From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 293-299.293
IT was furnace-like, in Donna Valentina’s little yellow sitting-room. The heater breathed its ardors upon our knees. The fair lady shone in the midst of a planetary system of luminous globes; for one lamp shed its splendor from the piano, two others shed their splendor from the mantel, a discreet star gleamed amid the orchids of the jardinière, another star of azure hue, suspended in mid-air, twinkled above our heads. And then, there was a truly Turkish fragrance of cigarettes from Salonica; and then, too, Donna Valentina has such an African air, with her black hair looking thicker and her eyes larger and more indolent than ever before, and with her black corsage, and gloves that made her long, slender hands look as if made of ebony. I glanced anxiously at the lady; her husband glanced anxiously at the thermometer; the other persons present, a blond youth, an aged dandy, and a mature artillery officer, all three infatuated with Donna Valentina, were at the point of ebullition.
And then there came to the lady certain ideas that were truly Nubian. A dispute had arisen whether music could narrate and describe, or not. Donna Valentina condoled, in her languid way, with lifted brow and a smile and a few low-spoken words, with her poor husband, furiously maintaining the negative against the other three, who charged him together, artillery at the head. All at once the lady 294 rose from her divan, chose from among her music a section of Ricordi’s Ancient and Modern Art, the fourteenth section, it seemed to me. The three at once retreated in broken ranks in order to applaud her purpose and to light the candles at the piano. One of the three, however, the aged dandy, was not quite nimble enough, and so remained a chafing prisoner in the hands of the husband, who gave no quarter, but hammered on with blunt positivism.
“We will test it,” said the lady, opening the music upon the rack. “I will play you two pages of this music. If there is any music that speaks, it is this. The stage setting and the story are both perfectly clear. Each one of you will immediately put it into writing for me. And no excuses will be accepted! — And you,” she added, turning to me, “may put it into verse.”
I begged to be released from writing in verse, having, according to my habit, laid aside literature in the anteroom, along with my overcoat. And besides, a translation into verse cannot be improvised. Meanwhile, her two zealous servitors lighted a candle apiece, and I had some difficulty in hiding a smile, as I leaned over and read, at the top of those two pages of music:
Donna Valentina saw my smile; and since we knew each other rather well, she read a whole volume of meanings in it, and smiled in her turn with a subtlety as European as possible, a long, slow, enigmatic smile, — the forth or fifth that I had had from her that evening.
“Skeptic!” she said, beneath her breath. And she wrung from the bowels of the piano the insistent and agonized groan which opens that stupendous page of music and recurs in it at every moment.
I was having a pleasant evening. During the pianissimo, following the first eight measures, it seemed to me actually that I could hear the lamentations of a soul. The lady’s 295 three adorers, hunched each of them in an arm-chair, were listening with a deep and secret anguish, staring up at the azure star suspended in the air above them. The piece once ended, they begged and obtained a repetition, — after which the little yellow sitting-room became a Parnassus in full blast.
The artillery officer, who never feared, in conversation, to cut and thrust on any imaginable topic, found himself after a minute or two, quite to his own surprise, out of the proper vein; so he ceases, with what grace he could, to tug at his mustache and his ideas. The aged dandy, the blond youth, and I presented Donna Valentina with our finished efforts.
“Now we will read them,” she said. “Of course, the scene is in a desert, and there are two lovers who die there together.”
The blond youth turned crimson and desired to take back his offspring. But Donna Valentina would not permit this. She conceded that music was a language without dictionary and without grammar, and therefore not to be accurately translated, word for word. And she proceeded to read aloud the prose of the aged dandy, who was a fine old fellow, taken altogether, and a man of culture, whom it was a pity to see so humiliating on his knees to a hopeless passion.
Maddening dream! Maddening dream! In the fervid Orient I repose in my youth with you among the roses.
Maddening dream! Maddening dream! Give me kisses, not words; lips of sweetness, do not leave me.
Far away, far away is the chill land of the snow; far away, far away are the sad days when old age comes upon us.
There is fire in my heart, in my blood; there is fire in the sea of roses, there is fire in the profundity of the sky.296
Ardent lips, ardent lips, you also are fire, and I am consumed by your tender flame.
I conjure you, I conjure you, do not forge me when we shall awaken in the chill, dark lands, to joyless days, when dime and mute will be the flame that now devours my breast, — yet fervent still, and powerful still to draw you back among the passionate roses, for a day, for an hour, to breathe fire not your heart, into your blood, into the amorous aureole enveloping your charms.
“Fire-engine! Hose-cart!” whispered the artillery officer, while the husband, who had often rudely jarred upon roses of the Orient with his boisterous laughter, exclaimed:
“Congratulations on your desert, and on those two loves who die there!”
“A desert, of course,” said the lady, smiling amiably upon the author. “I am sure that the last thing your two lovers would want is anyone else idling in their valley of roses! and if they do not die, they sleep and dream. ‘To die, to sleep, perchance to dream.’ And now for yours,” she added, smiling this time at the blond youth. And she read:
The Fair Penitent. What suffering! What suffering! He died so many, many years ago, and still my soul is filled with sinfulness.
I love him still! I love him still! I seek God, but I find only him, and I glow continually with the memory of bygone madness.
A Spirit. Love me still! Love me still! For these many years, among the shades of death, I am even yet filled with thee.
Do not grieve! Do not repent! Alone in the midst of eternal torment, your love is my restorative.297
The Confessor. No, do not approach, in this mood, to the Sacrament, nor move the Lord to wrath! Go, prostrate yourself upon the bare, chill marble, pray and weep, pray and weep, perchance your heart will find peace.
The Fair Penitent. He is suffering! He is suffering! I feel it, I cannot pray, I am not willing ever to be happy, ever to cease to grieve, ever to repent; it may be, far below, amid his torments, my love is his one restorative.
The Confessor. Impious woman, go, withdraw from this holy spot, I abandon you to impure flames. Perhaps the Lord will pardon him, perhaps the Lord will pardon him, but not you, never!
The Fair Penitent. Oh, my father! Oh, my father! Do not leave me, I reach out my desperate arms to you, I pray and weep, I pray and weep, I repent, I repent, I fall broken and contrite at your feet, O Lord!
“Preserved romanticism with onion syrup,” said the artillery officer, “a thing to weep over!”
“I find it most beautiful,” murmured the lady, with a charming air of judicious admiration, and she glanced again at the manuscript.
“Especially,” added her husband, “because the cathedral is a desert; there isn’t even a sacristan there, so those two there, at confession, can scream, if they like, like two lunatics. And the lovers not only die, but one of them has been dead and gone for a good long time already.”
“Battista,” said Donna Valentina, “don’t be insupportable! Now let us see what you have written,” she added, turning to me. “I am exceedingly curious!”
She took my poor little effort, ran over it with a rapid glance, and murmured, almost as if speaking to herself:
“I don’t understand.”
“You must have been sublime,” said the artillery officer.
“Merely great,” I replied, with a low bow. “Sublime belongs by rights to your silence.”
The lady read:
My lady! My lady! How can you survive this diabolical winter time?
My lady! My lady! Will not your little tepid heart be frozen?
My lord! My lord! How can you live with your heart of solid ice?
My lord! My lord! I have a soft, well-heated cozy corner.
I have a stove which is my property; it still contains some embers, and sends forth from time to time a few languid flickers. But that is not enough! But that is not enough! I have a youthful fireplace, with blond young flames, that never burns, but only consoles me and sets me dreaming. But that is not enough! That is not enough! I have a mature, boiling-hot hand-warmer, a cannon-ball covered with cloth embroidered in gold, that I use now and then to pass the time, laying aside my book or my crochet work. But that is not enough! That is not enough! I have an aged and devoted foot-warmer, that gives me much service, and always places his timid warmth at my disposal. And if perchance I find it too warm, I open the window and look up at the sky. Yet even that is not enough! Even that is not enough! I want your poet’s spirit, I want an azure flame of alcohol, to warm my tea, to be the delight of my eyes.
My lady! My lady! It is with my spirit that I make me my own humble coffee.
This effort of mine cast a frigidity over everyone.
“Pardon me,” said Donna Valentina, “but what was it that you had in mind?”299
“What could you expect?” I replied. “I do not understand music. I just wrote nonsense at haphazard.
“Very well,” replied the lady. “As a punishment, you shall not have your coffee tonight. Either tea, with the rest of us, or nothing!”