Some of the grandes dames present at the ball that night wore dresses the like of which are seldom or never seen out of Italy— robes sown with jewels, and thick with wondrous embroidery, such as have been handed down from generation to generation through hundreds of years. As an example of this, the Duchess of Marina’s cloth of gold train, stitched with small rubies and seed-pearls, had formerly belonged to the family of Lorenzo de Medici. Such garments as these, when they are part of the property of a great house, are worn only on particular occasions, perhaps once in a year; and then they are laid carefully by and sedulously protected from dust and moths and damp, receiving as much attention as the priceless pictures and books of a famous historical mansion. Nothing ever designed by any great modern tailor or milliner can hope to compete with the magnificent workmanship and durable material of the festa dresses that are locked preciously away in the old oaken coffers of the greatest Italian families—dresses that are beyond valuation, because of the romances and tragedies attached to them, and which, when worn, make all the costliest fripperies of to-day look flimsy and paltry beside them, like the attempts of a servant to dress as tastefully as her mistress.
Such glitter of gold and silver, such scintillations from the burning eyes of jewels, such cloud-like wreaths of floating laces, such subtle odors of rare and exquisite perfume, all things that most keenly prick and stimulate the senses were round me in fullest force this night—this one dazzling, supreme and terrible night, that was destined to burn into my brain like a seal of scorching fire. Yes; till I die, that night will remain with me as though it were a breathing, sentient thing; and after death, who knows whether it may not uplift itself in some tangible, awful shape, and confront me with its flashing mock-luster, and the black heart of its true meaning in its menacing eyes, to take its drear place by the side of my abandoned soul through all eternity! I remember now how I shivered and started out of the bitter reverie into which I had fallen at the sound of my wife’s low, laughing voice.
“You must dance, Cesare,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “You are forgetting your duties. You should open the ball with me!”
I rose at once mechanically.
“What dance is it?” I asked, forcing a smile. “I fear you will find me but a clumsy partner.”
“Oh, surely not! You are not going to disgrace me—you really must try and dance properly just this once. It will look so stupid if you make any mistake. The band was going to play a quadrille; I would not have it, and told them to strike up the Hungarian waltz instead. But I assure you I shall never forgive you if you waltz badly— nothing looks so awkward and absurd.”