A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
"Buona sera, Signorina."
"Buona sera, Ruffo."
She did not feign surprise when he came up to her.
"So you fish at night?" she said. "I thought the divers for frutti di mare did not do that."
"Signorina, I have been taken into the boat of Mandano Giuseppe."
He spoke rather proudly, and evidently thought she would know of whom he was telling her. "I fish for sarde now."
"Is that better for you?"
"Si, Signorina, of course."
"I am glad of that."
He stood beside her quite at his ease. To-night he had on a cap, but it was pushed well off his brow, and showed plenty of his thick, dark hair.
"When did you see me?" she asked.
"Almost directly, Signorina."
"And what made you look up?"
"Why did you look up directly?"
"Non lo so, Signorina."
"I think it was because I made you feel that I was there," she said. "I think you obey me without knowing it. You did the same the other day."
"Have you smoked all the cigarettes?"
She saw him smile, showing his teeth.
"Si, Signorina, long ago. I smoked them the same day."
"You shouldn't. It is bad for a boy, and you are younger than I am, you know."
The smile grew wider.
"What are you laughing at?"
"I don't know, Signorina."
"Do you think it is funny to be younger than I am?"
"I suppose you feel quite as if you were a man?"
"If I could not work as well as a man Giuseppe would not have taken me into his boat. But of course with a lady it is all different. A lady does not have to work. Poor women get old very soon, Signorina."
"Your mother, is she old?"
"My mamma! I don't know. Yes, I suppose she is rather old."
He seemed to be considering.
"Si, Signorina, my mamma is rather old. But then she has had a lot of trouble, my poor mamma!"
"I am sorry. Is she like you?"
"I don't know, Signorina; I have never thought about it. What does it matter?"
"It may not matter, but such things are interesting sometimes."
"Are they, Signorina?"
Then, evidently with a polite desire to please her and carry on the conversation in the direction indicated by her, he added:
"And are you like your Signora Madre, Signorina?"
Vere felt inclined to smile, but she answered, quite seriously.
"I don't believe I am. My mother is very tall, much taller than I am, and not so dark. My eyes are much darker than hers and quite different."
"I think you have the eyes of a Sicilian, Signorina."
Again Vere was conscious of a simple effort on the part of the boy to be gallant. And he had a good memory too. He had not forgotten her three-days'-old claim to Sicilian blood. The night mitigated the blunders of his temperament, it seemed. Vere could not help being pleased. There was something in her that ever turned towards the Sicily she had never seen. And this boy had not seen Sicily either.
"Isn't it odd that you and I have never seen Sicily?" she said, "and that both our mothers have? And mine is all English, you know."
"My mamma would be very glad to kiss the hand of your Signora Mother," replied Ruffo. "I told her about the kind ladies who gave me cigarettes, and that the Signorina had never seen her father. When she heard that the Signorina was born after her father was dead, and that her father had died in Sicily, she said -- my poor mamma! -- 'If ever I see the Signorina's mother, I shall kiss her hand. She was a widow before she was a mother; may the Madonna comfort her.' My mamma spoke just like that, Signorina. And then she cried for a long time. But when Patrigno came in she stopped crying at once."
"Did she? Why was that?"
"I don't know, Signorina."
Vere was silent for a moment. Then she said:
"Is your Patrigno kind to you, Ruffo?"
The boy looked at her, then swiftly looked away.
"Kind enough, Signorina," he answered.
Then they both kept silence. They were standing side by side thus, looking down rather vaguely at the Saint's pool, when another boat floated gently into it, going over to the far side, where already lay the two boats at the feet of San Francesco. Vere saw it with indifference. She was accustomed to the advent of the fishermen at this hour. Ruffo stared at it for a moment with a critical inquiring gaze. The boat drew up near the land and stopped. There was a faint murmur of voices, then silence again.
The Marchesino had told the two sailors that they could have an hour or two of sleep before beginning to fish.
The men lay down, shut their eyes, and seemed to sleep at once. But Artois and the Marchesino, lounging on a pile of rugs deftly arranged in the bottom of the stern of the boat, smoked their cigars in a silence laid upon them by the night silence of the Pool. Neither of them had as yet caught sight of the figures of Vere and Ruffo, which were becoming more clearly relieved as the moon rose and brought a larger world within its radiance, of its light. Artois was satisfied that the members of the Casa del Mare were in bed. As they approached the house he had seen no light from its windows. The silence about the islet was profound, and gave him the impression of being in the very heart of the night. And this impression lasted, and so tricked his mind that he forgot that the hour was not really late. He lay back, lazily smoking his cigar, and drinking in the stark beauty round about him, a beauty delicately and mysteriously fashioned by the night, which, as by a miracle, had laid hold of bareness and barren ugliness, and turned them to its exquisite purposes, shrinking from no material in its certainty of its own power to transform.
The Marchesino, too, lay back, with his great, gray eyes staring about him. While the feelings of his friend had moved towards satisfaction, his had undergone a less pleasant change. His plan seemed to be going awry, and he began to think of himself as of a fool. What had he anticipated? What had he expected of this expedition? He had been, as usual, politely waiting on destiny. He had come to the islet in the hope that Destiny would meet him there and treat him with every kindness and hospitality, forestalling his desires. But lo! He was abandoned in a boat among a lot of taciturn men, while the object of all his thoughts and pains, his plots and hopes, was, doubtless, hermetically sealed in the home on the cliff above him.
Several Neapolitan words, familiar in street circles, ran through his mind, but did not issue from his lips, and his face remained perfectly calm -- almost seraphic in expression.
Out of the corners of his eyes he stole a glance at "caro Emilio." He wished his friend would follow the example of the men and go to sleep. He wanted to feel himself alone in wakefulness and unobserved. For he was not resigned to an empty fate. The voices of the laughing women at the Antico Giuseppone still rang through his memory. He was adventurous by nature. What he would do if Emilio would only slumber he did not know. But it was certain he would do something. The islet, dark and distinct in outline beneath the moon, summoned him. Was he a Neapolitan and not beneath her window? It was absurd. And he was not at all accustomed to control himself or to fight his own impulses. For the moment "caro Emilio" became "maledetto Emilio" in his mind. Sleepless as Providence, Emilio reclined there. A slightly distracted look came into the Marchesino's eyes as he glanced away from his friend and stared once more at the islet, which he longed so ardently to invade.
This time he saw the figures of Vere and Ruffo above him in the moonlight, which now sharply relieved them. He gazed. And as he gazed they moved away from the bridge, going towards the seat where Vere had been before she had seen Ruffo.
Vere had on a white dress.
The heart of the Marchesino leaped. He was sure it was the girl of the white boat. Then the inhabitants of the house on the islet were not asleep, were not even in bed. They -- she at least, and that was all he cared for -- were out enjoying the moon and the sea. How favorable was the night! But who was with her?
The Marchesino had very keen eyes. And now he used them with almost fierce intensity. But Ruffo was on the far side of Vere. It was not possible to discern more than that he was male, and taller than the girl in the white dress.
Jealousy leaped up in the Marchesino, that quick and almost frivolous jealousy which, in the Southerner, can so easily deepen into the deadliness that leads to crime. Not for a moment did he doubt that the man with Vere was a lover. This was a blow which, somehow, he had not expected. The girl in the white boat had looked enchantingly young. When he had played the seal for her she had laughed like a child. He -- even he, who believed in no one's simplicity, made sceptical by his own naughtiness so early developed towards a fine maturity! -- had not expected anything like this. And these English, who pride themselves upon their propriety, their stiffness, their cold respectability! These English misses!
It was out of the Marchesino's mouth before he was aware of it, an exclamation of cynical disgust.
"What's the matter, amico mio?" said Artois, in a low voice.
"Niente!" said the Marchesino, recollecting himself. "Are not you going to sleep?"
"Yes," said Artois, throwing away his cigar end. "I am. And you?"
The Marchesino was surprised by his friend's reply. He did not understand the desire of Artois not to have his sense of the romance of their situation broken in upon by conversation just then. The romance of women was not with Artois, but the romance of Nature was. He wanted to keep it. And now he settled himself a little lower in the boat, under the shadow of its side, and seemed to be giving himself to sleep.
The Marchesino thanked the Madonna, and made his little pretence of slumber too, but he kept his head above the gunwale, leaning it on his arm with a supporting cushion beneath; and though he really did shut both his eyes for a short time, to deceive caro Emilio, he very soon opened them again, and gazed towards the islet. He could not see the two figures now. Rage seized him. First the two men at the Antico Giuseppone, and now this man on the islet! Every one was companioned. Every one was enjoying the night as it was meant to be enjoyed. He -- he alone was the sport of "il maledetto destino." He longed to commit some act of violence. Then he glanced cautiously round without moving.
The two sailors were sleeping. He could hear their regular and rather loud breathing. Artois lay quite still. The Marchesino turned his body very carefully so that he might see the face of his friend. As he did so Artois, who had been looking straight up at the stars, shut his eyes, and simulated sleep. His suspicion of Doro, that this expedition had been undertaken with some hidden motive, was suddenly renewed by this sly and furtive movement, which certainly suggested purpose and the desire to conceal it.
So caro Emilio slept very peacefully, and breathed with the calm regularity of a sucking child. But in this sleep of a child he was presently aware that the boat was moving -- in fact was being very adroitly moved. Though his eyes were shut he felt the moonlight leave his face presently, and knew they were taken by the shadow of the islet. Then the boat stopped.
A moment later Artois was aware that the boat contained three people instead of four.
The Marchesino had left it to take a little stroll on shore.
Artois lay still. He knew how light is the slumber of seamen in a boat with the wide airs about them, and felt sure that the sailors must have been waked by the tour of the boat across the Pool. Yet they had not moved, and they continued apparently to sleep. He guessed that a glance from their "Padrone" had advised them not to wake. And this was the truth.
At the first movement of the boat both the men had looked up and had received their message from the Marchesino's expressive eyes. They realized at once that he had some design which he wished to keep from the knowledge of his friend, the forestiere. Of course it must be connected with a woman. They were not particularly curious. They had always lived in Naples, and knew their aristocracy. So they merely returned the Marchesino's glance with one of comprehension and composed themselves once more to repose.
The Marchesino did not come back, and presently Artois lifted himself up a little, and looked out.
The boat was right under the lee of the islet, almost touching the shore, but the sea was so perfectly still that it scarcely moved, and was not in any danger of striking against the rock. The sailors had seen that, too, before they slept again.
Artois sat quite up. He wondered a good deal what his friend was doing. One thing was certain -- he was trespassing. The islet belonged to Hermione, and no one had any right to be upon it without her invitation. Artois had that right, and was now considering whether or not he should use it, follow the Marchesino and tell him -- what he had not told him -- that the owner of the islet was the English friend of whom he had spoken.
For Artois the romance of the night in which he had been revelling was now thoroughly disturbed. He looked again towards the two sailors, suspecting their sleep. Then he got up quietly, and stepped out of the boat onto the shore. His doing so gave a slight impetus to the boat, which floated out a little way into the Pool. But the men in it seemed to sleep on.
Artois stood still for a moment at the edge of the sea. His great limbs were cramped, and he stretched them. Then he went slowly towards the steps. He reached the plateau before the Casa del Mare. The Marchesino was not there. He looked up at the house. As he did so the front door opened and Hermione came out, wrapped in a white lace shawl.
"Emile?" she said, stopping with her hand on the door. "Why -- how extraordinary!"
She came to him.
"Have you come to pay us a nocturnal visit, or -- there's nothing the matter?"
"No," he said.
For perhaps the first time in his life he felt embarrassed with Hermione. He took her hand.
"I don't believe you meant me to know you were here," she said, guided by the extraordinary intuition of woman.
"To tell the truth," he answered, "I did not expect to see you. I thought you were all in bed."
"Oh no. I have been on the terrace and in the garden. Vere is out somewhere. I was just going to look for her."
There was a distinct question in her prominent eyes as she fixed them on him.
"No, I haven't seen Vere," he said, answering it.
"Are you alone?" she asked, abruptly.
"No. You remember my mentioning my friend, the Marchesino Panacci? Well, he is with me. We were going to fish. The fishermen suggested our sleeping in the Saint's Pool for an hour or two first. I found Doro gone and came to look for him."
There was still a faint embarrassment in his manner.
"I believe you have seen him," he added. "He was bathing the other day when you were passing in the boat, -- I think it was you. Did you see a young man who did some tricks in the water?"
"Oh yes, an impudent young creature. He pretended to be a porpoise and a seal. He made us laugh. Vere was delighted with him. Is that your friend? Where can he be?"
"Where is Vere?" said Artois.
Their eyes met, and suddenly his embarrassment passed away.
"You don't mean that -- ?"
"My friend, you know what these Neapolitans are. Doro came back from his bathe raving about Vere. I did not tell him I knew her. I think -- I am sure he has guessed it, and much more. Let us go and find him. It seems you are to know him. E il destino."
"You don't want me to know him?" she said, as they turned away from the house.
"I don't know that there is any real reason why you should not. But my instinct was against the acquaintance. Where can Vere be? Does she often come out alone at night?"
"Very often. Ah! There she is, beyond the bridge, and -- is that the Marchesino Panacci with her? Why -- no, it's -- "
"It is Ruffo," Artois said.
Vere and the boy were standing near the edge of the cliff and talking earnestly together, but as Hermione and Artois came towards them they turned round as if moved by a mutual impulse. Ruffo took off his cap and Vere cried out:
She came up to him quickly. He noticed that her face looked extraordinarily alive, that her dark eyes were fiery with expression.
"Good-evening, Vere," he said.
He took her small hand.
"Buona sera, Ruffo," he added.
He looked from one to the other, and saw the perfect simplicity of both.
"Tell me, Vere," he said. "Have you seen any one on the islet to-night?"
"Yes, just now. Why? What made you think so?"
"A man -- a gentleman came. I told him he was trespassing."
Artois smiled. Ruffo stood by, his cap in his hand, looking attentively at Vere, who had spoken in French. She glanced at him, and suddenly broke into Italian.
"He was that absurd boy we saw in the sea, Madre, the other day, who pretended to be a seal, and made me laugh. He reminded me of it, and asked me if I didn't recognize him."
"What did you say?"
"I said 'No' and 'Good-night.' "
"And did he go?" asked Artois.
"No, he would not go. I don't know what he wanted. He looked quite odd, as if he were feeling angry inside, and didn't wish to show it. And he began trying to talk. But as I didn't really know him -- after all, laughing at a man because he pretends to be a seal is scarcely knowing him, is it, Monsieur Emile?"
"No," he said, smiling at her smile.
"I said 'good-night' again in such a way that he had to go."
"And so he went!" said Artois.
"Yes. Do you know him, Monsieur Emile?"
"Yes. He came with me to-night."
A little look of penitence came into the girl's face.
"Oh, I am sorry."
"Why should you be?"
"Well, he began saying something about knowing friends of mine, or -- I didn't really listen very much, because Ruffo was telling me all about the sea -- and I thought it was all nonsense. He was absurdly complimentary first, you see! and so, when he began about friends, I only said 'good-night' again. And -- and I'm really afraid I turned my back upon him. And now he's a friend of yours. Monsieur Emile! I am sorry!"
Already the Marchesino had had that lesson of which Artois had thought in Naples. Artois laughed aloud.
"It doesn't matter, Vere. My friend is not too sensitive."
"Buona sera, Signorina! Buona sera, Signora! Buon riposo!"
It was Ruffo preparing to go, feeling that he scarcely belonged to this company, although he looked in no way shy, and had been smiling broadly at Vere's narrative of the discomfiture of the Marchesino.
"Ruffo," said Hermione, "you must wait a moment."
"I am going to give you a few more cigarettes."
Vere sent a silent but brilliant "Thank you" to her mother. They all walked towards the house.
Vere and her mother were in front, Artois and Ruffo behind. Artois looked very closely and even curiously at the boy.
"Have I ever seen you before?" he asked, as they came to the bridge.
"Not the other morning. But have we ever met in Naples?"
"I have seen you pass by sometimes at the Mergellina, Signore."
"That must be it then!" Artois thought, "I have seen you there without consciously noticing you."
"You live there?" he said.
"Si, Signore; I live with my mamma and my Patrigno."
"Your Patrigno," Artois said, merely to continue the conversation. "Then your father is dead?"
"Si, Signore, my Babbo is dead."
They were on the plateau now, before the house.
"If you will wait a moment, Ruffo, I will fetch the cigarettes," said Hermione.
"Let me go, Madre," said Vere, eagerly.
"Very well, dear."
The girl ran into the house. As she disappeared they heard a quick step, and the Marchesino came hurrying up from the sea. He took off his hat when he saw Hermione, and stopped.
"I was looking for you, Emilio."
He kept his hat in his hand. Evidently he had recovered completely from his lesson. He looked gay and handsome. Artois realized how very completely the young rascal's desires were being fulfilled. But of course the introduction must be made. He made it quietly.
"Marchese Isidoro Panacci -- Mrs. Delarey."
The Marchesino bent and kissed Hermione's hand. As he did so Vere came out of the house, her hands full of Khali Targa cigarettes, her face eager at the thought of giving pleasure to Ruffo.
"This is my daughter, Vere," Hermione said. "Vere, this is the Marchese Isidoro Panacci, a friend of Monsieur Emile's."
The Marchesino went to kiss Vere's hand, but she said:
"I'm very sorry -- look!"
She showed him that they were full of cigarettes, and so escaped from the little ceremony. For those watching it was impossible to know whether she wished to avoid the formal salutation of the young man's lips or not.
"Here, Ruffo!" she said. She went up to the boy. "Put your hands together."
Ruffo gladly obeyed. He curved his brown hands into a cup, and Vere filled this cup with the big cigarettes, while Hermione, Artois, and the Marchesino looked on; each one of them with a fixed attention which -- surely -- the action scarcely merited. But there was something about those two, Vere and the boy, which held the eyes and the mind.
"Good-night, Ruffo. You must carry them to the boat. They'll be crushed if you put them into your trousers-pocket."
He waited a moment. He wanted to salute them, but did not know how to. That was evident. His expressive eyes, his whole face told it to them.
Artois suddenly set his lips together in his beard. For an instant it seemed to him that the years had rolled back, that he was in London, in Caminiti's restaurant, that he saw Maurice Delarey, with the reverential expression on his face that had been so pleasing. Yes, the boy Ruffo looked like him in that moment, as he stood there, wishing to do his devoir, to be polite, but not knowing how to.
"Never mind, Ruffo," It was Vere's voice. "We understand! Or -- shall I?" A laughing look came into her face. She went up to the boy and, with a delicious, childish charm and delicacy, that quite removed the action from impertinence, she took his cap off. "There!" She put it gently back on his dark hair. "Now you've been polite to us. Buona notte!"
"Buona notte, Signorina."
The boy ran off, half laughing, and carrying carefully the cigarettes in his hands still held together like a cup.
Hermione and Artois were smiling. Artois felt something for Vere just then that he could hardly have explained, master though he was of explanation of the feelings of man. It seemed to him that all the purity, and the beauty, and the whimsical unselfconsciousness, and the touchingness of youth that is divine, appeared in that little, almost comic action of the girl. He loved her for the action, because she was able to perform it just like that. And something in him, suddenly adored youth in a way that seemed new to his heart.
"Well," said Hermione, when Ruffo had disappeared. "Will you come in? I'm afraid all the servants are in bed, but -- "
"No, indeed it is too late," Artois said.
Without being aware of it he spoke with an authority that was almost stern.
"We must be off to our fishing," he added. "Good-night. Good-night, Vere."
The Marchesino bowed, with his hat in his hand. He kissed Hermione's hand again, but he did not try to take Vere's.
"Good-night," Hermione said.
A glance at Artois had told her much that he was thinking.
"Good-night, Monsieur Emile," said Vere. "Good-night, Marchese. Buona pesca!"
She turned and followed her mother into the house.
It was the Marchesino's voice, breathing the words through a sigh: "Che simpatica Signorina!" Then an idea seemed to occur to him, and he looked at his friend reproachfully. "And you knew the girl with the perfect little nose, Emilio -- all the time you knew her!"
"And all the time you knew I knew her!" retorted Artois.
They looked at each other in the eyes and burst out laughing.
"Emilio, you are the devil! I will never forgive you. You do not trust me."
"Caro amico, I do trust you -- always to fall in love with every girl you meet. But" -- and his voice changed -- "the Signorina is a child. Remember that, Doro."
They were going down the steps to the sea. Almost as Artois spoke they reached the bottom, and saw their boat floating in the moonlight nearly in the centre of the Pool. The Marchesino stood still.
"My dear Emilio," he said, staring at Artois with his great round eyes, "you make me wonder whether you know women."
Artois felt amused.
"Really?" he said.
"Really! And yet you write books."
"Writing books does not always prove that one knows much. But explain to me."
They began to stroll on the narrow space at the sea edge. Close by lay the boat to which Ruffo belonged. The boy was already in it, and they saw him strike a match and light one of the cigarettes. Then he lay back at his ease, smoking, and staring up at the moon.
"A girl of sixteen is not a child, and I am sure the Signorina is sixteen. But that is not all. Emilio, you do not know the Signorina."
Artois repressed a smile. The Marchesino was perfectly in earnest.
"And you -- do you know the Signorina?" Artois asked.
"Certainly I know her," returned the Marchesino with gravity.
They reached Ruffo's boat. As they did so, the Marchesino glanced at it with a certain knowing impudence that was peculiarly Neapolitan.
"When I came to the top of the islet the Signorina was with that boy," the Marchesino continued.
"Well?" said Artois.
"Oh, you need not be angry, Emilio caro."
"I am not angry," said Artois.
Nor was he. It is useless to be angry with racial characteristics, racial points of view. He knew that well. The Marchesino stared at him.
"No, I see you are not."
"The Signorina was with that boy. She has talked to him before. He has dived for her. He has sung for her! She has given him cigarettes, taken from her mother's box, with her mother's consent. Everything the Signorina does her mother knows and approves of. You saw the Signora send the Signorina for more cigarettes to give the boy to-night. Ebbene?"
"Ebbene. They are English!"
And he laughed.
He laughed again, seized his mustaches, twisted them, and went on.
"They are English, but for all that the Signorina is a woman. And as to that boy -- "
"Perhaps he is a man."
"Certainly he is. Dio mio, the boy at least is a Neapolitan."
"No, he isn't."
"He is not?"
"He's a Sicilian."
"How do you know?"
"I was here the other day when he was diving for frutti di mare."
"I have seen him at the Mergellina ever since he was a child."
"He says he is a Sicilian."
"Boys like that say anything if they can get something by it. Perhaps he thought you liked the Sicilians better than the Neapolitans. But anyhow -- Sicilian or Neapolitan, it is all one! He is a Southerner, and at fifteen a Southerner is already a man. I was."
"I know it. But you were proving to me that the Signorina is a woman. The fact that she, an English girl, is good friends with the fisher boy does not prove it."
The Marchesino hesitated.
"I had seen the Signorina before I came to meet you at the house."
"Didn't you know it?"
"Yes, I did."
"I knew she told you."
"She told you! she told you! She is birbante. She is a woman, for she pretended as only a woman can pretend."
"What did she pretend?"
"That she was not pleased at my coming, at my finding out where she lived, and seeking her. Why, Emilio, even when I was in the sea, when I was doing the seal, I could read the Signorina's character. She showed me from the boat that she wanted me to come, that she wished to know me. Ah, che simpatica! Che simpatica ragazza!"
The Marchesino looked once more at Ruffo.
"Come here a minute!" he said, in a low voice, not wishing to wake the still sleeping fishermen.
The boy jumped lightly out and came to them. When he stood still the Marchesino said, in his broadest Neapolitan:
"Now then, tell me the truth! I'm a Neapolitan, not a forestiere. You've seen me for years at the Mergellina."
"You're a Napolitano."
"No, Signore. I am a Sicilian."
There was a sound of pride in the boy's voice.
"I am quite sure he speaks the truth," Artois said, in French.
"Why do you come here?" asked the Marchesino.
"Signore, I come to fish."
"No, Signore, for sarde. Buona notte, Signore."
He turned away from them with decision, and went back to his boat.
"He is a Sicilian," said Artois. "I would swear to it."
"Why? Hark at his accent."
"He is a Sicilian!"
"But why are you so sure?"
Artois only said:
"Are you going to fish?"
"Emilio, I cannot fish to-night. My soul is above such work as fishing. It is indeed. Let us go back to Naples."
Artois was secretly glad. He, too, had no mind -- or was it no heart? -- for fishing that night, after the episode of the islet. They hailed the sailors, who were really asleep this time, and were soon far out on the path of the moonlight setting their course towards Naples.