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“No, Jasper; it can never be — never.
. Do you think I am not suffering - that it is nothing to me to lose you? Try to think better of me. Oh, Jasper, it is hard indeed for me, and - I love you so.
“No, no," she went on; "do not make the task harder for me. Why can you not curse me? It would be easier then. Why can you not hate me as you ought? Oh, if you would but strike me and go, I could better bear this hour!”
There was such abandonment of entreaty in her tones that my heart bled for her; yet I could only answer:
“Claire, I will not give you up; not though you went on your knees and implored it. Death alone can divide us now; and even death will never kill my love.”
“Death!” she answered. “Think, then, that I am dead; think of me as under the mould. Ah, love, hearts do not break so easily. You would grieve at first, but in a little while I should be forgotten.
“Forgive me, love; not forgotten. I wronged you when I said the word. Believe me, Jasper, that if there be any gleam of day in the blackness that surrounds me it is the thought that you so love me; and yet it would have been far easier other. wise far easier.”
Little by little my hope was slipping from me; but still I strove with her as a man battles for his life. I raved, protested, called earth and heaven to witness her cruelty; but all in vain.
“It would be a sin - a horrible sin!” she kept saying. “God would never forgive it. No, no; do not try to persuade me - it is horrible!” and she shuddered.
Utterly beaten at last by her obstinacy, I said:
“I will leave you now to think it over. Let me call again and hear that you repent.”
“No, love; we must never meet again. This must be our last good-bye. Stay!” and she smiled for the first time since that meeting in the cemetery. “Come to Francesca'to-night; I am going to act.
“Yes. One must live, you see, even though one suffers. See, I have a ticket for you — for a box. You will come ? Promise me.
“Yes, promise me. Do me this last favor; I shall never ask another.”
I took the card in silence.
“And now,” she said, "you may kiss me. Kiss me on the lips for the last time, and may God bless you, my love."
Quite calmly and gently she lifted her lips to mine, and on her face was the glory of unutterable tenderness.
“Claire! My love, my love!” My arms were round her, her whole form yielded helplessly to mine, and as our lips met in that one passionate, shuddering caress, sank on my breast.
“ You will not leave me?” I cried. And through her sobs came the answer: “Yes, yes; it must be, it must be.' Then drawing herself up, she held out her hand and said: “To-night, remember, and so — farewell.”
And so, in the fading light of that gray December afternoon I left her standing there.
Mad and distraught with the passion of that parting, I sat that evening in the shadow of my box and waited for the curtain to rise upon “Francesca.” The Coliseum was crowded to the roof, for it was known that Clarissa Lambert's illness had been merely a slight indisposition, and to-night she would again be acting. I was too busy with my own hard thoughts to pay much attention at first, but I noticed that my box was the one nearest to the stage, in the tier next above it. So that once more I should hear my darling's voice, and see her form close to me. Once or twice I vaguely scanned the audience. The boxes opposite were full; but, of course, I could see nothing of my own side of the theatre. After a moment's listless glance, I leaned back in the shadow and waited.
I do not know who composed the overture. It is haunted by one exquisite air, repeated, fading into variations, then rising once more only to sink into the tender sorrow of a minor key. I have heard it but twice in my life, but the music of it is with me to this day. Then, as I heard it, it carried me back to the hour when Tom and I sat expectant in this same theatre, he trembling for his play's success, 1 for the sight of my love. Poor Tom! The sad melody wailed upwards as though it were the voice of the wind playing about his grave, every note breathing pathos or suspiring in tremulous anguish. Poor Tom! Yet your love was happier than mine; better to die with Claire's's kiss warm upon the lips than to live with but the memory of it.
The throbbing music had ended, and the play began. As before, the audience were without enthusiasm at first, but to-night they knew they had but to wait, and they did so patiently; so that when at last Claire's voice died softly away at the close of her opening song, the hushed house was suddenly shaken to its roof with the storm and tumult of applause.
There she stood, serene and glowing, as one that had never known pain. My very eyes doubted. On her face was no sign of suffering, no trace of a tear. Was she, then, utterly without heart? In my memory I retraced the scene of that afternoon, and all my reason acquitted her. Yet, as she stood there in her glorious epiphany, illumined with the blazing lights, and radiant in the joy and freshness of youth, I could bave doubted whether, after all, Clarissa Lambert and Claire Luttrell were one and the same.
There was one thing which I did not fail, however, to note as strange. She did not once glance in the direction of my box, but kept her eyes steadily averted. And it then suddenly dawned upon me that she must be playing with a purpose; but what that purpose was I could not guess.
Whatever it was, she was acting magnificently and had for the present completely surrendered herself to her art. Grand as that art had been on the first night of “Francesca,” the power of that performance was utterly eclipsed to-night. Once between the acts I heard two voices in the passage outside my box: " What do you
think of it?" said the first. What can I ?” answered the other. “And how can I tell you? It is altogether above words.”
He was right. It was not so much admiration as awe and worship that held the house that night. I have heard a man say since that he wonders how the play could ever have raised anything beyond a laugh. He should have heard the sobs that every now and then would break uncontrollably forth, even whilst Claire was speaking. He should have felt the hush that followed every scene before the audience could recollect itself and pay its thunderous tribute.
Still she never looked towards me, though all the while my eyes were following my lost love. Her purpose — and somehow in my heart I grew more and more convinced that some purpose lay beneath this transcendent display — was waiting for its accomplishment, and in the ringing triumph of her voice I felt it coming nearer- nearer — until at last it came.
The tragedy was nearly over. Francesca had dismissed her old lover and his new bride from their captivity and was now left alone upon the stage. The last expectant hush had fallen upon the house. Then she stepped slowly forward in the dead silence, and as she spoke the opening lines, for the first time our eyes met.
“ Here then all ends : - all love, all hate, all vows,
All vain reproaches. Aye, 't is better so.
“No, no. As God is just, it could not be.
Yet, oh, my love, be happy in the days
Dear love, it is not hard to die
her bridal morn
What was that shriek far back there in the house? What was that at sight of which the audience rose white and aghast from their seats? What was it that made Sebastian as he entered rush suddenly forward and fall with awful cry before Francesca's body? What was that trickling down the folds of her white dress? Blood ?
Yes, blood! In an instant I put my hand upon the cushion of the box, vaulted down to the stage and was kneeling beside my dying love. But as the clamorous bell rang down the curtain, I heard above its noise a light and silvery laugh, and looking up saw in the box next to mine the coal-black devilish eyes of the yellow woman.
Then the curtain fell.