“The devil!” exclaimed the old soldier in surprise; “then you were the cause of that touching farewell letter that Bianca sent me—in which she declared that she must give me up—although her heart would break? “Yes, I was the cause of it,” said his friend. “But listen, there is more to tell. I had thought to purchase peace with that money, but the peace did not come. The wild thoughts ran riot all the more madly in my brain. I buried myself in my work—it was just about that time that I was working out the plan of my book on the ‘Immortality of the Idea’—but still could not find peace.
And thus the year passed and New Year’s Eve came round again. Again we sat together here, she and I. You were at home this time, but you lay sleeping on the sofa in the next room. A merry Casino dinner had tired you. And as I sat beside her, and my eyes rested on her pale face, then memory came over me with irresistible power. Once more I would feel her head on my breast, once more I would kiss her—and then—the end, if need be. Our eyes met for an instant; I seemed to see a secret understanding, an answer in her glance. I could control myself no longer; I fell at her feet and buried my burning face in her lap.
“I lay there motionless for two seconds perhaps, then I felt her soft hand rest cool upon my head, and her voice, soft and gentle, spoke the words: ‘Be brave, dear friend; yes, be brave—do not deceive the man sleeping so trustfully in the next room.’ I sprang up and gazed about, bewildered. She took a book from the table and handed it to me. I understood, opened it at random, and began to read aloud. I do not know what it was I read, the letters danced before my eyes. But the storm within my soul began to abate, and when twelve o’clock struck, and you came in sleepily for the New Year’s wishes, it was as if that moment of sin lay far, far behind me, in days that had long passed.
“Since that day I have been calmer. I knew that she did not return my love, and that I had only pity to hope from her. Years passed, your children grew up and married, we three grew old together. You gave up your wild life, forgot the other women, and lived for one alone, as I did. It was not possible that I should ever cease to love her, but my love took on another shape; earthly desires faded, and a bond of the spirit grew up between us.
You have often laughed when you heard us philosophizing together. But if you had known how close were our souls at such moments you would have been very jealous. And now she is dead, and before the next New Year’s Eve comes round we two may follow her. It is, therefore, high time that I rid myself of this secret and say to you, ‘Franz, I sinned against you once, forgive me.’ ”
He held out an imploring hand toward his friend; but the other answered, grumbling: “Nonsense. There is nothing to forgive. What you told me there, I knew it long ago. She confessed it herself forty years ago. And now I will tell you why I ran after other women until I was an old man—because she told me then that you were the one and only love of her fife.”
The friend stared at him without speaking, and the hoarse clock began to strike—midnight.