Read FLORENCE : CHAPTER XI of Olive in Italy , free online book, by Moray Dalton, on ReadCentral.com.

Olive told herself that Hilaire was very good to her in the days that followed. He came sometimes into the room where she was, to find her sitting on the floor amid the piles of books she was trying to reduce to some kind of order.

“You do not get tired? I am afraid they are rather dusty.”

“Oh, not at all,” she assured him. She was swathed in a blue linen apron of Marietta’s and had tied a cotton handkerchief over her hair. “I like to feel I am doing something for you,” she said. “I wish you have been you are so kind.”

On the Wednesday morning she covered some of the books with brown paper and pasted labels on their backs. She tried not to listen for the creaking of the great gates as they swung open, for the grating of wheels against the stones, for Jean’s voice calling to his brother, for his quick step upon the stair, but she heard all as she wrote Vita Nuova on the slip intended for an early edition of the Rape of the Lock, and put the Decameron aside with some sermons and commentaries that were to be classified as devotional literature. He did not come to her then, but she was desperately afraid that he might. “I am not ready ... not ...”

When, later, she came into the dining-room she seemed to be perfectly at her ease. Jean’s eyes had been fixed on the door, and they met hers eagerly as she came forward. “Are you better?” he asked, and then bit his lip, thinking he had said the wrong thing.

“Oh, yes. But but you look pale and thinner.”

Her little air of gay indifference fell away from her. As he still held her hand she felt the tears coming and longed to be able to run upstairs and take some more sal volatile, but Hilaire came to the rescue.

“Well, let’s have lunch,” he said. “I hate tepid food.”

When they had taken their places Jean gave the girl a letter.

“It came for you to the Lorenzoni. I called at the porter’s lodge this morning and Ser Gigia gave it me.”

“Such a waste of good things I never saw,” the butler said afterwards to his wife. “As you know, the padrone never eats more than enough to fill a bird, but I have seen the signorino hungry, and the young lady too. To-day, however, they ate nothing, though the frittata was fit to melt in one’s mouth. I should not have been ashamed to set it before the Archangel Gabriel, and he would have eaten it, since it is certain that the Blessed One has never been in love.”

After the meal, to which no one indeed had done justice, Hilaire explained that he was going to write some letters.

The younger man looked at Olive. “Come with me,” he said abruptly. “I want to play to you.”

“I want to hear you,” she said as she rose from the table.

He followed her into the music-room and shut the door. “Well?”

She chose to misunderstand him. “It is charming. Just what a shrine of sound should be.”

The grand piano stood out from the grey-green background of the walls beyond, there was a bronze statuette of Orpheus with his lute on a twisted Byzantine column of white and gold mosaic, and a long cushioned divan set on one side broke the long lines of light on the polished floor.

“What are you going to play?” she asked.

“Nothing, at present,” he said, smiling at her. “I want to talk to you first. You are not frightened?”

“No.” She sat on the divan and he stood before her, looking down into her eyes.

“I think I had better try to tell you about my wife,” he said. “May I sit here? And may I smoke?”

“Yes.” She drew her skirts aside to make room for him next to her. “I want to hear you,” she said again.

“Imagine me, a boy of twenty-two, convalescing in country lodgings after an illness that seemed to have taken the marrow out of my bones. Hilaire was in Japan, and I a callow fledgling from the nest was very sick and sorry for myself. There were some people living in rather a large house at the other end of the village who took notice of me. They were the only ones, and I have thought since that my acquaintance with them really did for me with everyone else. They were not desirable but well, I was too young, and just then too physically weak to avoid their more pressing attentions. Old Seldon was one of those flushed, swollen men whose collars seem always to be too small for them. He tried to be pleasant, but it was not a great success. There were two daughters at home, and Gertrude was the eldest. She had been married, and the man had died, leaving her penniless. As you may suppose she had not come back to veal. I was sorry for her then because she seemed a good sort, and she was very kind to me; she was five years my senior ”

“Go on,” Olive said.

“I used to go to the house nearly every evening. She sang well, and I used to play her accompaniments, while the old man hung about the sideboard. He never left us alone, and the younger girl, Violet, used to meet the rector’s son in the stables then. I heard that afterwards. They lived anyhow, and owed money to all the tradespeople round.

“One night I was awakened by a knocking outside; my landlady slept at the back, and she was deaf besides, so I went down myself. The wind put my candle out as I opened the door, but I saw a woman standing there in the rain, and I asked her what she wanted. She made no answer, but pushed past me into the passage, and went into my sitting-room. I followed, of course.

“Well, perhaps you have guessed that it was Gertrude. Her yellow hair hung down and about her face; she was only half dressed, and her bare arms and shoulders were all wet. Her skirts were torn and stained with mud. She told me her father had turned her out of the house in a drunken fury and she had come to me. Even then I wondered why she had not gone to some woman surely she might have found shelter however, she had come to me. I was going to call up my landlady, but she would not allow it because she said that no one but I need ever know. She would creep home through the fields soon after sunrise and her sister would let her in. The old man would be sleeping heavily.... The end of it was that I let her go up to my room while I lay on the sofa in the little parlour. The horsehair bolster was deucedly hard, but I was young, and when I did get off I slept well. When I woke it was nearer eight than seven, and I had just scrambled up when my landlady came in. One look at her face was enough. I understood that Gertrude had overslept herself too.

“The sequel was hateful. There was a frightful scandal, of course; the father raved, the women cried, the rector talked to me seriously, and Olive, mark this Gertrude would not say anything. I married her and we came away.”

“It was a trap,” cried Olive.

“We had not one single thing in common, and you know when there is no love sex is a barrier set up by the devil between human souls. After some years of mutual misery I brought her here. Poor Hilaire has hated respectable women ever since she was that, if that counts when there is nothing else. Just virtue, with no saving graces. She is living in London now, is much esteemed, and regularly exceeds her allowance.”

“Was she pretty?”

Jean had let his pipe go out, and now he relit it. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I suppose so. Frizzy hair and all that. I fancy she has grown stout now. She is the kind that spreads.”

“Life is all so hateful,” sighed the girl. Jean moved away from her and went to the window. Hilaire was limping across the terrace towards the garden steps. When he was gone out of sight Jean came back into the room.

“My brother is unhappy too. The woman he loved died. Oh, Olive, are we to be lonely always because the law will not give me a divorce from the woman who was never really my wife, never dear to me or near to me as you are? Joy is within our reach, a golden rose on the tree of life, and it is for you to gather it or to hold your hand. Don’t answer me yet for God’s sake. Wait!”

He went to the piano and opened it.

Rain ... rain dripping on the roof through the long hours of night, and the weary moaning of the wakeful wind. Thronging memories of past years, past youth, past joy, past laughter echoing and re-echoing in one man’s hungry heart. Light footsteps of children never to be born ... and then the heavy tread of men carrying a coffin, and the last sound of all the clanging of an iron door....

The grave ... the grave ... it held the boy who had loved her, and presently, surely, it would hold this man too, sealing his kind lips with earth, closing his brown eyes in an eternal darkness.

He played, as thousands had said, divinely, not only with his hands but with his soul. The music that had been a work of genius became a miracle when he interpreted it, and indeed it seemed that virtue went out of him. His face was drawn and pale and a pulse beat in his cheek. Olive, gazing at him through a blur of tears, knew that she had never longed for anything in her life as she longed now to comfort this pain expressed in ripples, and low murmurings, and great crashing waves of the illimitable sea of sound. Her heart ached with the pity that is a woman’s way of loving, and as he left the piano she rose too. He uttered a sort of cry as she swayed towards him, and clasped her in his arms.

“I love you,” he said, his lips so close to hers that she felt rather than heard the words.