on their cloaks, when Cesare came back, wearing his hat and overcoat. He helped Stella on with hers, then Laura, then Anna.

And looking at the sisters, he said, "You ought to have your portraits painted, dressed like this. I assure you, you're looking extremely handsome. I speak as a centenarian."

Laura smiled; Anna looked down, embarrassed. Her trouble was increased when she saw Cesare politely offer his arm to Stella Martini. Had she hoped that he would offer it to her? He motioned to the girls to take the lead in leaving the box. Anna put her arm through Laura's and went out slowly.

He conducted them to their carriage, and when they were safely in it, "I shall walk," he said, "It's such a fine evening. Good-night."

In the darkness, as they drove home, Laura asked, "Did you see Giustino Morelli?"

"No, he wasn't there."

"What do you mean? He was there."

"For me, he wasn't there. Giustino Morelli is dead."
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