Read VILLA RUBEIN - VIII of Villa Rubein and Other Stories , free online book, by John Galsworthy, on ReadCentral.com.

Harz walked away along the road.  A dog was howling.  The sound seemed too appropriate.  He put his fingers to his ears, but the lugubrious noise passed those barriers, and made its way into his heart.  Was there nothing that would put an end to this emotion?  It was no better in the old house on the wall; he spent the night tramping up and down.

Just before daybreak he slipped out with a knapsack, taking the road towards Meran.

He had not quite passed through Gries when he overtook a man walking in the middle of the road and leaving a trail of cigar smoke behind him.

“Ah! my friend,” the smoker said, “you walk early; are you going my way?”

It was Count Sarelli.  The raw light had imparted a grey tinge to his pale face, the growth of his beard showed black already beneath the skin; his thumbs were hooked in the pockets of a closely buttoned coat, he gesticulated with his fingers.

“You are making a journey?” he said, nodding at the knapsack.  “You are early ­I am late; our friend has admirable kummel ­I have drunk too much.  You have not been to bed, I think?  If there is no sleep in one’s bed it is no good going to look for it.  You find that?  It is better to drink kummel...!  Pardon!  You are doing the right thing:  get away!  Get away as fast as possible!  Don’t wait, and let it catch you!”

Harz stared at him amazed.

“Pardon!” Sarelli said again, raising his hat, “that girl ­the white girl ­I saw.  You do well to get away!” he swayed a little as he walked.  “That old fellow ­what is his name-Trrreffr-ry!  What ideas of honour!” He mumbled:  “Honour is an abstraction!  If a man is not true to an abstraction, he is a low type; but wait a minute!”

He put his hand to his side as though in pain.

The hedges were brightening with a faint pinky glow; there was no sound on the long, deserted road, but that of their footsteps; suddenly a bird commenced to chirp, another answered ­the world seemed full of these little voices.

Sarelli stopped.

“That white girl,” he said, speaking with rapidity.  “Yes!  You do well! get away!  Don’t let it catch you!  I waited, it caught me ­what happened?  Everything horrible ­and now ­kummel!” Laughing a thick laugh, he gave a twirl to his moustache, and swaggered on.

“I was a fine fellow ­nothing too big for Mario Sarelli; the regiment looked to me.  Then she came ­with her eyes and her white dress, always white, like this one; the little mole on her chin, her hands for ever moving ­their touch as warm as sunbeams.  Then, no longer Sarelli this, and that!  The little house close to the ramparts!  Two arms, two eyes, and nothing here,” he tapped his breast, “but flames that made ashes quickly ­in her, like this ash !” he flicked the white flake off his cigar.  “It’s droll!  You agree, hein?  Some day I shall go back and kill her.  In the meantime ­kummel!”

He stopped at a house close to the road, and stood still, his teeth bared in a grin.

“But I bore you,” he said.  His cigar, flung down, sputtered forth its sparks on the road in front of Harz.  “I live here ­good-morning!  You are a man for work ­your honour is your Art!  I know, and you are young!  The man who loves flesh better than his honour is a low type ­I am a low type.  I!  Mario Sarelli, a low type!  I love flesh better than my honour!”

He remained swaying at the gate with the grin fixed on his face; then staggered up the steps, and banged the door.  But before Harz had walked on, he again appeared, beckoning, in the doorway.  Obeying an impulse, Harz went in.

“We will make a night of it,” said Sarelli; “wine, brandy, kummel?  I am virtuous ­kummel it must be for me!”

He sat down at a piano, and began to touch the keys.  Harz poured out some wine.  Sarelli nodded.

“You begin with that?  Allegro ­piú ­presto!

“Wine ­brandy ­kummel!” he quickened the time of the tune:  “it is not too long a passage, and this” ­he took his hands off the keys ­“comes after.”

Harz smiled.

“Some men do not kill themselves,” he said.

Sarelli, who was bending and swaying to the music of a tarantella, broke off, and letting his eyes rest on the painter, began playing Schumann’s Kinderscenen.  Harz leaped to his feet.

“Stop that!” he cried.

“It pricks you?” said Sarelli suavely; “what do you think of this?” he played again, crouching over the piano, and making the notes sound like the crying of a wounded animal.

“For me!” he said, swinging round, and rising.

“Your health!  And so you don’t believe in suicide, but in murder?  The custom is the other way; but you don’t believe in customs?  Customs are only for Society?” He drank a glass of kummel.  “You do not love Society?”

Harz looked at him intently; he did not want to quarrel.

“I am not too fond of other people’s thoughts,” he said at last; “I prefer to think my own.

“And is Society never right?  That poor Society!”

“Society!  What is Society ­a few men in good coats?  What has it done for me?”

Sarelli bit the end off a cigar.

“Ah!” he said; “now we are coming to it.  It is good to be an artist, a fine bantam of an artist; where other men have their dis-ci-pline, he has his, what shall we say ­his mound of roses?”

The painter started to his feet.

“Yes,” said Sarelli, with a hiccough, “you are a fine fellow!”

“And you are drunk!” cried Harz.

“A little drunk ­not much, not enough to matter!”

Harz broke into laughter.  It was crazy to stay there listening to this mad fellow.  What had brought him in?  He moved towards the door.

“Ah!” said Sarelli, “but it is no good going to bed ­let us talk.  I have a lot to say ­it is pleasant to talk to anarchists at times.”

Full daylight was already coming through the chinks of the shutters.

“You are all anarchists, you painters, you writing fellows.  You live by playing ball with facts.  Images ­nothing solid ­hein?  You’re all for new things too, to tickle your nerves.  No discipline!  True anarchists, every one of you!”

Harz poured out another glass of wine and drank it off.  The man’s feverish excitement was catching.

“Only fools,” he replied, “take things for granted.  As for discipline, what do you aristocrats, or bourgeois know of discipline?  Have you ever been hungry?  Have you ever had your soul down on its back?”

“Soul on its back?  That is good!”

“A man’s no use,” cried Harz, “if he’s always thinking of what others think; he must stand on his own legs.”

“He must not then consider other people?”

“Not from cowardice anyway.”

Sarelli drank.

“What would you do,” he said, striking his chest, “if you had a devil-here?  Would you go to bed?”

A sort of pity seized on Harz.  He wanted to say something that would be consoling but could find no words; and suddenly he felt disgusted.  What link was there between him and this man; between his love and this man’s love?

“Harz!” muttered Sarelli; “Harz means ‘tar,’ hein?  Your family is not an old one?”

Harz glared, and said:  “My father is a peasant.”

Sarelli lifted the kummel bottle and emptied it into his glass, with a steady hand.

“You’re honest ­and we both have devils.  I forgot; I brought you in to see a picture!”

He threw wide the shutters; the windows were already open, and a rush of air came in.

“Ah!” he said, sniffing, “smells of the earth, nicht wahr, Herr Artist?  You should know ­it belongs to your father....  Come, here’s my picture; a Correggio!  What do you think of it?”

“It is a copy.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

“Then you have given me the lie, Signor,” and drawing out his handkerchief Sarelli flicked it in the painter’s face.

Harz turned white.

“Duelling is a good custom!” said Sarelli.  “I shall have the honour to teach you just this one, unless you are afraid.  Here are pistols ­this room is twenty feet across at least, twenty feet is no bad distance.”

And pulling out a drawer he took two pistols from a case, and put them on the table.

“The light is good ­but perhaps you are afraid.”

“Give me one!” shouted the infuriated painter; “and go to the devil for a fool.”

“One moment!” Sarelli murmured:  “I will load them, they are more useful loaded.”

Harz leaned out of the window; his head was in a whirl.  ’What on earth is happening?’ he thought.  ’He’s mad ­or I am!  Confound him!  I’m not going to be killed!’ He turned and went towards the table.  Sarelli’s head was sunk on his arms, he was asleep.  Harz methodically took up the pistols, and put them back into the drawer.  A sound made him turn his head; there stood a tall, strong young woman in a loose gown caught together on her chest.  Her grey eyes glanced from the painter to the bottles, from the bottles to the pistol-case.  A simple reasoning, which struck Harz as comic.

“It is often like this,” she said in the country patois; “der Herr must not be frightened.”

Lifting the motionless Sarelli as if he were a baby, she laid him on a couch.

“Ah!” she said, sitting down and resting her elbow on the table; “he will not wake!”

Harz bowed to her; her patient figure, in spite of its youth and strength, seemed to him pathetic.  Taking up his knapsack, he went out.

The smoke of cottages rose straight; wisps of mist were wandering about the valley, and the songs of birds dropping like blessings.  All over the grass the spiders had spun a sea of threads that bent and quivered to the pressure of the air, like fairy tight-ropes.

All that day he tramped.

Blacksmiths, tall stout men with knotted muscles, sleepy eyes, and great fair beards, came out of their forges to stretch and wipe their brows, and stare at him.

Teams of white oxen, waiting to be harnessed, lashed their tails against their flanks, moving their heads slowly from side to side in the heat.  Old women at chalet doors blinked and knitted.

The white houses, with gaping caves of storage under the roofs, the red church spire, the clinking of hammers in the forges, the slow stamping of oxen-all spoke of sleepy toil, without ideas or ambition.  Harz knew it all too well; like the earth’s odour, it belonged to him, as Sarelli had said.

Towards sunset coming to a copse of larches, he sat down to rest.  It was very still, but for the tinkle of cowbells, and, from somewhere in the distance, the sound of dropping logs.

Two barefooted little boys came from the wood, marching earnestly along, and looking at Harz as if he were a monster.  Once past him, they began to run.

‘At their age,’ he thought, ‘I should have done the same.’  A hundred memories rushed into his mind.

He looked down at the village straggling below ­white houses with russet tiles and crowns of smoke, vineyards where the young leaves were beginning to unfold, the red-capped spire, a thread of bubbling stream, an old stone cross.  He had been fourteen years struggling up from all this; and now just as he had breathing space, and the time to give himself wholly to his work ­this weakness was upon him!  Better, a thousand times, to give her up!

In a house or two lights began to wink; the scent of wood smoke reached him, the distant chimes of bells, the burring of a stream.