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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCaptain Mansana - Chapter 7
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Captain Mansana - Chapter 7 Post by :mrtwist Category :Long Stories Author :Bjornstjerne Bjornson Date :May 2012 Read :3162

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Captain Mansana - Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

After this encounter, Mansana might very well have gone to visit the princess at her palace, but he still hesitated, perhaps with the secret hope that she might make one more advance towards him. The kind of self-brooding vanity, which he had so long cherished in secret, can be carried to absurd extremes, and is apt to be at once too retiring and too exacting. His shy reserve forbade him to call upon her, in spite of her express invitation, and yet he was audacious enough to cherish a hope that she would seek him at the place where he had already met her. Every day he went to the Cathedral at the hour of mass, in the vain hope of seeing her again. When at length he did accidentally meet her, as she was walking along the promenade by the bay, he perceived that she was perplexed or offended--he could not tell which--by his neglect. Too late he understood that in his sensitive vanity he had ignored the common rules of ordinary courtesy, and he hastened to the Palace Leaney, and sent in his card.

A veritable museum of historic memories is one of these old Italian palaces, with a foundation wall laid in the days of the old Roman Empire, an interior building dating perhaps from the Middle Ages or the Transition period, and an external court with facades and porticoes of Renaissance or sixteenth-century work. Not less reminiscent of many bygone ages are the ornamentation and decorative details; and in the rooms, statuary plundered from the Greek islands or brought by the Crusaders from Constantinople itself, contrasts oddly with pictures, _bric-a-brac_, and furniture in all possible styles, from that of the Byzantine epoch to that of the present day. A grand old mansion of this kind, such as can be found at its best in certain of the Italian seaports, seems to summarise the larger history of human civilisation as well as the private annals of a great family. All this was well calculated to produce a deep impression on the mind of a visitor, especially when that visitor was a man of the people, gifted with a keen faculty of observation; and it served to throw round the woman who reigned in the noble halls, that bore witness to the ancient glories of her race, a kind of distinction that gave even to her friendliness a little air of queenly condescension, and added a touch of stateliness to her courtesy. Small need for her to keep at a distance, by any artificial restraint, the man who approached her with a conscious sense of embarrassment, increased by the magnificence of her surroundings. The confidence based on the few previous _rencontres disappeared. With the thought of his unexpiated discourtesy weighing heavy on his conscience, he entered her presence, subdued, in spite of himself, by the sumptuous staircases, the lofty apartments, the storied walls, the sense of contact with a long historic past. If he had brought her too near him in the rash licence of his imagination, now, with that same imagination fluttered and confused, he fancied her even further from him than perhaps she really was.

No wonder he derived little satisfaction from this first visit to his princess. At her invitation he came again, but the sense of failure that had settled over him on the former occasion still clouded his spirits, and the second visit was as constrained and awkward as the other. When next he came, it was with his wounded vanity in arms against this humiliating embarrassment. She noticed it, and _he noticed that it secretly amused her. She smiled, and all his self-conscious pride drew back in alarm. Yet he felt himself powerless. Here, and in her presence, he could not give his feelings vent, he could barely find a word to say. He suffered in silence, took his departure, and came again, only to discover that she was playing with his anguish. If for a moment she had permitted herself to be mastered by him, all the more intense was the delight she now felt in this conquest of her conqueror. She treated him as she had learnt how to treat others, and bore herself towards him with a fascinating, unapproachable superiority.

Never did captive lion tear at his iron bars as Giuseppe Mansana chafed when he felt himself caught in this silken mesh of formal courtesy and playful ceremony. Yet he could not keep away from her. His strength was exhausted under the strain of frenzied nights and days spent in frantic struggles that led to no result.

Heavy indeed was the humiliation that had fallen upon him. He could not bear to hear her speak of another man; he did not venture to utter her name lest he should betray his misery and expose himself to ridicule. It was agony to him to watch her in conversation with any one else, though he could hardly endure to be in her company, lest she should inflict some slight upon him. Not once but a hundred times a murderous impulse swept over him. He could have killed his mistress, together with the rival whom, for the moment, she chose to honour with her preference, but was forced instead to turn on his heel and depart in silent fury. Where would it all end? The thought took shape within his mind that it must lead to madness or to death, or perhaps to both. Yet, though he felt this, he was powerless to make head against his infatuation; and for hours at a time he would lie prone and motionless in futile contemplation of the helplessness that had unnerved him. Why not perish in some deed of fierce vengeance worthy of his past? Thoughts like this chased one another through his soul, like thunder-clouds over a mountain's brow, while he lay there, fettered by the heavy doom imperious Nature had cast upon him.

In this frame of mind he received a formal invitation from the princess. One of the most celebrated musicians in Europe, returning from a journey in the South in search of health, was passing through Ancona that autumn; he took the opportunity to pay his respects to the Princess Leaney, who had made his acquaintance in Vienna. In his honour she invited all the fashionable world of the city to her _salon_. It was the first entertainment she had given at the palace, and it was on a scale worthy of her wealth and rank. The general air of animation which prevailed infected even the invalid Maestro himself, and induced him to sit down to the piano. As he struck the opening notes his audience felt drawn to one another by a magnetic bond of sympathetic interest, as people do who know that they are to be associated in the enjoyment of a rare artistic treat.

Stirred by the common impulse, Theresa lifted eloquent eyes in search of a responsive glance. They wandered round the circle of her guests, and lighted upon Mansana, who, absorbed in his own thoughts, had unconsciously placed himself in front of the audience, and was standing close beside the piano. The Master was playing a piece called "Longing," a melody that seemed like the cry of a soul seeking consolation from out of the deepest abysses of sorrow. He played it with the feeling of a man who had himself known what it was to be very near the brink of despair. Never had Theresa seen a human countenance with an expression such as Mansana's then wore. Its ordinary stern composure was exaggerated to an almost repulsive harshness; but she could see tear after tear swiftly welling over his cheeks. All the energy of his resolute will seemed concentrated in the effort to retain his self-command, and yet it appeared that in spite of his desperate efforts the tears would come. It was such a picture of inward struggle, linked with the keenest mental anguish, as she had never looked upon before. She gazed intently at him, till her own head was whirling in a maze of confused sensations, the most definite of which was the fear that Mansana was on the point of fainting. She rose hastily from her seat; but luckily a loud burst of applause recalled her to her senses, and drew off general attention from her. She had time to regain her composure, and to resume her seat for a few moments, till she felt collected enough to look up unconcernedly and breathe freely again.

Then she observed that, though the music was still going on, Mansana had quietly made his way to a door and passed out of the _salon_; probably the salvo of plaudits had roused him, as well as herself, to consciousness, and enabled him to perceive that he was no longer master of his feelings. Her anxiety stung her more sharply than before. Heedless of the looks of amazement cast upon her, she pressed through the listening throng and made for the nearest door. She hurried on as if to stay some imminent stroke of calamity, filled with a vague sense of self-reproach and responsibility. She came upon him as he stood in the ante-chamber; he had put on his _kepi_, and was just about to throw his cloak round his shoulders. They were alone, for all the servants had taken the liberty to join the audience in the music-room. With a quick step she went towards him.

"Captain Mansana!"

At the sound of his name he turned. Theresa's eyes were kindling with excitement; he noticed the delicious _abandon with which she threw back, with both hands, the masses of loose hair from her forehead--a gesture habitual with her in moments of sudden decision, and one that flashed unconsciously upon the beholder all the rare beauty of her figure.

"Yesterday," she continued, "the new pair of Hungarian horses, of which I spoke to you lately, arrived here. To-morrow I should like them to have a trial. I want you to be kind enough to come and drive them for me. You will come, will you not?"

His face paled under the deep bronze of his skin; she could hear how fast his breath came and went. But he neither looked at her nor spoke; only with a low bow he signified his assent to her invitation. Then he laid his hand upon the great hasp of antique hammered ironwork that fastened the door, and threw it back with a clang.

"At four o'clock," she added hastily. He bowed again without looking up; but as he passed through the open doorway, he drew himself erect, turned full towards her, hat in hand, and gave her one glance of farewell. He saw the gaze of troubled inquiry which the strange significance of his expression not unnaturally provoked. For his face bore witness to the sudden flash of inspiration that shot across the brooding darkness of his soul. _Now he knew how it was all to end.

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