I didn't want to attract anyone's attention or help for fear of getting caught up with some well-meaning Samaritan who would delay me. Once I felt strong enough I began my search anew. I tried to advance in the interminable flow of those heading in the same direction and avoid those coming the other way. I sought the face and attention of every possible woman guised in a domino, and however often I swerved and averted my glance there were so many of them that I might have missed more than one. The impossibility of looking at all of them was a risk to which I was hardly resigned. I stepped among the masses: a harlequin appeared on one side, began to laugh, and then screamed something perhaps parodying the gondoliers. The truth is that I now saw myself as a boat leading its prow through the waters, and in this dream image my head and the prow were interchangeable. I put a hand to my forehead: I was burning hot. I began to justify this fact to myself by saying that these strangers were like the beatings of the waves against my hull, and hither came the heat, the incredible heat, and this is where I lost consciousness.
Then came days of confusion, of dreaming as I slept and as I was awake. I constantly believed that I was really awake and trusted that these dreams, as bothersome as they were persistent, would be completely dispelled. Soon enough came my disillusionment, perhaps because they were all real facts, difficult to admit, and because they preoccupied me and provoked in me – with unending fever, which was also real – new deliria.
Making everything all the more frightening and uncertain was the fact that I didn't recognize the room in which I found myself. I had never before seen the woman who attended to me with maternal efficacy, and who said to me that we were in the hotel La Fenice. The woman was called Euphemia, and I would call her Saint Euphemia.
I think that on two occasions I was visited by a Doctor Kurtz. On his first visit he explained to me that he was "just living here, at the heart of Venice," at I no longer know what number on Fiubera street, and that if I needed anything I should call him any time day or night. On his second visit, he discharged me. When he left, I noticed that he hadn't asked me for the bill, which gave me a new feeling of anxiety because I was afraid I wouldn't remember his house address, forget to pay him or not find him as if he were a person from a dream. In reality he was the typical family doctor, of the kind spoken about in other times. Perhaps he seemed a bit unreal in our day and age, but was there anything in Venice that didn't seem that way?
One afternoon I asked Euphemia how I got to the hotel La Fenice. She answered me evasively and insisted emphatically that while I had my fever, Mr. and Mrs. Massey would visit me up to two times a day. Immediately their visits returned to my memory or, better said, I saw Massey and Daniela in a crystal-clear dream. The worst part of the fever – and, in that sense, everything went on as it was – was the autonomy of my mind's images. The fact that my will had no power over them scared me as perhaps indicating the onset of madness. That afternoon I spent remembering one of the Masseys' visits, seeing them as if they were seated at my bedside and seeing Daniela eating chocolates in the opera box, then in a mask reclining over me, talking to me and my identifying her easily. Reliving or dreaming this scene perturbed me so greatly that I initially didn't hear the words of the mask. At the precise moment when I asked her to "repeat them, please," she disappeared. Massey had entered the room. Her disappearance had made me grief-stricken because I preferred keeping Daniela in my dreams and finding myself without her. But Massey's presence woke me from all delusions: a form of relief, I suppose, because I began to feel less mislaid, less lost. My friend spoke to me with his usual frankness as if I were healthy and able to confront the truth, and I tried to pass this test of confidence. Then he said something I already knew: that after she and I had parted, Daniela was not longer the same woman she was before. I said:
"I never betrayed her."
"No doubt. Yet you have to understand that she didn't believe your illness at all until she came across you lying in the street just around the corner."
I was immediately upset and said:
"And she's trying to make up for it with a good nurse and a good doctor."
"Don't ask her for what she can't give you."
"You know what it is? She doesn't understand that I love her."
He replied that I shouldn't be presumptuous and that she also loved me when I left her. I protested:
"But I was sick."
He said that love demanded the impossible, then added:
"As you're trying now with your demands that she return. She won't."
I asked him why he was so sure, and he said that this conclusion was based on his own experience. I retorted with poorly contained irritation:
"That's not the same thing."
"Of course it isn't. I didn't leave her."
I looked at him astonished because, for a moment, I thought I had heard his voice crack. He assured me that Daniela suffered greatly and that after what had happened with me, she could no longer fall in love. At least not like before.
"For the rest of her life. Do you get it?"
I did not contain myself:
"Perhaps she still loves me."
"Of course she does – like a friend, like her best friend. And you could ask her to do for you what she did for me."
Massey had regained his swagger. In the most tranquil tones he began to give horrible explanations, explanations I didn't want to hear and which in my weak condition I barely understood. He spoke about so-called carbonic children, clones, doubles. He said that Daniela in collaboration with Leclerc had developed from one of her cells – I believe he used the word cell, but I cannot be sure – children, girls identical to her. Now I think that perhaps there was only one of them – one was enough for the nightmare that Massey was narrating. She managed to accelerate its growth with such intensity that in less than ten years she had converted it into a splendid woman of seventeen or eighteen.
"Your Daniela?" I asked in unexpected relief.
"It seems incredible, but as it were, she is a woman made for me. Identical to her mother, yet – how should I say this – much more appropriate for a man like me. I have to tell you something that will seem like sacrilege: I would never swap her for the original, not for anything in the world. She is identical but at her side I live in another sort of peace, in genuine serenity. If you only knew how things really were, you would envy me."
So that he wouldn't insist that I ask Daniela to do the same for me, I said:
"I'm not interested in an identical woman. I want her and her alone."
He replied sadly but firmly:
"In that case you'll never get anything in this world. Daniela told me that when she saw your face in the bar, she understood that you still loved her. She thinks that rekindling a past love doesn't make any sense. To avoid a useless argument when she was told that she wasn't running a risk, she left on the first flight out."