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By George Sand, George Burnham Ives
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1978 Academy Chicago Publishers
All rights reserved.
We were at Venice. The cold and the rain had driven the promenaders and the masks from the square and the quays. We could hear naught save the monotonous voice of the Adriatic in the distance, breaking on the islands, and from time to time the shouts of the watch aboard the frigate which guards the entrance to Canal Saint-George, and the answering hail from the customhouse schooner. It was a fine carnival evening inside the palaces and theatres, but outside, everything was dismal, and the street-lights were reflected in the streaming pavements, where the hurried footstep of a belated masker, wrapped in his cloak, echoed loudly from time to time.
We were alone in one of the rooms of the old Nasi palace, to-day transformed into a hotel, the best in Venice. A few candles scattered about the tables, and the blaze on the hearth only partially lighted the enormous room, and the flickering of the flame seemed to make the allegorical divinities painted in fresco on the ceiling move to and fro. Juliette was indisposed, and had refused to go out. Lying on a sofa and half-covered by a fur cloak, she seemed to be dozing; and I walked back and forth noiselessly on the thick carpet, smoking Serraglio cigarettes.
We recognize in my country a certain state of the mind which is, I think, peculiar to Spaniards. It is a sort of serious tranquillity which does not exclude activity of thought, as among the Teutonic races and in the cafes of the Orient. Our intellect does not grow dull during the trances in which we are buried. When we walk to and fro with measured step for hours at a time, on the same line of mosaics, without swerving a hair's breadth and puffing away at our cigars — that is the time when the operation that we may call mental digestion takes place most easily. Momentous resolutions are formed at such times, and excited passions calm down and give birth to vigorous acts. A Spaniard is never calmer than when he is meditating some scheme; it may be sinister or it may be sublime. As for myself, I was digesting my plan; but there was nothing heroic or alarming about it. When I had made the circuit of the room about sixty times and smoked a dozen cigarettes, my mind was made up. I halted by the sofa, and said to my young companion, regardless of her sleep:
"Juliette, will you be my wife?"
She opened her eyes and looked at me without answering. I thought that she had not heard me, and I repeated my question.
"I heard you very plainly," she replied in an indifferent tone — then held her peace anew.
I thought that my question had displeased her, and my anger and grief were terrible; but, from respect for Spanish gravity, I manifested neither, but began to pace the floor again.
At the seventh turn Juliette stopped me, saying: "What is the use?"
I made three turns more; then I threw away my cigarette, and, drawing a chair to her side, sat down.
"Your position in society must distress you?" I said to her.
"I know," she replied, raising her exquisite face and fixing upon mine her blue eyes wherein apathy seemed to be always at odds with melancholy, — "yes, I know, my dear Aleo, that I am branded in society with an ineffaceable designation, that of kept mistress."
"We will efface it, Juliette; my name will purify yours."
"Pride of the grandee!" she rejoined with a sigh. Then, turning suddenly to me and seizing my hand, which she put to her lips in spite of me, she added: "Do you really mean that you will marry me, Bustamente? O my God! my God! what comparisons you force me to make!"
"What do you mean, my dear child?" I asked her. She did not reply, but burst into tears.
These tears, of which I understood the cause only too well, hurt me terribly. But I concealed the species of frenzy which they aroused in me and returned to my seat by her side.
"Poor Juliette!" I said to her; "will that wound bleed forever?"
"You gave me leave to weep," she replied; "that was the first of our agreements."
"Weep, my poor afflicted darling," I said; "then listen and answer me."
She wiped away her tears and put her hand in mine.
"Juliette," I said to her, "when you speak of yourself as a kept woman, you are mad. Of what consequence are the opinions and coarse remarks of a few fools? You are my friend, my companion, my mistress."
"Alas! yes," she said, "I am your mistress, Aleo, and it is that that dishonors me; I should have chosen to die rather than to bequeath to a noble heart like yours the possession of a half extinct heart."
"We will rekindle the ashes gradually, my Juliette; let me hope that they still hide a spark which I can find."
"Yes, yes, I hope so, I wish that it may be so!" she said eagerly. "So I shall be your wife? But why? Shall I love you better for it? Will you feel surer of me?"
"I shall know that you are happier and I shall be happier for that reason."
"Happier! you are mistaken; I am as happy with you as possible; how can the title of Donna Bustamente make me any happier?"
"It would put you out of reach of the insolent disdain of society."
"Society!" said Juliette; "you mean your friends. What is society? I have never known. I have passed through life and made the tour of the globe, but have never been able to discover what you call society."
"I know that you have lived hitherto like the enchanted maiden in her globe of crystal, and yet I have seen you shed bitter tears over the deplorable position in which you then were. I made an inward vow to offer you my rank and my name as soon as I should be assured of your affection."
"You failed to understand me, Don Aleo, if you thought that shame made me weep. There was no place in my heart for shame; there were enough other causes of sorrow to fill it and make it insensible to everything that came from without. If he had continued to love me, I should have been happy, though I had been covered with infamy in the eyes of what you call society."
It was impossible for me to restrain a shudder of wrath; I rose to pace the floor. Juliette detained me. "Forgive me," she said in a trembling voice, "forgive me for the pain I cause you. It is beyond my strength always to avoid speaking of him."
"Very well, Juliette," I said, stifling a painful sigh, "pray speak of him if it is a relief to you! But is it possible that you cannot succeed in forgetting him, when everything about you tends to direct your thoughts toward another life, another happiness, another love?"
"Everything about me!" said Juliette excitedly; "are we not in Venice?"
She rose and walked to the window; her white silk petticoat fell in numberless folds about her graceful form. Her chestnut hair escaped from the long pins of chased gold which only half confined it, and bathed her back in a flood of perfumed silk. She was so lovely with the faint touch of color in her cheeks, and her half loving, half bitter smile, that I forgot what she said and went to her to take her in my arms. But she had drawn the curtains partly aside, and looking through the glass, as the moon's moist beams were beginning to break through the clouds, she cried: "O Venice! how changed thou art! how beautiful thou once wert in my eyes, and how desolate and deserted thou dost seem to-day!"
"What do you say, Juliette?" I cried in my turn; "have you been in Venice before? Why have you never told me?"
"I saw that you wanted to see this beautiful city, and I knew that a word would have prevented you from coming here. Why should I have made you change your plan?"
"Yes, I would have changed it," I replied, stamping my foot. "Even if we had been at the very gate of this infernal city, I would have caused the boat to steer for some shore unstained by that memory; I would have taken you there, I would have swum with you in my arms, if I had had to choose between such a journey and this house, where perhaps you will find at every step a burning trace of his passage! But tell me, Juliette, where in heaven's name I can take refuge with you from the past? Mention some city, tell me of some corner of Italy to which that adventurer has not dragged you in his train?"
I was pale and trembling with wrath; Juliette turned slowly, gazed coldly at me, and said, turning her eyes once more to the window: "Venice, we loved thee in the old days, and to-day I cannot look on thee without emotion, for he was fond of thee, he constantly invoked thy name in his travels, he called thee his dear fatherland; for thou wert the cradle of his noble family, and one of thy palaces still bears the name that he bears."
"By death and eternity!" I said to Juliette, lowering my voice, "we leave this dear fatherland to-morrow!"
"You may leave Venice and Juliette to-morrow," she replied with frigid sang-froid; "but, as for me, I take orders from no one, and I shall leave Venice when I please."
"I believe that I understand you, mademoiselle," I said indignantly: "Leoni is in Venice."
Juliette started as if she had received an electric shock.
"What do you say? Leoni in Venice?" she cried, in a sort of frenzy, throwing herself in to my arms; "repeat what you said; repeat his name, let me at least hear his name once more!"
She burst into tears, and, suffocated by her sobs, almost lost consciousness. I carried her to the sofa, and without thinking of offering her any further assistance, began to pace the edge of the carpet once more. But my rage subsided as the sea subsides when the sirocco folds its wings. A bitter grief succeeded my excitement; and I fell to weeping like a woman.CHAPTER 2
In the midst of this heart-rending agitation, I paused a few steps from Juliette and looked at her. Her face was turned to the wall, but a mirror fifteen feet high, which formed the panel, enabled me to see her face. She was pale as death and her eyes were closed as in sleep; there was more weariness than pain in the expression of her face, and that expression accurately portrayed her mental plight: exhaustion and indifference triumphed over the last ebullition of passion. I hoped.
I called her name softly and she looked at me with an air of amazement, as if her memory lost the faculty of retaining facts at the same time that her heart lost the power to feel anger.
"What do you want," she said, "and why do you wake me?"
"Juliette," I replied, "I offended you; forgive me; I wounded your heart."
"No," she said, putting one hand to her forehead and offering me the other, "you wounded my pride only. I beg you, Aleo, remember that I have nothing, that I live on your gifts, and that the thought of my dependent state humiliates me. You are kind and generous to me, I know. You lavish attentions on me, you cover me with jewels, you overwhelm me with your luxury and your magnificence; but for you I should have died in some paupers' hospital, or should be confined in a madhouse. I know all that. But remember, Bustamente, that you have done it all in spite of me, that you took me in half-dead, and that you succored me when I had not the slightest desire to be succored; remember that I wanted to die, and that you passed many nights at my pillow, holding my hands in yours to prevent me from killing myself; remember that I refused for a long time your protection and your benefactions, and that, if I accept them to-day, it is half from weakness and discouragement, half from affection and gratitude to you, who ask me on your knees not to spurn them. Yours is the noblest role, my friend, I know it well. But am I to blame because you are kind? Can I be seriously reproached for debasing myself when, alone and desperate, I confide myself to the noblest heart on earth?"
"My beloved," I said, pressing her to my heart, "you reply most convincingly to the vile insults of the miserable wretches who have misrepresented you. But why do you say this to me? Do you think that you need to justify yourself in the eyes of Bustamente for the happiness you have bestowed upon him — the only happiness he has ever enjoyed in his life? It is for me to justify myself, if I can, for I am the one who has done wrong. I know how stubbornly your pride and your despair resisted me; I am not likely ever to forget it. When I assume a tone of authority with you, I am a madman whom you must pardon, for my passion for you disturbs my reason and vanquishes all my strength of mind. Forgive me, Juliette, and forget a moment of anger. Alas! I am unskilful in winning love. I have a natural roughness of manner which is unpleasant to you. I wound you when I am beginning to cure you, and I often destroy in one hour the work of many days."
"No, no, let us forget this quarrel," she interposed, kissing me. "For the little pain you cause me, I cause you a hundred times as much. You are sometimes imperious; my grief is always cruel. Do not believe, however, that it is incurable. Your kindness and your love will conquer it at last. I should have a most ungrateful heart if I did not accept the hope that you point out to me. We will talk of marriage another time; perhaps you will induce me to consent to it. However, I confess that I dread that species of servitude consecrated by all laws and all prejudices; it is honorable, but it is indissoluble."
"Still another cruel remark, Juliette! Are you afraid, pray, to belong to me forever?"
"No, no, of course not. Do not be distressed, I will do what you wish; but let us drop the subject for to-day."
"Very well, but grant me another favor in place of that; consent to leave Venice to-morrow."
"With all my heart. What do I care for Venice and all the rest? In heaven's name, don't believe me when I express regret for the past; it is irritation or madness that makes me speak so! The past! merciful heaven! Do you not know how many reasons I have for hating it? See how it has shattered me! How could I have the strength to grasp it again if it were given back to me?"
I kissed Juliette's hand to thank her for the effort she made in speaking thus, but I was not convinced; she had given me no satisfactory answer. I resumed my melancholy promenade about the room.
The sirocco had sprung up and dried the pavement in an instant. The city had become resonant once more as it ordinarily is, and the thousand sounds of the festival reached our ears: the hoarse song of the tipsy gondoliers, the hooting of the masks coming from the cafés and guying the passers-by, the plash of oars in the canal. The guns of the frigate bade good-night to the echoes of the lagunes, which made answer like a discharge of artillery. The Austrian drum mingled its brutal roll, and the bell of St. Mark's gave forth a doleful sound.
A ghastly depression seized upon me. The candles, burning low, set fire to their green paper ruffles and cast a livid light upon the objects in the room. Everything assumed imaginary forms and made imaginary noises, to my disturbed senses. Juliette, lying on the sofa and swathed in fur and silk, seemed to me like a corpse wrapped in its shroud. The songs and laughter out of doors produced upon me the effect of shrieks of distress, and every gondola that glided under the marble bridge below my window suggested the idea of a drowning man struggling with the waves and death. Finally, I had none but thoughts of despair and death in my head, and I could not raise the weight which was crushing my breast.
At last, however, I succeeded in calming myself and reflected somewhat less wildly. I admitted to myself that Juliette's cure was progressing very slowly, and that, notwithstanding all the sacrifices in my favor which gratitude had wrung from her, her heart was almost as sick as at the very first. This long-continued and bitter regret for a love so unworthily bestowed seemed inexplicable to me, and I sought the cause in the powerlessness of my affection. It must be, I thought, that my character inspires an insurmountable repugnance which she dares not avow to me. Perhaps the life I lead is unpleasant to her, and yet I have made my habits conform to hers. Leoni used to take her constantly from city to city. I have kept her travelling for two years, forming no ties anywhere, and never delaying for an instant to leave the place where I detected the faintest sign of ennui on her face. And yet she is melancholy, that is certain; nothing amuses her, and it is only from consideration for me that she deigns sometimes to smile. Not one of the things that ordinarily give pleasure to women has any influence on this sorrow of hers; it is a rock that nothing can shake, a diamond that nothing can dim. Poor Juliette! What strength in your weakness! what desperate resistance in your inertia!
Excerpted from Leone Leoni by George Sand, George Burnham Ives. Copyright © 1978 Academy Chicago Publishers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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