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Cesare Dias came home one day towards six o'clock, in great good humour. At dinner he found everything excellent, though it was his habit to find everything bad. He ate with a hearty appetite, and told countless amusing stories, of the sort that he reserved for his agreeable moments. He joked with Laura, and with Anna; he even complimented his wife upon her dress, a new one that she had to-day put on for the first time. He succeeded in communicating his gaiety to the two women. Anna looked at him with meek and tender eyes; and as often as he smiled she smiled too.

Laura, it is true, spoke little, but in her face shone that expression of vivacity, of animation, which had characterised it for some time past. She agreed with everything Cesare said, bowing her head.

After dinner they all passed into Anna's drawing-room. It was her evening at home; and noticing that there were flowers in all the vases—it was in June, just a year after their talk at Sorrento—and seeing the silver samovar on the table, Cesare asked: "Are you expecting people to-night, Anna?"

"A few. Perhaps no one will come."

"Ah, that's why you've got yourself up so smartly."

"Did you fancy it was for you, that she had put on her new frock, Cesare?" Laura asked, jestingly.

"I was presumptuous enough to do so; and all presumptions are delusions. I'll bet that Luigi Caracciolo is coming—the ever faithful one."

"I'm sure I don't know," said Anna, indifferently.

"Oh, you hypocrite, Anna!" laughed Laura.

"Hypocrite, hypocrite!" repeated Cesare, also laughing. "Come, I'll warrant that the obstinate fidelity of Caracciolo has at last made an impression. Admirable! He's been in love with you for a hundred years."

"Oh, Cesare, don't joke about such subjects," Anna begged, in pain.

"You see, Laura, she is troubled."

"She's troubled, it's true," affirmed Laura.

"You're both of you heartless," Anna murmured.

Cesare opened his cigarette case, and playfully offered a cigarette to each of the ladies.

"I don't smoke," said Laura.

"Why don't you learn to?"

"Smoke is bad for the teeth;" and she showed her own, shining like those of Beatrice in the tale by Edgar Poe.

"You're right, fair Minerva. Will you smoke, Anna?"

"I don't smoke, either," she said, with a soft smile.

"You ought to learn. It would be becoming to you. You're dark, you have the Spanish type, and a papelito[D] would complete your charm."

"I will learn, Cesare," she assented.

"And what's more, smoke calms the nerves. You can't imagine the soothing effect it has. Nothing is better to relieve our little sorrows."

"Give me a cigarette, then," she said at once.

"Ah, you have little sorrows?"

"Who knows!" she sighed, putting aside her cigarette.

"You have no little sorrows, Laura?" asked Cesare.

"Neither little ones nor big ones."

"Who can boast of having never wept?" said Anna, with a melancholy accent.

"If we become sentimental, I shall take myself off," said Cesare.

"No, no, don't go away," Anna prayed him.

"I would remind you that we've got to pass our whole life-time together," said he, ironically, knocking off the ash of his cigarette.

"All our life-time, and more beyond it," said Anna, pensively.

"And more beyond! It's a grave affair. I will think of it while I am dressing, this evening."

"Where are you going?"

"To take a walk," he answered, rising.

"Why don't you stay here?" she ventured to ask.

"I can't. I'm obliged to go out."

"Come home early, won't you?"

"Early—yes," he consented, after a short hesitation.

"I'll wait for you, Cesare."

"Yes, yes. Good-night."

He went off.

Laura, according to her recent habit, had listened to this dialogue with her eyes half closed, and biting her lips; she said nothing. Whenever her sister and her brother-in-law exchanged a few affectionate words (and, indeed, Cesare did no more than respond to the affection of Anna), she assumed the countenance of a statue, which neither feels nor hears nor sees; or else, she got up and left the room noiselessly. Often Anna surprised on Laura's face a cynical smile that appeared the antithesis of its extreme purity, the irony of an icy virgin who is aware of the falsity and hollowness of love.

This evening, when Cesare had left them, the sisters remained together for a few minutes. But apparently both their minds were absorbed in deep thought; at any rate they could not keep up a conversation. Anna, in her lilac-coloured frock, lay in an easy-chair, leaning her head on her hands, over which her black hair seemed like a warrior's helmet. Laura was pulling and playing with the fringe of her white dress.

"I'm going; good night," she said suddenly.

"Why do you go, Laura?" asked Anna, issuing from her reverie.

"There's no use staying. People will be arriving."

"But stay for that very reason. You will help me to endure their visits."

"Oh, that's a task above my strength," said the blonde and beautiful Minerva. "Then, anyhow, it's you they come to see, my dear."

"You'll be married some day yourself," said Anna, laughing.

She was still in a pleasant mood—a reflection of Cesare's gaiety; and then he had promised to come home early.

"Who knows! Good night," and Laura rose to go away.

"But what are you going to do?"

"Read a little; then sleep."

"What are you reading?"

"'Le mot de l'énigme,'[E] by Madame Pauline Craven."

"A mystical romance? Do you want to become a nun?"

"Who knows! Good night."

Anna herself took up a book after Laura's departure. It was Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant; she had found it one day on her husband's writing-desk. In its cool yet ardent pages one feels the charm of a truthful story, surging up from the heart in a single, vibrant cry of pain. Anna had read it two or three times; now she began it again, absent-mindedly. But she did not read long. A few callers came; the Marchesa Scibilia, her relative, accompanied by Gaetano Althan, who always liked to go about with old ladies; Commander Gabriele Mari, a man of seventy; and then the Prince of Gioiosa, a handsome, witty, and intelligent Calabrian.

The conversation, of course, was a mixture of frivolity and seriousness, as conversations are apt to be in a small gathering like the present, where nobody cares to appear too much in earnest, and everybody tries to speak in paradoxes.

The Prince di Gioiosa was the last to leave; it was then past eleven.

"No one else will come," she thought.

But she was mistaken. Acquaintances passing in the street, and seeing her windows alight, came up to pay their respects. When the last of these had gone, "It is late; no one else will come," she thought again.

But again she was mistaken. The servant announced Luigi Caracciolo; and the handsome young fellow entered, with that English correctness of bearing which somewhat tempered the vivacity of his blonde youthfulness. He was in evening dress, and wore a spray of lilies of the valley in his button-hole.

Anna gave him her hand amicably. Her rings glittered in the lamplight.

"Starry hand," he said, bowing, and pressing it softly.

"Where do you come from?" she asked, with that polite curiosity which implies no real interest.

"From the opera," he said, seating himself beside her.

"What were they giving?"

"'The Huguenots'—always the same."

"It is always beautiful."

"Do you remember?" he asked with a tender, caressing voice. "They were singing 'The Huguenots' on the evening when I was introduced to you."

"Yes, yes; I remember that evening," she said, with sudden melancholy.

"How horribly I displeased you that night, didn't I? The only thing to approach it was the tremendously delightful impression you made on me."

"What nonsense!" she protested kindly.

"And your first impression of me has never changed—confess it," he said.

"Even if that were true, it wouldn't make you very unhappy."

"What can you know about that? You beautiful women, admired and loved—what do you know?"

"You're right. Indeed, we know nothing."

But he saw that her mind was away in a land of dreams, far from him. He felt all at once the distance that divided them.

"When you come back from your travels let me know, that I may welcome you," he said, with his smooth, caressing voice.

"What travels?"

"Ah! If I knew! If I knew where your thoughts are wandering while I talk to you, I could go with you, I could follow you in your fantasies. Instead, I speak, and you don't listen to me. I say serious things to you in a jesting tone, and you understand neither the seriousness nor the joke. You leave me here alone, whilst you roam—who knows where? And I, a humble mortal, without visions, without imagination, I can only wait for your return, my dear lady."

If, indeed, there was a certain poetic quality in what he said, there was a deeper poetry still in the tenderness and sweetness of his voice. He sat in front of her, gazing into her face, as if he could not tear himself from that contemplation. She sometimes lowered her eyes, sometimes turned them away, sometimes fixed them upon a page of Adolphe, which she had kept in her hands. If his gaze embarrassed her, however, his soft voice seemed to calm her nerves. She listened to it, scarcely understanding his words, as one listens to a vague pleasant music.

"Doesn't it bore you to wait?" she asked.

"I am never bored here. When I have this lovely sight before my eyes."

"What sight?" she inquired, ingenuously.

"Your person, my dear lady."

"But you can't always be looking at me," she said, laughing, trying to turn the conversation to a jest.

"That's a fatal misfortune, as they say in novels. I should like to pass my whole life near to you. Instead, I'm obliged to pass it among a lot of people who are utterly indifferent to me. A great misfortune!"

"It's not your fault," she said, with a faint smile.

"It certainly isn't. But that doesn't console me. Shall we try it—passing our lives together? One can overcome misfortunes. Our whole lives—that will mean many years."

"But I am married," she said, feeling that the talk was becoming dangerous.

"Oh, that's nothing," he cried emphatically.

"Caracciolo, I believe you've found the means to see me no more. What do you want from me?"

"Nothing, dear lady, nothing," he answered, with genuine grief in his face and voice.

"Then you ought not to risk destroying one of your friendships. What would Cesare have said if he had heard you for the last half hour?"

"Oh, nothing. He couldn't have heard me, you know, because he's never here."

"Sometimes he is," she said, with sudden emotion.

"Never, never. Don't tell pious fibs."

"He's always here."

"In your heart. I know it. It's an agreeable home for him, the more so because he can find others of the same sort wherever he goes."

"What are you sayin............
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