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by BEN HECHT
with illustrations by Wallace Smith
New digital edition of:
The Florentine Dagger
by Ben Hecht
© 1923 by Boni and Liveright
Copyright © 2017 - Edizioni Savine
TO JOSEPHINE DITRICHSTEIN,
who graciously promised to read my next book, providing, of course, it was a mystery story
WALLACE SMITH'S ILLUSTRATIONS
The five illustrations contained in the following pages, and the jacket design, are the work of the new phenomenal black and white artist, Wallace Smith. In making the drawings Mr. Smith chose to illustrate the spirit of the text rather than its letter. The result is this series of Renaissance pictures whose dark opulence curiously interprets the moods of the story's hero, Prince Julien de Medici—of Broadway.
In the firelight the face of Julien De Medici appeared like a gray and scarlet mask of ennui. Oblivious of the ornamental room with its pattern of books, statues and tapestries, he sat stiffly in the carved wooden chair and stared at the burning logs. He was waiting for his host, Victor Ballau.
Except for the crackling of the burning wood, the room was still. Cowled shadows reared witchlike shapes across the walls and ceiling.
It was night outside. Wind quarreled with the stone buildings. Removing his eyes reluctantly from the burning logs, De Medici glanced at the darkness of the empty room. He studied the shadows with frightened eyes.
He was a curious man of thirty. An aristocratic ugliness marked his face. The long, thin nose, the high cheek-bones, the wide, inanimate mouth and the green-tinted skin gave him a lithographic rather than human air. His black hair was cut in a straight line across his forehead. He wore it unparted in such a manner that it made an almost square frame for the elongated rigidity of his face.
A striking and bizarre figure, poised, precise and seemingly of another world, he lived chiefly in his eyes. They were narrow and black, symmetrical to a point of artificiality. But under the parenthesis of the brows lived a startling man.
From the carved chair before the burning logs, De Medici studied the shadows. He disliked darkness and empty rooms. Shadows frightened him. Opened doors chilled him. Yet his immobile face smiled derisively.
"Fear," he thought. "It's like a disease."
He smiled again as if amused at the emotion disturbing him.
"Ghosts," he continued to himself. His eyes were on the opened door in the shadows at the end of the room. "Ghosts walk around inside me."
And he fell to thinking of an old subject—of the ghosts that prowled the mysterious corridors of his soul. . . . De Medici—ah, what a name! A sarcophagus of evil. . . .
He recalled with a shudder the excitement of the critics who had written about the opening of his play at Victor Ballau's theater two weeks ago. One of them in particular had given him a bad hour. A discerning fellow. . . . He remembered the critic's phrases:
". . . and now a De Medici turned dramatist. What a name to conjure with! One needs no genealogical chart to assure one that here in Julien De Medici writing plays for Broadway is a descendant of those monstrous and evil adventurers whose villainies once illumined the courts of Europe. . . ."
De Medici smiled at the memory of the words. ... A bit redundant and in the grand style affected by romantically hungry puritans writing for the press. . . . He continued recalling the review:
"For here again is the De Medici touch. Prince Julien, who witnessed the premier of his first drama—'The Dead Flower'—is a gentleman of exemplary habits and enviable charm. But in this play to which he has signed his name lives again the sardonic evil which once made empire builders of his family. A dreadful humor pervades this amazing work. Its characters are etched with a Satanic deftness refreshingly new—for the stage. . . . Prince Julien of Broadway has borrowed the soul of his great-great-great-grandmother, with which to write his first drama. . . ."
The burning logs exploded sharply. De Medici sprang to his feet.
"Damn!" he muttered, "It's the door."
Walking swiftly across the shadowed room he shut the thing he fancied had frightened him. Yes, opened doors in a dark room, even a lighted room, always chilled him. They reminded him vaguely of something—of winding corridors, of hidden things waiting beyond them. He would sit, slowly terrified, watching an opened doorway, as if awaiting something, as if straining to catch a sound of clanking and wailing. . . .
His earliest memories were those of fears. Windows, silences, doorways, darknesses, lights far away, candle-light in a mirror, winds howling, hidden noises—these were things of which he had been in terror as a boy.
It had been that way with his father, the Prince Julien of the Paris ateliers—an indifferent artist, a violent-tempered, black-haired man who had died at forty, his name a byword even to the decadent aristocracy that postured futilely among the memories of France.
Years after his death De Medici understood the tragedy of the man who had been his father. Rake and scoundrel, he had died raving in drink. A memory of debauches and black deeds had survived him. But as he grew older the De Medici son understood. These nightmares that bloomed in the recesses of his own thought, these terrors that animated the depths of his nature, had been his father's legacy as well as his own. And, despairing of the ghosts whose whisperings darkened his life, the elder Prince Julien had fled. Drink, women, excesses—scenes of glaring lights and crazed laughter—these had been hiding-places. The notorious De Medici of the Paris '90's had been no more than a frightened refugee fleeing an inheritance.
Left alone in the care of a senile uncle, the boy Julien had stumbled upon a different direction for flight—literature. He had come into his estate at fifteen. At eighteen he had chosen America. France was too familiar. Its ancient roads, the dark corners of Paris, the very air he breathed haunted and frightened him.
Now, after twelve years, he had matured into a nervously brilliant man, engagingly cynical, egoistic as a child and subtle-minded as a Jesuit. Among his friends he was regarded with deference. His name, his manner, his genius combined with his wealth attired him in an unassailable superiority. They found him, however, neither arrogant nor perverse, despite the startling and often horrible plots and ideas which came from his pen. None, not even his few intimates, had ever intruded upon his secret, had ever glimpsed behind the charming and stenciled smile of Prince Julien, the "Borgian" ghosts that pantomimed in his soul.
The offending door closed, De Medici returned to his chair. He yearned to turn on the lights of the room. With the cheerful glare of the electric bulbs the dim terrors assailing him would vanish. But, as always, he treated himself to this discipline—a refusal to humor the senseless fears of his nerves. He folded his hands and smiled, regretting his action in closing the door.
A step in the corridor leading to the room lifted the tension under which he sat. Victor Ballau at last. Yet he waited, apprehensive, as the step approached, as the door slowly opened. "With the familiar figure of his friend standing in the far glow of the fire, however, De Medici's nervousness vanished.
He stood up to greet his host. There was no longer hint of fears about him. His narrow eyes smiled. His teeth glittered in the wide mouth as he laughed.
"Toasting myself like a martyr at your fireplace, Victor," he said.
The two men shook hands. Ballau was a man of fifty-five, gentle-spoken, restrained of manner and, in his very bearing, a connoisseur of life. His hair was gray. He was tall and stood erect.
"You made quite a picture by the fireplace, Julien," he said. "Gad, you get to look more and more medieval. Florence come in yet!''
"No, thank Heaven."
"Hm." Ballau looked at his friend. "Shall I turn on some lights f "
"Nicer this way," De Medici answered. "I'm in a soft and romantic mood."
Ballau sat down. The two lighted cigarettes. De Medici puffed calmly.
"You see," he said, smiling at his host, "it's the first chance I've had of getting you alone in a week. You're an elusive parent."
Ballau nodded. '' What's happened ?''
"Love," murmured De Medici. "A corroding and devouring passion.''
Ballau studied his cigarette.
"It's hard to believe you're serious, Julien," he said. "Florence?"
"An observant father. I congratulate you, Victor."
'' Well, what do you want of me ?''
"And modest. The parent ideal! Your consent, of course."
"This, my dear Julien, is so sudden. And then your old-fashioned tactic of appealing to the usually negligible parent is somewhat alarming."
"The fact that you're her father," De Medici answered, "is a matter of secondary importance, come to think of it. What I've chiefly come for is advice."
"My advice," Ballau answered softly, "is, of course, marry the gal and live happily ever afterward. ''
"Thanks. But there's another thing. Her going on with her acting.''
"Tut, tut," the older man smiled. "Give her her own way. I should think it an excellent arrangement. With 'The Dead Flower' going over as it is you should be able to turn out at least one play a year and keep Madame De Medici employed under your auspices."
"That being settled," Ballau sighed, "we might as well have some light—and a glass of cognac. I walked over from the theater and I'm rather cold."
De Medici turned as the door opened. Jane, the gaunt and hollow-eyed housekeeper, was standing on the threshold.
"Glasses," murmured Ballau.
The woman nodded and, with a glance at the guest, disappeared. De Medici frowned to himself. This was another of his obsessions—an aversion to silent people. Servants invariably irritated him. Their closed mouths, their waiting eyes, their inscrutable inferiorities disturbed him.
"I'll be back in a minute," Ballau announced as the footsteps of the woman died away.
Alone, De Medici smiled. Phantoms no longer disturbed him. He sat thinking of Victor Ballau. A curious man. Almost as curious as himself, perhaps. Debonair, prosperous, cultured. Yet something odd about him. He had made an actress of his daughter—not a difficult task. The luxurious figure of the young woman intruded on his thoughts. Vivid as a macaw, with a feline slowness in her gesture. . . . "Ah," he sighed, "she is a color I need. I grow brittle and antique. She will enable me to live."
For a lingering moment he contemplated the emotions that the image of her had stirred. Tenderness, self-amusement, and an overwhelming loneliness. " As if I were lost away from her,'' he mused, "as if I were sick and bewildered for some place to go. ..."
Then his musings returned to her father. Yes, a curious man. A background of tapestries, rare books, antique collections and a chattering circle of poets, dancers, painters, connoisseurs. A quixotic fancy for the theater, he had achieved distinction out of his failures, producing deftly written comedies of manners and dramas of mood that never ran. Yet the theater with its rigmarole of intrigue, gamble, women and craftsmanship was another part of Ballau's background.
But an exterior Ballau, he mused. There was something else about the man, and this thing whispered itself always to De Medici's sensitive imagination. This man of the theater whose apartment was the haunt of a Sybarite, whose cavalierly manner was the envy of a hundred bon vivants, was, paradoxically, a puritan. A charming and unmalicious puritan.
"A man of taste,'' thought De Medici, "wealthy and with an infatuation for beautiful things. . . . I've seen him rave before a Titian . . . yet no women. Intrigues shadow him. Beauties pursue him. And still he remains a baffling and graceful Galahad where one looks with certainty for a Don Juan. It would be hard for him to dissemble— surrounded by so avid a pack of scandalmongers. "
De Medici nodded to himself. There was something else about Ballau—the quality toward which his own peouliar nature responded always with readiness. Secrecy—veiled things that lurked behind the smiles of men and women, furtive lights that came to their eyes when they grew silent ... he had felt this quality in Ballau. It had, in fact, precipitated their comradeship.
His thought could place no words on it, but his intuitions led him toward a mystery—an unknown Ballau, a jealously guarded stranger who lived a secret life behind the debonair and gentle exterior of the man he knew.
"I've been thinking it over,'' Ballau began talking as he reentered the room carrying bottle and glasses on a tray, "and I'll supplement my advice, Julien. Let the minor details adjust themselves. If you're in love with Florence, the thing to do, I fancy, is to tell her so.''
He seemed flushed as he placed the tray on a table. He was smiling, but De Medici noticed that his fingers trembled.
"Love," the older man continued, "is a rare and everlasting flower. . . ."
He paused and closed his eyes. De Medici noted the darkening pain that passed over his features. Ballau, however, continued once more in a light voice:
"I should avoid making your proposal of marriage to her a discussion on economics or a debate on whether a woman's place is in the home . . . or on the stage. You can settle all that after you're married with just as much indignation and dissatisfaction to you both as you can before the ceremony.''
De Medici, fascinated by the nervous hands of the man, laughed.
"Yes, I think you're right," he answered. "With your permission, I'll deceive the young lady and save up my debates for some future breakfast table."
"To a gay and worthy happiness for you and her," said Ballau, raising one of the glasses.
His voice had grown soft, but his eyes, as De Medici smiled back to him, turned away. The young man replaced his glass and, despite himself, felt again the curious presences that had haunted him a half hour before . . . presences that awoke always under the influence of symbols—opened doors, darkened windows, lights gleaming in mirrors . . . and enigmatic faces.
"There's something else," whispered itself in his thought, and for a moment he stared fearfully at the averted eyes of his friend. Then, recovering himself, he said:
"Shall we go down to the theater for the performance ?"
Ballau shook his head.
" I 'd rather read,'' he answered. '' And, besides, from now on I feel I'd only be in the way."
"Nonsense!" De Medici smiled. "I've a clever idea for making love . . . and I'm not at all averse to an enlarged audience. ..."
Ballau smiled refusal and De Medici bowed slightly.
"I'll see you to-morrow then," he said, and walked from the room.
Victor Ballau stood for moments alone in his library. His eyes traveled caressingly over the luxuries that surrounded him. Beautiful things . . . beautiful things . . . his eyes and fingers invariably grew alive in their presence. Carved chairs that had once beckoned the vivacious and swashbuckling bodies of Florentines, Englishmen and Castilians. Books within whose covers the strange dreams of men had yellowed. Prints and cabinets, hangings and trinkets all breathing an air of romantic beginnings, survivors all of vanished splendors and obsolete dramas. He stood gazing around him. . . . The great centuries whispered out of the ornamental litter of the room.
Lowering himself into the chair in which De Medici had sat, Ballau opened a book. His eyes, however, were unable to keep to the print. They closed as if in revery and again the weariness and pain that Re Medici had noted, darkened his face.
An hour later, Jane, gaunt and hollow-eyed, appeared in the doorway.
"Mr. Ballau," she said in a dull voice.
He opened his eyes and stared at her in confusion. He had been dreaming.
"Will there be supper after the theater tonight ?" she asked.
" No, Jane,'' he murmured. "You can turn in."
His eyes, haunted and preoccupied—as furtive and veiled as the eyes of the man who had sat in the chair before him—followed the slow-moving figure of the housekeeper as she walked out of the doorway.
New York on a spring morning. ... A leap of windows toward a gay sky, a carnival of windows, windows fluttering like silver pennants, unwinding in checkerboards and domino lines. A deluge of signs, a sweep of acrobatic advertisements, a circus of roof tops and a fanfare of stone, the city flings itself into a glittering panorama. It stands in bewildered pantomime. Gigantic and amazing, it hovers like an inverted abyss over a wavering pavement of hats.
De Medici turned his eyes from the trumpeting geometries of the skyscrapers and looked at the young woman beside him.
"We're an intrusion," he said close to her. The crowds drifted tenaciously around them. "Paolo and Francesca," he smiled, "murmuring in Bedlam. Can't we go somewhere?"
His lean face regarded her dreamily as she answered:
"The morning is wonderful."
"The morning is a nuisance,'' he demurred. "But you! Beautiful—yes, your eyes are like gardens, night gardens. Come, we'll go somewhere. We '11 take a cab. I want to talk to you in a gentle and persuasive voice.''
The young woman, Florence Ballau, nodded. De Medici stared excitedly at her. Her presence delighted and warmed him. An amazing woman. She wore her youth like a banner. Her gypsy face under a blue toque stamped itself like an exotic flower on the gray and yellow background of the crowd. Her lips were parted, her deep eyes were laughing darkly.
De Medici restrained the ecstasy that threatened to start him stammering. She was tonic. Her body, luxurious and vibrant under the silver cloth of her dress, bewildered him. He was in love. But more than that, the flamboyant life of the girl, the gay and dominant poise of her manner, her voice, her head, exhilarated him in a curious way. A sense of awe came to him as he studied for an instant the exotically masked vigor of his companion. His own subtle and convoluted nature prostrated itself blissfully before her vivid dominance.
"Let's go to father's office," she said. He found it difficult to object. Nevertheless he blurted an objection.
"Well, why not just walk to the park and sit down?" she persisted.
De Medici shook his head.
"Damn it all!" he exclaimed. "Pm going to make love and I don't want a lot of fat policemen walking up and down in front of me or a parade of squirrel-feeding old maids staring rebukefully. Pve set my mind on a cab. It's distinctly modern."
"But a fearful waste of money," the girl smiled.
"Ah," De Medici murmured, "then you do love me."
"Of course," she answered.
They stood silently in the press of the crowds moving down Fifth Avenue, their fingers touching, De Medici's eyes grew misty. He felt curiously at peace, as if he had escaped forever the dark things inside him.
"We'll take a cab, anyway," he said finally. Then, as the girl raised her luminous face to him, he grew buoyant. He looked about him with a feeling of surprise. He had awakened from a bad dream. Prince Julien the cynical and tormented survivor of an evil race had vanished. Here was an ecstatic and humorous youth making love to a marvelous creature under the towers of a new civilization.
"I've a lot of speeches I've always wanted to include as a part of my first and last proposal. Well get into a cab and I'll propose.''
He hailed a taxi and they entered.
" Drive," he smiled at the chauffeur, "slowly and carefully, anywhere you want."
The man nodded, grinned, and pocketed a bill.
They were silent as the cab moved away.
"Well," said Florence at last, "you may begin."
De Medici looked at her.
"I love you," he whispered. "Will you marry me?"
"You promised speeches," she laughed.
"I've changed my mind," he said, staring at her. " I can't think of anything to say."
They were silent again. The cab entered a park. Turning to her, De Medici raised her hand to his lips. His restless, burning eyes remained on her face. He felt intoxicated. Her profile with its parted red lips, its tiny line of white teeth, her eyes dark and desirous as they avoided him, her aromatic hair in black coils under the toque.
"Dearest," he whispered, "I adore you."
She nodded, still avoiding his eyes.
Then, "When do you want to get married?" she asked.
De Medici extricated himself from his emotions.
"Tomorrow," he answered calmly.
"That's too soon. I'll have to tell father first."
"I've told him all about it," he smiled.
De Medici nodded and looked fearfully at her. She was angry. Her face had grown bright with color.
"What did he say?" she asked.
Ignoring the change in her voice, De Medici answered:
"He gave me some advice. He advised me against starting any arguments with you."
Florence turned her eyes to him. They were burning and enigmatic.
"Curious," he thought. "She's like him. She hides something."
He felt miserable again. But his hand caressed her arm.
"Arguments about what?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, this and that," De Medici answered smiling. "Never mind asking me. Let's save up all the arguments for another time, when we have nothing else to talk about."
"What did he say?" she persisted. Then: "Excuse me. We'll tell him and have him announce the engagement. He'll love that."
Her face was again gay and dominant. De Medici nodded.
"I'll telephone him," he said quickly, and tapped on the driver's window. The cab stopped. Leaning out of the door, De Medici gave a vague direction.
"Take us to a telephone,'' he said. The driver nodded as if he appreciated the details of the situation. They started again.
"Julien," the girl exclaimed suddenly. She was laughing. Her arms embraced the surprised young man. He felt himself powerless for an instant. The warmth of her body was against him. Her lips waited intimately for his kiss.
"Oh, I adore you," he murmured. His arms tightened around her and they remained embraced as the cab rolled jerkily on.
The driver was talking. De Medici removed his eyes bewilderedly from Florence.
"What is it?" he inquired.
"I think there's a telephone in that drugstore,'' the driver repeated.
De Medici stepped out of the cab. Several minutes later he returned, smiling broadly.
"The parent thaws," he announced exuberantly. "We have his consent and his blessing."
"But you told me you had all that in advance," Florence laughed.
"I know," he went on excitedly, "but our talk last night was only sort of a rehearsal.''
"What did he say?" she asked as he sat down beside her.
"Going to announce it tonight. Says he'll summon a gathering worthy of the event.''
"Poor father" murmured Florence. Her face had grown sad.
"He's delightful" cried De Medici.
"He's the most charming man in the world," she added.
The driver put in an apologetic appearance.
"Where to ? " he asked.
"I think we'd better go back to the theater," Florence murmured. De Medici gave the direction.
"Well," she smiled as they started again, "from a literary point of view your proposal has been a decided failure. I rather expected something—bizarre."
"Give me time," De Medici smiled. "I'll improve. But why to the theater now!"
"There's a matinee today."
"You don't mean you're going to play this afternoon?"
"Are you insane ! Of course I am.''
"And let that bounder Mitchell make love to you in the second act . . . after this?"
"I swear you're out of your head, Julien."
'' You kiss him,'' he growled.
"You wrote the play, my dear.''
"Hm." He looked at her whimsically thoughtful. "I'll rewrite it. The kiss isn't necessary. I'll go back and take it out. You don't have to kiss him. You can just look at him—with feigned tenderness. It'll be enough. How do you suppose I'm going to feel watching you embrace that bounder and kiss him every night ?"
"You told me last week I did the part wonderfully," she smiled.
They were in front of the theater. De Medici held her arm.
"When shall I see you again?" he asked.
"I promised to have dinner with Fedya this evening. Why don't you go and help father arrange his party and call for me after the performance tonight?"
De Medici nodded. He appeared to have grown speechless. He looked with infatuated silence at the girl. Then, with a sigh, he bowed, removing his fedora and placing it cavalierly over his heart.
"Until we meet again, beloved," he whispered and, turning, walked away.
The girl stood where he had left her, her dark eyes following his figure until it was lost in the crowd. An expression of despair had come to her face. Sorrow and uncertainty seemed to claim her. She stepped forward as if to recall the vanishing Julien. Then, changing her mind, she turned and walked to the foyer. She entered the empty theater with tears glistening in her dark eyes.
Promptly at ten o'clock that night De Medici walked distractedly into the stage entrance of the Gait Theater. He had spent the day in a fever of expectancy. A memory had followed him like an offensive companion.
"She was crying when I went away. She stood looking after me and wept."
He had watched Florence unseen by her during the few minutes she hesitated white-faced and weeping in front of the theater after his farewell.