THE VILLA LAY CLOSE TO THE SEA.
The quiet avenues, lined with pine trees, breathed out the rich strength of salty sea air, and a slight breeze constantly played around the orange trees, now and then removing a colourful bloom from flowering shrubs as if with careful fingers. The sunlit distance, where attractive houses built on hillsides gleamed like white pearls, a lighthouse miles away rose steeply and straight as a candle—the whole scene shone, its contours sharp and clearly outlined, and was set in the deep azure of the sky like a bright mosaic. The waves of the sea, marked by only the few white specks that were the distant sails of isolated ships, lapped against the tiered terrace on which the villa stood; the ground then rose on and on to the green of a broad, shady garden and merged with the rest of the park, a scene drowsy and still, as if under some fairy-tale enchantment.
Outside the sleeping house on which the morning heat lay heavily, a narrow gravel path ran like a white line to the cool viewing point. The waves tossed wildly beneath it, and here and there shimmering spray rose, sparkling in rainbow colours as brightly as diamonds in the strong sunlight. There the shining rays of the sun broke on the small groups of Vistulian pines standing close together, as if in intimate conversation, they also fell on a Japanese parasol with amusing pictures on it in bright, glaring colours, now open wide.
A woman was leaning back in a soft basket chair in the shade of this parasol, her beautiful form comfortably lounging in the yielding weave of the wicker. One slender hand, wearing no rings, dangled down as if forgotten, petting the gleaming, silky coat of a dog with gentle, pleasing movements, while the other hand held a book on which her dark eyes, with their black lashes and the suggestion of a smile in them, were concentrating. They were large and restless eyes, their beauty enhanced by a dark, veiled glow. Altogether the strong, attractive effect of the oval, sharply outlined face did not give the natural impression of simple beauty, but expressed the refinement of certain details tended with careful, delicate coquetry. The apparently unruly confusion of her fragrant, shining curls was the careful construction of an artist, and in the same way the slight smile that hovered around her lips as she read, revealing her white teeth, was the result of many years of practice in front of the mirror, but had already become a firmly established part of the whole design and could not be laid aside now.
There was a slight crunch on the sand.
She looks without changing her position, like a cat lying basking in the dazzling torrent of warm sunlight and merely blinking apathetically at the newcomer with phosphorescent eyes.
The steps quickly come closer, and a servant in livery stands in front of her to hand her a small visiting card, then stands back a little way to wait.
She reads the name with that expression of surprise on her features that appears when you are greeted in the street with great familiarity by someone you do not know. For a moment, small lines appear above her sharply traced black eyebrows, showing how hard she is thinking, and then a happy light plays over her whole face all of a sudden, her eyes sparkle with high spirits as she thinks of the long-ago days of her youth, almost forgotten now. The name has aroused pleasant images in her again. Figures and dreams take on distinct shape once more, and become as clear as reality.
“Ah, yes,” she said as she remembered, suddenly turning to the servant, “yes, of course show the gentleman up here.”
The servant left, with a soft and obsequious tread. For a moment there was silence except for the never-tiring wind singing softly in the treetops, now full of the heavy golden midday light.
Then vigorous, energetic footsteps were heard on the gravel path, a long shadow fell at her feet, and a tall man stood before her. She had risen from her chair with a lively movement.
Their eyes met first. With a quick glance he took in the elegance of her figure, while a slight ironic smile came into her eyes. “It’s really good of you to have thought of me,” she began, offering him her slender and well-tended hand, which he touched respectfully with his lips.
“Dear lady, I will be honest with you, since this is our first meeting for years, and also, I fear, the last for many years to come. It is something of a coincidence that I am here; the name of the owner of the castle about which I was enquiring because of its magnificent position recalled you to my mind. So I am really here under false pretences.”
“But nonetheless welcome for that, and in fact I myself could not remember your existence at first, although it was once of some significance to me.”
Now they both smiled. The sweet, light fragrance of a first youthful, half-unspoken love, with all its intoxicating tenderness, had awoken in them like a dream on which you reflect ironically when you wake, although you really wish for nothing more than to dream it again, to live in the dream. The beautiful dream of young love that ventures only on half-measures, that desires and dares not ask, promises and does not give.
They went on talking. But there was already a warmth in their voices, an affectionate familiarity, that only a rosy if already half-faded secret like theirs can allow. In quiet words, broken by a peal of happy laughter now and then, they talked about the past, or forgotten poems, faded flowers, lost ribbons—little love tokens that they had exchanged in the little town where they spent their youth. The old stories that, like half-remembered legends, rang bells in their hearts that had long ago fallen silent, stifled by dust, were slowly, very slowly invested with a melancholy solemnity; the final notes of their youthful love, now dead, brought profound and almost sad gravity to their conversation.
His darkly melodious voice shook slightly as he said, “All that way across the ocean in America, I heard the news that you were engaged—I heard it at a time when the marriage itself had probably taken place.”
She did not reply to that. Her thoughts were ten years back in the past. For several long minutes, a sultry silence hung in the air between them.
Then she asked, almost under her breath, “What did you think of me at the time?”
He looked up in surprise. “I can tell you frankly, since I am going back to my new country tomorrow. I didn’t feel angry with you, I had no moments of confused, hostile indecision, since life had cooled the bright blaze of love to a dying glow of friendship by that time. I didn’t understand you—I just felt sorry for you.”
A faint tinge of red flew to her cheeks, and there was a bright glint in her eyes as she cried, in agitation, “Sorry for me! I can’t imagine why.”
“Because I was thinking of your future husband, that indolent financier with his mind always bent on making money—don’t interrupt me, I really don’t mean to insult your husband, whom I always respected in his way—and because I was thinking of you, the girl I had left behind. Because I couldn’t see you, the independent idealist who had only ironic contempt for humdrum everyday life, as the conventional wife of an ordinary person.”
“Then why would I have married him if it was as you say?”
“I didn’t know exactly. Perhaps he had hidden qualities that escaped a superficial glance and came to light only in the intimacy of your life together. And I saw that as the easy solution to the riddle, because one thing I could not and would not believe.”
“And that was?”
“That you had accepted him for his aristocratic title of Count and his millions. That was the one thing I considered impossible.”
It was as if she had failed to hear those last words, for she was looking through her fingers, which glowed deep rose like a murex shell, staring far into the distance, all the way to the veils of mist on the horizon where the sky dipped its pale-blue garment into the dark magnificence of the waves.
He too was lost in thought, and had almost forgotten that last remark of his when, suddenly and almost inaudibly, she turned away from him and said, “And yet that is what happened.”
He looked at her in surprise, almost alarm. She had settled back into her chair with slow and obviously artificial composure, and she went on in a soft melancholy undertone, barely moving her lips.
“None of you understood me when I was still a girl, shy and easily intimidated, not even you who were so close to me. Perhaps not even I myself. I think of it often now, and I don’t understand myself at that time, because what do women still know about their girlish hearts that believed in miracles, whose dreams are like delicate little white flowers that will be blown away at the first breath of reality? And I was not like all the other girls who dreamt of virile, strong young heroes who would turn their yearnings into radiant happiness, their quiet guesses into delightful knowledge, and bring them release from the uncertain, ill-defined suffering that they cannot grasp, but that casts its shadow on their girlhood, becoming more menacing as it lies in wait for them. I never felt such things, my soul steered other dreams towards the hidden grove of the future that lay behind the enveloping mists of the coming days. My dreams were my own. I always dreamt of myself as a royal child out of one of the old books of fairy tales, playing with sparkling, radiant jewels, wearing sweeping dresses of great value—I dreamt of luxury and magnificence, because I loved them both. Ah, the pleasure of letting my hands pass over trembling, softly rustling silk, or laying my fingers down in the soft, darkly dreaming pile of a heavy velvet fabric, as if they were asleep! I was happy when I could wear jewels on my slender fingers as they trembled with happiness, when pale gemstones looked out of the thick torrent of my hair, like pearls of foam; my highest aim was to rest in the soft upholstery of an elegant vehicle. At the time I was caught up in a frenzied love of artistic beauty that made me despise my real, everyday life. I hated myself in my ordinary clothes, looking simple and modest as a nun, and I often stayed at home for days on end because I was ashamed of my humdrum appearance, I hid myself in my cramped, ugly room, and my dearest dream was to live alone beside the sea, on a property both magnificent and artistic, in shady, green garden walks that were never touched by the dirty hands of the common workaday world, where rich peace reigned—much like this place, in fact. My husband made my dreams come true, and because he could do that I married him.”
She has fallen silent now, and her face is suffused with Bacchanalian beauty. The glow in her eyes has become deep and menacing, and the red in her cheeks burns more and more warmly.
There is a profound silence, broken only by the monotonous rhythmical song of the glittering waves breaking on the tiers of the terrace below, as if casting itself on a beloved breast.
Then he says softly, as if to himself, “But what about love?”
She heard that. A slight smile comes to her lips.
“Do you still have all the ideals, all the ideals that you took to that distant world with you? Are they all still intact, or have some of them died or withered away? Haven’t they been torn out of you by force and flung in the dirt, where thousands of wheels carrying vehicles to their owners’ destination in life crushed them? Or have you lost none of them?”
He nods sadly, and says no more.
Suddenly he carries her hand to his lips and kisses it in silence. Then he says, in a warm voice, “Goodbye, and I wish you well.”
She returns his farewell firmly and honestly. She feels no shame at having unveiled her deepest secret and shown her soul to a man who has been a stranger to her for years. Smiling, she watches him go, thinks of the words he said about love, and the past comes up with quiet, inaudible steps to intervene between her and the present. And suddenly she thinks that he could have given her life its direction, and her ideas paint that strange notion in bright colours.
And slowly, slowly, imperceptibly, the smile on her dreaming lips dies away.