His words were so low, it seemed as if his eyes had found voice; his words were so caressing, it seemed as if they changed to kisses as they fell. “Listen,” he said, softly, and drew up his dripping oars and let the boat drift—“Listen. This is not our Heaven, but I know a villa by the sea. There are hills and woods about it; flowers, fruits, and in the day, sunshine, at night, moonlight and music; drives, and walks, and vines, and arbors. Could you find there your Heaven—with me? May I take you to my villa?”
When he ceased, his words dropped slowly into silence, and Mae still gazed at him. She saw him come nearer to her, with his eyes fixed on hers; she saw his hand leave the oar and move slowly toward hers, but she was motionless, looking at the picture he had painted her of life—the cloudless days, moonlit nights—the villa by the sea—the glowing Piedmontese. Her eyelids trembled, her pulse beat.
Could she take that villa for her home? That man for her husband? She had half thought till now in soft luxurious Italian, but ‘my home’ and ‘my husband’ said themselves to her in her own mother tongue. She gave a long shiver, and pulled her eyes from his. It was like waking from a dream. “No—oh, no; take me home,” she gasped, and turned toward the shore, where, erect, with folded arms and head bared, stood Norman Mann.
The Italian bit his lip, and said something under his breath, but he took the oars and pulled ashore. Mae turned her eyes downward and felt the color creep up, up into her cheeks. It seemed eternity. The boat was Charon’s, and she was drifting to her fate. Norman Mann stood like a statue. The wind moved his hair over his forehead, and once Mae saw him toss the unruly locks back in a familiar way he had. She did not know why, but the tears half came to her eyes as he did it. He stood as firm and hard and still as a New England rock, while the Italian swayed lithely as he pulled the oars, with the curve and motion of a sliding, slippery stream.
The boat came safely ashore. The Piedmontese helped her to land, and the three stood silent; but Mae under all her shame felt content to be near Norman. His voice broke the quiet, quick and clear. “Are you married?” he asked.
“I! married! What do you—what can he mean?”
“Why is this man here, then?”
Mae stood an instant so still that the heavy breaths of the two men were distinctly audible, the passionate boundings of Bero’s pulse, the long, deep throbs of Norman’s heart. The officer stepped toward her. Norman stood unmoved. The Italian’s eye wandered restlessly, his hand fell to his sword. Norman’s arms were folded, and his face set.
Mae looked at one, then at the other, perplexedly. Then she understood. Like lightning, a terrible temptation flashed into her mind. The Italian loved her, would shield, protect, honor her. Norman must hate her, would always despise her. Should she lift her little weak woman’s hand and place it in the man’s hand ready to claim it, or stand still and be crushed by that other hand there?