A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Somewhere, not far off on the still sea that held the tiny islet in a warm embrace, a boy's voice was singing "Napoli Bella."
Vere heard the song as she sat in the sun with her face set towards Nisida and the distant peak of Ischia; and instinctively she shifted her position, and turned her head, looking towards the calm and untroubled water that stretched between her and Naples. For the voice that sang of the beautiful city was coming towards her from the beautiful city, hymning the siren it had left perhaps but two hours ago.
On his pedestal set upon rock San Francesco seemed to be attentive to the voice. He stood beyond the sheltered pool of the sea that divided the islet from the mainland, staring across at Vere as if he envied her; he who was rooted in Italy and deprived of her exquisite freedom. His beard hung down to his waist, his cross protruded over his left shoulder, and his robe of dusty grayish brown touched his feet, which had never wandered one step since he was made, and set there to keep watch over the fishermen who come to sleep under the lee of the island by night.
Now it was brilliant daylight. The sun shone vividly over the Bay of Naples, over the great and vital city, over Vesuvius, the long line of the land towards Sorrento, over Capri with its shadowy mountain, and Posilippo with its tree-guarded villas. And in the sharp radiance of May the careless voice of the fisher-boy sang the familiar song that Vere had always known and seldom heeded.
To-day, why she did not know, Vere listened to it attentively. Something in the sound of the voice caught her attention, roused within her a sense of sympathy.
Carelessness and happiness make a swift appeal to young hearts, and this voice was careless, and sounded very happy. There was a deliberate gruffness in it, a determination to be manly, which proved the vocalist to be no man. Vere knew at once that a boy was singing, and she felt that she must see him.
She got up, went into the little garden at the edge of the cliff, and looked over the wall.
There was a boat moving slowly towards her, not very far away. In it were three figures, all stripped for diving, and wearing white cotton drawers. Two were sitting on the gunwale with their knees drawn up nearly to their chins. The third was standing, and with a languid, but strong and regular movement, was propelling the boat forward with big- bladed oars. This was the singer, and as the boat drew nearer Vere could see that he had the young, lithe form of a boy.
While she watched, leaning down from her eyrie, the boat and the song stopped, and the singer let go his oars and turned to the men behind him. The boat had reached a place near the rocks that was good ground for frutti di mare.
Vere had often seen the divers in the Bay of Naples at their curious toil. Yet it never ceased to interest her. She had a passion for the sea, and for all things connected with it. Now she leaned a little lower over the wall, with her eyes fixed on the boat and its occupants.
Upon the water she saw corks floating, and presently one of the men swung himself round and sat facing the sea, with his back to the boat and his bare legs dipping into the water. The boy had dropped down to the bottom of the craft. His hands were busy arranging clothes, or tackle, and his lusty voice again rang out to the glory of "Napoli, bella Napoli." There was something infectious in his happy-go-lucky light-heartedness. Vere smiled as she listened, but there was a wistfulness in her heart. At that moment a very common desire of young and vigorous girls assailed her -- the desire to be a boy; not a boy born of rich parents, destined to the idle, aimless life of aristocratic young Neapolitans, but a brown, badly dressed, or scarcely dressed at all boy of the people.
She was often light-hearted, careless. But was she ever as light- hearted and careless as that singing boy? She supposed herself to be free. But was she, could she ever be at liberty as he was?
The man who had been dipping his feet in the sea rested one hand on the gunwale, let his body droop forward, dropped into the water, paddled for a moment, reached one of the floating corks, turned over head downwards, describing a circle which showed his chocolate-colored back arched, kicked up his feet and disappeared. The second man lounged lazily from the boat into the sea and imitated him. The boy sat still and went on singing. Vere felt disappointed. Was not he going to dive too? She wanted him to dive. If she were that boy she would go in, she felt sure of it, before the men. It must be lovely to sink down into the underworld of the sea, to rifle from the rocks their fruit, that grew thick as fruit on the trees. But the boy -- he was lazy, good for nothing but singing. She was half ashamed of him. Whimsically, and laughing to herself at her own absurdity, she lifted her two hands, brown with the sun, to her lips, and cried with all her might:
"Va dentro, pigro! Va dentro!"
As her voice died away, the boy stopped singing, sprang into the sea, kicked up his feet and disappeared.
Vere was conscious of a thrill that was like a thrill of triumph.
"He obeyed me!" she thought.
A pleasant feeling of power came to her. From her eyrie on the rock she was directing these strange sea doings. She was ruling over the men of the sea.
The empty boat swayed softly on the water, but its three former occupants were all hidden by the sea. It seemed as if they would never come up again. Vere began to hold her breath as they were holding theirs. At last a dark head rose above the surface, then another. The two men paddled for a minute, drawing the air into their lungs. But the boy did not reappear.
As the seconds passed, Vere began to feel proud of him. He was doing that which she would have tried to do had she been a boy. He was rivalling the men.
Another second slipped away -- and another. He was more than rivalling, he was beating the men.
They dived once more. She saw the sun gleam on their backs, which looked polished as they turned slowly over, almost like brown porpoises.
But the boy remained hidden beneath the veil of water.
Vere began to feel anxious. What if some accident had happened? What if he had been caught by the seaweed, or if his groping hand had been retained by some crevice of the rock? There was a pain at her heart. Her quick imagination was at work. It seemed to her as if she felt his agony, took part in his struggle to regain his freedom. She clinched her small hands and set her teeth. She held her breath, trying to feel exactly as he was feeling. And then suddenly she lifted her hands up to her face, covering her nostrils. What a horrible sensation it was, this suffocation, this pressing of the life out of the body, almost as one may push a person brutally out of a room! She could bear it no more, and she dropped her hands. As she did so the boy's dark head rose above the sea.
Vere uttered a cry of joy.
She felt as if he had returned from the dead. He was a wonderful boy.
Serenely unconscious of her enthusiasm, the boy swam slowly for a moment, breathing the air into his lungs, then serenely dived again.
"Vere!" called a woman's voice from the house -- "Vere!"
"Madre!" cried the girl in reply, but without turning away from the sea. "I am here! Do come out! I want to show you something."
On a narrow terrace looking towards Naples a tall figure appeared.
"Where are you?"
The mother smiled and left the terrace, passed through a little gate, and almost directly was standing beside the girl, saying:
"What is it? Is there a school of whales in the Bay, or have you sighted the sea-serpent coming from Capri?"
"No, no! But -- you see that boat?"
"Yes. The men are diving for frutti di mare, aren't they?"
"The men are nothing. But there is a boy who is wonderful."
"Why? What does he do?"
"He stays under water an extraordinary time. Now wait. Have you got a watch, Madre?"
"Take it out, there's a darling, and time him. I want to know -- there he is! You see!"
"Have you got your watch? Wait till he goes under! Wait a minute! There! He's gone! Now begin."
She drew into her lungs a long breath, and held it. The mother smiled, keeping her eyes obediently on the watch which lay in her hand.
There was a silence between them as the seconds passed.
"Really," began the mother presently, "he must be -- "
"Hush, Madre, hush!"
The girl had clasped her hands tightly. Her eyes never left the sea. The tick, tick of the watch was just audible in the stillness of the May morning. At last --
"There he is!" cried the girl. "Quick! How long has he been under?"
"Just fifty seconds."
"I wonder -- I'm sure it's a record. If only Gaspare were here! When will he be back from Naples with Monsieur Emile?"
"About twelve, I should think. But I doubt if they can sail." She looked out to sea, and added: "I think the wind is changing to scirocco. They may be later."
"He's gone down again!"
"I never saw you so interested in a diver before," said the mother. "What made you begin to look at the boy?"
"He was singing. I heard him, and his voice made me feel -- " She paused.
"What?" said her mother.
"I don't know. Un poco diavolesca, I'm afraid. One thing, though! It made me long to be a boy."
"Yes! Madre, tell me truly -- sea-water on your lips, as the fishermen say -- now truly, did you ever want me to be a boy?"
Hermione Delarey did not answer for a moment. She looked away over the still sea, that seemed to be slowly losing its color, and she thought of another sea, of the Ionian waters that she had loved so much. They had taken her husband from her before her child was born, and this child's question recalled to her the sharp agony of those days and nights in Sicily, when Maurice lay unburied in the Casa del Prete, and afterwards in the hospital at Marechiaro -- of other days and nights in Italy, when, isolated with the Sicilian boy, Gaspare, she had waited patiently for the coming of her child.
"Sea-water, Madre, sea-water on your lips!"
Her mother looked down at her.
"Do you think I wished it, Vere?"
"To-day I do."
"Because I wish it so much. And it seems to me as if perhaps I wish it because you once wished it for me. You thought I should be a boy?"
"I felt sure you would be a boy."
"Madre! How strange!"
The girl was looking up at her mother. Her dark eyes -- almost Sicilian eyes they were -- opened very wide, and her lips remained slightly parted after she had spoken.
"I wonder why that was?" she said at length.
"I have wondered too. It may have been that I was always thinking of your father in those days, recalling him -- well, recalling him as he had been in Sicily. He went away from me so suddenly that somehow his going, even when it had happened, for a long time seemed to be an impossibility. And I fancied, I suppose, that my child would be him in a way."
"Or never quite gone."
The girl was silent for a moment.
"Povera Madre mia!" at last she said.
But she did not seem distressed for herself. No personal grievance, no doubt of complete love assailed her. And the fact that this was so demonstrated, very quietly and very completely, the relation existing between this mother and this child.
"I wonder, now," Vere said, presently, "why I never specially wished to be a boy until to-day -- because, after all, it can't be from you that the wish came. If it had been it must have come long ago. And it didn't. It only came when I heard that boy's voice. He sings like all the boys, you know, that have ever enjoyed themselves, that are still enjoying themselves in the sun."
"I wish he would sing once more!" said Hermione.
"Perhaps he will. Look! He's getting into the boat. And the men are stopping too."
The boy was very quick in his movements. Almost before Vere had finished speaking he had pulled on his blue jersey and white trousers, and again taken the big oars in his hands. Standing up, with his face set towards the islet, he began once more to propel the boat towards it. And as he swung his body slowly to and fro he opened his lips and sang lustily once more,
"O Napoli, bella Napoli!"
Hermione and Vere sat silently listening as the song grew louder and louder, till the boat was almost in the shadow of the islet, and the boy, with a strong stroke of the left oar turned its prow towards the pool over which San Francesco watched.
"They're going into the Saint's Pool to have a siesta," said Vere. "Isn't he a splendid boy, Madre?"
As she spoke the boat was passing almost directly beneath them, and they saw its name painted in red letters on the prow, Sirena del Mare. The two men, one young, one middle-aged, were staring before them at the rocks. But the boy, more sensitive, perhaps, than they were to the watching eyes of women, looked straight up to Vere and to her mother. They saw his level rows of white teeth gleaming as the song came out from his parted lips, the shining of his eager dark eyes, full of the careless merriment of youth, the black, low-growing hair stirring in the light sea breeze about his brow, bronzed by sun and wind. His slight figure swayed with an easy motion that had the grace of perfectly controlled activity, and his brown hands gripped the great oars with a firmness almost of steel, as the boat glided under the lee of the island, and vanished from the eyes of the watchers into the shadowy pool of San Francesco.
When the boat had disappeared, Vere lifted herself up and turned round to her mother.
"Isn't he a jolly boy, Madre?"
"Yes," said Hermione.
She spoke in a low voice. Her eyes were still on the sea where the boat had passed.
"Yes," she repeated, almost as if to herself.
For the first time a little cloud went over Vere's sensitive face.
"Madre, how horribly I must have disappointed you," she said.
The mother did not break into protestations. She always treated her child with sincerity.
"Just for a moment, Vere," she answered. "And then, very soon, you made me feel how much more intimate can be the relationship between a mother and a daughter than between a mother and any son."
"Is that true, really?"
"I think it is."
"But why should that be?"
"Don't you think that Monsieur Emile can tell you much better than I? I feel all the things, you know, that he can explain."
There was a touch of something that was like a half-hidden irony in her voice.
"Monsieur Emile! Yes, I think he understands almost everything about people," said Vere, quite without irony. "But could a man explain such a thing as well as a woman? I don't think so."
"We have the instincts, perhaps, men the vocabulary. Come, Vere, I want to look over into the Saint's Pool and see what those men are doing."
"Take care, Madre, or Gaspare will be jealous."
A soft look came into Hermione's face.
"Gaspare and I know each other," she said, quietly.
"But he could be jealous -- horribly jealous."
"Of you, perhaps, Vere, but never of me. Gaspare and I have passed through too much together for anything of that kind. Nobody could ever take his place with me, and he knows it quite well."
"Gaspare's a darling, and I love him," said Vere, rather inconsequently. "Shall we look over into the Pool from the pavilion, or go down by the steps?"
"We'll look over."
They passed in through a gateway to the narrow terrace that fronted the Casa del Mare facing Vesuvius, entered the house, traversed a little hall, came out again into the air by a door on its farther side, and made their way to a small pavilion that looked upon the Pool of San Francesco. Almost immediately below, in the cool shadow of the cliff, the boat was moored. The two men, lying at full length in it, their faces buried in their hands, were already asleep. But the boy, sitting astride on the prow, with his bare feet dangling on each side of it to the clear green water, was munching slowly, and rather seriously, a hunch of yellow bread, from which he cut from time to time large pieces with a clasp knife. As he ate, lifting the pieces of bread to his mouth with the knife, against whose blade he held them with his thumb, he stared down at the depths below, transparent here almost to the sea bed. His eyes were wide with reverie. He seemed another boy, not the gay singer of five minutes ago. But then he had been in the blaze of the sun. Now he was in the shade. And swiftly he had caught the influence of the dimmer light, the lack of motion, the delicate hush at the feet of San Francesco.
This time he did not know that he was being watched. His reverie, perhaps, was too deep, or their gaze less concentrated than it had been before. And after a moment, Hermione moved away.
"You are going in, Madre?"
"Do you mind if I give something to that boy?"
"Do you mean money?"
"Oh no. But the poor thing's eating dry bread, and -- "
"And what, you puss?"
"Well, he's a very obedient boy."
"How can you know that?"
"He was idling in the boat, and I called out to him to jump into the sea, and he jumped in immediately."
"Do you think because he heard you?"
"Certainly I do."
"You conceited little creature! Perhaps he was only pleasing himself!"
"No, Madre, no. I think I should like to give him a little reward presently -- for his singing too."
"Get him a dolce, then, from Carmela, if there is one. And you can give him some cigarettes."
"I will. He'll love that. Oh dear! I wish he didn't make me dissatisfied with myself!"
Hermione bent down and kissed her child. Then she went rather quickly away from the pavilion and entered the Casa del Mare.
After her mother had gone, Vere waited for a moment, then ran lightly to the house, possessed herself of a dolce and a packet of cigarettes, and went down the steps to the Pool of San Francesco, full of hospitable intentions towards the singing boy. She found him still sitting astride of the boat's prow, not yet free of his reverie apparently; for when she gave a low call of "Pescator!" prolonging the last syllable with the emphasis and the accent of Naples, but always softly, he started, and nearly dropped into the sea the piece of bread he was lifting to his mouth. Recovering himself in time to save the bread deftly with one brown hand, he turned half round, leaning on his left arm, and stared at Vere with large, inquiring eyes. She stood by the steps and beckoned to him, lifting up the packet of cigarettes, then pointing to his sleeping companions:
"Come here for a minute!"
The boy smiled, sprang up, and leaped onto the islet. As he came to her, with the easy, swinging walk of the barefooted sea-people, he pulled up his white trousers, and threw out his chest with an obvious desire to "fare figura" before the pretty Padrona of the islet. When he reached her he lifted his hand to his bare head forgetfully, meaning to take off his cap to her. Finding that he had no cap, he made a laughing grimace, threw up his chin and, thrusting his tongue against his upper teeth and opening wide his mouth, uttered a little sound most characteristically Neapolitan -- a sound that seemed lightly condemnatory of himself. This done, he stood still before Vere, looking at the cigarettes and at the dolce.
"I've brought these for you," she said.
He did not hold out his hand, but his eyes, now devoted entirely to the cigarettes, began to shine with pleasure. Vere did not give him the presents at once. She had something to explain first.
"We mustn't wake them," she said, pointing towards the boat in which the men were sleeping. "Come a little way with me."
She retreated a few steps from the sea, followed closely by the eager boy.
"We sha'n't disturb them now," she said, stopping. "Do you know why I've brought you these?"
She stretched out her hands, with the dolce and the cigarettes.
The boy threw his chin up again and half shut his eyes.
"Because you did what I told you."
She spoke rather with the air of a little queen.
"I don't understand."
"Didn't you hear me call out to you from up there?" -- she pointed to the cliff above their heads -- "when you were sitting in the boat? I called to you to go in after the men."
"Why! Because I thought you were a lazy boy."
He laughed. All his brown face gave itself up to laughter -- eyes, teeth, lips, cheeks, chin. His whole body seemed to be laughing. The idea of his being lazy seemed to delight his whole spirit.
"You would have been lazy if you hadn't done what I told you," said Vere, emphatically, forcing her words through his merriment with determination. "You know you would."
"I never heard you call, Signorina."
He shook his head several times, bent down, dipped his fingers in the sea, put them to his lips: "I say it."
There was a note of disappointment in her voice. She felt dethroned.
"But then, you haven't earned these," she said, looking at him almost with rebuke, "if you went in of your own accord."
"I go in because it is my mestiere, Signorina," the boy said, simply. "I go in by force."
He looked at her and then again at the cigarettes. His expression said, "Can you refuse me?" There was a quite definite and conscious attempt to cajole her to generosity in his eyes, and in the pose he assumed. Vere saw it, and knew that if there had been a mirror within reach at that moment the boy would have been looking into it, frankly admiring himself.
In Italy the narcissus blooms at all seasons of the year.
She was charmed by the boy, for he did his luring well, and she was susceptible to all that was naturally picturesque. But a gay little spirit of resistance sprang up like a flame and danced within her.
She let her hands fall to her sides.
"But you like going in?"
"You enjoy diving?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and again used what seemed with him a favorite expression.
"Signorina, I must enjoy it, by force."
"You do it wonderfully. Do you know that? You do it better than the men."
Again the conscious look came into the boy's face and body, as if his soul were faintly swaggering.
"There is no one in the Bay who can dive better than I can," he answered. "Giovannino thinks he can. Well, let him think so. He would not dare to make a bet with me."
"He would lose it if he did," said Vere. "I'm sure he would. Just now you were under water nearly a minute by my mother's watch."
"Where is the Signora?" said the boy, looking round.
"Why d'you ask?"
"Why -- I can stay under longer than that."
"Now, look here!" said the girl, eagerly. "Never mind Madre! Go down once for me, won't you? Go down once for me, and you shall have the dolce and two packets of cigarettes."
"I don't want the dolce, Signorina; a dolce is for women," he said, with the complete bluntness characteristic of Southern Italians and of Sicilians.
"The cigarettes, then."
"Va bene. But the water is too shallow here."
"We'll take my boat."
She pointed to a small boat, white with a green line, that was moored close to them.
"Va bene," said the boy again.
He rolled his white trousers up above his knees, stripped off his blue jersey, leaving the thin vest that was beneath it, folded the jersey neatly and laid it on the stones, tightened his trousers at the back, then caught hold of the rope by which Vere's boat was moored to the shore and pulled the boat in.
Very carefully he helped Vere into it.
"I know a good place," he said, "where you can see right down to the bottom."
Taking the oars he slowly paddled a little way out to a deep clear pool of the sea.
"I'll go in here, Signorina."
He stood up straight, with his feet planted on each side of the boat's prow, and glanced at the water intimately, as might a fish. Then he shot one more glance at Vere and at the cigarettes, made the sign of the cross, lifted his brown arms above his head, uttered a cry, and dived cleanly below the water, going down obliquely till he was quite dim in the water.
Vere watched him with deep attention. This feat of the boy fascinated her. The water between them made him look remote, delicate and unearthly -- neither boy nor fish. His head, she could see, was almost touching the bottom. She fancied that he was actually touching bottom with his hands. Yes, he was. Bending low over the water she saw his brown fingers, stretched out and well divided, promenading over the basin of the sea as lightly and springily as the claws of a crab tip- toeing to some hiding-place. Presently he let himself down a little more, pressed his flat palms against the ground, and with the impetus thus gained made his body shoot back towards the surface feet foremost. Then bringing his body up till it was in a straight line with his feet, he swam slowly under water, curving first in this direction then in that, with a lithe ease that was enchantingly graceful. Finally, he turned over on his back and sank slowly down until he looked like a corpse lying at the bottom of the sea.
Then Vere felt a sickness of fear steal over her, and leaning over the sea till her face almost touched the water, she cried out fiercely:
"Come up! Come up! Presto! Presto!"
As the boy had seemed to obey her when she cried out to him from the summit of the cliff, so he seemed to obey her now.
When her voice died down into the sea-depths he rose from those depths, and she saw his eyes laughing, his lips laughing at her, freed from the strange veil of the water, which had cast upon him a spectral aspect, the likeness of a thing deserted by its soul.
"Did you hear me that time?" Vere said, rather eagerly.
The boy lifted his dark head from the water to shake it, drew a long breath, trod water, then threw up his chin with the touch of tongue against teeth which is the Neapolitan negative.
"You didn't! Then why did you come up?"
He swam to the boat.
"It pleased me to come."
She looked doubtful.
"I believe you are birbante," she said, slowly. "I am nearly sure you are."
The boy was just getting out, pulling himself up slowly to the boat by his arms, with his wet hands grasping the gunwale firmly. He looked at Vere, with the salt drops running down his sunburnt face, and dripping from his thick, matted hair to his strong neck and shoulders. Again his whole face laughed, as, nimbly, he brought his legs from the water and stood beside her.
"Yes. Are you from Naples?"
"I come from Mergellina, Signorina."
Vere looked at him half-doubtfully, but still with innocent admiration. There was something perfectly fearless and capable about him that attracted her.
He rowed in to shore.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"Sixteen years old, Signorina."
"I am sixteen, too."
They reached the islet, and Vere got out. The boy followed her, fastened the boat, and moved away a few steps. She wondered why, till she saw him stop in a sun-patch and let the beams fall full upon him.
"You aren't afraid of catching cold?" she asked.
He threw up his chin. His eyes went to the cigarettes.
"Yes," said Vere, in answer to the look, "you shall have one. Here!"
She held out the packet. Very carefully and neatly the boy, after holding his right hand for a moment to the sun to get dry, drew out a cigarette.
"Oh, you want a match!"
He sprang away and ran lightly to the boat. Without waking his companions he found a matchbox and lit the cigarette. Then he came back, on the way stopping to get into his jersey.
Vere sat down on a narrow seat let into the rock close to the sun- patch. She was nursing the dolce on her knee.
"You won't have it?" she asked.
He gave her his usual negative, again stepping full into the sun.
"Well, then, I shall eat it. You say a dolce is for women!"
"Si, Signorina," he answered, quite seriously.
She began to devour it slowly, while the boy drew the cigarette smoke into his lungs voluptuously.
"And you are only sixteen?" she asked.
"As young as I am! But you look almost a man."
"Signorina, I have always worked. I am a man."
He squared his shoulders. She liked the determination, the resolution in his face; and she liked the face, too. He was a very handsome boy, she thought, but somehow he did not look quite Neapolitan. His eyes lacked the round and staring impudence characteristic of many Neapolitans she had seen. There was something at times impassive in their gaze. In shape they were long, and slightly depressed at the corners by the cheeks, and they had full, almost heavy, lids. The features of the boy were small and straight, and gave no promise of eventual coarseness. He was splendidly made. When Vere looked at him she thought of an arrow. Yet he was very muscular, and before he dived she had noticed that on his arms the biceps swelled up like smooth balls of iron beneath the shining brown skin.
"What month were you born in?" she asked.
"Signorina, I believe I was born in March. I believe I was sixteen last March."
"Then I am older than you are!"
This seemed to the boy a matter of indifference, though it was evidently exercising the girl beside him. She had finished the dolce now, and he was smoking the last fraction of an inch of the cigarette, economically determined to waste none of it, even though he burnt his fingers.
"Have another cigarette," Vere added, after a pause during which she considered him carefully. "You can't get anything more out of that one."
He took it eagerly.
"Do tell me your name, won't you?" Vere went on.
"Ruffo -- that's a nice name. It sounds strong and bold. And you live at Mergellina?"
"Si, Signorina. But I wasn't born there. I wasn't born in Naples at all."
"Where were you born?"
"In America, Signorina, near New York. I am a Sicilian."
"A Sicilian, are you!"
"I am a little bit Sicilian, too; only a little tiny bit -- but still -- "
She waited to see the effect upon him. He looked at her steadily with his long bright eyes.
"You are Sicilian, Signorina?"
"My great-grandmother was."
His voice sounded incredulous.
"Don't you believe me?" she cried, rather hotly.
"Ma si, Signorina! Only -- that's not very Sicilian, if the rest is English. You are English, Signorina, aren't you?"
"The rest of me is. Are you all Sicilian?"
"Signorina, my mother is Sicilian."
"And your father, too?"
"Signorina, my father is dead," he said, in a changed voice. "Now I live with my mother and my step-father. He -- Patrigno -- he is Neapolitan."
There was a movement in the boat. The boy looked round.
"I must go back to the boat, Signorina," he said.
"Oh, must you?" Vere said. "What a pity! But look, they are really still asleep."
"I must go back, Signorina," he protested.
"You want to sleep, too, perhaps?"
He seized the excuse.
"Si, Signorina. Being under the sea so much -- it tires the head and the eyes. I want to sleep, too."
His face, full of life, denied his words, but Vere only said:
"Here are the cigarettes."
"And I promised you another packet. Well, wait here -- just here, d'you see? -- under the bridge, and I'll throw it down, and you must catch it."
He took his stand on the spot she pointed out, and she disappeared up the steps towards the house.
Hermione heard Vere's voice calling below a moment later.
"What is it?"
There was a quick step on the stairs, and the girl ran in.
"One more packet of cigarettes -- may I? It's instead of the dolce. Ruffo says only women eat sweet things."
"Yes, that's his name. He's been diving for me. You never saw anything like it! And he's a Sicilian. Isn't it odd? And sixteen -- just as I am. May I have the cigarettes for him?"
"Yes, of course. In that drawer there's a whole box of the ones Monsieur Emile likes."
"There would be ten cigarettes in a packet. I'll give him ten."
She counted them swiftly out.
"There! And I'll make him catch them all, one by one. It will be more fun than throwing only a packet. Addio, mia bella Madre! Addi-io! Addi-io!"
And singing the words to the tune of "Addio, mia bella Napoli," she flitted out of the room and down the stairs.
A minute later she was leaning over the bridge to the boy, who stood sentinel below. He looked up, and saw her laughing face full of merry mischief, and prepared to catch the packet she had promised him.
"Ruffo, I'm so sorry, but I can't find another packet of cigarettes."
The boy's bright face changed, looked almost sad, but he called up:
"Non fa niente, Signorina!" He stood still for a moment, then made a gesture of salutation, and added; "Thank you, Signorina. A rivederci!"
He moved to go to the boat, but Vere cried out, quickly:
"Wait, Ruffo! Can you catch well?"
"Look out now!"
Her arm was thrust out over the bridge, and Ruffo, staring up, saw a big cigarette -- a cigarette such as he had never seen -- in her small fingers. Quickly he made a receptacle of his joined hands, his eyes sparkling and his lips parted with happy anticipation.
The cigarette fell and was caught.
A second fell. But this time Ruffo was unprepared, and it dropped on the rock by his bare feet.
"Stupido!" laughed the girl.
"Ma, Signorina -- !"
It had become a game between them, and continued to be a game until all the ten cigarettes had made their journey through the air.
Vere would not let Ruffo know when a cigarette was coming, but kept him on the alert, pretending, holding it poised above him between his finger and thumb until even his eyes blinked from gazing upward; then dropping it when she thought he was unprepared, or throwing it like a missile. But she soon knew that she had found her match in the boy. And when he caught the tenth and last cigarette in his mouth she clapped her hands, and cried out so enthusiastically that one of the men in the boat heaved himself up from the bottom, and, choking down a yawn, stared with heavy amazement at the young virgin of the rocks, and uttered a "Che Diavolo!" under his stiff mustache.
Vere saw his astonishment, and swiftly, with a parting wave of her hand to Ruffo, she disappeared, leaving her protégé to run off gayly with his booty to his comrades of the Sirena del Mare.