Massimilla Doni by Honoré de Balzac


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Page 2

Any one with a soul for fantasy would have looked to see, on one of
those noble flights of steps, standing by a vase with medallions in
bas-relief, a negro boy swathed about the loins with scarlet stuff,
and holding in one hand a parasol over the Duchess' head, and in the
other the train of her long skirt, while she listened to Emilio Memmi.
And how far grander the Venetian would have looked in such a dress as
the Senators wore whom Titian painted.

But alas! in this fairy palace, not unlike that of the Peschieri at
Genoa, the Duchess Cataneo obeyed the edicts of Victorine and the
Paris fashions. She had on a muslin dress and broad straw hat, pretty
shot silk shoes, thread lace stockings that a breath of air would have
blown away; and over her shoulders a black lace shawl. But the thing
which no one could ever understand in Paris, where women are sheathed
in their dresses as a dragon-fly is cased in its annular armor, was
the perfect freedom with which this lovely daughter of Tuscany wore
her French attire; she had Italianized it. A Frenchwoman treats her
shirt with the greatest seriousness; an Italian never thinks about it;
she does not attempt self-protection by some prim glance, for she
knows that she is safe in that of a devoted love, a passion as sacred
and serious in her eyes as in those of others.

At eleven in the forenoon, after a walk, and by the side of a table
still strewn with the remains of an elegant breakfast, the Duchess,
lounging in an easy-chair, left her lover the master of these muslin
draperies, without a frown each time he moved. Emilio, seated at her
side, held one of her hands between his, gazing at her with utter
absorption. Ask not whether they loved; they loved only too well. They
were not reading out of the same book, like Paolo and Francesca; far
from it, Emilio dared not say: "Let us read." The gleam of those eyes,
those glistening gray irises streaked with threads of gold that
started from the centre like rifts of light, giving her gaze a soft,
star-like radiance, thrilled him with nervous rapture that was almost
a spasm. Sometimes the mere sight of the splendid black hair that
crowned the adored head, bound by a simple gold fillet, and falling in
satin tresses on each side of a spacious brow, was enough to give him
a ringing in his ears, the wild tide of the blood rushing through his
veins as if it must burst his heart. By what obscure phenomenon did
his soul so overmaster his body that he was no longer conscious of his
independent self, but was wholly one with this woman at the least word
she spoke in that voice which disturbed the very sources of life in
him? If, in utter seclusion, a woman of moderate charms can, by being
constantly studied, seem supreme and imposing, perhaps one so
magnificently handsome as the Duchess could fascinate to stupidity a
youth in whom rapture found some fresh incitement; for she had really
absorbed his young soul.

Massimilla, the heiress of the Doni, of Florence, had married the
Sicilian Duke Cataneo. Her mother, since dead, had hoped, by promoting
this marriage, to leave her rich and happy, according to Florentine
custom. She had concluded that her daughter, emerging from a convent
to embark in life, would achieve, under the laws of love, that second
union of heart with heart which, to an Italian woman, is all in all.
But Massimilla Doni had acquired in her convent a real taste for a
religious life, and, when she had pledged her troth to Duke Cataneo,
she was Christianly content to be his wife.

This was an untenable position. Cataneo, who only looked for a
duchess, thought himself ridiculous as a husband; and, when Massimilla
complained of this indifference, he calmly bid her look about her for
a _cavaliere servente_, even offering his services to introduce to her
some youths from whom to choose. The Duchess wept; the Duke made his
bow.

Massimilla looked about her at the world that crowded round her; her
mother took her to the Pergola, to some ambassadors' drawing-rooms, to
the Cascine--wherever handsome young men of fashion were to be met;
she saw none to her mind, and determined to travel. Then she lost her
mother, inherited her property, assumed mourning, and made her way to
Venice. There she saw Emilio, who, as he went past her opera box,
exchanged with her a flash of inquiry.

This was all. The Venetian was thunderstruck, while a voice in the
Duchess' ear called out: "This is he!"

Anywhere else two persons more prudent and less guileless would have
studied and examined each other; but these two ignorances mingled like
two masses of homogeneous matter, which, when they meet, form but one.
Massimilla was at once and thenceforth Venetian. She bought the
palazzo she had rented on the Canareggio; and then, not knowing how to
invest her wealth, she had purchased Rivalta, the country-place where
she was now staying.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 22nd Sep 2019, 16:33