They had dressed quickly for lunch; he had entered her room to fasten her dress, then he had mutually watched her while she finished polishing her nails and wiping the powder off her face. Her hands ached a little from the harshness of her oars and she complained about it every step in the voice of a spoiled child. To console her, he gently took her hands in hers, saying:
– Tomorrow you will row again, the pain will pass.
They then went down to the ground floor, talking to each other about gay things, they had had a table set on the terrace and they had ordered copious food, because a strong hunger stung them after that day of free air.
The windows were open to the garden; the nocturnal swarms, dense as raging dust, buzzed in large túrbini attacking the electric globes suspended in the compactness of the foliage; behind the mountain on the other bank rose a very white crescent in the sky still full of twilight.
Many people dined around them, and Loretta, curiously, observed one after the other those numerous diners. As she spoke, she considered the jewels he saw gleaming on the ladies, then smiled at certain ferociously bony necklines, at certain tight and sparse hairstyles like balls of yarn. But there were there with three young ladies, whom Arrigo supposed were American, which, without being completely beautiful, nevertheless had in their whole person those robust and gentle signs of elegance which form the particular beauty of this new Atlantic race. Similar in nobility in appearance to young dogaresse, these overseas republicans already possessed, in their ancient and clear profiles, that true purity of origin which in them, daughters of merchants, will consecrate the imminent aristocracy. They were dressed in lovable pomp, they were covered in jewels, and Loretta admired them.
– I would like to be very rich to have a beautiful string of pearls, – he said jealously to his brother, touching his bare throat, which wore his youth like a beautiful necklace.
– Do you like pearls so much?
– Yes, a lot! They are my favorite jewel.
And he added with a kind of rancor, after reflecting:
– How stupid to be poor!
“So,” he asked her, looking at her, “do you want to become rich at any cost?”
– I do! – She answered firmly. And greed, venality, the pleasure of luxury, the desire for many unsatisfied ambitions flashed together in her face.
Even though he was silent, he seemed to be assailed by an intimate malaise, and she, without doubting that these words should make him suffer, added:
– That’s why I didn’t want to lose sight of Rafa. Rafa could give me anything I want.
His brother’s eyes became extremely large and fixed, his mouth twitched irritably. He turned to the window and looked out, towards the night shore, towards the lake full of stars, which in its steady clarity was covered with a silver sheet.
– Don’t you think so too? She did again.
– Of course! He replied harshly; – Rafa can pay you well.
She suddenly blushed; she, in the modesty of her girl, nevertheless felt harmed by that cruel phrase.
He lowered his eyes and fell silent.
– Aren’t you eating? Arrigo said after a long pause.
– You made me sad … what a pity!
– Via Lora, do not be offended! ….
And he held out his hand over the table, as if he wanted to make peace with her.
She was very greedy, they offered her delicate things, then that day she was very hungry: she forgot.
“I want to have a glass of Champagne,” he said, “like the first night we had dinner together, do you remember?”
“I remember everything that was between us,” she replied tenderly. – I remember everything, and I will not forget.
The butler brought the bottle without breaking the seals, then wrapped it up, gagged it, with a very white napkin, and put it to freeze in a misted bucket, which he held on a tripod near the table. Suddenly she made a reflection:
– I would like to know what people think of us.
She marked with a gesture only herself, he, the bottle of Sciampagna:
– I bet they take me for who knows who … – he said. – I don’t really look like your sister or your wife.
And laughed; her wet mouth glinted with impudent laughter.
– I bet – he resumed – that maybe they think me a “cocotte”!
– You are crazy! Exclaimed his brother, laughing too.
But this name did not bother her, on the contrary it seemed in a certain sense to flatter her and to enclose a meaning full of seduction in its vulgarity.
It meant for her to have many wardrobes full of sumptuous clothes, many chests full of shining jewels, and dancing in the carnival, and laughing at dinners, and having a great bed of love in her perfumed house.
She felt invincibly attracted to this life of pleasure, nor was her body made for one man’s desire. There were no dreams of motherhood and family in her, but her heart flew impatiently in search of other, less peaceful joys. That bottle of Sciampagna, which put so many joyful thoughts in her head, was not only a wine pleasing to her palate for her, but a symbol of almost all that life that she liked and to which she called it a fervent need for enjoyments. She wanted to be desired, to instill pleasure, to lavish joy, because her feminine mission was none other than that of groped, of exasperating, of inflicting with her voluptuous body the torment and joy that burn in the essence of ‘love.
The cork leaped noisily under the fury of the white foam and tiny sparks shot out of the filled cups. She dipped her lips greedily into it, drank in one gulp; he sipped his glass slowly, looking at her; then he had the cup refilled and drank it in one gulp.
An orchestra in the garden started the ” Merry Widow ” waltz ; behind a group of trees the players could be glimpsed confusedly, seated in a circle on a round stage, illuminated by Japanese balloons, which from time to time the wind swayed.
The jasmines in the fine night spread waves of good smell in the clear air.
– How beautiful it is here! how beautiful everything is here! She cried joyously. – But you don’t talk … What’s wrong?
He had drunk three or four glasses of Sciampagna, one after the other, darkly; he laughed at an unnatural laugh and said:
– I listen to music; this waltz is a persecution, they play it everywhere.
“I’d like to dance it,” she said; – dance it with you.
Under the table, with the foot shod in satin, the rhythm of the dance beat. They filled the cups again, and they were empty. A slight heat rose in her cheeks from that pungent wine; her eyes gleamed between fringed lashes of a luminous tremor. Now, enjoying the warm well-being that ran through her veins, she sank back, against the back, stretched her bare arms over the tablecloth, and smiled as if in rapture, in an ecstasy that enveloped her whole body, all of her soft eager body.
– If we were alone I would kiss you … – he confessed with a slight tremor.
Beyond the window, in the garden, a large magnolia was dressed in silver in the moonlight, bearing a magnificent flower on each branch.
She put her two elbows on the table and took her face in her hands:
– Look ….
– Come close to me, closer …
He leaned forward to hear his words.
– You will no longer be afraid, tell me? … will you no longer be afraid this night, that there is so much perfume? … – she murmured under her breath, with a shiver that paled her.
Since he did not answer, she took his wrist, squeezed it.
– Tell me, tell me! … Why don’t you want to answer?
– I’m more afraid than ever! – She replied. And she trembled.
Now someone was singing, on the terrace, over there.
They went out. There were many people, sitting in groups, listening to the concert. The two of them stood aside and had coffee served. They were almost hidden by a great clump of red azaleas, which spread their vast shadows over the glistening gravel. Among the thick trees the lake could not be discerned, but occasionally you could hear the water rinsing against the shore.
He said to his sister:
– You will be bored in the evening; there is nothing to do here.
“And if there were,” he replied, “I wouldn’t want to do anything.” I’m fine like that.
– Do you feel tired from rowing?
– Not at all. But that Sciampagna gives me a delicious vertigo ….
The flowering azalea threw a kind of red damask cloak behind her.
“Sometimes,” she said, “sometimes, Rigo, it is I who am afraid of you.” Above all when you don’t talk and look at me.
– No, Lora; I will never hurt you.
– Maybe? She replied.
– Why do you say this?
– I don’t know why I say this; it is an indefinable feeling. Maybe you hate me a little …
Near there, inside an invisible basin, they heard the water of a fountain gushing sleepily, among the trees. He got up, put his arm under her arm, and together they walked through the garden. Loretta was afraid of the little green toads leaping across the paths. They tied themselves tightly to each other, because they felt safer in the shadows, and they went down to the terrace that accompanied the inlet of the shore for a while. Between the dock and the landing there was a long line of tied boats, which swayed.
The water wore a cloak of silver, which he had thrown over the moon. An unspeakable sadness came from that clear lake calm. They leaned against the railing of the terrace, crossed by an espalier of Vanzian roses; the movement of the light wave put them to sleep in a kind of fatal enchantment.
He thought he was standing on the edge of a precipice, and falling slowly, insensibly into it, sinking into an emptiness full of oblivion. He felt his body disperse in annihilation, his damned love ending in a scream.
She thought she was a little queen, living in a great castle on the shores of an enchanted lake, and going down into a boat at night, she alone, under the moon, without oars, without sails, lazily, sweetly, to to sleep. And the more she went, the darker the lake became, the more an immense desperate loneliness became in the night; and as she went away with the wind, she seemed to lose herself in the lost shadow, to navigate in a dark distance, from which she perhaps she would never return … she was afraid of her and she clung to he.
A swan slept, its beautiful neck bent over its wing, swaying like boats tied in a row.
Not far from the shore a small boat passed, with a red light in the stern and a white one in the bow. There were people singing in chorus, and the words were heard.
The refrain said:
«Very fine linen
that you put on every morning
my beauty at his rising …
everything I would give you
to do as you do with her,
to know what you know,
to stay where you are … ”
– They sing … they are cheerful! Loretta said with envy. – I’m not anymore.
As if for a joke, he resumed the chant:
«Everything I would give you
to do as you do with her … ”
– Do they go fishing? Loretta asked.
– Maybe they just go to sing.
When they were alone, when it got a little dark, when they touched, the inner ghost took possession of their disturbance. It was an evil that began with the desire for a kiss, and passed from one to the other, like a chain that tightened their brotherly flesh; then it spun, twisted in tight knots, until they both curved under the oppression of his weight. She felt the need to abandon himself in her arms, he felt angrily the temptation to grab her and hold her until her pain; but in both of them, even in her offering herself, there was an invincible fear. A cold fear, rooted in being, a fear that attracted them differently and separated them differently. They were like two sitibondi, bound by the same fountain, so that they could stretch their lips up to a little bit from the water, until you feel the clear freshness and breathe in the humidity, but without being able to dip your lips, ever. Between their thirst and the fountain had that little space that wouldn’t let them drink.
– I wish a man could tell me why I ever had to love you! Arrigo exclaimed. – I would like a man who knows all souls and all sins to tell me, a priest for example. But I don’t dare confess to this sin. And then, what is the use? They too know nothing; nobody knows any of this.
This religious hint of confession frightened the girl, as if, all of a sudden, the black dress of the priest, the shadow of the intercolumniation, the mystical clouds of incense, the warm breath that passes through the grate with the whisper of the guilty words, and reproach, and condemnation, and the threat of perpetual penances, would compose in her astonished heart the image of her mortal sin.
– Why do you say these words so black? – she asked. And she clung to him, closer than her, as if to find a refuge in him. The boat of the singers was far away in the lunar evening, and she faintly she heard from time to time the joyful refrain:
«Very fine linen
that you put on every morning … ”
“Have you thought,” he went on, “have you thought of what would happen if I once had the courage, the terrible courage that I have lacked up to now?”
– Two things I thought: either that you don’t really love me, or that your brain is sick. If our happiness is in us, why should we frighten it with so many reflections? You communicate your illness to me little by little. When, for the first time, this immense desire stirred me, I immediately wanted to be yours. Looking beyond it seemed useless to me, it still seems useless to me.
“But tell me,” he said; – you who speak so lightly, do you know the value of the offer you make to me? Do you understand what this phrase that you repeat without dismay means: “To be yours?” Do you understand that this means to give, to sacrifice your whole life to me?
She seemed to marvel at these words; but she nevertheless she replied with her lips, without conviction:
– Yes, of course, I understand.
“No, Lora,” he corrected indulgently, “you don’t understand it.” There would inevitably come a day, and perhaps not too far away, when you would say to your brother: “Give me my life now, because it is mine, and I want to live it.” But do you think then I could give you to someone else? Do you think that, after a crime like this, we can easily start again the way we went before? You, yes, perhaps, because you are twenty years old and have a carefree heart. But I? Tell me, what would I do then? Do you know jealousy? Do you know that other, greater torment called remorse? You see: there is a fundamental difference between us: you love me because you can forget, because you don’t know, and you almost don’t know that I am your brother … instead I love you precisely, and more desperately, because I know, because I know deeply fear, that you are my sister ….
With her head bowed, looking at the treacherous water, which sparkled like a dark cloth interwoven with silver threads and made a barely noticeable noise as it collided with the dock wall, she seemed to be meditating deeply on the meaning of those words.
– No, Rigo! … – he exclaimed suddenly, grabbing his arm with convulsive force, – no! you are not my brother. I never thought for a moment that you were my brother. I like you, and in being with you I feel you want me as a true lover. Take me! … do with me what you want, for an hour or forever, until I am beautiful and your love finds me beautiful … Can’t you hear? I am all perfumed like a bundle of roses … Hold me! … hold me in your arms, as if I were a great bundle of roses … But laugh! laugh! … because I can no longer see you so dark … Laugh once more … laugh!
The boat passed by in the distance and you could hear singing:
«Everything I would give you
to do as you do with her … ”