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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
By Matilde Serao (1856–1927)
 
MASSIMO was alone. A friend of his youth whom he had not seen for years until to-day, when he had accidentally met him in the street, had returned to dine with him at seven o’clock after the happy recognition took place. Massimo was enduring wearily the burden of a summer in town. Always before he had gone to the country in June; but he had looked forward to this as a happy evening of memories in the companionship of his recovered friend. Between the pleasures of dinner, of cigarettes, and of wine, they had indeed passed two cozy hours in chatting of old times. They began all their sentences by saying “Do you remember?” They laughed deliciously at dear memories which crowded upon their minds; interrupting each other occasionally by an exclamation of regret or a sigh of longing for the return of those old days.  1
  Yet in the very midst of the friendly merriment which filled their hearts, they had become conscious of a sense of melancholy. The two men had traveled different paths through life, and had become very unlike in everything. They had set out from the same point, and had studied together. But the friend was now a well-known lawyer in one of the provinces; he had a wife and family, was guided by simple, practical ideas, and by a mind and temperament somewhat slow and deliberate. Massimo, on the contrary, had wandered for ten or fifteen years in foreign countries, connected now with this legation, now with that; a diplomat without enthusiasm; indolent, and unable on account of his laziness to build up a career. He was content or not, according to his mood, with his position of secretary. He was a handsome man of the southern type, but had already lost the freshness of youth; his hair was growing thin over his forehead, and his eyes were lustreless. He had comfortable means without being extremely rich, and was now playing the martyr in Naples on a leave of absence; his friends called it a penance. Massimo was refined, and a man of spirit and intelligence; but he was consumed by the monotony of his existence, and also oppressed by private cares and sorrows. His friend was a man of talents, but strong and quiet; rather stout and lethargic in his appearance; controlled always by sound provincial common-sense, which condemns originality as folly, and sacrifices the pleasures of the present for the sake of enjoying a too distant future.  2
  Thus, while one man told the story of his life, the other listened and judged it according to his temperament; judged it coldly in his heart, though for the sake of the old friendship he was not too honest in his expressions, but gently modified his speech. Nevertheless, they felt the distance which was between them. At one juncture they even searched each other’s face in doubt, so much like strangers did they seem; but they said nothing. Perhaps in his heart Massimo envied the provincial lawyer of reputation, with his limited ambition and his power of assiduous work, envied him his fat, peaceful family, so well sheltered from the storms of life, and his comfortable house, which had been the house of his ancestors and which would become the home of his descendants; envied him his practicality, his seriousness and equilibrium, and indeed all those possessions which were lacking to himself. And the lawyer envied Massimo his vagabond life of an aristocrat in foreign courts; his future, which he had the power to make splendid; his bachelor freedom, and the adventures of his ideal existence; and the elegant and exquisite apartments which he shared with no one. These were dreams which had never disturbed his provincial sleep.  3
  Simultaneously they sighed. The evening was hot; the door was open between the room where they smoked and the balcony, but no breath of air came to them; only a heavy fragrance of jessamine. They were conscious of having grown sad. They had recalled too much of the past, had unearthed too many buried monuments, evoked too many lost friends who had once been dear, and too many dead loves. This cannot be done without a mingled feeling of sadness and pleasure; and the pleasure soon vanishes, while the sadness remains. They smoked on in silence, their heads resting on the high back of the sofa. Then the lawyer looked at his watch, and said out of courtesy:—  4
  “Will you come out with me?”  5
  Had they not said all which they had to say? Had they not, perhaps, done foolishly in telling so much? Massimo replied politely that he was obliged to write some urgent letters, but that he would be at the villa later, at about eleven o’clock. The lawyer replied in an indifferent tone that he too would be there then; and the friends separated, each assured that they would not meet again this evening,—perhaps indeed that they would never meet again. However sweet the past has been, it is dead; and phantoms, however beautiful they may be, trouble the soul of the most courageous.  6
  When he was alone, Massimo regretted that he had brought this friend to his house. So many closed wounds had begun again to bleed in these last two hours! While he continued to smoke, he heard his servant arranging things in the small dining-room. After a little, the boy came to ask if his master had need of him this evening; if not, he wanted to go out with a few friends and find relief from the heat. Massimo dismissed him readily; the door closed, and he was entirely alone. But his evening was lost. He had imprudently ascended the river of the past in company with a person whom he had loved; the voyage had discouraged him, had made him lose all which had remained to him of moral force, through which he had been enabled to endure the loneliness and discomforts of a Neapolitan summer. In his hours of rebellion, when he was spiritually prostrated and the victim of excessive physical inertia, and when his heart rose within him resentfully, he was wont to smoke certain soothing Egyptian cigarettes, which usually in the end quieted him. On this summer evening, however, the cigarettes went out between his drawn lips, and he threw them away one by one when they were but partly burned. He went to the balcony. He lived on the third floor of a large palace in the Via Gennaro Serra; and because on account of the slope of the street the houses in front of him were lower than his, he had a glimpse of the sea and saw a great sweep of starry sky.  7
  The night was most beautiful; the Milky Way was trembling luminously: but no breeze stirred, and the air hung heavy. His head seemed on fire. Though alone and weary, he could not keep still; he took a pen and tried to write. Suddenly his face grew whiter than the paper in front of him; it was as though he had seen a vision among the shadows of the room. There was a continuous rumble of carriages in the Via Gennaro Serra. All the people were coming out of their houses and walking the streets in search of air to breathe; they wanted to look at the stars, and to enjoy the Neapolitan night, beautiful, and even cool in the small hours. Again he went to the balcony; he was suffocating. He returned to his desk to write, but was unable to do so. Why should he write? Of what use are black letters traced on white paper when one is suffering from passionate loneliness? The parent or friend or sweetheart to whom they are addressed will perhaps read them aloud to some stranger, and laugh unsympathetically at their expressions. Too much time and too many events lie between the moment of writing and that of reading.  8
  A hand-organ began to play in the Piazza Monte de Dio. It played in slow, measured time a song which should have been gay, but which thus became curiously sad. Massimo was irritated by this sentimental or tired organ-grinder, who changed a tarantella into a funeral march. Perhaps he was old, however; perhaps his day had been poor: surely he must be an unhappy creature, or he would not grind out such a mournful funeral dirge. Massimo leaned over the balcony railing, and impulsively threw him a two-franc piece. After a moment the music ceased, and Massimo was sorry. He felt more lonely, more comfortless, more desperate, than ever before during his stay in Naples. What could he do? Where could he go? where could he carry his weary soul and body? Was there any one at hand whom he knew, in whose company, no matter how insipid and unpleasing it might be, he could pass this summer night? He felt that he could not sleep. He knew indeed that there was no help for his melancholy.  9
 
 
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