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

Jean came to the villa a little before noon on the following day. Hilaire, who was in the library, heard his voice in the hall calling the dogs, heard him whistling some little song tune as he opened and shut all the doors one after the other.

“‘O l’amor e’ come un nocciuola
Se non se âpre non si può mangiarla
’”

“Hilaire, where are you? I thought I should find you on the terrace this fine morning. Where is she?” he added eagerly as he laid a great bunch of roses down on the table. “Is her headache better? Has not she come down yet?”

He looked across the room to where his brother’s grey head just showed above the high carved back of his chair.

“Hilaire! Why don’t you answer?”

In the silence that ensued he distinctly heard the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece and the falling of the soft wood ashes in the grate; the beating of his own heart sounded loud to him. One of the dogs was scratching at the door and whining to be let in.

“Hilaire.”

“She is gone.”

“Gone?”

“Yes. She left this letter for you.”

“Ah, give it to me.” He opened and read it hurriedly.

“I thought you meant dead at first,” he said. His brown eyes had lost the light that had been in them and were melancholy as before; he stood still by the table looking down upon his roses. They would fade, and she would never see them now. Never ... never ...

“Come and sit by the fire and let’s talk it over quietly,” said Hilaire. “Oh, damn women,” he mumbled as he drew at his pipe the fifth that morning. It was the first time in a week that he had uttered his pet expletive. “What does she say?”

“You can read her letter.”

“Would she mind?”

“Oh, no,” Jean said bitterly. “She loves you what she calls loving next best after me. She told me so.”

Hilaire carefully smoothed the crumpled, blotted page out on his knee.

“MY DEAREST JEAN, I am going away because I am a coward. I dare not live with you, and I dare not ask you to forgive me. Last night as I lay awake I thought and thought about my feeling for you and I was sure that it was love. I used to think of you often last summer and to wonder where you were and what you were doing, and I hoped you had not forgotten me. I did not love you then, but I suppose my thoughts of you kept my heart’s door open for you, and certainly they helped to keep out someone else who came and tried to get admittance. Oh, one must suffer to keep love perfect, but isn’t it worth while? You may not believe me now when I say that if I cared for you less I should stay, but it is true. Oh, Jean, even when we were so happy for a few minutes yesterday something in me looked beyond into the years to come and was afraid. Not of you; I trust you, dearest; but of the world. Men would stare at me and laugh and whisper together, and women would look away, and I know I should not be able to bear it. I am not brave like that. Oh, every word I write must hurt you, I know. Remember that I love you now and shall always. Good-bye. Your

“OLIVE.”

“I should keep this.”

“I am going to. Hilaire, did you know she was going? Did she tell you?”

The older man answered quietly: “Yes, I knew, and I sent her to the station in the motor. I had promised a strict neutrality, Jean, and she was right to go. Some women, good women, may be strong enough to bear all the suffering that is entailed upon them by a known irregularity in their lives. She is not. It would probably have killed her though I am not saying that she would not have been happy sometimes, when she could forget her shame.”

Jean flinched as though his brother had struck him. “Don’t use that word.”

“Well, what else would it be? What else would the world call it? And women listen to what the world says. ’Good name in man or woman is the immediate jewel of their souls’; Othello said something like that, and it’s often true. Besides, you know, this woman is pure in herself, and from what she told me I understand that she has seen something of the seamy side of love lately enough to inspire her with dread. She is afraid, and her fear is exquisite; a very fine and rare thing. It is the bloom on the fruit and should not be brushed off with an ungentle hand. Poor child! Don’t blame her as she blames herself or I shall begin to think she is too good for you.”

Jean sat leaning forward staring into the fire.

“Do you realise that when I brought her here it was from starvation in a garret? Where is she going? What will she do? Oh, God! The poor little slender body! Do you remember she said it was happiness just to be warm and have enough to eat?”

“That’s all right,” Hilaire said hastily. “She is going to a good woman, a friend she made in Siena. The letter you brought was from her, and she wrote to say she had been ill and wished Olive could come and be with her for a while.”

“I see! And she was glad to get away.”

“My dear man, did you really think she would be so easily won? She loves you, and you not only made love to her yesterday afternoon; you played to her I heard you and I knew she would have to say ‘Yes’ to everything. Now she says ‘No,’ but you must not think she does not care.” Hilaire got up, came across to where his brother sat, and laid a caressing hand on his shoulder. “Dear Jean, will it comfort you to hear me swear she means every word of that letter? It’s not all over. You will come together in the end. Her poor blue eyes were drowned in tears ”

“Oh, don’t,” Jean said brokenly. The hard line of his lips relaxed. He hid his face in his hands.

Hilaire went out of the room.