A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
Vere was outside under the stars. When she had said good-night and had slipped away, it was with the desire to be alone, to see no one, to speak with no one till next morning. But the desires of the young change quickly, and Vere's presently changed.
She came out of the house, and passing over the bridge that connected together the two cliffs of which the islet was composed, reached the limit of the islet. At the edge of the precipice was a seat, and there she sat down. For some time she rested motionless, absorbing the beauty and the silence of the night. She was looking towards Ischia. She wished to look that way, to forget all about Naples, the great city which lay behind her.
Here were the ancient caves darkening with their mystery the silver wonder of the sea. Here the venerable shore stretched towards lands she did not know. They called to the leaping desires of her heart as the city did not call. They carried her away.
Often, from this seat, on dark and moonless nights, she had watched the fishermen's torches flaring below her in the blackness, and had thrilled at the mystery of their occupation, and had imagined them lifting from the sea strange and wonderful treasures, that must change the current of their lives: pearls such as had never before been given to the breasts of women, caskets that had lain for years beneath the waters, bottles in which were stoppered up magicians who, released, came forth in smoke, as in the Eastern story.
Once she had spoken of this last imagination to Gaspare, and had seen his face suddenly change and look excited, vivid, and then sad. She had asked him why he looked like that, and, after a moment of hesitation, he had told her how, long ago, before she was born, his Padrone had read to him such a tale as they lay together upon a mountain side in Sicily. Vere had eagerly questioned him, and he, speaking with vehemence in the heat of his recollection, had brought before her a picture of that scene in his simple life; had shown her how he lay, and how the Padrone lay, he listening, the Padrone, book in hand, reading about the "mago africano." He had even told Vere of their conversation afterwards, and how he had said that he would always be free, that he would never be "stoppered up," like the "mago africano." And when she had wondered at his memory growing still more excited he had told her many other things of which his Padrone and he had talked together, and had made her feel the life of the past on Monte Amato as no cultured person, she believed, could ever have made her feel it. But when she had sought to question him about her father's death he had become silent, and she had seen that it would be impossible to make him obey her and tell her all the details that she longed to know.
To-night Vere could see no fishermen at work. The silver of the sea below her was unbroken by the black forms of gliding boats, the silence was unbroken by calling voices. And to-night she was glad that it was so; for she was in the mood to be quite alone. As she sat there very still she seemed to herself to be drawing nearer to the sea, and drawing the sea to her. Indeed, she was making some such imaginative attempt as her mother was making in the house -- to become, in fancy at least, one with something outside of her, to be fused with the sea, as her mother desired to be fused with her. But Vere's endeavor was not tragic, like her mother's, but was almost tenderly happy. She thought she felt the sea responding to her as she responded to the sea. And she was very glad in that thought.
Presently she began to wonder about the fishermen.
How did they feel about the sea? To her the sea was romantic and personal. Was it romantic and personal to them? They were romantic to her because of their connection with the sea, which had imprinted upon them something of itself, showed forth in them, by means of them, something surely of its own character; but probably, almost certainly, she supposed, they were unconscious of this. They lived by the sea. Perhaps they thought of it as of a vast money-bag, into which they dipped their hands to get enough to live by. Or perhaps they thought of it as an enemy, against which they lived in perpetual war, from which they wrung, as it were at the sword's point, a poor and precarious booty.
As she sat thinking about this Vere began to change in her desire, to wish there were some fishermen out to-night about the islet, and that she could have speech of them. She would like to find out from one of them how they regarded the sea.
She smiled as she imagined a conversation between herself and some strong, brown, wild Neapolitan, she questioning and he replying. How he would misunderstand her! He would probably think her mad. And yet sometimes the men of the sea in their roughness are imaginative. They are superstitious. But a man -- no, she could not question a man. Her mind went to the boy diver, Ruffo. She had often thought about Ruffo during the last three days. She had expected to see him again. He had said nothing about returning to the islet, but she had felt sure he would return, if only in the hope of being given some more cigarettes. Boys in his position, she knew well, do not get a present of Khali Targa cigarettes every day of the week. How happy he had looked when he was smoking them! She remembered exactly the expression of his brown face now, as she sat watching the empty, moonlit sea. It was not greedy. It was voluptuous. She remembered seeing somewhere a picture of some Sultan of the East reclining on a divan and smoking a chibouk. She thought Ruffo had looked rather like the Sultan, serenely secure of all earthly enjoyment. At that moment the Pool of San Francesco had stood to the boy for the Paradise of Mahomet.
But Ruffo had not come again.
Each morning Vere had listened for his voice, had looked down upon the sea for his boat, but all in vain. On the third day she had felt almost angry with him unreasonably. But then she remembered that he was not his own master, not the owner of the boat. Of course, he could not do what he liked. If he could -- well, then he would have come back. She was positive of that.
If he ever did come back, she said to herself now, she would question him about the sea. She would get at his thoughts about the sea, at his feelings. She wondered if they could possibly be at all like hers. It was unlikely, she supposed. They two were so very different. And yet -- !
She smiled to herself again, imagining question and answer with Ruffo. He would not think her mad, even if she puzzled him. They understood each other. Even her mother had said that they seemed to be in sympathy. And that was true. Difference of rank need not, indeed cannot, destroy the magic chain if it exists, cannot prevent its links from being forged. She knew that her mother was in sympathy with Gaspare, and Gaspare with her mother. So there was no reason why she should not be in sympathy with Ruffo.
If he were here to-night she would begin at once to talk to him about the sea. But of course he would never come at night to the islet.
Vere knew that the Neapolitan fishermen usually keep each to his own special branch of the common profession. By this time of night, no doubt, Ruffo was in his home at the Mergellina, sitting in the midst of his family, or was strolling with lively companions of his own age, or, perhaps, was fast asleep in bed.
Vere felt that it would be horrible to go to bed on such a night, to shut herself in from the moon and the sea. The fishermen who slept in the shelter of the Saint's Pool were enviable. They had the stars above them, the waters about them, the gentle winds to caress them as they lay in the very midst of romance.
She wondered whether there were any boats in the Saint's Pool to-night. She had not been to see. A few steps and she could look over. She got up and went back to the bridge, treading softly because she was thinking of repose. There she stopped and looked down. She saw two boats on the far side of the Pool almost at the feet of the Saint. The men in them must be lying down, for Vere could see only the boats, looking black, and filled with a confused blackness -- of sails probably, and sleeping men. The rest of the pool was empty, part of it bright with the radiance of the moon, part of it shading away to the mysterious dimness of still water at night under the lee of cliffs.
For some time the girl stood, watching. Just at that moment her active brain almost ceased to work, stilled by the reverie that is born of certain night visions. Without these motionless boats the Pool of the Saint would have been calm. With them, its stillness seemed almost ineffably profound. The hint of life bound in the cores of sleep, prisoner to rest, deepened Nature's impression and sent Vere into reverie. There were no trees here. No birds sang, for although it was the month of the nightingales, none ever came to sing to San Francesco. No insects chirped or hummed. All was stark and almost fearfully still as in a world abandoned; and the light fell on the old faces of the rocks faintly, as if it feared to show the ravages made in them by the storms of the long ages they had confronted and defied.
Vere had a sensation of sinking very slowly down into a gulf, as she stood there, not falling, but sinking, down into some world of quiet things, farther and farther down, leaving all the sounds of life far up in light above her. And descent was exquisite, easy and natural, and, indeed, inevitable. Nothing called her from below. For where she was going there were no voices. Yet she felt that at last there would be something to receive her; mystical stillness, mystical peace.
A silky sound -- far off -- checked that imaginative descent that seemed so physical, first merely arrested it, then, always silky, but growing louder, took her swiftly and softly back to the summit she had left. Now she was conscious again of herself and of the night. She was listening. The sound that had broken her reverie was the gentle sweep of big-bladed oars through the calm sea. As she knew this she saw, away to the right, a black shadow stealing across the silver waste beyond the islet. It pushed its way to the water at her very feet, and chose that as its anchorage.
The figure of the rower stood up straight and black for a moment, looking lonely in the night.
Vere could not see his face, but she knew at once that he was Ruffo. Her inclination was to bend down with the soft cry of "Pescator!" which she had sent to him on the sunny morning of their meeting. She checked it, why she scarcely knew, in obedience to some imperious prompting of her nature. But she kept her eyes on him. And they were full of will. She was willing him not to lie down in the bottom of the boat and sleep. She knew that he and his companions must have come to the pool at that hour to rest. There were three other men in the boat. Two had been sitting on the gunwale of it, and now lay down. The third, who was in the bows, exchanged some words with the rower, who replied. Vere could hear the sound of their voices, but not what they said. The conversation continued for two or three minutes, while Ruffo was taking in the oars and laying them one on each side of the boat. When he had done this he stretched up his arms to their full length above his head, and a loud noise of a prolonged yawn came up to Vere, and nearly made her laugh. Long as it was, it seemed to her to end abruptly. The arms dropped down.
She felt sure he had seen her watching, and stayed quite still, wondering what he was going to do. Perhaps he would tell the other man. She found herself quickly hoping that he would not. That she was there ought to be their little secret.
All this that was passing through her mind was utterly foreign to any coquetry. Vere had no more feeling of sex in regard to Ruffo than she would have had if she had been a boy herself. The sympathy she felt with him was otherwise founded, deep down in mysteries beyond the mysteries of sex.
Again Ruffo and the man who had not lain down spoke together. But the man did not look up to Vere. He must have looked if his attention had been drawn to the fact that she was there -- a little spy upon the men of the sea, considering them from her eminence.
Ruffo had not told. She was glad.
Presently the man moved from his place in the bows. She saw him lift a leg to get over into the stern, treading carefully in order not to trample on his sleeping companions. Then his black figure seemed to shut up like a telescope. He had become one with the dimness in the boat, was no longer detached from it. Only Ruffo was still detached. Was he going to sleep, too?
A certain tenseness came into Vere's body. She kept her eyes, which she had opened very wide, fixed upon the black figure. It remained standing. The head moved. He was certainly looking up. She realized that he was not sleepy, despite that yawn, -- that he would like to speak to her -- to let her know that he knew she was there.
Perhaps he did not dare to -- or, not that, perhaps fishermen's etiquette, already enshrined in his nature, did not permit him to come ashore. The boat was so close to the land that he could step on to it easily.
She leaned down.
It was scarcely more than a whisper. But the night was so intensely still that he heard it. Or, if not that, he felt it. His shadow -- so it seemed in the shadow of the cliff -- flitted out of the boat and disappeared.
He was coming -- to have that talk about the sea.