A Spirit In Prison
by Robert Hichens
On the following morning Hermione and Vere went for an excursion to Capri. They were absent from the island for three nights. When they returned they found a card lying upon the table in the little hall -- "Marchese Isidoro Panacci di Torno" -- and Gaspare told them that it had been left by a Signore, who had called on the day of their departure, and had seemed very disappointed to hear that they were gone.
"I do not know this Signore," Gaspare added, rather grimly.
Vere laughed, and suddenly made her eyes look very round, and staring, and impudent.
"He's like that, Gaspare," she said.
"Vere!" said her mother.
Then she added to Gaspare:
"The Marchese is a friend of Don Emilio's. Ah! and here is a letter from Don Emilio."
It was lying beside the Marchese's card with some other letters. Hermione opened it first, and read that Artois had been unexpectedly called away to Paris on business, but intended to return to Naples as soon as possible, and to spend the whole summer on the Bay.
"I feel specially that this summer I should like to be near you," he wrote. "I hope you wish it."
At the end of the letter there was an allusion to the Marchesino, "that gay and admirably characteristic Neapolitan product, the Toledo incarnate."
There was not a word of Vere.
Hermione read the letter aloud to Vere, who was standing beside her, evidently hoping to hear it. When she had finished, Vere said:
"I am glad Monsieur Emile will be here all the summer."
"But why specially this summer, Madre?"
"I am not sure what he means by that," Hermione answered.
But she remembered the conversation in the Grotto of Virgil, and wondered if her friend thought she needed the comfort of his presence.
Vere's bright eyes were fixed upon her mother.
"Well, Vere? What is it?"
"Is there no message for me from Monsieur Emile?"
"How forgetful of him! But never mind!" She went upstairs, looking disappointed.
Hermione re-read the letter. She wondered, perhaps more than Vere, why there was no message for the child. The child -- she was still calling Vere that in her mind, even after the night conversation with Gaspare. Two or three times she re-read that sentence, "I feel specially that this summer I should like to be near you," and considered it; but she finally put the letter away with a strong feeling that most of its meaning lay between the lines, and that she had not, perhaps, the power to interpret it.
Vere had said that Emile was forgetful. He might be many things, but forgetful he was not. One of his most characteristic qualities was his exceptionally sharp consciousness of himself and of others. Hermione knew that he was incapable of writing to her and forgetting Vere while he was doing so.
She did not exactly know why, but the result upon her of this letter was a certain sense of depression, a slight and vague foreboding. And yet she was glad, she was even thankful, to know that her friend, was going to spend the summer on the Bay. She blamed herself for her melancholy, telling herself that there was nothing in the words of Artois to make her feel sad. Yet she continued to feel sad, to feel as if some grievous change were at hand, as if she had returned to the island to confront some untoward fate. It was very absurd of her. She told herself that.
The excursion to Capri had been a cheerful one. She had enjoyed it. But all the time she had been watching Vere, studying her, as she had not watched and studied her before. Something had suddenly made her feel unaccustomed to Vere. It might be the words of Gaspare, the expression in the round eyes of the Marchesino, or something new, or newly apparent, in Vere. She did not know. But she did know that now the omission of Artois to mention Vere in his letter seemed to add to the novelty of the child for her.
That seemed strange, yet it was a fact. How absolutely mysterious are many of the currents of our being, Hermione thought. They flow far off in subterranean channels, unseen by us, and scarcely ever realized, but governing, carrying our lives along upon their deeps towards the appointed end.
Gaspare saw that his Padrona was not quite as usual, and looked at her with large-eyed inquiry, but did not at first say anything. After tea, however, when Hermione was sitting alone in the little garden with a book, he said to her bluntly:
"Che ha Lei?"
Hermione put the book down in her lap.
"That is just what I don't know, Gaspare."
"Perhaps you are not well."
"But I believe I am, perfectly well. You know I am always well. I never even have fever. And you have that sometimes."
He continued to look at her searchingly.
"You have something."
He said it firmly, almost as if he were supplying her with information which she needed and had lacked.
Hermione made a sound that was like a little laugh, behind which there was no mirth.
"I don't know what it is."
Then, after a pause, she added that phrase which is so often upon Sicilian lips:
"Ma forse e il destino."
Gaspare moved his head once as if in acquiescence.
"When we are young, Signora," he said, "we do what we want, but we have to want it. And we think we are very free. And when we are old we don't feel to want anything, but we have to do things just the same. Signora, we are not free. It is all destiny."
And again he moved his head solemnly, making his liquid brown eyes look more enormous than usual.
"It is all destiny," Hermione repeated, almost dreamily.
Just then she felt that it was so -- that each human being, and she most of all, was in the grasp of an inflexible, of an almost fierce guide, who chose the paths, and turned the feet of each traveller, reluctant or not, into the path the will of the guide had selected. And now, still dreamily, she wondered whether she would ever try to rebel if the path selected for her were one that she hated or feared, one that led into any horror of darkness, or any horror of too great light. For light, too, can be terrible, a sudden great light that shines pitilessly upon one's own soul. She was of those who possess force and impulse, and she knew it. She knew, too, that these are often rebellious. But to-day it seemed to her that she might believe so much in destiny, be so entirely certain of the inflexible purpose and power of the guide, that her intellect might forbid her to rebel, because of rebellion's fore-ordained inutility. Nevertheless, she supposed that if it was her instinct to rebel, she would do so at the psychological moment, even against the dictates of her intellect.
Gaspare remained beside her quietly. He often stood near her after they had been talking together, and calmly shared the silence with her. She liked that. It gave her an impression of his perfect confidence in her, his perfect ease in her company.
"Don't you ever think that you can put a knife into destiny, Gaspare," she asked him presently, using an image he would be likely to understand, "as you might put a knife into a man who tried to force you to do something you didn't wish to do?"
"Signora, what would be the use? The knife is no good against Destiny, nor the revolver either. And I have the permesso to carry one," he added, with a smile, as if he realized that he was being whimsical.
"Well, then, we must just hope that Destiny will be very kind to us, be a friend to us, a true comrade. I shall hope that and so must you."
He realized that the conversation was finished, and went quietly away.
Hermione kept the letter of Artois. When he came back to the Bay she wanted to show it to him, to ask him to read for her the meaning between its lines. She put it away in her writing-table drawer, and then resolved to forget the peculiar and disagreeable effect it had made upon her.
A fortnight passed away before Artois' return. June came in upon the Bay, bringing with it a more vivid life in the environs of Naples. As the heat of the sun increased the vitality of the human motes that danced in its beams seemed to increase also, to become more blatant, more persistent. The wild oleander was in flower. The thorny cactus put forth upon the rim of its grotesque leaves pale yellow blossoms to rival the red geraniums that throng about it insolently in Italy. In the streets of the city ragged boys ran by crying, "Fragole!" and holding aloft the shallow baskets in which the rosy fruit made splashes of happy color. The carters wore bright carnations above their dusty ears. The children exposed their bare limbs to the sun, and were proud when they were given morsels of ice wrapped up in vine leaves to suck in the intervals of their endless dances and their play. On the hill of Posilipo the Venetian blinds of the houses, in the gardens clouded by the rounded dusk of the great stone pines, were thrust back, the windows were thrown open, the glad sun-rays fell upon the cool paved floors, over which few feet had trodden since the last summer died. Loud was the call of "Aqua!" along the roads where there were buildings, and all the lemons of Italy seemed to be set forth in bowers to please the eyes with their sharp, yet soothing color, and tempt the lips with their poignant juice. Already in the Galleria, an "avviso" was prominently displayed, stating that Ferdinando Bucci, the famous maker of Sicilian ice-creams, had arrived from Palermo for the season. In the Piazza del Plebiscito, hundreds of chairs were ranged before the bandstand, and before the kiosk where the women sing on the nights of summer near the Caffe Turco. The "Margherita" was shutting up. The "Eldorado" was opening. And all along the sea, from the vegetable gardens protected by brushwood hedges on the outskirts of the city towards Portici, to the balconies of the "Mascotte," under the hill of Posilipo, the wooden bathing establishments were creeping out into the shallow waters, and displaying proudly to the passers-by above their names: "Stabilimento Elena," "Stabilimento Donn' Anna," "Stabilimento delle Sirene," "Il piccolo Paradiso."
And all along the sea by night there was music.
From the Piazza before the Palace the band of the Caffe Gambrinus sent forth its lusty valses. The posturing women of the wooden kiosk caught up the chain of sound, and flung it on with their shrill voices down the hill towards Santa Lucia, where, by the waterside and the crowding white yachts, the itinerant musicians took it into the keeping of their guitars, their mandolins, their squeaky fiddles, and their hot and tremulous voices. The "Valse Bleu," "Santa Lucia," "Addio, mia bella Napoli," "La Frangese," "Sole Mio," "Marechiaro," "Carolina," "La Ciociara"; with the chain of lights the chain of songs was woven round the bay; from the Eldorado, past the Hotel de Vesuve, the Hotel Royal, the Victoria, to the tree-shaded alleys of the Villa Nazionale, to the Mergellina, where the naked urchins of the fisherfolk took their evening bath among the resting boats, to the "Scoglio di Frisio," and upwards to the Ristorante della Stella, and downwards again to the Ristorante del Mare, and so away to the point, to the Antico Giuseppone.
Long and brilliant was the chain of lamps, and long and ardent was the chain of melodies melting one into the other, and stretching to the wide darkness of the night and to the great stillness of the sea. The night was alive with music, with the voices that beat like hearts over-charged with sentimental longings.
But at the point where stood the Antico Giuseppone the lights and the songs died out. And beyond there was the mystery, the stillness of the sea.
And there, beyond the chain of lights, the chain of melodies, the islet lay in its delicate isolation; nevertheless, it, too, was surely not unaware of the coming of summer. For even here, Nature ran up her flag to honor her new festival. High up above the rock on the mainland opposite there was a golden glory of ginestra, the broom plant, an expanse of gold so brilliant, so daring in these bare surroundings, that Vere said, when she saw it:
"There is something cruel even in beauty, Madre. Do you like successful audacity?"
"I think I used to when I was your age," said Hermione. "Anything audacious was attractive to me then. But now I sometimes see through it too easily, and want something quieter and a little more mysterious."
"The difference between the Marchesino and Monsieur Emile?" said the girl, with a little laugh.
Hermione laughed, too.
"Do you think Monsieur Emile mysterious?" she asked.
"Yes -- certainly. Don't you?"
"I have known him so intimately for so many years."
"Well, but that does not change him. Does it?"
"No. But it may make him appear very differently to me from the way in which he shows himself to others."
"I think if I knew Monsieur Emile for centuries I should always wonder about him."
"What is it in Emile that makes you wonder?" asked her mother, with a real curiosity.
"The same thing that makes me wonder when I look at a sleepy lion."
"You call Emile sleepy!" said Hermione.
"Oh, not his intellect, Madre! Of course that is horribly, horribly wide awake."
And Vere ran off to her room, or the garden, or the Saint's Pool -- who knew where? -- leaving her mother to say to herself, as she had already said to herself in these last days of the growing summer, "When I said that to Emile, what a fool I was!" She was thinking of her statement that there was nothing in her child that was hidden from her. As if in answer to that statement, Vere was unconsciously showing to her day by day the folly of it. Emile had said nothing. Hermione remembered that, and realized that his silence had been caused by his disagreement. But why had he not told her she was mistaken? Perhaps because she had just been laying bare to him the pain that was in her heart. Her call had been for sympathy, not merely for truth. She wondered whether she was a coward. Since they had returned from Capri the season and Vere had surely changed. Then, and always afterwards, Hermione thought of those three days in Capri as a definite barrier, a dividing line between two periods. Already, while in Capri, she had begun to watch her child in a new way. But that was, perhaps, because of an uneasiness, partly nervous, within herself. In Capri she might have been imagining. Now she was not imagining, she was realizing.
Over the sea came to the islet the intensity of summer. Their world was changing. And in this changing world Vere was beginning to show forth more clearly than before her movement onward -- whither?
As yet the girl herself was unconscious of her mother's new watchfulness. She was happy in the coming of summer, and in her happiness was quite at ease, like a kitten that stretches itself luxuriously in the sun. To Vere the world never seemed quite awake till the summer came. Only in the hot sunshine did there glow the truthfulness and the fulness of life. She shared it with the ginestra. She saw and felt a certain cruelty in the gold, but she did not fear or condemn it, or wish it away. For she was very young, and though she spoke of cruelty she did not really understand it. In it there was force, and force already appealed to the girl as few things did. As, long ago, her father had gloried in the coming of summer to the South, she gloried in it now. She looked across the Pool of the Saint to the flood of yellow that was like sunlight given a body upon the cliff opposite, and her soul revelled within her, and her heart rose up and danced, alone, and yet as if in a glad company of dancers, all of whom were friends. Her brain, too, sprang to the alert. The sun increased the feeling of intelligence within her.
And then she thought of her room, of the hours she passed shut in there, and she was torn by opposing impulses.
But she told no one of them. Vere could keep her secrets although she was a girl.
How the sea welcomed the summer! To many this home on the island would have seemed an arid, inhospitable place, desolate and lost amid a cruel world of cliffs and waters. It was not so to Vere. For she entered into the life of the sea. She knew all its phases, as one may know all the moods of a person loved. She knew when she would find it intensely calm, at early morning and when the evening approached. At a certain hour, with a curious regularity, the breeze came, generally from Ischia, and turned it to vivacity. A temper that was almost frivolous then possessed it, and it broke into gayeties like a child's. The waves were small, but they were impertinently lively. They made a turmoil such as urchins make at play. Heedless of reverence, but not consciously impious, they flung themselves at the feet of San Francesco, casting up a tiny tribute of spray into the sun.
Then Vere thought that the Saint looked down with pleasure at them, as a good old man looks at a crowd of laughing children who have run against him in the street, remembering his own youth. For even the Saints were young! And, after that, surely the waves were a little less boisterous. She thought she noted a greater calm. But perhaps it was only that the breeze was dying down as the afternoon wore on.
She often sat and wondered which she loved best -- the calm that lay upon the sea at dawn, or the calm that was the prelude to the night. Silvery were these dawns of the summer days. Here and there the waters gleamed like the scales of some lovely fish. Mysterious lights, like those in the breast of the opal, shone in the breast of the sea, stirred, surely travelled as if endowed with life, then sank away to the far-off kingdoms that man may never look on. Those dawns drew away the girl's soul as if she were led by angels, or, like Peter, walked upon the deep at some divine command. She felt that though her body was on the islet the vital part of her, the real "I," was free to roam across the great expanse that lay flat and still and delicately mysterious to the limits of eternity.
She had strange encounters there, the soul of her, as she went towards the East.
The evening calm was different. There was, Vere thought, less of heaven about it, but perhaps more of the wonder of this world. And this made her feel as if she had been nearer to heaven at her birth than she would be at her death. She knew nothing of the defilements of life. Her purity of mind was very perfect; but, taking a parable from Nature, she applied it imaginatively to Man, and she saw him covered with dust because of his journey through the world. Poor man!
And then she pitied herself too. But that passed. For if the sea at evening held most of the wonder of this world, it was worth the holding. Barely would she substitute the heavenly mysteries for it. The fishermen's boats were dreams upon a dream. Each sail was akin to a miracle. A voice that called across the water from a distance brought tears to Vere's eyes when the magic was at its fullest. For it seemed to mean all things that were tender, all things that were wistful, all things that trembled with hope -- that trembled with love.
With summer Vere could give herself up to the sea, and not only imaginatively but by a bodily act.
Every day, and sometimes twice a day, she put on her bathing-dress in the Casa del Mare, threw a thin cloak over her, and ran down to the edge of the sea, where Gaspare was waiting with the boat. Hermione did not bathe. It did not suit her now. And Gaspare was Vere's invariable companion. He had superintended her bathing when she was little. He had taught her to swim. And with no one else would he ever trust his Padroncina when she gave herself to the sea. Sometimes he would row her out to a reef of rocks in the open water not too many yards from the island, and she would dive from them. Sometimes, if it was very hot, he would take her to the Grotto of Virgil. Sometimes they went far out to sea, and then, like her father in the Ionian Sea before the Casa delle Sirene, Vere would swim away and imagine that this was her mode of travel, that she was journeying alone to some distant land, or that she had been taken by the sea forever.
But very soon she would be sure to hear the soft splash of oars following her, and, looking back, would see the large, attentive eyes of the faithful Gaspare cautiously watching her dark head. Then she would lift up one hand, and call to him to go, and say she did not want him, that she wished to be alone, smiling and yet imperious. He only followed quietly and inflexibly. She would dive. She would swim under water. She would swim her fastest, as if really anxious to escape him. It was a game between them now. But always he was there, intent upon her safety.
Vere did not know the memories within Gaspare that made him such a guardian to the child of the Padrone he had loved; but she loved him secretly for his watchfulness, even though now and then she longed to be quite alone with the sea. And this she never was when bathing, for Hermione had exacted a promise from her not to go to bathe without Gaspare. In former days Vere had once or twice begun to protest against this prohibition, but something in her mother's eyes had stopped her. And she had remembered:
"Father was drowned in the sea."
Then, understanding something of what was in her mother's heart, she threw eager arms about her, and anxiously promised to be good.
One afternoon of the summer, towards the middle of June, she prolonged her bathe in the Grotto of Virgil until Gaspare used his authority, and insisted on her coming out of the water.
"One minute more, Gaspare! Only another minute!"
She dived. She came up.
"Ma veramente Signorina!"
She dived again.
Gaspare waited. He was standing up in the boat with the oars in his hands, ready to make a dash at his Padroncina directly she reappeared, but she was wily, and came up behind the boat with a shrill cry that startled him. He looked round reproachfully over his shoulder.
"Signorina," he said, turning the boat round, "you are like a wicked baby to-day."
"What is it, Gaspare?" she asked, this time letting him come towards her.
"I say that you are like a wicked baby. And only the other day I was saying to the Signora -- "
"What were you saying?"
She swam to the boat and got in.
"What?" she repeated, sitting down on the gunwale, while he began to row towards the islet.
"I was saying that you are nearly a woman now."
Vere seemed extraordinarily thin and young as she sat there in her dripping bathing-dress, with her small, bare feet distilling drops into the bottom of the boat, and her two hands, looking drowned, holding lightly to the wood on each side of her. Even Gaspare, as he spoke, was struck by this, and by the intensely youthful expression in the eyes that now regarded him curiously.
Vere asked the question quite seriously.
She looked down, as if considering herself. Her wet face had become thoughtful, and for a moment she said nothing.
"And what did mother say?" she asked, looking up again. "But I know. I am sure she laughed at you."
Gaspare looked rather offended. His expressive face, which always showed what he was feeling, became almost stern, and he began to row faster than before.
"Why should the Signora laugh? Am I an imbecile, Signorina?"
She hastened to correct the impression she had made.
"Why, Gaspare, you are our Providence!"
"Va bene, but -- "
"I only meant that I am sure Madre wouldn't agree with you. She thinks me quite a child. I know that."
She spoke with conviction, nodding her head.
"Perhaps the Signora does not see."
"Gaspare, I believe you are horribly sharp," she said. "I often think you notice everything. You are birbante, I am half afraid of you."
Gaspare smiled, too. He had quite recovered his good humor. It pleased him mightily to fancy he had seen what the Padrona had not seen.
"I am a man, Signorina," he observed, quietly. "And I do not speak till I know. Why should I? And I was at your baptism. When we came back to the house I put five lire on the bed to bring you luck, although you were not a Catholic. But it is just the same. Your Saint will take care of you."
"Well, but if I am almost a woman -- what then, Gaspare?"
"Mustn't I play about any more? Mustn't I do just what I feel inclined to, as I did in the grotto just now?"
"Three is no harm in that, Signorina. I was only joking then. But -- "
He hesitated, looking at her firmly with his unfaltering gaze.
"But what? I believe you want to scold me about something. I am sure you do."
"No, Signorina, never! But women cannot talk to everybody, as children can. Nobody thinks anything of what children say. People only laugh and say 'Ecco, it's a baby talking.' But when we are older it is all different. People pay attention to us. We are of more importance then."
He did not mention Ruffo. He was too delicate to do that, for instinctively he understood how childish his Padroncina still was. And, at that moment, Vere did not think of Ruffo. She wondered a little what Gaspare was thinking. That there was some special thought behind his words, prompting them, she knew. But she did not ask him what it was, for already they were at the islet, and she must run in, and put on her clothes. Gaspare put her cloak carefully over her shoulders, and she hurried lightly up the steps and into her room. Her mother was not in the house. She had gone to Naples that day to see some poor people in whom she was interested. So Vere was alone. She took off her bathing-dress, and began to put on her things rather slowly. Her whole body was deliciously lulled by its long contact with the sea. She felt gloriously calm and gloriously healthy just then, but her mind was working vigorously though quietly.
A woman! The word sounded a little solemn and heavy, and, somehow, dreadfully respectable. And she thought of her recent behavior in the Grotto, and laughed aloud. She was so very slim, too. The word woman suggested to her some one more bulky than she was. But all that was absurd, of course. She was thinking very frivolously to-day.
She put on her dress and fastened it. At the age of sixteen she had put up her hair, but now it was still wet, and she had left it streaming over her shoulders. In a moment she was going out onto the cliff to let the sun dry it thoroughly. The sun was so much better than any towel. With her hair down she really looked like a child, whatever Gaspare thought. She said that to herself, standing for a moment before the glass. Vere was almost as divinely free from self- consciousness as her father had been. But the conversation in the boat had made her think of herself very seriously, and now she considered herself, not without keen interest.
"I am certainly not a wicked baby," she said to herself. "But I don't think I look at all like a woman."
Her dark eyes met the eyes in the glass and smiled.
"And yet I shall be seventeen quite soon. What can have made Gaspare talk like that to Madre? I wonder what he said exactly. And then that about 'women cannot talk to everybody as children can.' Now what -- ?"
Ruffo came into her mind.
"Ah!" she said, aloud.
The figure in the glass made a little gesture. It threw up its hand.
"That's it! That's it! Gaspare thinks -- "
Gaspare's voice was speaking outside the door. And now there came a firm knock. Vere turned round, rather startled. She had been very much absorbed by her colloquy.
"What is it, Gaspare?"
"Signorina, there's a boat coming in from Naples with Don Emilio in it."
"Don Emilio! He's come back! Oh!" There was a pause. Then she cried out, "Capital! Capital!"
She ran to the door and opened it.
"Just think of Don Emilio's being back already, Gaspare. But Madre! She will be sorry."
"Why? What's the matter?"
"Are you coming out like that?"
"What? -- Oh, you mean my hair?"
"Gaspare, you ought to have been a lady's maid! Go and bring in Don Emilio to Madre's room. And -- wait -- you're not to tell him Madre is away. Now mind!"
"Va bene, Signorina."
He went away.
"Shall I put up my hair?"
Vere went again to the glass, and stood considering herself.
"For Monsieur Emile! No, it's too absurd! Gaspare really is . . . I sha'n't!"
And she ran out just as she was to meet Artois.