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CHAPTER 3
About the middle of June, in the first summer of his marriage, Cesare Dias brought his wife and his sister-in-law to the Villa Caterina at Sorrento. He would leave them there, while he went to take the baths at Vichy. Afterwards he was going to Saint-Moritz in the Engadine, whither betake themselves such persons as desire to be cold in summer, the same who, desiring to be hot in winter, hibernate at Nice. Anna had secretly wished to accompany her husband upon this journey, longing to be alone with him, far from their usual surroundings; but she was to be left behind.

Ever since that night when she had sat up till dawn waiting for him, tormented, disillusioned, her faith destroyed, her moral strength exhausted, there had been a coldness between the couple. Cesare had lost no time in asserting his independence of her, and had vouchsafed but the vaguest explanations, saying in general terms that a man might pass a night out of his house, chatting with friends or playing cards, for any one of a multitude of reasons. Anna had listened without answering. She dreaded above all things having a quarrel with her husband. She closed her eyes and listened. He flung his explanation at her with an air of contempt. She was silent but not satisfied.

She could never forget the hours of that night, when, for the first time, she had drained her cup of bitterness to its dregs, and looked into the bottom depths of human wickedness. The sweetness of her love had then been poisoned.

As for Cesare, he had been exceedingly annoyed by her waiting for him, which seemed to him an altogether extravagant manifestation of her fondness. It annoyed him to have been surprised in the early morning light looking old and ugly; it annoyed him to have to explain his absence; and it annoyed him finally to think that similar scenes might occur again. Oh, how he loathed these tragic women and their tragedies! After having hated them his whole life long, them and their tears and their vapourings, behold! he had been trapped into marrying one of them—for his sins; and his rancour at the inconceivable folly he had committed vented itself upon Anna. She, sad in the essence of her soul, humble, disheartened, understood her husband's feelings; and by means of her devotion and tenderness sought to procure his pardon for her offence—the offence of having waited for him that night! One day, when Anna had been even more penitent and more affectionate than usual, he had indeed made some show of forgiving her, with the pretentious indulgence of a superior being; she had taken his forgiveness as a slave takes a kind word after a beating, smiling with tears in her eyes, happy that he had not punished her more heavily for her fault.

But the truth is, he was a man and not an angel. He had forgiven her; yet he still wished to punish her. On no consideration would he take her with him to Vichy and Saint-Moritz. He gave her to understand that their wedding-journey was finished; that it would never do to leave her sister Laura alone for two months with no other chaperone than Stella Martini; that it wasn't his wish to play Joseph Prudhomme, and travel in the bosom of his family; in short, he gave her to understand in a thousand ways that he wished to go alone; and she resigned herself to staying behind in preference to forcing her company upon him. She flattered herself, poor thing, that this act of submission, so hard for her to make, would restore her to her lord's good graces. He went away, indeed in great good temper. He seemed rejuvenated. The idea of the absolute liberty he was about to enjoy filled him with enthusiasm. He recommended his ladies (as he jokingly called the sisters) not to be too nun-like, but to go out, to receive, to amuse themselves as they wished. Anna heard this advice, pale with downcast eyes; Laura listened to it with an odd smile on her lips, looking straight into her brother-in-law's face. She too was pale and mute.

After his departure a great, sad silence seemed to invade the villa. Each of the sisters was pensive and reserved; they spoke but little together; they even appeared to avoid each other. For the rest, the charming youthful serenity of the blonde Minerva had vanished; her white brow was clouded with thought. They were in the same house, but for some time they rarely met.

Anna wrote to Cesare twice a day; she told him everything that happened; she opened to him her every fancy, her every dream; she wrote with the effusiveness of a passionate woman, who, too timid to express herself by spoken words, finds her outlet in letters. Writing, she could tell him how she loved him, that she was his in body and soul. Cesare wrote to her once or twice a week, and not at length; but in each of his notes there would be, if not a word of love, at least some kindly phrase; and upon that Anna would live for three or four days—until his next letter arrived. He was enjoying himself; he was feeling better; he would return soon. Sometimes he even expressed a wish for her presence, that she might share his pleasure in a landscape or laugh with him at some original fellow-traveller. He always sent his remembrances to Laura; and Anna would read them out to her.

"Thank you," was all that Laura responded.

Laura herself wrote a good deal in these days. What was she writing? And to whom? She sat at her little desk, shut up in her room, and covered big sheets of paper with her clear, firm handwriting. If any one entered, she covered what she had written with her blotting-paper, and remained silent, with lowered eyes, toying with her pen. More than once Anna had come in. Thereupon Laura had gathered up her manuscripts, and locked them into a drawer, controlling with an effort the trouble in her face.

"What are you writing?" Anna asked one day, overcoming her timidity, and moved by a strange impulse of curiosity.

"Nothing that would interest you," the other answered.

"How can you say so?" the elder sister protested, with indulgent tenderness. "Whatever pleases you or moves you must interest me."

"Nothing pleases me and nothing moves me," Laura said, looking down.

"Not even what you are writing?"

"Not even what I am writing."

"How reserved you are! How close you keep your secrets! But why should you have any?" Anna insisted affectionately.

"Yes," said Laura, vaguely. She got up and left the room, carrying her key with her.

Anna never again referred to what her sister was writing. It might be letters, it might be a journal.

In July, Sorrento filled up with tourists and holiday folk; and the other villas were occupied by their owners. The sisters were invited about a good deal, and lured into the thousand summer gaieties of the town.

One of the earliest arrivals was Luigi Caracciolo. He came to Sorrento every season, but usually not till the middle of August, and then to spend no more than a fortnight. He had rather a disdain for Sorrento, he who had travelled over the whole of Europe. This year he came in the first week of July; and he was determined to stay until Anna Dias left. He was genuinely in love with her; in his own way, of course. The mystery that hung over her past, and her love for Cesare Dias, which Luigi knew to be unrequited, made her all the dearer to him. He was in love, as men are in love who have loved many times before. Sometimes he lost his head a little in her presence, but never more than a little. He retained his mastery of himself sufficiently to pursue his own well-proved methods of love-making. He covered his real passion with a semblance of levity which served admirably to compel Anna to tolerate it.

She never allowed him—especially at Sorrento, where she was alone and where she was very sad—to speak of love; but she could not forbid him to call occasionally at the Villa Caterina, nor could she help meeting him here and there in the town. And Cesare, from Saint-Moritz, kept writing to her and Laura to amuse themselves, to go out, saying that he hated women who lived like recluses. And sometimes he would add a joking message for Caracciolo, calling him Anna's faithful cavalier; but she, through delicacy, had not delivered them.

Luigi did not pay too open a court to her, did not affect too great an intimacy; but he was never far from her. For a whole evening he would hover near her at a party, waiting for the moment when he might seat himself beside her; he would leave when she left, and on the pretext of taking a little walk in the moonlight, would accompany the two ladies to the door of their house. He was persevering, with a gentle, continuous, untiring perseverance that nothing could overcome, neither Anna's silence, nor her coldness, nor her melancholy. She often spoke to him of Cesare, and with so much feeling in her voice that he turned pale, wounded in his pride, disappointed in his desire, yet not despairing, for it is always a hopeful sign when a woman loves, even though she loves another. Then the only difficulty (though an immense one) is to change the face of the man she loves to your own, by a sort of sentimental sleight of hand.

For various reasons, he was extremely cautious. He was not one of those who enjoy advertising their desires and their discomfitures on the walls of the town. Then, he did not wish to alarm Anna, and cause her to close her door to him. And besides, he was afraid of the silent watchfulness of Laura. The beautiful Minerva and the handsome young man had never understood each other; they were given to exchanging somewhat sharp words at their encounters, a remarkable proceeding on the part of Laura, who usually talked little, and then only in brief and colourless sentences. Her contempt for him was undisguised. It appeared in her manner of looking him over when he wore a new suit of clothes, in her manner of beginning and ending her remarks to him with the phrase, "A handsome young fellow like you." That was rather bold, for a girl, but Laura was over twenty, and both the sisters passed for being nice, but rather original, nice but original, as their mother and father had been before them. Luigi Caracciolo himself thought them odd, but the oddity of Anna was adorable, that of Laura made him uneasy and distrustful. He was afraid that on one day or another, she might denounce him to Cesare, and betray his love for the other's wife. She had such a sarcastic smile sometimes on her lips! And her laughter had such a scornful ring! He imagined the most fantastic things in respect of her, and feared her mightily.

"How strange your sister is," he said once to Anna, finding her alone.

"She's good, though," said Anna, thoughtfully.

"Does she seem so to you?"

"Yes."

"You little know. You're very ingenuous. She's probably a monster of perfidy," he said softly.

"Why do you say that to me, Caracciolo? Don't you know that I dislike such jokes?"

"If I offend you, I'll hold my tongue. I keep my opinion, though. Some day you'll agree with me."

"Be quiet, Caracciolo. You distress me."

"It's much better to have no illusions; then we can't lose them, dear lady."

"It is better to lose illusions, than never to have had them."

"What a deep heart is yours! How I should like to drown in it! Let me drown myself in your heart, Anna."

"Don't call me by my name," she said, as if she had heard only his last word.

"I will obey," he answered meekly.

"You, too, are good," she murmured, absently.

"I am as bad as can be, Signora," he rejoined, piqued.

She shook her head good-naturedly, with the smile of one who would not believe in human wickedness, who would keep her faith intact, in spite of past delusions. And the more Luigi Caracciolo posed as a depraved character, the more she showed her belief that at the bottom every human soul is good.

"Everybody is good, according to you," he said. "Then I suppose your husband, Cesare, is good too?"

"Too? He is the best of all. He is absolutely good," she cried, her voice softening as it always did when she spoke of Cesare.

"He who leaves you here alone after a few months of marriage?"

"But I'm not alone," she retorted, simply.

"You're not alone—you're in bad company," he said, nervously.

"Do you think so? I wasn't aware of it."

"You couldn't tell me more politely that I'm a nonentity. But he, he who is away, and who no doubt invents a thousands pretence to explain his absence to you—can you really say that he is good."

"Cesare invents no pretences for me," she replied, turning pale.

"Who says so? He? Do you believe him?"

"He says nothing. I have faith in him," she answered, overwhelmed to hear her own daily fears thus uttered for her.

Caracciolo looked at her anxiously. Merely to hear her pronounce her husband's name proved that she adored him. Luigi was too expert a student of women not to interpret rightly her pallor, her emotion, her distress. He did not know, but he could easily guess that Anna wrote to Cesare every day, and that he responded rarely and briefly. He understood how heavy her long hours of solitude must be, amid the blue and green of the Sorrento landscape, passed in constant longing for her husband's presence. He understood perfectly that she was consumed by secret jealousy, and that he tortured her cruelly when by a word, or an insinuation he inspired her with new suspicions. He could read her heart like an open book; but he loved her all the better for the intense passion that breathed from its pages. He did not despair. Sooner or later, he was convinced, he would succeed in overcoming the obstacle in his way. He adopted the ancient method of assailing the character of the absent man.

When he would mention some old flame of Cesare's, or some affair that still continued, and which his marriage could not break off, or when he would speak of Cesare's desertion of his young wife, he saw Anna's face change; he knew the anguish that he woke in her heart, and he suffered wretchedly to realise that it was for the love of another man. His weapon was a double-edged sword, that wounded her and wounded him. But what of that? He continued to wield it, believing that thus little by little he could deface the image of Cesare Dias that Anna consecrated with her adoration.

Anna was always ready to talk of her husband, and that gave him his opportunity for putting in his innuendoes. At the same time it caused him much bitterness of spirit, and sometimes he would say, "We are three. How do you do, Cesare?" bowing to an imaginary presence.

Anna's eyes filled with tears at such moments.

"Forgive me, forgive me," he cried. "But when you introduce his name into our conversation, you cause me such agony that I feel I am winning my place in heaven. Go on: I am already tied to the rack; force your knife into my heart, gentle torturess."

And she, at first timidly, but then with the impetuousness of an open and generous nature, would continue to talk of Cesare. Where was he, what was he doing, when would he return? she would ask; and he by-and-by would interrupt her speculations to suggest that Cesare was probably just now on the Righi, with the Comtesse de Béhague, one of his old French loves, whom he met every year in Switzerland; and that he would very likely not return to Sorrento at all, nor even to Naples before the end of October.

"I don't believe it, I don't believe it," she protested.

"You don't believe it? But it's his usual habit. Why should he alter it this year?"

"He has me to think of now."

"Ah, dear Anna, dear Anna, he thinks of you so little!"

"Don't call me by my name," she said, making a gesture to forbid him.

"If Cesare heard me he wouldn't like it—eh?"

"I think so."

"You hope so, dear lady, which is a very different thing. But he's not jealous."

"No; he's not jealous," she repeated, softly, lost in sorrowful meditations. "But what man is?"

"He's a man who has never thought of anything but his own pleasure."

"Sad, sad," she murmured very low.

Yet, though she thoroughly well understood that a better knowledge of her husband's past life could only bring her greater pain, she began to question Luigi Caracciolo about Cesare's adventures. Ah, how ashamed she was to do so! It seemed like violating a confidence; like desecrating an idol that she had erected on the altar of her heart. It seemed like breaking the most sacred condition of love, which is secrecy, to speak thus of her love to a man who loved her. Yet the temptation was too strong for her. And cautiously, by hints, she endeavoured to draw from Caracciolo some fact, some episode, a detail, a name, a date; she would try to ask indifferently, feigning a slight interest, attempting without success to play the woman of wit—she, poor thing, who was only a woman of heart.

Caracciolo understood at once, and for form's sake assumed a certain reluctance. Then, as if won by her wishes, he would speak; he would give her a fact, an episode, a date, a name, commenting upon it in such wise as, without directly speaking ill of Cesare, to underline his hardness of heart and his incapacity for real passion. It was sad wisdom that Anna hereby gained. Her husband's soul was cold and arid; he had always been the same; nothing had ever changed him. Sometimes, sick and tired, she would pray Caracciolo by a gesture to stop his talk; she would remain thoughtful and silent, feeling that she had poured a corrosive acid into her own wounds. Sometimes Laura would be present at these conversations, beautiful, in white garments, with soft, lovely eyes. She listened to Caracciolo with close attention, whilst an inscrutable smile played on her virginal lips. He, in deference to the young girl's presence, would, from time to time, drop the subject; then Laura would look at him with an expression of ardent curiosity that surprised him, a look that seemed to ask a hundred questions. His narrative of the life of Cesare Dias succeeded in spoiling Anna's holiday, but did not advance his courtship by an inch.

He has great patience, and unlimited faith in his method. He knew that a strong passion or a strong desire can overcome in time the most insurmountable obstacles. Yet he had moments of terrible discouragement. How she loved him, Cesare Dias, thi............
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